Weminuche 96
 
Went backpacking in the Weminuche wilderness, near Durango.
For once, we didn't have to rush off on Friday night, arriving late
and exhausted. So had a leisurely drive on Saturday, getting
slightly lost more than once (turns I'd expected to be signposted
weren't, other signs were inaccurate, etc). Got to trailhead just
as a storm broke loose, sat in the van reading until the rain
moved off. Surprisingly cold up there, at 10 800 ft. We put up
chairs, tables, and a grill in the mud of the parking lot, to the
puzzlement of some hunters who happened by later. They were lost - we chose not to enlighten them since we prefer hiking without
being shot at by delusional guys in full camo.

Slept in the astonishing quietness. The one thing that broke it was
a kind of commuter run of planes, booming overhead from 6pm to 9pm. Sometimes there were 2 or 3 visible at once. Suspect that we were on the NY-LA airway, or some such. This was a feature of the
whole hike, as we started dinner each evening; roaring jets would
accompany it.

Hiked down into the valley and reached the stream where we needed to turn up and hike over the ridge into the next watershed. But.. no
trail was visible. Cast about for a while, then whipped out my
compass and decided to bushwhack across the ridge. H was
dismayed but concealed it bravely. We got stuck in the willows of
a little stream for an hour or so, then broke free into the meadows
of the high ridge. Across these, then back into the aspens: I took
a bearing on the cliffs we needed to reach, and plunged in. Several
elk, including two young of the year, were dozing in a clearing.
The wind was favourable, so we walked right up on them.
Then I cleared my throat, and they roused and galloped off. Soon
after this we found the trail, and a fine campsite just as the valley
opened up. I fished for an hour or so in Fisher Creek, running very
low this year. Caught multitudes of brook trout 8 - 12",
plus two fine big cutthroat trout, 15" and 13". Frost on the ground
the next morning.

Next day climbed up to 12000 ft at Big Goose Lake. Some horsepackers
were camped at one end of the lake, so we didn't have the place
to ourselves, but it was big enough that it wasn't a problem. Both
of us rather weary from the climb and the altitude. Just putting the
tent up, we had to stop and gasp occasionally. Fine views across
the lake and up to the Continental Divide. In the evening, sitting
in the sun was uncomfortably hot, in the shade downright cold; we
had a wandering dinner.

We didn't hike anywhere the next day, instead pottered around. I went to scramble up a 13100 ft peak on the Divide, just to have a look, and Helen went for a walk around the lake and up the ridge above it.
On the way up, I nearly stepped on an alpine ptarmigan crouched on
the trail. It chirped worriedly to itself and walked off about 3
feet. Very trusting bird. 'the ptarmigan is a friendly grouse / who
lives in the alpine with his spouse. / He's kind of cute and kind of
perky / and tastes rather like pturkey'. Also dozens of pikas, a kind
of high altitude rodent looking like a tennis ball with ears; they
make hay of the grass all through the brief summer for the long
winter. These terminally cute little creatures were scuttering
around, laying out bunches of green grass in the sun, and collecting
the dried bunches to store in their burrows. Good 360 degree views
from up top, to the San Juan, Piedra, and Goose river headwaters.
The Goose Creek is where we went the next day, a beautiful valley
filled with old growth spruce. Climbed down to spend the afternoon
sunbathing on a grassy bank by the lake. It was too high and cold
to support much life, piscine or otherwise.

At 2am that morning the moon rose. How do I know this ? because a
pack of coyotes about 100 yds off started yipping and yowling at it.
Nearly as hair-raising as hyenas, but worse, since there are no
fences between the tent and the coyotes..

Climbed over the saddle into Goose Creek the next day. Another pathless ramble across subalpine tundra, but out in the open so we could hardly get lost. Lots of elk in the upper valley - walked right up on one that was taking a nap in the long grass, it burst out from under our feet like a flushed quail, except an elk stands about 5ft at the shoulder.. Elevated heartbeats all round. Both of us tired and snappish after two days at 12000ft, headache etc, the usual symptoms of mild altitude sickness. Never used to have any problems in the Berg, but that was long ago and in another country. Camped in a small clearing near the stream, where a number of game trails came down from the high ground. I went fishing, naturally. Lots more small brook trout, most hiding in the undercuts below grassy banks. A grasshopper fly did good business. As we dined, two elk came down the game trail for a
drink, but shied off when they saw us, starting a small avalanche of
stones rumbling into camp. Never a dull moment.

Next day, an easy trot down the valley, old growth on all sides. Passed a horsepackers camp, with the usual huge fire ring, tarpaulins, lawn chairs, horse poop, etc. Not what you'd call low impact. Camped at the confluence of Fisher Creek and Goose creek early in the day, just in time to get under cover before the afternoon thundershower. H napped, I fished through it. The river was very low, about half its usual width, trickling through the bare rocks. No fish to be found for a long while. Then I caught a 16" rainbow in 3" of water, scared an 18" in the next pool up, and kept a 13" rainbow/cutthroat hybrid. Had him for dinner. After dinner, we sat in the meadow to watch sunset.
H said, 'o look at that horse, he must be lost' as a dark animal
came slowly out of the woods. Didn't walk like a horse, strange ears
for a horse.. by golly, it was a moose. He sidled off into the low
willow brush along the stream and began to dine. We tried to get
closer, but he raised his head and stared intently at us; we decided
to leave him to his supper, retreating back to camp.

The morning was the coldest of all. Some of the other mornings we'd had frost, this day it was just damp and nasty cold. First thing to do was wade across the icy stream, took several miles after that until we
could feel our feet again. An ungodly din arose from the dark canyon
ahead, buglings and howlings. I glimpsed a coyote running off, theorized that he'd been harassing a young elk, but never did find out quite what happened. Hauled ourselves up 1500ft in 1 mile and back to the van.

Hamburgers in Pagosa Springs, and a rather seedy hotel in Cortez,
before visiting Mesa Verde National Park. This contains the ruins of
the Anasazi, a cliff-dwelling tribe that built elaborate villages
below sandstone outcrops along the canyons. Up early to get tickets
for the tours of Balcony House and Long House. Some fascinating stuff in the museum - sandals made of yucca a thousand years old,
some very fine pottery. Paintings of Kokopelli, the hunchback
flute-playing god of the Southwest that has become somewhat of a
style cliche: though true to form, the real Kokopelli is drawn with a
distinct phallus, never seen on the latterday ones.
A new thing to me: corn is the only domestic food crop that has no
wild ancestors. It can't propagate itself, because the kernels are
so tightly bound to the cob, man has to intervene to re-seed it.

Had to climb ladders and crawl through tunnels to reach the ruins.
The foot holds and hand holds the Anasazi had cut for themselves to
climb the sandstone cliffs were small and smooth. Either they were
preternatural gymnasts, or they also had ropes.

In the morning, dewy-eyed deer wandering through the campsite,
trailed by a crew of wondering children. We had to pack up and drive
10 hrs home, bah. It was a close-run thing, nearly turned the van
south and headed for Mexico.