It’s been 14 years since I last did a wilderness backpacking trip into the Rocky Mountains. Way too long, actually.
This summer, however, things sort of lined up. My 33-year-old nephew is recently retired from the Army after eight years; I’ve got a 14-year-old grandson who was interested in an adventure and my son, also 33 and a veteran Boy Scout backpacker, was up for the trip.
My wife thought I needed a break from a near constant headache called retirement cabin building.
So we chose a spot in northern Colorado that we had visited before, probably 16 or 17 years ago. A place called the Rawah Wilderness in the Theodore Roosevelt National Forest, along one of the most stunningly beautiful mountain rivers in the U.S., the Poudre.
When last we backpacked the Rawah, we were introduced to the damage the pine beetle had been doing to the forest. We were also introduced to locals who hated the U.S. Forest Service and their policies to not allow logging companies in to salvage dead (but not rotted trees). These mountain folk would spit the name of the Forest Service and their environmental extremist Colorado allies.
At that time you could see a lot of dead trees on the pristine forested mountainsides, but it was still mostly green. Last year the misguided policies of the U.S. Forest Service came back to roost when a fire broke out in the western reaches of Poudre Canyon and spread into the Roosevelt Forest. For 13 weeks, firefighters fought a mostly losing battle against the fire.
As we drove through the canyon to reach the Rawah Wilderness trailhead, there were still signs out in front of tourism businesses and cabin homes thanking firefighters for their efforts. But the sight of blackened mountains made you sick to your stomach, particularly when you consider it didn’t have to be that way.
Fire is nature’s way of purging the forest of dead trees and underbrush. But when you practice “Smokey the Bear” policies that prevent regular, small burns, mountain and forest fires become uncontrollable, even for nature.
But the Rawah Wilderness we planned to hike, a massive federal wilderness area that creeps into southern Wyoming, was largely untouched, except for one thing. All of the resources of the U.S. Forest Service had been exhausted by the fire and post fire clean-up. The wilderness trails, that in my 35-year experience of backpacking in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado were always clear and adequately maintained, were a mess.
As the pine beetle kills trees, mountain winds blow those dead trees over…across trails and potential campsites. In our 30-mile experience, we stepped over, under and around 260 trees in the up and back route. We actually saw a lot of trees cut off the trail, and in talking to a couple of mountain cowboys taking pack horses to fishing camps, learned the trail clearing had fallen to volunteers and users of the trail.
However, a whole lot of trees were once full mature pines that you needed at least 20-inch chainsaws to cut.
Anyway, we were undeterred by our ignorance of trail and campsite conditions and in large measure enjoyed the experience. The views of snow-capped peaks, cascading water falls and high mountain meadows made you forget that just over the next mountain was a blackened moonscape caused by the fire.
Couple of things from the trail itself. My nephew, son and grandson had never seen me with my beard grown out. My wife is a fan of the clean shave and to please her (and not embarrass myself by attempting to grow my scant Nordic beard) I shave every morning. On day two of the trip, when my beard had grown out to its full white glory, the three young hikers began to show a deep concern for my welfare.
“Pops, you gonna make it?” my grandson asked. “You okay, Dad?” Ben said after I pony crawled over a huge tree. “You need to stop?” asked my nephew who had routinely done infantry training with 90-pound rucks, carrying ammo and a rifle. “Your beard looks like it needs a rest.”
I was fine, even though I thought about the bottle of aspirin my wife tucked into my pack concerned about the heart attack I suffered in 2016. The trip up the mountain, from 8,200 feet to 10,800 feet, was exhausting at times as we attempted to adjust to the altitude, but the trip down was actually more painful to a right knee that houses a slightly torn meniscus and a right shoulder that has needed surgical repair for about 20 years.
We had a couple of equipment failures, including my very expensive (15-year-old) backpackers air sleeping pad, a badly burned finger caused by a listening lapse by my grandson and some decision making based on a pack that was a little heavy to begin with. All in all, the hike was a grand success.
The way back home down the Poudre Canyon road, along Highway 14 to Fort Collins, up I-76 through Sterling and onto I-80 in Nebraska likely held the best experiences for storytelling for years to come.
There was the conversation with two different business owners along Poudre Canyon talking about the fire and their evacuation (Americans you have to love), a mom and pop Mexican restaurant in the woke college town of Fort Collins whose welcome sign said “Unless you’re the Lone Ranger, you don’t need a mask,” the frustration of t-shirt shopping for my grandkids where every other saying was somehow linked to pot smoking, the introduction to a real life version of the owner of the Bates Hotel in attempting to find a spot to shower and crash before the long drive home and then meeting a frosty-haired lady at a very old and very traditional motel in Julesburg, Colo., who more than made up for the black adorned, black masked weird woman who made us feel like Joseph and his search for an inn.
She pointed us to downtown Julesburg (a town the size of Lovilia) and C.J.’s Restaurant, bar and dance hall where we had a great off the interstate meal.
On the trip home I read most of a Baldacci novel, watched my nine-year-old grandson play in a baseball tournament in Des Moines, endured 10 hours of young people music played at ear-ringing levels and endless conversations involving Pokémon strategies and computer device disagreements.
I returned home to find a large portion of my gravel driveway laying in my front yard from the massive rainfall from Thursday last and a whole lot of work at the cabin that didn’t get done. It was great to be home.