Day 2 – Rain, elk, Soldierstone, 🌺, and rattling chains

The rain falls gently throughout the night. The bull elk has moved to the north side of the huge meadow that I am camped in. The change in barometric pressure has caused him to become unusually vocal for this time of year; he lets out a weak squeal from time to time.

I’m concerned that my tent is sagging and damp with condensation on the inside. I like this tent because it is light and easy to erect with my trekking poles, however it does not like low, wet areas. The walls are damp enough on the inside that I’m alarmed that it may have lost its ability to shed water, being a few years old now.

Over the past four years I have spent up to 25 nights a year in the backcountry and it always amazes me, heading back out for a trip, it’s almost like I forgot how to do things. Not having the tent taut was a mistake and I mentally kick myself for the error. The alarm goes off at 5:00 and I contemplate my day. I linger a bit, but decide that it has stopped raining at least for now and I need to get moving. By the time I pack everything up, leaving the tent accessible to dry out later, it is 6:18, later than I would like.

I had not realized that I was so close to Sargent’s Mesa, a vast open area marking the end of the segment. Less than five minutes on trail, I see a cow elk grazing. I stealthily walk along and then see deer. Wait. I thought I saw an elk. The rain from the night silences my footsteps as I walk up the trail. Sure enough, three or four much smaller deer feed right along with the elk. This is interesting because while I have seen them in the same area, it is not often I see them literally feeding side by side. There are quite a few elk and I take photos and shoot some video trying to capture the vocalizations of the elk, who are communicative animals.

Two cow elk look behind for a second pair

Eventually, I need to get moving and the elk see me and eight of them move away from me. However, to the left of the trail are four more elk and they run off as well. In the distance I can see even more slipping in and out of the edges of the timber that abuts Sargent’s Mesa.

There is another diversion, one that I have planned on visiting. Soldierstone is an amazing memorial and tribute to those who served and served soldiers of the Vietnam war. It is a mere two tenths of a mile southeast of the trail. If you didn’t know to look for it, you would miss it. I walk through the shin deep, wet grasses to pay my respects to this monument. I recommend reading more about this memorial and the vision behind it. It’s a fascinating read.

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After an hour of watching elk and visiting Soldierstone I make my way down the trail. I am met by a younger woman walking out of her camp and then a couple who are packing up their tent getting ready for the day. I amble down the trail on this cloudy morning working my way through segment 17. It is largely an up and down amble for most of the day, and while it is a forest walk, wet in nature and rather verdant, there is not a lot in the way of water access. I forego walking off trail to a lake, doing well enough with my water supply. I don’t make great time, though, because I have to stop twice trying to take advantage of a soft breeze to dry out my tent. I “leapfrog” with the woman I met earlier in the morning who has been trekking from Denver for a few weeks now.

Passing Razor Creek I encounter numerous motorcyclists that are touring the area on the trails. This section of the CT is open to motorized travel and while some parts are a bit chewed up due to the machines, the people riding them are courteous and I have some brief conversations with a few of them. They are all nice enough and enjoying the backcountry; they just enjoy it in a way that is different than mine.

The area is rich with wildflowers and one mountainside is full of raspberries, thicket after thicket of beautiful raspberries. I know that the bears will need this for winter fattening, especially after such a dry season, but I help myself to one, maybe two handfuls to verify that this food will be safe for the ursus. 😉

It’s been a day of off/on with the rain jacket and it is beginning to wear on me. My right knee is also still annoyingly uncomfortable and it affects my mood. On my way down the mountain toward where I will stop for dinner I run into a mountain biker. He has a son who is bikepacking with a friend and is on his way up to meet them. We chat for a few minutes, laugh and talk bikes. As I make my way further on, my spirits are lifted by the encounter.

At Lujan Creek I stop at 4:00 after 21 miles to have dinner, filter water and check my feet. I brew a cup of coffee as well, and drink a bottle mixed with a Nuun tablet for electrolyte replacement. I spend an hour here. It’s 2.2 miles out to Highway 114 and then I will begin segment 18. It’s amazing what an hour does as I have a lift in my gait moving down the road.

I run into the father of the bikepacker again and he asks if I’d like a Pepsi or anything. I feel so good that I decline because my body feels wonderful. He takes out some of my trash for which I am grateful and as I cross the creek into the next segment I “camel up” with extra water because tomorrow will have even less access. I fill my Platypus bladder that I have brought along with an extra 2.5 liters of water. It will be added weight but lessen my anxiety about water availability. It is an acceptable trade off.

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Clouds settle between ridges

The evening walk is blissful even though it is primarily an ascent. I finish at a saddle, my idea of a perfect campsite. I have to unlatch the chain to a cattle gate and immediately set my tent in a great spot at 7:00 in the evening. I’ve already eaten and there is no threat of bad weather. I love dry camping. It offers solitude, a dry tent in the morning and is generally warmer for sleeping.

I’m reading in my tent when I am surprised by a backpacker. I didn’t think anybody was close behind me as I’d only seen three other hikers all day. We exchange hellos, chat about wet tents and he tells me he is going another few miles. He will be setting up close to dark.

Darkness sets in and I fall asleep while reading. I hear the chain rattle a little after 9:00 and I’m awakened from my initial slumber. I look out the tent to see only a flashlight and someone walking, looking at a map. I can’t even really see a backpack. Somebody is making a long day of it. I drift back off to sleep.

Again, I’m awakened by a noise. Out in the dark on the other side of the fence I hear the crinkling of a foil wrapper. I can’t make out a person but somebody is trying to eat something. Other hikers have been talking about the Colorado Trail Mountain Bike Race that started the previous Saturday. Roughly 100 riders have begun an informal, “unofficial” race that goes the length of the CT. They ride all day and sleep little. Some even ride through the night. Apparently the winner had already finished but many remain on their way to Durango. It seems that perhaps one of them is eating not far from my tent. It reminds me of my father elbowing me in the ribs when I was a child opening a hard candy wrapper in church, making a racket as Pastor Stoner was coming to the main point of his sermon. I want to reach out and elbow this cyclist as well.

But there is an additional racket. Clank, clankety, clank as now another cyclist is messing about with the gate. He mutters something unintelligible to Candy Wrapper. The Gate Keeper is perhaps 25 yards from my tent and now I’m awake enough to be curious about the whole scene. I wonder whether they even know that I am here lurking in the darkness.

As I take in the evolving scene, I am aware that I am a little gassy, not unusual for the first days of eating trail food. Immediately, however, my own little green cloud is overcome by a powerful, powerful stench. The air must be moving from Gate Keeper to my tent and I’m overpowered by stink so foul that I begin to gag. I have been around dead carcasses that I would have rather rolled in than be exposed to this pungent, foul smell. How could a human emit such an odor? Not quickly enough Gate Keeper finally passes through the gate and his headlight shines upon the mountain as he begins his descent down the trail.

I cough silently in my tent while Candy Wrapper continues to be about as popular with me as a fart in church, which I would have preferred to stinky Gate Keeper. I want to yell, “For God’s sake, man, open that damn thing and be on your way! The bears and I need our sleep!” Finally, finally, he, too, fumbles with the gate and in a less speedier fashion rides down the trail. Gratefully, I follow this scene with a fantastic night’s sleep, left to dream about bicycles, hikers and stink bombs.

Day 2 mileage – 27

Day 2 elevation gained – 3,921′

Total trip mileage – 53

Total elevation gained – 7,659′

Back on The Colorado Trail

This is the year that I am going to finish the Colorado Trail, the footpath/bicycle path that goes from south Denver in Waterton Canyon to Durango, spanning 475 miles through the Rocky Mountains. I began backpacking the CT in June, 2014. Since then I have completed 261 miles of the trail covering both the Collegiate West portion as well as the Collegiate East section. After knocking out a few segments each year and doing a ten day trek in 2015, I decided to finish out the remaining 230 miles from Monarch Pass to Durango. An earlier blog post this spring gives a little bit of the backstory as to why I decided to push through to finish this year.

The venture will be an aggressive one. I have ten days to cover 230 miles. It is not a given that I will complete the task. I have a specific start and finish date due to business and family situations. I plan on a rest or “zero” day in Lake City, meaning I have decided to take nine full days to complete the route. In short, I will need to walk the distance of a marathon each day to make it to Durango by Saturday, August 11th. Not just walk, but don a backpack averaging 25 pounds and climb an average of three to four thousand feet each day largely at an altitude of 10,000-13,000’. I have once again taken on a challenge of which will be outside the scope of anything I have done before. In 2015, I chose a fairly leisurely 10 day trip, stopping to fish with sidetrips, etc and averaging about 13 miles a day. This will be double that.

Starting off from Monarch Pass between Poncha Springs and Gunnison

I leave Broomfield with my good friend, Jamie, who has also completed half of the trail. We will walk the first five miles together, after which he will head north for a few days on trail he has not explored while I continue on toward my destination of Durango.

Our separation point is where the East and West portions of the Collegiate routes come together south of Highway 50 and Monarch Pass. I make myself a cup of coffee, we sit at 11,900’ on a calm day, devoid of any wind. Nearby are some other hikers chatting while we hang out. After ten minutes or so, Jamie and I do the fist bump thing and he descends down into Fooses Creek while I head south along the ridge of the Continental Divide. It is great beginning with him and hard to say goodbye. Going solo, well, is solo, and hence can get a bit lonely from time to time.

I am splitting the trip into two parts with the rest day in between. However, in order to afford this luxury I need to cover 104 miles in the first four days. Today, I only began at 8:30 so I am already giving away some good light. Yet, the trail is fast and smooth, allowing for pretty good time and miles covered. But I really need to ease into the trek and not go crazy on the first day.

Fleabane

I am on the trail well after the “bulk” of hikers that started the complete trail earlier in summer. Many are anxious to head out in June, and I, too, have done that in the past. But with an early start comes lingering snow fields. July is a great time to be on the trail as the wildflowers are peaking in the mountains, but with July, also comes monsoon rains and dangerous electrical storms. By leaving in August I am hoping to to avoid the heavy monsoons but still catch a good dose of wildflowers. I am not dissapointed early on, as I have good “eye candy” with wildflowers throughout the first day.

Come mid afternoon, I run into some motorcyclists traveling northbound. Parts of the trail are open to motorized travel and segment 16, which I am on now, is one of those segments. A group of four are riding some really nice BMW 1200 off-road touring bikes with panniers, much like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman used in Long Way Round. Two riders pass by and then I come upon a third, walking the trail, one arm holding onto a nature made crutch of a stick. “How’s it going”, I ask.

“It’s been better”, he replies, “I think I broke my ankle.”

I carry an emergency transponder device with me so I can satellite text my wife, Pam, and it also doubles as a SOS device for emergency situations. “Do you need any help with anything?” thinking perhaps this guy needs emergency evacuation. He replies that he has all that he needs and seeing he has buddies with him, I move on down the trail. He is a pleasant enough chap considering he has a potentially serious injury and also that his other buddy is looking for their own lost GPS device that had bounced off another bike.

I continue to run into both day hikers and thru hikers. I keep a good pace, only stopping for a quick lunch and later to filter enough water for the rest of the day. I know that from many past treks I will average 2.2 mph overall for the day. I never want to fall below that number and know that on good sections of smooth trail I can move faster. The amount of uphill does not make as much difference to me as much as the condition of the trail. If it is smooth “all day” trail, I can motor along at a consistent pace. If it gets rocky, it will be my downfall. I don’t move quickly through rocky trail so I always try to make the best of the good trail when I have it. Below is a good example of “all day” trail.

All Day Trail, like I wish I had this all day to walk on!

I do encounter some tougher trail by late afternoon, but I trudge through it, my goal being a stream where I can filter more water, have dinner and then carry on for another hour or so. Sure enough, I arrive at Tank Seven creek with a good day in my legs. As I filter water above the creek, I can see other trekkers at a camp. There is a lot of laughing and talking going on; backcountry thru hikers enjoying a beautiful evening and nice camp. I yell hello to them and they let me know that they have space for another tent. I reply that I’ll be going further, but after I heat and pour boiling water into my food pouch, I cross back over the creek and join them while I eat.

We exchange names and hometowns and within five minutes we are all laughing and joking. “Walking Man” is probably about my age and I quickly find out that he has hiked the Appalachian Trail as well as the Arizona Trail. The other two are an older couple, very easy going and immediately likeable. All three started in Denver and are going through to Durango. It is what I like about this trail. We are all here for the same reasons, we love to hike, camp and experience trail life. I’d really like to stay and linger but want a few more miles today. I bid them goodbye and am on trail again by 7:00.

I walk another hour, moving into Cameron Park and just beyond. It is the “golden hour”, the time of day just before sunset when wildlife is beginning to move about. Sure enough I see four mule deer, two of them majestic bucks as I move into the open park. I’m forced to show my hand as I move through and they bound ahead of me. I see one of them later and she poses for a nice photo.

The whole day has been smoky, from the fires in Northern California. It has kept the sun off my body, but now night is quickly approaching. I come upon a huge open meadow and quickly make camp, pitching my little single wall, one man tent. I’m sleeping at 11,300’. As I settle into my bag, I acknowledge that while my body performed ably during the day, my legs are throbbing, especially my right knee. This is slightly disconcerting because I felt this same thing earlier in the spring after an aggressive run. It did not resolve quickly then; I hope this is not the case now in August. As dusk turns to dark, a bull elk lets out a squeal above me high in the meadow. I already miss Pam, as is always the case, the first night out on a solo venture. Sleep is fitful and it rains during the night off and on. I keep waking and remind myself that I am dry and somewhat warm. I’ll take care of wet gear once it is daylight, which will come after my alarm goes off in the morning.

Day 1 total miles traveled – 26

Total elevation gained – 3,738’

Next Steps

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Eldorado Canyon as seen from the Fowler Trail looking west.

I went for a short solo hike today. It is already February. After finishing off the R2R2R last November, I’ve allowed my body the opportunity to de-condition from regular running. Truly, I did need my left foot to have some time off from the running as I had jammed my big toe a few times in autumn, exacerbating a Hallux Rigidus condition that has developed over the past few years. I’ve spent more time in the yoga studio, focusing on getting stronger, attempting to develop some upper body strength and playing with more and more inversions.

Every year, I lay out some goals for my physical body, but this year I have needed more time to sort out what they might be. My massage therapy business has kept me quite busy over the past five months and the days and weeks begin to meld. I’ll do some trail running this year, but it will be as a way to build strength to move quickly through high mountains. My soul missed nights spent in the wilderness last year, and the slower deliberate pace feeds my very soul.

My wife, Pam, and one of my backpacking partners has expressed an interest to venture forth on the tread of the Colorado Trail once again. We’re starting with bi-weekly hikes to see how her arthritic knee will handle time afoot and afield. We’ve cleaned up some messy eating habits and feel good with the effects on our bodies. Now in our fifties, we cannot get away with bad habits regarding physical and nutritional health as we thought we once could many years ago. I have a client, a wonderful woman who has told me “Getting older is hard work. Getting older is not for sissies!”

I have many clients in my practice, spanning the ages of 11 to 85, various demographics, interests, professions and lifestyles. In the past year, I’ve had four people who have been battling cancer. All four are in their fifties. One, in particular, is facing a tough battle. Making this more challenging is that this person was a friend before they were a client. This friend has been there when we’ve had to bury another friend. And that just makes this tougher; this is a friend who has been a rock for me over the years, a person who brings about tremendous peace in me, tremendous honesty and tremendous reckoning in my soul.

The previous fall, when I was questioning whether I’d attempt to run back and forth across the Grand Canyon, I thought about the future. I don’t know my own future; I don’t know what the end point of my future is. And with that, I said, screw it, I’m going across the Grand Canyon and back, I’m not putting this off.

Last July, when I was logging long miles running, I had a notion to run on part of the Colorado Trail and meet a wonderful gentleman whom I had never met in person. We had met through a Colorado Trail Facebook group and had exchanged some messages. I saw he was going to be on a section of trail south of Bailey, where I was planning on running that day. I caught David Fanning just a few miles into my run in the Lost Creek Wilderness. Upon introducing myself we laughed and traded stories. It was great to finally meet each other in person. David has through hiked the Colorado Trail four years in succession, written a book about the people on the trail and is a wealth of knowledge regarding this wonderful span of nearly 500 miles. I told David that I have been “section hiking” the trail for a few years, knocking out 250 miles and completing the Collegiate Loop. I’ve not been in a hurry to complete the whole trail and told David that “I have the rest of my life to complete it.”

He looked at me, adorned by his trademark “tilly” hat, tilted it to one side ever so slightly and replied, “Maybe.”

His retort has stuck with me since then. Maybe I do have the rest of my life to knock out the remaining part of the CT in sections over years. But, perhaps, I may not. I can’t tell the future, but I can make some plans. Thus, I’ve decided that this year I will hop back on the trail at Monarch Pass and walk the remaining 230 miles or so to Durango. It will take me through the peak part of the trail, the San Juan mountains. I’ll hit it sometime in summer, hopefully meeting other trail souls along its path. I plan to hop off and hitchhike to Lake City and spend a night there. I’ll likely do the same in Silverton, the details I’ve not yet laid out. But, having done enough longer treks and long days it will all be fine.

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Snowy winter trail…rust emblazoned on iron…winter’s cold framework.

There will be many other nights afield as well this year. I’ve always wanted to do a month’s worth of nights in the out of doors. Maintaining a business, where I am the sole massage therapist, with no paid vacation, makes that a little tough. But I think this is a good year to carry out this idea. Pam and my backpacking pal, J Rubble, will be looking to log some good miles on the CT. I have a nephew who is planning on coming here next September for an archery elk hunt. My 22-year-old son Ben, with whom I’ve had some great backpack trips, wants to get back at it. We have another father/son duo that we’ve done a trip with. It would be a good time to do that again.

What I love about time afoot on trail and field is that it sparks my thoughts for ink on paper. I started a new journal this year. It is 400 pages. So far, in five weeks or so, I’ve filled over 50. While this journal is not “ultralight” it will go in my pack. It will contain all of my being for 2018. From its pages will come the stories of my year, for trips where I will not have access to a device to quickly log thoughts at the end of a day hike.

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I saw more of their tracks today than I did of two legged animals

I look forward to what this year will bring. I look forward to nights alone looking at stars and I look just as forward to nights spent under stars with friends. There will be days of sunshine and splendor. There will be days of rain, wind and even snow. It will all be good. I know time spent away in the mountains creates a renewal of spiritual riches. It makes coming back to community and friends a great experience and renews daydreams of time spent away. Let not waste a day nor an hour, let not waste a sunrise or sunset, let not waste an opportunity to tell one that they are loved.

Lost Creek Wilderness Loop – Day 4

Click here to see a map of my fourth day

Click here to see elevation profile, terrain, etc.

My last day and I wake early and waste no time in hitting the trail. I’m not exactly sure how many miles it will be until I am out to the car today. My recollection of the initial part of today’s trail is one of difficult downhill with a strong chance of blowdowns. I’ve only been on this trail once a few years ago, but I remember it being a bit of a grind.

Before long I pass the camp of the two gals I met late yesterday afternoon. There is an empty hammock but it seems too early for them to be up and about. There is also a tent and it makes me wonder if the tree sleeper got cold or timid during the night and elected to move into the tent with her friend.

The trail is indeed steep downhill for the first few miles but then levels out and I don’t remember this part from my previous journey here. I run into a gentleman that is hiking in to meet a friend. He tells me that he and his friend spend a lot of time every year doing trail maintenance around the state. Last year his friend cleared over 40 dead trees off the section that I just came through! I’m reminded of how much volunteers do for our trails and wilderness areas. I thank him for the work that he does and make a note that I need to get involved in such projects; either organized with a group of just with a friend on weekends throughout the year. It’s a great way to get outdoors, do some camping and take care of trails that need work.

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First columbines of the trip!

I’m soon on very familiar terrain at the Colorado Trail again. This is the trailhead for the beginning of Segment 4 and I anticipate that I will begin running into some backpackers. This also begins an uphill stretch of just over 1,000’ over the next 4.5 miles. I’ve been on this stretch of trail more times than I can count in my head whether it was a day hike, multi-day backpack trip or trail run. I’m motivated as I move up the old wide road anticipating beautiful aspen forests.

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Passable appearance after three days afield

I re-enter the Lost Creek Wilderness proper and bump into a group of three weekend backpackers. I plan to stop where the Payne Creek Trail heads north off the CT and have breakfast there. I arrive around 9:00 and partake of nutrients with two guys and dogs that are doing a two night loop. They have come off the Payne Creek trail and have not yet decided on a loop. I pull out my map and we take a look at it as I offer suggestions for potential loops. I make sure that they know about the tricky signage farther along the trail and in a bit I bid them adieu and make my way northwest.

I’m looking forward to this last stretch of trail. I have about nine more miles back to the car and I only know a small portion of this trail having hiked it with Pam a few years back. The tread is in great shape and I make good time. I’ve got some sore calves but I feel pretty good considering I’ve covered over 70 miles in the last three and a half days. Eventually I come to a low point in the valley and Craig Creek. It’s a pretty beautiful spot and the three backpackers I had seen earlier are looking for a camping spot. They’ll have a full day to relax and fish. Great for them!

 

Climbing out of Craig Creek, the breeze is strong but not so much that I would classify it as windy. The trail moves upward, the sky is bright blue with patchy white clouds. It is mid June and the world is alive here! Wildflowers are emerging in earnest, perhaps the greatest number I’ve seen in a concentrated area yet this year. Summer, officially a few days away on the calendar, is making its presence known in this part of the Platte River Mountains. I stop frequently to snap photos of this palette that broadens out in front of me. Butterflies flit about everywhere. Tiger Swallowtails dominate the scene, big, bold, yellow and airy as they ride the breezes landing upon flower after flower. I chase after them time and time again attempting to capture them on film.

Authors note: I must confess that this scene plays back in my mind as I write this in December. I have been obstreperous over the past six months, running wildly throughout Colorado, hiking, running, hunting, touring and having a wonderful time. Penning the last day of this trip had fallen off my radar, but now as Iook over my excursions of 2017 this few hour period finishing off this trip was one of the very best highlights of the year.

Backpacking in Colorado can be a fickle mistress. The season is relatively short, especially if you want to be in the high country. Much of that time can be spent dodging storms or drying out gear. One can get sucked into the trap that it’s all butterflies and meadows, stargazing while cowboy camping with no need for a tent. I’ve chatted with a friend about this and if you read the outdoors magazines you can be caught off guard once you arrive in the backcountry and experience it firsthand.

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A little bit of my heaven on earth

But on that day it was just like one envisions it to be. It is what calls to me now as I daydream looking out my window behind the keyboard of a laptop, thinking about trips for 2018 and nights spent afield. The few challenging days spent afield are wiped from my mental hard drive when I think back to finishing out this fourth day.

As I make my way up this trail I have now slowed down to the appropriate pace for observing nature. I am like a toddler, distracted by all that is amazing to me. A butterfly here, a flower growing out of a rock there, the colors are vibrant, more amazing than any colorwheel I have seen in art classes. I move into a magnificent aspen grove that moves from a draw, fed by a stream up and over the ridge of the mountain. I yearn to spend a night or two right here, to set camp, to wander aimlessly from ridge to ridge, aspen grove to deep timber, and back to another aspen grove. What treasures lie here? What is there to discover? How many come through this trail and how many venture off of it to find what lies in the deeper forest and timber? These questions are ones that force me to make mental notes, bookmarking this area in my mind as one that I need to come back to in the future. Much more exploration is necessary and I desire to learn the lay of this land, close enough from the trailhead that one can arrive here in a quick morning but far enough away that there won’t be much company.

I crest the top of the trail and enter the north side of the mountain, now moving into dark timber and making my way farther north. The trail becomes rockier, rather steep and trickier to navigate. I begin to run into people making their way south. They inquire about where I’ve come from and ask “how much farther to the aspen groves?” I try to give an accurate answer, but I’m never sure whether I’m much help with that or not. Groups travel much slower than individuals, much less gaining elevation on a rocky trail. I default to the “Romanian Answer”, trying to be as helpful as possible, offering hope, but knowing they are really on their own after I leave them.

I make my way easily back to the trailhead where I’ve left the car. Over four days I’ve not encountered a single drop of rain. This has been a great trip. I’m happy about the loop through this vast US Wilderness area, and excited that I have yet to visit every trail here, prompting reason to return and bring friends along.

Lost Creek Wilderness Big Loop – Day 2

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Just after dawn my shadow casts long in a saddle at 11,600′ on the Ben Tyler Trail.

Click here to view a map of Day 2

Click here to see elevation profile, type of tree cover and land cover!

I sleep like I typically do in the backcountry. Waking up through the night as I turn from one side to the other. At one point the intensely bright moon wakes me as if someone is shining a flashlight in my face. Unless it is raining heavily I always sleep with the fly open so I can stargaze when I awake at night. Later, my phone begins its gentle crescendo at 4:00 waking me from my slumber in Craig Park.

Today is my birthday and I’ll celebrate 52 years hanging about in this world. I’ve backpacked and hiked many 20+ mile days but I have never done a 30 miler. Today will be the day I go for that goal; in fact I’ve decided to make it a 52 kilometer day which converts to 32.5 miles.

I heat water for one cup of coffee under my headlamp, tear down camp quickly and am on the trail at 4:50. I have to navigate some snow as I move through the dark timber and one puddle I come to has a skin of ice on it, verifying freezing temperatures I experienced during the night.

In the first hour I am treated to a beautiful expanse at 11,600′ of open terrain dotted by rocky hills. The sun shines so as to cast long shadows from my lanky frame. As I cross the park on a trail that is marked by posts dotting the way I begin to drop down in elevation. I look on the horizon and make out one, then two elk feeding in the early shadows. They are fairly distant and I can just make out six or eight as the impending sun makes it difficult to discern the shapes of the large grazers.

The day will consist of time on new trail and trail I have traversed times before. I keep dropping in elevation and see a camper parked in a small clearing by  Rock Creek. I’ve come six miles and dropped down to 9700′. A gentleman is outside and we stop and chat for awhile. He comments that his furnace in his camper was non-functional and asks if I felt that it was very cold last night. He inquires about the weight of my pack, my route, etc. I tell him of where I came from and he indicates that that is where he will go explore today. I’m only a few hours into my day but I haven’t had a human encounter since 1:30 the previous afternoon and as I make my way onward, with a marathon yet ahead of me, my spirits are lifted by the brief visit.

I hit the junction with the Colorado Trail heading east. Previously I have come the opposite way with my friend Jamie and a different time two years ago with Pam. I recognize the trail well and know landmarks which tell me where I am on the trail. In an area surrounded by Bristlecone Pines I see a group of four dainty orchids a step off the tread. I drop to the ground, pack still on my back and begin taking photos of the Calypso Bulbosa,

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Fairy Slipper (calypso bulbosa)

commonly called Calypso Orchid or Fairy Slipper. Two years prior when here with Pam I had stopped and photographed these same four flowers. Each year, they rise and flower after heavy winter snows. Lying just one literal step off the trail they are a prime example of what LNT or Leave No Trace is all about. And if I get a little preachy and political forgive me. As a visitor to this dedicated Wilderness area I agree to abide by the guidelines that have been established to protect this area. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law in 1964. You can read in the link above what those regulations are, but Wilderness in conjunction with Leave No Trace means you leave it as you found it or in even better shape, i.e. taking out trash you find. If I had picked these orchids two years prior, they would not have been here for me and hundreds of hikers on the Colorado Trail to enjoy this year. Theoretically I could bring a grandchild here 20 years from now to see these same flowers! Taking care of our environment is not a “today” table item. It’s not even a “lifetime” table item. It is a philosophy and responsibility that spans generations, centuries and millenia. I think there are certain high ranking politicians in our country that fail to understand the scope of this concept. I choose to leave the beautiful, delicate Fairy Slippers as they are. Not just for my fellow American visitors that may come across this spot but for my fellow man of all nations who visit this area and might enjoy it. We must come together as a world of people to preserve our planet as we enjoy it, during our miniscule period of time in the scope of personal history before our physical bodies become a part of it.

Before noon I come to the west end of Lost Park and the North Fork of Lost Creek. I lose my pack and sit up against a tree to have an extended break. I’ve covered half of my distance for the day. I’m on schedule to finish before sunset as long as my body does not rebel. I eat some cheese, pumpernickel bread, sausage and head down the trail.

Lost Park is another long narrow park, just like Craig Park of the previous day. I’m looking forward to losing 700′ of elevation over the next nearly six miles. I estimate I’ll get to the east end of Lost Park in the neighborhood of 3:00 and have roughly 22 miles under my belt for the day. But the trek through here is a disappointing drag. The sun is shining on my pack causing me to be hot and sweaty. I maintain my fluid intake so as to not become dehydrated beyond repair later in the day. I eventually pop out on the east side and filter some more water for the last 10 1/2 miles.

As I regain the tread, now heading south on the Brookside-McCurdy trail I am off the CT and back onto brand new trail, making things a little more interesting again. I stop to answer a question another backpacker has. He is an older gentleman with a yellow lab by his side. The dog is sleeping soundly. The man has his tent pitched and we trade information about routes, where we have camped, where we are going and stories about the wilderness and those who have perished here! As we chat, I envy him. He is done for the day and relaxing at a lovely little spot. I am having to move 2,000′ higher into the late evening and possible changes in weather. However, the potential regret of not finishing out this day as I have planned, outweighs the temptation of company for the remainder of the day.

Over the next miles I pass established campsite after established campsite. One group numbers over a dozen teenagers with adults mixed in. A bit later, there are the bearded 20-30 somethings with their tarp tents. In a bit, the trail pitches so sharply upward that after 28 miles in my legs I am forced to count 100 steps and then stop to regain my breath. I am approaching the area of Bison Peak and the trail tops out at 11,800′ and it is a steep pitch.

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The area of Bison Peak. Note the snow capped peaks to the back right of the photo. Elevation at this spot is 11,800′.

I have expansive views in all directions and the wind has nothing to stop it here above treeline. As I huff and puff to crest into the high meadow I am amazed by the sight. It is beautiful. An area big enough to host numerous soccer fields fills the scene marked by huge granite domes. I make a mental note that this will be an area to come back and bring others to enjoy this site.

It is now just a 5k until I am done for the day. My whole attitude begins to shift and I am elated that while my head is pounding a bit and my left shoulder is aggravated from my pack, my legs are relatively fantastic. The lower body has held up tremendously and I begin to try and estimate where I will finish for the day. I now begin to enter the Ghost Forest of the Wilderness. Over 100 years ago a forest fire burned through this high mountain area. The trees, while dead from the fire, remain as burned out sentries standing guard over this stark, exposed, eerily pleasant area in the waning daylight hours of my birthday. The trail ribbons its way ahead of me and I can see it peeking in and out of the landscape disappearing over the knolls.

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Appearing as totems, dead trees begin to mark the beginnings of a ghost forest.

I think about the significance of these dead trees. Over 100 years old, still standing, still evident of a century of history, having survived season after season, high winds and all that nature has to offer. How much longer will they be here? 100 years after I am gone will my life remain so tall and gracious for the world to see?

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Dead for over 100 years, yet standing as sentries for visitors to this ghost forest.

As I tick down the final steps of my day, my phone chirps indicating that I have cellular service. I have just a few tenths of a mile to walk until I cross my “finish line” and I can make camp for the day. I pull out my phone and call Pam and amazingly she answers! I am elated! We talk as I finish out my day and it is the perfect gift on my birthday. As I talk to her, after having walked for 14 hours and 32 1/2 miles I am physically and emotionally spent and I profess my love to her like we are childhood sweethearts. As I say goodbye and wend my way forth looking for a spot to camp, I am nearly in tears. Emotion of family and the relationship to my wife and my son overcomes me. I finish my day a little more complete than when I began it back in the darkness of Craig Park before dawn.

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Rock dome in Lost Creek Wilderness. 

Lost Creek Wilderness Backpacking Day 1 – Big Loop

 


Click here to view a map of the first day

Click here to see cool stuff like elevation profile, slope, tree cover and land cover!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Four of the last six years I have gone backpacking during my birthday which is June 15th. It began in 2012 after one of my best friends passed away that spring. I missed the following year and I missed last year. If my birthday falls on any day except Wednesday I shut my business down for a long weekend and make anywhere between a three and five day trip of it.

This year, I had blocked out the time but didn’t have any big plans or a spot picked out to venture to. A lot has to do with how much snow remains in the high country and typically mid June still holds much snow above 11,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado. However, the Lost Creek Wilderness missed the big May storms of this year so it became an eligible area for a four day trip.

Because I was going solo it also allowed me to chase some backcountry goals that are better pursued alone, versus having another being succumb to my crazy ideas of fun. The Saturday before I did a 15 mile trail run up into the Platte River Mountains to see if the hills held much snow on the north facing slopes. As luck would have it, there were only a few patches of snow and as I dropped into the area of Craig Park between the Platte River and Kenosha Mountains it was blissful. I had decided on my loop.

I’ve always been an endurance athlete with some years-long breaks over the past nearly 40 years. Since I began backpacking I also began running and trail running to complement the off trail experience. Last October I picked up a dropped yoga practice from the past decade and have had a nice balance of yoga and trail running this spring. I had not donned a 20-30 pound pack yet this year but felt confident in my base fitness. The fact that I’ve spent over 50 nights sleeping in the wilderness over the previous two years, I felt that my body and muscle memory would serve me well. So, I decided to go big for my 52nd birthday trip.

I had one massage to give on Wednesday morning and had packed my bag the previous day. At 11:00am I headed south on highway 285 to Bailey, Colorado. I parked at the Payne Creek Trailhead and hit the trail shortly after noon. It was pleasantly warm as I headed south and up with my beginning elevation of just over 8,000’

It felt good to just walk and not be running. Albeit my long trail runs have been at three and a half hours and this would be a four day trip using most of the light each day. The north part of the wilderness goes from drier areas through mountain timber and after just a mile and a half I came to four younger people having lunch at a creek crossing. “Where you headed for the night?” I asked them.

They looked about at each other and one young lady replied “We’re not really sure”. With four of them, hopefully they had the resources to figure it out and not need help. Last year I invested in a DeLorme Inreach satellite device of which the big selling point for me is the the ability to satellite text to my wife or friends and also to throw up an SOS if an emergency should ever occur. In addition I leave a map with my wife of my intended route and also leave the same information with an experienced friend that knows how to come help if I don’t return on time. When I left the parking lot I sent out a text to both of them that said, “I’m parked here (with GPS coordinates) and off on my trip!”

LCW Permit sign

Lost Creek Wilderness requires you obtain a permit from a handly little box station. Fill out the card, where you’ll be spending your nights, leave part in the box and take a small section with you. It’s used primarily for research purposes.

I hiked steadily until reaching the saddle of the mountain 3,000’ higher from my departure point and then descended 500’ into Craig Park. Craig Park is a park or “meadow” that is roughly 1,000 feet wide that runs in a NW/SE direction for about six miles. Craig Creek runs right through it and it is surrounded by marshy areas with occasional beaver dams and potentillas on the upper edges. The Platte River mountains rise to the north of the park about 1,000’ up and the Kenosha Mountains are south and slightly higher at 1,500’ above the park. Small peaks of both ranges rise and fall on either side of the valley. It is a beautiful area that is not well traveled by evidence of the scant trail running through it. The trail was narrow enough as I hiked northwest that potentilla scraped my calves and after a bit I collapsed my trekking poles because they kept getting caught on the shrubs along the trail.

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Craig Park looking south with Platte River Mountains left, Kenosha Mountains to the right and lots of blue sky and “Toy Story” clouds!

I walked for a few more hours until I arrived at the upper reaches of the park. I still had daylight left but did not want to drop down into the dark timbered forest. Even though I would be sleeping at 11,500’ it would be warmer higher and drier. I was camped well away from the creek and I had filtered water a mile or so back, so I had plenty to cook with and begin my day the next morning.

I quickly pitched my tent even though there was no looming bad weather. It’s a habit that is hard to change. Nobody likes putting up a shelter in the rain and it is always the first priority once the decision to stop has been made. Rain and hail is not a horrible thing if you are warm and dry. But…once wet it can be uncomfortable and downright dangerous in the high country.

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Camp! Night #1!

I had climbed about 3,500’ for the day, trekked 12.6 miles and my pack would only get lighter now from my beginning weight of 32.5 pounds. I made myself dinner and as I brushed my teeth a short distance from the tent I saw some elk feeding on the opposite hillside. After sauntering a little closer for a better look I headed back to my campsite and was in my bag and looking at the stars with my fly drawn back on my little tent. I set the alarm for 4:00 in the morning. I wanted an early start to what would be the longest single day of backpacking in my life. Everything was in place, I just had to execute tomorrow.