Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rafting the Poudre

That Friday I did laundry and ate breakfast in Estes Park, then drove to Fort Collins for an afternoon of whitewater rafting on the Cache La Poudre river. The river is designated Wild and Scenic, which restricts development and incidentally makes it a cash cow for the five river outfitters that were already established before the river became Wild and Scenic.

A-1 Wildwater offers a choice of two half-day rafting trips, both of which cover the exact same stretch of river, except that the #1 family trip pulls out and skips a couple rapids, while the #2 Wild and Scenic trip goes over those two rapids. We had five boats taking the #1 trip, and two taking #2. I took trip #2, which said we had to be strong swimmers in good physical condition, willing to paddle hard,... Maybe it's because the river was low and we had an excellent guide, but those strictures were laughable. We only paddled when our guide told us to, and there was almost no exertion involved at all.

On the other hand, there were still opportunities to mess up. I'm a big river snob with little patience for other people's dopey behavior on the water, but this time I made the one big goof-up on my raft. Our guide called for us all to move to the middle of the boat fast, but I could not hear the command well enough, so it took about a second before I processed the command and moved. That was long enough for me to see a large rock very nearly slam into my right side extremely hard. I got out of the way just in time, but the suddenness of the large rock appearing in the space I had just vacated freaked me out for a second, just long enough for me to forget about my paddle and lightly smack the guy in front of me on the back of the head. Luckily, he had a helmet on and was unhurt and unflustered, but I certainly felt like a putz.

The canyon was just gorgeous, and the water felt wonderful. The day was hot, and it was fantastic to get repeatedly drenched. My raft held six grown people and our guide, in whom I placed complete and unquestioning confidence. He was the senior statesman of the river guides, perhaps 25 years old, and more reserved and mature than the others. He never seemed to exert himself, but sat confidently in back and directed, in full control. I know the signs of someone who's having a good time comfortably in his element.

We six tourists took our part rather seriously, and we leapt to follow every command. Thus, while all the other rafts seemed to be spinning around and getting stuck on rocks, we moved cleanly down the river and often pulled off to wait for other boats. Once the guy in front of me helped someone out of the river after she got knocked out of her raft. She was moving swiftly, and I wasn't sure what to do, but he calmly held out his paddle, she grabbed it, and her guide scooped her back up into the raft. She was a really good sport about it; she joked that her guide yelled "Bump!" and she thought he said "Jump!" so she did.

I was surprised at how stable I felt in the raft. I always thought it looked precarious to be perched on the side of a raft, but actually the space is wide, and there's a place to secure a foot. With the foot secured, you have to hit a pretty good bump to fly out of the raft.

The raft itself is incredibly stable, too. It's not at all like a canoe or kayak. You can climb in and out in any clumsy fashion you can think of, and the raft won't even wobble. Another difference from a canoe or kayak was that my back felt very comfortable the whole time, because I was always moving. After two hours in a canoe or kayak, I am very stiff. After three hours I can't fully straighten up when I try to stand.

What I loved most was just cruising down that river and feeling the water below me and around my feet and splashing onto me. I am definitely booking a full-day trip on a future vacation.


Chasm Lake

On Thursday in Estes Park I bought myself a cup of hot tea and drove to Longs Peak trailhead, arriving just after 7:30 a.m. It was August and the first completely clear day in a while, so the parking lot was already full because of all the people going for the summit. I had to park about a quarter mile down the road, lengthening my hike a little. I left half the tea in the car to finish after my hike, and I headed up the road.

After chatting with the rangers, I signed the registry at 8:20 and pointed myself up the mountain. The trail was wooded and shady for quite a good distance, though it climbed steadily. I immediately realized I should have brought more than 1.5 liters of water, although I rationed it and made it last the whole hike.

One complaint I have about hiking books is that they never mention toilet facilities. To me the presence or absence of a toilet on a crowded hiking trail above treeline makes a big difference in my planning. I had to assume there would not be a toilet, so I drank only a minimal amount before starting my hike, then drank frequently as I walked, so that all the water would be used by my body and would not be wasted. It turned out that this caution was completely unnecessary, as there were not just one, but two, composting toilets on the trail, neither of which was marked on the park map. However, I did not need either, because I had made sure I would not. If I ever write a hiking guide, I will mention toilet facilities for those who would rather not go in the woods if they don't have to.

After a couple of miles I reached a sign announcing the beginning of alpine tundra, and the trees became stunted and quickly went away altogether. The rest of the hike was exposed, and the sun was bright. I took short steps and tried to use as little energy as possible to lift myself up the stone steps. After only 3 miles I was exhausted and wanted to turn back, but instead I sat down, rested, and kept going.

I was frequently passed by trail runners, which was demoralizing. Even when I was moving at 2 m.p.h., which seems pretty brisk for walking up a mountain at 10,000 feet the day after one's arrival, I stopped for a swig of water and got passed by two older men from Minnesota who told me, "Keep drinking that water!" I congratulated myself on refraining from flipping them off.

When I got to the juncture where the hardcore hikers turned off to the Longs Peak summit, and there was only .7 mile remaining to Chasm Lake, I perked up and headed down the cliff-hugging trail to an alpine meadow, still being passed by multiple hikers. I think I was the second slowest person on the mountain. The slowest guy was traveling with a group, and at one point his female guide decided to encourage him, within earshot of any passing hikers--"I'm so proud of you, you've really pushed yourself, I'm really proud of you for pushing yourself that way." I was glad I was hiking alone, so I could stumble and groan without anyone embarrassing me with condescending praise.

Anyway, the alpine meadow was lush and glorious. A stream ran through it, then tumbled over a high cliff to form a lake below. Above us was the east face of Longs Peak. When I reached the end of the meadow, it was a while before it dawned on me that I had not seen Chasm Lake yet. I still had to climb the rocks in front of me. I thought, "This is sick."

However, there was no way I was turning back a quarter of a mile from Chasm Lake, so I climbed up that big rock slide. After I reached the top of it, I climbed an easy rock face and crossed a few boulders, and I was there.

Chasm Lake is surrounded by big boulders, and it backs up against cliffs. Sometimes you can watch climbers ascending the east face, but I didn't see anyone climbing, though there were a lot of people at the lake, including several children who were also tougher than me. I took in my view, ate Plainfield Pistachio trail mix (delicious!), drank more of my water, and turned around for the descent. It was easier than I expected, although this was when I witnessed the emasculation of the one hiker who was slower than I was.

I climbed on out of there, then descended carefully so as not to put too much stress on my knees, still continually being passed. Pretty soon my ankles hurt, my knees ached, my butt burned, and I basically felt like everything below the waist was mush. I didn't mind, though; I would have been disappointed if I hadn't hurt that much. I had a great time, and relished being quasi-alone in the mountains.

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Lake Haiyaha

When I arrived in Estes Park, Colorado, I stopped briefly at my hostel, the Colorado Mountain School, then drove on to Rocky Mountain National Park, making it into the park by noon. I took the shuttle to Bear Lake trailhead and hiked up to Lake Haiyaha. For the first mile, as far as Dream Lake, the crowds were really dense, but after that the path was sometimes so deserted that I sang songs to warn bears of my presence. I chose “Peter and the Wolf” and “Going to a Go-Go.” With any luck no one heard me.

Dream Lake is one of my favorite places, and aptly named. The water is clear and green, and there are rocks under the lake’s surface near the shoreline, providing an interesting brown and black contrast to the emerald green water. Most people continue from Dream Lake to Emerald Lake, but there’s also a narrower and less-trodden path up the mountainside to Lake Haiyaha. The trail is no more difficult, and the lake is prettier. There’s also a gnarled tree whose wood is an absolute riot of colors.

Unfortunately, I left quickly due to a cloudburst. I really need to get a better rain jacket.

This was my first day at high altitude, although I had overnighted in Limon, Colorado, which helped. I walked slowly, taking 4 hours to cover only 5 miles. I took long stops to shoot pictures with an antique Argus C-3. I’m not sure whether I like the views best, or the smell of the trees best, but the two put together are intoxicating.

In the evening, back at the Colorado Mountain School, some exhausted climbers and I all put in earplugs and slept for over 10 hours.

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