Almost stuck in a rut
The morning was hectic. I had family in town, dozens of friends coming in this day or the next and I was getting married in three days. It was time for a backcountry trip.
I had made the sage decision to embark on this journey with three longtime buddies weeks earlier, but now was second-guessing my decision.
Was this reasonable? How could I just say welcome and hello, and then goodbye so quickly to family?
The reason was simple: I needed a break.
No wonder people lose it during weddings. I was going crazy explaining how to use a simple website to non-computer savvy guests; telling Midwesterners that, no, bears don’t have a taste for tourists; and dealing with parasitic car-rental companies that were telling our guests they had to prepay for all the “tolls” between Denver International Airport and Aspen.
Too bad the bears don’t have a taste for people who take advantage of out-of-town customers to increase corporate profits.
The Holmes and Rahe stress scale lists stressful events in life that may lead to illness. Marriage is number 7 on the list, just after: death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, imprisonment, death of a close family member, and personal illness or injury.
Marriage is literally the most stressful happy thing you can do in your life.
There were four of us who sped out of my driveway headed for the great outdoors. Beau, who I’ve known since we were in diapers, is one of my best friends in the world; Erin, my partner in crime for over 20 years, who joined me for the nefarious events of Lutsen 1996 as well as many other incidents I won’t list here; and Josh, Montucky mountain man, pseudo-hippie, and my replacement at the Hangge-Uppe nightclub in Chicago — he’s been moving to Colorado since 2008, but still resides in the Windy City.
After a couple of quick stops in Glenwood for food, fishing licenses and whiskey, we were on our way.
I had hiked to the Fryingpan Lakes a couple of months earlier and thought that it would be the perfect destination for our camping excursion. The trail gains only a 1,000 feet of elevation over 4 miles and is surrounded by some of nature’s most splendid artwork. Oh, and did I mention that the fishing up there is fantastic?
I knew that this would be a great place for a few novices to catch a cutthroat trout or two.
Due to our late start, we didn’t hit the trailhead until 4:30 p.m. It takes me an hour and a half with a pack to make it to the first lake, so I figured in two-and-a-half hours or so we’d have camp set up. What I didn’t take into consideration was that Beau was just getting over a nasty respiratory infection and both he and Erin are smokers … from Chicago.
We were excited for the trek and began the trail at a fast pace … and about a quarter-mile in we hit a wall. The multi-colored mushrooms sprouting from the forest floor were growing at a quicker pace than we were hiking.
I’ve never been a smoker and elevation hasn’t had much of an effect on me in all of my years of hiking, but it was really affecting these guys.
At a snail’s pace, we pressed on, with more time spent resting than walking. The sky grew darker and I began to worry that we wouldn’t get our camp set up before nightfall. Reluctantly, we decided to split up and Josh and I made a mad dash for the lakes and left Beau and Erin to hike at a speed more comfortable to them.
This hike is one that would be difficult to get lost on. To the east and west sheer granite walls tower toward the sky and the Fryingpan River flows directly down the middle of the valley. These guys would either find the lakes or end up back at our vehicles if they lost their way. Beau had spent time navigating the backcountry of Yellowstone and they had a tent, sleeping bags, food and water, as well as headlamps, so I was confident that they would be alright.
Josh and I were making great time. But as we descended the trail toward the river, I spotted movement in the brush ahead and froze.
A bull moose looked up from its grassy meal and locked eyes with me and my dogs. Moose are enormous, beautiful and, potentially, very dangerous. It was also the rut, a time when males can be aggressive and unpredictable.
I pulled the dogs’ dual leash close and crouched down, trying to judge the behemoth’s mood. The moose stood still like a statue, its eyes fixed on us for about 10 minutes. My dogs were surprisingly calm — watching it intently, but not barking or tugging at their bonds. I took the opportunity to snap a few pictures, but kept my distance. The moose finally moved a few paces in our direction, stopped, and stared again. In my mind, I could hear the music from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly … we were at a standoff.
Ranger, my male Akita, let out an audible growl and the moose bowed its head, and then, slowly, walked downstream past us and off into the trees. Moose are known to charge and trample dogs believing they are their only natural predator, the timber wolf.
Taking a breath, I told Ranger he was lucky and we continued on.
We got to camp just past dark and frantically began setting up our tents and getting a fire started.
We knew Beau and Erin would be exhausted and hungry from the hike when they arrived.
The ground was very damp, and it took over 30 minutes to bring a diminutive flame to life, but we fed it well, gave it lots of TLC and, eventually, it became a roaring fire.
Getting warm around the blaze was a priority as the temperatures were plummeting.
Climbing into my tent to bundle up, I realized that in my haste to pack I’d left my pants at home. I would have to endure the cold in the shorts that I hiked up in.
“Great,” I thought.
But this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve camped in cold-weather conditions in shorts. I’m well known for only packing shorts on spring and fall trips to the Flat Tops.
I would endure.
What was more concerning was that it was nearing 10 p.m. and there was still no sign of Beau and Erin. I walked a ways down the trail and gave a few shouts. The blackness beyond yielded no response, so I went back to camp, got the dogs ready for a quick search and started back downhill.
Then, to my elation, Ranger’s ears perked up and he let out an ear-shattering bark. Off in the distance two small orbs of light bounced in the darkness. They had made it.
Erin was ecstatic. “What a hike, man, we saw a moose!” he shouted. Beau, however, was bushed. The lung infection had taken a toll, and he headed right for the tent for some much-needed sleep.
The rest of us broke out the food and began cooking a campfire feast.
An iPod docking station provided music as we cracked a few of the beers we had packed in. We had the lake to ourselves, and a full moon was rising slowly from the east.
Sounds of the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, CCR and the Steeldrivers reverberated off of the peaks above.
The scene was magic.
Light oozed down the granite walls as the harvest moon emerged over the 13,000-foot cliffs. The moonlight illuminated the valley, making headlamps unnecessary.
We told stories, laughed, ate our food and enjoyed the wonder of the outdoors.
The next morning, we emerged from our icy tents to a world transformed by the warmth of sunlight. Erin, Josh and I stoked the fire to make some food and coffee, but Beau’s tent was still zipped up tight.
“Is he alright?” Josh asked.
We tapped on the tent, called his name and turned on some music.
No response. We feared he was really sick or worse. We were about to open the tent and check on him, when the dogs alerted us of someone approaching from the lake.
“About time you lazy asses woke up,” Beau said emerging from the trees with a fishing rod in hand. “I’ve been up for 3 hours,” he said.
The somberness and worry melted away like the ice that covered the lake’s edge earlier that morning.
We spent the next few hours in pursuit of cutthroat trout, basking in the glory of this high-mountain hideaway. We caught fish, drank a couple more beers and watched an acrobatic osprey dive-bomb trout in the lake’s center.
A trip that at times was filled with doubt, worry, and downright dread turned out perfectly.
We packed up, doused the fire and sat at the water’s edge. I looked over at my buddies and smiled.
Three great friends from three chapters of my life all sitting together and enjoying the beauty of the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness.
We lifted our packs onto weary shoulders and hiked back down toward our vehicles, wondering all the while if we’d see our moose friend once again.
— Collin Szewczyk is outdoors editor at the Post Independent. He’s proud of his city-slicker friends for their grit on this adventure. He also suggests not returning from a backcountry hiking trip six and a half hours late just prior to getting married. It upsets the future wife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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