Six years ago was my first time backpacking, well overnight backpacking at least...
The day before I was in the Rawah Wilderness just East of Steamboat Springs, Colorado attempting a ~30 mile loop. It was June, early, mid, late, I don't remember. But the snow was high and it didn't take long for my dog Koal and I to realize that we were going to struggle to get above treeline let alone over the numerous passes on the route. I was as timid as one would expect for my first time in the wilderness. We had already come across moose tracks larger than I thought was possible, and we postholed our way to deeper and deeper snow. Until just a few hours in, it became clear that we would have to turn around. The Rawah would have to be left for a more snow free date. On exit we found the moose that was presumably making those tracks through the deep snow. A stunningly massive creature, but not so majestic as it ran away from my 60lb dog, it's legs sprawling all over like a cartoon, I was just glad it was running away. An overly confident Koal and I arrived back in Denver a few hours later and planned out what we would do to salvage our long weekend. The Lost Creek Wilderness was said to be snow free! Not quite as high, a drier climate, and recent reports of being mostly snow free, so the next morning we went.
At the end of an unassumingly long washboarded dirt road, was the Lost Creek campground and a few places to park for backpackers. We suited up, an old heavy laden yellow pack for me and a bright orange dog pack for Koal. One last look at the car, a feeling of the pockets to make sure nothing was left, and we were off on this 27.7 mile journey! With over 6000 feet of elevation gain and experience not on our side, this was set to be a memorable one.
Our start was mid-day, so no expectations to get too far on the first day. Hell, being the first time out, what expectations could there have been at all! We meandered along open meadows through which Lost Creek flowed via a gorgeous trail that danced along and within the treeline. It was warm, the sun was high, snow was nonexistent, and high rock covered mountains peered over the eden which we walked. I decided that it would be wise to fill up on water since I forgot to due to the rush to begin. So I whipped out the brand new Sawyer Mini and let the learning curve begin. Amongst willows, on muddy banks, and between nervous scans for wildlife ready to pounce, I cumbersomely filtered enough water to feel satisfied. The trail soon after, diverted off the meadows in favor of climbing switchbacks through an old growth pine forest. This shifted once more into a forest of spaced-out quaking aspen. The winds began kicking up, making the leaves of the forest sing, the sky began to darken, and the smell of rain permeated the air. The sun was now setting faster, this all began as the trail crossed our second rickety log bridge, this one on top of an overflowing beaver dam; then the forest changed once more. Now we were surrounded by thin, moss covered, new growth pines that swayed and creaked like rusty hinges in the gusts of wind. Scattered about the forest floor was the remnants of the previous generation of trees slowly rotting away. What was just a beautiful day in the woods was then starting to feel quite scary and uncertain.
Cold, windy, dark, noises I wasn't used to, and now wet with the arriving rain shower. My eyes nervously danced around hoping that I would see the bear or mountain lion that was surely
hiding, somewhere, waiting for our guard to drop. Prior to the crossings, we had run into two trail junctions. I knew we had made the proper turns because they were labelled and I checked the map and the compass. But the feeling of making a wrong turn irrationally lingered as we now started our first long climb; "we better not be doing all this climbing for nothing", I hoped. Our late start was catching up with us as the sun sank further, the trail climbed beside a small stream and it only made sense to make camp soon. After stressful uncertainty as to if a potential campsite would appear, either from being beaten to a site or the site not being big enough to accept the massive 4 person tent I was carrying, we found what felt like a decent enough campsite just off the trail. I set the tent up with the aptitude of a special needs chimpanzee as Koal watched and sniffed the air. I then started a fire so that I could boil some water for the Mountain House meal I had brought along. It was a pleasant hour or so as the two of us sat in the thick forest, sheltered from the wind. But the wind got stronger and stronger, louder and louder, and soon the trees were swaying violently in each pulse of wind. The mountain was alive and seemed angry.
Night was almost here as I looked up eyeing angles and distances to make sure my tent would be safe from any dead trees, should they happen to come down in the night. I rushed to finish all the camp chores, but forgot to wash the food scraps from the foil Mountain House container. In the nighttime darkness, the high winds of the storm had arrived. I got out of the tent knowing without a doubt that if I didn't get that food scent away from camp, Koal and I were surely to be found by a hungry predator. I took Koal with me, and we walked a ways down trail to do the washing far from the tent in the stream. My head darted side to side with each illuminating strike of lightning, wondering where the bear was, where the lion was, or the giant moose. Somewhere in the shadows, the wind howled and thunder began clapping in unison with the flashes of light. We curled up into the tent as the storm raged on, and the stressful thought of a nearby tree crashing down onto the tent was ever present. Eventually, sleep came, and a peaceful morning followed.
The wet pine needles coating the forest floor stuck to everything as I packed up camp in the morning. Birds chirping, a fresh forest scent, and sunlight sparkling through the now calm and damp forest canopy. We kept on hiking up the trail until we found more of a desert environment with cacti speckled among large rock outcroppings that pierced the red gravel forest floor. The trail bobbed and weaved along a ridgeline, giving rise to a number of absolutely spectacular panoramas of this high mountainous desert before dropping into steep switchbacks. The switchbacks led to Refrigerator Gulch, where a small stream flowed and an oasis among the moisture free environment around it. I met a very pleasant elderly group of five climbing the switchbacks as I went down. They warned me of even more switchbacks to come, as well as informing me of a fantastic campsite and future water troubles. Man, they couldn't have been more right. I was being lazy with the filtering water due to how time consuming it seemed to be. That turned out to be a mistake... As long as Koal had enough water, I figured I could keep going. I could sense my limits.
Beyond Refrigerator Gulch was a seemingly never ending series of switchbacks, way up in the desert, then way down to a stream fed oasis, just to go way up again. One of these times down
led to the most beautiful stream, set in a steep red rock basin. It entered the basin via a small cave spouting crystal clear water as it cut deep through the rock by which it weaved. In this small basin was a shallow cave, a couple small campsites with fire pits, and shelter from the wind. I strongly considered staying here, but the day was barely halfway through and I wanted to do this loop fast; it was part of the challenge. So Koal and I marched on, switchback up after switchback down, until it no longer went down. I considered refilling on water as the night was getting closer, but the map showed marshland and a small stream where I imagined we may be camping that night. The marshland I figured was similar to the open meadows from the start of the trip, it was in fact labelled the same. "There will probably be a stream up there", I imagined, "Otherwise this marked creek is close enough". To my dismay, the trail curled away from the creek, and when it met back up sometime later, the creek had dried up, and the marsh proved to be nothing but mud and willows. The consideration to turn around and collect some water was quickly disregarded as my aching legs and desire to move quickly let their preferences be known. Instead we continued on, I figured that we had to camp where there was water and that has to be found soon. But no further than 300 yards up the trail did Koal develop a limp from what turned out to be a deep cut on one of his pads. So we went back to the flat marsh area, I set up the tent and went exploring for water. Ruins of cabins were placed below red rock boulder outcroppings, high rugged mountains lining the meadow rim with occasional pockets of snow on their flanks, it was a beautiful place, but a brutal one. The only water found wasn't flowing, instead it was a bit of stagnant but clear water in a crack between two boulders. I tried to reach my arm down to it, but with no luck, the night would be a thirsty one. As I scrambled up a high adjacent boulder view for one last hopeless scan for water, I angrily wondered what made this a marsh if there was no water, why would the map label it as such? I went back to the tent, put a coat of vaseline on Koal’s damaged paw in hopes to heal it, and readied for the long thirsty sleep. The night was restless, a parched throat led to dreams of streams around every corner. If I would have only walked a little bit further the evening before I would have found all the water I would have wanted. But then the morning came, and with it came clarity and an even stronger thirst. One without the magical streams around corners that were in my dreams.
There was no need to eat, not until getting something to drink. So after packing up, we marched in the same direction we had tried to the day before. Koal’s paw showed no sign of ever being cut, and he was trotting right along without any hint of a limp. I depressingly looked at the map, seeing that most of the day may be hiked without water. But not too much later as we neared our first high pass, there was a large patch of snow just off the trail in a boulder field. We sat at that patch of snow for at least an hour, eating as much as we could, filling the bottles, taking out drink mix and making snow cones. Finally satisfying our thirst, we pushed on, traversing the burn scarred McCurdy Mountain side that gave way to big views. Blackened 60 foot popsicle sticks for miles, with hardly any undergrowth having taken hold. It was hot, and it was beautifully desolate. McCurdy Mountain led to Bison Peak, which led to the brilliant grass covered Bison Pass. All of which kept the wide open South Park and the uniformly snow capped peaks beyond in sight. I couldn't help but think about how special this place must be to be so protected from the snow that seems to be everywhere else.
As our long and final descent began, Koal seemed to be reaching his limit, and the same could certainly be said for me. The heavy pack dug into my shoulders with every step but we kept a fast pace for the sake of making a fast time. We re-entered a labeled marsh, similar to the beginning of the trip where the trail hugged and danced into the treeline along the marsh. Also similar to the marsh at the beginning of the trip, this one actually had water present which Koal kept trying to divert to. But we were so close. The trailhead was almost in sight and we had water in the car so I pulled him along. We saw mule deer the size of elk, and kept pushing along. Crossed a lodgepole fence in a forest full of thick trees, but kept pushing along. Finally we burst into our final meadow, the one we began in, and just across it was the trailhead. A wonderful sight.
The two of us indulged in all the water we could handle, then took one last long look at the valley before turning the key and heading back home. Quietly driving back as Koal slept, I kept thinking back on the crazy adventure that was the past few days and what would be next. But I never would have guessed where it would eventually take me.