Into The Mystic
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
A trip to an amazing place begins with a single step, and synchronicity often plays an important role. Then again, sometimes it simply takes a menial task such as rearranging some quad maps to embark on that journey.
My path toward Mystic Island Lake began five years ago in the basement of Summit Canyon Mountaineering. I was working there at the time, and was in charge of organizing the quadrangle maps. I’ve always loved maps – a key to the location of some out-of-sight wonder. I stumbled upon a map with a rather intriguing name: Mystic Island Lake.
Sounds like a pretty cool place, I thought.
The five-and-a-half-mile Lake Charles Trail follows East Brush Creek, up to Lake Charles, and ends at Mystic Island Lake. The numerous fishing opportunities and remoteness of the site made it irresistible.
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I knew that I had to see this place, but, as so often happens, life seemed to get in the way of realizing my goal. As the years passed by, I often suggested Mystic as an option for a trip but ended up camping on the Flat Tops instead.
The heat of this summer refueled my interest in Colorado’s high country, and my weekends were spent searching for a reprieve from the sweltering conditions. Mystic once again became a possibility.
It was time to stop saying maybe and just go.
The Lake Charles Trail is located about 15 miles southeast of Eagle, near Fulford Cave, and it leads into the Holy Cross Wilderness.
The trailhead is nestled next to a small pond at the end of Forest Service Road 415 at an elevation of 9,445 feet.
Geared up, my fiancee Jolene, our Akitas, Ranger and Greta, and I started hiking.
The trail begins with a gradual climb for the first couple of miles. Wild raspberries line your path, offering a quick snack option.
The trail is pretty easy to follow and is in decent condition. However, there are a lot of root and rock snags, so you must be careful not to trip.
Or drop anything.
About three miles in, I took off my pack for a quick breather, I noticed – with no small amount of horror – that the top of my fly rod was missing. I had last checked it about a mile back and had a decision to make: Call it a loss and skip fishing, or turn back and possibly find it on the trail.
I did the only rational thing an adult could do. I started yelling at the trees.
Feeling defeated, my thoughts turned to the comforts of home. We could just call it a day, head home and order a pizza.
But I knew that heading back would drive me nuts. I was too close to my destination.
I decided to search for the missing section of my pole. I walked back down, shrouded in a thick coat of doubt.
There was no way I’d find it, or if it had landed on the trail, someone else would have picked it up and taken it.
Amazingly, about three-quarters of a mile back, the lost piece was there, smack in the middle of the trail.
The fishing gods had smiled upon me, and my quest could continue as planned.
Feeling rejuvenated, I triumphantly hiked back to Jolene, who was waiting patiently with my pack.
We pressed on, crossing the mushroom-studded terrain. Fungi of all shapes, sizes and colors bloomed from the damp ground.
Our late start – coupled with my fishing rod incident – made it so I would have to pass on the myriad fishing holes along East Brush Creek, with its gorgeous water shimmering with golden tint.
The terrain became much rockier, and a wall of granite towered to our left.
The trail had taken an abrupt turn upward, but other than a few stops to admire a waterfall or take a drink of water, we pushed on.
The steep climb showed me of how out of shape I was. My Jeep had made me lazy.
I started to realize that car camping, while fun, becomes routine. It had been years since I actually had to earn a campsite.
With my knees and lower back screaming, we finally made it to beautiful Lake Charles (11,055 feet).
The lake was alive with the evening’s entertainment. Trout leapt out of the water devouring the insects flying about. Bats and birds soared in for their take on the aerial feast. Lake Charles had become a gladiator’s arena in the shadow of Fool’s Peak (12,947 feet).
We decided to make camp here and walk the remaining mile in the morning.
Exhausted, I pulled out my iPod and listened to “Workingman’s Dead” by the Grateful Dead as a magnificent, hazy sunset unfolded to the west. The fiery heart of the day, beating brightly before slumber.
I sent the mental image to my friend Beau, who’s been going through a rough patch as of late.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of light rain. The air was heavy, and the Colorado bluebird sky of yesterday was no more. I wanted to get up and toss a line in the water, but the sounds of the rain and the light breezes were too powerful a sedative.
With comfort and nature conspiring against us, we slept the early part of the day away. Around noon the rain eased up, and we dragged our tired bones out of our sleeping bags.
We grabbed some water and my fishing gear and set out for Mystic.
The valley narrowed as we closed in on our destination, the gray granite in sheer contrast to the lush greens and yellows below. Water was abundant here, and life flourished all around.
The last mile was a joy to hike, and as we climbed the last lip of rock, Mystic Island Lake spread out for us in all her beauty.
The crystal-clear body of water lay still, presenting us with a perfect mirror image of the splendor above. Time slowed, and we just stared in admiration – a work of art at 11,328 feet.
Subtle movements underneath caught my eye, as the resident cutthroat and brook trout swam lazily past.
It was obvious their schedules were clear for the day.
I tied on a small pale morning dun with a rainbow warrior midge as a dropper and began to cast.
The clarity of the water betrayed my motives, and the fish quickly scattered. I would have to be stealthier if I wanted success on this day.
I scouted the lake and looked for the perfect spot. On the north shore there was a rocky outcropping that looked good.
There was also an underwater peninsula extending from the outcropping that pointed toward the island near the south shore.
The glacial tarn was giving up its secrets.
I tossed the line to the right of the submerged feature, and a high country cutthroat couldn’t resist the PMD.
The beautiful trout thrashed about, its colors ablaze. I brought it close to shore, and Greta trotted up, face lit with pure awe.
Few things are as rewarding as catching a cutthroat in the high country and returning it to the pristine waters to fight again some day.
I then spotted a larger fish out farther. I dropped the fly about three feet short, and waited.
The fish turned and approached. Greta started whimpering in anticipation.
I was amazed: She saw the fish and had a grasp on what was going on here. I had made a new connection with my beloved friend.
Her voice became almost guttural as the trout popped the fly.
Line began to peel, and what I didn’t see at first was that a second fish had taken the rainbow warrior as well. A doubleheader!
The fish flew through the water in unison, jets in a tight flight pattern.
But one got free, having shaken the fly.
I got the other close to shore and found it to be a 15-inch brookie, the largest I’ve caught.
After a quick photo, I released him to the depths.
The winds picked up and rain began to fall again. It was time to head back to camp.
As we turned to go, a voice carried across the lake, “Smile,” the tie-dye clad man yelled. “You’re the only other people up here.”
A quick flash of his camera told us that we’d be part of his tale of Mystic Island Lake.
We hiked back to camp, made a small fire and heated up some dehydrated cuisine that was reminiscent of food provided to prisoners in medieval dungeons.
Ranger ate better than we did, as he walked off and returned with a brand new rawhide, victoriously claiming the hidden treasure of a prior canine visitor.
The next morning we packed up, reluctantly, and got ready to head back. I had to work that afternoon, and the dogs were out of food.
We hoisted our packs and gave Lake Charles one last look. It took us five years to get here, but our memories will last a lifetime.
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Whether in the sky or intensive care unit, Dan LeVan routinely cared for sick or injured members of the U.S. Armed Forces.