The rainy season has come to summer, here in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. There are no perfectly clear days as the clouds build up with the thermal energy created by the sun’s shining brilliance. It is best to get up early and conclude hiking before the thunder and lightening begin their atmospheric symphony.
Thus I rose early and began hiking just after half past six. Draco and Leah, my two trusty German shepherds, were accompanying me on the day’s exploration. The plan was to visit Green Lake, just outside of Crested Butte, Colorado. I drove up to that town and parked at the trailhead right in town near the Nordic ski center. The dogs knew what we were up to in general, if not the specifics, and they were animated once let out of the four-wheeled kennel, running amok from one scent post to another, both leaving their calling card in the same locations where other canines had done the same. There exuberance was infectious and I was giddy putting on my pack.
The first couple of miles of trail to Green Lake passes through an easement on private property and the homeowners’ have stringent requirements regarding dogs on leashes, so although I abhor hiking with leashed dogs I restrained them for the time being. This is not normal for our pack, but after the initial shock and disbelief – and with a bit of reminding from me – both dogs “heeled” well and minded the leash.
The Nordic center is located adjacent to what used to be the Big Mine. Unlike many mines found in the mountains, this was not a hard rock mine but rather extracted coal from the depths. It closed sometime in the mid-nineteen fifties and there are not many traces left from that era on the landscape. Now, this area is dominated by large, ostentatious houses. The trail is fairly well marked if you know what to look for, and we plodded up the small rise and gained a fine view of the town of Crested Butte and the surrounding mountains.
Up and up we climbed, sometimes along a single-track trail and other times along the homeowners’ association’s roads. Mostly, this area is covered in lodgepole pine. Being early July the grasses and all deciduous vegetation is the greenest of green. Although there had been rain recently the trails were not too muddy and the hiking was without issue. No slipping and sliding, although it was a bit squishy. The clouds overhead suggested more rain, but instead were beginning to burn off with the application of sunshine.
I was relieved to have reached the boundary with the National Forest. From this point onward all my hiking would be on the Gunnison National Forest and both the dogs and I were relieved to be let loose from the leashes. To be sure, they don’t have free rein to wreak havoc within the forest and if they get too agitated with the chirping and squeaking rodents I will recall them to my side until they can calm down a bit. Certainly, I do not let them chase after any type of big game, as this could result in the dogs being shot and me being fined. Besides, I prefer that the denizens of the forest live in peace as I pass along the trail.
The trail more or less parallels Wildcat Creek and Draco and Leah were happy to splash about the shallow waters and drink their fill of the refreshing liquid. Up and up we went. This trail gains some elevation but in general I wouldn’t call it steep. The forest didn’t allow for a view of the surrounding countryside but was in itself a rewarding experience. There are many species of life that live here and they all play a role in maintaining the ecosystem, and the mind is edified by embracing the wisdom of the woods.
Coming into a small clearing, I was then greeted by the sight of Mount Axtell rising up to the heavens. On this eastern face there is a large gouge taken out of the rock, made eons ago when glaciation formed much of the landscape we now see in the higher elevations. I was excited to visit the lake but was distracted near my destination by a hillside of summer wildflowers. I could not merely stroll by while these colorful plants demanded some of my astute concentration. There, in particular, was a beautiful sight of a log surrounded by the orange and yellow blossoms of two species of paintbrush all set against the verdant hillside upon which the view was held.
The various asters and sunflowers brought cheer to my countenance as simultaneously the heaviest of the clouds began to part and dissipate as the day warmed. The yellow sunflowers are a joy to behold. I must also mention the scarlet gilia, those trumpet-shaped, red flowers that fill my soul with mirth upon spotting them. Blue Mertensia grows in the wetter areas while the columbine grow abundantly everywhere I look. So many others and I am once again in awe at the variety and diversity of life found in one, small patch of grass.
I hike the remaining quarter of a mile to the lake, the shimmering surface of which is nestled into the bowl below Mount Axtell’s east face. Not surprisingly, the lake appears to have formed when the glacier retreated and left behind a terminal moraine that has checked the flow of water that has flowed down from the slopes above.
The shepherds are ecstatic, exploring as many nooks as possible as they race from one potential rodent’s location to another. They plunge into the lake without hesitation and stand waist deep, lapping up the water to their satisfaction. I step up the bank to watch the convivial excitement when I notice that there are trout swimming in the shallows. Possibly a hybrid between cutthroat and rainbow trout, these would be called “cut-bow” and there is a good chance that they are laying in eggs in their redds. I don’t want the dogs to disturb the fish, so I recall the shepherds to my side and point out other distractions where they can apply and satiate their canine curiosity. While they investigate a chattering tree squirrel, I sit mesmerized on the bank of the lake and stare at the fish swimming by, going about their business.
To see so many fish up close is somewhat unusual, and I must have sat there for half an hour before I had had my fill of watching the aquatic specie’s buoyant activities. Next, I climbed a small knoll to the south of the lake and found myself on top of a small meadow. Cheerful verdure greeted me under the flank of rock that buttressed up to Mount Axtell. I could now see the entirety of Green Lake below and proceeded to wander about in a mild stupor, such affect had the scenery upon my senses.
If there be a single word for the day it must be “green”. The land has been swaddled by grass growing luxuriantly wherever enough soil has been laid to sustain the roots. Thick enough to impede progress, this part of the Rocky Mountains is lush with vegetation and it is a good day to be alive – not just physically, although that is, of course, conducive to living, but in the mind; to be aware of your surroundings and the life-force that pervades throughout.
I retreated from the knoll upon which I had scrambled up to, pushing past the fallen logs and scrubby brush, and back down to the lake. I stared at the cold-blooded vertebrates continuing with their aquatic meanderings, amazed that beings could live in this cold water environment. To the north is another flank of rock that forms another edge to the bowl which Green Lake sits in. It extends out to the east, a lateral moraine about a hundred feet above the lake. I cannot resist climbing its slopes to gain a view of my surroundings.
From this perch I can see the mountains to the east, each peak rising up to the heavens. I know the names of them all and have visited several, certainly a majority have felt my footsteps trod upon their rocky tops. Many of those peaks are laccoliths, subterranean protrusions of magma that have cooled into lumps and are now exposed after all the overburden has been eroded off and carried towards the sea. The amount of rock that has been carried away by the ceaseless action of the forces of erosion staggers the imagination and I must peer through the millions of years to comprehend the current topography.
The shepherds are oblivious to all this and as I let my mind wander while my physical body guides itself through the meadow they continue to romp and explore with an infectious delight. I bring my senses back to the “now” and engage the dogs in a bit of exuberant play. Mouths agape, ears flat, tails flagged, the shepherds run around in concentric circles with me as the center, playfully bowing to each other as well as myself.
After a spell, the game ceases and I go about the studious examination of the wildflowers that are crowning this eminence. It is just after nine in the morning and we have experienced so much already. We scramble down from this moraine and find the trail that leads to Gibson Ridge. I could stop now, content with Green Lake, but must abide by my nearly insatiable curiosity to explore. This ridge divides a portion of the Ohio Creek drainage from the East River, where I am currently agog at the colorful display of flowery joy. More specifically, this ridge divides Wildcat Creek, my location, from Carbon Creek which flows to the south.
This trail ascends the north side of Gibson Ridge and thus passes through a thick coniferous forest. I cross Wildcat Creek where another profusion of flowers grow, including a spectacular showing of Corydalis. These plants are massive, growing some six feet tall with ample bundles of flowers. Part of the Fumitory family, the flowers are similar to what might be found in the Pea family. Mostly white or cream colored, each individual of the multitude has a spot of purple on it. Here, the Mertensia, commonly called bluebells, also grow profusely and I am again amazed at the summer garden that I hike through.
Passing over the creek, I am soon fast against the north side and the hike is one, long passage through the interminable forest that is occasionally broken by a patch of talus where naught has been able to establish roots. Cresting the ridge, the forest gives way to meadow and copse of aspen stud the grasses. I am now on a perch that allows another distant view of the surrounding mountains and peaks so I climb up away from the trail and find a thicket of trees to sit under while I consume my lunch and also disperse the dog food I had brought. The canines eat with gusto and I do the same, enjoying the variety of small snacks that I have brought.
A fine view on a fine day, there isn’t much else to do at the moment except watch the clouds sail by, wondering if they have enough energy to form thunderheads. There isn’t much to do at the moment, but that is the point – to not do much, but rather sit and observe my surroundings. The dogs are ready for a rest as well, and while I lean back against my pack they find slight depressions in the soil within which they wriggle around until comfortable.
If my belly isn’t exactly full, it is certainly content after I ingest my victuals. I shut my eyes and let the conscious world fade from view for the next quarter of an hour. I don’t fall asleep but succumb to a foggy haze that lets my brain rest while my body does the same. After this short rest I am ready to venture forth, returning upon the trail which I had hiked up. I mosey back, not in any particular hurry especially since the clouds don’t seem as if they are imminently about to discharge large voltages of electricity in my immediate vicinity.
I have seen what I came to see, and feeling spiritually content and physically invigorated, the return hike is a pleasant walk through the woods and meadows that I had passed earlier. The day is so nice… warm, not wet… that I can’t resist one, last stop near the lake. Here I sit under a tree, away from the trail, and stare out into the distances. I am surrounded by flowers the colors of which span the visible spectrum.
I am now ready to return home, and the dogs and I hike back down off of our public lands and down the path that leads through the easement on the private land. I am careful to leash the dogs so as not to get hassled by vigilant homeowners. The shepherds are not amused by this situation, nor am I, but that is the reality of this hike so I keep them in “heel” where their leashes won’t tangle with my stride. Soon, we are at the trailhead and I unleash the dogs so that they can hop up into their mobile kennel. I crank up the engine and put the kennel into gear as we roll down the road, and after a short drive the day’s adventure is concluded. A fine hike was had by us all, and I say a prayer of thanks to the Creator for allowing me this day in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.