Lost Creek: Box Canyon
Two calves are blocking Lost Park Road. I slow down, then stop. A cow stares at me impassively through the open window while cattle continue grazing on both sides of the narrow dirt road. I try to ease around the calves, but they start trotting down the road. After a couple tries, they move off to the side, and I’m able to pass.
At the trailhead, I glance at the information board. Stage II fire restrictions, bear warnings. Standard stuff. It barely registers, though aware of the fire restrictions, I’m carrying a canister stove instead of my usual alcohol burner.
Back in June, Ringtail and Kevon, two regulars at the TLB forums, invited me to join them on a trip through the canyon. Because of a schedule conflict, I couldn’t make it, but now I’m ready to try it on my own.
It’s the day after Independence Day. Bushes with tiny yellow flowers dot the landscape far into the distance. Insects buzz around in the stillness and the heat.
At the fork in the trail, I go right. The map shows the trail as unmaintained until half way down the canyon, then nonexistent. That’s the part that concerns me a bit. Experience with the very rugged and convoluted terrain of the Lost Creek Wilderness has given me a healthy respect for it. Off-trail travel here is not to be taken lightly.
The trail drops a bit, then more steeply. The sound of the Lost Creek on my left becomes louder as it cascades over tumbled blocks of granite.
Ringtail described the route through the canyon as “nearly a trail, but not quite.” It takes some effort to keep track of the path and quite a bit of tree bashing and rock hopping.
The terrain eases a bit, and a narrow path enters a thick forest of young aspen. It’s very quiet here as I glide softly through the trees. A crashing sound breaks the silence, and I see a big brown figure taller than myself just a few yards ahead through the white trunks. A bear. In a second, it’s gone, fleeing downstream, the same direction I’m heading.
Leaving the path, I go to the creek in search of tracks in the soft mud. All I can find are the tracks of an ungulate, probably a bighorn sheep.
The sky is clouding up now. I take time to admire the meandering creek and the surrounding rock formations.
Farther down, cairns indicate a creek crossing, so I maneuver my way over boulders to get to the other side. Thunder booms in the canyon, then it start to rain. The going gets tougher now. The vegetation and rocks are slick with rain and every step must be well placed.
Eventually, cairns indicate a recrossing of Lost Creek. This crossing appears a lot more difficult. The boulders are bigger, arrayed at odd angles, and now wet. The creek is no longer visible, but I can hear it far below. Thunder rumbles ominously in the darkened sky. I study the boulders and plan my moves like a chess player. Then I go for it. The granite is even more slippery than I anticipated. I slip and slam my left shin against a boulder, drawing the first blood of the trip. Ice caves appear below the rocks. Concentration intensifies. I don’t want to end up down there. At the other side, I stop and breathe a sigh of relief.
Following another cairn, I enter a place where Lost Creek emerges from a cave. This place feels familiar to me but I don’t know how. Then it hits me. Two months earlier, I ended up here while exploring the area near Refrigerator Gulch. This is the head of the box canyon.
To my left, I hear a big flapping of wings. Looking over, I see a great horned owl flying just above my head. I’m looking it right in the face. In the evening gloom, this is unsettling. It feels like some kind of omen or premonition. Thunder echoes again against the canyon walls.
Last time I was here, I felt trapped but found my way out. I wade across the creek and try to climb out of the canyon, but the way eludes me now. Giving up, I decide to spend the night in this secluded spot.
While cooking dinner, the rain intensifies. I’m reluctant to cook inside my shelter because of the bear encounter earlier in the day. He’s still out there and probably hungry. While going to hang my food bag from a tree, my right foot slips on some vegetation and into the creek. My left knee comes down hard onto a sharp rock and I wince in pain. Using my sawed-off tripod as a cane, I hang my food bag and hobble back to my shelter. By this time, I’m soaked and chilled to the bone. Entering my shelter, I strip off the wet clothing, warm myself in my sleeping bag, then tend to my wounds. While listening to the rhythmic sound of rain on the roof, warm and snug inside the sleeping bag, I drift off to sleep.
The rain is intermittent through the night, but returns in the morning. After breakfast, I pack up my wet gear, wade across the creek, and attempt to find my way out of the canyon again. No dice. It appears that the way out will have to be the same way I came in, over the slippery boulder crossing of Lost Creek.
While hiking back to the crossing the rain stops, patches of blue appear in the sky, then the sun appears. A blessing. Slowly, carefully, and strategically, I make may way back over the boulders. At the other side, all the tension leaves me. The rest of the day will be a walk in the park.
In a clearing, I lay out my wet gear to dry in the sun. Then I hike back up the canyon, taking the time to stop and observe.
In the mid-morning sun, a hawk circles slowly above a cliff with a minimum of effort. A finch peeks out at me from an aspen sapling. A black butterfly flutters amid the vegetation. It’s summer, and life is abundant.
When I get to the spot where I surprised the bear, I leisurely wade back and forth across the creek, studying footprints in the mud. Then I find it.
In the afternoon, storm clouds gather. Thunder crashes up and down the canyon. It starts raining again.
By the time I arrive at the cattle gate, it’s been raining on and off for some time. I stop to listen. What I hear is the sound of raindrops on the hood of my rain jacket, the rumbling of thunder, and the muffled roar of Lost Creek. Feeling a deep contentment, I smile and walk on.