Thursday, March 19, 2015

GSMNP - A Quick Report

I don't think I have posted a good report from the Smokies since 2012.

In 2013, my son and I brought my girlfriend, Sara, with us for her first visit to the Smokies...not a complaint but we did more hiking/sight seeing than fishing. However, Ross and I both landed a couple of wild rainbows when we stopped along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail for lunch.

After watching me land a few, Ross took control of the rod and after a few missed strikes, he brought one to hand.

In 2014, my (then) 14-year old son backed out for a girl so we canceled the July trip. Even though the planned July trip fell through, Sara and I went down at the end of September so I could run in the inaugural Great Smoky Mountain Half-Marathon. Again, we did FAR more hiking than fishing.

It was a VERY busy 4-day trip. On day one we made a difficult hike of 12 miles to Mt. Cammerer fire tower. On day two we went to Cataloochee so Sara could see her first elk - she also was able to hear her first elk bugle as the rut was on during this late September weekend. Sara's dad was an avid deer hunter so she knows how to spot deer and she spotted this cow bedded down in the treeline.

I was able to fish a few holes on Palmer Creek, which I had never fished before, and I was able to add another stream to my growing list of Smoky streams I have explored/fished. I caught this nice little rainbow right in front of a horse camp set up on the lower end of Palmer Creek.

From Cataloochee we went across Sterling Gap to Big Creek - another new stream for me. We hiked up to the Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls. I was able to add another stream to my list, but I didn't take any photos. Trust me, there were several fish in the stream and this is one I've bookmarked for a return visit. This is a large, high gradient stream with house-sized boulders - just what I like!

Sara above the Midnight Hole.

Day 3 was the half-marathon. It had a few more hills in it than I expected, but I still finished in a respectable 1:54.

I don't have any current plans to visit the Smokies in 2015 but I hate to break the string of at least one visit for ten consecutive years!

Short and sweet!


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Colorado 2014 - Let's Get Serious (Part 2)

When I finished Part 1 of this trip entry, I had taken a rest day to prepare for the 5-day backpacking portion of my trip. In hindsight, I'm glad I took the day off but I was three days into my Colorado adventure and I had yet to touch a fish.

The second leg of my adventure started with my host, Keith, picking me up as I dropped off my rental car, then it was straight to Granby in preparation for an early morning start into the backcountry.

The plan was to hike into the west side of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, via the Roaring Fork trail. From Watanga, it would be bushwhacking over an 11,800 foot pass into Rocky Mountain National Park, then bushwhacking through Paradise Valley to the East Inlet trail for the final three nights at Lake looked pretty straight forward on the topo maps.

This 5-day adventure would be my longest backpack trip, to date, and my pack weighed in at roughly 50 pounds. This would also be the first real test of my new Osprey Xenith 88 pack.

The initial climb (roughly 1,000 feet in the first two miles) from the trailhead was uneventful and having fresh legs was truly a blessing. The trail levelled out for the next few miles before another climb to the lake. The final climb to the lake required a few more breaks than the initial climb from the trailhead. In all, it was roughly 3,000 feet of elevation gain over the seven mile trek.

Once again, when we arrived at our destination, I was surprised to find company. These visitors, however, were not fisherman but day hikers. 

As we circled the small lake and crossed the small outlet stream, it was easy to see there were plenty of fish....but would they cooperate?

Our fellow visitors didn't stick around long and after we set up camp, we had the lake to ourselves. It wasn't long after that we were into fish as the small Colorado River cutthroat were very cooperative!

At one point, I had jumped up on a small rock on the edge of the lake and caught fish on six consecutive casts. They didn't have much size but they were far more cooperative than the fish in the first lake I visited.

After catching more than my fair share from the lake, I moved over to the small outlet stream to try my luck in moving water. The results were almost equally successful.

Having worked over the moving water with more good results, I decided it was time to take in the amazing scenery and have a little midday rest. 

We had set up camp for the night well away from the lake and the view across the small meadow was amazing.

The lake itself was beautiful too! A good portion of the lake was lined with reeds, that (apparently) provided food and cover for the abundant population of cutthroat.

I would go back to the lake later that afternoon to catch a few more cutts but the mosquitoes and the hike up found me in my tent before the sun went down.

As normal for me when I'm in a tent, I was up at daylight. I had a quick breakfast before packing up camp in preparation for the off-trail section of the trek. The plan for the day was up and over a pass at about 11,800 feet, then down to Adams Lake in RMNP.

For perspective, check out the peak in this photo I snapped off from camp early on day 2...

The topo lists that peak at 11,721 and after two hours of climbing, we are nearly parallel (altitude) with it as we neared the top of the saddle. 

Once at the top of the saddle, we dropped packs to scout out our next dilemma...How do we get down to Adams Lake?!

All I can says is, thank goodness for game trails! Keith located a game trail out of the photo to the left. It wasn't much of a game trail, it was steep with loose scree, but it was our best (and possibly only option). 

At a couple of points going down, I used both trekking poles out in front of me to keep from sliding down the steep descent. My pucker factor needle was nearly pegged!

Another shot, for perspective: that is the saddle from which we crossed into RMNP, above the left snowfield and we descended between the two snow fields.

Once on "flat" ground and once my pulse had slowed down, I was able to string up a rod and start prospecting for Colorado River cutts.

The lake was beautiful and the surrounding wildflowers were in full bloom.

However, the fishing left quite a bit to desire. We circled the entire lake and did not see a single cruiser or riser; we didn't even spook a fish. That doesn't translate to a dead lake, you just couldn't prove it through us that the lake had fish in it.

By the time we had made it back to our packs, the sky had clouded up and it had started to rain. By the time we started the steep descent (bushwhacking) into Paradise Valley, it had started to rain hard. We were somewhat sheltered by the trees but the terrain was as difficult to descend as it was dropping into Adams Lake from the pass. The only difference was it wasn't loose scree this time, it was wet ground and mud...I went to my backside on a couple of occasions.

When we made it to relatively flat ground, I discovered one of my slips/slides had taken a toll on my rain cover.

Oh well, considering the remoteness of our location, I was glad it was my rain cover that had been opened up rather than one of us!

The rain eventually stopped and when we made it to the first meadow section of Paradise Valley, it was time to drop the packs and start prospecting for cutties again. This time we would be on water I'm familiar with - MOVING WATER.

It didn't take long to pick up a couple of small Colorado River cutthroat.

The fishing was good but not as good as I would have liked. I was able to pick up a few cutts through the meadow, including the largest in this section. This guy came from a nice, deep bend pool with a small log jam at the head.

That guy would be the last cutthroat from Paradise Creek for me. Shortly after I released him, I headed back down the meadow to see how my partner was doing and to see what the remainder of the day held in store for us.

We decided that somewhere up in the tress above the meadow would be a good place to set up camp for the night. Even though it was early in the afternoon, it had already been a long day. The mental stress of some of the descents had me drained and after a quick dinner, I was in my tent asleep before 6:00 PM. I didn't have any problems sleeping either!

The next day started as usual, up early and ready to hit the trail...or lack there of. Our choices were continue down Paradise Creek to the East Inlet trail or up and over Ten Lakes Park and back down to Lake Verna. The topo showed a steep descent to Lake Verna from Ten lakes and I didn't feel like another round of backside puckering, so we chose to follow Paradise Creek.

The topo with our options:

I don't have any photos from the time we broke camp until we reached our campsite at Lake Verna, and there is good reason for that.

Those final three miles to the juncture of East Inlet trail were absolute torture. It was the most physically demanding thing I have ever done in my entire life...and I've completed multiple half-marathons and climbed several 14K summits.

To begin with, the grass and bog, combined with the cool temperatures in the upper meadows created a heavy coat of "slush" on my shoes. Then there were multiple stream crossing, a bog that swallowed one of my shoes and that was the easy part. 

Remember my comment about "thank goodness for game trails"? One section of Paradise Creek narrowed down to a short, steep canyon with the only passable route being on a game trail about 2-3 feet wide with a rock wall on one side and an extreme drop on the other. My "pucker factor meter" was pegged out (and then some) here! After Keith had crossed this section, I followed taking baby steps and making sure my feet and trekking poles were secure with each tiny step.

After that we still weren't done! The final quarter-mile or so was a section of blow down. We had to maneuver over, under and around pine trees that had been knocked over into the largest brush pile I have ever seen. It would have been difficult without a pack but it was very physically demanding with a full pack on. I will say that the way the new Osprey pack shifted and swiveled on it's center axis made it easier.

We finally made it to the East Inlet where we could drop packs and rest for a bit - I was whipped! Five hours to cover three miles!

The only thing remaining was another 1,000 feet of elevation gain to get to our campsite for the next three days...another 1,000 feet!

We eventually made it but I was so tired, I didn't even string up a rod after we got camp set up. The lake was beautiful and there were little brook trout rising everywhere. I just didn't have it in me, even though you can see multiple rises in this next photo.

Keith continued to fish as I spent the evening lounging on the large lakeside boulders. As he fished his way back to where I was relaxing, we were both surprised by a  late evening visitor. We had a late day visit from a park ranger. I was very surprised when he slipped in behind me, I may have even jumped a little when he spoke for the first time.

It was nice to discover he was originally from West Virginia. I believe he said he was from somewhere in the northern panhandle and he graduated from WVU. Of course I always have on my "lucky" WVU ballcap when I'm in the outdoors. Also, as we spoke, we were all treated to an absolutely amazing moonrise over the jagged peaks across the lake.

After a short conversation about "home" , a quick check of permits, he was on his way down the trail and it was nearly dark. He was a at least a mile from the next camp site but I guess that's why he is a ranger.

I almost made to a total sunset this night but I was early to bed and early to rise again.

The next day we would try to rest and recover from the previous day by fishing the next two lakes up the drainage -  Spirit and Fourth Lakes.

I love the early mornings with the reflections in the calm water. They make for great photos.

Lake Verna:

Spirit Lake:

And, finally, Fourth Lake:

Once we made it to the upper end of Fourth Lake, we made the decision that our legs had recovered enough to make the hike on up to Fifth Lake. The thought of the largest Colorado River cutthroat in the park was a pretty motivating factor.

Where is Fifth Lake? It's up there to the right somewhere.

The climb up wasn't that bad, of course, we didn't have on a full pack. It required a little scrambling but once we made it over the last little pitch, it opened up into a nice, open (but rugged) bowl with Fifth Lake still in the early morning shadow.

I had very high expectations for this lake! However, just as with Adams Lake, you could not prove by us that there were fish in there. We circled and fished the entire lake without a single rise, a single cruiser, and not even a spooked fish. Again, just as with Adams Lake, the scenery more than made up for the lack of fish. It was an absolutely spectacular looking lake!

After a couple of hours of prospecting, we made the decision to head back down and chase some of the numerous brook trout we saw as we passed the lakes earlier.

For perspective, that is Fourth Lake below us as we started the descent back down.

Once we made it back to Fourth Lake, we strung up the rods again and were immediately into the brookies. When you are this far into the backcountry, you expect to catch the native cutthroat, but I never complain about catching brook trout - anywhere!

Other than the California Golden trout, I think the brook trout is the most attractive of the salmonid species I have had in my hand, and these were no different.

We both caught several brookies out of both the inlet stream and the lake.

Fourth Lake brookies:

I had a nice lunch in the soft high grass along the inlet stream. I may have even dosed off for a few minutes, but then it was back to the brookies as the pace of the catching never slowed.

We decided to drop back down to Spirit Lake to try our luck with those brook trout and the result was no different.

By the time we had made it back to Spirit Lake and caught a few more brookies, we had already put in another 4-5 miles (at altitude), on a day we had planned to recover. We decided to head back to camp at this point and as we were hiking along the Lake Verna shoreline, I could start to feel the fatigue in my legs. The four days of hiking was, apparently, starting to take its toll.

I spent the evening lounging on the large boulders on Lake Verna and I set up a camera in an attempt to catch some time lapse photos of the spectacular moonrise we had the previous evening. It soon became apparent the cloudy evening was going to prevent a repeat performance, so it was another early night for me.

The last day of fishing would be doing what I know, fishing moving water. As we hiked to Fourth Lake the previous day, we noticed the stream that connected Spirit and Fourth Lakes looked very "fishy".

We would be correct! I think a single person fishing this stretch of water could easily land triple-digit brook trout!

From lake to lake we caught beautiful brook trout.

I can always tell when a trip is starting to wind down, the number of pictures start to dwindle. I probably caught over 50 brookies but the number of photos was significantly less. In addition, we stopped at the inlet of Lake Verna on the way back to camp, I landed a few more brookies but no photos. At least I caught brookies in all three lakes: Verna, Spirit, and Fourth. I'm a list guy, so I can add those to my list and move on.

The last night in camp I set up the time lapse camera again and again the moonrise did not materialize. However, we were treated to a spectacular sunset down the East Inlet drainage. No photos of that either.

The next morning was the dreaded hike out. It was all downhill but seven miles is seven miles, no matter how you measure it.

I did break out the camera for a few parting shots.

Along the trail between Lake Verna and Lone Pine Lake:

Lone Pine Lake from above:

And, finally, the last photo of my adventure and the remaining portion of the trail - through the meadow in the distance.

I had mixed feeling when we finally made it back to the trailhead. I was relieved to take that pack off my back, I felt a sense of accomplishment for what we had done, and I was disappointed that another Colorado adventure was over.

Some of the rough numbers for my 2014 Colorado Adventure : 55 miles hiked (about half of that with a full pack), 16K in total elevation gain, and two of the most physically demanding days of my entire life...the only paradise to Paradise Valley was getting back on an established trail.

Over the conversations that would follow, I agreed to return again in 2015 for another backcountry adventure, but I asked Keith to try to keep the next one "on trail". I can't wait to see what he has planned for 2015!


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Colorado 2014 - Let's Get Serious (Part 1)

I started planning my 2014 trip to Colorado not long after the 2013 trip was in the books.

The 2014 trip would be another backcountry adventure with my host/guide from the previous year but this trip would also include a couple of added side trips - serious side trips!

I landed in Denver early in the AM and after a few quick stops for supplies, I was headed to RMNP. On the agenda was a day trip to a lake that has been on my list since the very first time I drove across Trail Ridge Road.

From my first trip n 2006:

I was planning on using Timber Creek campground as my base camp, so I took Trail Ridge Road to the west side so that I could get a good look at my destination - again.

As I neared the Forest Canyon overlook, I ran into an elk jam. I've seen hundreds of elk in my travels, so I would prefer to just keep moving, but that is not always a choice. After the elk crossed, traffic started moving again, until I got to the exact location where I took the above photo, and traffic stopped again.

When I saw what had caused this traffic jam, I immediately went into tourist mode. It was my "white whale" of RMNP, mature bighorn rams!

I've seen bighorn sheep multiple times, in multiple states, but I've never seen a mature ram...until now!

I snapped off several photos and took another look at my route for the following day, the ridgeline in the upper right of the photo would be the off-trail portion of my trek. 

I stopped at the Continental Divide and the Mt.Ida trailhead to scope out the first mile or so of trail. Since I would be going in before daylight, I wanted to make sure I knew where I was going. I didn't want to miss the trail to Mt. Ida and end up at Trail Ridge Visitor's Center. I also wanted to get above treeline for a little acclimatization.

After a mile or two of hiking, I found myself above treeline and a good spot to turn around. This rock outcropping was home to a family of marmots and this guy had the perfect view of the west side of the park.

My legs felt great! I had been training for a half-marathon so I didn't expect any problems, but after the previous year's trip (5 hours to backpack the final 7 miles to 11,000 feet) I wasn't going to put myself in that position again. I've never had a problem with the altitude either, going from slightly above sea level to 10,000+ feet on the same day on multiple occasions. This day would be no different.

It was a nice warm-up hike for the full trip the following day. I also ran  into a father and son combination that were on their way out from the lake. They informed me they had not caught any fish. That didn't dampen my spirits because I was so impressed with the fact that his 8-year-old son had made that difficult hike.

Once I got down to the valley, I found something I had never dealt with before. Timber Creek campground was full. Even when the campground was partially closed for the bark beetle tree kill, it was never full. My next option was a hotel room in Granby, which wasn't a big deal, it would simply add another half-hour to the start of my day.

I found a room, arranged my gear for the day trip to follow, and I was asleep early (2-hour time difference).

I was at the trailhead well ahead of the sunrise and had made it to the divide ridge about sunrise - my favorite time!

The views were amazing! Aplenglow over the Neversummer Range.

I even spooked a large group of bighorn ewes and juveniles.

As the sun rose, the views continued to get better...

...and another small group of bighorns. 

If the day continued to produce views like this, I might never make it to my final destination, so I pushed on (and up). 

My directions were simple, climb to 12,000 feet on the Mt. Ida trail and hang a left. When I finally took a look at my GPS I had gone above the 12K mark, which wasn't a big deal. I'm not even sure it added any distance to my trip.

What the added elevation accomplished was to put me above these guys...the highlight of my trip!

They even let me break out the telephoto and zoom in on them. Apparently, I'm no threat to them.

It was not until after I passed them that one of them decided to stand up and they were still not spooked.

As I said before, I had never seen a mature bighorn ram before. I had been in Colorado less than a day and I had now encountered two groups of mature rams! What a trip so far, and I hadn't even made it to my first destination.

Speaking of my first destination, I would soon get my first look. It didn't seem that far away - if I wanted to go straight down.

The directions said to follow the ridge down until I could find a good point to backtrack to the lake. That seemed simple enough, and it was as I came in above the smaller lake.

Up until this point it had been a fairly easy hike, even as I passed the first lake. It didn't get interesting until I started my final descent (maybe 100 yards) to the water. The area between the two lakes was covered by krummholz, which I think is German for "cuss a lot".

I did, however, make it to the water without incident. Once I found a nice large rock to rig up my fly rod, I spotted something across the lake that I wasn't prepared for - other fisherman! They appeared to be gearing up for the hike out. Regardless,even though the lake appeared small from 1,000 feet above, it was plenty big enough for all of us.

After rigging up, I started checking out the water for cruising fish. There were several cruisers and even a few risers. These cutthroat were, as advertised, larger than the average fish. These fish appeared to average about 16 inches and I soon found out they wanted nothing to do with the large, fuzzy fly I was tossing at them.

After the other group left, I made my way around to the outlet and tried my luck at some moving water, but the result was the same. I worked my way on around the lake and the high, rounded rock ledges on the south side of the lake. Again, the fish were rising and they wanted nothing to do with anything large and fuzzy.

Finally, I broke out the small flies and tied on a size 20 Griffith gnat and smaller (8X) tippet. This got their attention and I missed the first couple of takes as I was excited just to get their attention! I was able to hook 3-4 good size cutthroat but, I'm guessing, the old tippet material had rotted because every fish I hooked, I broke off.

I fished around the lake for about three hours before I made the decision to pack out. I had a long climb ahead of me and I wanted to be below treeline when the afternoon thunderstorms rolled through. Before I started out, I picked a good spot to have lunch and watch the cutties cruise by.

Leaving the lake, I followed the route of the other visitors and rock hopped up the outlet to the lake above. No way was I going to cuss my way through that krummholz again!

It was an easy climb to the next lake, but that was only the beginning as I had another serious climb to the ridgeline. I created my own switchbacks, took several quick "breathers" and before long I was bushwhacking my way across the tundra to the Mt. Ida trail.

As I neared the trail, something caught my attention. I heard a strange sound, it wasn't marmots, but I wasn't sure exactly what it was. Then I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, so I froze. I had walked up on a family of ptarmigan and the mother was calling out to her little ones. How many do you see?

Finally, after roughly 12 miles of hiking I found myself back at the crowded trailhead - just as the afternoon storms started rolling through. I felt pretty good considering the elevation gains and the fact I did very little acclimatization. I wasn't even disappointed that I came out smelling of skunk, the scenery and the wildlife more than made up for it!

I had a very aggressive schedule planned out before I met up with my partner for the backpacking portion of my trip. I had planned a couple of 14ers on back-to-back days following the 12+ mile hike I had put in on day 2.

From this Mt. Ida trailhead, I drove to Leadville with plans to add a couple of 14ers to my list. I set up camp near the Mt. Massive trailhead and I didn't set an alarm. I figured I would let me body tell me when it was ready to start.

On queue, when it started getting light out, I was up and shortly thereafter I was on the trail headed to the top of the second highest peak in Colorado (I did number one in 2008). Seven miles and 4,500 feet elevation gain later, I was on the top...

...which reminds me, I need to update my hiking blog, it's been a couple of years.

Again, I felt great (relatively speaking) when I made it back to the vehicle. I had plans to do La Plata the following day but I figured, after back-to-back days of 12+ miles with significant elevation gain, a day of rest would serve me well. With a 5-day backpacking adventure ahead of me...I would be correct!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Let's Get Serious.