Indian Peaks Northern Loop: Autumn
It’s cold and quiet here. There is little sign of human activity, only two cars in the far parking lot and a guy stepping out of his RV with a little dog. Definitely autumn. Aspen are at their peak. It’s been raining but there is blue sky up ahead.
As I walk up the Beaver Creek trail, I listen to the wind blowing through the tops of the evergreens. That, and my own footsteps are the only sounds I can hear.
A couple of hours in, I’m startled to run into another solo backpacker. He’s decidedly old school, wearing an orange Kelty external-frame pack with a sleeping bag and a scrap of closed cell foam tied underneath. There are waffle stompers on his feet. He says that he hasn’t seen anyone yet today, and that I should get plenty of solitude out here.
Through the trees, I hear the sound of running water. It’s Beaver Creek, which is running pretty high for late September. There won’t be any problems finding water on this trip.
As I approach Coney Flats, it starts to drizzle. Looking up between the trees toward the west, I can see nothing but gray skies. The drizzle morphs into a cold, hard rain. I stop to don a fleece sweater and hat, as well as a rain jacket and pants. Then I walk on.
At Coney Flats, I exit one trailhead and look for the trail that will take me up toward Sawtooth Mountain and Buchanan Pass.
As I climb higher, the wind and rain intensify. Unless the weather changes radically , I’ll be camping well short of the pass today.
By mid-afternoon, I’m getting a bit hypothermic and decide to quit early and set up my shelter. Snuggled in my sleeping bag and drinking hot tea, I listen to the wind and rain get stronger and buffet my shelter about.
Though I love this spot, I can imagine a stake pulling out of the sodden ground in the middle of the night. In this kind of wind, if one stake goes, they all will, and I’ll be exposed to the full fury of the storm. Quickly, I move my camp to a safer place nestled deep inside the forest.
During a break in the storm, I attempt to cook a proper dinner. Before I’m finished with my mashed potatoes, a dark cloud races in from the west and pelts me with hail. It gets into everything. Hail in my food bag, hail in my cooking pot, hail in my backpack, hail all over me.
Feeling hypothermia starting in again, I eat a chocolate bar, hang my food from a tree, and burrow back into my shelter.
In the morning, there’s been no change. I pack up quickly while trying to decide whether to hike on or to retreat. A brief respite from the wind helps make my decision; I’ll hike on.
As I exit the trees, the wind again becomes stronger. Visibility is down to a few feet; all I can see is rocks and mist. The only thing to do is to keep track of the trail and follow it upward. Wind-borne hail slices into the exposed flesh on my face.
Eventually, I get to the top of Buchanan Pass, where I’m met with another icy blast of wind. I hide behind a cairn. No views at all. Just an impermeable wall of clouds ahead and behind.
I descend through the soup until I can see the outline of a forest emerging from the mist. Beautiful, protective old trees.
As I’m passing through Fox Park, the rain eases to a drizzle. Yellow aspen leaves coat the forest floor. Fresh water droplets glisten against the gold. Gorgeous.
By mid-afternoon, I’m hiking up the Cascade Creek trail toward Pawnee Pass. It’s still overcast, but the precipitation is now in the form of a gentle mist. I’ve seen no one since that lone old-school backpacker yesterday.
There a preternatural stillness in the air, as if in anticipation of something. Nothing happens, but still the mood builds.
A crack of thunder splits the earth. I stop and look at the mountainside to the left. A lone pine tree sits among a grove of aspen.
It’s very quiet now. I take a step forward, and then she comes into view, straight ahead. The moose turns her bulk toward me as a reminder that she is indeed queen of this forest and not to be trifled with.
In deference to Her Majesty, I take a few steps backwards. She seems satisfied and walks back to the footbridge where it appears that she had been grazing. The problem is that she’s now blocking the bridge that is the way forward. I wait a few minutes to see what she’ll do next. It becomes obvious that she’s going nowhere.
Reluctantly, I walk down the bank and step into the cold, cold water of Cascade Creek. On the opposite side, there is no way forward except through a bog. This is absurd, I’m thinking. I take a look upstream. There she is by the bridge, still grazing but keeping a close eye on me. The bridge is out of the question. I continue crossing the bog, almost losing one of my trail runners to it. Before long, I find the trail again and continue forward.
Though it’s getting late, I feel as if I have no choice but to stop and photograph the many waterfall along this stretch of Cascade Creek.
The rain stops as I stumble upon a very obvious, but great campsite. It’s by the creek, with a thick layer of pine needles and a view down the valley. Normally, I avoid sites like this, preferring hidden spots away from water and the trail. But I’m tired and this one is too good to pass up.
It’s a quiet, comfortable night. In the morning I continue past more waterfalls toward Pawnee Lake.
The clouds break up, the sun comes out, and the day becomes warm. I pass Pawnee Lake and Lone Eagle Peak and start the long, slow ascent up the steep western side of Pawnee Pass.
Near the top of the pass, I stop to look back at the country that I’ve been passing through.
At the top , I encounter two solo hikers who are out for the day. There’s a woman with a DSLR and a long lens who I realize had been taking photos of my ascent up the switchbacks. The other hiker is a man who appears to be about my age. We all talk for awhile, then I take the obligatory selfie at the Continental Divide sign.
Tomorrow is my 60th birthday, a day that I’ve been dreading for quite some time. But gazing east at the shadows being cast by the moving clouds upon the autumn landscape of this corner of the Colorado Rockies, I’m thinking that maybe sixty won’t be so bad.
Postscript: The story ends here, but, of course, as long as there is life, there are more stories. The sunny weather after the storm brings the mass of humanity back to Indian Peaks. On the hike back to the trailhead, I have a chance to encounter a number of my fellow hikers, and more stories are generated. There is The Strange and Wondrous Tale of the Seven Moose, The Sorceress Who Wanted to Know Everything About Lightweight Backpacking, The Man who Mistook Me for a Youtube Star, and The Old Mountaineer who Fell Off His Lawnchair. But I’ve already gone on long enough. These will be stories for another time and perhaps another place.