Hiking with a Purpose
It had been a long time coming. I drew tags this year in the leftover draw for GMU 15 for mule deer and found cow elk tags on the leftover list. Adding in a second rifle OTC elk tag meant I now had three tags in my pocket for cervids in the same game management unit since it was covered in the rifle OTC area for bull elk.
Settled on my quest already to hunt, camp, fish, and hike all of Colorado’s Wilderness Areas when I looked at the leftover draw, and again at the leftover list I looked for said areas. They collect less people, house more critters, and are generally more rugged than people want to suffer. That last part, I wasn’t really convinced of how accurate that was until just this past weekend.
I’ve been working on becoming a backpack camper pretty much since I landed in Colorado at my new job. I’ve not been replacing gear, since I’m still a car camper as it’s more accessible to get my entire family out in the woods at the same time — so I’ve been augmenting. Most of my gear I’d deemed “good enough” for this trip, and I’ve been working out fairly regularly, with some rare interruptions. So when it came time this Friday to head out to Sarvis Creek Wilderness, I felt as ready as I could be.
The Long Road In
The drive from Denver is about three hours following I-70, CO-9, and US-40 roughly. It went quick, despite a stop over in Dillon at one of my favorite diners, the Arapahoe Cafe. I stop in for adventure fuel pretty much every time I drive by, and it was the only planned stop on my list. Once near the trailhead I topped off the Wrangler before diving back on to dirt roads to where the truck would be spending its weekend in the baking sun. From OnX maps it looked like there would be a shady area to park the truck amongst some large-ish camping areas. Unfortunately there was a closed gate across the bridge that went across the Yampa river. Not only did this separate us from the shade, but it was now hot out — and we’d be hiking in more exposure to get to where we needed to go.
The planned route was something like 4 miles in, and then another half mile “up”. From the trailhead to the ascent looked gentle enough, but the orange hybrid topo lines belied the truth. The hike gained 1300ft of elevation over the course of the four miles, and the last half mile would be another thousand feet of elevation gain. 2300 ft of elevation gain was more or less summitting a 14er in Colorado, especially over that distance. This was the first time I’d taken a hike with the full load in terrain other than in my neighborhood.
The weather was going to be warm, perhaps in the 80’s during the day but dropping into the 40’s at night for the low. However weather prediction in the mountains is often very difficult, the trailhead was at 7000ft as is the city of Steamboat Springs itself. It’s hard to account for valley shelter, elevation change, and the damn weather man. The heavy breakfast, while delicious didn’t help by putting us on the trail in the heat of the day. The parking lot was already fairly full, mostly with folks looking to fish the Sarvis Creek and Yampa River for trophy trout.
It’s a Gold Medal trout area, and you’re allowed to keep 2 trout a day and 4 whitefish. I asked around, and no one had caught any whitefish. Apparently they’re good smoked, but the anglers laughed off the question as my buddy Manny and I shouldered our packs and left the truck.
Onward and Upward
Somehow Mike “Manny” Manfredonia agreed to go with me, knowing what pain I usually put my friends through when we hunt and hike together. I guess he knew that I’d just come off of six weeks of paternity leave so my midsection was a little squishy. We’d long tried to get together to do some hunting but could never really make schedules align, so if all that happened this year was a scouting trip — that would be all right. Last year we’d missed a Wyoming pronghorn hunt when I suddenly had to travel for work.
The singletrack trail led up and away from the parking lot, with huckleberries and thimbleberries abound. The latter I had to look up after the fact, after a woman on the trail claimed they were raspberries and I cautioned her they were no raspberries I’d ever seen. With flesh more like a strawberry on the outside than the multiple larger bubbles of a red raspberry it was easy to tell, but the leaves looked similar — albeit bigger than the size of my outstretched hand. In the end, they’re edible, so I’ll keep that in mind for a future trip into the wilderness.
I somehow hadn’t counted that the weekend before Labor Day in a vacation town might be crowded, but we continued to pass people on the trail. One older lady gave us some helpful tips for hunting season. Another trail in the area had not yet been cleared from beetle kill and would unlikely have trail maintenance before winter, and that her son-in-law was a ranger in the area. She also made mention something I probably didn’t need to hear. Sarvis Creek and Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Areas had the highest density of mountain lions in the state. Super. Between the two of us I had a Browning Buckmark and a fixed blade knife for protection.
By mile three I was really feeling it. We’d gained 1000 ft of elevation, and it was the first time I’d hiked my pack with a real load as opposed to a dummy load in a different day pack I use for training. By mile four breakfast, the hot sun, and the timing coupled with the distance yet to be traveled meant we more or less had to make camp for the night. It was only 2:30, but the route I’d cyberscouted on OnX was more rocky agro-crag than a sloping path. One more thing. It was another 1000 vertical feet over the course of three quarters of a mile.
A 2300ft elevation gain is like summitting a 14,000ft peak, had we completed our journey.
It was mid-afternoon, and I’d wanted to make camp by 4. In the valley the sun would set, leaving us in darkness way earlier than it would in the middle of the prairies surrounding Denver. If we’d climbed to the glassing knob I wanted to scope out it would be 1000ft climb with heavy packs bushwhacking to a place that — while it looked good on grainy satellite imagery was completely unknown to us. In mountain lion territory. Excellent.
We made camp, with plans to break it early in the morning, summitting and pitching camp once more. A fresh start and the early morning chill would allow us to filter fresh bladders of water, get some caffeine, and take the hill. We discussed the options and determined this was the best outcome. Manny was nursing a knee, and with the photo equipment he was lugging he was getting tired too. He just had more experience rucking under load from the Air Force than I ever had as an IT desk jockey.
It was actually good timing, in the few hours it took to make it that far I’d run out of the three liters of water I had, and Manny came up dry shortly after setting camp. We filtered water creek side and then fixed pack rods to see if there were any trout in the stream. We’d seen small darting fish as we walked in, I was looking for any excuse to rest myself on my trekking poles and checking for fish was just the excuse I needed. Doubled over with the handles of the poles sinking into my pectorals just under my clavicle it relieved the pressure mounting just below my shoulders.
The trip thusfar had been hard but a great walk. With camp decided on we walked to the creek to do a little fishing. It was more like comedy relief. Manny hadn’t been fishing since childhood, having some free Orvis lessons to get him up to speed with his new rod setup, and I’d never actually caught a trout on a fly. Gasp. I’m an ultralight spin fisherman, but I figured I’d fully embrace Colorado so I brought my antique Wright McGill Eagle Claw Trailmaster my father had gifted me several years ago and rigged it with an Elk Hair Caddis.
The Dream Stream it wasn’t. With brush growing to the edge of the banks and we didn’t pack in waders for the cold water accessing the shore was somewhat difficult. Soon we found some creek side access and comedy ensued. There’s really no need for elegant casting when trees are six feet behind you, but no one told us that as we struggled to ensure that we caught more Salvelinus fontinalis than Terra Firma.
Manny was first on the board, catching his first trout as an adult from a Colorado mountain stream in a Wilderness area, and on a fly no less. I wasn’t far behind, catching my first trout on the fly. In Pennsylvania we’d call them native trout, but here outside of reservoirs they’re just trout. They live here, breed here, and thrive — right here in the Creek we’d labored to hike up in the late summer sun.
After catching perhaps a half dozen small trout, and losing nearly as many flies to the trees we decided to head back to camp. We had a hearty meal of Mountain House as the sun started to fade, and talked about tackling the hill in the morning.
Out of Sarvis
When we’d pulled into the parking lot for the trailhead we noticed that both our phones immediately went out of service, so we threw them into airplane mode. Knowing this was a possibility I had my Garmin inReach Mini dangling from my packstrap, sending tracking points every 10 minutes or so.
When we made camp I tapped out a message on my phone to our wives and my father who were tracking our progress and keen for us not to become lion bait. “Made it to a camp, will summit in am. Fly-fishing till dinner.” the message said. I hit send, and the app pinwheeled. I figured it would take a while given the fact we were nestled into a valley and not perched up on a glassing knob for the evening.
After fishing I came back to see it still hadn’t sent, so I went into the meadow that was creek-side and held it over my head for a few minutes. A loud beep notified me my message had been sent. The next morning receiving a response from Manny’s wife was much easier, it came in within minutes of powering the unit on under thick pine tree cover.
Out in the Cold
As night began to fall the stars came out. First Jupiter and Saturn poked out, then several other stars began to peek out. It was slated to be a near cloudless night, which meant cold. It was supposed to get into the 40’s overnight, but that was in nearby Steamboat Springs. You lose 3, nearly 3.5, degrees per thousand feet of elevation change so it was no picnic for us when it began to get chilly. After 10PM it felt like it was in the high 30’s or low 40’s — there was no hard frost in the morning, and I was tucked into my mummy bag listening to myself breathe. Manny snored in his hammock setup from across the small patch of ground coated in pine needles, the refreshing scent lulled me to sleep after I realized that the snoring was not, in fact, a black bear padding through camp.
I awoke the next morning at a little after five, knowing full well that it was near impossible to see outside in the shelter provided by the pines we’d camped under. Waiting until nearly six I finally got out of my mummy bag, a chill in the air I walked down to retrieve our food from the tree we’d slung it in. I fired up the camp stove and made coffee, munching on some re-hydrated granola while the sun rose.
Rolling out of his hammock though, Manny looked like he’d gotten no sleep at all. He was visibly cold and under slept. It sounded like the hammock without an under quilt did not do it for the evening and he was sapped of energy. We discussed it, and going another thousand feet up with much more exposure would likely cause problems lest he crawl into the tiny tent with me. The scouting trip was over. The cold had exacerbated the bum knee and invigorated me. The tables had turned, but we just couldn’t continue.
Due to failures of human and gear we decided that it was much more prudent to head back out of the woods. While I was ready to bushwhack up the mountain for an evening in a glassing perch, Manny’s knee injury had become exacerbated — and short of a very cuddly night in my Eureka Apollo 2 it wasn’t going to get any better with all of the ibuprofen we had between us.
We struck camp, and decided to do some more fly fishing as the sun began to heat up our surroundings and burn off just a little bit of the dew. We’d seen a pool further down from our campsite the previous evening while we strung up our food where trout were feeding voraciously. A few casts and it was obvious, these tiny trout wanted breakfast. We each caught a few, and decided another death march in the August sun was not how we wanted to end the trip — so we shouldered packs and headed out.
A Ripe Reward
Hiking in I’d made note of all the ripe huckleberries, and the patches were deep on either side of the trail. So much so that when we were hiking out we passed a pile of electric blue bear scat. Despite the ripeness of the berries they’d not yet been completely picked over by bear or bird. On the walk out as we lost elevation and our knees began to throb despite the lift provided by the trekking poles. I harvested three cups of huckleberries for a cobbler and some potentially for the ice cream churn. Probably half as many went down the gullet as I walked. Manny snapped some pictures as we walked, looking for the perfect shot.
Despite our trials and tribulations with the trip we still enjoyed ourselves. We saw the beginnings of the hunting season in front of us, quite literally as an outfitter pack train passed us and we had a chance to chat, albeit briefly while the horses remained calm to gain some local intel. The biggest piece of information I was given this trip? If you’re headed into the Sarvis Creek Wilderness to hunt, buy a bear tag. It seemed almost obvious, but at another $40 to my hunt I wasn’t really interested until I kept hearing it. If all I see is a bear, I may as well have a tag in my pocket.
Change of Plans
This trip, and the subsequent cancellation of day two and three worth of scouting and glassing got me thinking of failure. It’s something I’ll address in another post, but it also hammered home the need to get the valuable boots on the ground intelligence required when hunting a new area. Had I waited until the opening day of elk and mule deer I might have had way more problems with camp.
We drove back to the Denver area not defeated but energized. Sure, we were pensive about what October might bring — colder weather for one. But it also meant I could launch back into map study, make some phone calls, justify some gear purchases, and focus on fitness. Surrounded by the scenery of Rabbit’s Ear’s pass I couldn’t help but smile.
We’re coming for you Gore Range.