I set the alarm for 4:30 am. I wanted to be out and down trail early and quickly today. My routine was getting better, even working in the dark and taking care of morning bathroom duties I was on my way by 5:10. It felt a little strange leaving camp without saying goodbye to my campmates, but everybody hikes their own hike and it is the accepted way. They all knew I was knocking out big days and I had told Ron that my hope was to get to Lake Molas Campground before the country store closed at seven o’clock in the evening. I had 25 solid miles to cover, but I knew that I’d be climbing 1,400′ in roughly 2 1/2 miles right at the end. I didn’t want to flame out for some odd reason and I really didn’t want to have to rush to get to the store.
Getting to that store was going to be pivotal. I had enough food to get through today and for dinner tonight, but nothing really after that. If I can’t get the food I need at the store I’ll have to go into Silverton, which will require hitch-hiking and losing valuable time. It will probably mean I’ll finish Sunday instead of Saturday. That means driving directly back to Denver the same day; something I really don’t want to do after being on trail for nine out of ten days. I knew I am rolling the dice hoping to re-supply at the store. Everybody is telling me that they only have snacks there, but I had seen photos somebody had posted of the shelves of the store that had Knorr rice packets and instant mashed potatoes. That is all I need to get through to Durango.
As I start in the dark I immediately notice flecks of debris in my headlamp. Weird. But then I smell smoke and I know that the southerly winds are blowing smoke up from forest fires down in the Durango area. It smells like a campfire and at this altitude it doesn’t make it any easier to breathe. I pass three tents in the first 30 minutes and am surprised by how close I was to three more groups of hikers. All are quiet, zipped up and still asleep. The sun begins to brighten the sky and the smoke does make for a beautiful sunrise. I attempt to catpture the scene in the slideshow below.
Per my normal morning routine, I hike five miles, stop, make coffee and breakfast, chow down, move on. Even pulling my stove out and heating water it is only a 20 minute process. It’s good to have some initial miles under the belt when I do this.
Moving from my breakfast spot down the valley I look for wildlife but only see some ravens or crows feeding on some kind of carcass below me. A few minutes later I hear the bleating of sheep and then realize what has perished. This is the second herd of sheep I have come upon in the last two days. This one has five dogs and a sheepherder. As I move above the flock on the trail, the Peruvian sheepherder begins whistling and working the dogs. Two of the dogs are herding dogs, border collies from what I can determine. The other three are Akbash, turkish dogs bred specifically for protecting herds of sheep. Akbash, translates literally as “white head”. I took some video and even though it is from a distance you can see the dogs doing their job along with their sheepherder. I find it amazing. (You can read a very recent article on the sheep operation here) It reminds me of days when I lived in Romania and seeing very similar operations. I mention the paint pony in the video, which you actually can see on the upper, right side.
I finish out segment 23 and unceremoniously begin segment 24 crossing Stony Point Pass. I gaze up at Canby Mountain – 13,478′ – which is in direct vicinity of the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, where I had breakfast just an hour or so before. The view to Canby Mountain contains a field of fireweed. The fireweed has been a show stopper this whole trip and this morning it is in its full glory as the early morning light shines upon Canby in the background.
I quickly change into lighter clothing and plan to begin to make better time on trail. I be-bop down the trail. It’s undulates and not long after I look behind me and see another hiker. I think to myself, “Where did he come from?” I’m shocked somebody is right behind me. I’m used to having the entire landscape to myself, occasionally catching or passing people, but nobody has caught me in a week, so this seems strange. I sense I must be lollygagging and I have a lot of ground to cover, so I set a quicker rhythm. As I crest and descend the next few rises I look back not seeing the person. I come to a big view looking down into a valley and can see a pair of hikers preparing to leave their camp. They are far off but I can see what they are doing. I move down the switchbacks, at times, even jogging a bit. Once I arrive in the bottom, I look behind me and see no sign of what I am now wondering was perhaps a ghost. Weird.
Throughout the morning I pass many more people, some filtering water, others still at campsites. I cross paths with a gentleman coming northbound and we meet on the high tundra. He is a veteran backpacker. I can tell by his demeanor, knowledge of the trail as he tells me about the reroute that occurred here many years ago, and the weathered nature of his backpack. I like him a lot and we discuss the fickle nature of the high San Juans, that even on a “perfect” day with no threat of bad weather, one still feels very vulnerable and always on the lookout for clouds that may seem amiss. He is another that I rather enjoy my five minute chat with, and we go our separate ways.
For the whole of my trip up until now I have been concurrently on the Continental Divide Trail as well as the Colorado Trail. The CDT runs from Mexico to Canada, the longest of the “long trails” in the lower 48. But I come to the spot where it heads south toward Wolf Creek Pass as the Colorado Trail heads west toward Silverton.
I soon come to where I am looking down into the Elk Creek drainage. And when I say look down, I mean look down! I can see some hikers below me and I am so glad that I am not hiking up out of that drainage. The number of switchbacks is amazing and the side of the mountain is steep. In the photo below I have attempted to edit it so that you can see not only the trail switchbacking down the mountain but also how the trail feeds into the drainage below.
As I drop into Elk Creek the highlight of my time along this trail is watching the water flow over this patch of moss that is in the creek. It rolls along in rivulets over the moss like water running off of suede. It is mesmerizing and if I wasn’t on a schedule today I’d love to sit and watch it for a long time. I’m grateful for seeing it now.
After lunch as I get going again it is 1:30 in the afternoon. I have about ten miles to get to the campground. I should make it in time, but my left shoulder is bothering me. Specifically, it is my Levator Scapulae muscle and it is not happy. I feel as though the often narrow trail that is lower than the surrounding tundra has at times caused me to overuse my left trekking pole and compromise this muscle. It is uncomfortable enough that it is making me slightly cranky. I stash my poles and focus on covering ground.
I eventually come to a significant point in the trail, the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge rail line and the Animas River. I walk the rail line for a very short stretch, then cross the river on a nice bridge. Immediately I begin the crazy switchback climb. It is steep and it goes up in a hurry. I decide that I won’t take a break for 30 minutes, forcing myself to find a pace I can manage and grind through this thing.
I finish the grind up the mountain and shortly take the trail that goes to the campground. I arrive with two hours to spare! I can get a shower here for $5.00 which will get me a five minute shower! I am so excited! I enter the Country Store, a very small store and expectantly look at the shelves of items that they carry. There…is…only…snacks. My heart absolutely sinks. I have covered 52 miles in two days with the purpose of finding a re-supply here. I look to the young lady behind the counter. “Don’t you have any instant mashed potatoes or rice packets.” I admit that I’m a little overwhelmed and having a hard time taking in all of the food that is here, sort of like re-entry after being in a foreign country.
She nods her head over to the side of store and toward the floor. “There is a free hiker box under that bench, look in there.” I pull the cardboard box out from under the bench and begin to rummage through the items. I find two dehydrated Mountain House meals; Chicken Teriyaki and a Breakfast Skillet, 600 and 750 calories respectively. I find four packets of instant mashed potatoes, 400 calories each. I’ll only need two of these. I grab Honey Buns, Grandma’s cookies, Slim Jims, candy bars, orange cheese and peanut butter crackers, Pringles and other items. I want to patronize the joint so I inquire about a tent space for the night. I have no interest to head back to the trail tonight after I grab my shower. Before I call it an evening I make an additional trip back to the store for a microwave burrito and more snacks, to be sure I’ll have enough calories to make it three more days. I have dodged a major bullet, but I’m reminded of what so many before me have always said about thru hiking long trails. “The trail always provides.” And for me, I am very grateful that is has. In more ways than I can count.
Day 6 mileage – 25.4
Day 6 elevation gained – 4,635′
Total trip mileage – 160.1
Total elevation gained – 27,219′