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Coronavirus

From pets to parks, coronavirus reshaped many Coloradans’ relationship with their surroundings

The isolation that accompanied shutdowns and mandates changed the way we regard lots of things, and some of those changes could endure

Elias Archibeque, 21, of Denver spends time with a bull terrier named Gucci last month at the Denver Dumb Friends League. Elias just moved to an apartment and needed a companion. Many Coloradans have added to their families amid COVID-19 by adopting pets from local shelters. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In a windowed room at the adoption center at the Denver Dumb Friends League, Elias Archibeque squats down and watches as the image he’d viewed earlier online now appears before him in the form of a 9-month-old white bull terrier named Gucci, who arrived at the shelter 10 days earlier, the sad collateral damage of divorce.

But once introduced to Archibeque, Gucci lights up. 

“Since the day I moved into a new place seven months ago, it dawned on me that I needed a buddy,” Archibeque, 21, says as the pup spins and jumps and nuzzles up to him, instantly nailing the audition. “It’s been lonely, and COVID made me look toward adopting — just for a loyal companion, someone to spend time with.”

In the year since the coronavirus shutdown first redefined public and private life, Coloradans have found themselves shifting old habits or adopting new ones. They erected guardrails around their physical and mental health and, when they had the wherewithal, made changes in routines that not only served them well in the short-term, but also made them stop and think about more permanent alterations to their lifestyle.

Fundamentally, the past 12 months reshaped our relationships: to our work environment, to nature, to travel, to those around us — including pets — or to the void the pandemic left where social interactions once lived.

Archibeque, who repairs cell phones at a Denver-area mall and like so many employees now sometimes works at home, loves Gucci’s energy, which he sees paying dividends as motivation for his own workout regimen. He imagines a life together.

“I think he’s the one,” he says.

Gucci soon becomes one of many adoptions at the Denver facility, as the pandemic has reminded people how treasured their relationships with four-legged companions can become. But at first glance, the numbers can be deceiving. Through the 2020 fiscal year that ended June 30, the Dumb Friends League had received roughly 2,000 fewer pets than in 2019. Adoptions actually fell off by about 1,000 during that period.

This is part of a weeklong series marking a year since COVID-19 was first detected in Colorado. The state’s first confirmed cases were announced March 5, 2020.

>> READ THE REST OF THE SERIES

If that seems counterintuitive to the anecdotal evidence that largely homebound people have found this the perfect time to adopt, adoption associate Ben Shumway, a 14-year fixture at the shelter, suggests that there’s a certain logic in the statistics that goes back to the idea of the coronavirus changing relationships. Fewer adoptions hasn’t meant higher inventory; actually it’s meant quite the opposite.

People who already have canine or feline companions have found that being home with them has given them a stronger appreciation for their roles in the family, Shumway suggests. And with increased socialization, the animals tend to exhibit fewer behavioral  issues — a total win-win situation that has resulted in fewer animals being given up by frustrated humans.

With fewer pets available for adoption, Shumway adds, people looking for that perfect companion are willing to embrace animals considered difficult cases in normal times. Over the span of three hours on a February day, the DFL found new homes for four pets over age 11, critters usually passed over in favor of younger companions. That included some with traits like “not housebroken” that often persuade potential adopters to keep looking. 

“We’re also falling more in love with our pets, because they’re becoming more a part of our lives,” Shumway says. “We’re hearing the stories of people coming in to adopt, and people’s lifestyles are changing, habits are changing. They’re bonding with their pets more. They’re home with them.”

Ben Shumway, an adoption associate at the Denver Dumb Friends League, visits with his dog, Kokomo, who accompanies him to work. Shumway adopted Kokomo after he arrived from a shelter in Oklahoma that regularly delivers dogs and cats to the DFL. It proved a life-changing relationship. (John Leyba, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Shumway, 41, notes that his own social life once revolved around hitting the bars. A year ago, when the bars shut down, he adopted Kokomo, a female cattle dog mix who arrived with a weekly transfer of abandoned pets from a shelter in Oklahoma. That sealed a long-term lifestyle change of the sort he hears many people embracing.

“I used to go to the bars,” he says. “Now I go to Cherry Creek Reservoir and run up and down the creek with my dog. I think a lot of these strong bonds that are happening are going to stay intact. There’s a constant loneliness factor, that’s the big thing here. We’re isolated and we’re lonely, and want that companionship. 

“These dogs helped us get through COVID, the stress of it,” he adds. “It’s been a rough year in many ways, and they helped us cope with all that. Their unconditional love, it heals us. When COVID’s over, I  don’t want to abandon that. I’m too grateful for it. No more bars. Unless they allow dogs.”

Reimagining the outdoors

For Gail Thompson, a new relationship with the outdoors began with a Groupon.

Pre-pandemic, a friend talked her into taking advantage of a deal on a two-day fishing trip. That opened the eyes of an East Coast native to the abundant beauty of Colorado’s landscape. Still, it might’ve been just a one-off experience but for the subsequent arrival of the coronavirus, and the shutdown, and increasing isolation. 

The fear of transmission loomed large for the 75-year-old Denver Highland resident, who “felt like I needed a bubble, and I didn’t feel comfortable outside that bubble.” Still, she craved socialization. Her volunteer work at the library, which in normal times consumed two or three days a week, dwindled to nothing.

Though she has family in town, her contact with her daughter, son-in-law and grandkids also became less frequent as they sought to keep her protected from potentially dangerous personal contact. 

“It was pretty lonely if you thought about it,” she says. “In the beginning, I thought it wouldn’t last long, and would be over soon. But then reality set in.”

Her fishing friend’s husband, John Davenport, urged Thompson to give fishing another try on an outing with the couple. Davenport, Conservation Chair of Denver Trout Unlimited, is a tireless advocate for the sport. 

For Thompson, worn down by the necessity of adhering to mask culture, the opportunity to revisit the mountain beauty along Clear Creek came with another perk — an expert angler who could not only transport her to prime locations, but also school her on the finer points of fly fishing.

“I’ve never been a sports person, so I thought it was going to be a lot of work to get there, then hang a line in the water and stay all day,” she says. “But there is so much more to it. I was learning from John — where the fish were on the river, the different kinds of equipment. But the scene outside, the majesty of the Colorado scenery, is just breathtaking. It’s just beautiful, and serene, and you felt like the world had gone away.”

Gail Thompson, 75, took up fly fishing during the isolation of the pandemic as a “mental health break.” Now, she has fully embraced the sports that has honed her appreciation for the outdoors. Here, she casts her line in Clear Creek. (Photo provided by John Davenport)

Untethered from her mask, invigorated by an activity she now regarded as “a mental health break,” Thompson adopted fishing as a habit. 

“John always chose the spots, and it was always gorgeous,” she says. “I didn’t do anything except get dressed and get in the car. The mental health lift of having something to look forward to, being outside, was just a lifesaver for me.

“My family couldn’t believe it. I had to send them pictures. That was totally not something anybody would have thought I’d do, or that I’d be interested in. I love it, though.”

While it may not have seemed so as she stood in a rushing stream and cast her flies on the water in blissful communion with nature, Thompson had joined a burgeoning group of Colorado anglers. The pandemic reacquainted and introduced lots of folks to the outdoors — and to fishing in particular. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife sold 1,331,457 fishing licenses in the 2020 calendar year — up 203,665, or 18%, over the previous year. Starting in July, the state required all visitors to purchase a hunting or fishing license to access roughly 600 properties around the state normally frequented by hunters and anglers — a change that likely pumped the numbers a bit.  

But Pat Dorsey, owner of the Blue Quill Angler, a guide and retail supplier in Evergreen, didn’t need to see the statistics to know that the coronavirus year has been unlike any other. In a normal year, the winter means business slows as trade shows power up. But when the cold weather settled in toward the end of 2020, trade shows fell off the calendar — yet another victim of the pandemic.

At the same time, Dorsey’s calendar of anglers looking for a guide quickly filled with fishing enthusiasts from Colorado and, surprisingly, pretty far beyond. Skittish air travelers hopped in their vehicles and drove — from Kansas City, from Wisconsin — to partake of this state’s renowned fisheries. The fearless booked cheap fares and flew in from as far away as Charlotte, North Carolina.

I was just telling my wife, I think this is going to be the best year of guiding I’ve had in my life.

Pat Dorsey, owner of the Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen

 “They want to get out, they’re tired of this pandemic,” Dorsey says. “Everybody is concerned about it, but we’ve taken a lot of precautions. You do miss shaking somebody’s hand. And we’re not serving lunch like we normally do. But we tweaked it, and there’s never been a winter when I’ve been this busy.”

He’s seen a lot of first-time clients this winter, “but it’s exciting to see new blood.” The uptick in anglers, at least that Dorsey noticed, began in May and June and still continues, right through the winter. Sales at his retail store also have spiked as newcomers to fishing look to get outfitted and regulars keep up the pace with winter fishing.

At one point, manufacturers ran out of net and other products, reflecting a run on outdoor gear that has touched other pursuits, like backcountry skiing, during the pandemic. Lots of people curse the year 2020. But Dorsey sees things from a different vantage point.

“It was a great year,” he says. “I was just telling my wife, I think this is going to be the best year of guiding I’ve had in my life. Traditionally we don’t do a lot in January, February and March, but this year, I’ve had a lot of trips. What we considered the off season has been crazy, super busy.

“People want to catch fish, that’s the ultimate goal. But also just to be outside, get a little solitude. It relieves the stress from the pandemic. It’s all good.”

For Thompson, who confesses she’s anything but a natural at fly fishing, it’s been more about the journey than the destination: She has only caught two fish. And when she first started, it seemed that the object of her angling was to land low-hanging trees along the river bank.

She had a lot to learn, but she had John Davenport there to instruct her. Her family got her a Tenkara rod — a brand popular for its unique portability and ease of use — for Christmas. Her son-in-law fishes, and he has promised to tie some flies for her.

Catching fish was never the point for her. She allows that she could cast her flies on lakes, rivers and streams in Colorado’s pristine backcountry forever, without ever landing a single rainbow, cutthroat or brown and still enjoy the serenity of her surroundings. That said, learning alongside someone like Davenport has given the sport an allure she never anticipated.

“For someone who’s 75,” she says, “that was a lot for me to feel comfortable with. It’s something I hope I can continue. I wish I had found it earlier, but you can’t go back.”

Loving state parks and forests

The ski-area shutdown last March prompted some fans of the outdoors to aim their passion in other directions, and often those alternatives landed them in the high country on National Forest land.

Then traditional indoor socializing spots shut their doors — restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, malls. And in short order, that triggered a wholesale migration outdoors, where unrestrained social distancing posed little hardship, masks were largely optional and nature could work its restorative magic.

Again, the national forests became a destination. Those forests, which blanket more than 11 million acres in Colorado, don’t keep hard numbers on all the patrons who enjoy them. But Reid Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, which cover both slopes of the Continental Divide from Wyoming to Mount Evans and Loveland Pass, notes that the Forest Service did have a number of fairly reliable anecdotal means of measuring the influx of visitors.

Exhibit A: parking.

“The evidence we saw was at the parking spots at the trailheads,” Armstrong says. “Lots were full, and cars were lining the road for a mile in either direction.”

At some locations, particularly near Boulder and extending into Clear Creek and Gilpin counties, the Forest Service worked in concert with local sheriffs departments and county commissioners to manage the crush of vehicles. Hundreds of cars had to be turned around on especially heavy days at areas like the Hessie Trailhead outside Nederland

“We saw all kinds of activity on National Forest land,” Armstrong says. “Like camping — every single spot that set up dispersed campsites was full. Not just weekends, but weekdays, too. Every kind of outdoor activity people were pursuing in one form or another.” 

The growing use of National Forest land isn’t new — the Forest Service has noted it for more than a decade as it tracked recreation trends across the northern Front Range and planned for a more populous future. But while the custodians of the land have anticipated more and more visitors and begun to plan for how to manage that growth, nobody saw the pandemic coming. Or the sudden impact it would have on Coloradans’ relationship with the outdoors.

Now that COVID restrictions have moved newbies to explore and prompted seasoned outdoor lovers to expand their usual range, visitors no doubt will return. The pandemic may well accelerate the traffic on public lands, and raises concerns about damage that might not have become evident so quickly otherwise.

Those issues can be as simple as hikers veering off a designated trail to make way for others, or as big as motorized vehicles venturing where they shouldn’t.

Aaron Mayville had to hike far into the Rawah Wilderness before he could capture a picture like this — with no other hikers evident. Coloradans not only increased their outdoor excursions during the pandemic, but also ventured further away than they normally would to find solitude. (Provided by Aaron Mayville)

“People didn’t understand where they could legitimately take their vehicles, so we found Jeeps in creeks, stuck there,” Armstrong says. “We saw people getting lost. There were more search and rescues, people unprepared for elevations and extreme weather conditions.” 

One goal this year focuses on education. In particular, the push urges people venturing outdoors to take the time to do advance research so they can arrive prepared — whether for conditions they’re unfamiliar with or with a backup plan for the very real possibility they’ll be turned away due to overcrowding.

In the early days of the pandemic, Aaron Mayville, a deputy forest supervisor who works with Armstrong, sought a wilderness getaway. People told him, “Go to the Rawahs” — the Rawah Wilderness area west of Fort Collins — because it was “just far away enough to get a sense of remoteness.”

But when he arrived at the trailhead, he was surprised to see the large number of cars — on a weekday, no less. And it wasn’t until he was well into his five-day, four-night backpacking and fishing trip that he completely shook free of like-minded fans of the outdoors.

“The first day and last day, when I was closest to the trail head, I didn’t go 20 minutes without seeing a person or party passing on the trail,” he recalls. “Not having been to the Rawahs before, I thought maybe that’s how it is out here. But people who’ve been around there before said, ‘No, this is pandemic hiking.’ I had one night by myself — three days and maybe 20 miles in. Above treeline. Basically the hardest place to get to.” 

He didn’t stop to talk with everyone he encountered, but among those he did engage, a good number said they were retreating to a favorite spot to get away from the pandemic. Though he came across plenty of experienced backpackers, he notes that he also “bumped into some rookies” on the first and last days of his trip. 

“The big takeaway was two-fold,” he says. “There’s a real and substantive uptick in people enjoying the great outdoors. This is anecdotal, but it was there. Second is just how cool that is. It’s a management challenge — we’re struggling, as are the state parks. But as shocking as it was, it was also very heartening to see people enjoying themselves on public lands.”

And the influx likely will persist — certainly for as long as the pandemic continues to restrict activities.

“We do expect that once people have discovered that new favorite place, that they’ll keep coming back and we’ll see a continuation of this,” Armstrong says. “COVID hasn’t gone away, and we don’t expect it to go away this summer. Not everyone will be vaccinated, and people will still be looking for outdoor opportunities. Certainly this year we’re anticipating some of the similar stuff. But this time we can plan for it a little better.”

The western portion of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, lands encompassing Winter Park, Granby and Grand Lake, also saw a huge increase in visitors, Armstrong says. While somewhat farther from the Denver metro area, those places aren’t that much longer of a drive for folks aching to get outdoors and willing to go the extra miles.

“People discovered places that were just a little further than they used to go before,” she notes. “Those places saw huge increases that they were surprised about. But a lot of the greatest pressures are right outside the city, where people can easily do day hikes. Even places you’d think were unknown, your little secret spots, were probably feeling overrun last year.”

Colorado’s 42 state parks, which do track visits, also saw a sharp uptick in numbers. From March 2019 to March 2020, they saw just shy of 15 million visitors. In the first 10 months of the pandemic, that number surpassed 18.2 million, an increase of 22% (complete numbers are not yet available for January and February of this year).

Results of a recent poll by AAA Travel lent a little context to Coloradans’ desire to escape their day-to-day surroundings. Predictably, the pandemic quashed most people’s desire to travel in general — 61% said they were uncomfortable with the idea. But 84% said they were comfortable hopping in their car or truck to take a road trip, compared to 32% comfortable with hopping on a plane.

Humans and their vehicles have always had their own special relationship, and it, too, appears to have gained currency in the time of the coronavirus.

Unexpected treasures

Not all of these relationships refined or redefined by the pandemic have turned out as we expected.

Chris Tenbraak of Littleton moves slowly along the hallway at the Dumb Friends League’s adoption center, taking notes — with kibitzing from his wife, Jan, and 23-year-old son, Jake — on the dogs waiting behind the glass walls for a new life.

“When COVID first hit,” Chris says, stopping to jot down the name of one possibility, “you didn’t know how long it was going to be. Then it was like, it’s the new norm to be working at home a lot.”

So the search for a new companion began — and quickly ran into difficulties. The family set its sights on a golden retriever, a dog they’d adopted and loved before. But attempts to find a new pup through a breed-specific rescue operation didn’t work out. Other candidates that they found online often were gone by the time the shelters responded to their inquiry.

“That’s why we ended up going this route,” Jan says, “because we have to get down to what’s available.” 

Jan Tenbraak, Chris Tenbraak and Jake Tenbraak visit the Denver Dumb Friends League in search of a new family member. Although they came in search of a Golden Retriever, they went home — happily — with a bonafide mutt they named Zeke. (John Leyba, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Ultimately, none of the dogs on their list seemed quite right. But then Ben Shumway, the DFL adoption associate, checked to see if there were any new arrivals that hadn’t been fully processed yet. He found a 14-month-old male listed as a lab mix that had been given up by someone who didn’t feel they could provide him the life he deserves.

Though considerably smaller than what the Tenbraaks thought they were looking for, the mutt they named Zeke turned out to be the right dog at the right time.

“We’re all getting used to each other, but he seems to like it here,” Chris says almost a week after the adoption. “Funny how it all works out.”

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