Many moons have passed since Dustin and I’s last backpacking trip; it was the last trip Dustin and I shared simply as “Dus and Steph”. It will always stir a nostalgic, special feeling in both of us; the “perfect trip” in so many respects. Gosh, what a sensational experience. Even as I write this, a smirk appears on my face. A toddler laugh pulls me from my revelry of life past, which leads me to write of our latest adventure as a family of three.
Plenty of worry and disapproval was tossed our way, but after 21 months of front country living it was time to introduce Drake to the life his Mom and Dad lived before he made his grand entrance. After consulting with Rod, we picked a popular day hike location. Normally, we would avoid popular areas like the plague, but with the little one, people around would be of benefit if an emergency situation presented itself.
As we packed for our hike, Dustin and I discussed taking all our gear. One, so we could get a full handle on exactly how much weight we would be carrying for our camping outing the following weekend, and second, so we were prepared in case we got in a situation where we had to set camp and hunker down.
Fumbling and stumbling around our backpacking room, we clumsily packed our bags into the wee hours of the morning. A process that used to take an hour at most took several hours this time. It is amazing how out of practice we were. To our credit, it was the first time packing a normal pack, and a baby pack. Normally, Dustin carries his Osprey 70L and I carry my Osprey 55L. With plenty of room to spare, our packs have served us well and offer us the space for a few luxury items. With Drake, our pack situation completely changed. Dustin carried everything for the family to survive; I carried Drake, his diapers and our clothes. At 2AM, we seemed satisfied enough to hit the hay.
Saturday morning came way too fast; remarkably, we left the house just an hour later than planned. After a quick pit stop to pick up a GF/DF muffin for Drakey and I, we arrived to a very busy trailhead. Imagine Bear Lake on a holiday weekend; yes, that busy. Even getting out of the car and onto the trail took so much longer than normal. The whole process felt foreign.
A simultaneous groan escaped our lips as we heaved our packs onto our backs for the first time in nearly two years. Damn, our packs felt like they weighed a ton. Once we started walking, we remembered why we strap on all that weight. The trail was quite moderate for the first three miles. We both commented how well we were doing. Drake seemed to approve of our pace as he fell into a deep sleep. He stayed that way for awhile until we ran into a lost hiker. With endorphins flowing, she yelled at us the entire time we tried to assist her. Unfortunately, I don’t think what we told her matched what was going on with her mental map (reference to Deep Survival), and she hiked away from us on her own.
Once we parted ways with the lone hiker, our trek suddenly got a lot more difficult. The trail was extremely steep, and quite hard to follow. Even though we were fully getting our butts kicked, the scenery and sounds around us took our minds off our screaming calves, if just for a moment. The desire to keep trekking on was strong, but we decided to take off our packs and enjoy this symphony for the eyes and ears. Plummeting over logs and ancient rocks, a waterfall provided a back drop for Drake as he nursed. I’m not sure many one year olds can say they nursed at this spot. Tempted by the rushing stream, Drake squirmed to get a closer look. Dustin obliged him, and took him to get his hands wet.
As the trail climbed, we ran into more and more snow. Atop the cascade we expected to find a lake; alas, only a marsh. Above the marsh sat the trail, but we encountered a steep snowfield hidden in the trees. Unsure what lie beneath those feet of snow, we decided to find an alternate route. Dustin picked the route, ignoring my suggestion. Perhaps the man is a glutton for punishment. He took the hardest path to the lake possible. This is not the first time he’s done this either. For those of you that want to venture to Arapaho Lakes: When you enter the marsh, stay on the trail as it veers left into the trees – this is the shortest and most direct route to the lake. Coming down, we chanced the snowfield, it was packed enough to not posthole. Naturally.
Storm clouds were billowing above us. It was time to set camp, but Dustin was hell bent on reaching that lake first. Finally, sense took over and we find a campsite that worked perfectly. Setting up camp sure takes a lot longer. Are you sensing a common theme here? Everything takes longer with the lil tadpole. While I entertained Drake, Dustin made the campsite perfectly homey for us. For as busy as the trailhead was, we saw very few people once we broke off for Forest Lakes. Then, complete solitude met us on the way and at Arapaho Lakes, except for a furry, fat little mammal. As bold as it was, one might call it a campsite “pet”. The resident marmot came right into camp with us. No, not on the periphery of camp, but right into our campsite. I tried to scare him away, but he didn’t scare too far. He just hung out. Maybe he has been fed a time or two?
Once the storm blew over us, we headed to the lakes. The majority of the top lake remained ice, while the lower lake still had a pretty good chunk of ice as well. We saw a few fish, but they weren’t eating. Somehow, Dustin and I caught a few out of sheer luck. Frigid, these fish were. Imagine holding onto an ice cube, that was what the fish felt like as I removed hooks. Burr. A few weeks too early, I do believe.
Bored with the slow fishing, Drake became fussy and alerted us it was time to head back to camp. With our bellies grumbling, we made the trek back down from the lake. Scattered remnants of our food greeted us at the campsite. Drakey’s muffin was gone, our dinner sampled, toothbrushes annihilated, and our spirits sunk. That damned yellow-bellied-marmot! A word to the wise, marmots can break into Bear Vault brand bear canisters. Sifting through the food carnage, I inspected the canister. Sure enough, right at the tabs were claw marks. Not one other scratch anywhere else on the canister. Clever little devil.
Looking at the time, we pondered heading down the mountain. After all, we were famished, and with all the food particles strewn about we were asking for unwelcome visitors. Being exhausted and hiking in the twilight didn’t sound like the best option to me; thus, we decided to take our chances at the campsite. A few times I was awoken by the sound of unfamiliar breathing. I looked up to see the marmot with a nose under the vestibule. That stinker. It continued to scurry around the campsite all night long, but did not manage to get back in the canister that we stored high in a tree.
Warm sun stirred us from our slumber as morning broke across the mountains. Drake’s first night in the backcountry was a mild success. He was restless until about midnight, after which he slept like a rock. As I watched Drake crawl around the tent, I was a bit mesmerized by how much our lives had changed. Normally, I would be so anxious to get the heck out the tent, throw some coffee and breakfast down my throat, and head out to the next venture. This particular morning I really enjoyed lingering in the tent a bit longer than trips past.
Finally my bladder called, and I had to exit our warm little abode. However, the bluebird sky made it a grand exit. While the boys enjoyed breakfast, I had more little silent, reflective moments. Pardon me while I brag a bit. Dustin is such a good dad, and I so enjoy witnessing him interact with our son. Watching him with Drake shows me why he wanted to be a dad; I sure am glad he convinced me that parenthood would be cool. Perhaps it was this elevated mood that led me to agree to venture to the lakes one more time before heading back to the car.
Much the same as the day prior, we saw little to no fish activity. With the water temperature hovering around 36º, I probably wouldn’t be much in the mood to eat either. It didn’t take us long to make the decision to head back to camp to pack it up.
Bluebird skies gave way to steely skies. As we packed we watch the storm build. As with everything else, getting tore down took much longer than normal. Victory came as we completed disassembling camp without any of our gear getting wet.
Going down always seems to be harder on the body than going up. Yes, going up is rigorous and tiring, but going down just plain hurts. After not hiking for close to two years, our bodies screamed with each high-impact step. The rain that missed us the day prior found us on our descent. Cold, steady raindrops kept us company until we were almost to the car. Never have I been so happy to see LaFonda the Honda. Dustin, I suspect, felt the same way.
While Dustin and I were elated to see the couch, Drake was elated to see his play room. Playing in the dirt was fun, but he sure missed his hiccups ball. Our bodies protested for a couple days after, but our first backcountry experience with our son was worth every cramp and ache, even if we didn’t catch heaps of fish.
Just the facts:
Location: Arapaho Lakes, James Peak Wilderness
Trailhead: East Portal to Forest Lakes Trail to Arapaho Lakes Trail. The A.L. trail is unmarked as of 2010, but spurs off to the left at a stream crossing (Forest Lakes Drainage). The bridge over this stream is washed out. In some spots the trail is marked with cairns, other places the trail is faint, but noticeable. In general, the trail follows the Arapaho Lakes drainage. Once at the marsh stay on the trail to the left that takes you into the trees. From there it is about another half a mile to the lake.
Mileage & Difficulty: Approximately 4 total miles, First 3.5 miles are moderate; The last .5 are strenuous. Expect to climb 600-800ft over that last .5 miles..
Flies that worked: I wouldn’t say any fly was a knock-out-punch (we tried several), but we brought a few to hand with good ol’ size 18 Flashback Pheasant Tails dropped from a dry.