TRIP REPORT - BEAR LAKE, FERN LAKE, FOREST CANYON, HAYDEN CREEK, FOREST CANYON, ALMOST BECAME CAT CHOW, ESCAPE by way of MILNER PASS.
Theme- Soloing isn't what it's cracked up to be - at least at first.
Written 11/1994. Trip taken 1991. Retrospective on a big week in RMNP.
Ft. Collins, Colo.
In a prior episode, Ron went camping with his two friends and tramped down the Poudre, up Hague creek, over Icefield Pass and on to Lost Lake. Ron had a good time in spite of falling in the creek. (See the LOST LAKE trip report for events leading up to this trip.) Two days at home and this next trip began.
This was a shift in my 'annual' trip routine. For the preceding 6 years, I'd usually taken about 2 weeks off from work and gone jeeping somewhere in the Colo. mountains. Always alone, this had become a ritual of personal spiritual recharge and backcountry exploration. This year, after several encouraging backpack trips, I decided to do a solo backpack trip instead of using the wheels. (I did two short 3 day trips solo the preceding year.)
The plan was to start at Bear Lake, head up Forest Canyon, cross the Divide to Timber Lake, and run south on the trail system to the Flattop Trail then cross Flattop and return to the car. A circumnavigation of that portion of the Continental Divide. Entertainment might be provided by meeting my friends, Jeff Bossenbroek and John Forman, at an intermediate point in Forest Canyon - if they chose to show up. (Jeff and I had looked at the map and viewed an area from the parking lot at Rock Cut on TRR to decide on a meeting point several weeks earlier.)
As it turned out, I was not mentally or spiritually ready to execute that plan.
Wed: Park at Bear Lake. Lucky to find a spot in late morning. Pack is over 50# (ouch!) Hike over trail to Fern Lake went pretty uneventfully. 3 hrs, 5 miles and I practically out-hiked a group of horse riders. I got to my campsite at Fern lake in early afternoon and watched fish in the lake for the rest of the day. I regretted not carrying a fishing pole. They were swimming along the edge in the shallows. At one point, a muskrat(?) came swimming along and ducked under the rock I was sitting on. I don't know where he went as he never reappeared. Easy day, quiet night.
Thurs: Head downhill from Fern Lake a little ways and then the adventure begins. Off the trail and into the woods. I tried to stay high and sidehill around the corner but that was a loser. Too cliffy. Finally hit a saddle between a hillock and the main ridge with the hillock between me and the river. I follow the occasional rock ducks or a rock placed on a log but there is no trail. Then the rocks disappear (or I lose them) but they are unlamented. They didn't help anyway.There is NO trail. And it is dense. Not even animal trails.
I continue but find myself forced toward the water's edge. I'm glad to be wearing long pants (BDU pants), long sleeves and leather gloves as I endlessly shove aside small pines and get pine needles down my back. I tiptoe across logs piled 3 high. I crawl under logs with enough space to do so. I skirt mazes of logs, I forge ahead. I don't see much scenery. My Tracks hiking staff earned its price in the first hour this day.
Near 11AM I am surprised to hear some thrashing in the trees ahead of me. I stop and converse with 2 people who are headed back where I came from. They are climbers from Ohio (?) who had been doing technical climbing in Hayden Gorge (Hayden Spire). They hadn't volunteered for this, they just couldn't get permits for something more accessible. They are in tatters. Bleeding arms, shredded gore-tex pants, bleeding shins - they admit to being stunned at the brutality (brutality was their word) of moving thru this canyon. I was the first person they'd seen in several days. They said it took them 2 days to get to Lost Brook which is halfway between Hayden Creek and the Fern Creek trail. This made me feel pretty macho as I thought I was doing better than that. I was in good shape (not bleeding anyway) and still cheerful. They asked me to tell their 3rd man, who was lagging behind, where to meet them. About 15 minutes later, he too appeared. I may have startled him since he was head-down pushing onward when I called out. He was also a mess. I gave him the message and went on.
I followed the creek along, wishing I'd brought waders. Wading the creek would have simplified much and, except for some deeper holes, would be easier walking.
I never saw why they called that spot on the map "Raspberry Park." I wasn't seeing much except down logs, big trees, small trees and the creek. In retrospect (and later when John and I daytripped back to go fishing) it is quite pretty. But it's slow, brutal travel.
Unfortunately, I can't dally just anywhere. My official permit specifies that I must camp in the X-C zone of Hayden Gorge. Hayden creek is about halfway up the length of Forest Canyon. I had hoped to be somewhere up in Hayden Gorge enjoying the scenery for my night's camp. Bad plan. About 4PM I reach Hayden Creek where it joins the Thompson. I am tired. It is humid and looks a little like a shower. I am supposed to go UP the creek a ways to get into my zone.
I start working my way uphill. It's not easy. It's more of the same but with elevation gain added. The creek is very pretty but I'm in no mood to enjoy it. I plan to get to a point just barely inside the zone as best I could tell. But even that plan evaporates to a lowered hope of just a flat enough spot to camp (if some ranger finds me out of zone, he'll have to bust his ass to do it) . I find a flattish area parallel to a pretty, 20' waterfall in the creek. I drop my pack and sit down to sob awhile. I'm exhausted, feeling sorry for myself because I'm not seeing much of anything and the thought of another day or two or three or four seems unbearable. Then it starts to rain lightly. Get the raingear, cover the pack, sob a little more and then pull together. I ease over to the stream and pump water for dinner. The trip back to my gear must be done carefully, it would be easy to misplace my pack and wander in these woods forever.
The rain stops as the sun goes away and I have dinner. Dinner helps my attitude a bit but I start thinking about how nice it will be to see Jeff and John - if they come. When it's time to setup the tent, things get difficult again. *Nothing* is really flat here. Sticks & twigs & plants & logs & holes - no flat place big enough for my one-man tent!
The hell with it. I finally choose a ditch-like shallow hole lined with those little short plants that grow under the trees and spread my heavy-duty space blanket out, then the ridgerest and finally my bag. I lay out the raingear nearby, change into sleeping stuff, smear my face with bug repellent and crawl in to sleep. My first night out without sleeping in a tent and it's at the end of THIS kind of day. (sigh) As I wink out, I think about bears or mountain lions finding me in the night and I don't care.
Fri- I slept exceptionally well. Perhaps the best sleep in the woods I've ever had! I got up around 7AM or so, had breakfast, and quickly broke 'camp.' Nice clear day, refreshing sleep and back to the grind. Angle my way upwards to gain the sort of 'shelf' that would lead me to Forest Lake. The climb is not fun but once up on the shelf, the walking is level, even though it is still wild woods. I am not happy to glimpse some interesting mountains and ridges just a bit further up the gorge. Mountains I'd been hoping to see.
Forest Lake heaves into view. Navigation is working great. I contour around the lake and stop to pump water and take in the view. Not bad. I sit on a rock & take off my boots and socks and air my feet.Too bad it's too shallow for fish. Onward to the NW. I try to hold elevation as I contour around to eventually reach the outlet stream from Rock Lake. Big downed trees, heaps & piles of them, get in the way. I reach the creek and find the faintest trace of a trail along it - must be the way to Little Rock Lake (LRL) campsite. I contour around some more. Then I angle up. I need to find treeline at the base of the ridge and circle around to be on the north side of the ridge. There is an unnamed lake on the north side of that ridge. The arrow point of Arrowhead lake points to it. I eventually reach this lake and note that it has some good camping ground around it. Then I press on. The plan was to meet Jeff and John (if they come) on the margins of one of the meadows further north. I am looking around for decent campsites now but am dismayed that the lovely green meadows are not forest simply because these meadows are water-saturated. MUSH MEADOWS!!! There are little islands and penninsulas of dry ground connecting the meadows but these have heavy tree growth on them. Lousy campsites. I go on for maybe 1/4 mile more and then sit & think. I turn back to the lake to use that area as a campsite. (I have since camped there again and passed thru it at least 3 other times.)
Meanwhile, the weather is humid and it seems like it's trying to rain. I setup my tent near the puddle/lake and string up a clothesline. I hang socks to dry and get out the stove to have some hot ramen and a bit of a wash. It's about 2pm. One of the little things that has been gnawing away at me is DRY SOCKS. I can't get any. I couldn't hang the socks on my pack or they would have been torn away immediately. My feet sweat profusely and I've used my last dry socks this morning. How can I go on? I'm not having fun with the brutal travel effort (it took 5 hrs to go 3 miles today) , I haven't seen much of anything, and I can't even get my socks dry, and even now, with a clothesline, it's not dry. It's stuck between rain and dry . If Jeff & John show up, I resolve that I'm going out with them. My attitude is shot. Will they show up? It's a gray day, probably looks like rain from Ft. Collins, Jeff wasn't really enthusiastic about meeting me when we last spoke, this seems like too much off the beaten track for John (I didn't know him very well at the time)... in short, they won't come and I'll have to finish the planned trip just to get back to the car!
Time piddles past. About 5pm I prepare dinner (more ramen), enjoy some cocoa, have a cup of tea and then head out to the meet point. I take my fleece, my staff, map & compass, and a small situpon ground pad.
I find a place on a wet hillside where I can overlook the mush meadows and wait I am prepared to mark sunset and a little darker before heading back to camp. I hang out for about 30 minutes, then these 2 figures pass by below me. I ask them if they've seen anyone else. Dummy! It's THEM! I'm astounded and overjoyed.
They head back across the mush to fetch their packs from where they'd dropped them to do light recon and then follow me to camp. John has a new one-man tent like mine (Eureka Gossamer) and Jeff is going to try a bivvy sack with head tarp. They cook dinner and we discuss my experience in the canyon. After dinner, they decide to head up a rockslide on the N side of the big ridge to Arrowhead to see what's there. I park my butt on a rock at the edge of the lake. Dusk. Back to the woods. Dinnertime. They are gone a little while and then return. When they reach the shoreline about 1/3 the way around the lake from me, I stand up. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch movement.
Between our tents I catch the port flank of an Irish Setter as it departs outbound.
That was a CAT! And it was at my back at dusk and I had no idea. Hmmm. (6 months later I start seeing articles refuting the current 'wisdom' that cats *never* attack humans.)
Night falls and we sack out. Jeff is bivvied under a low hanging branch with a tarp tented on a branch over his head. Good thing too. It rains off and on until about midnite. The large drops coming off the tree and hitting Jeff's tarp are LOUD as they land with a ferocious THWAP! It's loud from where I am, it must be very annoying where Jeff is :-) (good thing it didn't rain the night before.......)
Saturday- We rouse, have breakfast and head up the rockslide to go see Arrowhead Lake. It's windy, cool, and clouds obscure the very top of ridge over near Cracktop. I am very pleased to have company. We cross over the ridge, pass Love Lake and descend to the NW shore of Arrowhead. John has brought his fly rod and rigs up and casts a few times. It's cold, it's windy and the fish aren't to be found. We go along the lake shore clockwise to where the water spills down the cliff and down to Rock Lake. John leads us to a grassy chute heading downhill. This is the limit of reasonable.* Traction is poor on the wet grass and the slope is really steep. John falls and whacks the tip of his fly rod hard enough to break it. We make it to the bottom safely enough and find Rock Lake very pretty. We follow the outlet to Little Rock Lake and John catches some fish there. Past the backcountry site (unoccupied) and downstream a ways John catches some bigger fish and releases them. The outlet meadows are pretty. The sky is somewhat clearer but is still kind of a brassy, humid looking sky instead of the usual painful blue.
* - Note: Taking the roundabout way past love lake, lion lake and them thru the woods to LRL is more reasonable than using the chutes. Just a note for future planning......
We then turn uphill for camp. It takes about an hour of tree avoidance and sweat to get back to camp. We even find the plastic shell of a dead radiosonde in the woods.We have lunch and start packing. About that time we notice the clouds thickening and accelerate our packing and get out the raingear.
We all head off together to the west toward Milner Pass.
Mush meadows and little patches of forest. It starts to rain and lightning. It would be a pretty X-C trek if it weren't for this heavy pack and hour and a half of cold rain and sleet. (I've been back this way several times now and it is very pretty. Excellent elk territory.)
We reach the car at 4:30 and are quite wet and tired. I'm overjoyed to be headed home instead of having to deal with cold, wet and staying in a tent again tonight.
They take me to my car and the trip is over. Aborted. Finished. Phew!
I learned some things.
Subsequent conversations with rangers indicate that they send one party per year down the length of the canyon. Usually W-E, travelling very lightly and it takes a LONG day. Even the rangers don't like to go there. (I've mentioned that I've been thru Forest Canyon when talking with rangers about other places and that seems to turn a key for them that they aren't talking to a clueless tenderfoot.)
Post script: I have since been back to LRL 3 more times. (see Tera Tomah report)All the terror and attitude are gone. Now it's normal. No shock, no dismay, no unhappiness. In fact, I kind of prefer it. But it takes time and experience. The following year, Jeff and I were going to go up Hayden Gorge from the bottom. Jeff lost his morale when we hit Hayden Creek after having left a nice camp with his wife and 3 other friends at LRL. That aborted another attempt on Hayden. (I could have killed him and gone on but I have some compassion.)
We got Hayden Gorge the next year. (see trip report: Hayden )