Friday, August 28, 2009

The Colorado Trail: Day 2-4

After a good night's sleep, and waking up to happily find that our legs were not sore, we hiked through several more miles of burned area near Buffalo Creek until we came to the end of segment 2 at Forest Service Road 550. We met a family of 4 with two girls who had been out on the trail for several days and were walking back to their hometown of Durango. I imagined how much different the dynamic must be in that group than a group of two...

After about three hours of hiking, we made it to the first water source that we had seen in the last 13 miles, so we sat down, purified some water with our aquamira chemical treatment kit and had a nice big bowl of cereal by the side of the creek. Robyn and I had held off on breakfast thinking it would be nice to hike for an hour so we could get some miles under our belt before eating, but we both found ourselves totally ravenous. This proved to be one of the last times we didn't eat straight away when waking up.

The day was highlighted shortly after when we met a 79 year old hiker who planned to thru-hike the trail. He had a big, fluffy, white beard, a la John Muir, and a pack that surely weighed 40 pounds. We both stood envious of him, hoping that we will be thru-hiking trails at that age.

The trail rolled through Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, and Aspen forests before we had an 1100 ft. climb in the final 2.7 miles of our day, taking us above 10,000 ft. for the first time on our trip. Robyn and I pulled off the forest road the Colorado Trail follows after entering the Lost Creek Wilderness Area shortly before the end of this climb where we had a nice dinner of rissoto with mushrooms and pine nuts. I think I ate twice as much as normal.

Day 3 began with ashort, steep, chinscraper climb. Robyn and I were both recent converts to trekking poles (later to be known as trekking poles/lightning rods) and were finding the going on the steep uphills to be significantly easier with them. We could really balance better and angle the poles backwards while hiking to push with them to aid in forward progress.

Forward progress was always on our minds. On day 2, we had hiked 24 miles, and we planned to cover another 20 miles today. Our packs started off the trip heavier than I had hoped; my pack started at just over 30 pounds and Robyn's was just over 25 pounds. While this was light in comparison to what we saw nearly every other backpacker with, we were trying to go light to make our outing more enjoyable. I have always found that lightweight packs help me to keep my head and eyes up, avoid plodding, and generally have a better time. I really don't enjoy feeling like my pack is significantly slowing and weighing me down.

After passing by Long Gulch, we made our way steadily through many beautiful stands of Quaking Aspen trees. Our campsite, just shy of Panorama Point, looked back towards Rock Creek and a full rainbow above. We had our first taste of rain earlier in the day, but it was not hard enough to even warrant our ponchos. Robyn and I both were ecstatic about the good weather we were having.

That evening we sat down to cook a simple meal of rice and beans, but found the rice we bought was not instant. After boiling one pot of water on our tuna-can alcohol stove, we decided not to continue using our limited fuel to try to cook the rice. I knew it could take a while, so we built a fire and cooked the rice over that. It cooked, and cooked, and cooked. After an hour and fifteen minutes, with my patience wearing thin because my belly was speaking louder and louder, the rice was still rock hard. We gave in to our hunger - I quickly abandoned the rice and cooked up some oatmeal while Robyn had a bowl of cereal for dinner. We followed that with a whole chocolate bar. Unfortunately, we couldn't completely abandon the rice, so we put it in a plastic bag with a bit of extra hot water thinking it would cook overnight. This was reasonable, in our minds, and we could have our rice and instant beans for breakfast.

We were wrong. The rice didn't cook at all overnight, so Robyn double-bagged it and put it in the side pocket of her pack as we began moving on day 4. Passing Panorama Point in segment 5 gave us our first real views of the big mountains we were so looking forward to. Kenosha Pass and the town of Jefferson sat below us, while the Continental Divide and Georgia Pass raised several thousand feet above us.

Since Kenosha Pass is the high point on US-Hwy 285, the Colorado Trail actually descends a few hundred feet to reach this pass/campground/ trailhead. This was the most activity we had seen since leaving Waterton Canyon several days earlier with campers scattered about, several cars at the trailhead, and a few early morning hikers already out walking. Unfortunately, though, there were no trash cans at the campground or trailhead, something we found would repeat itself time and time again. We couldn't get rid of our three days of accumulated trash and the two+ pound bag of wet, uncooked rice.

I saw a car coming towards us as Robyn scoured the area for a hidden trash can. When the lady got out with her dog, I asked her if she knew of any nearby trash cans. She didn't, and said that none of the trailheads have them. Fortunately, though, she offered to take our trash as she was headed back to Denver after a short dog walk. We were so happy not to have to carry our nemesis, the uncooked long-cook rice.

Crossing Hwy-285 was by far the most dangerous thing we had done up to this point, running with our packs on across the two lane highway with cars moving at breakneck speeds. We hadn't moved faster than 4 miles per hour in more than three days; to see the speed cars travel at seemed absolutely ridiculous. I wondered how we can naively feel so safe in our cars while hurtling ourselves along 10 or 20 times faster than we can walk.

The day turned out to be quite special. We passed over Georgia Pass just as the clouds began to close together around 3 in the afternoon. The 2000 foot climb in 9 miles took us to 11,860 feet and to the first patches of snow that we had seen on the trail.

We walked off the backside of the pass into a strong wind and, after a short break, down to the Middle Fork of the Swan River. On the way down, Robyn introduced me to a few new friends - Fred and Nigel. Fred and Nigel, though, were her names for the arches of her right and left feet, respectively. She had long named body parts to dissociate from them when they hurt. It is quite comical, actually, and an effective took to manage minor discomfort. Fred and Nigel joined her long time friend Norman (her right knee, injured while rowing several years before and chronically painful) and other new friend, Normalena (left knee) on the long downhill to the river.

The Middle Fork of the Swan River was the biggest flowing body of water we had seen since the South Platte on day one. We were happy to find Keith camping near the river, the thru-hiker we had met under Judy's Bridge while cutting padding for our shoulder straps. We set up camp next to him and had a great time.

He is a school principal from Oman (near Saudi Arabia) who had hiked the John Muir Trail and the Mojave Desert section of the Pacific Crest Trail. The three of us talked for hours about our experiences the past few days, both the similarities and the differences. The previous day he had made it all the way to Kenosha Pass where he met a group of campers who took him to get pizza in the town of Jefferson, some 10 miles away. Robyn and I were both jealous of this feast he had while were trying to cook our un-cookable rice.

We went to sleep that night when night fell only to be awakened an hour later by rain and thunder. Robyn and I were both happy to be down low, not up near Georgia Pass where the rumbles of thunder and quick flashes of lightning were coming from. Being in a warm, dry sleeping bag with rain falling on a tent's rainfly is an incredibly relaxing feeling. Somehow, knowing that you would be soaking wet and freezing just two feet away from your current location makes you appreciate everything that much more. Robyn and I both slept soundly through the night, something that was easy to do after hiking 22 more miles and over our first significant mountain pass.

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