Monday, May 30, 2011

Wet Wildflowers

The rain started to fall about 9:30 p.m. last Friday, and I wondered whether our annual Wildflower Week event would be affected. Probably not, I decided. The forecast was for clearing skies overnight and partly cloudy skies in the morn, with highs expected in the 60’s and only a slight chance of thunderstorms.

The forecast was a bit off. In fact it rained most of the night and when I rolled out of the sheets at 5 a.m. it was raining hard.

I wasn’t bothered by the rain. In fact, I was happy about it. South of Kimball, where our ranch is located, is the driest part of the Panhandle. We rely on spring rains to make the grass grow so that our cattle can harvest the green bounty and turn it into a valuable commodity. Let it rain!

But the Wildflower event had been planned and publicized for months, and there was a long list of attendees who would have to be notified of the rainout and reschedule. Fortunately, I’d planned for this. I sent out texts and e-mails, posted a rescheduled event (for Saturday, June 4) on Facebook, and made a few phone calls.

I wasn’t sure whether everyone would get the word in time, though, so I headed out to the site at 7 a.m. to catch those who might show up despite the weather. None did.

While I was there, I decided to scout the area and get in a bit of exercise. Hiking in the rain doesn’t bother me at all; I learned a long time ago that I won’t melt.

I set off down a grassy swale covered in rank cool season grasses. Within a few feet my feet and legs were soaked to the knees from walking through the tall, wet green stuff. The rain kept pelting down, bringing the horizon close and adding a vibrancy to the colors of bountiful grasses and forbs. As I moved along, I began to pick out brilliant wildflowers. Yellows, reds, blues, purples, whites. Indian paintbrush. Hoary puccoon. Star Lily. Hood’s phlox. Western wallflower. Penstemon. Prairie buckbean. Nuttall’s violet. Milk vetch. Wild parsley.

As I hiked I pushed along hard to drive up my heart rate. Soon the ol’ ticker was thumping along at about 160 and I was breathing good and hard. Sweat began to run, adding a water and salt burden to my drizzle-soaked clothing, and nicely balancing the heat of exercise with damp coolness. Though I was breathing hard, the great draughts of humid air went in and out of my lungs with ease. A few of my previously injured joints and tendons complained as I strode along, but those are aches and pains I’m accustomed to dealing with.

I scrambled down a familiar canyon path and picked my way along the rocky, sandy bottom. Here the walls of the canyon are forested with chokecherry, wild rose and skunkbush sumac. The chokecherry was beginning to bloom, with great white clouds of perfumed flowers floating among deep green leaves. Rose buds were swelling, as were the sumac buds, ready to burst open and join in spring’s wild dance of prolifity. As I brushed against the sumac it’s pungent aroma filled the air and followed me along, an invisible but welcome companion. Only weeks ago this canyon was drab, brown and sere. Today it had completely changed it’s appearance to vibrant, dripping color. A chameleon landscape.

A colorful horned lizard, washed free of dust by the rain, gleams brightly under overcast and raining skies last Saturday on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
 On a grassy tuft of soil near the bottom I spied a surprisingly colorful horned lizard. Washed free of dust by the rain, it’s brightly colored, pebbly skin gleamed brightly in the muted light. Cold and sluggish, it let me take a few pictures. I kicked up a cottontail, then another. They dashed madly from rock to rock, thicket to thicket. I rounded a corner and beheld a mule deer doe and two tiny fawns, perched halfway up the eastern wall of the canyon. The trio looked at me for long moments, then turned and picked their way daintily up and out of the canyon. I turned another corner and a pair of Swainson’s hawks leapt into flight from a high nesting ledge.

Out of the side branch and into the main branch of the canyon, the walking was easier, with established grama and buffalograss to tread upon and less exposed rock and sand. On either side of me the canyon walls, wet from the rain, showed off unusually colorful sedimentary strata. Where erosion had undercut harder rock, mats of prickly pear flourished atop ledges, grasping roots hanging in the air underneath.

After several miles of a great looping route, up and down hills and past windmills and skirting good, tight fences, I returned to my truck. Standing there in cool-down mode, I drank in the beauty of the scene and felt once again the deep, abiding good fortune I’ve been blessed with.

As my heart slowed and breathing moderated, my phone rang. The caller, from Pinedale, Wyo., was checking to see if the wildflower event was still on. I told her about the rain, as well as the makeup day on June 4. She was glad she’d called, and happy about the makeup day. So was I.

In some sense I wished we could have held the event in the rain, to give folks the chance to experience a different, though slightly uncomfortable, view of nature’s beauty. A few, I was sure, would have come, but most wouldn’t have, and the idea is to share the spring shortgrass prairie ecosystem with as many as possible.

If you’re interested, come out and see for yourself on Saturday, June 4. It’s an all-day event, beginning at 7 a.m. and ending sometime after sunset. You needn’t stay all day; come anytime and stay as long as you like. For details go to ‘Kimball Wildflower Week Makeup’ on Facebook.

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