Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Never Summer

After the Grand Tetons trip I still had a couple of days' vacation time and did not feel like going back inside. A swift planning session ensued to pick out one of the many backpacking trips on the list and pack some food, then off outside again. A loop through Never Summer wilderness won out for its high mountains, deep woods, trout possibilities, and relatively short driving time.

The way in is 5.5 miles and 3000ft climb to the first lake. Columbines and showy bright red mushrooms enlivened the trudgery. If I knew anything about mushrooms perhaps I could have had a fine wild-gathered dinner.

Three hours took me to timberline, rapidly followed by the appearance of the lake.

There were rises going on, so tossed out the usual #12 Royal Coachman dry. The fish materialized out of clear water and sailed cheerfully up to attack the fly. It turned out to be a 12" brookie, fat and brightly coloured, which was a little depressing. Normally I'd be very happy with such a fish, but in a high country lake a brookie like that usually means the whole fishery is confined to a passel of similar fishes: which rather limits the opportunities for hope: and so it was, all the 10-12" brookies you could eat. They weren't particularly easy to catch as the cruisers would spook while the line was still descending. A number came to an assortment of dry flies. Eventually discovered a red-tail Invicta retrieved slowly near the surface worked best, a hit on most casts: but the fish were expert at bite-and-release so missed a lot. Some fish were plump with small heads, as pretty as you could find anywhere. The larger ones had that big-head snaky look that creeps over them as they outgrow the food sources.

Weather made its appearance as expected in the mid-afternoon.

There wasn't any rain, but clouds and thunder in surround sound. These are the conditions where lightning comes out of a clear sky to hit the highest thing around, which in this case would be the fool standing in a lake waving a lightning (fishing) rod. I'd thought of camping near the water, instead bucked back over the ridge and down below treeline to find a cosy campsite tucked into a cove in the rocks.

The rain did eventually move in - dinner was a race between my stove and the raindrops.

As I bolted the last mouthful of curry and beans (excellent for pre-heating the sleeping bag) so the rain bucketed down. I had brought a book but left the energy to read it on the climb up: dozed until a break in the rain at 10, then got seriously to sleep. Storms went on and boulders crashed down across the valley, a mountaineer's lullaby. It sounded like a scene from The Hobbit, "the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang."

Next morning was sunny and clear with the usual scenes of hopeless beauty all around.

On the first lake picture above a faint trail can be seen cutting across L to R and up to the Continental Divide at 12 000 some feet. That's the route. Up there were good views to be had, North Park and human habitations to the west, Rocky Mountain National Park apparent wilderness to the east. I turned on the camera and it helpfully turned itself off with a cheery reminder, "replace batteries". Um, with what exactly ? oh well no more pictures.

Contoured along the side of the divide in the high clear air; cliffs to one side and meadows full of flowers to the other; big clumps of blue columbines, 15 or 20 blooms all together. Climbed up again to drop down into the next drainage over, where I met a loquacious solo hiker. He said there were several moose in the first meadow after the fifth stream crossing but they'd moved on by the time I got there. There were moose signs everywhere below treeline, huge hoof indentations in the mud, willows browsed down to moose-head-height, even some loose moose stool next to last night's camp.

Bowen Gulch is home to old-growth spruce, trees six hundred years old, fine deep wet old woods. This was the ground of a big battle with the loggers last century (1980s) when the Forest Service sold it to Louisiana-Pacific Corp. There were protesters chained to trees, lying down in front of the bulldozers, all the desperate expedients of the last ditch. For once it worked and the trees are still here. As I barreled along the rocks the clouds descended, the trail a spooky tunnel through black-green darkness. The gulch trail is very rocky and unpleasant: comprised of boulders, rocks, stones and pebbles; mostly in a rough staircase configuration down a gully, but quite often random; all of them the wrong size, the wrong shape, and in the wrong place for a human foot to traverse.

Down to the stream and trail junction then up again to 11 150ft to the next lake, just below the Divide in a bowl of trees. What the thunder said today was, "you should have started fishing before eating lunch" as it broke over my unsuspecting head. With the woods and the hills, it can really sneak up on a guy. Not quite damyata, datta, dayadhvam, but I'm long past revelations here.

There were Colorado River cutthroat trout prowling the shoreline, in a nice range and selection of sizes; little ones flipping out of the water in the shallows, bigger ones cruising at the edges of the downed timber where the clear water shaded to a dusty green the colour of seaglass. I had to wait for the storm to turn to rain from thunder before I could attempt them. Caught fish from 9" to 14", and I'm sure there were bigger ones in there as well: four fish in less than an hour and missed a couple more. All were strong and colourful, a healthy fishery. Now I can say I’ve caught a cutt standing on the Continental Divide trail.

It rained and blew for about an hour then the real weather kicked in, gales blowing wildly from all directions with horizontal rain gusts slapping me around. Wind this fierce and vagrant feels like a personal attack, or maybe it's just the hypothermia delusions firing up. The whole thing seemed a bit risky, plus I still had what I thought was four miles to walk out: concluded a judicious retreat would be in order. At the campsite packing up, the wind blew the pieces of the fishing rod out of my hands. Yep, time to go. The campsite was big with a huge fire-ring which seemed odd for 2800ft up and 7.5 miles in on a bad rocky trail. Typically the guys who build huge fire-rings don't walk much. As it turns out there’s an easy 4-mile ridge walk to the lake as well: par for the course in US 'wilderness' areas, there's no way to get more than a few miles from a road. In the arrogance of my youth I'd despise the 4wds driving up to the boundaries but now I'm old fat and weak, am in fact myself lusting after a 4wd to drive comfortably close to the tatterdemalion remnants of wild.

I'd made a slight miscalculation on this day's hike distance and wound up with 13.5 miles, plus two and a half crossings of the Continental Divide (the lake at 11 150 ft, hence the half); about 2000ft climbing and 4000ft descending. The second drainage emerged above the Colorado river with a three mile drag through second-growth spindly pines to the trailhead. My dogs were barking all the way home.

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