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?! =)


Karolina said...

Woo-hoo! Ryan's blogs resumed! I'll have something to read again in the morning. ;-)

Debbie St.Amand said...

I love it! I was just thinking over the weekend how I missed having hiking reports to read.

Lou Catozzi (PI Joe) said...

Just when I thought I was safe from reading trail journals for another season (most CDT and PCT hikers are done now)! Hope you had a great time and 'm looking forward to reading all about the CT now!

PI Joe

Seagull said...

Glad to see a new blog and trail Ryan! Like the bighorn photos and looking forward to your adventures with the new camera.


Mary said...

I've been hoping you had started a new blog for the Colorado Trail - and you did! I love walking the trail and reading more details about it. And seeing more photos!!

Anonymous said...

I love that "click, click, click" of a Cannon.. I've never regretted upgrading to a DSLR. =)
Great photos and nice hike so far!

-Only Dreaming*

Anonymous said...


-Only Dreaming*