Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to look at it more closely. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

Backroads

Backroads
Kentucky Backroads Wheat Stubble

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rawah Wilderness Adventure

The Trail Head
Backpacking is one of those activities I wish I would have done more of when I was young enough and capable enough to do more of such things like that.  Often I have dreamed of hiking across the Rocky Mountains or the length of the Appalachian Mountains, or hiking and canoeing along the Lewis and Clark trail...much the same as I have dreamed of flying to the moon...a great dream, but not very practical.  Even so, I have managed to make a number of backpacking trips over the years.  There is one trip I made back in the summer of 1996 that stands apart from the others; a hike into the Rawah Wilderness region of Northern Colorado.

First view of the lower lake - Elevation 10,200
For eleven months in 1995 and 1996 I worked a contract job in Denver, Colorado, performing various mainframe program job evaluations for an insurance company.  It was a great job, except I was away from home for extended periods of time when my boys were pretty young and I was only able to make it back to Edmond, OK one or two weekends a month.  I hated being away like that, but it was an obligation I needed to fulfill and in the long run it worked out very well.  On my off days I spent a lot of time just checking out the wonders of the Colorado Rockies...taking day hikes along the Colorado Trail and in the Rocky Mountain National Park or making fishing trips to the Colorado River and other locations, or just making ordinary Sunday drives to see what I could find.

One of my favorite places to hike into, and indeed I managed one backpacking trip into, was a place called Homestead Meadows, not far from Estes Park...the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It's a great 4 mile or so day hike in where a number of old homestead ruins are located.  The trail head starts around 6,000 feet or so and climbs up to around 8,000 feet...but that's another story that I may write about someday.

My trip into the Rawah Wilderness area began with some research at the local outdoors shop.  I was looking for an isolated place that offered a degree of challenge but still very doable.  There were so many options I found it difficult to focus in on one location.  I ended up attending a program at one of the local branch libraries that was presented by one of the hiking clubs in the area.  It just happened to be a program featuring the Rawah Wilderness area...and it was exactly what I needed.  Rawah it would be.

My destination were some mountain lakes situated between 10,000 and 11,000 feet elevation and around 10 miles from the trail head.  They were stocked with trout so I was looking forward to not only the hike, but a chance to do some real mountain lake fishing.

Hiking in the mountains is a lot different than hiking in Oklahoma...a lot different...not only is the altitude an issue, but the weather and time of year play a significant role I was to discover.  My first attempt into the area ended in defeat as I made the attempt too early in the year.  It was mid-May and the day started off great, but after I had hiked a few miles in, I ran into snow pack.  The trail was completely obliterated and I had to turn back.  A month later...mid-June...I tried a second time.  This time I made it maybe 3/4 of the way in before the snow pack once again defeated me.  Frustrated...I decided to continue the hike cross country.

Campsite - See the Tent
Using a topographical map, I made a best guess as to where I was and where I needed to go...which was to follow uphill what I thought was the outlet stream from the lakes area.  A mile or so of following the stream, I began to realize my evaluation of the situation was flawed.  I stood on the crest of ledge with a 20 foot drop contemplating weather to backtrack back to the trail or continue on.  While standing on the ledge, underfoot was a hidden snag that suddenly gave way and I lost my balance and ended up sliding, bouncing and tumbling to the bottom of drop...landing with a rather undignified thud.  Fortunately various boulders, roots, and saplings broke my decent, but I did manage to slightly twist my ankle upon the hard landing.  After a few choice words, I took stock of my situation and determined the only thing seriously injured was my pride...and...er...my rear end.

I attempted to climb back to the top of the ledge but it was too steep and slippery with all the snow...so now I was stuck.  I was in no real immediate danger as I had shelter and plenty of food...So...I sat down..broke out something to eat...and contemplated what to do while my ankle swelled.  It became apparent that I would have hike cross country downhill until I crossed the trail again.  Eventually I headed off and finally did find the trail...headed out and vowed to try again.

A month later...mid-July...I made a third attempt, but this time I took a different much steeper route that zigged zagged across the southern facing slopes that lead up to the lakes.  I figured the snow pack would melt off these southern slopes more readily than on the other route.  There was one section of the hike that was really steep.  For a good two miles or so, I trudged up a 35 to 40 percent grade...huffing and puffing all the way with every foot gained in elevation.  My pack weighed in at around 30 pounds when I started the hike, and by the time I made it to the lakes it must have weighed around 100 pounds.

What a view though it was and a sense of satisfaction to finally arrive at the first lake...elevation 10,200 feet.
Once I setup camp I spent the rest of the afternoon just hiking around the lake trying my hand at some fishing and managed to catch a few small trout along with one really nice one...I released all of them.

One of the first things I noticed about the weather up there was just how rapidly it changed.  One moment the sun would be out and its heat would sear the skin, then a cloud would roll in and it would get cold...sun...cold...sun...cold...all afternoon.  By late in the day, clouds began to build and I experience my first mountain thunderstorm.
Storm brewing

Thunder in the mountains is different than on the plains.  Being from Oklahoma I was no stranger to thunderstorms...Oklahoma can have some real good ones...but at 10,000 feet, fully exposed to the elements..that first clap of thunder caught me off guard.  Where thunder on the plains tends to boom and rumble on for a while...thunder up there fired off like the crack of a high powered rifle.  Crack..Boom...it was over that quick...and I jumped about four feet when it hit.  Not long thereafter I retired to the relative safety of my little one person packer tent...and then the rain started.

There's nothing quite like lying inside a cramped one person tent during a mountain thunderstorm trying to read a book by Patrick McManus by candle light when lightning is flashing and sheets of rain threaten to drench everything.  It's quite an experience and adds a uniquely mountain flavor to the adventure...and by the way the title of the book fit well with the situation...'A Fine and Pleasant Misery'.

Sometime during the night, the storm abated and I fell into a deep fatigue induced sleep.  By sun up I rolled out of the sleeping bag and was greeted with 40 degree July temps, crisp mountain air, a bright blue sky, a stiff back, and a moose.  Yeah...that' right a moose.  I didn't even know Colorado had any moose...but there he stood all nine feet of him feeding in the hedge around the lake about 150 yards away.  I grabbed my little disposable camera and tried to take a picture but he was standing in the shadows and the sun was in my face.  When I tried to close the distance between us, he looked up, snorted with big cloud of condensed breath and said..."That's close enough.."  I didn't argue.  It was great fun to watch him meander around as I cooked breakfast and stretched my stiff back and legs.

I spent a little time fishing but to no real consequence.  Eventually, it was time to pack up and hike out.  I'm always sad when I must do that...but time was getting away and I wanted to make it back to my vehicle before it got to late.  My stay there was pretty much a solitary experience. Two other groups of hikers came through...one heading on up to a higher lake, and the other camping a few hundred yards from my location...I barely knew they were there.

By the time I made it down the mountain and back to the trail head late that afternoon, my feet were really hurting, my back felt like it had a 2x4 jammed in against the spine, and my legs ached something fierce...but if I could have turned around and hiked back in for another day, I would have done so.

I always hoped I could return, but as it turned out my contract job ended a month or two before it was suppose to and I returned to the flat lands of Oklahoma, home, and family.  Several times I have threatened to make that hike again...I've never lived up to those threats...I suppose time and age take a toll and I doubt I could make that hike today without doing some serious fitness training.  Back in 1996, I weighed in something under 165 pounds and was fresh off a training season of swimming, biking, and running.  Today, I weigh in something over 190 pounds and I'm fresh off the couch.  Even so, maybe someday I'll be able to experience once again the crack of a mountain thunderstorm...sit by the waters edge of a mountain lake and watch a moose graze his way around the water.  Until then, I still have the memory of a Rawah Wilderness Adventure...and it was truly a grand experience.

Anyone out there have a backpacking adventure they'ed like to share..I'd love to hear about it.

( All photos were taken using one those Kodak 35mm disposable cameras )

Keith

1 comment:

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