Saturday, June 24, 2017

Going West as Young Men!

Tonight I'm sitting on an old wooden porch in the Peaceful Valley, and it needs a new paint job. Listening to the river raging below, still surging over its banks from snowmelt, I take a moment to really let this all settle in. We've been out west for about a week now, and I finally feel, that for the first time since our adventures along the Savage River, that things are truly going well.

Realistically, some of this relates to the weather. Ok, so we became the rain for a long time. We let it settle in. We even got pretty good at staying warm, dry and comfortable. We even made it fun and funny. But it really began to ruin our backpacking plans in the Northeast. We needed to see some breaks between days of heavy rain, thundershowers, and occasional showers in order to get up on the summits of some high peaks. Overall, that just wasn't going to happen and we had to go west...

The drive is a heck of a long one, across a lot of very similar-looking farmland and flatland, much of which we have obviously completely ruined by de-foresting and/or plowing through the prairie. I couldn't help but to wonder what it was like before we pushed our way across and displaced the Native Americans. No use in lingering there, though.

The first night was mostly uneventful, and we stayed at a cheap hotel near South Bend, Indiana. I kept wondering if we were out of Pennsylvania yet, but actually we had left it hours before. (Just kidding.) There wasn't much other than the University of Notre Dame, a bunch of hotels, and a lot of restaurants serving what appeared to be same-looking dishes of "american faire." We opted for Thai food, which was a good choice, and hit the sack early. The following day we repeated the sun-up to sun-set driving pattern, ending up in Gothenburg, Nebraska. 

Gothenburg was actually a really interesting little town, even though there really wasn't much going on there. We ended up finding an amazing little restaurant run and staffed by just one proud Chinese owner/chef. She had American Breakfast, a few standard steak and chicken items for that kind of diner, and then a whole list of home made Chinese food. It was baller, to say the least. What a surprise... and her restaurant was really cool too, in that tiny little dome-like building. Quaint and humble doesn't always do the trick, but it sure made for a great meal this time around.

After dinner, we stopped at the original Pony Express Station, which had been moved from another nearby town along the Platte River and preserved on a site just outside of town...

We were basically following the route of the old Trans-Continental Railroad at this point, and Gothenburg was right along it. The views along the railway at sunset were pretty incredible, and while not anything like a mountain sunset, they really made a strong emotional impact. Its hard to describe... the photos do better at that than I ever could.

In the morning we were really excited because we would soon be in Colorado, and we would only have to drive for a few hours more. A quick stop for coffee and a bagel, and we were on our way... but not before stopping at the Sod House Museum... too bad it was closed ;)

As we approached Colorado, everything suddenly got very flat, and we knew we were about to cross the border. Excitement was growing!

Now we had some early morning plans set aside for our crossing into Colorado... we wanted to stop by an old railroad/prairie town that was experiencing a revival thanks to the Cannabis industry in order to grab a bite, stop at the first dispensary over the border, and enjoy the goods at a local haunt called "The Smoke Shack." I was excited to see a "small town Colorado" town in the prairie, as I've visited plenty of mountain towns in the past. I was also happy to spend some tourist $$ there to add to what was going on.

We got a little bit of some decent (although not great) Cannabis at this tourist trap of a Dispensary and took it across the street as recommended. The Smoke Shack ended up being a really cool old 50's-era inspired shack with lots of old memorabilia and an assortment of tables and chairs. It was attached to a cafe and an overpriced, quaint and certainly unique inn, most likely owned by the same family. Too bad we hadn't made better time to stay there on the way over, just for the experience. Signs in the Smoke Shack indicated strangers were welcome, but bums were not. Which one were we? 

There was a car show going on in town, and we observed from the smoke shack as the scene unfolded. Music was playing in the streets. It was hot and dusty. There were locals and younger transplants, but not that many people. One obviously semi-local and conservative man in western garb walked past the entrance to the shack and looked in, watching us enjoying our morning. He gave us the most obvious look of disapproval and a good shake of the head. That made me laugh uncontrollably, and all I could do was wave and smile back in amusement.

 The atmosphere was very much what I had expected, and I was loving every moment of it. We spent some time relaxing, checking out a few cars, and eating at the Cafe. There wasn't much more in town to see, so after a while we got back on the road and headed towards Denver.

It was hard to believe this was the same Colorado I had visited a couple of times previously, as the Eastern portion of the state is completely different than the Western portion. There are no tall mountains, and its mostly just flat prairie... cow country or desolate, dry, albeit beautiful land.

Soon, however, the mountains appeared. We booked a room at a posh new hotel in downtown Denver that had some crazy deals for rooms facing construction work... but we didn't care... we had a balcony, a bit of a view and construction didn't end up happening until we were awake the next morning anyway.

We took some time to walk around downtown Denver, visit a few breweries that were making some New England style IPA's, and toured a few Cannabis shops and smoking clubs. It was immensely fun to be Cannabis tourists for a few days, and felt a bit like a vacation within our trip. Much needed relaxation ensued!

Next we headed to Boulder, the Montbell store, and then up Boulder Canyon for some views and to check into our hotel for a few days. This was my second time staying at the Boulder Adventure Lodge, and I really have to say I like this place... It has a real community atmosphere for those on the road. There are two hostel rooms, a bunch of regular rooms, suites, and a couple of tent pads. A few picnic tables overlooking the river provided a nice social environment where all the travelers were chatting and getting to know each other. This also happened to be the "420 friendly" smoking area, and it made for a truly fun and socially stimulating environment. I can't wait to go back again next time.

We met some amazing people and I definitely won't forget some of them for a long time. We spent the most time with Nancy, who had a really sweet, well thought-out conversion camper van with all the things one would want. She was really cool, with a great attitude, some fun stories... real free-spirit with a good heart. Nancy became our resident "den mother" for the weekend, and she was like the social glue binding everyone together. It was great. We also met Joshua who was attending the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics; Ines, from Philly who was going to climb the Sawtooth peaks in Boulder, Tanya, Bev, Danny, and a few others who's names are eluding me at the moment. We spent some evenings drinking, smoking, singing, and sharing stories. If there ever was a moment to say "good vibes," this was it. What a great start to the western portion of this adventure.

There also happened to be some of the only calm water we could find in a stream running right through the property... which meant that lots of browns, seeking refuge from the roaring main stem of Boulder Creek, had swum up, and were feeding with wild abandon.

I showed Nancy and Ines how to fish, both of them catching a trout or two on Tenkara in just a few moments. I fished the stream a few times over our 3 nights at the lodge, and caught many beautiful browns. It was nice having this during melt-out, as the rest of the rivers were just completely blown out, and as we weren't quite acclimated to the point of hiking to an alpine lake just yet.

We spent some time exploring the area, fishing Boulder Creek, looking for (and finding a few) isolated streams in lower elevations that were not melting from snow-covered peaks. We did find a few streams that literally started up in drainage ditches above Boulder city that were not blown out, and we caught fish. brookies, rainbows, and browns. 

Rob has been using Anthony Naples' new rod a lot recently, and I've been using my TUSA Rhodo, since these rods excel at throwing bead heads... which we really need to be doing right now during melt-out. Its the only thing that works, and it works well. These rods also do a great job of controlling fish in rough current, something we don't have to do this much of in the Northeast. Its one thing to fish waterfall pools... its another to fish blown-out streams at peak melt-out. It takes a bit of backbone to control fish in those strong currents, even the small ones, and I didn't want to overly stress my Oni rods too early on.

But what we really wanted were some Cutthroats, so we said goodbye to our new friends and headed off into the mountains of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and surrounding areas to see what we could find. Mostly what we found, and quite obviously at that, was raging water. Intense, roaring, not at all gentle streams that had few to no pockets, and in which these said pockets still yielded no strikes or fish. It was just too early to chase fish here.

And, so, appropriately, Rob put on his best Colorado mountain outfit, and we did just that anyway... chasing fish in blown-out rivers for a few days. 

I took a lot of photos of flowers, which were beginning to pop all around.

I also got some photos of raging water... because there was plenty of that to photograph.

But my favorite, so far, were the beautiful backcountry dirt roads that lead to story-book valleys and miles-long views up into snow-capped peaks, lined with rows of pine and spruce trees.

 We hiked a few trails from the ends of these roads to get going on our training, but nothing too difficult to start. It was harder to breathe by a long shot at 10,000 feet.

We took a campsite in the National Forest near the Indian Peaks Wilderness for a few nights and prepared for our first high-elevation hike to fish for cutthroats in a lake. I haven't done much lake fishing for trout, but I knew I was excited to get up there.

Finally, after months of clouds and rain, being in cities, light-polluted highway towns, and generally just having bad luck, we saw stars. LOTS of stars. At least I did. Rob went to sleep early :)

There's something special about looking up into the night sky and seeing all the stars twinkling and shining there, so very far away. This subconscious (or conscious) observation of reality conveys a certain feeling... a sort-of longing, or curiosity -  and a connection with something greater than we are. It is these intangible things which I enjoy experiencing the most... things that are lost in the hustle and bustle of city life; the lack of which can so clearly create a rift between an individual of the modern era, and the age-old humanity that we all have, somewhere inside of us.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Cold Rain, Mud, Mountains, Backpacking, Misery, Heartbreak... They All Go Together

Taking a day off between hikes is usually a good idea, so Rob & I decided to go back to the motel to do some laundry and pack for another trip into the High Peaks. I had my eye on a 2-day weather window approaching, in which we'd be able to potentially hike in with only a quick storm, then have a partly-cloudy but not rainy day for the Gothics/Armstrong/Wolfjaws ridge, and finally, hike out... of course... in the rain. Ha!

We packed our gear and made the drive to the Garden lot and trailhead. Arriving early in the AM on a weekday and early in the season, the lot was the most empty I had ever seen it. Most people never have and never will see it the way it is photographed above... such tranquility... those who have hiked here before will know what I'm getting at here. 

The hike in is beautiful, and runs along John's Brook for a bit at the start, and then again a few miles in near John's Brook Lodge.

This stream was, seemingly on its way to recovery for Brook Trout until, after Irene, the lower section was channelized and "ruined" by man. The fish don't seem to want to swim up anymore. I'll avoid delving too deep into this topic right now, but its a sore one, to say the least. I hear they now stock the stream up here with small brookies, and we did catch a few along the way. No wild fish from what I caught.

The warm sun was bringing out the mushrooms - and although there was a storm forecast for later on, I was able to feel, even if just for a moment, that things were taking a turn for the better. Looking back, I probably should have seen this as too good to be true, or some kind of foreshadowing.

Meanwhile, though, the sun was still shining in full force, and walking into the field with the familiar old cabin near the trail junction and suspension bridge, I really felt a sense of overwhelming joy - as well as a bit of nostalgia from years passed.

I was happy that Rob was getting to see this area, and I couldn't wait to see his face when we got to the slide climbing up to Gothics the next day.

Crossing the suspension bridge, we noted that the river was still raging. It was early June now, and melt out should have been finished long ago. However, late snow storms had left extra ice and snow to melt away... and, coupled with all the rain that had been falling, things were clearly running a bit behind schedule.

I chose for us to set up camp at the site near the Orebed Lean-To, and we arrived right before the scheduled storm was supposed to roll through.

As if on cue, the clouds began to fill in the sky above, and we marveled at the rare accuracy of a mountain weather report.

Bunkering down in the lean-to, we sat and watched the storm roll in... fast. The thunder was pretty loud, and the storm moved in right over us. First came the rain, then the hail, then larger chunks of hail... and then a bit of solid rain. 

Rob read aloud some stories from the lean-to's log book, some of which were quite interesting. The most memorable was that of a bear that scared some hikers away from their food as they were eating dinner, preceded to eat their half-made dinners, then the rest of the food from the barrels, packaging and all, and then finally left them alone and went away. 

But the craziest part was how they described the bear returning at 1:30 AM, waking them up in their hammocks, plopping down right under them, and then unleashing a fury of loud farting, belching and disgusting breath... I just pictured these guys fearing for their lives, trying not to gag from the smelly bear emissions, and not being able to sleep at all. At least I know that the dehydrated food does the same thing to a bear's stomach as it does to mine if it isn't rehydrated well...

Little did I know Rob would soon be writing his own crazy story in that very same log book... but for now we were eating dinner and getting ready to hit the sack early. I rehydrated some morels, and combined that with some herbs, salt, corn and peppers in a single serving of 5 minute cous-cous. It ended up being one of the best meals I've had on the trail in a while. And of course, the joy of knowing we picked those morels was pretty great too.

 Orebed brook campsite is a great place to get water... the tributary running next to the site tastes really mineral after running over rocks for so long. I always love drinking the water from here, and I can think about the taste right now as I'm writing about it.

The upper Orebed brook itself is similar, if not a bit larger. There are no trout up here anymore, if there ever were any at all... 

There were plenty of other things to look at and photograph than fish though, that's for sure.

Sunset over the mountains with the clouds in the distance was beautiful, and I forgot all about the rain for a moment. But the next morning brought new challenges, as I awoke to a loud scream. I wasn't sure that was what I heard... but then I heard a yell for help.

Wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I looked down as Rob threw this stake-impaled shoe under my tarp, and I jumped up, knowing that this was a major injury in need of some immediate medical care. It turns out Rob had stomped a stuck tent stake in his Altras, and somehow it went right through the sole, the rock guard, the foot-bed and then into his heal. Ouch.

After a flurry of activity, wound-cleaning and bandaging; shock management and recovery and a bit of a breather, Rob posed for a photo with his shoe. Good sport. I was worried about how we'd get out of the backcountry, at least 4-5 miles in, given the situation. I contemplated which hut or building the ranger or caretaker would be in, and the fastest way to get there. I thought about how I'd carry his pack and stuff if he could walk out. But it turned out we didn't need to worry about any of that, as Rob figured out how to walk out on the ball of that foot, with his own full pack, making somewhat remarkable time out and back to the car.

For obvious reasons, I don't have any more photos of this trip after we ate breakfast, but needless to say, given the situation, we got out of this one pretty easily. However, we were now off the trail for an unknown period of time, and there was of course the immediate fear of what this would do to affect our plans for hiking a section of the PCT later this season. And the weather... more rain forecast for weeks. Ugh.

We went back to the hotel, assessed the situation, and decided to take a short break, before going west early. It was time to abandon the Northeast this year and make the best of what we had. We would return to the New York Metro area and relax for a few days in real beds, while Rob let his wound heal, making sure it didn't get infected. Being that you're reading this after the fact, rest assured that everything does, in fact, turn out ok! More on that soon... for now, sleep and recovery from the first Western, high-alpine snow hike of the season.