Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A High Alpine Adventure - Fishing Our First Lake for Cutthroat Trout

After a few days of “vacation” near Boulder, fishing the rare slow pockets in blown out creeks, and poking around the different backcountry trailheads and campsites, we were ready for some adventures in the Front Range. We chose an "easier" hike to our first high alpine lake, being that we figured it was a modest 2.5ish miles each way, and took us up to a nice high elevation to test our abilities thus far.

The hike started out innocently enough, with unseasonably warm temps for the mountains, and dry, easy trail. We were already pretty high up, and the views were stunning right from the start.

To rewind just a bit, we had run into some people at the trailhead on the way in… one was a mountaineer preparing for a group hike up to a peak along a snowfield. The other was a father and son who had hoped to catch some trout at the lake. The mountaineer told me there was a lot of snow and not really much trail. I could tell he was being modest and trying not to judge us, but the look in his eye said it all… we were in for it. The father and son duo told us that they turned around when they lost the trail in “a glacier.” Hmmm...

Needless to say we packed our ice axes, micro spikes, gaiters and a good supply of food and extra layers. Of course we brought our rods because we wanted to catch some cutthroat, but neither of us was really sure we were getting to the lake.

As the trail climbed, we began to encounter wildflowers and a good deal of snow. We weren’t breaking through or post-holing, which was a good sign. After passing the first junction with a trail leading up to the Arapaho Glacier, we came to a waterfall where some people were snacking and taking a break. A couple told us that we could easily cross the stream and head up the trail, but that they had lost it and had to turn back.

We pushed through, vowing to at least try to make it up to where other people turned back. The snow was already quite deep, and we were beginning to find places where post-holing was becoming an issue. It was important to stay vigilant, and use our poles to test the ground if needed. 

We put on our micro-spikes and followed the most obvious sets of footprints we could find. It was soon evident that the footprints in the snow were no longer following a trail. However, we had maps, compasses, and had been able to take note of the features we were now navigating from across the canyon at the start of the trail.

As we climbed higher, footprints faded. I noted that the footprints were going too far up and not left, where the map indicated we needed to go. We kept climbing. It was steep, and the going was tough. We kept a good pace… maybe too good. Rob and I each had our own moments of doubt, but in the end we decided to head left as I had wanted to do, and I brought us up into the first bowl on the map. Rob consulted with me and we agreed that it was the feature we thought it was from the map, and he laid out a path following the ridge, which we then did.

I wish I had more photos of the section along the ridge, because it was really cool. However, we were pre-occupied with navigation and safe passage over small snow fields and snowmelt drainage channels. At one point, we looked up to see the mountaineering trail up the side of the mountain… a gigantic snowfield with significant pitch… and we were glad that we weren’t going up that way.

After another strenuous climb over a small ridge, and around a steep hillside, we spotted the depression and break in the cliffs that we knew held the lake. At this point I was pretty taxed, both mentally and physically. But it had been my call to push on, and so I wanted to make it to the lake at this point, because I could taste it between heavy breaths.

Soon we managed to find the actual trail, just a tiny section exposed and melted out. We once again found footsteps, and Rob made the final push to the opening to the lake. We had made it! Whew. Time for a good rest, a lot of water, and a big snack…

After which I knew we had to fish… but the wind was blowing something awful and the lake just wasn’t producing for me. Rob watched me struggle with the wind and the current, neither of us spotting any fish. At this point there were some heavy gusts, it was extremely cold, and yet the sun was intense and I knew I was overexposed.

I decided to give up on fishing and we walked back up to the ridge to get our position on the map. At this point, I spotted the outflow, and a nice pool below the snow bridge at the edge of the lake. My morale jumped and I high-tailed it down to the edge, setting up my rod again and figuring at least I’d have tried… until I saw a nice 14” brookie practically at my feet!


I did my best to drop a fly at it, but all that happened was that it swam away spooked instead. I cast out a few times along the edge where I saw him, figuring some other fish were hiding below the bank and I might get a hit… but there was nothing. Going with a heavier bead head fly, I nymphed through the current at the center of the pool. All of a sudden the line went taught, and I set the hook. Whoooo Buddy! Fish on. I whooped and hollered to make sure Rob heard me, and he came running. I ended up landing a beautiful high mountain cutthroat!

Rob took a cast and on his first good drift I saw the rod bend hard… it was another fish. What luck! It was as if the mountain gods had somehow felt we had earned this moment after pushing through it all and making it to the lake after all.

The walk down and back was a serious undertaking, to say the least. There are no photos of this section for good reason… I was feeling the altitude, the overexposure to the sun, and was possibly at the edge of dehydration. I wanted to get down fast. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happened, and it was a serious challenge to get back to the crossing and the waterfall where we had left the last people that had turned back that day.

But we did make it, and, as exhausted as I was, and as much as my head was pounding, I was in great spirits. We stopped for more water and another snack. I focused on breathing deep and getting as much oxygen as I could. The sights around me… fields of flowers and the clean smell of the air had me distracted enough to make good time.

On the last leg, we ran into another guy taking a break. He had also turned back, having gone up and back twice in slightly different paths trying to find his way. Ultimately, the issue was he was unprepared and it’s a good thing he didn’t commit to breaking from the footsteps as we had done, since he had started much later in the day, and without anything other than a bathing suit, lunch, and a jacket. Yikes.

We finally made it back to the trailhead and our campsite, exhausted and beaten up pretty hard. But we were triumphant. Happy that we had made it, that we had navigated off trail in the snow in the high mountains, that we had done it reasonably fast and without major issues, we settled in for the evening and slept it off, soon ready for another high alpine adventure…

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.