Sunday, November 20, 2022

run the red desert

I've wandered the Red Desert of Wyoming for decades now, first shown to me by my fishing/canoeing/hunting friend Ken. His father was the state geologist for Dept of Transport and knew all the good places. The Red desert is sometimes red but more often a sagebrush green and grey. It is in the Great Divide Basin, where none of the precipitation drains into any ocean, instead vanishing upon the desert air. The Continental Divide runs through the middle of the basin. Is it still the Divide if it's not actually dividing the waters of the Atlantic from the Pacific ? Maybe it's a courtesy title based on elevation here. Though it's a desert there is a startling amount of life in it, sage grouse, golden eagles, pronghorn, wild horses, an occasional grumpy old misanthrope like me and Ken. 

There is of course oil and gas under them there sagebrush flats. We've seen the traffic jump from us to nearly a car per hour on the lonely dirt roads, and oil rigs ruining the skyline. Run the Red Desert races were started to raise awareness of  the desert, its fragility, and raise some money to help protect it. I've been trying to run them for several years. Finally this year I blocked off the weekend on the calendar at the beginning of the year, notified my dear wife not to double book that weekend, and signed up. 

Ken came along as we planned a couple of days fishing and rambling around backroads after the race. Initial plan was to camp in Lander behind a motel, where Ken had camped before during the Tour de Wyoming. There was a new owner who gave us the hard sell and we got a room in the motel instead.  When I first met Ken he had a Cowfish sticker on his truck, fishbone skeleton with a cow's head. I always thought it was some kind of odd western thing like the jackalope, in fact it is a bar and grill in Lander. The jackalope has a page to itself on the Game and Fish website.
Jackalope are most often sighted at night, typically around closing time near adult beverage establishments; the preferred habitat of this species.  Weekend sightings are much more common than during weekdays.  It is reported, but unconfirmed, that jackalope are attracted to the odor of a fine single malt.
The Cowfish is still going nearly thirty years after we met, surely we aren't that old ?  Dinner there excellent with a fine Atlantic City Gold beer from the neighbor brewery. Atlantic City is one of the old mining towns of the Red Desert, hanging on with a population of 27 or so and the Atlantic City Mercantile for tourists. Our server was a girl from Asheville NC, who moved to Lander for the climbing and outdoor life. Next morning breakfast at the greasy spoon, we had a non-binary server. Ken said, that's a strong woman.. the local cowboys seemed fine with the whole idea. That's been my perception of the good aspect of the western ways. Rugged individualism means you have to allow for rugged weird individuals and a Wyoming conservative can be quite surprising in their acceptance of people. 

Race morning, Ken dropped me off in Silver Pass City, another ghost town, and went off fishing on the Popo Agie river in the red canyon. Strong cold winds. I found a bench behind some low willows as a windbreak to do the 15 minutes of stretching, donkey kicks etc that is now needed to placate my left knee before running. Race briefing included the Wyoming Rules: if you meet someone out on the trail, rancher, hunter, anyone: 1. stop 2. smile 3. say hello.  As one rugged individual to another, I guess. Tamim Ansary wrote about life in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, 
Before technology, in our hard, dry land, we lived on the edge. We didn’t have the luxury of considering each individual as a sovereign state and every social relationship as voluntary. We couldn’t think in terms of leveling the playing field and giving everyone an equal chance in the competition of all against all—a fundamental premise of democracy in a modern Western state. Living like that could have killed us.

I did a little warmup run to get my asthmatic old lungs used to the idea of breathing hard. The lungs tend to lose the plot a bit these days and need reminders of what they're supposed to be doing. The side canyon was dense with willow, the mud was dense with moose tracks. Moose are somewhat dangerous at the best of times, now coming into the rut it wasn't a good time to be alone in moose paradise, jogged back hastily. 

There was a stream crossing about half a mile into the run, thigh deep and a couple of yards wide. I'd planned to start where I'd finish, mid to back of pack. Having designs on the age group win however, I channeled my old cross-country racing nous and went out hard to get ahead of the bunch-up at the stream crossing. This worked well except now I was running with people much faster than me. Luckily in another half mile the route went straight up a scree slope and we were all walking.

This isn't the slope in question, rather a bit later with an actual two-track road which was also too steep to run. I took a good picture of the walkers behind me at this point, or it would have been good without the thumb over half the camera lens, oh well. 

This got us up onto the CDT (Continental Divide Trail). It wasn't your usual easily-appreciated mountain views of the CDT..

On to some singletrack through the pine and juniper, then out onto a good dirt road for a bit of cruising until the first and only aid station. Wind still blowing. 

The road dropped over that first hill, through a barbed wire/fencepost gate, and into another stream crossing. Another rule from the race briefing was to always close a gate behind you, never mind if there were other runners coming. The young woman and I at the gate followed the rule, slamming it closed in the teeth of the group behind us, apologizing as we went. The crossing had been softened up for us by the resident cows. This produced forty feet of feculent water knee-deep or worse. It's a good thing I had my Dirty Girl gaiters on, with wool socks below. Several of the runners at last year's Devil on the Divide run had these gaiters, I'd admired them and bought a pair. This went well until my wife picked up the package and asked, so what exactly are you buying from dirty girl gaiters dot com ? 
(link is SFW - the first draft of this post had the active link, for which Google promptly slapped a Sensitive Content Warning onto the blog. Huh.)

Now the trouble started. Six miles to go, all of it uphill, and straight into that Wyoming breeze which is a stiff gale in any other state, 20mph gusting to 30-plus. A young pup of 60 came by me near the start of this hill. It's astonishing how accurate my age-group age radar is - looked at him and thought, could be late 50s but my guess is 60 - race results confirmed that age. I watched the age-group winner run/walk away from me and couldn't do a thing about it. My run was faster but I couldn't keep it up for more than a couple hundred yards at best, his run was slower but went on longer before the inevitable walk. See the ziggy zaggy line from 8 miles on, showing pace about 11min/mile while running, interspersed with plods. My training was for running, not for shambling at a slow walk uphill into a gale. 

I'd have felt bad about my progress and walking here except that no-one else was passing me. We ground on. The view behind, 

The view ahead, 

This went on for some time. Talked a bit with companion run/walker Jamie, next weekend doing a Spartan race 50k which sounds to me like no fun at all. 

Time and the hour runs through the roughest day, here I am dragging my pot belly across the finish line. 

Finish 2:54, 69/122 overall, 2/9 in age group. The young pup went 2:52. We were both roundly defeated by a 68-year-old woman who ran 2:45. I'd better get rid of the pot belly and try again next year. 

Talked a bit with Andy while enjoying a postrace beer. He's a chef for a private ranch near Jackson Hole, lived in Winston-Salem NC in the 90s when we worked there, except he was in high school. His parents were running the 'We Card' campaign for RJ Reynolds. In the quiet periods at the ranch Andy teaches cooking at the community college. He said he's pretty easy going, though one of the modules is run by the pastry chef at the Four Seasons and she's hardass. 

Wandered off with Ken into the back country, the camping and fishing were good. 
Next year in Wyoming. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

wyoming fall colours

Out on the eastern plains of WY, you have to bring your own red, tractor 

and green, canoe. 

We did some farm work first, pickup of three-quarters of a mile of irrigation pipe, stack and tie down. Then cut enough old elm for the woodstove in the barn to heat the upcoming pheasant season. Then fell another dying elm, top and mulch the branches for the young grape vines. That's what the tractor is doing, running the chipper/shredder. My forearms were sore for days, I'll blame bucking a chainsaw and not the fly casting.

Felt we'd earned a few hours fishing and headed up into the hills.

You don't really need a canoe for this pond, but it does let you sneak up on the bank feeders from an unexpected angle. 

The prairies fall a bit short of fall spectacle. On the other hand the brookies had all the colors we wanted to see. 

I had to wear my fleece of many colors trying to keep up, think it wasn't quite enough. 

It is a poor fall without catching a few gaudy brookies in full spawning panopoly, glad we managed it this year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

in the shade of the freeway

September again, and not a single backpack or high mountain trip to show for the year.. really start questioning my life choices at this point. Ha. 

In an attempt to stave off getting even fatter and more breathless, signed up for a trail half-marathon in the Red Desert of WY. That seemed perfectly reasonable back in March. Ten years ago that would have been an easy-moderate ramble which I didn't need to think about, today it is a bit intimidating. Finally one week before the race, came a day where I could get up to the mountains. I didn't want to do my usual 5-6 miles up into Indian Peaks and kill my legs for the race. Instead here's what it is like fishing in the shade of the freeway. 

The first creek is up at 10 000ft or so. Driving there felt like cheating. The freeway noise is bothersome while walking out to the stream, once on the water with riffles and falls making the water music it's barely noticeable, only the big trucks gearing down and unmuffled motorbikes came through. The stream was skinny not to say bony and much colder than expected. 

Wet wading in trail running shoes gave me numb feet. That was fine while wading and thinking about fish, not so great walking back out on a couple lumps of wet frozen meat slowly thawing into painful lumps of wet meat. 

Rumor had it there were cutts up here, above the brookies, browns and rainbows of the lower reaches. Now come to think of it you could do a driving day of fishing and gun for the little slam of all four species from the same stream. Hm maybe next time. 
The rumor kept me fishing as I know cutts can thrive in unexpectedly tiny creeks particularly when the water is sufficiently cold. From that little falls pool above, he liked the olive softhackle behind the foam hopper. How nice. Yes, there are hoppers at 10 000 feet, kicked up a couple on the walk in. 

Plenty of barren water while nearly every little hole deeper than a foot had a resident or so. No brookies left, only cutts. 

After that last pool there was a largish (in mountain stream size) tributary coming in. Above it fishing was to wet rocks, mostly. Walked back down and noticed a big beaver dam near the parking lot. Plenty fish in there, with their antennae fine tuned to the approaching fisherman.. rose two at the softhackle without hooking either. Good enough for who it's for, really. 

Next step was a mountain lake at 12 000ft, parking lot at 11 200 and a 1.5 mile walk in. Expected traffic crowds and a zoo at the parking lot and was not disappointed. Inserted my truck into an angled inclined spot between a Tesla and a BMW, which cars didn't have enough ground clearance for my spot. Plenty of company on the trail all of whom asked me about on the fishing. On the way in I could tell the truth - never been here, no idea, without faith and hope I'd never leave the house. On the way out I lied steadily and consistently, just on principle. 

That lake is private. On the way down it was ringed with rises. I waved.. 

There were a couple big submarines patrolling the dropoff, cutts of 18" or better. No response, not so much as a spook away from my spinners and small minnow lures. The fish held to their patrol line and speed, commendable in your military troops, a little disheartening to the fisher. Tossed out the hopper and softhackle to drift around while drinking a contemplative lager from Upslope brewery in Boulder. They do 1% of profits to Trout Unlimited. I drink a lot of Upslope. 

The drift around nearly always works. Nearly. Fished around to those rocks on the far side to no effect at all, tried a variety of flies and lures on a couple more patrollers. 

Back toward the outlet had been crowded earlier in the day. As evening descended it thinned out enough to cast a fly line. Here there was a small shoal of 8-10" fish with a patroller keeping watch below the shoal. That's a behavior I've never yet seen in high lakes, both the shoal and its accompanying patrol submarine. The little ones did take a small Smith Niagis spinner on the baitcast finesse outfit. 

Often on these lakes with only a floating line I've wondered about bringing a spin/BFS outfit to plumb the depths. Well that didn't work, at least not today and here. Took a couple more of the little 'uns on a #18 Adams then called it a day. Back at the truck on the tailgate with another lager, the parking lot had gone quiet and mountain sounds could be heard. I was looking at those dense forests on steep slopes and thinking how glad I was not to be attempting an elk hunt this year. Another sign of gathering age no doubt. 

Soundtrack is Jackson Browne, The Pretender.. 

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
sometimes I do feel like that happy idiot, when it gets to be September and the mountain's calls went unanswered.

I'm going to be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Though true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Devil on the Divide

Run 22km (14 miles or so) and 3600ft of climbing, followed by descent again. This was the high point of my day..

I knew this was going to be hard, but it was harder than that. It took me 3hr 53min which is longer than any marathon I've (yet) run. To be fair if I did run a marathon now it would be in the 4h30 region.

Not much running in the previous months as I'd been nursing a bad knee which my physical therapist told me not to run on. The first commandment of running injury recovery is, Always Listen to your Physical Therapist - you shall have no other desires but what they say.. 

A bit of swimming since the other physical therapist had fixed the biceps tendonitis, and a good bit of MTB riding on gravel trails with plenty climbing, thought it would be enough.
Ha no. 
Yes, I had two PTs, one for biceps another for knee. Reminds me of the old joke, 'Trust people ? Trust people ?!  you sound just like my other psychologist'. 

Start at the bottom of Jones Pass, near the Henderson mine. Here they mine molybdenum and they're always recruiting, posters all around the race site even. 2200 feet over 4 miles to the first aid station, cut off at two hours. I think I ran about 200yds total in those 4 miles, the rest was a determined steady plod at maximum HR while panting heartily. 
Here's the picture from the top of the pass where the aid station is. We started away down in the woods somewhere. 

A failure to read the topo map accurately brought a fine surprise, OK we're up the pass now, but there's still a thousand feet to climb along the Continental Divide trail to that high point. More plods, with occasional jogs. This pic from the race photographer @jordanchapell sums it up - a young woman leaping swiftly down the trail behind me, me firmly earthbound grinding along. 

Views were terrific. The winds howled over the Divide. When unpinning the number later, I found the winds whipping it around had actually bent the safety pins nearly open. 

Here's a pic I took at one point while panting on the side of the trail, trying to calm my heart down as it tried to leap out of my chest. Runners all across the horizon, a real highwayman's farewell..

Most of this was runnable if you had working legs, which I did not. It seems I overcooked the climb.
Picture by Jordan Chapelle again, of fast people actually running. 

Staggered on and out to the turnaround above Herman Gulch to get my bib punched. The volunteer asked if I was OK, must have been looking a bit ragged. Assured him I had a flask of Coca-Cola and two Honey Stingers left, I'd be fine. 

Another race photographer @sohboyum shows the start of the downhill section. I did break from a walk into a sort of wobbling lurch but you can't tell it from the picture.. 

One of the volunteers said, "it's all downhill from here !" 
Replied, "even if that's not true I'm going to believe it - lie to me, please".

Lumped and bumped down the rocks and roots of Herman Gulch, passing day hikers who most politely stepped off the trail for us sweaty plodders. The finish at 22k was also the aid station for the 50k runners. I watched them come in and leave again, legs trembling with fatigue. I could not have left again. 

A bus, masked, back to the Empire ballfield where the food and beer awaited. Sat down and stuck in the chair until they called my name. 

Turns out I'd won my age group by default, being the only one. (art by idigoddpairings)

Now the proud owner of a genuine Norwegian cowbell, made of genuine brass rifle shell casings from the Norwegian military. What a great prize.
Beer by Tommyknocker brewery in Idaho Springs, excellent. Drank two without feeling a thing. 

Said farewell to my table acquaintances, and went up the road to find a little creek for a bit of fishing. Once I get out of the house I like to get full value from the excursion. 

Too tired to fish effectively and left soon for a nap, still did get a bit of a lower-leg soak in the cold water and a couple pretty miniatures of trout. 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Holy Cross wilderness

The plan was to visit a couple of lakes in the Collegiate Peaks which had good fish in 2009. I have been trying to get back there ever since. That trailhead needs a high clearance vehicle, so naturally the brake lights on my truck went on the fritz. Wednesday night replaced the bulbs with LEDs and checked/replaced fuses, not that. Thursday night fetched the part from across Denver and replaced the brake pedal switch/sensor, not that. OK we are down to the wiring and harnesses now, Fri night an hour of futzing and couldn't find the short. Oh well it's the mighty mighty Honda Fit then, plan B is a supposedly better road to a Holy Cross wilderness trailhead. 

Reader - it wasn't any better. Everyone looks at you funny, driving a Fit over a nasty road where all the other vehicles are lifted 4wd adventure-mobiles.. The parking lot was mostly full, I threaded my way between a pine tree and a couple of boulders at the edge of a pit, to find a little spot to park. I may have had a small nightmare or two in camp that night about getting out again - just how steep was the hill and the turn ?  It was alright though, late Sun the Fit climbed out easy and I parked at the real trailhead in order to use the pit toilet. Still surrounded by those giant rigs though. 

Bet none of them got this kind of mpg for the trip.. a 290-mile round trip from Denver, including climbing to Eisenhower tunnel, down and over Vail pass, up 13 miles of poor dirt road to 3mi of terrible dirt road. Then back. 

Busy trail going up. I had a new light pack and a 1lb tarp to replace 4.5lb of tent so my entire overnight pack was just over 20lb, a new personal record. That little weight is basically a daypack sort of burden which is barely noticeable. I sped past everyone I saw, though it turns out climbing 2200 feet over 4.5 miles is still noticeable. 

Strong 'Paths of the Dead' emanations from the canyon mouth. I did not fish my way up, needed to make some miles before the afternoon storms piled in. 

Over the pass a bit over 12 000ft, weather looking iffy. It started raining shortly after this. 

The rain is no problem as long as the lightning doesn't show up. Camp well below the lake with a bit of tree for shelter and a perfect dining rock. 

There were two parties camped at 11 600 ft by the lake out on the exposed tundra. The next morning after a night of wind rain and thunderstorms, one party had moved down into the trees and the other had vanished.. 

Started by hooking a 3" cutt, overreacting on the strike and sending it flying through the air to dash its little brain out on a rock at my feet. This was a bit horrible. I've taken trout airborne before, never yet killed one that way. Took a moment to think before fishing on. 

Usually lakes at this height have midges, maybe a scud or two, and whatever terrestrials get blown upslope by the afternoon anabatic winds. Today there were midges, a few caddis, a mayfly or so, and one lost and lonely Yellow Sally stonefly. A Royal Stimulator worked perfectly well. 

The fish increased steadily in size from 11" up to this nice 14" cutt. 

Then the weather moved back in with thunder booming and echoing peak to peak. Took the 4-piece Fenwick Voyageur rod apart into its 4 pieces so as not to attract the lightening god and scuttled back down the hill into the trees, with small hail pelting down. 

Fifteen minutes later the skies were perfect blue with the storm moving off downvalley, me sitting by the creek wondering what the hell. 

At some point here I'd inadvertently switched the camera phone into some kind of low resolution mode, so the remaining photos are artistically rendered, none of your superreal 4k here. 

The problem with fishing below the mountaintops is the oncoming weather is not usually visible, instead it comes boiling sudden over the ridgeline. Rather than go back up there and get blindsided by another thunderstorm I decided to go a couple miles down-creek to see what was happening. Certainly cutts, maybe brookies ? 

On famous tailwaters the fish are jaded. They'll get hooked, flounder a bit as a token fight, then swim over to get unhooked and wait patiently for the picture. Up here wild fish aren't used to posing for a picture. 

Coming back up the creek at 5:30pm was a bit of a grind. Dinner, no reservations needed for the best seat in the house, party of one (but that's no kind of a party, at all).  Pikas from the boulder garden across the valley sang me to sleep and gave me a morning reveille of squeaks. 

A restless night with not much for sleep. Turns out campsite levelness selection is much more important with a tarp than with a tent. If you slide around in a tent on slopy ground, it's an annoyance: sliding under a tarp puts you outside in the rain. It was nice to turn over and see a valley in moonlight, instead of the inside of a dirty tent flysheet. 

Next morning clambered back up to the nearby lake for a couple more fish. Several more lakes on the way back down, first one held fish less eager but chunkier and stronger. These things are probably related. Not fishing well, zombified by the missing night's sleep. 

The biggest lake has the smallest fish, hordes of skinny 6-8" brookies. One last lake, a milky green that looked odd after the aching clarity of all the others. Another redbellied cutt, then I lay in the grass for an hour and failed to nap in the mild sun and wind. 

Down the hill and back out. It's weird how Sunday afternoon feels like a Sunday even in the high country.