(Hope you enjoy the video slideshow at the end of the post.)
2022 started off with big snow in Denver which meant fun sledding and building a snowman with my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly and son Matthew. It was a great relief to have Covid in the rearview mirror, having somehow done some fancy footwork to avoid it as did Aly and Grandma. Sons Matthew and Ben weren’t so lucky, but they seem to have recovered okay.
A week later I started my annual migration to the Sunshine State, taking the southern route through Texas and Louisiana. One of my stops along the way was one of my favorite towns, New Iberia, and the Tabasco Factory on Avery Island where I sampled new flavors of Tabasco Sauce—buffalo and habanero– and gobbled down a new delectable, hot and spicy Tabasco-flavored Spam! Surviving that, I arrived in Florida a few days later just in time to be greeted by a tropical storm deluge, which would be a harbinger of things to come. I settled in quickly and was soon out on the water in my kayak doing some long-overdue piscatorial research. Results of these studies can be found on my blog at hooknfly.com.
It wasn’t long before I was jumping on a plane back to Denver for Aly’s 6th birthday on Valentine’s Day. What a celebration it was with her kindergarten buddies at a local indoor playground! In March I did a speech via Zoom at the annual Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute based in Denver that looked at the legal aspects of sustainable development. I followed that up with some less sober-sided Zoom presentations on fishing to angling clubs in Colorado and Florida.
The highlight of March was a visit to Florida by Aly, Daddy Matthew, and Grandma Jan. We were in the water every day, and Aly learned to swim submerged across the pool while holding her breath. She’s a little water bug. We had a fun day beachcombing for shells on a remote island in the Gulf and chasing fiddler crabs in the sand near my condo at night. Aly got to “drive” my little motorboat one day up a local tidal creek near Everglades City while sitting on my lap, and on another Matthew and I took a father-son fishing trip that ended up being grist for an article in Florida Sportsman magazine. Spring wouldn’t be complete in Florida without visits from good friends who needed to thaw out like Steve Keeble, Charlie Cain, Jim Cannon, and my college roomie Morris Martin. We had a blast catching snook and sea trout and even tangled with a few sharks and a gator! Proving an old dog can learn new tricks, I tried my hand at fishing for gar, an antediluvian creature that has been around since the time of dinosaurs. It was a riot trying to catch the truculent devils, but I succeeded as memorialized later in the year in another article in Florida Sportsman.
When the saltwater mosquitos and no-see-ums started to feast on my septuagenarian body in May, I knew it was time to head back to Colorado. I got back just in time to attend Aly’s kindergarten graduation and field day. What fun. Those kids have a lot of energy!! The summer weather in the Rockies was spectacular, with a lot of hiking, exploring, and fishing on the agenda. A highlight was a trip with my Florida fishing buddy Robert Wayne, Esq. into the rugged high country of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to fish for rare, native Rio Grande Cutthroat trout.
Luckily my mountain cabin retreat is only a few hours’ drive from Denver so I got to have a lot of good family time there. One weekend, thanks to Matthew, we took an insider’s tour of the Colorado Rockies ballpark, Coors Field, led by one of his co-workers. Of course, lots more swimming was in order, and Aly was soon snorkeling like a pro. On other days we chased crawdaddies in the South Platte River. She also persuaded me to visit a shopping mall for the first time in years, where she led me on an outing that included Claire’s (a girls’ jewelry store), the Legos shop, and her favorite candy store, Lolli and Pops.
The other big news was Aly got a new kitty, her first pet, that she named Figaro after the cat in Pinocchio. He’s a sweet big young cat that she adores. Before long she lost that first tooth! Later it was great to see my son Ben and his wife Sara who visited us in Denver. Ben continues to work in law enforcement in Las Vegas, while Sara builds her successful marriage and family counseling practice there.
Starting in July, I hosted a cavalcade of guests at my cabin. It was great to see my cousins the Schroeders who I grew up with back in Kansas—Roy, Judy, and Gib. Gib is the last farmer in the Duerksen/Schroeder clan. Next came fishing buddies from back east, Steve Spanger and Paul Hughes, who had audacity to outfish me. I took them to chase trout on some hidden waters in nearby South Park that I had written about in an article that was the lead feature in the summer issue of American Fly Fishing.
The big event in early August was Aly starting first grade at Wildcat Mountain Elementary near her house. She loves school. Math and art are her favorite subjects, and she’s quite a little gymnast already!
Later in August Mother Nature reminded me who is boss with an epic flood. My valley outside Salida sustained an 8-inch deluge in a few hours that took Little Cochetopa Creek from a couple of feet deep to over six feet by morning (The area usually gets about 12-16 inches of precipitation a year!). Local roads were washed out, and several neighbors had their driveway culverts blown away. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and my road and culverts survived, but only just barely. I got lots of exercise along with my neighbor Charlie Cain the next few days clearing out trees and other debris that had been washed about every which way. According to the U.S. Forest Service, there was no historic record of any flood being anywhere near as devastating as this one.
Aly started first grade in August, and then things settled down by Labor Day and fall kicked off with a visit from Aly and family. She played her usual role as head marshmallow roaster every night. My neighbors, Charlie and Courtney Cain bought a beautiful ranch nearby, and we had a lively afternoon feeding their llamas, horses, and barnyard cats then fishing the beautiful pristine trout stream that runs through their spread.
Later in September I traveled with my college buddy Morris to Kansas City for a fraternity reunion. We had a blast of a weekend reminiscing with old friends and spending time with Joe Aleshire and Lance Miller, our roommates back in the day. While there, Lance and I took a side trip to the nearby Truman Presidential Museum which I can highly recommend.
I got back to my cabin just in time to witness on TV the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian in southwest Florida. Luckily my condo survived the five-foot flood surge that swept over the Everglades City area, although my boat had some damage. Aly got me going again over Halloween. It was a hoot. She lobbied me to wear a costume for the first time in many years. I went trick or treating with her as a Zombie fisherman.
A week later I was on the road back to Florida, just barely dodging a couple of snowstorms in the high country. On the way I stopped to see some high school friends in my hometown of Buhler, Kansas, and visited my Dad’s old renovated 1934 wheat truck at the Mennonite Farm Museum in Goessel. I got to do some fishing in the mountains of Georgia and then stopped in to see another college roommate in Daytona Beach, Joe Perez and his lovely lady, Eleanor.
I’m closing out 2022 enjoying the warmth and easy living in the Everglades. It was 30 days straight wearing sandals, short-sleeved shirts, and shorts before a brutal cold front just dipped the nighttime temperatures into the 60s! As the old saying goes, down here we salt margaritas, not sidewalks! I’m looking forward to Christmas with Aly in Denver, steeling myself for the minus 3 degrees predicted for my arrival this week!
My best to you and yours for the holidays and a wonderful 2023!!
Welcome to trekking through what the Miami Herald newspaper has called Florida’s best kept outdoor secret. Even on holiday weekends the preserve is rarely crowded, especially its trails. From its rare orchids to its extraordinary animals and unique landscape, the preserve is a special place. This series describing hikes in the preserve covers four of the main trails—the West Main, East Main, East Prairie, and South Tram that can be seen on the park map in the Overview section below.
The Fakahatchee Strand, located in southwest Florida next to Everglades National Park, is a gentle wilderness, but it must be explored with care and caution. It is a place for ambling and observing, not rock’n rolling, rushing to set speed records. Hidden treasures and beauty abound. I hope you’ll enjoy these hikes, taking care to leave nothing behind but memories. And please consider joining me as a member of the Friends of the Fakahatchee, a wonderful non-profit organization that plays an essential role in protecting and interpreting the preserve. (Their website can be found at https://orchidswamp.org)
West Main Trail Overview
Location: The turnout for the West Main trail is located about 4.3 miles northwest of the park entrance and headquarters on Janes Scenic Drive.
Difficulty/Length: The trail, which follows a narrow two-track old logging road, is easy hiking and mostly flat with very little elevation gain from start to finish.
It is approximately 2.1 miles long from the gate to the prairie to the west. It takes about 2.5 hours to hike through the Strand Swamp to the marl prairie and back but can easily take longer for the observant hiker.
History/Highlights: This trail follows an old tram road that was cleared when the cypress in the area was logged in the 1940s-1960s.
Lush marsh vegetation featuring giant sword ferns, bald cypress, and beautiful wildflowers is the main attraction along with possible sighting of alligators, deer, bear, and numerous species of birds such as egrets and herons. Lucky hikers may see the endangered Everglades Mink and Florida Panther. Generally, the animals like the alligators are not aggressive, but should be respected and kept at a distance.
Essential gear: Any time of year, but particularly from June through November, the trail can be muddy in spots and the vegetation covering the two-track trail dripping wet. These conditions call for long pants and long-sleeved shirts made of a fabric like nylon that will dry quickly as well as waterproof hiking boots. I like my shirt or pants to have big pockets so I can grab my cell phone camera quickly. During the winter dry months shorts may be okay, but the vegetation on the trail can be knee high in places and scratchy, especially for smaller children. Don’t forget the bug repellant—the mosquitos and no-see-ums can be fierce, although less bothersome during the dry winter season, December through March. I always carry a hiking staff as well as plenty of water.
Tips: A good place to stop and soak in the scenery and environment is one of the many culverts that allows the Strand’s water to flow under the trail and continue its way to the Ten Thousand Islands in the Gulf. Let your eyes adjust to the dappled lighting of the swamp. Slowly scan the forest and vegetation and you’ll be rewarded with views of flora and fauna you will miss if you hurry by.
Some caveats. Before hitting the trail, make sure you tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back in cell phone range. Cell phone coverage in the park is spotty. I also carry a Garmin inReach emergency satellite phone as a backup. Keep an eye peeled for alligators that frequent the deeper water around the culverts, and don’t be tempted to go wading through the shallow swamp or sloughs that parallel and cross the trail without an experienced guide (Swamp tours are offered by Friends of the Fakahatchee). You may soon find yourself waist deep in water and muck or coming face-to-face with a big alligator! There is a good rest spot with a picnic table about 1.25 miles into the hike near a couple of private cabins (that are on private inholdings in the preserve). This is a good point for a turnaround if you are with younger children. The rest of the trail is less traveled and more overgrown. Keep an eye out for vines hanging over the trail—some have nasty thorns.
A Brief History And Overview Of The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
At over 70,000 acres, the park is the state’s largest although it hosts only about 100,000 visitors a year, far less than others like much smaller Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys which sees over 700,000 annually. It is 20 miles long north to south and about 10 miles at its widest east to west. However, the actual Fakahatchee Strand, the park’s namesake marshy central core where freshwater flows towards the Gulf of Mexico, is about 20 miles long by five miles wide.
The preserve’s relative obscurity is due in large part to the fact that the park does comparatively little outreach to attract visitors, its primary mission being to protect the rare environment and its fauna and flora. Nowhere will you find a visitors center even though this is the largest state park, although one is in the works The park is world famous for orchids and rare vegetation like bromeliads and tropical epiphytes—plants that grow on other plants for support, but are not parasitic, getting water and food from the air.
The park also is home to endangered species like the Florida Panther and Everglades Mink as well as a host of other critters ranging from scads of wading birds, ospreys, and hawks to diamondback terrapins, bobcats, river otter, bear, manatees, alligators, and crocodiles. A skeleton staff of five work hard to protect the park.
They are assisted by a remarkable group of volunteers called Friends of the Fakahatchee. The organization is currently collaborating with the park to fund and build an interpretive pavilion on the Tamiami Trail at the Big Cypress Bend and open a visitors center near the park headquarters. In addition to an interpretive display, the pavilion will feature a rain shelter, restrooms, and connections to a rebuilt boardwalk out into the preserve.
The history of the park is fascinating, both troubling and promising. It was one of the last pieces that was put together to protect the Everglades, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ River of Grass. Everglades National Park was created in 1947, but not until 1974 was land purchased for the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. The property was acquired in response to development pressures and sprawl in Collier County, which rarely turned down any project. Grandiose development plans associated with Golden Gate Estates in Naples and Port of the Islands envisioned residential projects that would house thousands of people with homes on canals carved into the west side of the Everglades. As the early phases of these developments proceeded, the devastating impacts on the Everglades became all too clear. The residential canals sucked water out of the Everglades into the Prairie and Faka Union Canals, lowering groundwater levels up to eight feet in some areas, stealing life-giving water from native plants. Looking at an aerial view of the area today on Google Maps, the leftover scars are plainly visible. The park purchase in 1974 help stem the assault on Everglades from the west, but much work remains to be done. Today the west end of the state park and those leftover scars are part of a multibillion-dollar, multi-agency effort with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District to plug the Prairie Canal and restore natural water flows through the western Everglades to the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Area and Gulf.
Despite the importance of the park in protecting the Everglades, it existed in relative obscurity until a best-selling publication, The Orchid Thief, was published in 1998. The book has been called a tale of beauty and obsession, a true story of a fanatic orchid poacher in the preserve named Larouche and his Seminole assistants. The book was later turned into a highly rated popular movie, Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep. It was the plethora of orchids, over 40 and many rare, and the amazing variety of bromeliads and air plants that led the Fakahatchee Stand to be dubbed the Amazon of North America. Even today the park staff must keep a sharp eye out for orchid poachers, assisted by remote video cameras hidden in key locations.
Fortunately, the park has recovered nicely from being heavily logged from 1944 into the 1950s for pine and cypress. Cypress wood is highly water resistant and was in demand during World War II for making aircraft carrier decks and PT boats among other vessels. Today it is used for more peaceful products like decking and coffins. The tiny communities of Copeland and Jerome within the park are reminders of those days, having served as home to loggers in that era.
As the timber harvesting slowed in the 1950s, several freshwater lakes were created in the 1950s and 60s when limestone rocks and gravel were gouged out for Alligator Alley and other highways. The canals in the park to the south along the Tamiami Trail were carved out much earlier in the 1920s with big steam-powered dredges to provide fill upon which to build the highway linking the east and west coasts of Florida, a daunting task. Back then the highway was called the Eighth Wonder of the World. The fact that the Fakahatchee Strand recuperated into a reasonably functioning ecosystem after all this is poking and prodding is a testament to nature’s resilience. Now the question many ask is if the park can survive global warming and sea-level rise as well as the invasion of non-native plants and wildlife like Brazilian pepper and Burmese pythons.
I’m at the park gate on Janes Scenic Drive a few minutes before 8 a.m. when it opens. I deposit my three-dollar entrance fee in the pay box located at the nearby kiosk and dutifully hang the little blue pass from my review mirror.
Anxious to get going and beat anyone else to the trail, I pop my SUV into gear and start down the gravel road. But out of the corner of my eye, something catches my attention. There’s a beehive of activity just off the main road. I make a quick turn to the left towards the lakes and realize I’ve stumbled on what appears to be a meeting of some fellow attorneys (I’m a retired lawyer.) But as I get closer, I recognize that it’s not a bar association meeting, but actually a congregation of some giant red-headed and black vultures warming in the early morning sun before heading out for breakfast.
We exchange pleasantries, and I resume my trek up the road.
The Janes Scenic Drive route to the West Main trail starts out through a broad prairie, something you might not expect to see in the Everglades. But this time of year, it’s a wet prairie, very popular with wading birds like the majestic great egrets, colorful roseate spoonbills, herons, and ibis.
Soon the road curves to the west and is enveloped by sabal (cabbage) palms and bald cypress trees. This looks more like a swamp I think. The speed limit is only 10 mph, so I force myself to slow down and take in the scenery.
I see a sign for a mink crossing that puts a smile on my face—reminding me I’m in the habitat of the endangered Everglades Mink. Then incredibly just a minute later I see a tiny foot-long mink scurry across the road! This is going to be a good day!
I drive slowly, hopping out of the car here and there at culverts that allow the water to flow south through the strand. The water is fresh and tea-stained but clear. I see lots of small fish darting hither and yon, then come to one where the flow deepens to several feet. Here I spy some bigger finny critters—Mayan Cichlids, invaders from South America, that resemble bluegill and some two-foot long, toothy gar, antediluvian creatures that have been around since the dinosaurs. Maybe next time I’ll throw fishing rod in with my hiking gear.
By 8:30 a.m. I am at the turnout for the trail, park the SUV, and walk over to take a look at the array of informational exhibits.
It’s a late fall day, unseasonably hot and humid. My eyelids are actually sweating as the temperature creeps into the 80s. The trail will have some muddy stretches courtesy of Hurricane Ian and Tropical Storm Nicole. I’m lathered up with a non-Deet bug repellant, but oddly, despite the surfeit of water, the mosquitos won’t be bad today. A light breeze helps matters.
I slide around the big gate and start down the trail. Having spent the summer in the mountains of Colorado, I’m immediately struck by how flat the path is and closed in by vegetation of all sorts.
It’s not unusual for a trek into the mountains or a canyon there to involve an elevation gain of a thousand feet or more. Here I’m only a few feet below the prairies that flank the slough where the water accumulates and flows to the Gulf. And in contrast to the wide-open vistas in the Rockies, here the scene is much more cloistered, more subtle, with the environment closing in.
The dominant feature is the vegetation which can vary greatly within a few feet. Giant sword ferns line the trail with a verdant green in many stretches, and the most prominent trees are the ubiquitous sabal/cabbage palm and bald cypress.
Being follicley challenged myself, I feel a particular affinity with the bald cypress, a relative of the redwoods. Although they are conifers, bald cypress are not evergreen. They lose leaves (and become bald) in the autumn and in southern Florida grow new ones in the winter. They also have odd looking bulges that are called “knees” at their base in the water. Some experts think they help the roots breathe while others feel they are for support in the marshy wet muck.
I can hear birds in the bush, but they are hard to see. A catbird is mewing at me, and I answer him with my patented cat-like call that immediately elicits a response. I can hear an osprey screeching on high nearby. Here and there I will get quick glimpses of egrets, ibis, and herons as they flap away to hide in the forest. Tiny warblers flit quickly for cover. Suddently a red-shouldered hawk swoopes in for a look at this visitor.
I keep a sharp eye out for wildflowers and am soon rewarded with a close-up view of a lovely lavender pickerelweed tucked away in a corner. Soon a dainty Florida swamp-lily reveals itself. A little further down the trail I spy a bushy plant with red berries that my go-to plant app PictureThis identifies as St. John’s wild coffee. My old hippie friends probably know it better by its scientific name, Psychotria Nervosa! Wink, wink, say no more!!
Then I come to what looks to be a grove of oranges. And it is–Seville or bitter oranges. Reportedly Seville oranges were brought to Florida in the 1700s by the first Spanish to land in St. Augustine. By 1800 they had become widely planted by early settlers and local Native Americans and have now spread throughout southern Florida.
Today, they are primarily grown commercially for rootstock for grafting budwood for sweet oranges. Believe me, they are bitter, but can be used for making marmalade or certain liqueurs or as a substitute for lemons in cooking. Just don’t pick any in the park!
As I meander up the trail, I notice little critters–frogs and lizards–scurrying for cover. Despite putting some of my speedy basketballer moves on them, they elude my grasp and then disappear into the undergrowth. I keep at it and manage to corner a cat-like quick caterpillar of the Tetrio sphinx moth clan. He’s a striking specimen and will eventually morph into a giant hawk moth with a wingspan of 5-6 inches!
A few hundred feet further down the trail I come to a big culvert and sidle up close to the waters edge for a look, and have a holy **** moment. A six-foot gator lies submerged only a few feet away, his eyes fixed on me. I quickly shift into reverse. Fortunately the gator probably figured there wasn’t enough meat on my ancient scrawny frame to bother. I rarely find alligators in the park to be aggressive, even when I am kayaking near them on one of the preserve’s creeks or lakes, but it’s a reminder to be cautious.
I take a few minutes to admire this stunning, positively prehistoric-looking creature. He doesn’t move a muscle. Finally, I take a deep breath and continue on, soon coming to a fork in the tram road. I stay to the right to remain on the West Main trail. The left fork takes you down the South Tram Trail.
After about an hour of ambling at a slow pace from the trailhead, I arrive at a wide spot in the path with a picnic table. I have walked about a mile and a quarter. This is a good place to rest, have a drink and a snack.
The views down the cypress forest and marsh are stunning. Nearby across the water to the north, two rustic cabins stand on private inholdings within the park. You can photograph one of the cabins from the trail, but please obey the no-trespassing signs.
After recharging my batteries with some Gatorade and a trail bar, I continue hiking to the west. The trail becomes more overgrown, clearly getting less traffic than the first leg of the trek. In a few minutes I come to one of the biggest culverts on the trail with water gurgling through it on its journey south. The sun breaks through and lights things up, letting me peer deeper into the forest.
After snapping a few more photos, I pick up the pace, anxious to see the vast open prairie not far ahead that I explored several years ago. I remember feeling that I had wandered into Kansas, my boyhood home, with the beautiful expanse of prairie grasses and wildflowers buzzing with big colorful grasshoppers.
But it’s not to be this trip. As I see things get brighter just up ahead as the forest thins, I can make out an image in the trail—it’s a big pool of water reflecting the surrounding cypress where the road should be.
Darn! Too much water this year still coming down from the north. I should have brought my kayak wading boots, but don’t feel like getting my tootsies wet today.
I have come about 2.25 miles from the trailhead, it’s pushing 10:30 a.m., and getting hot, so with a good hour hike back to my vehicle, I decide to turnaround now so I’ll have plenty of time to see things that I missed. It’s always interesting what a different perspective tracing your steps back on a trail will bring, often leaving me wondering how it was possible I missed something obvious, passing it by on the way in. This time it is a bright red wildflower called Firebrush, then a brilliant yellow Creeping-Oxeye, followed by the colorfully named Bull-Tongue Arrowhead.
I stop to investigate all the white splotches on trees along the path and discover its a gnarly looking tree fungus called Arthoniaceae that form lichen communities with algae or bacteria. Nearby I spy another striking member of the fungi family call Polyporaceae. My plant ID app says it contains a neurotoxin and not to eat it! As if I was just drooling to do so!
But the highlight ot the trek back is some cute baby gators that catch my attention when they start squeaking as I walk over a culvert. I take a video of them I know my granddaughter Aly back in Colorado will get a kick out of.
Just over an hour later I’m at my SUV, proud that my aging septuagenarian body was able to pull through without any major aches and pains and only a few minor lacerations. Now I’ll enjoy a quiet drive home. After shedding my pack and boots, I decide to head north on Janes Scenic Drive to check out the East Main trailhead and maybe see a Florida panther on the road as I did a few years ago. Instead, as I am craning my neck looking at some air plants in the forest, I nearly run over a giant gator lounging in the sun on the edge of the road.
I get out of the car and chastise him severely for not using the designated gator crosswalk, but he seems to ignore my warning. I decide not to pursue the matter any further.
Soon I come to a deadend that marks the start of the long East Main trail. I take a few photos, noting that the road that formerly went all the way to the Picayune Forest five miles away now has been blocked off as a specially protected wildlife area. Good to know there is another quiet, remote trail to explore.
I turn around and head back south to the park entrance, keeping my eyes peeled for the frisky Everglades Mink I saw earlier in the day, but I don’t rate a return performance by the little guy. Soon the forest and swamp turn to prairie. I see bushes along the road loaded with some pretty small yellow flowers–Peruvian Primrose-Willow and many more delicate marsh-lilies.
And another mile down the drive, I am treated to an avian sideshow—a huge vortex of white birds spins out of the sky and descends into the tall grass along the road. It’s a mixed flock of egrets and ibis with a couple of roseate spoonbills added for good measure. I pull over quickly, and as they land, I can see they are feeding on something in the standing water around the prairie grass, their heads bobbing up and down as they chase down their prey. Then as another car drives by slowly, they erupt into the air, putting on a great show before swooping back in for more victuals.
So ends another fascinating day in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Can’t wait to get back and explore that prairie!
Pleased to see my article on Gar fishing highlighted in the October issue of Florida Sportsman! I’m on a mission to get more anglers fishin’ for this antediluvian finned creature. I think you’ll get a chuckle or two out of this piece. Click on the links below to download and read the full article.
It’s the last day of my annual fall fishing fling in southern Colorado, and I’m on the road early at 7:30 a.m. from the Woods and River RV Park in Del Norte where I have been staying for the past week in my mobile fishing camp.
My aim is to explore Torsido and La Jara Creeks above La Jara Reservoir. I have had some terrific days fishing La Jara Creek below the dam, but this is my first venture above in the expansive treeless meadow. My research tells me both tiny creeks offer some fun fishing for small, colorful brookies and maybe even some cutthroats.
It’s about a two-hour drive from Del Norte to the lake, the last 20-mile stretch on a scenic but bumpy gravel road (Fdr240/259) that clearly hasn’t seen a grader blade since the end of our long monsoon season. The aspen on this route are at their best, so I just slow down and enjoy the brilliant display.
As I crest the hill, La Jara Reservoir greets me with a mirror-smooth surface reflecting the surrounding trees and foothills.
I continue north on the gravel road that flanks the lake and then above where I reconnoiter for the best jumping off point. The wide meadow hides any sight of either stream until I’m a mile or so above the lake where I catch a glance of La Jara Creek as it twists and turns, just a stone’s throw from the road. But I’m puzzled as I can’t see Torsido Creek anywhere, and up another mile La Jara Creek fizzles out completely at a big bend in the road. So I turn around and drive back down towards the reservoir, and finally decide about a mile above the lake to go exploring in the meadow, parking by the side of the road not far from a long hillock a couple of hundred yards to the east. My hunch is that Torsido flows in La Jara Creek somewhere on the other side of that hill out in the meadow. But it’s hard to gauge from the maps I have as the reservoir is low, exposing a lot of ground that’s usually underwater.
I suit up in my lightweight chest waders and carry my 4# wand rigged with a #18 Royal Trude to imitate the little hoppers that are still flitting about teamed with a #18 sparkle caddis larva dropper. I head south and, in a few minutes, cross La Jara Creek.
This is going to be challenging I think upon spying the tiny dimensions of the stream flanked by tall grass that will make casting challenging. Not only that, the shoreline in most places appears to have been the scene of a cow dance party, stomped into mush by the big bovine I can see in the distance. Did I mention the long in-stream strands of vegetation that promise to snag any fly beneath the surface? The good news is that the flow is strong and water cold, plus it’s a beautiful sunny day. Perfect for an easy ramble in the meadow.
I soon come to a lovely stand of grass with feathery purple spikes swaying gently in the light wind. I check with my favorite phone app, Picture This, and learn it’s called wild or foxtail barley.
The app notes that it is an easy plant to grow, suited perfectly for brown thumbs! As I admire the scene, something white catches my eye in the distance. I focus and see that it’s a big herd of pronghorn antelope lolling around at the upper end of the meadow. Then something spooks them, and they take off running lickety split.
Later I will cross paths with a big coyote which may explain their flight. It’s always a good sign to see some antelope when exploring a new water—usually means there aren’t many people around.
I continue south, aiming towards a big jumble of rocks surrounded by grazing cattle in the middle of the meadow not far from the lake. I hope to get up higher for a better view and maybe see Torsido Creek.
I use my farm boy mooing talent to scatter the dumbfounded bovine, except for the big bull who just glares at me. I hustle past him and scale the big rocks, a safe haven. They look strangely out of place in the serene meadow, seemingly plunked down randomly. I scan 360 degrees but the errant creek is nowhere to be seen. I think maybe it’s hidden in one of those ravines, hidden among the aspen, so I continue the trek.
To reach the foothills, I end up sloshing through some mucky marshland, then have to navigate a barbed wire fence. On reaching dry ground, I head east to check out one ravine, but only find a trickle there. Perplexed, I reverse course and check out another gulch.
Same story, including another stout barbed wire fence to surmount. Then as I crest another hill, a big coyote with a raggedy coat flashes by me, only 20 feet away. No wonder those pronghorns were skittish.
With no Torsido in sight, I decide to circle back to towards the road, have lunch that I stowed by La Jara Creek on the way in, and focus on fishing that water. It’s almost 12:30 p.m. when I reach the hillock close to La Jara Creek, having completed a fruitless three-mile circuit around the meadow. Thankfully, my magic RC Cola elixir banishes the depression and desperation that were starting to grab hold of me.
By 1 p.m. I’m ready to go again. I approach the stream cautiously and immediately spy a trout rising casually upstream. Casting is tricky if I stay too far back or kneel, courtesy of the tall grass and reeds along the shoreline. But if I get too close, I risk spooking the fish as well as having to deal with the mushy soup the cattle stomping has created. Against all odds, I throw a decent cast, and the fish inhales the dry without any hesitation. To my surprise, it’s a small tiger trout, a sterile hybrid of a male brook and a female brown trout that have been stocked in the lake.
They must be moving up the creeks in search of food, maybe snacking on the brook trout reputed to be here. Some anglers turn their noses up at tigers, but I am not complaining after wandering in the proverbial wilderness all morning.
I continue upstream and get several more small tigers, miss a good one in a big bend pool, then spook several more. The going is tough trying to work standing back from the shoreline so I defy conventional wisdom and start wading right up the middle of the creek that fortunately has a fairly firm bottom. I also dispense with the nymph which hasn’t produced anything except a lot of slimy moss to clean off after most casts. Those two moves are the tickets. By now the sun has warmed the creek, and trout are rising steadily as I work upstream. I have a ball casting for rising tigers and start to pick up some brilliantly colored brook trout as well.
They are modest in size—ranging from 6-to 12-inches–but scrappy. Who can complain with a couple of dozen caught and released.
Then I get a wakeup call. Just below a big bend in the creek, a large blue dragonfly zooms upstream a couple of feet above the water, zigzagging this way and that. All of a sudden, a big trout rockets into the air, just barely missing snagging the insect. How it could have seen that dragonfly scooting by while underwater let alone react quickly enough to almost dine on it is beyond me. Probably not much chance he’ll surface again, but I decide to wait a minute to let the pool calm down, then place my dry just above where he was hiding along the shoreline. No sooner than the Trude alights and the mini-brute gulps it down in a showy rise. I set the hook, and the fish explodes in the air, then heads upstream. My rod bends double as I put pressure on to stop the run. It’s nip and tuck for a minute or so, but finally I tame the tiger and slid him into the net. He’s a muscular beauty, pushing 14-inches!
I continue around the bend and see another showy rise. This time a gaudy brook, biggest of the day, slams the Trude.
Then it’s several more nice tigers followed by another colorful brook trout. But then I hear a menacing rumble! In the midst of all the fun, I didn’t notice the storm clouds welling up from the southeast.
I throw caution to the wind, which has started gusting, and trudge on. Good move. I come to another bend in the creek, see a trout rising, and fool him on the first cast. It’s another ferocious tiger who thrashes on the surface before diving for his lair that is full of snags. I run upstream, applying pressure to horse him out of the mess. Miraculously, he slides out into the open with the Trude still in the corner of his mouth. From there, it’s a battle of inches, him gaining the upper hand, then me. Finally, he gets close enough to slide the net under his silver flanks. What a beauty, measuring 15+-inches!
As I release the shimmering beauty, as if by magic, the angling gods push the clouds away momentarily, allowing me a few more casts before the rain comes….and I cash in. A flashy brook trout is followed by another nice tiger, then the Lilliputian of the day! A good way to close out an interesting outing!
Later when I get back to camp and have service for my Google Maps and can scrutinize some USGS topomaps more carefully, I figure out where Torsido Creek was hiding. I see a gap in the middle of the mile-long hillock near the road. I had thought Torsido would meet La Jara Creek below and other side of the hillock in the big meadow where I wandered about for a couple of hours. In reality, Torsido cuts through the hillock in the gap and joins La Jara there, near to the road. But it is all but invisible if you don’t know where to look as the creek is so narrow and obscured in the tall grass. In my excitement and haste, I completely missed it.
Ah, another good excuse to come back next year to tame some more tigers and brookies…as if I needed one!
I’ve been a confirmed amateur birdwatcher and avian connoisseur since the tender age of 10. In 1950s Dad would take my sister and me birdwatching after church as Mom prepared dinner (dinner was the big noon meal on Sundays). My little hometown of Buhler, located on the Great Plains in south central Kansas, is smack dab in the middle of the huge Central Flyway, a major bird migration route. So in addition to local favorites like meadowlarks, red-headed woodpeckers, and scissor-tailed flycatchers, we also got to see some beautiful and interesting itinerants like goldfinches, cedar waxwings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks as well as lots of ducks. I got my got first little bird book then and soon thereafter as a gift, membership in the Audubon Society accompanied by a weighty tome, the Audubon Guide to North American Birds. It is still a prized possession that brings with it many good memories.
I’ve continue my ardor for birds six decades later at my cabin in the Colorado high country near Salida where I have been enjoying feeding birds, providing nesting boxes, and watching my winged friends up close—gorgeous western tanagers, bluebirds, hairy and downy woodpeckers, evening and black-headed grosbeaks as well as little buddies like mountain chickadees, nuthatches, and towhees. Then there are the golden eagles soaring high above. Here are some of my favorites, close up.
But as my human friends know, I have been having a running battle for several years with pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, large birds that are members of the jay/crow family, who raid the suet and sunflower seed feeders in large bands, chasing away smaller birds amidst a raucous sideshow on my front porch. When I’m inside and spot the gluttons through my big front windows, I creep stealthily to the front door, then in a flurry throw it open and run screaming onto the porch like a madman, scattering the noisy robbers. Here is an array of my antagonists!
Of course, they are usually back before too long. They have incredible eyesight and can see through the big front windows as I slink to the front door. To the amusement of occasional visitors who have witnessed the skirmish, it’s actually become something of a sporting exercise routine for this retired old codger.
But recently I have experienced a major change in attitude about these critters. I happened to read an article about the pinon jays documenting how it is now being listed as a threatened species and the Clark’s nutcracker (first observed and named by William Clark of Lewis and Clark expedition fame in 1805 along the Salmon River in Washington) is experiencing a precipitous decline in parts of its range, likely due to climate change reducing the forests they rely on. I was saddened to learn there are only about 700,000 pinyon jays left in the entire world, an astounding decline of 85% over the past 50 years. For comparison’s sake, Mother Earth is inhabited by almost 8 billion humans! Both birds call the high-country home year-round, and they are smart and inquisitive, befitting their membership in the jay/crow family.
They are also noisy and rambunctious, with shrill rasping calls that sound like “kraal, kraal.” I have named my favorite local Clark’s nutcracker Griswold in keeping with his boisterous antics.
In my neck of the woods, they rely heavily on pinyon trees for sustenance—pine nuts. And in turn, the pinyon trees rely on the jays and nutcrackers to help reseed and spread the forest. Both have big spear-like beaks to probe cones to get to the seeds, and then crack them to get to the nuts. The Clark’s have a big pouch under their tongues that can hold up to 150 seeds.
Both the jays and nutcrackers bury the seeds for food during the harsh high-altitude winters. One study in New Mexico estimated that a flock of pinyon jays there cached 4.5 million seeds in a year! Other research has shown that they can remember where they buried the seeds for six months and more. But when they forget, the seeds can sprout, rejuvenating and spreading the forest reach
The pinyon tree is the foundation species in this ecosystem—everything is built upon it.
In addition to the pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, rodents feast on the seeds and are in turn food for the coyotes, owls, hawks….you get the picture. The birds and rodents help spread the seeds far and wide. Because of the dry climate and generally poor soil in this region, the trees produce seeds only once every four to ten years on a rotating basis so that about one in five has cones every year.
Incredibly, in the 1950s and 60s, government ecologists declared pinyon and juniper trees as invasive species that were destroying grassland and wasting precious water. And more grasslands would mean more cattle, more money for local economies, etc. They gave the green light to uprooting millions of acres of the trees by chaining—a process that ripped the trees out along with just about anything else in the vicinity. The massacre was actually recounted in a documentary narrated by Robert Redford, Broken Treaty At Battle Mountain. Not surprisingly, the wholesale destruction of these foundation species was an ecological disaster for all the myriad species that relied on them. Here are just a few examples of the devastation
Today climate change, spraying of pesticides, and residential development are taking their toll on pinyon and juniper stands. In some states like Nevada and Utah, federal and state agencies continue to rip out pinyon and juniper forests to promote grasslands, while in others there is an effort to protect areas used by pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers. Environmental groups are turning up the heat for conservation measures. Hopefully it isn’t too late.
That’s where my change in attitude comes in. Rather than clashing with the pinyon jays and nutcrackers in the daily battle of the bird feeders, I will welcome them. Indeed, I will add a few more feeders, hoping the bears don’t notice. I will make sure the pinyon and nutcracker nesting/roosting areas on my land that can harbor 15-50 birds are left undisturbed. In periods of drought, becoming more prevalent in my neck of Colorado, I will dutifully lug pails of water to the forest of pinyon and juniper trees that cover the slopes around the cabin if I see some browning on the top branches, hoping it will help see them through tough times.
And that leads me to my change in altitude. For many years in my professional career as a land use attorney and planner consulting with local governments around the United States I flew back and forth across the United States. One air route from Denver to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and southern California that I took often flew high above my cabin a hundred miles southwest of Denver, but I could still just barely see my town of Salida and homestead a few miles away as I jetted over. It was a comforting thought to be looking down on that peaceful piece of territory. Today as I sip wine on the porch at the end of the day, I can see the multiple contrails above me from planes flying the same route, the sign of our ever busy society.
On those trips I worked with communities to improve their development codes, among other things to protect wildlife habitat, sensitive ecosystems, and historic buildings. My colleagues and I preached the gospel of sustainable development and helped write and update regulations and incentives to promote solar and wind energy, affordable housing, water conservation, and the like. Those were exciting and fulfilling days. We were trying to do our small part to save the world.
But as time passes, I see the need to focus closer in my own backyard and change my altitude from a bird’s eye view of saving the world to one closer to ground level, to the 35 acres I call home. When I first bought my place some 25 years ago, I planted over 100 pinyon and juniper trees that were distributed free at the time as part of a government program. It was back-breaking work digging holes for them in this rocky landscape. But because this is a harsh, high-desert climate, despite occasional watering and fertilizing over the years, today only about 10 survive. After 25 years, those survivors range in height from just 4-6 feet! I’m proud of each and every one of them!
Now I will focus more attention on them, thinking of future generations of pinyon jays and nutcracker that will feast on their bounty as my granddaughter Aly, all grown up by then, watches from the porch. I’ll do some clipping to give them some growing room when rabbit brush and other bushes crowd too close. If the drought continues, they’ll get more periodic watering.
When I see a mature pinon tree close to the cabin starting to bear cones, I’ll give it an extra drink of water. I will remove weeds, bushes, and tinder from under its bows to help it survive a wildfire. Those mature 25-foot tall trees can be pushing 200 years old or more. The granddaddy pinyon growing right next to the porch where the small birds like to perch and eat sunflower seeds is a giant, probably over 300 years old. I choke up a bit when I think that this grand tree, now in my care, was growing before the American Revolution and that the native Ute Indians probably harvested seeds from it to make the rich, nourishing gruel that saw them through the winters long ago. And here it is today, healthy and providing sustenance and shelter to the pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, and other birds. I have the obligation to make sure it continues to thrive. Healthy pinyon trees can last a thousand years!
And occasionally I may even attend local public hearings on the type of sprawling rural subdivision the county can’t seem to just say “NO” to, hoping that at least they will require the development to preserve as much of the pinyon and juniper forest as possible and maybe even plant trees to compensate for any removed. Many progressive jurisdictions across the nation already do that.
And of course, when the raiders come to my bird feeders, a noisy “kraal, kraal” chorus announcing their arrival, I’ll bite my tongue and dutifully deposit another suet cake when they take their leave.