Date- September 27, 2019
Distance Traveled Today- 23 miles
Distance Traveled Total- 1,904 miles
Weather/Temp- clear, partly cloudy, storms, 50s
Pain level- zero
Wildlife encounters- moose x 2, elk x 50
Days without shower- 4
Days without laundry- 8
Day 100 began pretty normal and boring… yet ended with a side adventure worthy of a triple digit day.
My tarp flapped like a trash bag all night; there was nothing I could do about it. Although it ended up not raining, that spot was an exposed wind tunnel. At one point I woke up and could have sworn it was morning. I was uncomfortable, had a crick in my neck, and the tarp was flapping. Nonetheless, I felt rested enough and ready to go. I checked the time on my phone… 11:30 pm. Disappointing to say the least.
When morning finally arrived, my tarp was weighed down by ice and drooping on top of me. Luckily, I didn’t feel the affects of the condensation through my crappy sleeping bag or four torso layers. Even luckier, the sky was clear blue and the sun was already beginning to hit my position.
Everyone else was gone. I spent more than an hour laying everything out in the sun to dry. I looked at the forecast before leaving town; today was supposed to be the bad weather day. It didn’t seem feasible with the pleasant morning. Not a cloud in sight. Still, I know how fast the weather can change in the mountains. If I didn’t take this sunny opportunity to dry my sleeping bag and everything else right then… I might not get to later. There are few things worse than crawling into a damp or soggy sleeping bag on a cold night. I got everything dry. As a result, I wasn’t hiking until after 9 am. I didn’t care.
I moseyed along all morning, stopping a couple times to snack heavily (since I didn’t eat dinner last night). I finished a culmination of climbs that capped off around 12.6k ft before gradually dipping back towards a valley.
While first beginning this long descent, it was several miles before I would reach a tree line. When I was still a couple miles out from said trees, I approached a small high mountain lake. I was a couple hundred yards from the lake when I saw what looked like a horse. It was cantering down from a steep pass, several hundred feet above the lake. Upon closer inspection I realized it was a moose! This thing was moving with a purpose towards the small lake.
Fun and Frolic
I started recording it as we both got close to the lake. Had it not stopped to munch on some scrub bushes next to the shore, it would have beat me there. I made it to the middle shore of the lake just as the cow moose pushed through the brush and into the water. I filmed her for a couple minutes before I noticed yet another moose making a fast trot down from the pass towards the water. This one was a bull with a very small rack.
The bull entered the lake on the far shore (across from me). No sooner was he in the water, the cow became playful and began to frolic, bob her head up and down dramatically, and chase/follow the bull around. It was so incredible to witness that kind of behavior. They were very obviously friends or mates and it was cool to see them interacting in such a familiar way. I filmed them for 10 minutes before creeping away. They only noticed my presence when I was almost gone. At that moment, they stood frozen with their eyes locked on me until I was gone. I assume they resumed flirting after that.
It was a little over another mile before stopping at a cascading stream to have a proper lunch. I cooked a pasta side and ate some Pringles before Leap Frog and Sharkbait showed up about half an hour into my lunch. They joined me for the remaining 20 minutes that I was there before continuing the long descent. The moose had still been in the lake when they went by.
As I left the lunch spot around 1 pm, clouds were getting thick and heavy in the sky. It was only a matter of time. A few miles later, at the bottom of the descent (while cutting across a large windswept, and grassy valley) – plump raindrops began to fall. They lasted only 5 minutes before that particular cloud drifted away, but there was more where it came from…
I began a 2,700 ft roller-coaster climb. For the first 2,000 ft I had sun, cloud shadow, and cold wind – but no rain. As I was sitting, prior to getting ready to tackle the last 700 feet of the exposed climb, Leap Frog and Sharkbait caught up to me. There were storms all around us and we could hear the thunder.
My plan was to simply make a run for it up the climb and across 5 miles of exposed ridge-line, before descending into some trees where everyone else said they were aiming for today. Leap Frog, being a chemical engineer, had a more pragmatic approach to the situation.
He said he wasn’t going on the ridge with all the storms approaching. Instead, he had already mapped an overland bushwhacking route to another trail that would take us perpendicular to the CDT. This would lead us straight off the mountain and into a valley (instead of traversing an exposed ridge-line for 5 miles). From there, the trail in the valley ran parallel to the CDT that was up on the ridge. Both trails would eventually bisect at a low saddle/pass.
Taking this bushwhack side trail was adding more miles and elevation gain overall, but it wasn’t on an exposed ridge-line. It would get us in the cover of trees almost immediately. I agreed to go with them.
No sooner were we off the ridge-line and descending quickly over 2,000 feet towards the valley (on an endless string of switchbacks), we could hear elk bugling relentlessly. Their sounds echoed through the steep forested gulches, as well as in the valley far below.
When we touched down in the valley, it was 6:30 pm and dark clouds were washing over the mountains above. The rain arrived up there, but didn’t reach the valley yet. We estimated about 3 miles through the valley would reconnect us with the CDT at the saddle… and we hit it hard!
Herd the Thunder
The echoes of thunder and elk bugles bounced all around the valley. It was open grassland where the trail wound through. However, the slopes of the mountains on either side of us were thickly forested. Within the first mile up the valley, we spotted a herd of 30+ elk moving quickly through some trees above us, to the left. After a while, they cut from the forest and ran as a tight group halfway across the open valley in front of us. They did this before turning back the way they came and melting back into the trees.
The herd continued to move up the valley ahead, parallel to us. They kept close to the trees while bugling nonstop. Looking way ahead, you could see more elk. There were mostly single ones moving this way and that, in and out of the tree-lines, and across the sloping grasslands. This place was absolutely crawling with elk! Where were the hunters? There were no roads anywhere near this valley; nobody in their right mind is packing out an elk on foot while doing the miles required to get here. Maybe somebody would – possibly me… A horse or mule would be ideal.
Culminating Day 100
The rain began to move into the valley when we were a little over a mile from the CDT. We bailed into the treeline, set up our shelters, and hunkered down.
Despite being in a valley, this thick grove of evergreens is insulating fairly well. I’m under my tarp next to a rotted blow-down. I’m comfortable, but if you could see the way I’m set up – you’d probably cringe, or worse. I just don’t have comfort standards anymore. I’ve already caught a fat spider crawling onto my face, but that comes with the territory. I’ll be asleep for any others; thus… it doesn’t matter.
I can see lightning flashing through my tarp. Thunder is rolling loudly as an innumerable amount of elk complete the symphony with their myriad of assorted cries. They quite literally have us surrounded. Some of the calls are coming from pretty far out, while others are so close I could probably see them if I looked out from my tarp. This is utterly surreal! I’ve never experienced this volume of elk and inclement weather activity at once. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to day 100.
I’m about 44 miles from the highway that signifies the completion of the San Juans. Part of me wants to knock it all out tomorrow, regardless of how long it takes me. I’ve decided… if it’s a nice morning – I’ll go for it! If the weather gets nasty… I’ll play it by ear.
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