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“Look, there’s the Amtrak Train!  It just came out of the tunnel.”

My daughter’s eyes widen as she strains to see out the car window to the train which is exiting the Moffat Tunnel heading east.  She likes trains.  We were here last year about this time and were lucky enough to see a freight train head into the tunnel westbound.  I held my daughter in my arms 30 feet from the tracks as the engine approached.  We waved at the engineer, and like any good train engineer, he waived back with a smile.

East portal of the 6-mile long Moffat train tunnel under the Great Divide

East portal of the 6-mile long Moffat train tunnel under the Great Divide

A year later, my daughter is now four, and we are back at the Moffat Tunnel Trailhead, portal to the James Peak Wilderness Area near Nederland, Colorado.

As we hit the trail there is a deafening sound coming from the tunnel.  It’s a bit like a continuous barge horn and seems to shake the leaves of the nearby aspen trees.  My daughter tries to cover her ears.  I think it’s not really a horn but some kind of huge exhaust fan.  Something like that.  The noise persists for about 20 minutes as we round the east tunnel portal and into the wilderness behind it, and then it abruptly goes silent and only the sweet music of the wilderness remains–bees and flies buzzing, birds chirping, South Boulder Creek rushing by.

In addition to trains my daughter also likes wooden bridges, and this trail does not disappoint in that category as bridge after wooden bridge crosses small streams, dry washes, and marshes.

Bridge walking in James Peak Wilderness

Bridge walking in James Peak Wilderness

The trail follows South Boulder Creek upstream and after about a mile we start to look for a good place to camp.  We reach a nice meadow at the first trail junction.  The Forrest Lakes trail heads off steeply to the right while the main trail continues through the meadow up valley.  We dive into the tall grass to our left which my daughter loves.  The grass is taller than she is, and to her this must seem like walking through a mysterious jungle.  Just as we approach a promising campsite I notice a tent.  It’s an LL Bean catalog type family with two young boys.  I briefly consider asking them if they would be willing to share their spot (and let the kids play together), but they don’t seem too inviting.  So, we move on.

It’s not always easy to find a decent campsite in the wilderness and it’s much more challenging with the snail pace of a four year old hiking companion.  The sun is sinking below the ridge to the west and I have to weigh our options.  I want to keep walking deeper into the wilderness until we find something.  But, I need to be careful here.  My daughter can’t yet hike very far, and I can’t afford to take the risk of pushing daylight to the brink with her.  My daughter is a trooper and does not complain, but I can tell she’s getting tired.

So, as the trail steepens above the creek just beyond the meadow, we turn around.  We get back to the west end of the meadow and make another attempt to scout towards the stream.  From a different angle than before, I spot a small flat clearing just inside the forest that I didn’t see before.  It’s a good forest campsite not far from the stream, about 75 yards above the other family and out of their sight.  This will work.

I leave off the rain fly of the tent knowing there is little chance of rain tonight.  With no breeze at all the pines are as still as statues.  The moon is a lantern glowing on the side of the tent.  It takes my daughter a while to settle down and then I finally drift off to sleep.

I awake in the night.  The moon is gone, below the western mountains, and there is an odd humming sound in the distance.  What is that?  Oh, yeah, that Moffat Tunnel exhaust.  The humming stops and then there is a distant train horn descending east towards the plains.  I find it fascinating and a bit bizarre that that train just passed almost directly below us.  For 90 years monstrous man-made machines have rumbled under these mountains, under the streams and lakes, under the trees and meadows, and under sleeping backpackers.  Under our tent tonight these machines pass silently through the earth below us, with their freight, passengers, train conductors and hobos along for the ride.  What a strange world?

We sleep until sun shafts reach the tent through the tight spaces between dense forest.  It is a dark campsite, where the day ends an hour earlier and begins an hour later than in the open meadows just a few feet away.  It’s a cold morning and we bundle up for a breakfast of hot oatmeal before packing up.  My daughter is a great camp helper.

Before long, we emerge from our dark forest into bright sunshine in the meadow, and suddenly there is a crowd.  People are everywhere!  I knew this was a popular trail, but I didn’t expect this many people, even on a late July Sunday morning.  I instruct my daughter to say “hello” and wave to the other hikers we pass and she takes this very literally.  In the just over one mile back to the trailhead we pass over 150 people, and she says hello to every last one of them.  It’s amazing, the instant joy and beaming smiles that a four year old can bring to hardened adults.  I watched as this amazing little girl instantly melted the hearts of burly tough men, women in deep concentration, college kids, and retired couples.

If only we all approached others with the innocence of a four-year old… I learn from her every single day.

 

 

"Our Little Home" as she called our campsite

“Our Little Home” as she called our campsite

To be clear my three-year-old daughter is almost four now. There is a pretty big difference in maturity and physical ability between “just turned three” and “almost four.” Still, I’m quite pleased with how well she has taken to her first backpacking adventures. She wants to carry her own pack and she isn’t scared at night in the tent. And, she’s delightfully amused when I explain to her that we will need to dig a “potty hole.”

About that potty hole: The first time I took her backpacking a few weeks ago we went to the Sawmill Hikers Campground in the Jefferson County White Ranch Open Space near Golden. It’s a wonderful place with beautiful well-spaced sites, and it has everything that a regular car campground has like pit toilets.  The only difference is you have to hike there (one mile).  Since she is already a veteran car camper, this was a good “test run” for backpacking and she passed the test.

So, “real backpacking” we go, to Lost Park in the Lost Creek Wilderness Area, where there are good secluded places to camp within a mile or so of the trailhead.  From the Lost Creek Campground and Trailhead on the western edge of the wilderness, a trail follows Lost Creek downstream through a brief meadow of willows and then through something like a mountain gateway where two mountain shoulders pinch the meadow as the stream flows through the gap.  You pass through the gateway in forest for a short distance and then the landscape opens up again on the other side into the open expanse of Lost Park, all within the first mile. Passing through this gateway you get a real sense of transition, of passing from civilization into the wild.

After locating a nice campsite in the trees on the edge of Lost Park she gives me a funny smile and says, “Are you going to dig me a potty hole?” Then she snickers a bit. She finds it funny, but I have no idea if this will be an issue.  To my knowledge she has never deliberately “done business” into a hole in the ground.  How do you teach something like this?

So, I make sure to engage her in the process.  I stand over our freshly dug potty hole and begin a professorial lesson: “When ya have to go in the woods, you dig a hole like this.” She stares wide-eyed at the hole. “Then stick your hind end out over the hole, take your best shot, and bury your business when you’re done!” She looks at the hole, then looks at me with what I think is a skeptical grin that seems to say, “are you freaking serious, Daddy?”

Turns out she has no problem using the potty hole. In about a half hour she just pops a squat over the hole and goes to town like it ain’t no thing. What was I worried about?

The rest of the evening we climb some (small) boulders, explore our surroundings, filter water from the stream, make a small campfire, eat dinner and go to bed.  I make it a point that she helps in some small way with all the camp chores and she seems to relish the shared responsibility.  She never cries to go home and doesn’t whine when night creeps in and makes the woods spooky.  She’s enjoying the adventure of it.

Bouldering

Bouldering

Later that evening in the tent I turn off the lantern.  Overcast skies make it a very dark night. “Um… It’s too dark,” she says with a little concern, drawing out the word “daaaarrk” in that cute way that 3/4 year olds do.  I explain how the clouds are blocking the moonlight and take her little hand in mine to reassure her that everything is fine and safe.  She’s wired but eventually goes to sleep.  As she sleeps peacefully I feel proud. My little girl is a backpacker.

The soft rush of the stream drifts through the calm darkness like a soothing blanket.

And everything is right with the world.

Pack on and ready to head home

Pack on and ready to head home

Like a Zen garden along Lost Creek

Like a Zen garden along Lost Creek

Soaring dramatically from the plains of Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain rises from 7,600 to 12,347 feet…  Its summit is the highest point in the Wilderness, and nowhere else in the state provides such a vivid and dramatic change from plains to mountains…Unusual for Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness has no lakes and no towering alpine peaks–and, consequently, few human visitors.

Source:  Wilderness.net

A vivid and dramatic change from plains to mountains.  That is the unique characteristic of the 23,087 acres of Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness.  There are hundreds of higher peaks in Colorado, but few as prominent in their surroundings as Greenhorn, the apex of Southern Colorado’s Wet Mountains.  The summit is only about six linear miles from the edge of the Great Plains.

The East Bartlet Trailhead, just up the hill from the pretty down of Rye, borders private property to the east and national forest to the west.  A sign at the property reads “NO TRESPASSING.  SURVIVORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” I decide not to take a picture of that sign as I pull into the dirt parking area to find only two other vehicles, one of them occupied by a woman reading a book.  It’s 3:00 pm on a Friday.

“You’re going to run into 40 girls pretty soon, just to let you know,” says the woman in the car. “They are hiking over from the other side of the range.”  When she says “girls” I’m not sure what that means–actual girls, like kids, or “girls” as in a bunch of grown women?  Either way I thank her for the “warning” and step onto the Bartlett Trail and into the San Isabel National Forest towards the Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness.

Sure enough, 100 yards up the trail, I hear and then see a long train of teenage girls.  As I step to the side the first few girls just look at me with some surprise and then one finally blurts out with hopeful anticipation: “Are we almost there?” I respond, “Yeah, you’re basically there, it’s just around that curve.” This immediately sets off a commotion of jubilation: “Yesssssss!  Woohooo!  Oh my God I have to pee sooooo bad!”  After the army of teenage girls pass I see no one else in this wilderness on the edge of the plains for the rest of the day.

As far as I can tell there are really only two distinct “destinations” for hikers in the Greenhorn Mountain wilderness.  The first is the summit of Greenhorn Mountain.  I’m not headed there.  I’m on my way to the other destination, Apache Falls, which is a little known waterfall at the end of a little used trail.

I ascend the lower east flank of Greenhorn Mountain on a rocky and sometimes steep trail, first through thickets of Gambel Oak, then into a beautiful mixed forest of Ponderosa Pine and Aspen, and eventually into Spruce and Fir.  I climb about 1,300 feet in a couple miles and every so often a view of the plains opens up to the east through the trees, each time a little higher than the last.

Vie of the Plains from the trail junction to Apache Falls

Vie of the Plains from the trail junction to Apache Falls

 

Big beautiful Aspen tree

Big beautiful Aspen tree

I cross several swollen branches of North Apache Creek and then come to a sign marking a trail to the left.  This trail takes me back down all of the vertical feet I just climbed and then some, steeply down into the South Apache Creek drainage, briefly exiting the wilderness area and taking me to within a couple miles of private lands on the edge of the plains.  I hear strange music down valley.  At the small stream, running clear and beautiful and graced by surprisingly lush greenery, the trail turns to follow the creek upstream, back into the hinterland of the wilderness.  The trail is faint and overgrown, but well marked with cairns where needed.  I suspect these cairns have been here for many decades, but guiding only a few lucky people each year.

The trail soon turns up a tributary stream and I know that I’m not far from the falls.  I come to a pair of great big Ponderosa Pines with a good tent site nearby and drop my pack.  Camp for the night.  Without my pack I continue up the trail in search of the waterfall.  I have no idea what to expect:  A ten foot tumbler?  A thirty foot plunge?  I see it before I hear it, a beautiful 100-foot classic plunge off of a cliff, framed by the bare trunks of big tall Pines.  The beauty of the sight is enhanced by its uniqueness – a hidden ribbon of falling water near the edge of the plains and yet fully in wilderness seclusion.

First view of Apache falls, framed by tall Ponderosa pine trees

First view of Apache falls, framed by tall Ponderosa pine trees

I continue to the falls, delighted to find that I can easily walk right up to its base on either side.  I stand on a flat rock at the edge of the large pool at the bottom and reach a hand out into the falls.  The light spray cools my face as I look straight up the falls to a deep blue sky.

Apache Falls

Apache Falls

With no threat of rain I sleep peacefully in my tent without the rain fly, stars speckling the sky between the tops of the still pines.  The soft rush of the creek helps bring on sleep.

Morning is brilliant.  Fresh.  Sun slanting through the trees.  Rocky crags in view to the south beneath brilliant blue.  I down some hot coffee and oatmeal and then head back up to the falls.  I spend a couple hours there feeling completely at home and at ease.  It’s an Eden.  A Sanctuary.  It could have been made a tourist attraction with a paved road cut into the valley and a paved “viewing platform” at the falls.  Thank goodness Apache Falls is simply a beautiful waterfall in the wilderness and not a “tourist attraction.”

Sawmill Backpack 1

She looks up to me and exclaims with delight: “This is a nice one!”

“It sure is,” I respond encouragingly.

My daughter is proudly holding up a big pine cone. We are picking them up off the trail and then throwing them together into the grass down the hill. Soon she sees a trickle of clear water tumbling out of the hillside and across the trail. “Look, Daddy, a stream!” She then prances around in the water, too shallow to get her feet wet, for a few minutes.

In this manner it takes us more than two hours to hike the one mile from the parking lot to the Sawmill hiker campground in Jefferson County’s White Ranch Open Space, near Golden. Rule number one for taking a three-year-old backpacking: Patience.

This is exactly the immersion into nature that I want for my daughter. Her developing brain is soaking these sights, smells, sounds and experiences in like a sponge. I want the pure joy and blissfulness of these outdoor experiences to become a part of the fabric of her soul.

She proudly carries her own backpack with a few items of her own clothes packed inside. She takes two or three minor tumbles and, with my gentle encouragement, picks herself back up and continues on.

We finally reach the campground, which is completely deserted on this Monday afternoon. As we approach our site I spot a beautiful black Aberts squirrel near the picnic table. I kneel down to my daughter’s level and point to the squirrel, explaining what it is and that it’s such a beautiful animal. It saunters away into the forest, but we will see it again later that evening, and I will be proud when she tells me, from recollection, “that’s an Aberts squirrel, Daddy.”

As we set up camp, she helps with the chores. I lug a big piece of firewood and she picks up a smaller stick. “Is this a good burning wood?” she asks.  She helps me set up the tent, and then dances around with delight inside when it’s up.

As the shadows get longer on this sunny day we cook dinner over the fire and then roast marshmallows together. She is mesmerized and calmed by the fire in the evening just as many adults are. There seems to be something primal and innately comforting to a human being about a campfire.

As dusk comes we walk back to the trail where there is a sweeping view of the city of Denver and all its lights. She says nothing while looking intensely over the city and the plains beyond, and I sense the wonder that she’s feeling. I tell her that our house is one of those lights (even though I know our house is just out of view to the northeast), and this brings a great big smile. “Is Mommy there?” She asks.

As we sit looking at the city lights over the tops of Ponderosa Pines my daughter gives me a kiss on the cheek and says “I love you Daddy.”  She takes a deep breath of contentment and then a few moments later asks to go back to the campsite. She’s tired.

She sleeps like a log in the tent. She’s been car camping several times before, but this was a new step, and I’m pleased with how well she’s handled it. My hope is that these immersions into nature will become part of who she is. I hope it will create a natural comfort with being in the wilderness, a desire to be outside, to explore, and to respect the natural world.  And, when she’s older there will be an innate wonder and excitement for the wild in her soul.

The hike back to the car the next morning is as slow as the one to the campsite.  She pretends the sand on the trail is bug spray and gets the idea that she needs to protect the grass on the side of the trail from bugs and repeatedly sprinkles “bug spray” sand into the grass.

Close to the trailhead I spot a deer in the meadow up the hill.

“Look up there. See the deer?” I ask.

“Uh-huh.” She acknowledges that she sees it and watches the animal bound through the tall grass and into the trees.  She seems thoughtful for a few moments and then gets back to her game of collecting “bug spray” sand. With patience I just smile and watch.

The Itch

I look out my window to a foot of snow still on the ground from a series of late February snowstorms.  I absolutely love snow.  When it snows good and heavy, I turn into a little kid on Christmas morning, darting from window to window to watch the flakes fall and the ground whiten up.  To me, a good raging blizzard ranks very high in life’s pure joys.

But, it’s this time of year, at the tale end of the dead of winter and heading into the first green buds of Spring, that I get the “wilderness itch.” I like all seasons, but it’s the summertime that really hits my soul when it comes to wilderness in the West.  It’s when meadows are green, mountain streams run clear and the aspens shimmer.  When you can wear shorts and a t-shirt sitting on a boulder at 10,000 feet and be perfectly comfortable.  When trout rise in the evening on a creek riffle.  When sunbeams through the forest on clear mountain mornings bring pure happiness.

What new wilderness paradise will I discover this year?  In what cool mountain waters will I dip my feet come July?  Through which forests will I wander, up which valleys will I venture, over which passes will I crest, atop which mountains will I stand?  And, as my daughter turns four and begins to come into the ages where she can start to explore further afield with me, where will I take her to discover her own wonders of the wild?

So, my planning begins.  What Colorado wilderness areas have I yet to walk in?  Spanish Peaks?  Hunter Fryingpan?  Maroon Bells?  La Garita?  What about other states?  Utah’s High Uinta Wilderness is high on my wish list.  So is Cloud Peak in Wyoming’s Big Horns?  Then there’s the Gila down in New Mexico… One of these years I will get there.  Maybe it’s this year.

Water drips from icicles off my gutters.  The Indian Peaks are pure white with late winter snow.  But, the tulip buds are appearing, and I can sense the change of the seasons coming.  Soon.

Four Days a River Rat

In September of 2014 I paddled a kayak alone down 52 miles of the Green River through Utah’s Cayonlands National Park.  It is said to be America’s finest flatwater river trip.  And, it almost took my life.  This story is a testament to the old adage that bad things can happen when we least expect it.

Summer 2014 127

There is no terror like facing impending death.  I have made the classic fatal sequence of those who drown: panic then exhaustion. The current has me pinned to the middle of the broad river. If I could stand I would collapse in exhaustion. But, there is nothing to stand on and nobody there to throw me a life line. I’m about to go under.

The prospect of facing down death was far from my mind when I giddily drifted my kayak into the Green three days ago.

The legendary Green River of the American West begins as a trickle of glacier melt high in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. It first runs north as a rippling mountain stream before doubling back and finding its true southerly course.  Downstream from the town of Green River, Utah, the Green is wide, muddy, and placid for its last 120 miles, twisting between the layered cliffs of Southern Utah canyon country.  It finally merges with the Colorado in the heart of Canyonlands National Park.

Fully loaded and ready to launch at Mineral Bottom

Fully loaded and ready to launch at Mineral Bottom

Day One on the River

Today, after much anticipation, I finally I push my sit-on-top kayak into the muddy river at Mineral Bottom, the last put-in upriver from Canyonlands National Park. This lowest 52 mile stretch of the big Green River is said to be America’s greatest flatwater river trip.

It’s already near 100 degrees this early September day. But, the river water cools as I dangle my hands into the liquid mud. I’m gliding on a wide tan-colored expanse of water that seems completely still. Only by glancing at the willows on the riverbanks do I detect any drift, which is walking speed at best. Red and tan banded cliffs rise a few hundred feet on both sides under a perfect dome of blue sky.

I establish a rhythm of slow steady paddling over the next few hours as the river wanders its way into Canyonlands National Park. The air remains still and hot with no shade.  After a long easterly stretch the river takes a swing towards the south where low sandstone cliffs drop straight into the water. I seek out the narrow strips of shade tight to the rock, at times floating under stone overhangs a foot over my head. The landscape feels immense. This is the big West of canyon and cloud, rock and sun, river and big sky.

Serenity on the big desert river, just a few miles into Canyonlands

Serenity on the big desert river, just a few miles into Canyonlands

Drifting quietly under a world of rock

Drifting quietly under a world of rock

The calm is finally broken by a wind out of nowhere. In a matter of minutes my hypnotic drift down a glossy river becomes a struggle against wind and waves. It’s a good time to get off the river for the day, but campsites suddenly become hard to come by. Both banks are choked with willow and tamarisk as I battle head winds and side winds depending on the direction of the river.

Finally, with the sun behind the canyon rim and with tired shoulders, I spot a low sandbar island.  The canyon seems to reward me for my hard work, for just as abruptly as it roared to life the wind stops. I pull the kayak up onto the sandbar, look around, and know that I have finally found my campsite for the night, 22 miles from put-in and deep in the backcountry of Canyonlands.

Sandbar campsite at Valentine Bottom, 22 miiles from put-in, 30 miles from confluence

Sandbar campsite at Valentine Bottom, 22 miiles from put-in, 30 miles from confluence

The Sandbar and a Cat

On the sandbar I hear disturbances in the river, like the rising crescendo of released underwater bubbles. Curious, I put a fishing hook through hunk of smelly salami, secure about 30 feet of line to the boat, and heave the salami out into the river. Thinking it unlikely that I’ll catch anything I quickly forget about it and get back to my camp chores.

Minutes later I hear a slight ping and look up to see a taught line being pulled slowly this way and that.  Visions of some great big river beast pop into my head as I jump over, grab the line and pull it in, hand over hand. A 14-inch catfish flops onto the sandbar, whiskers and all.  In the debate in my head between fried catfish and cheesburgers, cheesburgers wins, and I toss it back into its muddy domain.  My exquisitely delicious burgers are cooked on a cast iron pan over my stove complemented by fresh diced watermelon and a cold beer—yes you can take “stuff” on a river trip.

I decide to cowboy camp tonight–Southern Utah stars are dazzling.  By the time I crawl into my bag crickets and frogs are making sweet music in the desert. I clap my hands and hear two echoes in the canyon. The river is quiet except for those catfish bubbles.

Catfish may be tasty, but they don't look tasty.  I set this one free.

Catfish may be tasty, but they don’t look tasty. I set this one free.

Day Two on the River

Morning in the West: perfect air, perfect scenery, and perfect solitude. A heron is feeding at the head of my island as I cook a breakfast of eggs and pancakes. Upriver to the west a growing band of red sunshine is making its way slowly down a rock face.

I saw may of these beautiful Herons on the river

I saw may of these beautiful Herons on the river

On the river today the canyon country tightens up a bit. Rock walls become closer and taller and yet the river maintains its lazy pace. I paddle less this morning and drift more.

By midday the calm is broken and that headwind kicks up again, earlier than yesterday. Before I know it I’m facing down two foot rollers. The flow of the river seems to be almost stopped by the wind and I’m forced to paddle hard to keep moving. I come to a beach on river left and stop for some lunch and rest.

The relentless wind kicks up plumes of sand into my cheese and salami. Desk-sized blocks of sand break from the bank and crash into the water like calving ice burgs. A party of five, two canoes and three kayaks, drift into view like ghosts. They battle the wind with stubborn nonchalance, content to simply bob in the waves when the wind is especially stiff.

I shove back into the river to make a run for the next bend and hopefully calmer conditions. Eventually the orientation of the canyon changes and the wind dwindles to a few blustery breezes.

By mid-afternoon I’ve found my campsite. It’s a big beach on the outside of a long left bend in the river.  The close canyon wall drapes a nice early shade over the beach to cut the sun. It’s a great spot, but large enough to accommodate many more people. I realize that river etiquette requires me to offer the use of this place to any later parties. As I wander up and down my beach like a contented Robinson Crusoe I hope I will not have to share it.

Beach campsite, night 2, about 38 miles from put-in and 12 miles from the cofluence

Beach campsite, night 2, about 38 miles from put-in and 12 miles from the cofluence

The Beach and Padre

A group of four men come around the bend. They are paddling a contraption of two canoes with a platform fastened between them stacked with an enormous pile of camping gear. Shirtless, burley, and gruff-voiced, these look to be the saltiest group of guys on the Green. I can see that they are scouting my beach with envy.

Reluctantly I wave and call out to them with welcoming words. I’ve done my part, now the decision is theirs. They decide to stay. As they climb ashore, one-by-one, the last man off the boat catches my attention. He’s a tall ancient man. Shirtless with a good sized sagging spare tire around the middle, his leathery skin is the red-brown color of the Wingate sandstone of the canyon. His hair is a close-cropped helmet of thick blond-gray like the Navaho Sandstone that caps the Wingate. He looks like the canyon itself.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” he says, and then offers to share their liquor which is apparently of great abundance. I don’t quite know what to think of this odd bunch. At the moment I’m not thrilled that they are here. What was a quiet canyon is now filled with profanity-infused banter and I lament the loss of solitude. But, as I cook and eat my dinner, they start to seem less like prison escapees and a bit more like regular folks. I finish my dinner, grab my can of beer and saunter over. I’m welcomed into the crew with great enthusiasm.

My improvised river rock and fire pan cooking system.  Only beach driftwood can be burned and fire pans are required.

My improvised river rock and fire pan cooking system. Only beach driftwood can be burned and fire pans are required.

“You guys been down this river before?”

“Well,” starts the second oldest guy in the group. “This would be my sixth trip down personally. Padre here’s been down a few times.” He motions to the ancient one. “Padre, how many times does this make for you?”

Padre stares at me for a moment, his large rugged head cocked a bit to the side, then says, “well, this would be number eighty for me.”

I believe he must be joking. “Eighty?!” I gasp.

“Yeah, well,” says Padre. “That’s over a span of about 40 years.”

Fascinated I lay into old Padre with question after question. He first visited the area as a teenager from Detroit on a family vacation in the 1950’s.  They were greeted in Arches (then only a new and seldom visited National Monument) by Edward Abbey himself when Desert Solitaire was but a few passing thoughts in that young park ranger’s mind.  Like many young men from the East who see it for the first time he was allured by the distances and vividness of the Western landscape.  He was especially drawn to the big muddy river he saw flowing quietly through the canyons.

Fifteen or so years later he moved West, bought a seven dollar inflatable raft from K-Mart, and floated himself right into the Green River.  He fell in love with this river and these canyons as a young man.  And now, as an old man, he talks of the river and these canyons that he’s come to know so well with understatement and a tone of nostalgia, like a great adventurer who knows he can never capture in words the experiences he holds in his heart: “See that next little side canyon down there?” he says, pointing down the river. “I call that one the ‘candylands’ because of the bright colors and texture of the rocks up in there.” His voice trails a bit as he stares down his canyon. “Hard to get to.”

I lay awake for hours tonight watching the moon traverse across the sky between the canyon rims. Something about Padre’s story makes me especially proud of my country this night. What a beautiful life! What a beautiful place this is! What a beautiful country I live in! This is freedom. This is the America that I love.

Day 3 on the River

In four miles I come to a sweeping left curve in the river where Jasper Canyon comes in from the right. I find a place to tie up, hop out of the kayak, swap my water shoes for my hiking boots, and head up into the side canyon.

I never see the Anasazi granary that is supposed to be near the mouth of the canyon as I continue on an intermittent hikers trail into a tightening dry gorge. Nearly a mile up, I finally clamber over some ledges, around some stagnant but incredibly clear freshwater pools and into an astounding amphitheater.  Above me is a huge circular overhang cliff with water drops drifting down from the lip. I scamper up ledges and get underneath the overhang and behind the drip-waterfall to watch single drops of water on seven-second free falls to the red rocks by my feet.

The head of Jasper Canyon, looking straight up at the circular amphitheater

The head of Jasper Canyon, looking straight up at the circular amphitheater

Back on the river now the remainder of the afternoon is calm with glassy water. I play leapfrog with the five person crew I saw yesterday in the wind and, for a while, enjoy the bluegrass tunes I hear coming from one of their kayaks.

The river makes big turns here, but it’s always quiet and calm with that gentle drift through the canyon walls. The days have become progressively more enjoyable and I have a hard time believing it when I realize I’m within three or four miles of the Confluence with the Colorado and I’ve put nearly 50 river miles behind me.

I come to a spectacular beach on the inside point of a sharp right bend in the river.  I decide this is where I will stay for my third and final night on the river.

My third and final campsite was a magnificent beach... But, I would not get to enjoy a night on this one.

My third and final campsite was a magnificent beach… But, I would not get to enjoy a night on this one.

Calamity

I walk aimlessly for a while along the white-sand beach.  I notice next to my beach there is a big shallow eddie swirling around and I get the urge to cool off in the water.  With no shirt or shoes, and my life vest sitting on my kayak, I wade into the river finding knee deep water out 20 feet from the bank. I’m not here to swim. I simply want to get down into that cool shallow water and float on my back.  Sinking into the river, I relax immediately and gaze up to those reddish canyon rims.  My dangling fingers find the sandy riverbed. Drifting. Slowly drifting, I feel the current pulling me back to shore, as expected. The bottom drops away from my reach, yet I linger in my float for a minute like a log adrift by the bank. Or so I think. I finally turn upwards to stand, but that sandy river bed is gone, nothing but water beneath me.  As I calmly tread a quick reorientation reveals that I’m drifting away from my beach in the main river current.  Still, I’m unconcerned as I turn towards the beach to swim lazily back to shallow water.

I take a few strokes and then attempt to stand again, expecting to feel that sand beneath my feat, only to find that I’m drifting farther into the middle of the river.  Now I panic, and repeatedly, foolishly, try to swim the same line to the beach rather than turning downstream and letting the current work with me.  The slow current is like a giant’s thumb casually pushing me away the more I try to push back.  And, each time I try to push back I get more and more exhausted until I have nothing left.  I’m at least a hundred feet from either bank now and the river feels a hundred feet deep.  I feel like I just sprinted a mile, but there is no way to rest as muddy water laps at my chin and lactic acid turns my arms and legs to rubber.

The realization now comes to me–I’m about to die.  How quickly this happened.

Panic is replaced by terror.  Absolute silent terror.  I have the urge to let out a primal scream but don’t have the breath for it.  I can feel my eyes widen.  I hear my own voice making involuntary blurts and gasps of fear, like a whimper.  Like an animal’s whimper in the throes of death.  My arms and legs are failing and my heart is pounding out of my chest.  That muddy water, right there at my chin, is trying to end me.  I’m going under… I’m going under…   I’m gonna die…

Now my mind flashes with striking images of my family.  My three-year-old daughter tells me she loves me in a pleading voice, clear as day.  She’s tugging on my arm, wanting me to come with her.  I feel her tugging on my arm.  I see my wife, my beautiful, caring wife, sitting alone with a blank and sad stare.  An intense emotion, like a sad yearning, hits me like a million tons of rubble.  My body is giving up.  My legs and arms are just heavy bags of sand that I can barely move.  I’m heaving for air, but water then rises and I shut my mouth as I start to sink.  This is it… This is it… Then something clicks.  Stop fighting it and get on your back you idiot!  Get on your back!

I lean back and just float, and just try to catch my breath.  I heave for air violently, repeatedly, for what seems like a very long time, my eyes fixated on that red canyon rim.  Gradually, I recover.  A sense of calm returns.  I have no idea where I am in the river, but I rationalize that the river bend is causing me to drift to the far bank.  Just drift to that far bank.   Just drift, you’ll get there.

A second wave of terror thunders over me when I finally turn to look for that opposite bank and find that I am no closer than before. The river seems immense and I’m an insignificant piece of waterlogged flotsam about to drift silently under the surface to eternal darkness. I see a vision of bleached white bones like driftwood on a winter sandbar—my bones, picked clean by ravens. But, my mind returns, once again, to my little girl and my beautiful wife. I can’t leave them.  I get angry at this river.  Fuck you, you bastard!  Fuck this! The anger helps, bringing an intense determination to not be beaten by this river.  I concentrate on staying afloat. I find calm again. The fear is there, lurking just under the surface.  I say aloud, “I’m gonna make it.” I force myself to believe it and replay that defiant statement in my head over and over.  I’m gonna make it… I’m gonna make it… I’m gonna  make it.  With renewed energy, I commence a backstroke, slow and steady this time, letting the current work with me, angling toward the far bank.

It works. When the bank is finally close I turn from my backstroke and jolt into a spasm of a side stroke. I strike the rising river bed with my left hand. Salvation.  I claw my way up onto a steep muddy bank, and only then do I realize how extraordinarily exhausted I still am. I do nothing for ten minutes but lay there on that bank, my legs still in the water and my torso draped along the slope like an evolutionary fish emerging from the sea onto land for the first time.

A Creature of the Night

It’s about 4:00 in the afternoon. I sit on my muddy bank of salvation looking across and up the river to my kayak on that beach. The river is two football fields wide and I drifted a good quarter mile down. Attempting to swim back across is unthinkable. I find myself boxed in by two cliffs, one upriver and one down, that drop straight into the water. Between these cliffs, where I am, is a steep slope rising from the riverbank that is covered in a nasty tangle of thorny bushes, loose rocks and quite possibly home to rattlesnakes and scorpions. At the top of this slope, about 30 feet above the river and behind me, the vertical rock of the canyon rises hundreds of feet straight up. My only way out will have to be by boat rescue.  Will anyone else come down the river today?  I don’t know.

Assessing my situation I am all too aware that I have no shirt, no shoes, and no supplies. The sky has turned cloudy and looks to be darkening. If it rains at night, hypothermia is a certainty without shelter.  So, I begin to seek shelter.  My best chance of finding it is up along the base of the cliff behind me.  I climb the steep slope in my bare feet dangerously clawing and pulling my way up through spiky vegetation on loose dirt.  A slip could be catastrophic.  I manage to make my way up to the cliff base.  Along the base of the cliff there is a level two-foot wide shelf of earth.  I see a dead Tamarisk growing from the slope, its tangled branches reaching up and over the shelf to the rock, forming a dense tunnel.  Straight above, maybe 30 feet up, is a six-foot rock overhang.  It’s a decent shelter and I consider this to be a lucky break.  The sky is still cloudy.  Will it rain?  Please don’t rain.

I sit on a rock near the shelter looking up the river for boats.  Nothing.  The glow of sun behind the clouds creeps towards the canyon rim.  With each passing minute it becomes less likely that anyone will come.  I feel confident that I can make it through the night.  But, I wish I had a shirt at least. And, now I catch a break–the clouds dissipate and late afternoon sunbeams burst through just above the canyon rim.  Blue sky moves in behind the passing clouds.  But, with the passing of one threat comes another–dehydration.  I realize that once it is dark it will be nearly impossible to make it back down the treacherous slope to the river without a fall and likely injury.  I need access to water.  So, with reluctance, I decide to leave my shelter and return down the slope to a small flat sandstone ledge by the river. Drinking the river water, sediment and all, is a last resort, but I want the option.

Before I leave I take a closer look at a healthy prickly pear cactus to my right. The insides are edible and watery.  I find a couple of sharp edged rocks and carefully manage to peel off the skin, spines, and stickers from one side of a plump lobe and scoop out the watery inside. It’s lime green and looks appetizing, but is almost tasteless. I eat as much of the juicy inside as I can reasonably scoop away, receiving valuable, if little, hydration.

Back down on my ledge, the day fades and Venus shines, always first, always brilliant.  I stare across the river to my kayak and cooler, cold drinks inside. I feel like the Greek mythological king Tantalus standing in cool water he can never drink, under succulent fruit he cannot reach.  That tantalizing cooler is so close, yet a universe away.

Just as night falls the near full moon appears over the rim and illuminates the canyon.  Rocks glow all around me.  I look up at that moon and recall something I often tell my daughter: The moon is made of cheese and there’s a man up there in that moon. He smiles down at us and makes the night peaceful. There is wisdom in folklore like this. It gives me comfort.

Within a couple hours from dusk the chills start to set in. The moon is now well up over the canyon and the Big Dipper is slowly pinwheeling behind the north rim. I’m already getting cold, and this is concerning with at least seven more hours of night to endure. With no clothes to put on nor tools to build fire, the only thing I can do is exercise.

I stand up and begin doing upper body calisthenics with my feet planted firmly.  This keeps me warm, but I also use it to calculate time. I swing my arms in estimated one-second intervals—five sets of 60 for five minutes and then switch to a different movement for variety. After 15 or 20 minutes, my body is warm enough for 5 to 10 minutes of rest before shivers return and I start the process all over again.  And, again…  And, again, and again, deep into the night.

The experience is fantastically elemental–just me and the big night wilderness. I feel strange. The moonlit canyon is otherworldly and I feel as if I’m a grotesque creature perched on a ledge on some other planet.

Slow hours pass and the moon is now nearing the opposite rim.  The Big Dipper is gone now, but the Teapot has made a grand entrance over the east wall directly above me. I know the early morning hours will be the darkest, coldest and weariest hours, but the daylight, warmth and rescue are on the other side.

I watch the moon depart behind rock and the canyon turns inky black. With no moon comes the full splendor of the galaxy. The Milky Way is a silk tapestry spread between the cliffs.  The sky and the canyon walls are now equally black, the rock discernible only by the absence of stars. Below me the black river seems a bottomless abyss.  I hear the occasional catfish in the night.  Rising bubbles.  Every few minutes a chunk of sand breaks from the dune across the river and an unnerving ker-PLAAAASSSHHH reverberates in the darkness.

The endless night continues.  I want to sleep but can’t–too cold to stay still.  Too much risk of slumbering off my ledge into the river.  My mind is calm and strong, but with a tinge of foreboding loneliness and self pity.  It’s dark.  So, dark.  If I only had a shirt.  The night seems endless.

My calisthenics tell me the dawn is near and I begin to gaze across the sky expectantly for that first sign of light.  Still blackness.  But, I look up to see my teakettle and notice that I can no longer see the Milky Way. Soon a bluish hue emerges over the canyon to the south. Dawn is here!

My ordeal is nearing its end and yet the end is still so far away. It is the coldest time of day and I’m constantly shivering now. My mouth is like the sand of the desert and my throat burns with thirst.  I desperately want a big stack of french toast.  But, I know salvation is near and I resist the urge to gulp down liquid mud from the river.

The half-light and my weariness play tricks on me. I keep hearing a haunting woman’s voice upriver around the bend, but I know there is nobody there.  Gradually the canyon enlightens.  I see the first rays of sunshine ignite the highest pinnacles to the west—rock turning from dull gray to flaming red.

After rescue, looking back across the river to the area where I spent the night.

After rescue, looking back across the river to the area where I spent the night.

Safe Again

Sixteen hours after my near drowning the canoe drifts into view seconds after I hear the voices. Two men.  I wave them over calmly, oddly feeling like I’m in a Monty Python comedy skit.

“Did you spend all night over here?” asks the younger man incredulously.

I hop clumsily on their cooler, feeling a wave of relief, and they paddle hard cross-current towards my kayak. We cross the swirl in the river where I nearly drowned and the canoe spins and dips. “Wow, that’s a strange current,” says the man in back.

I hop out onto that wonderful beach and shake the hands of my rescuers, thanking them again before they’re on their way. There is no crazy jubilation or mental collapse, just a calm sense of relief. I’m no longer Tantalus as I reach into that cooler and bring out an ice cold carbonated juice. I’ve never tasted anything so beautifully refreshing in my life.

It’s pick up day and I still have to paddle to the confluence by 10:00 am to be ready for the jet boat to take me back to Moab. Once on the water I make a point to relax and enjoy the final stretch.  Back in bright, hot sun.  So different from the cold of the desert night just hours ago.  Before long the river curves right and I see across that broad bend a huge beach with a bunch of people straight ahead. Left of the beach another river comes into view, about equal in size to the Green and just as muddy. It’s the Colorado. I paddle out into what is now the Colorado River below the confluence and straight over to the lower end of the beach.

As I sit on a grassy bank waiting for the boat I look across the Colorado straight up the Green. The river curves and disappears into the ancient walls of the canyon. I know I left a piece of my soul there in that labyrinth. I believe that those still waters will run deep.

We shared many trails, Dozer and me.

We shared many trails, Dozer and me.

To the east a thin group of clouds just above the Indian Peaks turn from pale gray to soft pastel shades of pink and orange. The sunrise is subtle for the moment with no direct sunshine, just colors. To the west a nearly full moon is sinking down towards the ridgeline of the Gore Range—a sharply serrated outline of dark rock against an indigo western sky. I stand in the middle, right on the crest of the Continental Divide in the Vasquez Peaks.

Alone, I walk north along the Divide, high above the trees, as the sky lightens. A burst of sunshine finally washes over the east facing slopes to my right. The light at this hour and at this elevation is magic. Colors seem to glow and textures take on extraordinary dimension. Everything is crisp. Each blade of grass, flower pedal and grain of earth seem to have their own sunbeams dedicated to their individual illumination.

It is indeed an exhilarating place on Earth to stand at this moment in time. From the apex of the continent and at the very moment when the day bursts through, all becomes light and beauty and brilliance. I feel privileged to be here.

The thrill of this moment is subdued by an element of sadness. Dozer is not here with me this morning. I was here yesterday with him at almost the same hour. As I was just about to take the final few steps to reach the Divide, I turned to check on him, to make sure he was right there at my heels as always. When I saw him far down slope I knew immediately, he had finally explored his last trail. At sixteen years, ancient for a dog of his size, he could do it no more. He was just sitting there, facing away from me, staring back east toward home. He held his head low and still.

I didn’t try to coax him on. I scrambled my way back down the steep slope, and when I reached my friend I took a seat next to him and we watched the sunrise together. After a few minutes he told me he was ready to go with one gentle lick on the back of my hand. His eyes said, “Take me home now.” “Yeah,” I said aloud. “Let’s go home now.”

The very next morning I’m back again, on the Divide. Something is on the trail—a big gleaming pile of scat. A very big cat has been here this morning, is perhaps still here just around some rock or just out of my view a bit down the hill, crouching, watching.  Somehow I feel very much at ease.

Soon I spot some movement down the steep west slope. It’s not the lion but a small group of large brown animals. Bighorns, I think, but they are too distant to be sure. I take a picture on full zoom and then zoom in on the digital image. Deer! Four of them high above the trees. Perhaps the lion was stalking this group. Perhaps hours ago there were five of them and one sacrificed to the lion.

I’m walking a section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and it is one of the most delightful walks imaginable. The gentle, rounded ridgeline guides me on a two mile pathway through a paradise of color, sunshine and mountain vistas. Wildflowers of pink, white, blue, red, purple, and yellow shine in the early morning sun on a background of green grass. Speckled white granite rocks poke through here and there. The whole scene is framed by brilliant snowfields corniced on the east slope just off the crest of the ridge, all beneath a pale blue sky getting bluer as the day brightens.

Vasquez Peak Wilderness 1

I soon reach an unnamed high point I decide to call “rocky knob” for the cluster of boulders at the top. Here, the Continental Divide sweeps 90-degrees to the east towards Berthoud Pass. Another ridge runs from here towards the Northwest into the Vasquez Peak Wilderness and on to the summit of Mount Nystrom, just another mile or so away. I find this spot to be a sort of focal point for the wilderness complex I’m standing in. The three wilderness areas of Vasquez Peak, Byers Peak and Ptarmigan Peak are, individually, all small slices of mountains, ridges and forests. But, they form the outside edges of a much larger wild land. In the middle of the three wilderness areas the roadless basin of the Williams Fork Headwaters and the Frazer Experimental Forest form the core of the area. Taken all together, this is a 100,000 acre expanse all managed as wilderness if not all officially designated. It represents a beautiful “void” between much more well-known wild lands like the Indian Peaks to the east and the Eagles Nest to the west. Not as classically rugged as those areas, one gets a sweeping view of them from these gentle alpine ridges and peaks. It’s all two hours or so from the Denver area, and by the end of the day on this Saturday in July I will have only seen one other person on these high ridge trails.

I break from the Continental Divide Trail and head northwest on the ridge to Mount Nystrom. The name “Mount Nystrom” can evoke imagined images of a pinnacled and sinister peak, perpetually swirled by black storms and inhabited by horrible spirits–the tortured souls of many a lost climber. That it is not. Mount Nystrom, like most of the peaks of this area, is but another rounded summit graced by gentle grassy slopes.

The trail to Nystrom is intermittent, but no matter, the route is obvious. I soon traverse through a delightful grotto garden. Low rock walls border a passageway paved in green grass and wildflowers. A little bunch of alpine forget-me-nots is tucked next to a protective rock. Each tiny petal is so blue as to almost glow, so perfectly shaped as to seem unreal.

A pika chirps and then I see it. Elusive creatures of extreme cuteness, they are often heard and much less often actually seen. This one stays in view, perched on a rock, and I take the time to enjoy its company. I move on along the ridge. Over 1,500 feet down the steep slope to the south lay the dark surface of a small lake at the head of a trailless valley. Above the lake in alpine meadow is a scattershot of brown boulders that look out of place in the greens and grays and blues of this environment. One of the boulders moves and I realize I’m looking at a herd of elk, at least 60 of them, just at tree line far below.

Pika

Pika

Vasquez Peak Wilderness 4

There is a wooden post but no register at the 12,600 foot summit of Mount Nystrum. From here I spot notable peaks in all directions: Longs, Holy Cross, Torreys. Full mountain ranges unfold. Way in the distance is the Park Range and the northern Sawatch. Closer are the rugged peaks of the Gore Range, the Never Summers, and the Indian Peaks. And in the foreground are the summits of Vasquez, Byers and Bills Peaks.

In the basin to the north there sits a small pond, Vasquez Lake. I plan to hike down to it, so I continue down the north slope of Mount Nystrum to a high saddle then drop down a very steep hundred feet onto a flat basin at timberline. I cross a small creek, slalom through some krumholz trees and reach the serene shallow water of the lake, fringed by a forest of stunted evergreens. Mount Nystrum now stands stately 1,000 feet above. It’s a peaceful spot, but I have the strange feeling of being in the presence of a grouchy bear. It’s funny how, when I knew a mountain lion was close, I was unworried, but here I feel uneasy about a bear of which there is no actual sign of.

Vasquez Lake, Mt. Nystrom behind

Vasquez Lake, Mt. Nystrom behind

I don’t stay too long, not because of the imagined angry bear, but because the cumulous clouds are building. I must climb back to the ridge and then return the way I came, exposed above timberline for several more hours. I get going, hucking across the basin and then up a very steep flank. I take 50 steps then rest, 50 steps then rest, until finally climbing the 800 feet back to the crest of the ridge just on the Mt. Nystrum side of “rocky knob.” Back through the grotto and then on the Continental Divide Trail again, I watch the weather closely, hoping it holds out just long enough for me to get down off the Divide.

The weather does hold as I make my final steps below a snow-blocked Jones Pass to my car. The Henderson mine hums below in the valley and beyond that is Highway 40, Interstate-70 and then the 3 million or so residents of the Denver metropolis. This dichotomy is always striking to me. As I rumble down the highway into the city, surrounded by humanity, cars, houses and people, I remember how just hours ago I had the Continental Divide and a whole glistening wilderness to myself.

 

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