24: Beaver Creek Wilderness Study Area
Lane stares at me incredulously.
Janine says, “You should at least bring a gun.”
“That wouldn’t do any good.” Marshall says, “By the time you know what’s happening, it’s too late.”
Felicia jokes, “That’s it, you’re not going.”
Fueled by wine and my enthusiasm about tomorrow’s trip, I had let it slip that Beaver Creek Wilderness Study Area has one of the highest concentrations of mountain lions in Colorado. Marshall goes on to say that he had seen a show on TV where a woman’s pet mountain lion turned on her and grabbed her by the head with his mouth and wouldn’t let go.
“Thanks for sharing that, ” I say.
“So where is this place?” asks Lane.
“It’s just a little ways north of Florence.” As soon as the words leave my lips, I realize that I had made my second mistake in five minutes.
“Isn’t that where Supermax is?”
“I’d be more worried about those guys than about the mountain lions.”
The conversation turns toward a discussion of Ramzi Yousef, Ted Kaczinski, Terry Nichols, and other notorious residents of ADK Florence. Finally I say, ” As far as I know, no one ever escapes from there. That’s why they call it Supermax.”
By noon the next day, I’m driving on I-25 through Colorado Springs. An unexpected home repair had eaten up most of my morning but now I’m zipping past the Air Force Academy and Focus on the Family. This being Sunday, the usual bottleneck in the Springs does not materialize and I’m soon headed south on Hwy. 115 past Cheyenne Mountain and Fort Carson.
I turn onto a dirt road and slow down enough to look around. This is cattle country. The open landscape is dotted with juniper. A few cows graze lazily in the sun. A ruddy-face man in a big pickup and even bigger hat passes me going in the opposite direction, The dirt road is good for most of it’s ten miles but becomes narrow and deeply rutted toward the end. I shift my Civic into second and then to first as I attempt to pick a good line without scraping bottom.
There are half a dozen vehicles in the parking lot, most of them with high clearance. A couple of men dressed in camouflage stand by a pop up camping trailer at the far end of the lot. Turkey hunting, I’m thinking. I shoulder my pack and head down the trail until I come to a fork and a small sign that says “creek” with an arrow pointing left and “trail” with a right arrow. Since I don’t have many miles to cover today, I shift into wandering mode and head left. The trail soon dead-ends and I turn around to retrace my steps. A couple of grizzled fly-fisherman are working Beaver Creek. One of them tells me that the fishing isn’t that great yet because the water is still pretty cold. This morning, he measured it at 36F. We talk about the area for a while. Noticing my pack, he asks me where I’m headed. I tell him I’ll be spending the night near the confluence of East and West Beaver Creeks. In parting he says, “Well, keep an eye out for mountain lions.”
In some ways, Beaver Creek WSA reminds me of Lost Creek Wilderness, it’s much larger and more well known neighbor to the north. But there are differences. Beaver Creek seems rougher, hotter, drier with pinyon, juniper, yucca, and lots of cacti.
I climb steeply up the side of the hill and look down at Beaver Creek winding through the canyon. The few clouds dissipate and the air becomes hotter, the light harsher. The path plunges down to cross Beaver Creek. There are no log bridges here, so I’ll have to wade. I slowly step into the creek and am soon in very cold water up to my knees. Using my trekking poles for balance, I pick my way carefully through the slick boulders on the bottom of the creek. My feet are numb by the time I reach the other side, so I hike quickly to warm up.
A pair of day hikers approaches. We talk about the trail, the general area, and the canyons ahead. The woman eyes my backpack and asks, “Don’t you get nervous about cougars, being out here alone?”
“A little,” I say, ” but I get more nervous about some of the drivers on I-25.”
The talk of cougars from both of the parties I’ve met has me a bit spooked. I scan the numerous rock outcroppings and ridges for wildlife. Nothing.
There are a couple more stream crossings before I find a great place to camp near the confluence of West and East Beaver Creek. Quickly, I set up camp and go to explore my surroundings. The sun is lower in the sky and the light softer, so I pull out my camera.
After dinner, I climb into bed. The door of my shelter is left open so that I can watch the stars come out. I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of the creek nearby. Some time during the night I awaken to dreams of cougars, mountain lions, pumas, panthers … I zip the door closed and go back to sleep.
Early the next morning, a cold wind blowing down the canyon wakes me up. The stars are gone and the sky is a dull gray.
About the gear: A luxurious camp at a reasonable weight. The shelter is a Golite Shangri-La 2. Plenty of room for two and absolutely decadent for one. Mine weighs 21.6 oz. Add two to three ounces for six stakes, depending on which ones you choose. The mattress is a full-length POE Eco-Thermo, 20.2 oz. of bedtime bliss. You can have this mat when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. The pillow is a Montbell inflatable.
The plan for today is to complete the loop by taking the Powerline Trail up and over to the next drainage and hiking out. It’s only after breakfast that I remember that I have to recross the creek. Beaver Creek feels a lot colder this morning that it did yesterday. The bank is steep here and I gasp as I lower myself into the frigid snow melt from Pikes Peak. The water reaches my knees and then my thighs as I concentrate on each step on the slippery creek bed and around the boulders. This is not a place where I want to make a mistake. On the far bank, my feet and legs are numb. I move quickly up the side of the canyon to warm up.
The Powerline Trail is elusive. It should be to my left but never appears. But the cloudy light is good for photographs, so I slow down enough to notice things.
Reaching a high point, I scan the landscape and notice a patch of reddish brown dirt with a white speck in it off in the far distance. It takes me a few seconds to realize that it’s a parking lot and that my vehicle is the only one left. It then dawns on me that the reason I can’t find the Powerline Trail is that I’m actually on it. The trail winds steeply up and down the rugged hillsides. At Trail Gulch, I take a right and head southward toward the parking lot. As I near the end of my hike, I find that I’m almost disappointed that I didn’t encounter a mountain lion. Almost.