Walking to Durango, the Trek Comes to a Close

Scanning my campsite in the dark, my headlight shines in the area where I am packing my gear up for the last time this trip. I walk down the trail, having rested for longer than any time of the last ten days, with exception of my zero day in Lake City. I make my way to Indian Trail Ridge proper just as the sky brightens through the trees.

I am rewarded with serenely beautiful, warmly lit skies to the east. My decision to wait a day is confirmed as a good one. It is calm, it is peaceful, it is perfect. The undulating trail is stout enough to cause me to breathe more deeply at times. I stop frequently to capture the light on the ridge, at times jogging back and forth on the trail to get the best images that my phone will allow. It is at times breathtaking and heart rending. The day dawns on me figuratively and literally. This is my last day on trail and like so many before me have said, it is bittersweet. I am more than ready to be with my family and comforts of home, but will miss the time alone on trail and waking up to such beauty outside my tent door.

I make much better time than anticipated and descend down to Taylor Lake. There is nobody camped there, to my surprise, and I stop to filter some water, have breakfast and my morning coffee. Within 20 minutes I am off again finishing segment 27 proper and embarking on the final 21.5 mile segment. I climb through Kennebec Pass and again am moving downhill toward Durango. I’ll descend 6,557 feet by the time I reach the end of the trail in Durango.

Having cell service, I take the opportunity to call Pam and Jamie to let them know my ETA. I cross Junction Creek numerous times and am in shade for the whole morning. It was cool at the start of my day and I haven’t needed much water. After twelve or so miles I stop to take another break, eat something and reflect.

I cross a nice bridge over Junction Creek and then begin what will be the last climb of the Colorado Trail. I’m

fifteen miles into my day and have a four mile climb before the downhill to the end. All of the descending has caused the tib anterior muscle in my left leg to get a little angry; what some might call shin splints but it actuality is just an overused muscle issue from the long downhill stretch. It’s annoying and affects my gait a little bit; one last surprise that the Colorado Trail has for me before I finish.

13.3 miles from the end and about 16 miles into my day I stop to filter water for the last time. I fill both 23 ounce bottles that I have and deem it enough to carry me through roughly a half marathon. I make a note on the Guthooks app about the water source. “Good flow if you have a scoop. Maybe enough to carry you home! Almost there!”

I continue the short climb but am acutely aware that it is much warmer now. I’m now at an elevation of 9016′ and as I continue to descend the landscape changes around me. Junipers begin to dominate the scene, along with a pebbly trail and more arid climes. I spy a horned lizard, the first that I have ever seen. He obliges for a photo or two.

Horned lizard

Before I top out on the uphill section I meet a woman having a snack. She is finishing the trail today as well, having section hiked it over a few years much as I have. She is only the second hiker I have seen today and we congratulate each other on our endeavors. She is yet one more interesting person that I have had the privilege to meet on the trail. I bid her goodbye and am grateful for the encounter, buoying my spirits.

I top the climb and begin the last ten miles home! I snap a photo of my watch and figure with a good pace I can knock this out in three miles. It is 1:05 pm.

A much smaller horned lizard

But now it feels really warm, much warmer than anything I have experienced in the last week. I had not counted on the effect of the lower elevation and the increasing heat, while certainly not hot, it is much warmer than I have been used to. I decide to stop, take a break and air my feet out. I relax, with my socks and shoes off and even attempt to catch a little nap. Pam, Jamie and his son will be walking in to meet me but I don’t expect to see them before the last four miles.

Further down the trail I’m now consuming copious amounts of water, far more than I have at any other time. It feels really hot now and with about six or seven miles to go I have consumed the last of my liquids. I intentionally slow down because I don’t want tot have a bad experience here at the very end. There is one more water source, but I think I will see Pam and Jamie before that.

But now I am beginning to sidle along. My speed has dropped considerably and I just don’t feel very good. I think to myself that I have come 225 miles in the last ten days, I am merely five miles from the end and I am beginning to flounder. My pride takes a hit and I worry about the woman behind coming up on me as I walk around in a stupor. I keep checking my watch to determine where I am at on the trail. I hope to see Pam and Jamie at Gudy’s Rest, a bench at an overlook that commemorates the “mother of the Colorado Trail”, Gudy Gaskill.

I get to Gudy’s Rest and have a seat. It is am impressive bench, big enough to lie down on, it begs me to take a nap and I toss off my back and decide to just sleep for a little bit. As I drift off, I begin to hear voices below me, a woman’s voice. Pam! I hop off the bench and strain to see down onto the trail below me. I can see the trail on the other side of Junction Creek but it is too steep directly below me to see the switchbacked trail where the voices are coming from. I hesitate to yell down below and instead quickly don my pack and grab my trekking poles.

I have been instantly rejuvenated and think to myself, “I only have four miles to go! Get off your ass and get moving!” It is the motivation I need to finish this thing out. Moving quickly down the trail I hit one switchback and then another. I can hear Pam’s voice and then Jamie’s, I think I even hear the higher pitch of Jamie’s son as well. Tears begin to well behind my glasses and I get a little emotional at the thought of seeing the three of them.

Finally, I see them as they being to come up the trail and we are all moving toward a switchback where we will be reunited. Except it is not them. It is a man and woman hiking up the trail on a day hike. Ugh. My spirits are deflated. I immediately put on a fake smile, “Why hello! It’s a beautiful day isn’t it? Enjoy your hike!” And as I pass them, my emotions change from one of elation to feigning agitation. “Where in the hell are they? I need some water and food!”

But, alas, another half mile and I now see them in the flesh, sitting on the trail. And I am so glad to see them. Jamie has really cold water in his backpack. As I sip out of his Camelbak tube I don’t think I have tasted such good, clean, fresh, cold water before. Pam has snacks for me, I hug her and I plop down on the trail next to Jamie’s son. It feels so good to eat, drink and see my friends and wife.

From here on out it is a day hike with friends. The last three miles take longer than I would like. I don’t yearn for more miles, to have it last forever, today, I just want to be done. As we finally come to the end of the trail I have been thinking about how I will have my photo taken at the trail head for the traditional photo commemorating finishing the Colorado Trail. I decide to do handstand.

Note: It is now weeks after I have finished the trail as I write this. I began this trail with a group of people and finished a large portion of it by myself. Over the past few years I have done more and more solo backpacking. Going solo is such a different experience than hiking with others. This past Labor Day weekend Pam and I backpacked segments 9, 10 and part of 11 going from Tennessee Pass to Twin Lakes Village. I hope to accompany both Pam and Jamie as they too, complete the Colorado Trail.

Recounting my trip via this blog has also been an enjoyable experience for me. I think now about this trail and I don’t think I am done with it. I often think about “my legacy” and what I will leave behind once my days trekking this earth are done. Unfortunately our relationships that we build over our lifetimes diminish once we are gone. We have memories and oral history but they disappear over time. For me, I feel my writing is a way to preserve my history and experiences. So with that, I would love to write a few books before I am gone. I think one may be about a northbound thru hike of the Colorado Trail, taken more slowly, more intentionally. Another would be about trekking in Romania, another place I love and would like to explore more, visiting villages and getting to know people in different parts of a country that I love.

All of this presents some serious challenges, risk of perceived failure if nobody gives a damn about a book that I might write and changes in my life in the near future. But it is fun to think about. Happy trails to all of you and thanks for reading along about my adventures.

Colleen’s Last Homework Assignment – My Eulogy for Her

Blooming in my garden on the day of her memorial service

This could lend itself toward being a bit on the heavy side, so I’ll open with something a little lighter and allow us to laugh with our friend Colleen. Since Colleen’s death, a nagging question keeps coming to me. Is the entry to heaven now based upon a keyless entry system or does it require Colleen to actually have the keys, for if it does she is at the gates waiting upon AAA or Frank Ping to help her out in order to get in, for nobody loses keys like Colleen did.

I’ve know Colleen for over 20 years. I don’t remember ever actually meeting Colleen for the first time, but we attended the same church. Colleen was one of those people that you heard about first and met later. Then all of a sudden, I’m asking myself one day “Who is this woman? Who is this person asking me deep questions and making me think and look into my soul?”

My prayer over the past days has been how I will speak about a dear person, a dear friend. It is my humble intention today to give great honor to Colleen, and also to Jesus Christ, of whom she was a steadfast, devout follower. It is a tremendous honor to speak about Colleen to all of you, because if you are here today, she taught you something. Colleen was a teacher, she was also a student. She sought out learning and went about teaching. If you are here today, you loved this incredible woman. I hope that you will hear something that resonates with the Colleen Kanemoto that you knew and loved. I’d like to share about the friend I knew.

Exactly one week before Colleen’s passing I was having breakfast with her daughter Grace. “Mom said she wants you to speak at her service.” This was news to me.

A few days later, her husband, Tom, called me and we had a similar exchange. “Apparently you two have had this conversation” he said.

No, Colleen, we did not have this conversation. And I have been left with the question of what exactly she wanted me to share with you all today.

Colleen was an integral part of Broomfield United Methodist Church back in the ‘90’s when I first knew her. She directed Vacation Bible School, was an employee, and then a teacher at Apple Tree Christian Pre-School. She had always wanted to work with children, to be a teacher. I’d like to share some thoughts from some of Colleen’s pre-schoolers.

  • She made us learn without knowing we were learning.
  • She wasn’t afraid to get dirty, she didn’t get upset about play-do in the carpet or spilled glue on the tables or beans from the playground in our pockets.
  • She pushed us super fast on the tire swing. I remember learning about butterflies in her class. They grew in our classroom and she would show us their progress everyday and explain what was happening.
  • Mrs. Peketz always made sure that we crazy 3-year-olds were happy and learning, despite the fact that we were surely little devils.
  • She kept her patience and always had something insightful to say in any situation.
  • She never stopped smiling. Like ever. Even when we were annoying.
  • Ms. Colleen was always an optimistic person, and showed her love for every single kid that she taught.
  • She made preschoolers believe that anything was possible.
  • I remember how contagious Ms. Colleens’s smile was in the classroom, the way she would tell students stories, and then smile. It just allowed her students to always be happy, laugh and love learning.
  • I personally believe that those smiles and laughs have carried with me throughout my entire academic career 13 years later.

I gathered these reflections from four teenagers, 17 and 18 years old and in high school and college.

Colleen made more than a half dozen trips to Romania to serve children there, and we think she made her first trip in 1997. She, along with her kids, Sam and Grace stayed with my family for a month in the summer of 2004 when we were serving as missionaries there. She held babies, brought suitcases full of crafts and loved on the kids. Colleen had a heart for the children of Romania. I’d like to share something from two of the children that she knew and loved.

“I remember the summers in Romania, the crafts you were doing with us and how we used to play with your kids. While the tears are rolling down my face, I remember I’ve never seen you sad. You were always smiling, what a beautiful smile! I pray for your family to be strong and follow your example of loving Jesus. I will always remember you.” That Romanian child is now 26 years old, a university graduate, speaks three languages fluently, happily married and has a daughter, Sara.

“For me Colleen was a very good friend because she taught me to smile no matter if I’m sick or well in my life. I’ve learned to move on no matter what the hardships will be through life. Colleen loved so many children and devoted her body and soul to the children’s mission. The first time she came to Romania she was like a mama to me.This was shared by a 28 year old woman who was 13 and living at Ana’s House in Romania when she first met Colleen.

Colleen volunteered her time at the Boulder County Homeless Shelter handing out blankets and she was a volunteer at all of the different churches she has attended since I have known her. She was a lover of the outdoors, and enjoyed solo hikes in the area of Fern Canyon and was known to ascend Bear Peak, the highest peak in the area of the Flatirons. She then shared the beauty of some of those same trails with her students on field trips, moving at a pace to where a child could explore, imagine and learn. She took many full moon hikes that always included a time spent listening to her friend Earl play his flutes in the dark, star filled, moonlit sky. She learned to paddleboard and enjoyed doing that on Union Reservoir and didn’t let dropping her phone to the depths of the reservoir diminish her passion for SUPing. I believe she loved english lavender.

She was an avid reader of books and she often shared those books with me; philosophical books, spiritual books, books that explored the amazing extraordinary walk with Christ. Colleen was one of the most spiritual people that I have known.

When she was living alone a group of us would regularly attend church together, then gather back at her cottage for a meal, filling the space with stories and laughter and memories, both old ones that we all cherished and new ones that we were creating; just living in the moment, each of us pausing in our lives to love each other.

She was there in a moment of tragedy six springs ago, at the core of a small group of us that had to bury a friend that died much too early. I’m grateful that our friend DJ was there to welcome her and give her a first tour of heaven.

She loved to ask questions and learn new things. A few years ago she sat at my kitchen table late into the evening listening to a Romanian describe Apiology, the study of bees. We all laughed and laughed as the study of the sex life of bees was described in two different languages, Colleen asking questions about the lives of these amazing winged insects. “Wait, hold on a minute!” she would exclaim, wanting further clarification on a scientific point.

Colleen was the mother to two beautiful children, Grace and Sam. I’ve had the privilege to watch these two grow from toddlers to teens to amazing young adults. She was tremendously proud of both of you, of who you are and what you are becoming as adults. I know many people have told both of you this over the last days, weeks and months, but I need to tell you as well. Your mother was an amazingly courageous, faithful woman full of strength and resolve. She loved you both very, very dearly.

Colleen had a great love in her life and whom she desired to know at a deeper level every day that she lived. She would go away to spend time with this love at personal solitary retreats in the mountains of Colorado. Over the years I saw a transformed Colleen who sought to understand God’s heart and know Jesus ever so intimately. I can not stand here today and not tell you about Colleen’s faith, her love of Jesus Christ. If I didn’t speak to this I truly believe she would make her presence known in this room and say “Matthew, how dare you not speak of my faith today.”

David, of the Bible, was described as a man after God’s own heart. I did a little looking around online and found something from Ron Edmondson. He uses the following words to describe the heart of David as seen in David’s own writings.

  • Humble
  • Reverent
  • Respectful
  • Trusting
  • Loving
  • Devoted
  • Recognition
  • Faithful
  • Obedient
  • Repentant

Each one of those words, I believe, describes Colleen’s heart for God as well. I’d like to share something from Colleen that is directly from her blog that she wrote as she moved through the process of cancer and reconciled that with her faith.

“This has been a journey that hasn’t tested my faith, it’s allowed my faith to lead me, encourage me, and offer me peace in the chaos that comes with this new normal. Oh, I can lose my shit every so often, but I have a place to return to once I blow my nose and wipe the tears. It’s a place of peace and comfort and relationship. I cannot explain how my science-loving brain and Jesus-loving heart work together, but I feel blessed, and it has nothing to do with answered prayers, miracles, or prosperity. I don’t worship God the magician, I have this unexpected relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that I inexplicably chose one night when I was 7 and sad but praying in a way no one had taught me to do- just crying and conversing as if he were my dad. I am “at home” with Him every day and experience love, peace, and comfort. I’m good with that.”

Toward the end of her life Colleen found another love. She told me about this man she had met and their second time together at some gathering or little party. They were sitting on a curb in the street chatting and they had wonderful conversation, and for Colleen, I know this was of utmost importance, for she loved to have deep conversations about all things regarding the world and life. Colleen met Tom Brown, her Prince Charming, and she was madly in love with him. Tom, while your time was cruelly cut short with Colleen, you gave her the happiest of days, and filled her heart with love and joy. She lived happily ever after and she worried more about you than she did herself in the last eight months of her life.

In closing I have something to share with all of you that are grieving this loss of Colleen and the abruptness with which her life was cut short. I know that many people have regrets that they could not see Colleen toward her end days.

I have had the tremendous privilege to have been her massage therapist for 16 years. We’ve travelled internationally together and she had been a rock for me during some very difficult times of my life. When it became clear that her time on earth was short, I had so many questions for her.

“Are you excited to meet Jesus?” “Are you scared, frightened or anxious?” “Do you feel a sense of freedom or relief that you’re leaving this state of affairs of our current world?” These were just a few of the questions that I had for her.

But each time that we met I sensed in my gut that Colleen needed space, that she did not need to give me answers to my questions. And again in the final days of her life, I so desperately wanted to know what it was that she wanted me to convey to each of you as we come together to celebrate her life. On the night that she passed, I truly felt that she was teaching me that I only had to rely on my own faith, to speak about who she was, what she loved and how she lived.

Colleen was a teacher, at heart. She taught children face to face and as adults we have so much to learn from her. As you struggle through your grief, because, let’s face it, we are all struggling with this passing of this wonderful woman. I beckon you to look deep into your own heart, much like Colleen did as she sought out her heart, and ask just what exactly has she taught you through the relationship that she had with each and every single person sitting here today. If you aren’t learning something from Colleen, you’re not doing justice to the life that she lived.

Colleen’s life was cut dreadfully short, but she did not, under any circumstances, live her life in vain. She lived her life fully and to the fullest. She shared with me last fall about a positive attitude. She said to me, “It’s not about having a positive attitude, it’s about living positively.”

Two days before she passed Colleen sent me a text.

Colleen: I have another night at the hospital…

Me: Want any company or are you beat?

Colleen: I’m fine

Me: Okay, love you!

Colleen: ❤️U2

And I think she wants each of you to know that too.

Meeting my Mistress

John Muir said “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

It is too easy to not take advantage of beautiful spaces that lie close to where I dwell. Quite often I am easily distracted and miss an opportunity to move toward an adventure. Or I may desire a larger adventure, overlooking something shorter that might offer simple beauty. If pressed for time, I’ll opt for a run instead of a stroll, catching bigger vistas and not seeing minute effects of nature’s brilliance.

This week, despite ten degree temperatures, I took advantage of an open morning to go for a short hike. The trail was snowy yet fairly packed since the previous day’s snowfall. I was looking for interesting items to capture in order to have “keepsakes” of the time afield. I may walk for an hour but I can spend far more time creating stories from images. Especially during this time of year, when the journeys might be much shorter, it provides fuel for my desire to be able to make longer trips or multi-day extended trips. Then, it may become harder to reflect on the adventures, because time is spent cleaning gear, working and getting ready for another adventure.

I enjoy reflecting on the outdoors and how it speaks to me, to my soul. I am moved by how I will feel differently about life after even a short while on a trail compared to the excess energy that may have been building up before I left. Stress can, at times, dissipate, and I may even forget about what might have annoyed me earlier.

Nature has tremendous staying power. Trees, plants, mountains, butterflies, hummingbirds, insects will never feel artificial heat provided by a furnace. They endure a harsh winter or perhaps migrate to a warmer clime. As a human I come to them on their terms, in their territory, to gather what I may from them. Largely, leaving no trace, or intending to do so, being a good guest of their beautiful dwellings.

Upon returning home, or to work, I reflect back upon the experience, attempting to capture a feeling that I had. I often draw that feeling from a photograph, memory of the trip or even a conversation with another guest that I might meet on the trail. The memory becomes a daydream as it morphs into a future trip. I quite literally will feel my heart skip a beat, as I think back to a treasured journey or plan ahead for another escapade. Nature becomes my mistress, yet one I happily share with my partner, my family and my friends.

Her impact on my soul is so great that it brings forth words from which I scratch out in my journal, or assembling into a work for others to see, I gather the thoughts together as an essay on virtual paper. I think so much of her that I’ll pore back over my words to make certain I did her no discredit; a love story and profession of impact that she has had on my heart.

Nature beckons for all who yearn to meet her on her terms; a sunny day, in the face of a biting wind, caught in the power of her storm as lightning creates the incredible sense of insignificance in the midst of a strike. If you’ve not found the time recently to go visit nature, I suggest that you do so. She is waiting for you, she is a mistress that we all desperately need.

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.

A Yoga Story

I’m up early every weekday. On Fridays, I hit a regular yoga class with other early yoga birds that begins at 5:45. Today, as I move about on my mat and check in with hips, knees and ankles, it feels especially warm and humid in the room. I gave up trying to figure out the degrees of heat and percentage of humidity for each type of yoga class. “Just show up and embrace what happens” is the mantra I try to maintain. Yet, I decide to take a drink and go fill my water bottle to the rim.

As we venture into the sixty minute class, it becomes a journey of valleys and peaks due to my internal thermostat wanting to go haywire. I set an intention to pick which postures I will fully embrace and then recover, finding savasana in the midst of another posture. For me, I need to be able to draw upon savasana at any moment, during any aspect of my life, capturing a few seconds may suffice to get a grasp on a situation.

Opting out of going “full on” represents some growth in my practice as I choose not to feel compelled to dive into each posture, risking poor form and potential injury. I suppose that some years of practice and hundreds of classes has taught me where “not to go”.

I check in with my breathing, attempting to gain some control. My focus gently on the mirrors in front of me, I gain a peripheral perspective of the other students around me, this group of dedicated yogis that I see on a weekly basis, some of which I know by name, others I recognize by sight while some may be here for their inaugural session. I sense grace in movement transpiring around me. Flying squirrels, handstands and figure 4’s surround me as I stand in a passive posture, absorbing the grandeur of a class coming together in the practice of yoga.

In my early days of practicing, well over a decade ago, I would fall into the trap of being self-conscious and ultimately distracted by others around me. I struggled with my practice and my lack of strength. I marveled at the more experienced practitioners. I learned to focus through the chaos in my mind. My focal point became my “hara”, the energetic spot in the vicinity of the navel. I would look in the mirror and hone in on that spot like a laser. It worked and was effective, allowing me to be unaffected by those around me in the room. However, as time passed, I had a revelation that I could not look myself in the eye while facing the mirror. Meeting my eyes, I would begin to teeter, losing focus. I felt this had more to do with my emotional self than my physical self. This…was beginning to feel like deeper exploration of self.

In time, working from standing bow, I discovered the courage to truly kick into my hand, lengthen through my outstretched arm, arc my back through the spine, roll my shoulder open and allow the anterior aspect of my spine to open, looking forward and over my head past those critical eyes envisioning my foot coming from behind my head toward the ceiling.

I embraced the vulnerability and risked my emotional self to explore a new dimension. Standing on my left leg, at times I feel the harmonious length through my hamstring and the yoga magic happens, for a few seconds, once in a very great while, I experience the yoga high.

Today, back in this room as I practice, I am overheating and a little dizzy. I recognize that if I move into my standing bow, tipping forward like a teapot, I may very well become a falling, fainting spectacle. Wisely, I opt out of the posture, again admiring my classmates without judgement, finding such admiration for these early morning yogis. I’m honored to share this space with them, to be here, with this group of people, connected in a quiet, silent energy.

By conserving my resources I discover I can challenge myself in other postures. The class collectively moves into a prayer twist, we’ll be here for a few seconds, allowing for a little “play time”. I move beyond the posture into familiar side crow, and for the first time I extend a leg, taking a leap of faith, I gently counterbalance the extended leg by shifting my weight forward, imagining my ten fingertips creating impressions in my mat, which is now my only point of contact to Mother Earth and I feel an intricate point of balance. I have now moved toward a scissor side crow.

At home I re-created the movement.

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Here in this room, with 52 years of experience moving through space as a human, my brain sends an impulse through efferent (motor) neurons to my spinal cord, diverting off to the sciatic nerve and then to a smaller nerve to fire the Gluteus Medius muscle which abducts my hip and pulls it off my bottom leg. Simultaneously, signals transmit via the femoral nerve to the Rectus Femoris, one of the four quadriceps muscles, so that my knee will extend and my leg will straighten. My body has done something new, it has never before been in this position! I am elated to have moved into a new space in my body this morning. ♦

The class moves toward its end. I have experienced valleys and seen the mountain top this morning. I am wrung out, perspiring profusely even after showering. My whole body has flushed this morning; emotionally, spiritually, physically.

I reflect that the greatest gift of the morning was when I gave myself permission to pause at standing bow, gaze from the mountain top and absorb the soft view of my classmates in their amazing practice. From this, I gathered strength for the day. Namaste.

♦ Physiological references derived from the text Trail Guide to Movement – Building the Body in Motion by Andrew Biel

R2R2R – Endeavor in the Grand Canyon – Part two

This is Part Two of R2R2R – For Part One click here!

Monday morning, six days from the R2R2R run date my legs felt sorer than I had hoped they would. Not surprising, but not confidence inspiring either. My hope after a 10 miler and 8 miler over the weekend was that it would “shock my system” and serve as a wake-up call that there was still some work to be done yet this year.

With only a short run scheduled Wednesday I went about getting my mental game together. I bought a NatGeo Trails Illustrated map of the Canyon so I could get a visual overview of the trails. I double checked information from the very helpful Facebook group Grand Canyon R2R2R Run! for the latest water information from people that had run the route over the previous weekend. The weather forecast looked to be ideal.

I spent some time in a favorite activity which is my best indicator of current level of focus; putting arrows into a paper target with my Samick Sage recurve bow. I felt that the mental preparation would be critical toward success. Mahting and I had already discussed that negative talk would not be allowed during the run; get busy and get focused.  I felt that from a safety standpoint this was vitally important.

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North Rim and trail

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Good groups indicate a focused mind

Mahting and his wife, and my family and myself all flew out of Denver for Phoenix at 7:00am Saturday morning. We drove a rental in a leisurely fashion to the South Rim and arrived just at sunset. After looking down into the canyon we checked into our respective abodes and met for dinner at Bright Angel Lodge.

Following dinner as we walked out of the lodge we saw two women hobbling and listing a bit. “Have you just run R2R2R?”

“Yes”, came the reply, and then a comment that it was harder than they thought it would be. We proffered congratulations, and this confirmed much of what I’d read from completers of the effort. As I walked toward my room I was slightly envious that they were done.

I gathered my things in my pack and laid everything out on the floor. Scheduled departure from South Kaibab trailhead was 0400. Mahting would pick me up at 0345 and his wife would drop us at SK.

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It’s all stuffed and ready to go.

I didn’t sleep very well after initially crashing. The little monkeys in my head had me double checking my list and day ahead. I really wanted to be 10 miles into the thing and started.

Up at 0305 for two cups of coffee, other necessary morning duties and at 0400 precisely we had our photo taken at the South Kaibab trailhead. A slight hitch came as Mahting realized he left his watch back at the hotel. We started Strava apps on our phones but packed them away. Off we walked and soon began bobbing down the trail under a clear, starry, crescent moonlit sky.

The strategy was ultra conservative on the initial descent for safety sake and preserving our quads from the stressful eccentric contractions that result in tearing up muscle fibers. We stopped a few times to look at the awesome vastness of the sky from below the rim. It was almost a blessing not seeing the grandeur of the canyon and task that lie ahead of us. At this point, little step by step chunks seemed enough for us.

Below the cutoff to Tonto Trail we spied a light but had no idea where it was coming from. A few minutes later I said, “Hey, there’s a bunch of lights down there”.

Mahting chuckled and replied, “Yeah, there are two lights. When all you see is black for a period of time I guess two seems like a bunch.”

We quickly arrived at the Black Bridge and crossed the Colorado River in the dark. Soon thereafter we encountered a hiker looking out toward the river. In short order we were coming into Phantom Ranch and there was pre-dawn activity of campers walking back to Bright Angel Campground and what seemed like Phantom Ranch employees beginning their day. We had to ask where the water was and did a lap around the canteen until we found it. Dawn was threatening but we still needed headlamps as we began to knock out the 14 miles to the North Rim.

For the next seven miles, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the trail was. While it was rising in elevation it was completely runnable and I felt every mile we could run was a mile we didn’t need to powerhike. Four hours and 14 miles in we stopped at the Ribbon Falls area to mix some Tailwind in our bottles and double check the map. I commented that after we covered our next 14 miles, we would be at this exact spot. I’m not sure if that was daunting or encouraging.

By the time we came to Manzanita we had pulled out our trekking poles to get over the little “humps” and then swoop on the downhills until we hit a little uphill again. We were able to chat with some backpackers at this water stop who had knowledge of the trail from the north rim. We were just over five miles from the north rim trailhead and one said it was a bit of a grind until we got to Supai tunnel. We loaded up on water hoping not to need it again until we came back to this spot in just over 10 miles.

We began the chug away from Manzanita and Mahting was easily powering away from me on the uphill sections. A few miles before I had begun to feel a little less than stellar. Part of the problem was lower abdominal pain. My lower abs are my weakness and I felt I had given a little back during the two week layoff, even with doing some plank work and dolphin yoga poses during my period of inactivity. Additionally, I ate a little bit too much on the travel day Saturday so there was a little bit stress from that. But we pushed along, shuffling and jogging along on the occasional flat sections of trail. It became evident that the push to the north rim trailhead would be a grind.

We took a quick break at Supai tunnel and the last 1.7 miles to the top was quite nice. We began seeing people both dayhiking and backpacking down from the rim and this was a nice spirit lifter for both of us. We topped out at exactly 7 hours into the day at 11:00am. We didn’t dally long as the gnats were horrendous and we had plenty of water to make it back to Manzanita. The weather was overcast and the temps were perfect. We could not have asked for a better day.

As we now ran back toward the canyon bottom I hit my high point of the day. At 24 miles everything felt good from foot to head. The trail was good, the views were awesome and barring emergency we were going to finish. How else would we get back to the south rim?

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We filled water again at Manzanita and made off for Phantom Ranch nine miles away. Through here Mahting’s knee began to give him some fits, so I set pace and we cruised along. We passed by Ribbon Falls again and at this point the biggest challenge was the water bars. At points they seem like they are two feet off the trail and I continually had to assess whether I stepped over them or bounced off the top of them. Again and again, either way I wanted to get over them without tripping. At one point I commented that I didn’t feel it was necessary to parkour in order to get over the highest water bars, but after 30ish miles it sure felt like I was doing that.

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Amazingly, it’s not all steep on North Kaibab, at times it levels out nicely for a change in terrain.

Somewhere just before Phantom Ranch I made a comment that I hoped would not bite me in the ass. I told my running pal that after ten hours I felt I could make an assessment on R2R2R. The run was not turning out to be as difficult as I had imagined it would be. Now, lest anyone reading this thinks “Hey, sweet, I can easily do this crazy thang!” let me explain. Our weather was perfecto. The trails were clear of any potential winter detritus. The sun never shone brightly, keeping temperatures in the 60’s or maybe low 70’s for highs midday in the canyon. I can’t remember there being any significant wind. There were enough people on the trails to keep our spirits high but not so many that we felt it impeded our pace. Finally, we went super conservative on pace. We never stopped for long, but we also never ran too fast. Granted, we didn’t get full appreciation for the sights of the canyon because we were fairly focused on good foot touches all day long and the sun didn’t present us with the brilliant colors off the rocks because of the cloudy conditions.

I had estimated that we’d make Phantom Ranch at 2:30 and when we came in I grabbed my phone and it was right on the nose! Sweet! We grabbed some candy bars, pretzels, lemonade and settled into a nice snack time at a picnic table. With nine miles to head out of the canyon via Bright Angel we even laid back on the picnic benches to rest our eyes. We spent 30 minutes there and then headed up toward the south rim.

As we made way to depart, another runner that we’d seen earlier heading to the north rim caught and passed us. We met him again shortly where he was filling water at a spigot below Bright Angel Campground. He had spent the whole day alone and asked if he could join us. Sure thing! The three of us journeyed on and took some photos crossing the silver bridge, with the turbulent green waters of the Colorado river coursing underneath our feet.

The first few miles were runnable here and we encountered a couple just off the trail. They seemed to be hiking, but the gentleman was laid out and did not look real well. Upon inquiring if they were okay, she said they were just going to the campground and that they would be fine. But when our third amigo, Mark, passed by them just after us, she said they were heading to Indian Garden, miles further and up! That sort of puzzled us and I’ve thought often about them, hoping they got on okay.

It brought up an interesting feeling for me. With 36 miles under foot at that point I was feeling fine, yet I’d been out there for a very long time already. It’s a little harder processing situations after that much time afoot. The reality of the canyon is that you accept quite the responsibility for yourself when you head down. If she had said, “Hey, we really need some help here.” I certainly would have stopped. But I don’t think I was in the state of mind to make an honest assessment of how they really were.

We had a DeLorme InReach for shooting off messages to our wives so they would know we were doing well and not in trouble. It also gave them coordinates with each message so they could see exactly where we were at. Had it been necessary we could have sent an SOS, heaven forbid. But since the run I’ve thought about people that climb Everest and pass by climbers that may literally be dying before their eyes. I cannot fathom what that must be like. I was grateful for having an emergency beacon/device with us, for I rarely head out without it anymore.

The remainder of the trek was perhaps a little anticlimactic. Put one foot in front of another. Keep moving. Keep eating. Keep drinking. We didn’t catch many more folks as most of the day trippers were out of the canyon. A mile from the top we donned the lights to finish in the dark, hitting the top 14 hours and 44 minutes after we started.

Mahting wondered whether we would really come back out to eat if we headed for showers at our respective lodging. Wisely, we opted to head right into Bright Angel Lodge for dinner with our wives. It was a wonderful way to end the day.

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Mahting, left, thought he looked a little angry in this photo and that I just looked tired. Fact is, we were pretty glad to be done.

Come Monday I moved more gingerly and slowly than I ever have in my life, requesting help to get down off the curb at one point in the day! But it was all muscle damage. Neither of us suffered blisters and while Mahting had a tweaky knee and foot we were pretty well off considering what we’d done.

Some notes for those either doing this for the first time or even a 2nd time.

  • In my opinion it is wise to calculate and know how many calories per hour you will need and stick to a plan on fueling and drinking.
  • In the week before, begin making a concerted effort to hydrate the body. Especially if you are flying into the area from out of state.
  • Tailwind worked really well for Mahting and me. He used three PB&J’s in addition to Tailwind and I used primarily gels with the Tailwind plus some pretzels for solid food.
  • Pick a general pacing plan but don’t stress if it goes long on the outward leg. Taking into account it was two miles longer and we stopped for 30 minutes at Phantom Ranch we did negative splits coming back.
  • Not having GPS or watches on our wrists was very freeing. We moved by feel and trusted our bodies. It worked out great.
  • Strongly consider taking along either a Spot or InReach device. It provides tremendous peace of mind and it’s nice to be able to shoot off a pre-loaded text indicating to loved ones, friends or support that you are doing fine, maybe behind schedule but still fine or send a real time message if you are having problems or issues.
  • The Facebook group has all the information needed to do this and was an invaluable resource but was not overwhelming if you use the search function on the group page to find out the answers to the questions you might have!
  • Respect the canyon, prepare for it to be harder than anticipated but hope for it to be better than that. Be positive and know if will involve discomfort and some suffering. I felt, that given some unknowns around my downtime just before the run that I could always just hike out with my headlamp given that I do a lot of backpacking and hiking.

R2R2R – Endeavor in the Grand Canyon

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Really, you want to run down into that?

The sensation is intense, like needles being plunged in and out of nerve endings in the area of my left hamstring. I try to breathe through the burning, knowing this is not the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I attempt to relax my grip so as to become one with the discomfort.

The nurse practitioner gently tugs the gauze packing out of my leg and says “This isn’t getting better. I’m going to ask your doctor what she thinks”.

It’s now Tuesday and I’m in the sixth day of a serious staph infection. I’d been to the ER on Sunday and even after numerous antibiotics and a now open 3.5 centimeter wound in my leg where they dug out pus and infection, an area from the back of my knee moving toward my hip is red, inflamed, taut and warm to the touch. A culture has indicated staph infection resulting in cellulitis. I have no idea how I picked this up, but it’s putting a serious kink in my activity level.

I’m 20 days away from running down into the Grand Canyon, up the other side to the north rim and a return trip to the south rim. It’s a trail run (not a race) that is known as Rim to Rim to Rim, or R2R2R. The route is 44.2 miles long with over 10,000 feet of elevation loss AND gain. Trail runners complete it as a sort of “rite of passage”.

I think I first heard about this when a friend of mine, many years younger, ran it for the first time in 2015. He then did it a second time in 2016. When I read about his account it was the first year that I had taken up running and backpacking. I believe I secretly thought to myself, “That is pretty darn impressive.” I probably googled around on the subject and quickly discovered that this was not something for the faint of heart.

Sometime in 2016 a client shared with me how she had also done R2R2R. I was helping her through an injury as she was preparing for another trail marathon up and down Pikes Peak. I was duly impressed that she, too, had conquered the Grand Canyon. Again, I investigated online about this demonic run, and again, realized that this was currently far beyond my physical capabilities. In 2016 I had done my 3rd and 4th trail half marathons, but less than ⅓ of the distance that would be required to complete the Grand Canyon run.

However, sometime last year I think I first voiced my secret desire to try and do this. I felt that the old biological clock was ticking and I needed to do it sooner rather than later. (I later found this not to be true, at least for me) I confided in my good friend and running partner, Mahting, but pretty much left it at that.

With a hole in the back of my leg vast enough to stick the entirety of my thumb into, it is necessary to have gauze stuffed into the wound on a daily basis. It’s called a wound, like I’ve been shot, or I have diabetes and I now need wound care. Gratefully, a good friend, who is a physician’s assistant has acquiesced in helping with the daily chore. Actually, she didn’t really acquiesce because when I asked for her help she replied, “Oh, you don’t need to twist my arm, I love pus!”. This was a statement that I found to be true of most nuts in the medical community. As a different medical professional shared with me, “We feel like we’re doing real good when we can take pus and infection out of a wound, because it happens right before our eyes.”

I’m now in my home as my friend changes the packing and my wife observes, somewhat aghast, hence the reason to recruit the friend to do such dirty work. “How soon before I can run, exercise, sweat, etc?” I ask.

“Matt”, she patiently replies, “I can see your hamstring, that is how deep the wound is. I don’t think you should be doing any running at this point.”

I begin to fully comprehend the severity of what has been going on with this infection and my leg. I’m fine with possibly not doing the Grand Canyon run and to be quite honest, maybe even a little relieved. I’m very grateful at this point for the medical community, their knowledge and expertise and the fact that if I lived in a different country, this could have been quite, quite serious. I begin to find peace in the fact that the run may not happen. But I decide that I won’t out and out cancel the trip. My whole family and Mahting and his wife are going as well. At the very least it will be a family vacation for four days.

One of the morose attractions of attempting R2R2R is the fact that people die in the Grand Canyon; a lot. Once dumping into the “Big Ditch” and beginning to cross to the other side there is no option of calling ones significant other and asking to be picked up. If there is an emergency it involves a Search and Rescue team and substantial financial resources in order for a person to be pulled out of the canyon. I read at an interpretive sign on the south rim that there are 250 rescues a year in the Grand Canyon. Upon investigation I find that there are rather interesting maps such as this one.

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You can find out gory details around deaths in the canyon!

770 people have died in the Grand Canyon since John Wesley Powell and his crew made the first river exploration in 1869. On average 12 people die in the canyon each year by suicide, accidental falls, exposure, drowning, aviation accidents, rockfall and even mules falling on people. This ain’t no walk in the park folks.

I shared with a cycling and running friend earlier this year that Mahting and I were going to attempt to do this challenge. “You’re crazy! You’re going to hate the training involved, you’re going to hate the preparation and you’re going to hate actually doing it.” Gee, what a buzzkill.

In reality I enjoyed the training all summer and even the preparatory 40 mile Grand Traverse race that I had done over Labor Day weekend. But truth be told, I was running on fumes in preparing for this endeavor. I had archery hunted ten days in the month of September in weather that at times was snowy, foggy, rainy and cold. While I had succeeded in filling the freezer full of venison for our family, I had lost about five pounds over the course of the month. I was a little mentally burned out from a long year of running, hiking, camping, etc. I believe now that my body and immune system was effectively wrung out; creating a prime situation for a crazy bug to nab me.

I knew that I had all the base mileage I needed for the GC run, but I felt my remaining training was best invested in runs involving heavy elevation gains and losses. So I spent my time on the trails around Boulder, finding 5 mile loops that afforded me at least a thousand feet of vertical per lap. My last long run was to be five loops around Mt. Sanitas in Boulder. It would be about 27 miles with over 6800’ of elevation gain and loss. What typically has worked for me in past preparation for long endurance events has been topping out my training at 70% of the distance required. With the running, I try and match that number for the elevation as well. It worked fine for the Grand Traverse, so I was comfortable with the R2R2R preparation. And it was during the time after the Grand Traverse that this whole ultrarunning thing became much less mysterious and scary to me. At a point in the summer I had moved beyond the distance of 18 miles in my runs which had been a bit of a hurdle. My body had become accustomed to the steady tap of many hour runs and miles beyond 20 in a single shot. The body is amazing. And I’ve been fortunate to have a body that has always adapted well to hard work and long hours. I’ve also become wise enough in how my body works that at 52 I have much more confidence in my ability than I did 30 years ago. But the staph infection put its grip on me two days before that last long run which in fact would never materialize. I would not have the mental peace of mind that I had put in the proper physical preparation for the R2R2R.

However, I was at peace as to whether it was necessary to accomplish the feat this calendar year. I decided that if it wasn’t meant to be on November 12th, I would just come back in the spring and do it. On October 25th Mahting and I exchanged some messages about my predicament. I assured him I was still on for the trip and going to be doing something in the canyon and I was sure to be rested!

After just over two weeks of no running or physical activity related to exercise the gash in my leg had healed enough I felt that I needed to do a few runs to see what transpired. Eight days out from our run date in the canyon I drove to Boulder to do a few laps on Sanitas. With the music motivating me on the drive up I decided that this was going to happen. I couldn’t go into this with any doubts about completing the run. I just had to decide to do it. And at that point there was no turning back mentally. I was all in.

For part 2 of this story, you can jump right to it by clicking here.

Backcountry Archery Hunt – Day 1 Scout

 

I uncharacteristically took my time getting ready to head off to set up camp for a short archery deer hunt on Friday morning. Awakening at my usual time of 4:30, I did my journaling, walked the dogs with my wife, Pam, and then made myself breakfast. Just before 7:00 I was on the road to the Roosevelt National Forest.

As I pulled into the huge parking lot my Subaru Forester was the only vehicle. I took advantage of the toilet, strapped my Mathews Switchback bow to my backpack and hit the trail. I had supplies for three nights, but for some reason I wasn’t itching to hunt like I typically am. The season started tomorrow morning.

Walking the two and a half miles back to where I would set up camp I took in the scenery with two different views of the big mountain where the elk like to play. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t more excited for the hunt. I was unsuccessful in drawing an elk tag for the second year in a row for this area. Since I am running a 40 mile mountain trail race in one week I didn’t want to pack deep in to the area where I’ll hunt elk (9 miles one way) so I am hunting deer on this trip. There are far more elk high in this area ranging from 9500’ in elevation to 11,500’. The last two years I’ve hunted deer lower, but it is warm there and tends to have more people milling about in the areas. This would hopefully be quieter and a little more remote.

After an hour I arrived at the area I had surveyed on the map for decent camping. I didn’t have water at my site but a five minute walk farther down the trail gave me access to fresh water. I went about pitching my tent and found the spot ideal. I was far enough off the trail that no hikers would notice my camp, but if you knew where to look you could see it from the trail. While in timber, 99% of hikers never look more than a few feet in front of them, so I was confident my biggest concern would be errant bears in the area. Even though I was seven miles as the crow flies from where this incident happened earlier this year and the culprit had been dispatched of.

After filtering enough water for this day and the next morning I went back and took a few shots with my bow at a stump to make sure nothing got knocked out of whack on the hike in. I found a suitable dried out stump that would stop my designated practice broadhead but not damage it. I was walking about eating some Fritos Scoops when I set up the stump. Needing a small aiming point I wedged a Scoop into the stump and walked about 25 yards away. As I surveyed the target, a camp robber came flying onto the stump. The Clark’s Nutcracker proceeded to steal my Frito and fly away! I had to laugh out loud at how these birds will find a camp within minutes knowing that people mean easy food. They are noisy birds and make a regular racket in the forest. Fortunately, I brought along a two inch orange dot for this very purpose. After shooting a bit, my long shot at 35 yards landed just a few inches to the right.IMG_4504

By now it was mid morning and I gathered my pack, some food and other items to hike to where I’d be hunting for a little scouting. I was forced to make my camp outside of a specific perimeter which meant my area for the morning hunt would be a 2 1/2 to 3 mile hike from where I slept. I wanted to do a dry run and check the area again. After an hour’s walk I was at treeline and sitting in a spot where I had seen three mule deer bucks a week ago, one a very nice 4×4 and quite large. But it was now midday and nothing was about that I could see. Not a worry, because tomorrow was when I wanted to see game.  I headed back toward my camp but this time headed over the mountain and bushwhacked versus the road I had come up on.

That is what separates this kind of trip from a trail backpacking trip. While backpacking, the trail is not always easy but it is always a trail. Scouting to hunt and hunting involve miles across backcountry; off trail and in rough country. Areas can be steep, so steep you can reach out and touch the mountain in front of you. Deadfall typically is everywhere and makes it difficult to walk a straight line. On this trip, my clothes were constantly sticky with sap from limber pines and got on everything. Once above tree line, steps have to be chosen carefully so rocks don’t dislodge and trap a leg or worse. Backpacking is tiring, but predictable. Backcountry hunting is hard work and exhausting and mentally draining at times. But the physical nature is much more intense than trail backpacking; at least in my opinion.

I soon was in an area where I had written a post from a week ago. I sat for a while, now late afternoon, and after glassing an area that I knew contained elk, and hoping to also see deer, nothing seemed about. Hmmm…maybe everything moved to a different area. Large game animals move about in patterns and don’t always just stick to one area, hence the challenge of hunting them. It was approaching 5:30 and I decided to begin moving back to camp to make myself some dinner before dark.

I stood up, donned my pack and began to slowly walk. I hadn’t moved much when I heard animals. Only elk make so much noise. There was some gentle mewing which sounded like a calf or cow. I turned my attention down the mountain where it seemed like the elk were at. Then I heard what sounded like antlers banging into branches and clacking about. I was positioned in a very small opening with none of the Limber Pines or Englemann Spruce right by me. I caught movement to my right and saw antlers flash and elk moving toward me. I quickly crouched down to make myself invisible or at least as small as possible! Pulling my camera out I hoped to capture the unfolding scene. The elk were moving and feeding at the same time, heads down, intent on ingesting calories. One bull was on his way to where he would cross right in front of me. He finally cleared a tree where he saw me and stopped on a dime. Guess what? I was not invisible! Thus began the staredown as I pressed the shutter on my camera. I was operating on the fly, not being able to make adjustments, just trying to get as many shots of him as possible. He had five points on his right beam and four on his left, the top point on that side not splitting like the right did and he qualified as a “raghorn”.

As we had our little staredown another bull was on a path where he would walk right into me. But he, too, saw things were not as they should be on this stroll to their feeding

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Bull #2 – I’m not sure if the camera had trouble focusing or my hands were shaking too much!

ground. He now was directly off to my right and I gently turned the camera toward him to snap off some shots.

Meanwhile three more bulls were milling about behind bull #1, two were small raghorns and another was still in the velvet with small spikes that split up high and he was probably a one and a half year old, mabye two and a half.

After a few minutes they decided I was out of the ordinary enough to warrant heading back to where they came from. Bull #2 actually wheeled a bit and was more spooked than bull #1. Likely, he had caught my scent.

After they left I heard two barks and decided the exciting event of the last few minutes was now just a memory. I sort of sat there, gathered myself and allowed my adrenaline to settle back down. Again I heard some gentle mewing and knocking of antlers below me. I slowly proceeded ahead and was able to look down into a large park, about 400 yards long running up the mountain in an east/west fashion. Down below were the five elk, they had not fled the area but merely circled lower to get to their feeding ground. I now recognized the different racks and viewed them through the binoculars. As I checked them out, more bulls now came into view. One had an either broken or misformed right main branch, another seemed to be a nicer 5×5 and a two more small bulls. This group of four headed into a slightly different area. So near as I could tell I had nine bulls within a few hundred yards of me. I was literally surrounded by elk, which is an incredible experience in the wild. It is one thing to see the elk bugle at Rocky Mountain National Park but to have a 15-20 yard encounter with a bull elk is someting different altogether. It is a treat, an experience to treasure, and something that doesn’t happen when you walk on designated hiking trails. Below is a slideshow of Bull #1.

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With the wind blowing up the mountain I was happy the elk were not disturbed. I would not be hunting them tomorrow but somebody might be (however, I doubted this) and I felt it prudent to sneak out of there without them getting bumped out of the area.

While finishing up watching them (it is difficult to break away from such magnificence!) I heard a few snorts. My mind was so intent on the elk that I didn’t weigh its significance. While elk will bellow, bugle, mew, bark and are very vocal, they do not snort. Deer snort. As I looked up I saw a small mule deer buck bounding back across the large meadow toward the dark timber. I am sure he did not see or hear me, but he may have been bothered by all of the bulls. I watched as he bounded lightly across the grassy meadow in the evening light. So…this would be an okay area for deer as well. However, I was already set on spending the morning up higher.

I made my way straight down the mountain, mentally making a note how much easier it is to drop down in a line 856 vertical feet in the distance of six tenths of a mile. Hiking back up that way is much, much slower, especially off trail!

I arrived in camp at dusk, having just enough light to heat water for dinner. I donned my headlamp to go filter water. This is my least favorite part of the backcountry hunting solo experience; doing all the camp chores in the dark. The best hunting is at first and last light, often meaning 16 hours away from camp if one is covering ground looking for game. Naps help but I never am able to sleep for more than 20 minutes during the day. This is where having a buddy along would be a lot of fun. Instead, I crawled in my tent and never even opened my book on my phone. I shot a satellite text to Pam that I was safe for the night and made sure the alarm was set for 4:00am. It was before 9:00 as I fell asleep after an adventurous first day.