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Archive for July, 2015

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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.

 

 

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"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

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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.”

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