Never Summer Wilderness Loop
In the muffled silence, I creep toward the clearing. My heart jumps, then settles. No moose. Just a couple of does grazing at the far end of the meadow.
Back on the trail, I ascend in the darkening light. A solo day hiker and two couples come down the path, fleeing the impending rain.
The trail forks. The wiser choice, I know, would be to go left directly toward Parika Lake. I take the right fork. A cold September rain falls. Slipping on a fleece top and a rain suit, I continue up through the forest. Moose tracks and scat are everywhere.
The forest thins and opens to a meadow with a view toward Baker Pass. I lose the trail, then make my way up through marsh grasses.
The rain eases to a drizzle as I come to the top of Baker Pass. Stopping for a breather, I hear rocks sliding down the steep slopes of the cloud mountains directly east of me.
The map shows a trail leading west across the Continental Divide and another one leading southwest toward Parika Lake, tonight’s destination.
My trail is nowhere in sight, so I take the western trail, then hop onto a game trail cutting across the eastern slope of the divide.
Rain begins again. The slope I’m traversing is getting steeper. I hear more rock slides and become aware that this is not where I want to be when darkness falls. Looking to the east, I detect what appears to be a human trail far below me. Carefully, I make my way down the steep slope toward the trail and continue on in the fading light.
They see me before I see them. I hear a galloping sound, then turn to see a bull moose, a large cow, and a smaller moose, possible a calf, fleeing through an open meadow. They hide from me in a grove of spruce trees. I can see their outlines as they stand there motionless waiting for me to go away. They must know that it’s hunting season.
The rain intensifies, and Parika Lake is still nowhere in sight. A damp chill runs through my body.
It’s almost dark when I get to a trail intersection just before Parika Lake. The rain is now mixed with sleet and blowing fiercely over the divide. Since the lake is just above tree line, I duck down the side trail into the forest and find a flat spot protected from the wind by tall fir and spruce.
Quickly, I set up my shelter and throw my backpack under it. No time to cook tonight. I grab a bag of trail mix for dinner and wash it down with stream water.
Under the shelter, I take off my soaked rain gear, then lay out my groundsheet, blow up my mattress, and fluff up my sleeping bag.
It’s only when I’m lying down do I notice that the flat spot I’ve chosen for my camp has a distinctly gamey smell. Have I chosen a spot where moose like to bed down as my campsite?
The rain falls on my shelter in a hard, jagged, unsettling rhythm. Are these twigs I hear snapping in the forest around me or am I just imagining things?
During the night, I awaken to strange dreams of moose running through my camp.
At first light, it’s still raining hard. The forecast was for two more days of rain. I decide that I’ve had enough and will bail on this trip.
Under the shelter, I pack up my gear. Then I get my food bag down from a tree. Putting my wet shelter at the top of my pack, I head back toward the trailhead.
A few minutes later, the rain stops. Mist starts rising from the mountain before me, and I’m suddenly reminded that moments of beauty such as this are the reason I’m out here. I turn around and hike back toward Parika Lake.
At the lake, I run into a group of three guys who are having breakfast. They’ve been out for two days, but have spent the last 18 hours holed up in their tiny solo tents.
“The forecast was for a 50% chance of rain but we got 180%.”
“We could see the sun shining on Long’s Peak while we were socked in here.”
“I guess there’s a reason they call them the Never Summer Mountains.”
“It seems that any moisture that comes over the divide gets trapped by the cloud mountains…Stratus, Nimbus, Cumulus…”
“Where did you camp?”
“In the forest, just ten minutes down the trail from here . Where are you guys headed today?”
“Bowen Lake. If we can.”
“Same here. 50% chance of rain today and tomorrow. I’m going to try to do as much hiking as I can before the rain starts again.”
We wish each other a safe hike and say maybe we’ll meet again at Bowen Lake.
Then I continue up through the mist toward today’s first crossing of the Continental Divide between Fairview Mountain and Parika Peak.
At the top of the divide, I’m confronted by a thick wall of clouds advancing rapidly toward me.
Much of today’s hiking will be above tree line, so I quickly drop down the western side and hike on.
The trail contours around Fairview Mountain, then climbs up to cross back to the eastern side of the divide at Bowen Pass. All this time, I’m being chased by the wall of clouds moving in from the west.
I hike down into a beautiful valley between Fairview and Bowen Mountains.
Clouds are now blowing in from the west, the east, and the north. I watch as the clouds collide and swirl around the high peaks and am thinking that we’re in for nasty weather.
Descending into the forest again, I see movement through the trees heading toward me. It’s a horse packer dressed in camo and his Australian Cattle Dog. I step to the side of the trail. The dog comes up to greet me, then runs off to chase squirrels. The man asks me to talk to him for a while because his horse is young and skittish and unaccustomed to meeting strangers on the trail. We talk about the beauty of the area, and about the rain, and about moose.
“This place is thick with them,” he says.
He doesn’t say what he is hunting, and I don’t ask.
His partner catches up with him and they ride up toward the pass while I hike down toward the turnoff to Bowen Lake.
Bear tracks and scat now mingle with the signs of moose in the soft mud.
Little bits of blue sky appear among the clouds as I hike upward toward Bowen Lake, then the sun breaks through. There are still a few yellow flowers left in the understory.
Though Bowen Lake looks to be well used, there is no one here now. I hike to the far side and find a flat spot on a rise above the lake. Then I set up my shelter, hang my wet clothes from the branches of nearby trees, and sit down to the breakfast I skipped this morning.
The relative warmth of this partly-cloudy afternoon feels luxurious. I sit here on a log for a long time, doing nothing, just experiencing the pleasure of being alive.
Then I walk down the hill to the lake to gather water for tonight’s dinner. Two men have arrived and are casting their fishing rods at the other side of Bowen Lake.
After dinner, I go back to the lake. There is no one here. I watch as the sun goes down and the last clouds of the day drift across the evening sky.
It’s getting chilly, and I can tell it’ll be a cold night. Despite the cold and the bears, I sleep with the door of my shelter wide open.
When the morning light comes, I fight the new day for a while, snuggling deep into my sleeping bag. Looking out the door of my shelter, I notice that the sun is already illuminating the rock walls above Bowen Lake. I slip on my wet shoes and go walking along the lakeshore.
After breakfast, I pack up and walk back down the trail. Hiking quickly and watching the tread before me, I don’t see her until I hear a stomping sound. A cow moose is on the trail directly ahead. She stands there for a second, then turns around and leaves the trail and circles back around me through the forest, snapping sticks as she goes. A minute later, a young elk buck appears on the trail facing me. He, too, gives me a wide berth.
There are no clouds this morning and the day warms up quickly. Bear tracks and scat again appear on the trail with the toes pointing in the same direction I’m travelling.
At an intersection, I turn north onto a a trail that parallels the Kawanuchee Valley. Occasionally, through the trees, I get glimpses of the headwaters of the Colorado River running through meadows glowing in the morning sun.
Near the trailhead, I run into a group of four day hikers–two women and two men.
“Did you see anything?”
“Four moose and a buck and a couple of does.”
“Where did you see them?”
“They’re a ways up there.
Ten minutes later, back at the trailhead, the two women return while I’m having lunch and stretching my muscles.
“You see anything?” I joke.
“No. We’re hungry. We have our priorities. We’re going for lunch,” they kid back.
One of the men comes up and asks me how far I went in. When I tell him, he acts as if what I’m telling him is the most amazing thing on earth. Apparently, he has never hear of backpacking before.
“You mean, you were out there for three days, sleeping in a sleeping bag in a tent in the rain with all these wild animals around?”
Meanwhile his companions are calling for him to come so that they can go for lunch. They have their priorities.
While driving back to Denver, I’m reflecting on what the man was saying.
When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts, my parents would occasionally take my brothers and sisters and I on vacations up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. We visited the usual tourist places, including Clark’s Trading Post in Lincoln and Old Man of the Mountains in Franconia Notch. The thing that really stuck in my mind, though, was when I saw people emerging from these things called trails that you could step onto and travel deeply into the woods to god-knows-where. It struck me as being remarkable and mysterious.
Thinking about it while driving US-34 through mountainsides of golden aspen, I decide that the man at the trailhead and the kid from Massachusetts were right. It really is amazing.