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Campsite on the playa

Campsite on the playa

The Confidence Hills represent a type of topography known as badlands—a dry terrain of brittle sedimentary rock and clay-like soil that is torturously eroded into a myriad of steep ruts and gullies. Light gray and salt encrusted, they rise about 400 feet straight from the middle of Death Valley.  They stood in my way between my car, parked off the Harry Wade Road on the bottom of Death Valley 100 feet below sea level, and the rocky Owlshead Mountains flanking Death Valley a few miles to the west.  I had to cross them.

The little slot gully was like an inviting hallway, flat bottomed and twisting along, care-free, turn-after-turn, until suddenly the sandy pathway disappeared into a small tunnel straight into the badlands tuff. I was in a mini box canyon.  I considered climbing out from here, but being solo in a very remote area, my risk threshold was low.  I retreated back through the winding hallway and back out onto the bright floor of Death Valley proper.

Slot gully in the Confidence Hills

Slot gully in the Confidence Hills

My next attempt to cross the Confidence Hills was to take the high road. I climbed to the crest of the ridge adjacent to the slot gully.  The turf was like crème brule—a thin brittle crust over an inch of soft dirt.  There was no vegetative cover except for one miraculous purple flower I nearly stepped on.

Solitary flower

Solitary flower

It was hard work lugging my 4.5 gallons of water up the steep, loose, slope. But, I soon gained the 400-foot summit.  Then I followed the ridge down the other side, dropped into another slot gully, and wound my way out of the labyrinth.  I dropped my pack on a nice flat table of land, the Confidence Hills just behind me to my east and the higher, rockier, Owlshead Mountains beckoning across the playa to the west.

This would be camp for the night, but before I could rest, I would have to retrace the three miles all the way back to the car to get the rest of my gear and then return again, for I had decided to haul the 70 pounds of gear and water in two trips rather than one. By dusk I had completed the back and forth, and after 9 good miles of walking, I was only 3 miles from the car.  With satisfaction I watched the red glow of evening sunlight diminishing on the flanks of the Amorgosa Range across Death Valley to the east.  Darkness comes early and quickly here in late December.

The last rays of sun catch the Amorgosa Range.  The Confidence Hills in the foreground

The last rays of sun catch the Amorgosa Range. The Confidence Hills in the foreground

There were smoke trees at the mouth of Through Canyon, which may not seem remarkable if you haven’t been to the lower elevations of Death Valley, for trees just don’t grow here. But, there they were, maybe ten or twenty of them in total.  They stood defiantly claiming this lonely place as theirs.  Oddly, they made me think of the Death Valley miners of a hundred years or more ago, trying to establish a living in one of the most unlivable places on earth.

Venturing up Through Canyon into the Owlshead Mountains felt like real exploration. There was no trail, only the wide dry wash to follow.  To my left, the south edge of the canyon was flanked by dark volcanic rock.  To my right, the north rim consisted of bright sunlit granite.  Sage and creosote bushes lined the sandy-gravelly bottom.

The broad middle part of Through Canyon

The broad middle part of Through Canyon

The air was a cool but very pleasant 55 degrees, warmed in desert sunshine through a cloudless sky. It is easy to imagine how unbearably hot this place is for much of the year.  In 1913 at Furnace Creek, not far from where I stood in Through Canyon, a man darted out into the white heat with a soaked towel wrapped around his head to check a temperature gauge.  It was 134 degrees Fahrenheit, a reading that still stands to this day as the hottest recorded natural air temperature in the entire Western Hemisphere.  The man’s wet towel was dry within a minute.  Ground temperatures of 200 degrees have been recorded in Death Valley, and not even over highway pavement.  Park Service literature warns understatedly that hiking or backpacking in summer in the lower elevations of the park is “not advised.” On a recent hot June Day a French man walked away from a tour bus at the Mesquite Dunes.  He was asked to return in 10 minutes due to the heat.  When he didn’t return after one hour, the bus driver called search and rescue.  The man was found dead only 400 yards from the bus.

Canyon country can be deceiving. As I ventured farther into Through Canyon, I followed what seemed to be the most probable route that would take me over the head of the canyon.  But the wide, sandy wash quickly narrowed and steepened, and then I was confronted with an insurmountable cleft.  I retreated, climbed a ridge, dropped down into another promising wash, reached another dead-end, retreated again, climbed another ridge, found another wash… With each dead-end I knew I was a little closer to the crest of the range.  Finally, I changed tactics.  I dropped my pack on a promontory and climbed straight up to the top of the nearest peak to get a bearing.

Tight gullies near the head of Through Canyon

Tight gullies near the head of Through Canyon

Standing on that minor, nameless peak, it occurred to me that I was probably one of only a handful of humans to ever stand here. The Owlshead Mountains, in the remote southern section of Death Valley National Park, are seldom visited.  At the ranger station in Furnace Creek, while getting my voluntary backcountry permit, only one of a dozen or so rangers there had ever been to the Owlsheads, and he only twice.  They asked me to take pictures of any flowers I found because they simply didn’t know for sure what flowers actually grew there.

There is no water to be found in the area. The scenery is beautiful, but there are other places in this park that are more visually stunning.  The Owlsheads are not one of the higher ranges in the park.  There is, in fact, little here to attract the interest of anyone who wants to see something amazing, except, of course, for those of us who find true solitude and remoteness to be the most amazing of destinations.  For us, a place like the Owlsheads can be exhilarating.  Beauty here is defined mostly by simple remoteness—the beauty of being in a place rarely trod upon by others.

The Owlshead Mountains form an almost complete circle several miles in diameter. From the nameless peak I stood upon, I followed the curving arc of the range with my eyes until I was looking at the opposite edge of the circle of mountains to the west.  In the foreground was the inner basin, a huge tilted playa dotted with a million creosote bushes.  On the south side of the playa, the low point of the basin melted into to a shining disc of silver that looked exactly like the surface of a sparkling lake.  It was, in fact, the dry lake bed of Owl Lake, the remnant of a real freshwater lake that shimmered here just a few thousand years ago.

From the head of Through Canyon, dry Owl Lake in the distance

From the head of Through Canyon, dry Owl Lake in the distance

After retrieving my pack and entering the playa, I was now in the inner basin of the Owlsheads. I set up camp that night among the creosote bushes.  Two one-gallon jugs of water were my life line.  I was certain that I was the only human for miles around in any direction.  Later, with moonlight glowing from just beyond the mountains to the east, I heard an owl in the distance.  I thought of time—the eons that pass here in silence, as seasons, centuries and civilizations come and go.

My lonely tent lantern on the vast playa

My lonely tent lantern on the vast playa

In the morning I walked three miles south across the playa to Owl Lake. Then I walked out to the middle of the old lake and looked around.  There was no vegetation at all.  The lake bed was hard cracked dirt speckled with black volcanic rocks.  It looked like Mars.  Many may wonder what one would find so interesting or beautiful about a desolate landscape like this.  Why in the world would one want to haul gallons of water on one’s back, through canyons, over mountains, across monotonous desert expanses, only to reach the middle of a dry, cracked lake bed?  Am I crazy?  I don’t know, I can’t explain it.  But, I do know that the wild is either in your soul or it isn’t.  If you have it in you, you just understand.  You can’t explain it, but you get it.  And, that is enough.

The cracked earth of Owl Lake

The cracked earth of Owl Lake

In the afternoon, I walked back to my tent, a tiny orange speck in the middle of this grand expanse encircled by rocky, treeless mountains. I packed up and walked north, towards the head of Through Canyon, where I should have emerged the day before.  I walked down a broad ramp back down into the canyon.  I found a secret side canyon with vertical granite rocks on each side, and again wondered if any other human had ever set foot here, for I was looking for Granite Canyon, the next canyon to the north, and was off course again.

A beautiful secret side canyon

A beautiful secret side canyon

I never found the access to Granite Canyon. Just as well, I found my third campsite nestled among outcroppings of rock in the middle of Through Canyon.  Next to my tent, five boulders, each the size of a small car, rested side-by-side, each having broken loose from the side of the canyon over the last few hundred or thousand years.  I thought of them as “The Guardsman.” On the other side of my tent was a small castle of solid rock rising 100 feet or so from the floor of the canyon.  I’ll remember it as one of my most glorious backcountry campsites.

A great desert campsite

A great desert campsite

Late that night, before the moonrise, I peeked out of the tent to see the stars. Orion was standing on the top of the rock castle.  From rim to rim, millions of points of light dusted the cloudless winter sky.

I walked out of Through Canyon the next morning back to my first campsite where I had stashed two gallons of water just in case. I poured the water on a very lucky creosote bush and strapped now four empty gallon jugs to the outside of my pack.  Taking the long way around the south end of the Confidence Hills I followed a super highway-like dry wash.

Something shiny caught my eye, tangled in a creosote bush. I walked over to investigate, finding a deflated helium party balloon—one of those aluminum types.  The illustration on the balloon looked like an old type Disney cartoon, maybe from the 1950’s.  It was a relic of some celebration for a child who long ago grew up and perhaps had already passed on from this world.  And yet, here was this deflated balloon, like it drifted into this valley just yesterday.

As I balled up the balloon and put it in my pocket, I looked back at the Owlshead Mountains and pondered for a bit about how those mountains will still be there when the human race is no more. We are just a blip on the wavelength of time, and while we may, for a time, litter the land with our bizarre creations, strip it of its clothes, and bore into it looking for its treasures, the Earth will endure beyond us.  Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the desert.

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Midway Lake 1

As my quest to hike in every wilderness area in Colorado continues my sights were set on an overnighter in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness.  It is one of the few remaining wilderness areas within a three-hour drive from home that I had yet to visit, and a fairly significant one at that.  It is 82,729 acres (slightly larger than the Indian Peaks Wilderness).  It’s eastern boundary is the Continental Divide and then there is another 30,540 acres designated as the Mount Massive Wilderness.  The Mount Massive Wilderness, apparently, was never intended to be designated as a separate wilderness from the Hunter Fryingpan.  According to The Complete Guide to Colorado’s Wilderness Areas by John Fielder and Mark Pearson, the Mount Massive designation was intended to be added on to the Hunter Fryingpan in 1980, but a technical error resulted in the designation of a separately named wilderness unit.  Nevertheless, only the high and wild Continental Divide separates the two, so the combined area is really one contiguous wilderness of over 112,000 acres.

A little creative map reading can go a long way in finding opportunities for solitude even in well used areas.  With snow flying outside my window in the middle of winter I had my topo map of the Hunter Fryingpan sprawled across a table.  I tapped a finger on a small lake with an uninteresting name – Midway Lake.  What caught my attention is that it was about a mile or so off of a designated trail and the contour lines of my map indicated a possible gentle cross-country traverse from Midway Pass to the lake.  I had my hike.

Many months later I roll into the Lost Man Trailhead parking area at 10,500 feet on the west side of Independence Pass.  It’s a popular trailhead but most hikers take the short walk to Lost Man Reservoir.  I head the other way up a couple dozen steep switchbacks towards Midway Pass and soon reach the high point of the trail at nearly 12,200 feet for a 1,700 foot climb in about two miles.  As the highway noise from the pass recedes, views of the rugged Elk Mountains come into view to the west – the Maroon Bells, Castle Peak, Snowmass Mountain.  It looks pretty wild and I’ll be headed to that area in a few weeks, but for now I’m on my way to Midway Lake.

Nearing the pass I merge with a pack of day hikers:  A young couple from France, an older foursome, and a couple of ladies hiking with an older woman who I’m impressed made it up the 1,700 foot climb.  Suddenly I realize that I don’t think I locked my car!  I rationalize that it’s probably perfectly fine. But, since I happen to be near some hikers who will be headed back tonight, I ask the two ladies ahead of me if they wouldn’t mind checking my car when they get back.  Of course they are happy to do so, and my mind is at ease again.

All the day hikers stop at a beautiful little tarn just above timberline with views of the Elks in one direction and the Collegiate Peaks in the other.  Ah, Colorado!  I continue, alone.  The trail traverses above timberline, then descends gently to Midway Pass before dropping gradually into the head of a valley.  Here I get that wonderful sense of transitioning from the edge of the wilderness into the heart of it.  I look around and everything is so clear–the bright green grass, the dark green forest, the gray boulders.  All of it is so vivid and fantastic.

There’s a rainbow cloud in the sky!  Scientifically known as an iridescent cloud, it is a wisp of purple, green, yellow and orange.  It complements the landscape nicely.

Rainbow Cloud in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

Rainbow Cloud in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

My view of the distant Elk Range is now blocked by a pointy peak across the valley.  This peak is about 13,000 feet and appears to be unnamed.  Looking at my map there seems to be quite a few unnamed peaks in this wilderness area.  I like that.  Not every significant landmark needs a label in the wilderness.

Unnamed 13,000 foot peak in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

Unnamed 13,000 foot peak in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

The trail disappears, but I find the usual cairns and a wooden post to mark the way as I head into the head of a valley.  I’m nearing the point where I need to break from the trail to traverse to Midway Lake, which I cannot see, but know it is a mile to the northwest over a slight rise and then down a slope.

I step off trail.  Cross country route finding, when deliberate, is exhilarating, especially when solo.  Senses heightened, my course is carefully considered with every step.  Extra caution is taken to avoid a trip or a slip or a fall into a hole.  I skirt a rock outcropping and crest the slight rise onto a broad bench.  A new world opens up as the surface of the bench holds a series of tarns and marshes unseen from the trail.  I pick my way between reflective pools of water and begin to drop down a forested slope on the other side.  Negotiating some deadfall and some rocky ledges, I drop a couple hundred feet and emerge into an expansive rock-studded green meadow.  Finally, the lake is revealed across the meadow, shimmering in the sunshine.

And, what a beautiful lake it is!  The unnamed peak, from a new vantage point, is now accompanied by a companion nameless peak, gracing this little basin and lake with perfect, pleasant guardianship.

Midway Lake 3

I brought a light fishing rod not knowing if there were any trout in Midway Lake.  I quickly realized that this lake does not hold any trout, the outlet being a marsh, providing too little oxygenation for high country trout.  But, I don’t care one bit.  There’s a nice flat rock at water’s edge and I intend to lounge on that rock and enjoy a rare blue sky afternoon in the Rockies in late July.  What a treat!

While Midway Lake holds no fish, it does hold what I assume to be leeches!  I watch several of these jet black two or three-inch long creatures flutter around in the water.  They seem to feed off some algae so I figure if I put my feet in the cool clear water, they will ignore them.  So I recline on my rock with my feet blissfully dipped in the water.  Moments later something tickles the bottom of my foot and I shoot up like a rocket and see one of those leeches fluttering in the water where my feet were.  I pull up a thick stalk of grass and use it to flip the creature out of the water onto my rock.  It coils up like a pill bug, but I force it to uncoil and see the tiny suction mouth as it flaps helplessly before I flick it back in the water.  The things kind of creep me out.  Right now I see only a handful of them, but later at dusk I will look down in the water and see hundreds of them.

My campsite is glorious near the shores of Midway Lake and the weather is perfect.  This is what solitude in the Rocky Mountain Wilderness looks like when I dream of it during the winter.

Midway Lake Campsite

At night, a blue moon rises into the sky and it’s incredibly bright.  I keep the door of my tent open and look out across the meadow, washed in the grey light of the moon.  I could hike through the night with this moon without any need for my own light.  That moon!  I look over towards the Williams Mountains to the east.  dissipating cumulus clouds, white and fluffy and bright, hang over the next valley.  It’s like a fairy tale land.

In the morning I’m in no hurry to leave.  It’s only a four mile hike out, the way I came.  Finally, maybe ten o’clock, I reluctantly leave this paradise and dive back into the forest across the meadow.  Climbing through the trees I see the largest pile of bear poop ever.  It looks like someone dumped a five gallon bucket of poop there in the forest.  It was either a very large bear or it found a food jackpot and ate too much.  It was fairly recent, too–perhaps a day or two old.  A little farther up the hill there is a clear bear track in some semi-soft dirt (front paw), also fairly recent.

So long big bear.  I’m headed back home.

 

 

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IMG_1427

“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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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.

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Fear and Contemplation

Trillions of vapor droplets drift across Colorado’s great southern valley.  They meet the uplift of the Blood of  Christ Mountains.  Heat rises.  Energy builds.  Light dances across the sky.  The Heavens roar.  The life force of Earth falls to the ground and the Wilderness rejoices.

I’m in my tent high in Southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains counting the seconds between the flashes and the booms.  At least ten wicked bolts strike within a mile.  I fear the lightning.  I haven’t always, but a few high country electrical storms have heightened my sense to the danger. “When I hear anyone say he does not fear lightning, I still remark inwardly:  he has never ridden The Mountain in July,” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

Awareness of my own mortality is further enhanced by the passing of my Father not three months ago.  As the rain pecks at the tent I think back to two days before he left this world, with his family there by his side.  He looked pleasantly amused about something, and with bright eyes and a clear voice he said, “I can see everything from the top side now and I’m okay with it.” It was a profound thing to say in my Dad’s typically understated way.  He was okay with it… It gives me great comfort to know that he was “okay” with dying.  We all are dying.  The question is:  how are we living?  But, I still fear the lightning.

My Dad taught me how to live much the same way he taught me how to build a proper campfire when I was little.  There are many methods to building a campfire, he said.  The method chosen matters little as long as the fundamentals are adhered to.  The first thing a campfire needs to thrive is good fuel.  Education is our fuel and my Dad taught me by example the value of a lifelong commitment to learning.  A campfire will quickly extinguish itself unless given plenty of space to breathe–too little oxygen and the fire is smothered.  This is personal freedom.  My Dad taught me the importance of being my own person and charting my own course in life.  To keep a campfire burning brightly it needs tending.  Not too much or too little.  A campfire needs a patient and watchful tender who knows when to help it along and when to just sit back and enjoy its beauty and warmth.  My Dad showed me how genuinely receiving and giving guidance with our loved ones provides our lives with greater meaning and purpose, making us brighter, warmer people.

My Dad also instilled in me my love for simple, unpretentious, travel.  By the time I was fourteen I had visited 40 U.S. states but had yet to fly in an airplane.  Our way of travel was the open road by day and sleeping under the stars by night.  It was bologna sandwiches, chips and a Coke for lunch.  It was searching for the best campsite and burning marshmallows over the fire.  I loved it all.  My Dad never ventured from the road or the campground.  That my Mom did.  She brought me my love for the wilderness–casting lines in creeks and climbing peaks.

This is all reflection and contemplation which one tends to do much of after losing a family member.  One of the many reasons we need wilderness is because it is a place for contemplation.  Contemplation without noise.  We go to the wild to get back to basics.  To reflect.  To contemplate.  It makes many of us better people.  It helps many of us heal.

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A Valley High

My campsite in wilderness solitude is on the edge of a high little valley a few hundred vertical feet below North Crestone Lake.  It is a wonderful place bordered on each side by rugged peaks.  Open meadows are perfectly complimented with stands of spruce.  A little stream flows quietly through the middle, clothed in yellowing willow.  At the head of this little valley a two hundred foot waterfall provides its calming melodies.  The falls commence with a straight drop over a rock ledge.  Then braids of white dance among boulders and shoot over slabs.  At bottom the falls is swallowed up by the green valley floor.  I sit here in this valley after the storm with the soft rush of the falls to my right and the retreating rumbles of thunder down valley to my left.

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A Wise Old Fish

A big trout cruises the lakeshore casting distance from the rock on which I sit.  The water is so clear and still that it almost looks as if the fish is suspended in air, gliding along like a colorful miniature blimp.  It’s a cutthroat–I can see the crimson cheeks and heavily spotted tail.  It’s about sixteen inches and shaped like a football.  I cast to a point about six feet in front of it, couching to stay below the trout’s line of vision.  It seems to turn its head ever so slightly in acknowledgement of the enticing meal ahead.  But, it continues along, slowly, wisely.  I try again and again until I nearly drop my lure right onto its head.  The cumulous clouds are building and it’s time to head back to camp a mile down valley.  I decide to give it one more go, but by this time I’m rooting for the fish to win.  He’s earned my respect.  Once again the wise one passes on my offering.  I give my friend a salute and silently wish him well.  I can still see him swimming peacefully along as I look back down to the lake from 100 feet above.

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A School of Foolish Fish

Back from my walk to beautiful North Crestone Lake, I still have my heart set on trout for dinner.  The little stream in the valley is filled with multitudes of brookies.  But, it’s difficult to fish because of the willows.  On the trail to the lake I noticed a very large pool near the bottom of the falls about a quarter mile up from my campsite.  Dozer and I make our way over.  As I creep up behind some willows Dozer tromps to the tail end of the pool for a drink and spooks a half-dozen trout.  I follow the fish with my eyes as they dart to the head of the pool seemingly in military formation.  More fish come into view.  As my eyes adjust I see no fewer than 30 trout.  I figure this pool must be the last good spot for a trout before the 200 foot barrier of the falls. It’s the end of the line for them so they just congregate and vie with each other for food.  With every cast I catch an eight or ten inch brookie.  I let them all go until one finally swallows the hook.  Dinner.

My Wild Neighbors

My campsite seems to be a crossroads for many of the valley’s residents.  Turning from my gaze upon alpenglow on the high peaks, I see a snowshoe hare, still clothed in brown, sitting and staring at me ten feet way.  It stares for a few more seconds and then bounds away daintily under the boughs of a small spruce tree near the campsite.  There is an unusually dark colored marmot who makes its home under a rock slab near camp.  It suns itself on the rock most of the day, occasionally sending its shrill whistle sound across the valley.  Under my “kitchen table” rock where I choose to eat lives a chipmunk who likes to poke its tiny head up over the edge of the rock to see what I’m up to before scurrying away.  A family of six grouse pay us a visit each afternoon.  I discover them when Dozer unknowingly wanders into their personal space.  Grouse will let you (or your dog) get very close to them before erupting into a racket of beating wings and chirps.  Dozer, startled, jumps straight up like a spring then gives a huff (the poor dog is mostly deaf and half blind with a broken sniffer… but his joints and muscles still work like a puppy).  The next afternoon I see the grouse again on the ground.  Six of them, silently blending in to the grass before they finally take flight to roost in the nearby pines.

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Aspen

My Dad was always curious about trees and he was particularly fond of the aspen which makes its most glorious displays in the state of Colorado.  Every fall photographers and sightseers head to the Colorado high country to see the brilliant gold of the turning aspen.  The Elk Mountains, Northern San Juans, and parts of the Front Range are particularly well known for aspen viewing.  The Sangre de Cristos are not.  So, I was surprised to be hiking through one of the biggest and densest aspen forests I’ve ever seen on the western flank of the Sangres.  From the trailhead near the “new age hippy” town of Crestone all the way up to about 10,000 feet was almost entirely aspen.  It was still a green forest in late August with just a few leaves here and there on the higher trees just beginning to turn.  Hiking back down through this forest of aspen I looked for the appreciation that my Dad saw in these trees.  Perhaps it is because they are an anomaly–a high country deciduous tree in a world of dark green conifer.  The leaves are light green (or bright gold in fall), the bark is a delicate and smooth white.  They grow faster and live shorter than pines.  They grow from root, not seed.  They are an anomaly and yet what would Colorado be without its aspen?  They are an anomaly, a bit like my own Dad… And, what would I be without my Dad.

Thank you Dad.  I love you. 

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