Friday, October 20, 2017

Day 3: Afternoon Thunderstorms

August 27: The morning was cool but sunny, and unlike yesterday, I'd spend most of the day walking through thick forests with limited views. My headache from the evening before had long since disappeared and I felt good. My hips were still sore from carrying a too-heavy pack, but that was normal at the start of a hike for me. I'm not trail hardened yet.

And most of the day was completely boring and uneventful. The trail stayed mostly level for the first few miles of the day, then steadily climbed to higher elevations the rest of the day surpassing the 10,000-foot (3500 m) elevation mark late in the day. It was the first time the trail climbed over 10,000 feet, but I knew I'd be spending most of my hike at these lofty elevations. The trail started low, but from here on out, it would spend most of it's time above this level. Near passes, it might drop down to about 9,000 feet, but I was in the high country now and wouldn't come out of it again until the end of the trail.

But surprising me was the utter lack of views for most of the route. I figured 10,000 feet should be well above tree level and provide ample views in every direction, but I was stuck in trees all day with just an occasion break with a view. I was a little disappointed about that.

On the plus side, the trail was passing through its first wilderness area--the Lost Creek Wilderness. I was happy about this because I was getting tired of the endless number of mountain bikers passing me on the trail. I don't mind people on the trail, but I like them in moderation and it seemed like bikes had been passing me every five minutes the day before. And because they travel so much faster than I did, it's not like I could chat with them and get to know them at all. But! Bikes aren't allowed in wilderness areas and thru-bikers had to veer off on a detour following roads that went around the wilderness area. Without the constant presence of mountain bikers passing every five minutes, I suddenly felt like I had the trail to myself. Bikes outnumbered hikers by a huge margin, and without the bikes, I felt alone in the woods. Which was okay by me. I liked some alone time.

Late in the day, I heard the first rumble of thunder bouncing around the hillsides. The Colorado Trail is legendary for its afternoon thunderstorms and it appeared that I'd be facing the first of them. I've read that they're much more common in August than September so I hoped my late start on the trail might limit how much walking I'd have to do in such storms, but I knew I wouldn't avoid them completely. And I didn't!

When it started to sprinkle, I decided to set up my tarp and see if I could wait it out. I've also heard that if you don't like the weather in the mountains of Colorado, you can wait 20 minutes for it to change. I wanted to try it. =)

And remarkably, it worked! I stayed safe and dry under my tarp, writing in my journal and reading my Kindle, and about 20 minutes later the rain tapered off. I packed up my tarp and kept hiking.

An hour or two later, it started sprinkling again and I repeated the process. As the rain tapered off again, I packed up the tarp and continued hiking.

After 17.1 miles, I reached a wonderful viewpoint overlooking a scenic meadow and decided that was a great place to camp. It wasn't near water, but I carried enough to get me through the night and there was a creek just a mile or so further down the trail that I could fill up at the next morning.

I camped alone this time. The rain had stopped, but clouds still looked threatening and I had trouble deciding if I should set up the tarp or not. Eventually I decided not to--but I set up camp next to trees that would allow me to set it up quickly without moving if rain did start again.

But it didn't, and life was good!

I set up camp at this scenic viewpoint! It was a wonderful evening. =)
My campsite for the night

Yeah, I think I'll do that. *nodding* =)
For a mile or so along the trail, I could hear what sounded like guns and bombs going off.
Stay on trail, stay on trail....

There were a lot more water sources along the trail today.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Day 2: The Desert Vortex

August 26: I woke up in the morning feel good and refreshed. I was on the trail again, on another adventure! Life was good!

View down into the South Platte Canyon. You can see the old burn area on the other side--which I'd be hiking through for most of this very hot, very dry, and very unshaded day.

The trail had a long, steady drop to South Platte Canyon where I stopped long enough to eat a snack by the river and fill up with 5 1/2 liters of water. It would be the last reliable water source on the trail for 15 miles which I didn't expect to reach until the end of the day. The water was excruciatingly heavy, but I saw no way around having to carry so much. One liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds--I knew this, so I calculated that I had just added 12 pounds to my pack. Assuming I had eaten maybe two or three pounds of food since I started my hike and started the trail with 1 liter of water (with my starting weight of 48 pounds), I calculated that my pack weight had now grown to a ridiculous 55 or 56 pounds. I looked like a first-time thru-hiker that had no idea what they were doing! I was also seriously wondering if bringing my new camera was a mistake.

But it turned out to be even worse than I imagined because nearly the entire distance had suffered from a severe wildfire years ago which left the landscape shade-less as temperatures soared. I drank my water at a steady pace, but I was sweating bullets, overheating and desperate to guzzle down all the water I carried. I knew I couldn't do that, but I certainly wanted to!

The South Platte River would be my last water source on the trail for the next 15 or so miles.

It was a long day. Despite altitudes ranging from a low of 6,140 feet to a high of 7,840 feet above sea level (1871 - 2390 meters)--which in most places of the country is considered high and usually cool as a result--I felt like I was walking through a desert. The ground was largely bare with occasional cactus growing in the difficult terrain and temperatures felt like they were hitting the 90s. It didn't take long before 5 1/2 liters of water didn't seem anywhere near enough to get through 15 miles.

I didn't actually want to do another 15 miles. That would be on top of the three or four miles I hiked to fill up with 5 1/2 liters of water and I didn't want to push myself too hard too early on the trail. But I certainly hadn't wanted to carry enough water to get me through the night and into the next day as well. I needed the water, though, so I'd push on the 15 miles. I could do it!

And I did do it, but I felt terrible by the end of the day. A slight headache plagued me, which I attributed more to dehydration than altitude sickness. In the grand scheme of things, I was still too low to be suffering from altitude sickness. Especially considering I had already been at high altitudes for the better part of a week now. No, I was just dehydrated.

Hot, dry and shadeless! This was what most of the day was like. Without the trees, however, I will admit, the views were expansive! =)

I set up camp by Morrison Creek and its endless supply of water which I guzzled in buckets upon my arrival.

I thought about picking up more water and going another mile or two down the trail--it would position me better for where I wanted to reach the next couple of days, but then decided that was a stupid idea. I was exhausted. I was hurting. My back and hips ached from carrying such a heavy pack, and I had already done a respectable 18.6 miles for the day, and I felt like crap. I was supposed to be taking it easy the first few days--not killing myself! So I decided it was best to stop for the night and see how I felt in the morning.

Near sunset, a man biking the trail stopped by the creek and asked if it would be okay for him to camp there as well. Sure! No problem! There's plenty of space for everyone!

He introduced himself as Spencer from Maine and said he had started the trail at Waterton Canyon that morning. He completed in one day what it took me two days to walk. I was a little envious. I could have gotten through that dry 15 miles a lot quicker on a bike. Actually, *I* probably couldn't have gotten through quicker. My muscles don't have a lot of practice on bikes and I'd probably wind up having to walk it up every tiny hill and go a lot slower than he would down hills. But I was envious that he was moving along at twice my speed overall.

Spencer also told me that there was a hiker behind him that he passed a few miles back who was attempting to set a new unsupported speed record of the Colorado Trail by hiking the whole thing in a mere eight days. He started that day as well and was planning to hike until about 2:00 in the morning before taking a short stop to sleep and rest and repeat.

About an hour later, a hiker walked by on the trail, and I assumed that must have been him, but Spencer didn't see him from in his tent and I didn't talk to him. But how many hikers would be walking by when it was already getting dark? So presumably that was him, but I can't actually say that with 100% certainty.

And I have absolutely no idea if he succeeded in completing the trail in eight days or not. Or if he maybe took longer than that but was still fast enough to set a new fastest known time (FKT). Or if he failed miserably. I have no idea!

But regardless of his success (or not), both Spencer and I agreed that he was undoubtedly crazy. =)

The trail over the South Platte River uses this bridge.

It was hot and unshaded, but surprisingly desert-like for such a high-altitude location!
There were even cactus to admire! I'm not sure how those survive the snow storms that must drop blankets of snow during the winter, though.

A previous thru-hiker, perhaps? =)

The last few miles of the day I had made it out of the burn area.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Day 1: Introducing... the Colorado Trail!

August 25: I had had an adventurous week. From Seattle, I flew down to San Luis Obispo to visit my mom and attend a nearby letterboxing gathering, then a couple of days later my mom and I headed out on a road trip with the intention of reaching Nebraska to watch the total solar eclipse of the sun. Along the way we met up with Amanda by Devil's Tower, and continued onward to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Wind Cave and generally hung out in Wyoming and South Dakota waiting for the eclipse.

I hug the sign marking the northern terminus of the Colorado Trail.

Which, on the 21st, we watched from the small town of Lusk, Wyoming. We changed our destination at the last minute from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, after weather forecasts predicted a possibility of clouds and rain. Weather forecasts for Lusk included words like "sunny throughout the day." Much better than the words like "cloudy" and "rain" that were showing up in those Nebraska forecasts. To be fair, it also included words like "possibility" and "30% chance" so we figured we'd probably be able to watch the eclipse in Scottsbluff just fine, but for these types of once-in-a-lifetime events, why take a 30% chance of missing it if you didn't have to?

The eclipse was great, and if you saw it, you know what I mean. If you didn't see it--well, you don't really understand what I mean, but you'll get another shot in seven years when the next total solar eclipse hits the United States.

From the eclipse site, my mom handed me off to Amanda and drove back home. Amanda drove me down to Denver and handed me off to another set of friends--Melissa and her family--before flying home herself. Melissa then handed me off to another set of friends--Chuckles and Little Red--hikers I met on my last AT hike a couple of years ago.

I pose with Chuckles and Little Red the night before I started my hike. You might remember them from my AT adventures a couple of years earlier.

Which is how, on August 25th, I woke up on a couch in Denver and ready to scratch one of my biggest itches--thru-hiking the Colorado Trail.

Chuckles sneaked out of their place a little before 5:00 AM--an ungodly hour to have to go to work, but go to work he did--and I wave goodbye as he left. Then I went back to sleep.

I would have liked to get a super early start on the trail, but before leaving town, I needed to ship my laptop ahead on the trail and the post office didn't open until 9:00. I was there at the open, though, mailed off my laptop and was ready to start hiking.

Little Red drove me out to the Waterton Canyon Trailhead and I was on the trail and hiking by around 10:00. The day was warm and sunny, birds were singing, and the trailhead was crowded with vehicles. Little Red seemed a little envious of my upcoming hike and probably would have liked to join me, but she had to go to work as well in a couple of hours. She did follow me down the trail far enough to take photos of me at the beginning of the Colorado Trail, but then we said our goodbyes and I was on my own.

My goal for the day was to cover at least 8.7 miles to Bear Creek. Camping isn't allowed in Waterton Canyon, so I had to get past that if I wanted to camp legally. But if I could do a few miles past that, that would be nice too. I wasn't trail hardened, though, and didn't want to overexert myself early in my hike. I figured if I could do about 10 miles, that would be nice. But we'll see how it goes. My maps made it look like Waterton Canyon was flat as a pancake. Surely I could do 10 miles....

The Colorado Trail is among one of the highest trails I've ever done. The trailhead at Waterton Canyon is the lowest point of the entire trail at 5,520 feet (1682 m) above sea level, but the trail is usually found at elevations exceeding 10,000 feet (3000 m).

I hoped to see a rattlesnake so I could get a photo with my 300mm zoom lens!

My destination, if I succeeded in following the trail to its end, was Durango. Located nearly 500 miles away, the trail winds its way through the Rocky Mountains, passing several 14,000+ peaks along the way. I was starting a bit late in the hiking season, which I knew would probably mean a dusting of snow and some very cold weather by the time I reached the end of the trail, but hopefully winter in the mountains wouldn't start until after I finished. I hoped to finish in four to five weeks--by the end of the September at the very latest.

I got my first surprise on the trail early when I saw a sign about moose on the trail. There were moose in Colorado?! I had no idea! I knew Yellowstone had them, but I had no idea that moose were as far south as Colorado. I had been hoping to see a bear on the trail, but now I hoped to see a bear and a moose!

My gear was mostly the same as I used on previous hikes. Same clothes, same soda can stove, same home-made backpack, same everything.... except for two new items. At Mount Rushmore, I found a small Polish flag for sale which I bought. I figured it might make a good prop in photos, and if I carried it on my pack and I passed any Polish people, they might talk Polish to me. =)

And then I carried a new camera. It was a giant, bulky thing that I had reservations about carrying. I didn't need to carry it, but it was a freakishly big and heavy luxury item as well. It was a Canon T6 DSLR, which included the 75-300mm zoom lens. I knew I could get some awesome shots with this camera that I'd never be able to do with my point-n-shoot camera, but it was so big, heavy and bulky.... I'd been conflicted all week about what I wanted to do with the camera. Take it or leave it? Both were appealing. I decided that I'd try carrying it for a little while, but maybe mail it back home after the novelty of it wore off.

It's a bunch of firewood filled with holes.... right? =)

No... It's a home for solitary bees! But I didn't see any bees at the time I passed by. *sigh*
I actually carried four different camera on me at this point. There was the point-n-shoot that I usually used. Small and light-weight, I could keep it in the pocket of my shirt and be able to whip it out in seconds. The Canon was too big and bulky to carry regularly--and I didn't have extra batteries for it that would let me take the thousands of photos I'd need for Walking 4 Fun--so I stored it at the top of my pack ready to pull out when I saw something special like a moose across the meadow. I could drop my pack, whip the camera out, and zoom in for close-up shots that my point-n-shoot couldn't dream of replicating. The point-n-shoot camera would still be my workhorse for the trip. So I also carried a backup for my point-n-shoot camera--a second point-n-shoot of the same model. I'd have to take photos, even in rain, snow, dust or whatever horrible weather was thrown at me. Those can be hard on a camera, and I've broken them before! So I had a backup camera for that. Then there was the camera on my smartphone. I didn't really expect to use that one, but it came with the smartphone and it's not like I could leave it behind and take just the phone. But it meant that--technically--I carried 4 different cameras on me. It seemed like overkill, and it was.

I also packed a week of food--enough to get me to Breckenridge just over 100 miles down the trail. Between the food and the camera, it pushed my pack weight to 48 pounds. It was an extraordinarily heavy weight for a thru-hiker. Especially an experienced one like myself! I should know better!

Back on the trail, within minutes, I saw road signs warning about rattlesnakes, and bighorn sheep, and moose.... and I hoped I would see all of those animals. I wanted to pull out my 300mm zoom lens and get close-up and personal shots of them all! I crossed my fingers, hoping....

The trail follows Waterton Canyon for several miles. It's along a gravel road that feels completely flat, but slowly--almost imperceptibly--runs upstream by the South Platte River which provides water for the Denver metro area. The road was closed to most traffic. Only a few cars ever passed me, and they were all employees of the water company. The trail was massively popular with hikers and bikers, though. The further up the canyon I got, the mix shifted to mostly bikers.

It wasn't more than a couple of hours into my hike when I spotted a herd of big horn sheep walking along the trail. I could tell something was up before I even saw the animals because I saw people at the turn in the road stopped and taking photos, but I couldn't see what they were taking photos of until I got closer. When I got close enough, I dropped my pack, pulled out my camera and zoomed in. Click! Click! Click! I took a lot of photos. I clicked the shutter button like a mad man. There was plenty of battery power in it, and plenty of space on the SD card, so I didn't hold back. I zoomed in, I zoomed out. I took photos with other people visible watching the big horn sheep, and I took more photos with the people cut out of the photo. I took photos as I approached the animals, I took more photos as I passed the herd, and I took more photos as I left them behind.

It was enormously satisfying hearing the "click" of the camera every time I snapped a photo and I was a little disappointed when it finally came to an end. But wow! What awesome photos I got! I was already glad I had decided not to send my camera away. It was a big, bulky and heavy--but I was so glad to have it just then.

I packed that camera away in my pack again and continued onward.

Bighorn sheep on the trail! That sounds like a job for my 300mm zoom lens!
Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.... =)

About six miles down the trail, I took a short break by Strontia Dam at a shaded picnic table. The trail was almost entirely exposed, and temperatures were hot. Seemed like it could have been near 90 degrees, but I suspect the official temperature was closer to 80s. But in direct sun, it feels a lot hotter! I'd been sweating bullets, and my waist was starting to hurt carrying the heavy load of my pack. I definitely wasn't in thru-hiker shape.

Strontia Dam supplies much of the water for the Denver metro area.

I continued on and just around the next turn, I saw another herd of big horn sheep directly on the trail. Beautiful animals! Again, I dropped my pack and pulled out my Canon--zooming in and snapping photos all over again. Click! Click! Click!

I went around the animals, trying to keep as much distance between us as I could. I was the only person around this time. I was less concerned with the first herd of big horns because I always kept other people between them and me. I felt a few of them were getting just a little too close for their own good! But I figured if the animals turned dangerous, they would attack the people closest to them--which was never me! This time, there was nobody else around. If they decided to attack, I was the only person around to attack. So I was a bit more nervous about getting too close to these guys. But they were right ON the trail! Kind of pushed off on one side of the trail, so I tried to creep around them carefully. I didn't make any sudden moves, I didn't turn my back on them, and I talked to them. "Just passing by here," I'd tell them. "Just ignore me. I won't cause you any trouble!"

I got by safely and when the road turned and the herd was no longer in view, I packed up my camera again and continued hiking.

I'm loving my camera right now! =) It looks like I'm two feet away when I took this photo! (I wasn't. I was maybe 20 feet away.)
These guys look like they're modeling for me!

Maybe five minutes later I passed another backpacker heading in the opposite direction.

"Are you thru-hiking the trail?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered.

I congratulated him on his completion.

"I'm not finished yet!"

"No, but you're close enough.

I asked him about his trip--any trail conditions ahead I should know about?

"Not really," he answered. He did warn me that it snowed and hailed on him at times, so I'd definitely be getting that. He also saw both bear and moose on the trail.

"Oooh!" I relied, "I'm jealous! I hope I get to see those too!" I imagined taking fabulous photos of bears and moose with my Canon.

"Yeah, but I haven't seen any bighorn sheep yet. I really wanted to see a bighorn sheep."

Ironic, huh? =)

I told him to wait five minutes. "Five minutes down the trail, and you'll see a whole herd of them. Up close and personal! You can't miss it. Literally--you can't miss it!"

We parted our separate ways, and the trail officially left the gravel road I'd been following all day and headed into the mountains. The trail was definitely no longer flat! But it was well-graded, built to support horses and mountain bikers. Lots of switchbacks heading up into the mountains.

At Bear Creek, the first official campsite, I took another break and filled up with water. It was still mid-afternoon with plenty of light and I decided to keep going. My guidebook showed more campsites ahead, but also warned that there wasn't water at them. So I filled my pack with a few liters of water making it even heavier than it was when I started that morning. It must have been at least 50 pounds now. Ugh.

I hiked on for another our or so, eventually stopping at a campsite with a relatively open view of the sky. I wanted to try taking some photos of the stars during the night with my fancy new camera. =)

My campsite for the night. Besides my Canon camera, the Polish flag was my other new luxury item on the trail. I wear it on my pack during the day and set it up by camp at night hoping to suck in Polish-speaking people that I could practice speaking Polish with. It seemed like a long shot, but why not?! So I'd stick the flag in the ground or in a tree and call the campsite "Camp Poland." =)

I didn't see anyone on the trail after leaving Waterton Canyon, except for another thru-hiker going in the same direction as me near sunset. I said he was welcome to camp here as well--there was certainly plenty of room for both of us--but he wanted to push on until dark and I never saw him again after that. I think he was in a bigger rush than I was.

So I wound up camping by myself. I took some photos of the sunset, but later at night when the stars started coming out, I pulled out my Canon and started taking photos. I didn't have a lot of experience taking star photos and it required the use of manual settings which I wasn't very familiar with, but I spent the better part of an hour messing around with setting and trying to get photos. Most of them turned out blurry (I didn't have a tripod and needed to set my camera on rocks, trying to hold it as steady as possible). Some of them were overexposed. Most of them were underexposed. And there was still a lot of light pollution from Denver--whose lights I could see if I scrambled to the top of a particularly set of boulders. It wasn't really an ideal shooting location, and 90% of the photos I ended up taking were absolutely terrible, but I got a few okay photos which I was excited about. =) I even tried a little light painting with my flashlight when the ambient light from Denver ruined my effect of a silhouette but left objects too dark to really see clearly. And it gave me something to do for much of the night before I finally went to sleep. =)

And, after 12.3 miles, my first day on the Colorado Trail was officially over.

You'll find lots of water control structures along the South Platte River.
Lots of bicyclists too!

Once you leave Waterton Canyon, the trail becomes a real trail, and also it becomes much more steep and you'll find a lot more trees. =)

Sunset from camp
The crescent moon at dusk
The moon at night! (It doesn't look like a crescent anymore because it's so overexposed, but it is a crescent.) And now stars are coming out! =)
This is my favorite photo I took during the night. I did a little light painting to light up the trees, but the rock got way overexposed and the stars are a bit fuzzy. But hey, I'm new at these types of photos. I'll improve, right?! =)