Only a few days had past since the Summer solstice and thus the days lasted for seemingly endless hours, beginning with the first flush of dawn’s early light and lasting until the lingering dusk faded. All told, the characteristic sunlight hours could be made to extend from five in the morning until nine at night. This morning I was up with the first light and made ready to leave at the earliest possible opportunity. For today was the day that I would cross Calf Creek Plateau, a large expanse of flat alpine tundra lying above twelve thousand feet in elevation. There would be no place to escape from a lightening storm so the plan I formulated simply directed me to cross the flatland expanse prior to the formation of the thunderheads.
Therefore, I fixed a quick and tidy backpacker’s breakfast of two packets of instant oatmeal with a serving of raisins as well as a single cup of micro-ground coffee. I wandered over to the lake that I had slept near to watch the morning light develop in the sky above. The sun struck the far shore and cliff of the mesa above, lighting up the edifice with an orange glow that is the specialty of the crepuscular hours. My gear I soon packed and made myself and my trusty German shepherds ready for the day’s adventure. Off we went! That first step always both thrilling and daunting. I crossed the outlet of the lake where nascent West Fork of Powderhorn Creek emerges and strode across a large meadow before beginning the ascent to Calf Creek Plateau. Draco and Leah scurried about investigating the small rodents that inhabit the beetle-damaged forest in this area.
Seemingly there existed in the past an old trail between the Powderhorn Lakes and Devil’s Lake as a number of old cairns remain on the plateau between the two. It would be relatively easy to climb up to the plateau from Powderhorn Lakes on the gentle slope but an old trail appears to have been cut into the earth. Still, the route is obscure and after making the climb to the top of Calf Creek Plateau I kept a map in hand in order to guide my direction.
With each step that I climbed the world around me became more discernible, topographically speaking. To the north I could see the West Elk Mountains as a faint serrated edge that formed that horizon. The Sawatch Range was visible, barely, and I could thus see nearly a hundred miles of Continental Divide since much of the northern San Juan Mountains rose up nearby. The shepherds cared not one wit for any of this but instead made merry on the various snow patches that lingered in the alpine tundra. Frolicking and writhing upside down, they both actively engaged the land in their own way while I pondered the magnificence of the scene. Snow clad vastness of early Summer, an admixture of verdure indicating lush flora, the aforementioned snowy whiteness, the cerulean firmament and cloudy grays the sum of which brought joy to my being.
Calf Creek Plateau is a vast featureless expanse of flat land. However, the true feature is that vastness that can at times create an illusion that the hiker is out on the Great Plains or otherwise in some grassy area at a much lower elevation. The snowy peaks of the various mountains remind me of my immediate proximity to the mountains, yet they don’t tower over the plateau and I feel separate from the eminences. Two miles of hiking lead me to the opposite rim of the great plateau and I look down into Devil’s Lake. That this abandoned and seldom used trail network was officially sanctioned at some point is proven when I find an old sign that states the mileage to the two lakes. This sign is a relic from the Bureau of Land Management, the Federal land stewardship agency that manages a significant portion of the Powderhorn Wilderness that I am now traversing.
My plan to leave early so as to avoid any thunderstorms bears fruit as I note the clouds building up over the mountains as is their wont during this time of year. I have about two hours of hiking to get to a reasonably sheltered location and I am gratified to note that these clouds won’t converge into congregations large enough for stormy activity until after I have passed. So, I have some time to stop and enjoy the vast scenery. It is grand. The snow clad peaks stand out against the green forests and blue sky and I can be truly thankful for having this moment. I lean on my hiking staff and draw in a deep breath, all admiration. I study the map and then the landscape and note my intended direction of travel. It would be easy to get sucked into the wrong drainage for my descent from the plateau and I want to make sure that I am headed for the proper place. It isn’t obvious where I am to go and I use great care in choosing my route and noting any change in topography that indicates a change of watershed.
Some maps show this route as having a designated trail but if it exists then I am no wiser as to its existence since my hike was effectively across country. I did know by previous use that a trail leading to Devil’s Lake was fairly well marked by cairns and when they appeared in view I could orient myself accordingly. Reaching the junction of the Calf Creek Plateau and North Calf Creek Trails I find an old sign, well worn and barely readable yet still able to guide me in the correct direction. I have now crossed over into National Forest, and the note that the Gunnison National Forest jointly manages the wilderness for the public’s benefit. I follow the latter trail and descend slowly from the plateau and the concomitant alpine tundra and down into the sub-alpine forest of various conifer. The trail is not well marked through the forest but I manage to find my way as the dogs are again amused by the antics of the squirrels. I am fairly certain that my direction and location correspond to where I believe I am on the map but maintain a working reference to my supposed position. I walk along slowly, enjoying the contrast of the shady forest after the glaring sun of the tundra, and keep a lookout for trail sign.
A walk of a couple of miles brings me to Powderhorn Park. Three trails meet here and I choose the one that will lead me to the East Fork of Powderhorn Creek. This trail carries the apt moniker of East Fork Trail and passes through Powderhorn Park on its long axis that runs from the south to the north. I hike along, now and then peering over my shoulder to study the gathering clouds. To my right is Fish Canyon Ridge, which from this vantage appears to be a low rise of forest clad heights above the park. The park drains to the south into Wood Gulch so as I hike along I am staring north to the divide between that watershed and the East Fork of Powderhorn Creek where lies Robber’s Roost, a basin of sorts.
I cross the low pass and note the igneous rock that is an indicator of this plateau country and the violent volcanic activity that produced the nearby San Juan Mountains. At an elevation of nearly ten thousand and eight hundred feet there is just a bit of snow lingering on the northern face of the pass. All of the drainages have a ample amount of runoff, however, and I step gingerly across the East Fork of Powderhorn Creek. I am now entering a montane forest of lodgepole pine but also clumps of aspen. With their leaves fluttering in any breeze they have thus been conferred with the sobriquet of quakies. The land near the creek is still a wet swamp but there are numerous wildflowers growing to remind myself of the gorgeous early Summer situation that I am in. The green here at this elevation is stupendous. The high alpine plateau still bore a bit of yellow and is a week or two away from greening up, but here all is verdant.
Originally, I had wanted to camp up in Powderhorn Park but due to the heavy thunderstorm activity I decided to take the dogs and I down a bit lower where there would be a bit more topographic protection. It has been a long day of hiking, although still mid-afternoon, and I am happy to have found a fine place to ease our collective burden. It is so green that I want to laugh out loud. I cross a small stream that leads up to Monument and Skull Parks and stumble onto a fine place to stay for the night. Under a canopy of vibrantly green aspen and the darker verdure of spruce and lodgepole pine I find a happy place to put up my shelter, and none too soon either.
The clouds have now gathered and I see a dark mass conglomerating on the western horizon and the distant peal of thunder is now audible. Neither of the shepherds desire to be out near thunder and they show some discomfiture whenever the booms sound off. Still, we have a bit of time to wander around and explore the nearby creek, forest and meadow. The first is thick with a plant in the Mustard Family, known formally as Brassicaceae, each replete with numerous white blooms. The entire plant grew about a foot tall and neatly delimited the path of the water. The forest was moderately dense with light downfall and some undergrowth. The meadow grew a luxuriant growth of tall grass and wildflowers. About an hour after I had established camp the clouds blew in earnestly and the shepherds and I retreated to the tent. It would not protect us from a strike but for the dogs it simulates putting blinders on a spooky horse. While the not-too-dangerous storm passed over they settled down from near panic to a deep sleep complete with dream-induced kicking and twitching.
The storm took nearly three hours to pass in its entirety. By this time we had all had a good nap and rest. The clouds began to part and sunlight streamed down from the sky. The evening I spent again meandering through the forest, meadow or creek depending on my transit. The thunder and lightening had been accompanied by a downpour that left all the vegetation soaked and fragrant. I ate supper at a slowed pace and then sat back to watch the clouds turn pink as the sun arced down behind the ridge to my west, that which I had crossed earlier in the day, and forms the central massif of the Powderhorn Wilderness.
Night descended and I could hear naught but the sounds of the wind and the various activities of some nocturnal critters. No streetlights to overwhelm the night vision and I could pick out individual stars, including Polaris by which I oriented myself. My very breath a repeated fresh draught of clean air, filtered by the forest and thus scented. I felt blessed to be out in these woods. The only white noise tonight would be the tumbling waters five hundred feet distant. Tomorrow, I had decided, I would sleep in a bit feeling no need for an early start. Tonight I would sleep contented and at peace.