Monday, April 25, 2022

Day 84: Grand Lake, llamas and moose! Oh my!

July 13: I woke up, bright and early and hit the trail at around 6:30am. The trail immediately crossed into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), where I soon spotted a couple of bald eagles. I took some shots with my dinky little point-n-shoot camera, but really wished I had my fancy DSLR camera with that 300mm zoom lens just then. *sigh*

My small, cheap little camera couldn't do these bald eagles justice! (There are two bald eagles in this photo, but only one has the white head. I think the other is a juvenile, but without the white head, it's easy to miss!)

An hour or two later, I met a woman on the trail who had reported seeing both a bear and a moose this morning! How lucky! I was envious. Yeah, bald eagles are cool, but I see those in Seattle pretty regularly. Bear and moose are also a lot bigger so I could probably get better photos of them than the eagles!

And shortly after that, the trail dumped me off at a  trailhead at the edge of the small town of Grand Lake. Which was next to the lake called Grand Lake, the largest natural lake in Colorado. The Colorado River, before being renamed in 1921, used to be called Grand River. At least in Colorado, which does seem a bit odd that the Colorado River wasn't called that until after it already flowed out of Colorado.

Anyhow.... the trail follows surface roads through the town so it's a common resupply point for thru-hikers. No hitching required!

I was about five minutes into the road walk when I came across a moose with a baby on the side of the road. They were partially hidden behind trees so I couldn't get great photos of them, but located only 20 feet off the road, they were definitely close-up and easy to spot! I stopped to take some photos and texted one to Pez with the comment, "Check out what I found walking into town!" Pez, I knew, had spent the night in Grand Lake and was only a few miles away. It would drive him crazy knowing that I spotted two moose at the edge of town. "If you had walked out here to meet up with me, you could have seen them too!" =)

It's a mama moose and her baby! (The baby kind of looks like it's coming out of the mama's butt in this photo, but that's purely an optical illusion!)

Further into town, I stopped at the town library to get on a wi-fi connection and take a short break. I texted Pez about my location and he showed up several minutes later to join me. 

Normally, I would have stopped for the day in Grand Lake, but I knew that Amanda was flying out for a visit, so my plan was to keep going. She had made reservations for a hotel back in Winter Park (it was cheaper than Grand Lake, but much further away!), but she'd also have a rental car to shuttle me around as needed. So my plan was to hike another several miles--basically to the next road that vehicles could reach--then start hitchhiking toward Winter Park. And Amanda could pick me up wherever I happened to be when she arrived, whether I was still trying to hitch a ride off the trail, or back in Grand Lake, or any one of several towns between Grand Lake and Winter Park. The further I could get by hitchhiking, though, the less driving she would have to do.

And I could still get in several more miles today. With Pez as company. And with a pack that was relatively light since by now it was largely empty of food.

After meeting up with Pez, we started hiking out of town. At the far end of town, the trail veered off onto yet another alternate route. This was a forced alternate due to devastating wildfires from the previous year. The main, red-line CDT made a largely U-shaped 20-mile trek through Rocky Mountain NP, but large chunks of it were officially closed due to wildfire damage that had yet to be repaired. Nobody could hike through that section of the park.

On the plus side, however, this short alternate knocked off nearly 20 miles of hiking, cutting across the top of the U-shape. =)

We only made it maybe a mile or two out of town before we reached a "trail closed" sign with green netting across the trail to discourage hikers from continuing. Our alternate, as it turned out, was also closed. This wasn't a big surprise since Guthook comments warned that it was closed, but we were still a bit disappointed. However, there was an alternate of the alternate to get around the closure, and we followed another trail to to Highway 38. 


Even our alternate route was closed due to wildfire damage, so we would have to take an alternate of the alternate!

Along the way, we passed a team of horses carrying all sorts of trail-maintenance gear heading in the opposite direction.

"Are all these tools to get the trail back open again?" I asked the woman leading the train of horses.

"Yep," she replied. 

"Awesome!" I said, "Thanks!"

Although in hindsight, I'm not sure why I was so excited. It's not like I'll be in the area at that point to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The trail ended at Highway 38, at a parking lot for a visitor center there. At this point, the alternate for the alternate was walking directly down Highway 38 into RMNP. There was a nice, wide shoulder to walk on, so in that respect, it wasn't so bad, but it was still a road walk and a busy road. Not fun, to say the least.

The scenery looked like a wasteland with all the burned trees and charred infrastructure. I hadn't remembered hearing anything about this particular wildfire, but as we walked down the road, it was pretty obvious that it was enormous and absolutely devastating. It felt like walking through an end-of-the-world kind of movie.

As we approached the point where vehicles paid the entrance fee at a toll both, we noticed signs saying that you had to have a reservation to enter the park. Pez and I had no reservations.... but that just applied to vehicles, right? We weren't really sure. Or if we had to pay some sort of walk-in fee.

Neither Pez or I had a reservation... would this be a problem...?

Unsure of what to do, I kind of made some hand signals to the person in one of the toll booths, pointing ahead and shrugged with a "what do I do?" kind of look, and he waved us through. Awesome! No fee for us! No reservations needed for us walk-ins.

I noticed a structure on the side that had burned to the ground, a twisted pile of metal and destruction, and crossed through the traffic to get a better look and take some photos. It appeared that the toll booths themselves survived the fire only because the road around them acted as a fire break, but whatever structure was at the edge of the forest was completely and utterly destroyed.

This structure near the tollbooths suffered catastrophic damage from the wildfire!

Onward we walked. We passed a small parking area pullout with some covered picnic tables that had been closed off due to fire damage. The areas with the trash bins had been utterly destroyed as well, but otherwise it wasn't readily apparent to me why that particular pullout had been closed to traffic. Maybe because all of the trails from that trailhead were still closed?

No parking allowed!

At one point during the walk along Highway 38, Pez and I noticed a small trail running parallel to the road, maybe 50 feet off from the road. "Why aren't we walking on that instead of this road?" I asked Pez. So we scampered over to the trail which was much more pleasant for walking than the road, even though we were never more than about 50 feet away from the road.

The trail only lasted about 10 minutes before we reached that orange netting blocking the trail with a sign warning that the trail beyond that point was closed. Oh, well.... So we climbed back up onto the road and continued walking.

For a few glorious minutes, Pez and I were back on a trail again. But that didn't last once we reached this point.

We finally reached the Onahu trailhead where I had planned to hitch out from. I figured it would probably be easier to hitch a ride back toward Grand Lake from a trailhead, although this trailhead was empty of vehicles since all the trails leading from it were closed. Pez and I wished each other good luck and goodbye with hopes we'd catch up again in the future. I didn't know it at the time, but I would never catch up with him again. It would be the last time I'd ever see him on the trail.

I had to wait a few minutes before a vehicle drove by, and I stuck out my thumb and it stopped! The very first vehicle to go by stopped and picked me up! Awesome!

The vehicle was driven by an older couple living in Tabernash, just short of Winter Park. They had assumed I was trying to get into Grand Lake--which was on their way (a logical assumption and probably where 99% of hikers from this point would be going)--but I was thrilled to get a ride all the way to Tabernash! Score! It was only another 8 miles past that I needed to get to. 

About five or ten minutes after they picked me up, just outside of the park boundary but before reaching Grand Lake, we saw a whole bunch of cars parked on the side of the road--a sure sign of wildlife somewhere off the road. They slowed down as we approached and there it was: another mama and baby moose! My second set that I saw today! And, even more hilarious for me, all of about 10 minutes after I split off from Pez. I saw a mama and baby moose maybe 15 minutes before we met up.

My ride wanted to pull over on the road and get a better look at the moose, and I was all in favor of the delay, so they pulled over and we all hopped out. These moose were in a small meadow and therefore much more photogenic than the ones hiding behind trees earlier this morning. Then I texted one of the photos to Pez--"I just saw another mama moose and baby!" He still hadn't seen any moose at all, and I'd already seen four of them just today. Plus the three moose sightings during the two days after leaving Silverthorne. I was piling up moose sightings pretty rapidly!

Another mama moose with a baby!

We got back in the vehicle and continued the drive toward Tabernash, having a nice conversation along the way. When we finally arrived in Tabernash about 50 minutes after they first picked me up, however, they said that they would go ahead and drive the extra ten minutes and drop me off in Winter Park since they had the time and it wasn't far. Awesome! =)

So they dropped me off in town. Amanda had texted me that she had landed in Colorado and was on her way. I just needed somewhere to hang out and wait until she arrived. As it so happened, it was near lunchtime, so I figured a restaurant was the place to go and wait.

And... well, I wanted something cheap and easy and where I could linger for however long was necessary. So I went to the nearby McDonalds.

I ordered, then took a table in the corner. While sitting down, a nearby guy asked me if I was hiking the CDT. Well, of course! And he introduced himself as Grizzly Smurf. I was actually a little surprised that this was another hiker. I hadn't pegged him for one, although he did have that somewhat grizzled appearance of a thru-hiker. But I hadn't noticed any large pack nearby and--I hope this doesn't sound racist--but he was definitely black. Not that I have a problem that, but I can probably count the number of black thru-hikers I've met on one hand. They just aren't that common, unfortunately, so when I do see a black person, I tend to assume that they probably aren't a thru-hiker. 

Although I was an hour drive away from where I got off the trail, Winter Park is a popular resupply point by hikers passing through Burthound Pass--which I had passed through three days earlier. So any hikers I met in Winter Park were likely 3 days behind me on the trail.

After introductions, Grizzly Smurf and I started chatting a bit and one thing led to another and then he told me the mother of all hiking stories that involved two llamas.

Apparently, some hikers coming down from Monarch Pass into Salida noticed a sign on the side of the road with a phone number to call if one wanted to rent llamas. And apparently, they decided this would be an excellent idea! They could have the llamas carry their pack and the rest of their gear. How awesome is that?!

So they called the number, and made arrangements. They were so excited about the idea of llamas carrying all their gear, they even bought a cast-iron skillet to cook on and a bunch of other unnecessary junk. They were going to feast! They were going to camp in luxury! They were going to use llamas to carry all their gear from Monarch Pass to Twin Lakes.

"But what do they do with the cast-iron skillet after the llamas are returned?" I asked, gripped by the unfolding story.

"I don't know. I just don't know."

"Did you actually see these llamas?" I asked.

But no, he had only heard the story from others.

Other details about the llamas emerged. Apparently, the hikers' average daily mileage dropped from about 20 miles per day to about 5. It seems that llamas don't always like to cooperate and may not like carrying heavy packs either. It sounded like a huge disaster, and they wound up calling the llama's owner to retrieve them early. And it allegedly cost something like $800 to rent them--but that they lowered the per-person cost by splitting the cost among the group of hikers. It wasn't economical for one person to rent llamas, but spread out across a few people, it was possible.

The group also had to take a "llama class"--how to handle the llamas, feed them and take care of them before being allowed to take custody, as it were. "That should have been the first sign that they were in over their heads," I joked.

Oh, I wished I had been there to witness the spectacle! A small part of me was even jealous. I never for a moment thought that rental llamas would be easy or carefree, but imagine the blog entries I could write! The new challenges! The hilarious stories that would result! Maybe I should rent a llama someday? It was a thought I'd never seriously contemplated before.

Grizzly Smurf soon left. He had laundry running at a laundromat nearby and needed to check up on that, so we said goodbye and I finished my meal alone, and then used the Wi-fi at the store to get online with my phone. 

Several minutes later, Sweet Tooth walked in. I almost didn't recognize her at all with her hair loose and cleaned up. But where was Bugs? Bugs, Sweet Tooth told me, was a day behind. She had hiked on ahead to get into town in time to register for classes or something later in September, but that they'd meet up again soon.

Then I asked her if she had heard about the llamas. "Oh, I have videos of the llamas!" 

"You do?!!! I wanna see!"

She pulled out her phone and told me what she knew about the incident, which exactly matched everything Grizzly Smurf had already told me. Except now I knew who some of the participants in these shenanigans were, including the likes of Captain Jack, Twain, Cramps and such. Sweet Tooth was invited to join and let the llamas carry her pack as well, but she said that she didn't want any part of that. She thought it was crazy and had more sense than that.

I was a little surprised I hadn't heard about the llamas earlier when I realized who all had been involved. I had seen her in Salida, along with Cramps and Bugs, so the llamas must have happened the day after I left. If I had taken another zero day in Salida, I might have been witness to the spectacle! I was a little surprised that none of the other hikers who had caught up and passed me had mentioned it, though. Even Pez hadn't said anything about it, and he would have been right there at the time. Had none of these people heard about the llamas?

Sweet Tooth finally found the video of the llamas on her phone and played it, and yep, they were definitely llamas! Cute little things, too. =)

And finally, Amanda showed up about 5 or 10 minutes after Sweet Tooth. And we repeated the llama story for Amanda, and Sweet Tooth showed her the video. Lots of fun.

Then Amanda and I headed out. She had reserved an Airbnb that turned out to be about two blocks away, so I was soon taking a shower and getting cleaned up. My small, cheap laptop was still stuck in the bounce box at the post office in Leadville, but Amanda had brought my nicer, bigger laptop from home so I could finally get online again and get some real work done. I had thought maybe the Leadville post office had gotten tired of holding the box and would "return" it to me to Seattle, at which point I hoped Amanda could just return it directly to me. But no, it was still locked up in the Leadville post office. I'd have to try calling them again, but I wasn't optimistic about getting through.

And the rest of the evening I just spent catching up on messages and email and such. So much to do! This was only the second time in the whole state of Colorado I had been able to get online with a real computer and not just my phone. And that laptop in Leadville I hadn't used at all in the entire state!

But thus ended another day on the trail.....

It's the mighty Colorado River! Doesn't look like much up here, though.

Grand Lake

This is also Grand Lake, but this time it's the name of the city.

This wildfire was clearly very recent and hugely devastating, so I later looked up information about it and learned it happened the previous autumn and not only did it burn huge portions of RMNP, but it also destroyed many homes in the area.

More fire damage in the park. This looked like where the garbage bins might have been stored.

Not only were many of the trails and trailheads closed due to wildfires, but this was an "employees only" area that had to be closed due to fire damage as well. That brown sign in the background reads, "Employees Only".

Pez hiking down Highway 38


Tina said...

This was one of the most devastating fires in Colorado history. We live in Nebraska, and for many days we experienced orange, smoky, dark days where the sun was just a dark red ball going across the sky. At times we couldn't see a mile down the road.

Anonymous said...

The East Troublesome Fire was the largest in Colorado history. We had just jumped off of Route 66 since we didn’t think people in the Midwest and West were taking the pandemic seriously and driven north to Fraser (between Winter Park and Tabernash) — we spend the winters here in the Icebox of the Nation for skiing at Winter Park. We ended up very involved with the fire relief efforts. Grand Lake (and it’s hummingbirds) are well known :). I’m so sorry you ate at McDonalds…there are so many great places for good food (several at very reasonable prices) very nearby!

Femmy said...

Poor Amanda, flies in all the way from Seattle to see you, and you catch the laptop and go to work for the better part of the evening... You did say thank you for coming and bringing the laptop, I expect 🙃