Thursday, August 22, 2013

What they don't tell you about camping and fishing at high altitude.

Verde Lake - 6.42 miles as the eagle flies SE of Silverton, CO

Treking into the Weminuche Wilderness to fly fish high alpine lakes for cutthroat trout.

It seemed like a totally reasonable thing to do. I bought a kindly donated llama lease for two llamas for three days from Redwood Llamas at the Colorado Trout Unlimited Gala and invited my 18 year old Eagle Scout - distance swimmer grandson Adam to hike into a pristine lake in the Weminuche Wilderness to fish for cutthroats and take some amazing photographs.

He'd hiked Philmont Scout Ranch in the Rockies last year on a twelve day back country trek at an altitude only 2-3,000 feet lower. 

I know Adam would enjoy driving through world famous South Park on the way to Silverton and he did. After 2 hours of "his music" while I drove, we switched to "my music" while he drove. I'm not sure North Jersey has many two lane highways stretching to the horizon. I'm positive that they don't pass other cars by pulling into oncoming traffic approaching at a legal speed of 75 and an actual speed of 85mph. (That's a closing speed of 170 mph.) After the first squeeze in Adam said in a calm voice, "Well, that was terrifying." I just love that kid. I knew we were in for a great time.

The 20 mile drive up 2,000 feet on the Million Dollar Highway from Ouray to Silverton was almost as exciting with the lack of guardrails, blind curves, and bottomless drop offs to the right. 
We were so well prepared that Adam only need a hat and a couple of knives to be totally outfitted.

We found dinner on a back street near the train station.
Maybe next time we'd come via the Durango-Silverton steam train.
Grey Hawk

We got briefed by Bill Redwood who suggested that our trek to Highland Mary Lakes should take the gentle switchbacks up to the Continental Divide Trail because we were not that familiar with llama trekking. The other choice was a shorter path but would require negotiating a couple steep chutes in the early part of the trail. What's a chute?  We of course took his advice. I mean, they're his llamas. We signed off on waivers and acknowledged their value at $4,000 for Grey Hawk and $2,000 for 5302.

We started up; Adam and Grey Hawk leading the way with 60 lbs of camping gear.
It did not take long to discover that hiking from 10,000 feet was different than any hiking we had known, even with a llama carrying the heavy stuff. My advantage of living at 5,280 ft and my disadvantage of a number of decades in age quickly disappeared and we were doing identical huffing as we trudged toward 12,700 feet on the Continental divide. The switchbacks kept us from seeing the summit and our minds started telling us this trek must be endless. We weren't lost although trail markings were non-existent. We knew we had to go up. It wasn't just a matter of being out of breath. Muscles and legs would just refuse to go further without a stop every 50 yards.
Finally after 4 hours we were above the tree line and on the Continental Divide. But where were these lakes?

It was at this point that Adam said, "Why did I ever agree to do this? It is gorgeous, however."
Bill told us to go down this valley and take the trail up the mountain on the right. "The trail isn't marked all that well but you'll find it."
I was sure my mind was slowing down. We were making the right decisions but it would have been nice if we could actually see a lake in the distance.

Finally after 6 hours Verde Lake appeared. "This looks like a good camping spot," I said. "Everything looks like a good camping spot," Adam said.
I see fish rising.

"I'll go down to the lake to catch some brook trout for dinner, you build a camp fire to cook it," I told him.
"Build a campfire with what?" Adam said. "There is no firewood above the tree line."
  •  Hmmm.  Item one of what they don't tell you, "No trees, no firewood."
     So, I cleaned a couple brook trout and discovered, I hate killing fish. Even exotic brook trout that shouldn't even be in this lake. It didn't feel like us vs them or survivor or top chef. It just felt gory, slimy, smelly. It couldn't possible taste that good. 
  • Item two of what they don't tell you, "Catching and cooking your own food at 12,000 feet takes a lot of effort."
     Without a nice campfire there was no chance to use the grill rack for the trout. I'd have to make the quinoa (quite authentic, thank-you very much. Llamas, quinoa, 12,000 ft- get it?) over the tiny backpack stove, put it in a snap together bowl, then reheat the pan, wrap the brookies in bacon (I guess I forgot the lemon), put them in the pan and hope for the best. Making the quinoa had 6 steps, including rinsing the seeds, and cutting up sun dried tomatoes, that all of a sudden seemed to be insurmountably complex. 
  • Item three of what they don't tell you, "You mind works slower with less oxygen." 
        The quinoa was actually quite good. I also added come dried cranberries and cherries but skipped the rinsing entirely. We were low on water and taking the filter to the lake at 6:30PM just seemed to be an impossibly hard task. The trout however were a real challenge. The 8 inch frying pan could not accommodate the 10 inch brook trout, even hanging their heads and tails out the sides. I gave Adam the one I thought was cooked the best but item three above must have interfered and he actually got the sushi version. He gave it a noble effort but when I saw the red flesh, I grabbed it back and re-fired it. 
  • Item four of what they don't tell  you, "Despite what else may go wrong, sipping bourbon with your grandson as the sun goes down at 12,000 feet is actually really sweet."
  • Item five of what they don't tell you, "It is cold at 12,000 feet when the sun goes down." Well maybe they do tell you this but because of item three you don't remember until your nose is so cold you think it might break off.
  • Item six of what they don't tell you, "You might wake up gasping for breath during the night."
  • Item seven of what they don't tell you, "You might not sleep a wink."
  • Item eight of what they don't tell you, "Greeting dawn with a wolf calling close-by is a thrilling experience."

Gaucho shepherd in the morning sun.

The way out.
    At this point we made a high level (12,000 ft) decision that we had learned all we needed to know about camping at 12,000 feet and it might be fun to trek on out and hit the hot tub at home. So we did. But not first without encountering a herd of sheep and their guardian shepherd dogs which the llamas did not like one bit. 
Sheep dog in the center foreground brings my llama to a stonewall stop.
The sheep dogs and the shepherd on horseback work a large flock near Verde Lake.

Hmm. We may just make it out of here.
But before we could congratulate ourselves, the down hill trek became a precipitous down hill leap for the llamas. The dreaded chutes turned out to be narrow clefs in the rock walls of the canyon with 4 or 5 landing spots every 6 feet or so. The llama would take a quick look and then leap from one to the other in a controlled fall, like a snow leopard chasing a big horned sheep down the walls of a Himalayan cliff. To hang on to our  $6,000 worth of llama, we had to beat the falling llama through the chute by getting ahead of it before it started its leap. On the last chute, Grey Hawk managed to beat Adam to the bottom of the chute and Adam let go of the lead rope rather than be pulled to his certain death by the cascading llama.
"Good choice," I said as I grabbed the rope when Grey Hawk skidded to a stop beside my llama. 
"That llama almost killed me THREE TIMES," he shouted. 

But the adventure was not over. With less than a quarter mile to go we encountered a string of pack horse coming up the canyon. Bill Redwood told us that llamas and horses do not particularly like each other and that if we met up with any we should take the down hill side of the trail and let them pass. Unfortunately, where we encountered the horses we were on the edge of a road that fell percipitously off to a deep ravine. There was no downhill side to take. So we stood our ground with firmly rooted, very observant, and aloof llamas and watched as the horses went crazy. 

After some tricky negotiations, we borrowed the llama trailer and delivered Grey Hawk and 5302 to their llama corral. We actually pulled this off. About 12 miles, 12,000 feet, two llamas, two brook trout, and two terrifying experiences. Not bad.

Weminuche Wilderness via Cunningham Gulch trail head.

We'll do it differently next time and stay below the tree line. The llamas were actually a dream. We followed the rules that Bill gave us:
  • They are herd animals, they like to be together. If one gets loose it will stay near the other.
  • They are aloof animals and do NOT like to be looked at directly in the eye, like pro football players or Ameraucana chickens (notice the Andean reference again.)
  • They love to work out with a balanced load and can travel for days without water like their cousins the camels.
  • They will let you know when something is wrong. You just have to figure it out.
  • They only spit when they are upset and it is usually at another llama with whom they are having a pecking order problem.
 Great quinoa and great llamas. I'd say those Inca's knew what they were doing. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

To boldly fish where no one has every fished a fly before.

As Francesca, my young grand daughter, said,"That's preposterous!"

If homo sapiens have been around for at least 250,000 years, it is clearly impossible to find a place to fish with:

  • No other human footprint, no fishermen's trail, candy wrappers, cigar butts, Coors cans, McDonalds cups, pieces of auto grill, tree tippet, or
  • Is not in "Flyfisher's guide to ______", "Fifty Places to Fish before You Die", " FishB4UFly blog", Field and Stream, Midcurrent, The Drake, Trout, or Scott Willoughby's Denver Post Column, or 
  • Isn't on private property owned by a crotchety old miser that hates fly casters.

But these two intrepid explorers of the aquatic unknown stumbled upon just such a spot; so pristine, so untouched, and so unlikely, that their lives have been changed forever.
The explorers pictured under the wing of their flyship,  Enterwater, about to set out on another adventure of a lifetime. John (L), Fred (R)

   The adventure started out under ominous skies but within seconds Fred was into fish on a sparkle wooly bugger. John, more the purist, methodically progressed through his sequence of flies according to a scientific protocol based on what was left in his fly box. He was soon into fish also but Fred was definitely ahead 3 to 1. But who's counting. This is not a competitive sport. Right?
    At the lunch break, the clouds remained threatening but were holding off. Fred was exuberant about "the best day ever." He'd caught and released about 30 browns, the largest a nice healthy 15 incher, all on his streamers.
   "My streamer got so gnarled that I had to replace it three times," he gushed. There was a massive trico hatch but only two fish broke the surface and dry flies were being ignored. Emergers were working for John. 
     The intrepid explorers found that they were not alone. Other fly fishers drifted into and out of the parking lot port-a-potty. All reported slim catches, or were lying through their teeth. One pair of anglers noted, "We stopped upstream but the river was chocolate. We saw heavy equipment in the stream. Someone is really screwing up this fishery."
     Fred and John had seen no discoloration. Strange. 
     After lunch they wandered downstream for more streamer action for Fred and finally some goddard caddis dry fly activity for John. Fifty fish had now been released by the pair, but who's counting. Rain pelted down as the skies darkened along with the mood of the one now soaked unprepared angler explorer.
Huddling back in the flyship during the downpour, John snapped this photo of what looked to the eye like a black caddis but that the iPhone rendered as a green caddis. Strange.

      Fred insisted on checking out the report of muddy water upstream and sure enough it was indeed milk chocolate colored.
     "Well damn," said Fred. "It looks like our fishing day is over. And it was going so well." 
     They stayed suited up hoping for just one more walk into aquatic space. Sure enough, after driving just a 1/4 mile upstream, John shouted, "Fred! Stop. That water looks clear."
     Fred slammed on the reverse thrusters, pulled a 4 wheeled u-ie, and slid into an empty parking lot. We could see yellow tractors slowly clanking to a stop upstream away from the river. It was 4:00PM.
     Making our way up the river we noted plenty of recent construction activity, with piles of fresh gravel, fill, sod placement, construction stakes, and freshly crushed grass. But we also saw finely sculpted pools, glides, and riffles amid log drops and deep rock clusters. 
     "Fred, this looks like a Disney World of trout habitat," John said. 
     They walked upstream the required 100 yards from the parking lot, hoping to get beyond the area were, conventional wisdom has it, 89% of fly fishers never pass. Immediately Fred had five hits on five casts. John leap-frogged upstream ahead of him and had a similar experience. 
     Along the banks there were no foot prints in the fresh gravel. There was no fishermen's trail just off the bank. There was no trash in the river or on the bank. As they continued upstream they noticed fresh chunks of timber floating in some backwaters obviously knocked off the construction timbers by the heavy equipment that was now at rest.
     John shouted back to Fred. "I think they just finished this rehab project an hour ago. Look at the cleat tracks on the bank. These construction stakes and drop logs are  all freshly cut."

     "These fish are just now moving into the new habitat," he hollered back.
     Exploring the unknown we had happened on the creation of a new world. What was moments ago a construction site, was become a natural environment as we watched. Cased caddis were drifting down into an area that an hour ago held compact track Caterpillars. Trout spooked by massive mud disturbances were swimming upstream toward clear water and finding new and wondrous habitat. Swallows that had avoided the area for weeks were once again swooping low over the water to pluck hatching yellow sallies and green caddis. And then the intrepid fly fishers had simultaneously appeared to complete the ecology of the area. Doesn't it make you tear up? 

     Just when things could not get any stranger, John noticed a swallow thrashing in midcurrent. 
     "What in the world is going on there?" he said. As he mended his drift, he noticed that the swallow mended also. As he retrieved his yellow sallie dry with a RS2 dropper he noticed that the swallow followed.
     "Oh no, I've got a bird to release."
Two new fishers collide while enjoying the new fly fishing habitat. The intrepid gloved humanoid, in it for the fish, and the startled swallow, in it for the fly.

     Before this exploration we had no idea an aquatic habitat enhancement was going on here. We only knew it as an uninteresting State Wildlife area. But now we know this will be a great  habitat for trout, aquatic insects, fly fishers and swallows. We believe that it will rival the existing gold medal waters. Our lives have been changed by Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

To find out the location, sign up to follow this blog or buy one of my fly fishing eBooks at
Then email me and I'll probably send you the location after you are properly vetted.

Here's what Scott Willoughby thought about this adventure as he shared it with me two days later: