Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Colorado Trail: Day 5-7

Keith woke up earlier than Robyn and I did on the 5th morning, but we were able to get out of our warm sleeping bags and tent by 6:30 to talk with him before he left. I interviewed him with the digital camcorder I was carrying and asked him the question Robyn and I both wanted to know. "If we ever were out of work and wanted to work as teachers overseas, would you hire us?" He laughed and responded with an enthusiastic yes, followed by giving us one of the few business cards he was carrying. Shortly after, Keith left and headed for the North Fork of the Swan River and Hwy-9 where he would take a day off in Breckenridge.

Today was the first day that we began to see a large number of trees that had been killed by the mountain pine beetle. The beetle, which lays its larvae in the tree and eventually kills its host, has been on a rampage in parts of Colorado during the past five-ten years. Entire stands of pines, particularly Lodgepoles, are literally being eaten alive. Now where healthy forests stood less than 100 years ago, there are thousands of acres of dead and dying trees. Fire suppression, which has led to stands of single-aged trees, mimic monoculture farms and make forests susceptible to disease outbreak. Slightly warmer winters that do not kill off as many pine mountain beetle eggs, pupae and larvae have let populations of the species grow unchecked. The disease that has showed up the strongest and seems to be on the verge of destroying the pine forests of an entire state is a tiny beetle, smaller than the size of a dime.

Robyn and I eventually caught up with Keith while he was filtering some water in a small stream just before the North Fork of the Swan River. We hiked with him on the flat and downhill parts of the trail and pull slightly away on the uphills. However, Keith always managed to catch back up with us when we would take a break to put on sunscreen or record video. He was great to hang out with as he had interesting things to talk about and a great sense of humor.

The morning went by quickly and we covered ground at a good pace. By midday we had covered 15 miles and saw the lush mountain town of Breckenridge below. After dropping down to Hwy-9, we bid farewell and good luck to Keith since we were continuing on to Copper Mountain before our first re-supply and day off. He was going to meet a friend whose wife would pick them up at the end of each day for the following week and drive them to a condo or hotel room so they could day hike, something backpackers commonly call slackpacking. We figured we may not see Keith again since he would be moving quite a bit faster without his full backpack.

Robyn and I stopped briefly before reaching the Goldhill Trailhead to dip our feet in the river that ran through the middle of town and check our map. We had plenty of food for the next 24 hours before my aunt, who lived in Silverthorne, would pick us up in Copper Mountain and let us stay at her house to rest and recuperate.

After quickly leaving Breckenridge and hiking through beautiful fields of sunflowers, that afternoon brought our first significant rain. Robyn and I had stopped for dinner at 3:30 pm because we were hungry. We figured time schedules for eating meals were overrated and we should just eat and take breaks when we wanted. At 10,000+ feet, though, it always took longer than expected for meals to cook since water boils at a lower temperature. We relaxed under our tarp listening to the rain while we waited for our quinoa to cook.

That night brought more rain, some lightning and thunder, and heavy cloud cover. We camped near a tree cutting area along Miner's Creek and worried what the weather would bring for day 6. We only had 8 miles to go to reach Copper Mountain, but we had to go over the crest of the Ten Mile range at 12,440 ft. I definitely did not want to do this in a lightning storm. Our worries did not keep us up too long though. Robyn and I both fell asleep around 6pm and slept soundly 12 hours through the night.

Day 6 began as day 5 ended - cloudy. Robyn and I were out of camp by 6:15 am, were above treeline at 11,200 ft. and were making our way through lingering snow fields by 8 am.

The going was quite fun even though we could both feel the lack of oxygen slowing us down on the steep uphills. The views back towards Lake Dillon and the town of Breckenridge were quite dramatic with the clouds scudding by us. The weather wasn't ideal, but there was no lightning and no rain, so we kept moving on.

Eventually we made it to the crest of the range and could see down to the the Copper Mountain ski resort and town directly below us. Robyn and I followed the trail down, then down, and down some more. Eventually we had dropped 2500 ft in 5 miles, crossed one intense mountain biker pushing his bike up the steep single track and a few hikers before we walked a mile east along Hwy-91 to the nearest gas station where we phoned Lori to come pick us up. We finished our 8 mile day, our shortest yet by far, at 10 am.

It was nice chatting with Lori as we wisked away towards her home in Silverthorne at 65 mph. The speed seemed amazing, but not overwhelming. We were only out for 5 and a half days, so we had not completely forgot how it felt to move in a car while one's body is not actually moving. I must admit, it felt great. After an hour talking with Lori and her husband Stuart at their house, we borrowed their car for the afternoon to drive down to Denver to pick up our car, return it to our house in Boulder, then drive back up into the mountains that evening.

We made it back by 8 pm, but it was not without a bit of stress. In fact, it was the most stressful part of the trip thus far. When Robyn and I left, we were warned that the traffic may be bad since it was July 3 and lots of folks come up to the high country to celebrate the 4th of July. That warning proved very true. Fortunately we were going downhill first, but the traffic going up was ominously backed up for more than 20 miles outside of Denver. We had no choice to but to return via the same direction, so we knew we would be stuck for the evening in traffic.

After we picked up our truck, which was sitting safely in the busy Waterton Canyon parking lot, we got caught in two torrential rain storms, one of which nearly forced me to pull of the road. We saw two accidents on the hour drive back to Boulder.

Another task that we had was to mail ourselves an extra box of food to the post office in Twin Lakes care of general delivery. We decided at Lori's house we did not want to carry 7 days work of food to Sailda, so we would stop half way in Twin Lakes to resupply. This way our packs could be lighter and we could move a bit faster. We would cut the time to Salida down to 2 three-day segments rather than one 7 day push.

What we failed to think of was the fact Post Offices close at noon on the 3rd of July, they wouldn't be open on the 4th, and the 5th (the day we were to start hiking again) was a Sunday. The post office in Silverthorne was closed when we got there, so our only hope was a bigger post office in Denver or Boulder. We managed to find a post office in Littleton (South Denver suburb) that was closed, but it had a self-service station where we mailed off our package. We were only half-confident it would arrive before us, but if it didn't we thought an extra half-day in Twin Lakes wouldn't be to our detriment.

Driving towards the interstate to head back to Lori's after dropping off our truck gave me an impending sense of doom. There are not many things I enjoy less that sitting in traffic, and there was lots of traffic earlier. Miraculously, almost, we kept driving up the hill waiting to hit traffic but never did. I was quite satisfied that we had planned it well, but knew that we were just quite lucky to have several hours after most everyone else in the city of Denver had left to enjoy their holiday in the mountains.

Day 7, the fourth of July, proved very relaxing and uneventful. We hung out around Lori's house all day reading, playing with their dogs Ace and Nugget, and enjoying the company. Tomorrow we would be back on the trail and both Robyn and I wanted to make our down time last forever.

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