Last year’s Fall Trip was a special (re)treat to a place called Trapper’s Lake, deep in the heart of Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness. Trappers Lake has been dubbed the “Cradle of Wilderness,” a designation coming from the early 1900’s when a newly formed U.S. Forest Service sent a young Landscape Architect named Arthur Carhart to survey the area for development. His stay at Trappers Lake actually had the opposite affect. Carhart was so moved by the land that in 1920 he returned to Denver with his report that ultimately led to Trappers Lake being designated an area to remain roadless and undeveloped.
A young Aldo Leopold also happened to hear that report. Leopold listened carefully, then used the idea as the basis for forming the country’s first designated Wilderness – the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. Ultimately the Wilderness Act of 1964 was born under president Lyndon B. Johnson, establishing protected status for over 9 million acres of Wilderness in the United States and providing the frame work for additional acreage to be added in the future. Since then, over 100 million acres of wild lands have been similarly set aside as Designated Wilderness. It all began here, hence, the area’s title, ‘Cradle of Wilderness.’
This idea of protecting Wilderness has been controversial. On one side you have the environmentalists believing Wilderness is required as a counterbalance to the ever increasing development of our society; a place to dream of while sitting at your desk during the work day (that’s the camp I’m in, BTW). On the other you have those who believe America’s economic well being and prowess is due – at least in part – to innovation; maximizing natural resources. Remember “Drill baby drill,” and you get the idea.
I find myself wishing that another one of the contributing factors to our enviable stature as a country – a prevailing moral sanity – is a key counterbalance never allowing certain things to happen in the first place because we’re involved in and care about the environment. Starting to feel a little preachy here so I’ll stop…
The Flat Tops Wilderness came into being in 1975, and at over 235,000 acres is the second largest designated Wilderness in Colorado. Trapper’s Lake Lodge sits on the edge of this Wilderness and operates by special permit from the Forest Service. To say it’s remote is an understatement. In 40 years living in Colorado I’ve had the privilege of traveling many of her wild and scenic areas. But this region of Colorado – smack dab in the middle of the state – with few roads penetrating truly remote wilderness – was new to me.
This being my first trip to the area – and given its remoteness – there were a lot of unknowns. And I love that. I’ve written about the thrill of seeing new land for the first time – there’s just nothing like it. Preparing well often means over preparing and I pretty much brought the house in terms of different films – partly to experiment and partly to have the right film for the scene. And – I had room in the car, so…
My cabin is the 100+ year old Keever’s Cabin. Austerity is good. Inside is an ample queen bed with soft linens, a very old and well used wood stove, table, chair and a lone, bare lightbulb dangling in the middle of the open timber ceiling. A cozy deck off the front makes a perfect perch to observe cycles of the day – something I don’t take the time to do regularly but truly enjoy when out like this.
Off the grid, a generator provides electricity camp-wide and it’s lights out at 10pm. No cell service but the phone’s GPS works great. Food and water are whatever you bring in, and when you’re tired of camp food great meals await in the lodge. Each night I stoke the fire and hit the sheets before 10, exhausted from the day.
From the deck sweeping views of high peaks to the South abound, especially dramatic in early morning and late afternoon light. The main attractions to the area are Trappers Lake, containing the largest population of Colorado River cutthroat trout in the state (and perhaps the world), and the remote Flat Tops Wilderness up the road a few short minute’s walk from closing my door.
A surprising number of people, mostly fishermen and hunters – it being the beginning of Elk season – pass through the area at various times of day. Sportsman from around the country converge. The North Fork of the White River runs down in front of the cabin and fishermen prowl the willows in search of trout. Large, muddy pickups with ATV’s and bearded men in blaze orange and camouflage slowly make their way into the lodge come evening, tired from an exhausting day on the mountain. The Flat Tops and White River National Forest contain prime elk Game Management Units and drawing a tag in there is akin to winning the hunting lottery.
I run into a hunter in the shower one morning and ask how he made out. With a big smile on his face he tells me he wasn’t able to fill his tag but had the time of his life. Visiting from Michigan and about to make the long drive home, not once did I sense disappointment.
Trapper’s Lake Lodge is a special place; you sense it when you’re there. Like it knows somehow it occupies this unique role and sits unassumingly ready to serve those willing to commit to the journey. Everyone’s friendly, helpful and usually busy going about their various chores. It’s quiet and spread out over a nice patch of land with stands of lodgepole pine separating and concealing individual cabins. Most are small and primitive and exactly what everyone’s there for. Some are a little larger and able to accommodate families or small groups.
In 2002 the Big Fish Fire, sparked by lightning, tore through the area already decimated by the pine bark beetle epidemic of 1940 and burned over 17,000 acres utterly consuming the foliage and littering the hillsides as far as the eye can see with countless toppled trees. Except for a few isolated stands of Lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir that somehow survived, the area is reminiscent of the devastation caused on Mount St. Helens from the 1980 eruption that blew every living thing flat for miles around. But Nature bats last and slowly over time, trees decay, soil is enriched and fresh vegetation returns creating a new beauty. Though the fire took its toll – it’s still the mountains; still wild. Still beautiful.
It’s time for a hike. I saddle up, grab my pack and go as light as possible. Signing in at the trailhead’s registry is important – especially when you’re alone. I’m not going far, just a few miles in, but wisdom is the better part of valor.
I’m heading above Little Trappers Lake to the Chinese Wall, a volcanic cliff on the edge of the White River Plateau unofficially beginning the area known as the Flat Tops. Not sure how far it is exactly, I have no maps, a little food, some water, and a lot of watching the sky… always watching the sky… I make my way into gorgeous, still morning sunlight.
After several hours I’m well above what used to be tree line. Giant, burnt match sticks porcupine the land, black foils against a bluebird sky. Impossible tangles of full-grown tree carcasses lay strewn about, the devastation is absolute. But color emerges and new foliage paints the otherwise dark toned landscape with bright reds and greens.
I take note of a large, dark front moving in swiftly from the west. Feeling the sun beat down on my neck and head, danger seems far off. Without warning the wind picks up and the temperature drops 20°. Soon the front is upon me. I stop, remove rain pants from my pack replacing the void with my camera. Fat, heavy drops thump nylon and now it’s raining hard. The sun has moved up hill, still shining on the Chinese Wall above me and the trail steepens. Dirt turns to mud as a small creek forms down the middle of the trail.
Looking down at Little Trappers Lake getting smaller below I pause. It’s not much further – but I’m alone, and the sky continues to darken in the West. Here for the view with nothing to prove the decision is made to return. Twenty minutes down trail the skies part, sun comes out and my rain pants go back into the pack. Such is hiking in the Flat Tops.
I stop at Little Trappers Lake to rest. Sitting on a log in the trees, the wind rushes through spruce canopies creating small white caps on the lake. I don’t want to leave, wishing to stay up here as Carhart did. Experience the seasons. I try to imagine winter; how intensely beautiful – and cold – it is. It’s mid September and not far off. Finding an elk vertebrae near a fire ring I toss it in my pack before heading down.
On a slow descent the sun returns and fast moving clouds project constantly changing light patterns onto the harshly beautiful, horribly fascinating land. I just can’t look away. Coffin Lake emerges, hidden on the way up but visible from above, through thousands of blackened match sticks. I muse at the idea of a Coffin in the Cradle and stop once more, removing my pack and sitting. For a long while… no one else around, I have the place to myself.
Wilderness isn’t just important, it’s necessary. A force ‘out there’ we don’t know; can’t control. Stuff – like pine bark beetle epidemics and forest fires – happens. But it’s all part of how the system works. The area won’t fully recover in my life time and that’s O.K. It’s a chapter in the life of the Flat Tops Wilderness with many more to be written. That’s part of the beauty of true Wilderness; it out lives you and I and Lord willing, remains wild for others to experience in whatever phase it assumes next. The key is getting out into it, and allowing it to get into you.
There are probably lessons to be learned about forest management and stewardship, especially when it comes to managing wild lands impacted by fires – and pine bark beetles; when to let something burn and when to intervene. As one might imagine it’s not a clear case of always or never and every data point provides insight into what may have been done better. The Big Fish Fire took out the main lodge at Trappers and though rebuilt, was perhaps an unnecessary loss. Still – it is what it is, and life goes on.
I’ll admit when I first saw the area, especially given its lofty moniker, I was unprepared for the devastation. It wasn’t what I’d imagined. But after several days traveling her trails and witnessing her cycles of light, you begin to let go of what was lost, making it seem all the more poetic that here in the Cradle of Wilderness, each year new beauty is being born again.