Fly Fishing Paradise at 11,435′

There are an estimated 80 high alpine lakes spread across the Sangre de Cristo mountains here in Colorado.   For those who enjoy solitude and, particularly, for those inclined to hike a few miles in and a couple of thousand or so feet up, there are some magnificent fishing spots that await.

I had been sending tantalizing photos to my son, Anthony, for months now, wetting his appetite for a hike up to a mountain lake to try his hand at fly fishing.   He had served our country in the Navy for four years and was looking forward to returning to civilian life and the time had finally come.

“Here.   This really belongs to you”, I said as I handed him a very high-quality, Orivs fly fishing rod that my wife had bought me for my fiftieth birthday, now eight years ago.

“Wow.   Thanks, Pops!”

“No sweat.   I’ll never find the patience to actually try my hand at it.  How about we get up to one of the lakes across the valley and you see what you can do?”, I suggested.

And so the wheels were put in motion for another great day in this off-the-beaten part of Colorado.

Yesterday’s alarm roused us at 0400 hours when we dragged ourselves to the table for a hearty breakfast prepared by my angel of a wife.

“Here you go.  Eat up.  I’m going back to bed”, said she with the qualities of a saint.

With our gear ready to go on the bench by the front door, we finished up and made our way into the darkness, only made bright by the setting Moon over the mountains to our west…  The brightening Milky Way seemingly guiding us to our trailhead across the valley.

“Ohhh, nice.   Look, Anthony!   We’re going to begin our hike going up into the fog!”, forcing one eye open as we made our way across the beautiful and undeveloped valley before the mountains, he managed a quiet grunt.

The 45 minutes that it takes for a drive up to these glorious mountains fuels the growing mood of anticipation, something almost impossible to describe in words here.

At the trailhead’s parking lot were only two other vehicles!  No crowds.  Yay!   Taking no time to gather our packs, we were off to a five mile hike up to the Goodwin Lakes, set about 2,600′ higher.   As we made our way up, we spied a couple of young bucks frolicking in the woods by our trail as the thick fog began to obscure the tips of the grand evergreens all around us.

“Pops.   Is this what the Black Forest looked like when you were in Germany?”

“Yup.”

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The early part of the trail before the spur leading to the lake, higher up.

Over the bridge and onto the Rainbow Trail we hiked, not a human made sound to be heard.   By the pace Anthony was keeping, I knew I’d be left behind; no problem.  About halfway up, we came upon an open meadow and a meandering stream fed by the upper lakes.

“Hold on.   I want to take a look.”, my son said quietly as he ventured through the tall, still-wet grasses to inspect the creek for fish.

“Nice!   We’ll have trout up the lake, Pops!  I see plenty here!”, came the report back and just as suddenly, the collective mood spiked, forcing uncontrolled grins on our faces!

 

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A pretty, open meadow about halfway up the trail to the upper lakes. The thick fog muted any sounds…save for the creek running nicely that early morning.

 

And up and up we went until finally, at around 0830, we found ourselves at the lake!

Reward for the two-and-a-half hours of slogging up a long trail!

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Wildflowers welcome us to the shore of the lower Goodwin Lake… not another soul around!

It was particularly cold and windy that morning as we crested the trail and descended to a nice, grassy spot by the south side of the lake.   The tall grasses were swaying with each burst of wind, with the surrounding peaks being lit with the morning rays making for an astounding setting, one that people relying of guides would pay a small fortune to see.  Quickly, Anthony dropped his pack, ate a sandwich, and made his way to the shore with his rod.

“Got one!”, came the happy cry within about five minutes.

“Nice!   Let’s see!”, as I made my way along the rock-strewn and muddy shoreline.

“Ahh, momma’s gonna be very pleased.   Just a couple more, and we got our quota for dinner”, I said retunring to my spot farther down the shore.

“I’m going to switch to the fly rod, Pops.”

“Ok.  Have fun.  We’re in no rush.  You take your time.”

A bit restless, not being a fisherman of any type, I decided to climb up above the lake to get a better view the surrounding environment.

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Anthony at one with his environment, Eureka Mountain (Elevation 13,507′) visible in the background under clouds; 2,072′ higher than the lake.  Before switching to his Fly Rod.

Surveying the terrain above the lake, I began to appreciate the objective hazards posed by attempting a climb over steep talus, and so settled in about 400′ for a sweet perch above this high alpine lake Paradise, watching my son fishing.

The waters were so clear from above, that I could see movement in the waters around where Anthony was casting his flies.   Thinking back to when he was two, I remember putting a simple, kid’s rod in his tiny pudgy hands at a similar lake in West Virginia…  21 years later, he had come into this in a very natural and calm way.  Good to see.

As I sat there that morning, I reflected on my good fortune to be here with my son in this incredible setting.   Gratitude for this gift of another day.

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Lower Goodwin Lake from the talus field, above. Anthony out of sight somewhere along the lake’s shore…

So easy is it for us humans to become distracted with unimportant things in our modern world, so important to block it all out, if only for a day so that we can reconnect with what makes us feel great about being alive…

Later, when back at the trailhead parking lot, we deployed our comfortable camping chairs, opened up the small cooler, switched out the tasty trout for our beers.

“Cheers, Anthony!   Well done!”

“Thanks, Pops”

Sitting there, we both thought back on a perfect morning spent in Paradise, thankful to have found a way to do this at all.

Live to work… or work to live?

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High Alpine Lakes & Glorious Summits

Alas, the sand that has accumulated in the lower chamber now exceeds that of the upper, but that has only motivated me to squeeze the most of my remaining days.   And maybe, if we “adventure” more, we may in fact find ourselves scooping some of the sand back to the top!   It’s a nice thought, yes?

I returned to mountaineering ten years ago.   My mother had died recently and she reminded me of her technical climbing days in the Austrian Alps back in the late 40s and early 50s.   Carefully, we turned the pages of that treasured photo album of her youthful adventures.   I often think of her when I climb.

These day hikes to high peaks are a bit insane at this age, but so worth it in the end.   For something like this, I awake at four in the morning, grab my prepared gear, a cup of coffee, and go.   The billions of stars overhead, where I live at almost 8,000′ (2,438m) are so brilliant given the lack of light pollution, that I might almost drive without my lights.   Sometimes, I simply gaze at this in silence and wonder how gravity keeps me from drifting up into space.  Have you ever had this sensation?

Grand spaces make us feel small and temporary and restore a childlike awe and respect for our surroundings.  The big, light-filled cities have so many sensory distractions that we forget.

Here, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises about 6,000′ (1,828m) up from our valley floor to 14,000′ (4,267m), in a few areas.   Extreme forest roads allow us to gain access, but they require 4WD, high-clearance vehicles to properly navigate.  In some portions, the grade is 20° and driving up is assuredly not for the faint of heart.

And as the pirates exclaim… “Without fear there is no courage!”, of course, I’ve not quite learned where courage ends and stupidity begins.   Perhaps, the answer is found in the risk-reward formula?  I never pause long enough to think, because when we overthink we often don’t “do”.

So the first phase of this type of adventure is a drive up one of these roads in the dark.  Best to have a cover to the thermos.   And you turn off from the open valley and onto increasingly bumpy and rocky roads and the silhouette of the peaks is now barely visible with the early rays of the sun.  You finally meet the end and park, exit and now you are in the  thick forests and you begin to wonder who is watching your every move.  Mountain Lions are quite crafty.

Over the rushing creek, you are cold, a little tired, but you press on, knowing that soon the warm sun will light up a fabulous high alpine setting, one that will provide a surprising surge in your spirits and energy.   And you follow your headlamp faithfully until that happens.

Soon, you find ourselves above tree line, the glorious cirque (a circular formation of mountains) now suddenly alight with the early alpenglow and an unbelievable feeling washes over you, reminding you that this is all worth doing.

And up you go, now climbing the magnificent path before you and you look up and simply cannot believe your good fortune; to be alive, feeling alive, and no one else is here to disturb the moment.

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Now the mountain lakes are to your left, their waters perfectly still in the early morning, and over there… is a lone sentry on a rock outcropping; a Bighorn sheep looking down at you.   Quietly and gently, you continue your journey upwards, periodically looking down to see that the peaks that had previously towered above you are now below.  This is incredible.  Where are you getting your will to continue?

The early breezes begin, rippling the waters at the lower lake as you approach the upper one, creating moving patterns.   A waterfall connects the two and you look at the snows still remaining from the winter before.   Suddenly, more of the magnificent creatures appear out of the willows and you look up to see eight of them, all stopping to gaze at the human in their alpine valley.

Not a sound to be heard… save for a gentle breeze.

Up higher now, as the sun begins to bring light to the entire cirque, now looking down on the upper lake as you find the trail to the ridge line and you see the final 45° segment to the summit.   Up high now, you have a view over to the valleys below;  the San Luis Valley to the west, the Wet Mountain Valley to the east.

Looking up, the final push to the top comes into view and the worn trail now disappears into the large, steep boulder field, marked occasionally by a rock cairn, but you continue.   Up a few hundred feet with the sheer, north facing slope dropping off thousands of feet to your left, you do not allow yourself bad thoughts.  You know what happens if you do.

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You look up to find an older climber heading down.   Incredibly, you find that he is in his mid-70s, yet seems quite natural in this setting.  You exchange brief comments, he turns to point out the way up and you pass wishing him well; he descending and you finding the last few hundred feet to the top.   Something in the old man reassures you that you have a few more years in the high mountains.

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Finally, you find the upper rock-strewn plateau and you are so close.   There!   There it is; the high point.   Happy to drop your pack, you find a flat rock on which to sit and you take in the precious and hard-won view.   Now the upper alpine lakes are so far down below.   Not a cloud in the sky.

For a few minutes, you have this entire summit to yourself.  The two women who have tailed you up for the past three hours arrive and more pleasantries are exchanged, and you give each the quiet space; the code of the mountaineer.

The day has been a long one; 4,464′ feet of climbing (1,361m) to 14,070′ (4,289m) and 14 miles roundtrip (22.5km), but no gain without a little pain.

Way in the distance, I’m sure that I can see my wife sitting on our front porch, our old Newfies by her feet…

 

All in a Day

38°38’49.53″ N   106°20’39.76″ W     –     Elevation:  12,046′

There are still places where few humans go.  And in these places, if you dare, you wander into solitude and you realize that before long, you are all alone in a glorious landscape.   Prepare to hike up far away from the last road, through frozen forests, and you will be at the shores of a remote lake.  And as the cold wind howls through you like a tortured ghost you feel alive like you have not felt in years and you are exactly where you should be at this point in time.

Most of mankind is trained to seek the opposite and this to the lone adventurer works beautifully in the grand design.  So many of the cues would direct people here and there when a lonely path exists here, in plain sight.   But in the rush of our modern ways, we brush by these quickly, hardly noticing their quiet invitation to a far more interesting world.

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Photo 1:  The approach into the Collegiate Peaks from Rt. 162.

Since retiring early two years ago (at 55), I’ve impatiently waited for this chance to immerse myself into a routine of exploring these natural landscapes on foot.   So often our world passes by at 60mph when 2.6mph yields so much more of the fine detail of our surroundings.

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Photo 2:  Brilliant Fall colors on roads leading to St. Elmo’s.

Traveling virtually via Google Earth, I discovered some interesting ruins (The Mary Murphy Mine) and a pretty high-alpine lake and so I went.   Leaving well before the sun rose (~ 4:30am), I drove a little over an hour up Rt. 285 until I reached my turn off to the Collegiates; what a dramatic approach!

It was overcast with the sun peeking through, intermittently.   With the fall colors in their magnificent peak, the effect was visually arresting.   Quickly, I ducked off of the main dirt road and went higher into the mountains, up scarier switchbacks.   As the early snows got deeper, the humans became fewer.   Yay.

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Photo 3:  The ruins of the Mary Murphy mine.

Now up at around 10,000 feet, I thought I’d park and hike up the last six miles and 2,000′. Good call (rare, I confess).  And up I went in the thick overcast knowing that I’d pass the ghostly Mary Murphy Mines, the creek waters still green from old mine tailings and now deep into the dark and foreboding forests.

Isn’t this where Hansel and Gretel had become lost?

And higher up I hiked and now the trail was getting steeper and then the faint noise of Jeeps slowly crawling up this insane road grew louder.   Young guys in an open Wrangler.   Looked desperately cold.   Who, in their group planned this brilliant adventure?   Saw them later up at 12,000′, when the snows were blowing horizontally.   Now really unhappy, one turned to ask, chattering, “Dude, how far are you going in this weather?”   I smiled and we talked a while before they continued down the rutted downs, Jeeps bouncing along, one by one.

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Photo 4:  An old mining cabin below the Mary Murphy mine.

Then two hunters in camo following each other also crawling up the rocky terrain, this time in open ATVs.   But they were experienced and properly dressed and they asked if I needed help.   “No.  I’m good.”, I responded, assuring that I was in my element.   Tough looking chaps, but with warm expressions and they disappeared up and into the thick fog.   Soon, their engines faded and I was back alone in my quiet mountain paradise, feeling alive and energized.

Then, as the last of the steep portion of the trail leveled-out, I could sense the presence of the lakes.   Obscured by dense fog, I followed the serpentine path that faded into obscurity.  There, like an infinity pool over to the valley below, the strong winds blasted up and over the lip and across the waters, white caps dancing like a whip, the lake at last revealing herself.

I was all alone.

Now I was feeling colder and knew that it was time to come down.  A couple of hours later, I found my trusty adventure vehicle and came back into civilization, turning left for a quick detour into the old mining town of St. Elmo’s.   I hoped that a large cup of hot coffee would be waiting for me at the country store on Main Street.

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Photo 5:  Main Street – St. Elmo’s; an old mining town with a dwindling population.

Sitting on a log bench, I watched a little girl feeding the happy chipmunks.   The coffee and her smile warmed my core.   And just as I was getting ready to drive back home, there they came, one by one, a column of restored WWII Willies Jeeps!

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Photo 6:  A fine collection of restored Willies Jeeps; parked alongside on Main Street of St. Elmo’s.

The easy thing would have been to pass the overcast day at home.   But, this was much more interesting!

 

 

An Elk Walks By

38°14’36.66″  N  105°05’23.97″ W   –   Elevation:  6,097′

Life sure has changed for us.   We’ve gone from living with 1,362 people per square mile to … three.   Maybe a more appropriate statistic is the number of big game per square mile, something only we humans would distract ourselves with.

It’s been almost two years now that we’ve moved from the DC area to south-central Colorado and in that time, my wife and I have seen thousands of wild animals; mule deer, elk, bear, antelope, mountain goats, bobcat, mountain lion, and bighorn sheep.  We’ve essentially stepped into a nature screensaver.

We recently spied this stately male on our weekly pilgrimage into the “big city”.  Of course, we just had to find a pull-off and grab the SLR with telephoto that now rests in the front seats between us.

The old cowboys in their ancient pickups smile at us, at our fresh eyes and we know we must look a little silly.

“Did you get it?”, I ask as though it were life and death.

“Hold on.   Let me check.   Yes.   Look.”

There’s a code out here, you know.   More often than not, we stop and put on our hazards  when the herd is nibbling the tasty grasses on the side of the roads… then comes another from behind and they stop and we go.   It’s kinda how things are out here.

No rush.   No fuss.   The animals remind us to slow down a little and see.   Just maybe, these humans can be trained after all.

Healing in Nature

37°45’12.03″ N   105°32’06.39″  W   –   Elevation:  8,576′

The naturalist, John Muir, told of the wonders of nature and the magic that happens when we simply take a long, deep walk into it.   Ever watch the expression of a child on a trail…?

Somewhere along the way, we’ve become distracted, anxious, and worried when the simple way is right in front of us in plain sight.  Somehow, the grip of the screen turns us away from a much larger and far more inspiring one:  nature.

Whether it’s a kayak ride along the Intracoastal waters in Florida, a gentle hike up to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia Park in Maine, or an extended mountaineering expedition to South America, the world is waiting for you.

And a wonderful thing happens when you wander into nature, your soul begins to smile and as corny as it sounds, you begin to hear the birds and the gentle winds through the trees and you realize that you are free, at least for today.

Along the trails are others.   Others who have found the way.   Others who are re-learning the joy of simple discovery once again.

No screens.   “No service”   And that’s just fine.

Walking up the sand dunes that day, I found myself all alone in this grand space, save for just one other hiker.   Each step up required a calmness, lest you sink back down; itself a call to surrender to the moment.

Up over the surrounding valley, about 750 feet of sand below me, I unpacked my lunch and took in the glorious views… all alone but certainly not lonely.

Was that John coming over to visit for a spell?

The old Scotsman smiled as he looked down at me, put his hand on my shoulder and whispered…”Is it not a most beautiful morning?”