Dark Canyon Wilderness

Dark Canyon Wilderness stretches expansively. It drops you deep. Twisting and turning, the canyons peel away layers of human hecticness. They open and reveal that primal place where a single note resounds like a symphony.img_1387
Moving through space, this is a journey in time. Descending from the mesa tops, footsteps touch rock shelves holding memories of their ages. From high on Cedar Mesa sandstone down to layered limestone of the canyon floor, colors of compacted grains of sand or frenetic forms of frozen corral beds speak to me in different tongues.img_1432
Remote and seldom visited by people, this canyon wilderness offers close company to me. It is alive with other creatures. Tracks criss-cross the sandy trail; big hoof prints, tiny paw prints, delicate claws. I smell a deep musky animal scent among the aromatic sage. In the quiet, a distant rockfall booms, perhaps bighorn sheep on the cliff walls. Later I hear a gentle shudder of hoofs pushing off from the ground – a few deer pronging across the landscape.img_1492
Home to the animals, it is still a different environment to me. I seek water and shelter along my walk. And in this desert, any certainty I have about the presence of water is its uncertainty. In upper Woodenshoe Canyon, a wide sand and cobble creek bed flows dry, though intermittent thickets of willow, reed and grasses tell of water just below. Further downcanyon, in the layered shale and limestone bedding, small still pools appear. Though seemingly dry, the desert rock can be a reservoir for water. I watch the cliff walls carefully until a string of verdant green leaves and dark streaks speak of a flowing seep. I share it with a tiny brown and red spotty frog. Drips from ledges and mosses trickle into my collecting vessels placed below.img_1449
Making camp is a ritual of place finding and place making. The first night, a mounded cedar mesa sandstone formation beckons. With rolling rocks flat enough to perch on, it offers broad vistas to the ridges and mesas of my canyon home. I choose a sandy bed next to a protective warm rock face below, and run up and down the rock to welcome first the stars and then the morning light, watching colors change in the sky.img_1433
My second night, I camp at the confluence in a stand of Juniper where others have stayed before. As my fire turns to embers, I feel the first wet drops of the night. Not long after, rain is pounding down on my tent, the sky alive with loud thunder and vivid lightening. I think it rains all night. When I climb out my tent by first light there is no longer water falling from the sky, but it glistens brightly on the spiny needles, shiny rocks and mud red earth around me.img_1406
I wander out and up. As I climb higher, the sound of gurgling, trickling, running water seems to surround me. I search for the source and see the once dry river bed alive with flowing red liquid. I witness the miracle of water in the desert. img_1407
I linger to allow my tent to dry and engage in the changes in life on this land. And then I resume my journey. For the moment, the landscape of large ponderosa pines with their red brown striated bark, bushy green needles and big beautiful presence is above me. My landscape is that of juniper and pinyon flats, to me remniscent of the African savannah with its low acacia trees. The yellow-white puffy blooms of rabbitbrush and sagebrush taller than my head, illuminate the deep green leafed, brown-earthed landscape.img_1484
At first in Dark Canyon, my landscape was bordered by bold red topped mesas with slopes clad in evergreen. As I move upcanyon, the more arid landscape emerges in raw forms of rock castles, bold buttresses, slender spires, towers, arches, and alcoves. They are not only myriads of forms, but rainbows of colors including purple, maroon, crimson, orange, cream, ochre, yellow, buff and peach. The rock landscape is undulating and punctuated. I see exclamation points, deep holes of periods, and laughing commas in the landscape.img_1456
I am becoming more at one with my surrounds. I feel leaves fluttering as they cling and let go of their branch hold, dancing to the canyon floor, playing with the wind. They crackle as I step on them. I pick up a faded yellow-brown sprig and tuck it into my pack straps, I want to be part of this leafy place too. A bird nonchalantly flies by and settles on a small tree just in front of me. At night, red bunny eyes look at me curiously in the dark, as I at him.img_1436
It’s the season of falling leaves when days and nights are equal. Aware that the earth wears shades of gray, I thrill as my body’s senses engage anew. This shimmering sky of wonder is like a fireworks display suspended in time, and a path to see beyond. Stars cycling describe earth turning. I see lit cliffs from a rising moon and dark hillsides in its shadow. And somehow, where edge of earth meets sky, it always seems a little brighter. Animals greet night too, for some it’s time to go out. Coyote calls as the first star twinkles in the just dark enough sky. Later deep in the night there are more howls and calls, and I think I hear a delicate elk cry.

A shooting star on an impossible mission blazes by, and then another and another light the sky. One comes so close I hear the whoosh. Where are they going so quickly? And how many more fly silently by, unseen?img_1437
An owl hoots just before the morning light. And the sun rises to birdsong. I read changing light magic on the mesas.img_1440
Water is a gift. Camping close to a quiet spring, I feel at home with the birds, crickets and frogs who also choose this place. The water is clear and cool nestled against a stepped limestone edge on one side and waving willows on the other. It feels good to rest in the present moment.

With pack on back, I’m on the move again. As I approach the intersection of Dark and Peavine canyons, a sturdy arch catches my eye. Beyond, more exotic forms sculpted in red-colored rock lure me to continue further up Dark Canyon. While the trail was a double track here, filled with water from recent rains it appeared as a creek.img_1457
This place holds human-made history, an old cabin, barn, a broken cart. But I prefer the solitude of nearby Horse Pasture Canyon. The intimate space is edged with brilliantly painted rock walls defining a grassy meadow. I set up camp on the cusp of the flats, at the base of a bent oak covered hillside. img_1475
It’s a pretty scene with the fascinating rock formations and subtle hues of browns, rusts and golds in the brush. I enjoyed the play among curvaceous branches, delicate leaves and firm rock.img_1506
Morning explorations yield the discovery of a narrow rock bridge followed by a climb into a large high alcove. Nestled way back is a tiny granary. As I gaze over the landscape from the ledge, I realize that the granary is fully in view from my tent – only I’d considered it a small rounded rock! How much more there is than we ever know.img_1509
In time, this eager outward exploration turns inward. I feel urging home. I return to the intersection and start up Peavine Canyon. Walking on a double track doesn’t have the sense of adventure of the narrow trail, nor as close connectedness to nature around me. I am glad when I regain the winding trail upcanyon. img_1508
Stands of stark white barked aspen trees stand out among dark green firs, punctuated with pinkish sandstone monoliths. The grassy pastures look inviting but are eaten short by cows(ugh). Light is fading. My last night’s camp has a perfect table rock. It is rectangular, attractively patterned with a flattish top, and located next to a friendly aspen tree with branches inviting hanging gear. My headlamp no longer working, I eat dinner by tea-candle light, then use my different senses to locate things and pack away. How well our bodies manage when allowed.img_1515On the sixth day of my trek, I thank the canyons for their expansiveness, diversity, peace and companionship. I pass the wilderness boundary sign and return to my car, hiking the last few miles on a dirt road where an elegant flock of turkeys seemingly greets me.
Perhaps I came a little closer to being a beast.

Lucky Chance Circuit, Sitka AK

img_6a Backpacking the Lucky Chance Circuit was lucky for us in so many ways – we were blessed with sunny Sitka weather, and helped by skippers and their boats transporting us over water to the trailhead.
img_1 A great group of friends was keen to go exploring, and fortunate to be successful in route finding through the wild SE Alaskan landscape (with the help of technology)!
img_2 At times making our way through the leafy forest felt more like gymnastics (with a backpack) than hiking, as we twisted and turned over and under stumps, and dodged fiesty devils club thorns.
img_4 We emerged out of the spruce/hemlock/cedar forest, onto an open muskeg populated with artfully sculpted trees with views of our dynamic destination ahead.
img_5 After pausing at Pinto Lake, a tantalizing ridge urged us to continue up.
img_6 Nearing the high point, we clambered over rocky outcrops.
img_8 Our reward was the perfect ridge-top campsite. Looking east over Silver Bay we saw twinkling Sitka lights in the distance.
img_8 Views to the east encompassed epic mountain masses, bearing reminders of glacial times passed.
img_9 Awed by ever changing light, our cameras were barely put away, before again being pulled out. A paradox of Lucky Chance is its troubled gold-mining history. Yet we experienced great richness, awed by brilliant sunset light, and later the yellow-green glow of a northern aurora.
img_11 In the morning we awoke to be floating above a white puffy blanket, with protruding peaks like baby birds’ beaks.
img_12 A curious early mountain goat peered at us from above, we’d also sighted bear and deer.
img_13 Gently the mist lifted. The mountain lakes were bathed in morning light.
img_16 The highest peak on Baranof Island is 5390, named for its elevation in feet.
img_17 Dipping and rising summits extended as far as we could see. At our feet, tiny alpine plants formed delicate tapestries of similar intricacy.
img_14 Our adventuresome group glowed in this alpine setting, a lucky chance to be in this place at this time, together.
img_15 Colors of the water-land-scape were astounding: brilliant blues and verdant greens.
img_18 Continuing our cirque, we wished to prolong our time up high, transcending present and past.
img_19 The sun rose strongly in the sky as we gazed towards our descent, including remnants from the mining era of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
img_0723 Next day back home, I woke to a misty morning. The veiled mountains held many more mysteries to be unfurled.
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Two Weeks on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado

IMG_3649Sunset near Headwaters Hill

The backcountry often lures me to spend a night or more living by the contents of my backpack, while nature supplies the rest. This time, I was curious about spending multiple nights on the trail and experiencing “through-hiking”. Would this provide another longed-for opportunity to immerse myself in wilderness or would it be different? I had a two-week window that coincided with a segment of a friend’s itinerary on her through-hike of Colorado. People backpack long distance trails through the United States from Mexico to Canada, for two weeks, five months, two years, or more!

While hiking together, Susy and I were known as S-squared. We are of similar size and build and hike at close to the same pace. Although I have years of hiking and camping experience, Susy has hers refined to a science, including things like sewing her own bags, dehydrating vegetables for home-packaged dinners and measuring all her food portions! We don’t care to use electronics and apps on the trail, preferring to decipher text and pore over maps.

Our start together was near Twin Lakes, at Willis Gulch trailhead on Highway 82, and our destination was Spring Creek Pass, between Creede and Lake City. Over thirteen days, approximately 175 miles and 27,000 feet elevation gain: the routine was simple, while the experience was rich.
IMG_3710We moved through many alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems. In the La Garita Wilderness, most of the spruce trees were dead from spruce budworm, but looking closely we could see regeneration below.

I thought it would be all about the mountains, after all, we were going to be walking along the geographic spine that directs the flow of water to either the Atlantic Ocean on the east or the Pacific Ocean to the west. Overall, our direction was from north to south, however the Continental Divide wound its way in a zig-zag pattern. This provided us with extensive views of where we had been and where we were going. In one section, it seemed that Taylor Reservoir served as a center point from which the Continental Divide radiated in a three-quarter circle.
IMG_3588Looking at our route from a high point on the Continental Divide, just south of Cottonwood Pass

This was about more than the mountains. People, of whom we saw relatively few, became events in the day, each with their own style. There was Robbie from D.C. who retreated two miles in a lightning and rain storm and shared our shelter under a circle of spruce trees. John, retired and from Arizona, was a strong hiker whose pack was heavy with food for nine days. He joined us for an extra six miles of hiking one evening in the extensive Cochetopa Hills. A threesome on their mountain bikes crossed paths with us for two days, always with big grins and friendly greetings. There were fewer women, but we met a quiet middle-aged pair who, after several years of meeting up to hike sections, had almost completed the 470-mile Colorado trail.
IMG_3656Sunrise at Baldy Lake, the only lake in many miles of trail through the Cochetopa Hills, and the place where we met the most other travelers – four groups of one to three hikers or bikers.

We saw signs of people and relics from the past. The Utes lived in these mountains, creating trade routes and leaving remnants of stone walls constructed to trap elk during hunts. Miners and Mineral Basins were aptly named for the wealth of their geology, and trails and mines from the silver mining era of the late 1800’s were still evident. During that time, the Alpine Tunnel was constructed through the Continental Divide near Hancock. We traversed the Divide above the tunnel and saw both the west and east entrances, then followed the old railroad grade to Hancock.

Towns play a part in the through-hiking experience as well. After numerous days of wearing the same shirt, sweater, shorts and socks, it’s great to wash everything at a laundry, take a hot shower and eat a huge carb-heavy hot meal. Susy’s generous friends, Iris and Curtis, hosted us in Salida and acquainted us with the local art community. We stayed in an original house embellished with low, tin ceilings and decorative metalwork.

Back on the trail, hiking and landscape were our focus. Our route included two Wilderness Areas that were highlights: Collegiate Peaks in the beginning and La Garita at the end. Each day we started out early in the morning hoping to arrive at camp by mid-afternoon(to avoid storms), though raindrops often kept us cool as we set up our tents!
IMG_3598Sunrise on camp in Mineral Basin, beneath Mount Kreutzer

Blue sky days were infrequent. Instead, the sky was another dimension of the landscape: clouds built, swirled and dissipated.
IMG_3689Early morning mists on the slopes of San Luis Peak

The route varied from small mountain paths, to wider trails constructed by dedicated crews and volunteers, to double tracks and even gravel roads. We walked and walked. Daily mileages were diverse, from a 19-mile longest day (due to limited water), to 14-mile average days and shorter end-of-segment days. Most days had ups and downs (elevation wise). The “flattest” day included 1,800 feet of elevation gain in the Cochetopa Hills and on “steeper” days we climbed over 4,000 feet and walked at 12,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level. Some of my favorite moments were at sunrise or sunset, simply wandering near camp. At times, I had to change gears to a more destination-oriented approach, but it was always important to me just “to be there”.
IMG_3622Sunrise over Hunt Lake on Day 6

The following are a few more of my favorite views:
IMG_3707Looking east at sunrise above San Luis Pass
IMG_3651A limber pine in the foreground, Mount Antora at sunset
IMG_3647Hiking high, we felt as connected to the ever-changing sky as to the earth
IMG_3720The understory beneath the sculpted dead spruce trees was vibrant with new life

Gear and food were two other important considerations for us. Both had to be light, minimal and sufficient, and were more successful with advance preparation. I found rhythm and satisfaction in the frugal trail lifestyle, for example, oats tasted delicious every morning! In addition, the forest provided puffballs to add to dinner, and juicy currants and strawberries along the way. Life on the trail was not always comfortable, but it was fully engaging and often astounding. I may be hooked as I’m already looking forward to my next trek!
IMG_3638 View north along the Continental Divide on the Monarch Crest Trail

Hiking in Clouds

Like a veil, a moist gray haze inhabits the voids between craggy mountain slopes. Distant ridgelines fade, while nearby sunflowers and sneezeweed glow like bright suns against glistening black soil. Long dry days of blue canvas painted skies have passed. Now the atmosphere is vibrant as air and water dance in cycles from creek to cloud, seamlessly connecting earth to sky. A droplet of dew on a lupine leaf, frothy white bubbles in a rushing creek, floating billowy clouds, gathering, darkening then releasing multitudes of droplets returning to earth, dampness dripping from layers of leaves.

No need to leap in a lake when walking in a steady shower fragrant with pine or mint. Gentle raindrops become more insistent. In a momentarily wet world, rain claims its place nurturing all that grows below. Grasses respond in brilliant greens – moss, emerald, jade, turquoise and lime. Swaths of flowers glimmer with intense purples, rose pinks, and vivid magentas, punctuated by stars of yellow and puffballs of white. Together they resemble a washed watercolor painting with streaks, mounds and surprising exclamation points.

The sky around is ever changing as light rays play and tease amongst dark puffball clouds that form, disperse, regather, encompass and sometimes explode. It is within this time that I am hiking in clouds, in the wilderness of the Elk Mountain range that is my greater home.

Water is gurgling, rushing, falling down steeps, then meandering slowly across flats, at times concealed beneath lush leafy growth.
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In swirling gray mists, we wander the side basins and ridges of Buckskin and Willow Passes near the Maroon Bells.
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In the wet, white treasures abound, from shimmering stones on the ground to mountain goats precipitously perched on snow cornices and distant blue-white peaks.
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The long Yule Creek basin beckons and we are drawn to Yule Lakes and the summit of Treasure Mountain.
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To better know our natural world, I walk and sleep through life-giving water cycles of mountains near Marble. I follow valleys and summit saddles of Carbonate Creek, Avalanche Pass and Silver Creek. Water jewels sparkle on rainbow meadow flowers, contrasting against magnificent far vistas.
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Western coneflowers are happy punctuation marks in the meadows.
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Each change in elevation, aspect and soil yields a new tapestry of flowers. Here in the high subalpine zone, paintbrush and lupine are newly bloomed.
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High hidden meadows and bowls are the territory of wild creatures. At dusk, a deer wanders by my tent, nose and ears quivering. In the morning, a curious elk peers over a nearby saddle. When I creep up to look, I realize a large herd of elk were my neighbors overnighting in a basin above.
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I feel a mere human(about 60 percent water), both humbled and enlightened.

4 Days, 4 Wildernesses

I breathe deeply, savoring the richness of full lungs at what seems a mere 8,000 feet elevation. My feet hurt a little, but in a happy way, as they have covered over 40 miles and gained more than 10,000 feet of elevation (up to 14,336 feet on Colorado’s fifth highest peak) in four days. Not only that, but my hiking was spread through four different wilderness areas! This year is the 50th anniversary of the United States’ Wilderness Act. Wishing to learn more, I locate a map that shows Colorado’s 41 wilderness areas. My home town, Basalt, appears central to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Hunter Frying Pan, Collegiate Peaks and Raggeds Wilderness Areas.

My hiking itinerary was driven by meeting up with different friends on their schedules, so each hike was distinct from the other and required motorized transportation to the trailheads. We carpooled and I did two hikes on one round trip in an effort to minimize our carbon footprints. The first hike of the four was in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It was a partial loop from American Lake Trailhead to Hayden Peak (13,561 feet), returning via American Lake during a welcome rainstorm.

The second day, I explored beyond the Midway Trail that originates on Independence Pass and is in the Hunter Frying Pan Wilderness. I wandered through Coleman Creek basin, ascending a snow corniced ridge with a 12,921 foot high point via a well-used game trail. From the peak, the distant 360 degree views and dramatic surrounding mountains, were awesome.
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More immediately, I could see into several drainages including Midway and Ptarmigan Lakes. This is a small pond in the Coleman Creek basin.
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The third day, from our camp near the historic town of Winfield, my hiking partners and I began the ascent of the southwest ridge of La Plata located in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. It was an attractive hike via a lovely valley, old log cabins, mining remnants and most memorably, more than half a mile of hiking on a ridge over 14,000 feet to gain the summit.

Above the Slate Creek drainage, the fourth day’s hike was located in the Raggeds Wilderness. It started near the town of Marble. The trail ascended Marble Peak via Anthracite Pass, displaying stunning compositions of colorful wildflowers.
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We continued exploring the wild upper reaches of North Anthracite Creek and its ridgeline. Near Ragged Peak, we looked into Mitton and Raspberry Creeks. A close encounter with a young bear, and lunching on a ridge above five elk who also were engrossed in their feeding, were among the highlights of this day’s wilderness wanderings.