Sunday, September 1, 2013

Colorado 2013 - Rocky Mountain National Park Backcountry

Earlier this year I received an amazing invitation from a fellow backcountry blogger. Keith is a resident of Colorado and maintains the blog Colorado Alpine Angler. He sent me an invitation I couldn't possibly turn down - a long weekend in the RMNP backcounry.

I've fished all over the park but I've never taken the time (as Keith did) to secure a backcountry campsite permit, so I was all over this opportunity! In addition, our location is known as one of the best greenback cutthroat fisheries in the park.

I got a message a few weeks before the trip date that he had his other party members back out and he asked if I knew of anybody that was interested - and capable. I have only two friends here in the east that have the highcountry experience to pull off a 10-mile backpack trip to 11,000 feet. One declined and the other received the trip from his wife as a surprise birthday gift. My traveling partner would be my annual Brookiebum partner and a 2008 "Colorado Cuttslam" partner, Phil.

Now we were set, the plan was to hike part way in the first day, get acclimated, then finish off the remaining distance (and altitude gain) the second day. The trailhead sits at ~7,600 feet and the first three miles, to night one camp was uneventful with only 1,000 feet of elevation gain in three miles.

We set up camp in the Comanche Peaks Wilderness Area.

It is nice when your host, and experienced backcountry adventurer, pulls out the exact same tent - MSR Zoid. All three of us were packing the same model tent, although Phil's is a 2-man version. It's a shame these are no longer manufactured.

Having been up since 5:00 AM (EST), it was an early night - before sunset. We also had seven miles and nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain waiting on us the next morning.

As typical on my backcountry adventures, when it starts getting light out, I'm up. I had "breakfast", packed up camp, and was ready to roll by 6:30 AM.

The first couple of miles went by easily but when we entered the park and made it to this campsite, reality started to sink in. Only halfway through the elevation gain?!

It's a good thing we were following the North Fork of the Big Thompson to take my mind off the climb. I would have loved to drop my pack and wet a line.

I didn't break my camera out for any more of the journey and I'm ashamed to admit it took me five hours to hike that seven miles...note to self: get in shape!

We finally made it to our destination and I gladly dropped my pack. I recovered for probably thirty minutes before I even thought about setting up camp.

I quickly recovered from my fatigue (probably 80% mental) as I set up camp and thought: this is the view from my front porch for the next three nights.

With camp set up, it was time to get down to business...chasing greenbacks!

Phil landed the first greenback of the trip from directly in front of camp.

I soon landed my first greenback of the trip on a big fuzzy yellow caddis...

...I could tell this was going to be an above average trip - no average 6" stream resident greenbacks here!

There were fish rising everywhere! I quickly landed three greenbacks that all probably average 12"! Unfortunately, as quick as the "catching" started, it ended the same way. With the fishing slowing down, it was time to relax in camp and make dinner.

It was a nice relaxing evening in camp, talking fishing and backcountry locations. Keith is quite a reference for these Colorado adventures. I could listen to his trip reports for days - I am green with envy of some of his trips.

I was in the tent before dark again and up again early with anticipation of my favorite high country event. I love the alpenglow! There is nothing more amazing than the colors you see on the high peaks before the sun hits them directly.

Pictures don't do the reality justice, these high peaks were glowing with an orange hue!

The plan for day two was a hike to the lake in the extreme head of the watershed. It was about a mile from camp with additional elevation gain. Our destination was over the ridge and to the back of the cirque in the above photo. We were headed to the edge of treeline and a lake that was supposed to hold larger than average greenbacks.

The initial climb wasn't too bad. I had obviously fully recovered from the hike in - I had also dropped my 50-pound pack! As we climbed toward our destination the view back toward camp was very nice.

As we crested the final ridge, we caught a first glimpse of the lake - BEAUTIFUL!

As we stood on the ridge, something caught my eye below us. Something big and black...

I quickly dropped my day pack to dig out my telephoto lens.

Even though he had to be 400 yards away, we had him spooked and this very nice bull moose was making tracks.

The moose at 11,000' was an added bonus but that's not what we were after. We quickly dropped down to the lake, slogged through the outlet to make our way around to the deep side of the lake. I've only fished an alpine lake one other time so I was following Keith's lead.

Keith picked out a promising looking spot and I dropped my pack to rig up my rod. I'm usually pretty quick at getting rigged up and getting a fly on the water but I couldn't help but notice all of the cruising greenbacks in front of me.

While I was busy snapping off photos of cruising greenbacks, Keith was busy landing them. He caught three before I ever got a line on the water - including this beauty!

It started off on fire and it never slowed down! The average size fish was about 14" and at times it was every cast! Here are a few of the many...

...and finally this guy. I've caught California Golden trout in their native watershed and I've seen photos of lake goldens introduced to Wyoming. This guy looks as if he had some lake golden in him - although I knew he didn't. Regardless, another beautiful specimen!

I sometimes get bored with catching fish and I sometimes found myself just sitting on a rock, taking in the amazing scenery and watching my partners land fish after fish. This lake is now in the top 5 adventures I've had chasing native salmonids.
We fished to mid-afternoon when we made the decision to fish another lake on the way back to camp. Lake number three of the trip:

As with the first lake of the day, Keith was on fish quickly. We didn't fish long at this lake but I had to work hard for my one greenback from this lake.

After landing greenbacks in both lakes, it was time for the hike back down to camp for dinner and a little resting of the casting arm. I used a 9' 4wt rod that I hadn't used in years and when you're accustomed to throwing a 1wt bamboo of a 000wt graphite rod, this was like casting a telephone pole. You also have to like it when your arm is tired from catching fish!
As with previous nights, it was early to bed and early to rise. Again I was up in time to catch the  alpenglow.

Day three would put us back in my comfort zone, small stream brookie fishing. We hiked downstream on the North Fork and jumped in at a nice meadow section. The fishing was tight and tough in the early morning...

...then the sun came up and the water temps rose just enough.

The stream eventually picked up gradient and it was pocket water fishing at it's best - my favorite type of small stream fishing.

When you are fishing small streams with a partner (or two), you take your turn. As I gave up the lead I was able to catch Phil doing what he does best - photography and videography.

It has been a couple of weeks since I have returned from this trip and Phil has had time to put together a nice little video.
There were even a few surprises as we fished the North Fork, from brook trout in the 10"-12" class to the occasional greenback.

We fished our way upstream, through a high gradient small canyon, to the point we were parallel to camp. We decided if we continued upstream further, the bushwhack back to trail would only get longer, so we called it a day on the small stream. 
When we made it back to camp, we had a quick lunch, then relaxed on the rocks along the lake until afternoon storms drove us into the tents. I had forgotten the sound of thunder in the high altitude. Phil was with my brother and I the first time I got caught above 10,000' during a thunderstorm and I'll never forget the feeling of the thunder when you are that close to it's origin. You can actually feel the thunder in your chest and I'm just glad the storm passed to the north of us, behind the mountain that was our camp backdrop.
The storm soon passed and we were back out and fishing the lake in front of camp again. The fishing was slow (for some of us) and I caught my last greenback of the trip.

 Phil and I decided to relax on the rocks again while Keith moved down to the lake inlet where he had very good luck. As we watched, Keith landed the biggest greenback of the trip - a very nice 18" fish!

Keith didn't stop there. Shortly after Phil and I returned to our rock, Keith's rod was bent again. I commented that he was fighting this fish for a long time, then he got out his net (he only did this on large fish). After he landed it, he looked our way, I gave him a "thumbs up", and he gave us an urgent arm wave to get down there NOW!
In this lake where we had landed several greenbacks, Keith had enticed this leviathan up to a dry fly.

This was the largest wild brook trout I have ever seen, a true 20" male with a very impressive lower jaw - as if the entire fish wasn't impressive enough. Keith agreed this was the perfect fish to end this adventure on.
We packed up our rods for the day and I boiled water for my final freeze-dried meal. Just as the water came to a boil, the storms rolled in again and I was forced to have my final dinner in the tent.
The storms forced us into the tents twice that last day and I ended up taking a couple of cat naps. Those naps made for a very long night. I don't know if it was the naps or the thought of the 10-mile hike out the next morning but it made for a very restless night.
I finally crawled out of my tent as it was getting light and walked to the edge of the lake. Phil had also gotten up by then, he walked toward the lake, then quickly ran back to the camp. My first thought was bear (we had to carry bear canisters in the park), but I soon found out we had other visitors in camp to see us off.

 We watched from the edge of the trees as this young moose nursed. That is something you don't see every day.
I hated to break camp, it's one of the most beautiful places I have ever pitched a tent.

As with all good things, they must come to an end, and by 7:30 AM we were on the trail with a 10-mile hike ahead of us.

During the hike down, and out, it was easy to see why I struggled on the way in - it was a steep climb. When you are not struggling, it's easier to snap off a few more shots of the trail.

We made it out in 4:45, quicker than the final seven miles going in, but it was a relief (again) to drop that pack!
We went straight from the trailhead to Estes Park for some real food. The pizza was some of the best I have ever had, but after four days of freeze-dried meals anything would have hit the spot.
This was one of the best backcountry adventures I have had, I hope Keith and I get an opportunity to do it again some day.