Back in the back-country

Column by Hal Walter

Outdoors – October 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN THE YEARS B.C (before child) we always made a point of getting out for a pack trip with our burros at least once each summer. Usually we chose the cloudless days of late August or September to avoid the monsoon season and certain associated discomforts — like wet socks and lightning strikes.

Harrison’s arrival in 2004 put pack trips on hold, but this year we thought perhaps it was time to get out again. Then we thought about it some more. What we really needed was a solid kick in the butt. When we heard a group of friends were planning a three-day trip into the backcountry in late August we rudely invited ourselves — and our three-year-old boy — along for the adventure. I made a phone call to Amy Finger at Bear Basin Ranch and the die was cast.

Even with the big mountains in plain sight, it can be a daunting project to actually pack into them for an overnight stay. For years I kept all the gear pretty much packed — just add food and we were basically ready to go, with tent, sleeping bags, cooking kit and the other necessities. However, it must be noted that when you have burros to carry the freight, the word “necessity” takes on an expanded definition to include such items as folding camp chairs, thick foam mattresses, full-size pillows, ice chests stuffed with real food, bottles of red wine, etc.

Mary, Harrison, Spike, and Redbo atop Music Pass, 11,380 feet.
Mary, Harrison, Spike, and Redbo atop Music Pass, 11,380 feet.

As we began to gear up for the trip, it was clear we would have to pare back. We’d only be able to take two burros because we’d need free hands to manage Harrison. We also planned to have Harrison ride one of our animals some of the way (we’d also take a child backpack), meaning that we’d have only one packer to carry all our food and equipment.

We chose Spike as Harrison’s riding burro because he’s pretty unflappable on the trail and because he has the lowest center of gravity. We bought Harrison a helmet and began practicing, taking him on rides from the house out to the trail. Truly it was more challenging to keep the helmet on Harrison than it was to keep Harrison on Spike. For the most part he seemed to enjoy riding and quickly gained a good sense of balance in the saddle.

For the packer, I chose our biggest and strongest burro, Redbo. I knew he could carry a good deal of weight and he needed the work anyway. Plus, if I wanted to go riding from camp once we got there, he is more my size.

Once the animal situation had been decided it was just a matter of gear. Years of nonuse had left much of our equipment widely scattered. The sleeping bags were stowed away all over the house, having been used for couch-camping during many sleep-deprived nights when Harrison was a fussy baby, and then again as he made the transition from the crib to a bed. Other gear, like the tent, was lost somewhere in the shed, where the packsaddles and panniers also were hanging covered in dust. One day I hauled all of this gear outside, spread it on the lawn, hosed it off and left it to dry in the sunshine.

AMY AND I discussed where to go and both of us agreed the upper Sand Creek Basin, now part of the Great Sand Dunes Preserve, would make an outstanding trip. We’d avoid the crowded Upper and Lower Sand Creek lakes and instead head down the creek to make camp. From there we could do a day trip either up or down the trail.

I spent almost the entire afternoon prior to the trip packing and getting ready, and the next day we were at the trailhead well before the rest of the group, and actually had our burros saddled and loaded when they pulled up with their trucks and trailers.

Besides Amy and partner Gary Ziegler, there were two other couples, Pete and Nancy Hedberg, and Carl and Lori Batson. All would be riding horses and each couple also had a packhorse. We decided to get a head start on the procession and headed on up Music Pass with Harrison riding, myself leading the burros and Mary “spotting” Harrison. I had my eye on the gathering cumulus clouds.

From the start Spike’s work ethic left something to be desired. Harrison rode a good deal of the way up, but we carried him over the steeper sections of the pass, stopping to admire the view of Tijeras Peak and take a photo before descending into the Sand Creek Basin. When the trail grew less steep, with less of a sidehill, we put Harrison back on Spike and made good time downhill to the lefthand fork in the trail that heads down the valley. While surveying one potential camp, and noticing the scarcity of firewood and level ground, we looked up the mountainside to see the rest of our party crossing the Music Pass summit. We decided that since we had some lead-time we’d scout farther down the trail for a better camp. But we didn’t find one and turned around in time to meet the group just below the first campsite.

It was by now early evening, and the camp took shape in short order. Quickly the tents were pitched, a kitchen tarp was raised over the campfire area, firewood was gathered, horses and burros were put out to graze. Though the clouds were still building, there was nary a sprinkle.

HARRISON FOUND ALL of this quite amusing, especially the tent, where he enjoyed rolling around in the sleeping bags and playing with the door and window zippers for quite some time. Then it was out to the campfire, where he ran around in circles, spilling people’s drinks, getting in the way of the cooks and in general just having a grand old time. By the time we turned in for the night he was truly zonked out, snuggled between his mom and dad in the best goose-down sleeping bag we own.

I awoke about 3 a.m. to the rumble of thunder. It was a good distance off but as I lay there listening the thunder grew nearer. I unzipped the door and stuck my head outside, watching as the flashing thunderstorm marched quickly north to south along the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, just behind an unnamed peak to our west. I zipped the door back up and started to drift off to the sound of the creek.

Moments later I was roused by more thunder. This new storm cell seemed to be headed our way. Soon the thunder grew close and the tent was lighting up like a lantern with each strike. The rain pelted the nylon then became a steady roar. The seconds between the booms and the flashes told me the storm was not directly overhead, but the light show was nevertheless unnerving until the end.

Harrison slept soundly through the storm.

The next morning we gathered around the smoky fire to compare notes. The only person to get much sleep was Harrison. Pete and Nancy’s tent had leaked and some of their gear was wet. While we were caffeinating with cowboy coffee and breakfasting on pancakes, sausage and eggs, the thunderheads were regrouping, and I learned later that I was not the only one thinking about bailing.

But Amy and Gary were not among the frail-hearted. They were already planning a horseback ride from camp to Milwaukee Basin at the northern headwall of the valley. I aired out the tent and sleeping bags and watched the weather. Oddly, the wind began to blow and shredded the clouds, leaving behind a perfect bluebird day. Mary offered to stay behind with Harrison, so I saddled Redbo and went along with the horseriders.

Oddly, so did Spike.

AT FIRST I THOUGHT he would follow for just a while and then stop to eat, or that he would go back to camp. But every time I turned around, there he was, ambling slowly along behind us. The problem with this was that Redbo was waiting for him rather than keeping step with the horses. So, my horseback friends waited from time to time for us to catch up. When we got to the steeper sections they didn’t need to wait as much, and when we walked out below the headwalls of the Milwaukee Basin cirque, Spike was still plodding along behind.

Amy and I headed back to camp ahead of the others, and I quickly shifted from riding to fishing. Harrison had been playing in the creek just up from the camp and I had noticed some fish in the pool just above there. I caught and released several smaller cutthroats while my boy splashed in the water and threw rocks. Despite the commotion, I could see a much larger fish in the pool.

I had just about given up on this big cutthroat when quite lazily the fish took the fly and the entire pool seemed to erupt in slow-motion splashing. Mary was close enough that I called for her to get the camera. With Harrison wading around beside me I brought the fish to the bank. Mary snapped a photo and then I turned the orange-red male trout back to the stream. It was the biggest fish I’ve ever caught in the Sangres. I fished the creek the rest of the afternoon, catching and releasing about 20 more cutthroats but none were even half the size of this fish.

Our last evening was splendid and dry, and there was good food, drink and even music around the campfire. We had a tense few moments when Pete and Nancy’s horses wandered off from camp, but they were found in fairly short order, and soon we were all snoozing to the lyrical rush of Sand Creek.

The next day we packed up and made the easy trek back over Music Pass to the truck. We were backcountry travelers once again. Our son was now one, too.

Hal Walter writes from the Wet Mountains, where he cultivates prose and burros.