Salmon and Willow Lakes
Climbing to the top of a ridge, I survey the devastation. Acre upon acre of dead, grey and rust-colored pine stretch out in all directions. The last time I hiked this section of the Gore Range Trail, it was a green tunnel with few views to the outside world. Now the bald ridge and bark beetle-killed forest on the flanks of the Williams Fork mountains are easily visible across the Blue River Valley through the brown, spindly branches hanging lifelessly from the trees on the slopes of the Gore Range. The day is hot and still. I scramble over a fallen tree and stop to listen. The gentle buzzing of insects is heard in the heat and the stillness of the afternoon. Even amid the desolation, life continues. In the understory, various types of wildflowers offer some consolation.
Along this stretch of trail, pools of stagnant water reflect the dying trees. A lily pond appears on the right, and I take the time to walk its banks.
Eventually, I reach the turn off to Salmon and Willow Lakes. The trail steepens, and my pace slackens to match the slope. Once more, I remind myself to lighten my pack, and to exercise more. As I climb, the forest becomes greener. Clouds pass overhead. The slope moderates. So far, I have seen no one, but in the distance, I spot what I take for a large, white dog trotting down trail toward me. It soon becomes clear that this is not a dog. I’m sure he sees me, but he doesn’t slow down. I stop, but he keeps coming until he comes to rest about ten paces away, glowing in the late-afternoon light, like a creature from a fairy tale.
From my previous encounters with mountain goats, I know that each has it’s own personality. This one is not begging, but just seems interested in the intruder. We stand that way for a few minutes, just eyeing each other curiously. Since we can’t stay there forever, I make the first move and take a step forward. The goat turns around and starts walking down the trail like a dog before it’s master. He walks well ahead, but turns around occasionally to keep an eye on me. At another trail junction, he takes the right fork toward Salmon Lake, my destination for the evening. Finding something he likes on the trail he stops and starts licking the ground. I mount my camera on my Pacerpole/monopod and shoot frame upon frame of the goat licking the ground, turning around, and looking into the camera. Distracted by my photography, I accidentally kick my other Pacerpole off the rock it’s resting on, and it clatters to the ground, startling the goat. He turns around and walks off down the trail toward Salmon Lake, turning around to watch me as before.
Climbing higher, I arrive at Salmon Lake and walk around to the far end along a faint trail. Finding a flat spot to camp, I take off my pack and sit on a rock to rest. Minutes later, the goat emerges from higher on the mountain. He walks to within a few yards of me and heads back down the trail, while stopping and peeking at me through the trees that line the lake. I expect him to return for salt, or perhaps for food, but he never does. There are no humans here at Salmon Lake either, and I revel in the solitude.
Despite the heat of the day, the night is cold at this altitude. Snuggling deeply inside my sleeping bag, I fall asleep while watching the moon cast strange shapes on the walls of my shelter, like the shadow puppets I use to make when I was young. My dreams are filled with fantastical creatures that emerge and then disappear back into the forest.
The night is still lit by the moon, but I sense another source of light beginning to appear to the east. My bed is so warm and comfortable. After a brief internal battle, I rise up to meet another day.
After breakfast, I break camp and hike back toward the junction to Willow Lakes. Losing the trail briefly, I wind up on a talus slope. Reminding myself of the promise I made to my wife and myself about playing things more conservatively out here after my last trip, I retrace my steps and find a safer way to the junction.
While ascending the trail to Willow Lakes, clouds pass overhead, casting the wildflowers into a beautiful light.
Climbing higher, ponds and lakes begin to appear against the rocky walls of the Gore Range.
As I climb higher and pass lake after lake, it becomes clear that no other humans are present in this area either. I hike slowly and take the time to stop, listen, and observe.
The day passes slowly, and I feel that I have returned, however briefly, to the Garden of Eden. In the late afternoon, I climb to a flat spot high above Upper Willow Lake to set up camp.
The next morning, I awaken early in the darkness, grab my headlamp and Pacerpoles and feel my way carefully down the slope to the lake. I don’t want to miss the light show at Zodiac Ridge.
While hiking back down the Gore Range Trail to the trailhead, I meet a woman hiking alone, the first human I have spoken to since leaving home a few days ago. She tells me excitedly about the moose she saw and photographed at the parking lot. In turn, I relate my mountain goat story. There is something about our encounters with the other animals we share the planet with that stirs wonder and awe in us humans. It seems nearly universal. There is something about looking into the eyes of creatures so much like us, yet so different.
As I descend, the day becomes hotter. The dead trees just stand there in the late morning light. This is not a place I would want to be in a wind storm. And certainly not during a red flag warning.
A friend who works for the forest service tells me that he and his colleagues often speak of The Big One, a vast fire that will turn these many beetle-killed acres into smoke and ash. He says it’s not a matter of if, but when. The conflagration will be horrible for the creatures that live here. Many will perish. Yet, even before the last embers have died and the ash has returned to the earth, green shoots will appear. The understory will regenerate, sucession forests will grow, and animals will return, to live, reproduce, and die here. Life finds a way.