August 22, 2015
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like the autumn leaves.” John Muir
Day 3: Today I sleep late to recuperate from Day Two’s long hours on the water, the two mile hike back to the SUV, then the hour-long 4WD trek to camp. With plenty of good winks, I am ready to explore some new water, and as things start to warm up around 9 a.m., head out to the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high in the La Garita Wilderness area. It’s about an hour’s drive on Forest Service 794, a wash-boardy, circuitous gravel road that ends at the boundary of the wilderness area.
Enroute, I cross over a handful of alluring little creeks—Pauline (hardly a trickle, but I’ll fish it downstream tomorrow and have a great day—see the entry entitled “The Pleasures of Pauline.”), Perfecto (aptly named, pristine and sprinkled with good-looking beaver ponds), and Nutra (more beaver ponds). It’s a challenge not to stop and sample. I am surprised to see a sign saying I am on an old 1874 toll stage route that navigated over the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide to the gold mines in the remote San Juan Mountains miles and miles to the west. Just when I think I am quite the adventurer, I see a prompt like this that reminds me of what hearty, tough souls those trail-blazers were. It’s hard to comprehend how they built this road hundreds of miles by hand with mules and horses over this rough terrain. It was supposed to become a rail line, but was eclipsed by other equally daunting routes to the north and south.
The drive is endlessly scenic, but demanding with steep stretches, switchbacks, wet river crossings, and potholes. The only disconcerting note is the wide swaths of dead spruce that stretch across the landscape, courtesy of the pernicious spruce/pine bark beetle. These pesky little bugs bore into the spruce, leaving behind a fungus that clogs the capillaries and kills the trees. Before global warming came to the high country, the brutal winter cold killed them off. But as temperatures soared over the past decade, they have survived, secreting a natural anti-freeze that allows them to persist. The good news is that there are hundreds of head-high blue and Engleman spruce popping up to replace the dead ones. Hopefully they will survive the wildfire that is almost sure to come at some point. Clearly, it’s not nice to fool around with Mother Nature.
Stewart Peak, a near-perfect pyramid reaching to the clouds at 13,983 feet, is my guidepost in the distance, just north of towering San Luis Peak, cresting at over 14,000 feet. Although August, there is still some snow on its north-facing slopes. Finally I am at the trailhead for the wilderness area. I can either hike up around a private inholding into a vast meadow where the creek does its serpentine dance again, or down towards the top of the canyon where I fished yesterday. I decide to head down, the prospect of getting on the water more quickly the deciding factor. I hike down to a big chalk bluff that signals the end of this meadow stretch before the creek picks up steam and plunges into the dark canyon. It’s another sunny, gorgeous day, and I am on the water at 11 a.m. after a 30-minute hike into the wilderness area on the Colorado Trail.
Cochetopa Creek is smaller here as might be expected at this high altitude (almost 11,000 feet), less than ten feet across in most places. But loaded with frisky, willing trout, mostly browns and brookies. At the first S-bend
pool below the chalk bluff, I catch three brownies up to 12 inches on the trusty Royal Coachman Trude dry and caddis beadhead dropper. The water here alternates between slower pools as the water meanders and fast-moving pocket water where very short casts are called for. In either lie, the action is non-stop up to a big beaver pond that backs the stream up several hundred feet. Here I net several fat brookies, then continue back towards the SUV. I experiment with some other flies–a JC Wilcox Special parachute dry fly with a fluorescent orange post even my aging eyes can see on the water and some small midge nymph patterns–and the action continues! By 2 p.m., when I reach the fence marking the wilderness boundary and break for lunch, I have caught and released more than 30 trout, all bursting at the seams as they fatten up for winter on the prolific insect life. A few go 13 inches, but most are in the 8-10 inch category. I toy with the idea of fishing the expansive meadow I can see upstream, but opt to head back to camp, visions of Pauline Creek dancing in my head. Cochetopa Creek has given me three perfect days!!