Archive for June, 2012

A doomsday scene – the High Park Fire at night. Image courtesy of RV Vagabonds.

It appears that the lightning-caused 80,000 + acre High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado has burned all or most of the forest in the Cache La Poudre Wilderness Area.  I can’t determine at this time whether or not the intensity of the fire in that area has been sufficient to completely destroy the forest.  This is largely a Ponderosa Pine area which could actually benefit from a low-intensity fire.  But, I suspect that our recent weather and prior forest conditions in that area are not conducive to a low-intensity blaze.

The Cache La Poudre Wilderness is one of Colorado’s smaller, lesser known and least used designated wilderness areas.  It is also one of our most unique, and because of its uniqueness, one of our most important wilderness areas.  This wilderness area protects a rugged mid-elevation Ponderosa Pine forest surrounding about 16 miles of the South Fork of the Cache La Poudre River as it flows northeast down to its confluence with the main Cache La Poudre.  It’s a rugged canyon area with great stream fishing, if you can get to it.  I know  a secret way to get to the confluence and then hike up the South Fork.  In this wilderness area I’ve analyzed fresh mountain lion tracks in the sand by the creek, glimpsed a pine marten, and enjoyed the vanilla scent of healthy Ponderosa Pine bark.

While on a personal and selfish level I’m saddened that this wilderness area will now never be the same in my lifetime, I’m also curious about its future regeneration.  Will the South Fork Cache La Poudre become silt-laden and flood-prone, destroying the once healthy trout fishery, or will it maintain it’s integrity?  Was the forest completely destroyed or will it be a patchwork of black and green as the fire jumped around the area?

I was tentatively planning an overnighter into this area this fall.  While that will no longer be in the plans, I may consider it in a couple of years, to see the area transformed from the way I used to remember it.


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Dozer on the snowy slopes just below the summit of Fancy Pass

Dozer is a great trail dog.  Fourteen years old and he can still cover many miles over all kinds of terrain.  He is nice to all other people and dogs.  And, he never strays far when off-leash.  But, sometimes he’s a big dummy.

I was standing on the edge of Fancy Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area enjoying the view of a snowmelt waterfall across the lake which was still covered in thin ice, when I heard a giant splash at my feet.  Dozer had tried to jump from the bank onto the thin melting ice and immediately crashed through it.

Dozer is, I think, part Border Collie and part Lab, but he doesn’t exhibit the characteristics of either breed.  He doesn’t have the smarts or hearding instinct of the Border Collie.  And, unlike most Labs, he hates to swim.  In fact, he doesn’t know how to swim like a proper dog.

When I heard the splash, I looked down to see a gaping hole in the thin ice, and Dozer, completely submerged, flailing wildly under the water.  He bobbed up to the surface with a look of absolute bewilderment and shock.  I watched as he somehow managed to crawl up on to a slab of floating ice that was now broken free from the larger icy mass of the lake surface.

For a moment he was completely out of the water, balancing on the iceberg.  But, the ice was thin, and Dozer began to slowly sink straight down as his weight pushed the ice towards the lake bottom.  Dozer held steady, though, balancing on that ice as he was slowly, cruelly, lowered back into the icy water.

As the water reached his shoulders, his look of bewilderment turned to defeat and he let his body slowly slide back into the glacially cold lake.  He splashed and thrashed over to the bank and pulled himself back onto dry land.  Once on land he did a funny little dance, turned in two circles, then found the closest sun-drenched patch of greenery to roll around in.

Dozer in his icy ordeal making his way back to the bank

Oddly, this was my first time visiting Colorado’s revered Holy Cross Wilderness Area.  My plan was to hike the Fancy Pass – Missouri Lakes Loop, which is a very popular 8-mile hike in the southern part of the wilderness.

Most years in early June I would fully expect this high alpine area to still be buried in snow.  But, 2012 was a very low-snowpack year in Colorado and we’d had an unusually warm spring.  I thought the snow might be melted out much earlier this year.

I was wrong.  Although I’m sure there was much less snowcover on June 3rd this year than in most, the terrain above about 11,000 feet was still largely covered in snow, and the lakes still mostly iced over.

After a pleasant early morning hike up Fancy Creek, we negotiated our way over, through and around snowbanks the last half-mile or so to Fancy Lake.  Fancy Lake is in a beautiful setting and the spring thaw had created numerous waterfalls over the rock legdes above the lake.  There were some small melted out areas around the edge of the lake where many small brookies basked in their new world of light after many months of total darkness under the ice.  I caught and released a couple before continuing towards Fancy Pass above the lake.

Beautiful Fancy Lake still mostly covered with ice

Fancy Lake is at about 11,500 feet, so we quickly achieved the timberline as we departed the pleasant lake and climbed towards Fancy Pass.  The “gully” leading to the top of Fancy Pass was still buried under a huge snowfield.  I had my removable snow treads, but no ice ax, so I decided to avoid the snow and scramble up to the pass to the left of the snowfield.

The going was treacherous as the mountainside was a mixture of loose talus, loose dirt, ledges and slippery grass.  At one point, Dozer began to slide backwards, his claws slowly losing their grip.  For a moment I thought it might get ugly, but Dozer, moutain dog rock-hopper that he is, deftly shifted his position, faced down hill, and bolted down the steep slope, over rocks, shot down to level ground, and turned to wait for me to inch my way down to firmer ground.

We reached the beautiful pass and looked west into a snow-filled basin and a completely frozen-over Treasure Vault Lake.  The loop route drops into this basin, turns south, then crosses Missouri Pass before dropping down into the Missouri Lakes Basin.  I knew we could make it back down Fancy Pass, but given the still substantial amount of snow, I had no way of knowing whether Missouri Pass could be safely descended.  So, I decided to return the way we came, back down Fancy Pass.

The rugged view to the west from the top of Fancy Pass at about 12,500 feet.

Although a bit nervous about safety, a short traverse of some of the snow on the way up convinced me that the decent could be safely made down the middle of the snow gully.  So, I strapped my Kako ICEtrekkers Diamond Grips over my boots and Dozer and I stepped onto the snowfield.

The snow was pretty soft and I quickly gained confidence that this was the right decision.  I carefully verified the stability of each step as I switchbacked my way down the snowfield.  Dozer, at one point, began to slide face first.  He instinctively flattened out on his belly, splayed out his legs, and let his claws go to work.  As he came to a gradual stop in just a few feet he lingered on his belly and looked back at me as if to say, “ahh, this snow feells really good on my belly!”

Looking back up at Fancy Pass from partway down the snowfield

It wasn’t long before we made our way back down to Fancy Lake where I did a little more fishing and caught and released a couple more brookies.  Then, after Dozer’s unexpected dip in the icy lake, we found a nice place in the sun to just sit and take in the wild country.

As we sat by the lake, I watched a couple of marmots waddle back and forth across a snow patch on the other side of the lake.  A human couple with their dog also reached the lake.  It’s important, I think, when in the wild to take some time to just let it soak in.

I took my time on the hike back down the hill, through the forest, back and forth across a swollen Fancy Creek and then eventually to the trailhead in the Homestake Creek valley.

I was impressed with the ruggedness and classic alpine character of the Holy Cross Wilderness and will certainly return to explore more of it.

A unique waterfall along Fancy Creek below the lake

Hike Overview:

Wilderness Area:  Holy Cross Wilderness in Central Colorado south of Vail, about 122,000 acres.

Hike distance:  About 7 miles total

Lowpoint elevation:  10,000 feet at trailhead

Highpoint elevation:  12,450 feet at Fancy Pass

Total elevation climb:  2,450

The Holy Cross Wilderness is one of Colorado’s most popular and heavily visited wilderness areas.  It is also one of the most controversial.  This wilderness contains an abundance of water, and that makes it attactive for urban water development for Front Range cities.  The Homestake project in the 1960s created Homestake Reservoir as well as water diversion tunnels near the boundaries of the area.  Further water development projects were planned for the area before it was, thankfully, preserved as a protected wilderness in 1980.  Conflicting interpretations of water development and wilderness laws continue to put the Holy Cross Wilderness at risk.  The area contains some of the most sublime alpine wilderness in the state of Colorado, indeed in America.

The wilderness is named after one of Colorado’s most revered “14’ers”, the Mount of the Holy Cross.  This mountain, 14,003 feet, displays a unique cross-shaped pair of couloirs, 1,000 feet tall and several hundred feet wide.  Photographs of the peak in the 1870’s resulted in the peak becomming the object of religious pilgrimages.

Although Holy Cross Mountain is the centerpiece and most famous landmark of the wlderness, the entire area is a wonderland of rugged peaks, clear-flowing streams and high lakes.


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