Page 1

San Juan






Fall/winter 2017




San Juan Mountains Journal

Table Volume 1



Number 2

Shooting Aspen - page 6


From the Editor

Photography 6

Shooting aspen, by Matt Payne Fall Photography Along Highway 550

Hunting 10 ©Matt Payne

“Nature’s colorful palette in the fall fills every scene with a sense of wonder and beauty that cannot be matched.”

The san juan hunting experience, by Joshua Chadd The Hunt is its Own Reward

Recreation 12

Mountain Biking - page 12

Mountain biking on the eastern frontier, by John McEvoy Two-Wheeling near Del Norte, South Fork and Creede

Retrospective 16

otto mears and the first san juan toll road, by P. David Smith Enabling a Boom of Settlement in the 1800s

Fauna ©John McEvoy


the snowshoe hare, by Lyndon Lampert Designed for Winter

“The mountain bike trails in the eastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado have everything you could wish for.”

Day Hike

Embracing Winter - page 24




winter on molas pass, by Mark Winkworth Adventure at Your Own Pace

Embracing winter, by Amanda Hartman Enjoy a Fourteener in the Off Season

Skiing 27

©Mike Ralph

“Around 12,000 feet we popped above treeline and beheld the slopes of white that awaited us.”

Front Cover: Mears Peak viewed from Dallas Divide. ©Paul Hudson

wolf pups, by Kevin Muirhead A Breath of Fresh Air for Parents Who Worry

Reflections 31

the visitor, by Lyndon Lampert

Inside Cover: “GoldLeaf” 36 X 24 Oil painting ©Suzanne Stewart Fine Art

Back Cover: Descending 14,001’ Sunshine Peak, March 11, 2017. ©Mike Ralph

Fall/Winter 2017


From the Editor... Photo ©Allison Stewart


istorian P. David Smith’s excellent article in this issue on the first toll road in the San Juans reminds us that even the crude wagon roads in these mountains seldom traversed untracked country. In most cases, road builders such as Otto Mears followed the travois trails made by many generations of Utes and other tribes. Such is the case with the San Juan Mountains Journal as well. Although Volume 1, Number 1 hit the streets on May 15, 2017, it was in fact traveling the route of an existing trail reaching back 30 years. The actual genesis of the San Juan Mountains Journal was in July, 1987 with the printing of an 8-page newsletter called the Lake City Outdoor Journal. Conceived through the merger of my fascination with writing, the natural world and the brand-new technology of desktop publishing, the LCOJ was a monthly, one-man publication that reached a whopping 200 subscribers for over four years. In 1992, the Lake City Outdoor Journal became The Outdoor Journal of

Lake City, headed by writer, fly fisher and gourmet chef Peter Elliott, who upgraded it to magazine size and graced it with actual photographs. Unfortunately, after about a year, financial difficulties closed the doors on Elliott’s Outdoor Journal, but a track had been carved that would not fade away. In the intervening years, I must point to the inspiration from eminent naturalist writers for helping keep the dream for this publication alive. I’m indebted to the timeless works of Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard, and especially Edwin Way Teale, whose “American Seasons” series of books I still read with regularity, and always with a renewed sense of wonder. Walter Borneman, another writer I greatly admire, is an historian who gave me confidence that I actually could become a published writer when we collaborated on A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners in 1978. Finally, I cannot neglect the family influence of my grandmother Virginia Johnston, an avid birder, and my late father, Kenneth Lampert, who

helped me catch my first trout from western Montana’s Miller Creek. Thanks to their influence, I grew up with an abiding appreciation for all things wild. Perhaps someone in the future will look back on the San Juan Mountains Journal as part of their “travois trail” as well, having led them to a greater love for the San Juan Mountains and the One who made them. If that’s the case, our work in building this trail called the San Juan Mountains Journal will have been more than worth the effort. Thanks for traveling the trail with us. t Lyndon Lampert, Editor

Contents © 2017 San Juan Mountains Journal, LLC unless otherwise noted No part of this publication may be reproduced or duplicated without the permission of the publisher. Editor: Lyndon Lampert Sales Manager: Kade Stewart Production Manager: Allison Stewart Business Office: San Juan Mountains Journal P.O. Box 14 Lake City, CO 81235 Online and Mobile Versions d Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them. Psalm 111:2


San Juan Mountains Journal

Fall/Winter 2017



SHOOTING ASPEN Fall Photography Along Highway 550 by Matt Payne


San Juan Mountains Journal


here is only one thing that makes the San Juan Mountains more magical than they normally are—viewing them in the splendor created by the changing colors of autumn. Photographing the San Juan Mountains in autumn is perhaps one of my absolutely favorite events of the year. There is just something about the smell of the forest in the fall that captivates me and regenerates my soul. Nature’s colorful palette in the fall fills every scene with a sense of wonder and beauty that cannot be matched. The colors of the trees, bushes, and shrubs begins to take place in midSeptember and can last well into late October at lower elevations, with the peak of the color changes, especially the aspen, happening at the end of September and early October. Although the fall colors are inherently glorious, here are a few tips to help you best capture that glory in your images. First, let’s talk about what gear you will want to bring with you to maximize your success in getting those amazingly beautiful photographs: 1. A decent camera, preferably a DSLR or mirrorless camera. I personally shoot with the Sony A7R2 but switched over from the Nikon D800. If you don’t plan to print your images, then the cost and capabilities of your camera could be reduced significantly. 2. A nice array of lenses, ranging in focal lengths from ultra-wide (14mm) to telephoto (200mm and beyond). I have found my most common focal length for shooting fall colors is between 100mm and 200mm to take in those grand scenic views, and then a lot of ultra-wide shots at 14mm to really get the full scale of the forest above you. 3. A circular polarizing filter. A polarizing filter helps bring out the colors of the leaves and the skies. 4. A good tripod. A tripod stabilizes your image and allows you to spend time on creating a thoughtful composition. Second, let’s discuss some keys to success: 1. Start early, before sunrise. The best light is often just before and just after sunrise (and sunset). Really amazing light can present itself in the hour prior to sunrise and after sunset (known as the blue hour). In the right conditions the atmosphere can bounce light down onto your subjects and create some magical color in rocks, leaves, and other foliage. 2. Be patient and wait for the conditions to change. Fall can be a very unforgiving season when it comes to weather; however, these conditions often yield some of the most dramatic photographs of clouds, mist, and other interesting elements. 3. Avoid shooting mid-day unless there is a lot of cloud cover or other interesting atmospherics such as fog, rain, or snow. The light of the mid-day sun can create a very harsh and boring photograph. 4. Be courteous to other photographers. Remember, we are all out there for the same reason, to witness these amazing scenes and capture them. Be nice to each other out there! Fall Aspen. Photo ©Matt Payne

Fall/Winter 2017


Now that we have covered how to get ready to go out and photograph those amazing fall colors, let’s talk about my favorite locations in the San Juan Mountains to get those awesome images. U. S. Highway 550, from Durango to Ridgway is the prime corridor to my top autumn destinations. All of the locations that follow are easy day trips from a Durango hub, but planning for overnight stays in either Silverton, Ouray or Ridgway can allow you to more easily experience the spectacular early morning and late evening sessions mentioned above.

1. Coalbank and Molas Passes

Less than an hour’s drive from Durango, Coalbank and Molas Passes offer some spectacular fall vantages of the Needle Range from Highway 550. To get there, drive north from Durango on Highway 550 to the summits of Coalbank and Molas Passes, about seven miles apart. Along the way, the views of the Needles from Purgatory Ski Resort are absolutely incredible. From Coalbank Pass, you’ll find particularly good opportunities to photograph Twilight Peak above a sea of changing colors. There are several pull-offs on the highway which offer great opportunities for photography. Brave and hardy adventurers could

Twilight Peak. Photo ©Matt Payne

also hike to the 12,968-foot summit of Engineer Mountain to get even more amazing views of the surrounding peaks and fall foliage. Other day hikes in the area include a trip to An-

drews Lake, Crater Lake, and more. Once atop Molas Pass, the vista of the Grenadier Range is nothing short of amazing, especially when fringes of golden aspen brighten the scene.

2. Red Mountain Pass

Silverton in the Fall. Photo ©Matt Payne


San Juan Mountains Journal

Red Mountain Pass between Silverton and Ouray affords some of the most majestic views of the changing colors in Colorado. The “Million Dollar Highway” winds up through huge peaks and incredible vistas. The opportunities for photography are virtually endless. Silverton itself contains many enticing photographic opportunities, including old mining equipment and rustic Victorian-age architecture. To reach Red Mountain Pass, drive approximately ten miles north on Highway 550 from Silverton towards Ouray. The brilliant reds and oranges of the heavilymineralized Red Mountain #1, Red Mountain #2 and Red Mountain #3

Aspen Leaves. Photo ©Allison Stewart

Road 8 near Ridgway. To get there, head north on highway 550 out of Ridgway and drive 5.5 miles before turning right onto County Road 8. From County Road 8, various aspects of this breathtaking vista are available to explore via side roads and parking areas. Mount Sneffels from Ridgway. Photo ©Matt Payne

create an almost unbelievable explosion of color when seen above the fall display of aspen below. As you drop into Ouray via a series of memorable switchbacks, be sure to stop a a pullout and capture a view or two of Ouray nestled below.

3. Ridgway - County Road 10

Some of the best fall views of 14,150-foot Mount Sneffels and the surrounding mountains, including Teakettle Mountain and Cirque Mountain, can be seen from County Road 10 near Ridgway. To get there, head north on highway 550 out of Ridgway, drive 2 miles and take a right on County Road 10. Enjoy the views of Mount Sneffels to the south and west.

Road 7. Continue on County Road 7 for 2.1 miles and stay right onto County Road 7 at the County Road 7a intersection. Drive another 5 miles and enjoy the view!

5. Owl Creek Pass

Owl Creek Pass is easily my alltime favorite destination in Southwest Colorado to photograph the autumn colors. There is just something magical about seeing the sunset cast red light across Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain from County

The San Juan Mountains are truly incredible. Seeing them covered in color of autumn is even more special. I highly recommend a Highway 550 trip through these areas to fully witness these scenes yourself and to really take the time to appreciate the wonder offered by Colorado’s autumn season. What are some of your favorite areas to photograph in the San Juans? I’d love to hear from you on Facebook @MattPaynePhotography or on Instagram @MattPaynePhoto. Happy leaf peeping! t

4. Ridgway - County Road 7

Another favorite side trip from Ridgway is to take County Road 7 towards the Blue Lakes Trailhead. The views of Mount Sneffels through a telephoto lens are stunning. There is a lot to explore in this area, including some famous fences and an incredible meadow which opens before Mount Sneffels and all its glory. To get there, head west from Ridgway on Colorado Highway 62 towards Telluride for 5.8 miles and take a left on County

Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain. Photo ©Matt Payne

Fall/Winter 2017



The San Juan Hunting Experience The Hunt is its Own Reward by Joshua Chadd


Mule Deer Photo ©Edna Mason

small group of mule deer bucks my heart. Between the high, rug- head and camp for the night, to get graze in a high meadow sur- ged peaks, thirteen of which reach a head-start the next day. The folrounded by massive mountains. Atop over 14,000 feet, and the plentiful lowing morning, we’d awakened and one of those mountains a band of game animals, these mountains are hiked over five miles up into Little bighorn rams lies in its rocky bed, one of a kind. People flock to them Cuba Gulch to an elevation of 12,000 keen eyes scanning the year round for the feet. Finding a herd of elk, we hadn’t valley below. Down the scenery, activities, been able to make a play on them beother side of the mounand animals they cause they’d sighted us as we came tain, hidden amongst hold, but I was over a rise. Lying in front of me, my the thick spruce, a herd of elk prepares to rise in father kept an eye on the herd a few hundred yards anticipation of the comBull Elk Photo ©Edna Mason away. Finally, after what ing evening. A mountain felt like an eternity to me, lion stalks nearby, waiting for an op- lucky enough to the herd moved down portunity to strike. Below the timber grow up hunting these mountains. into a cut that allowed us sits a lake full of brook trout with a bull moose wading in the water, its After we moved Photo ©Joshua Chadd to crawl within one hunmassive head and antlers under the to Colorado from dred and eighty yards. A surface. A black bear sow and cub Alaska, I harvested my first elk and single shot later, we were standing wander just inside the brush on the mule deer in the San Juans. I vividly over a great bull elk. Then the real work began as we skinned and quarother side of the lake, oblivious to the remember my first bull elk hunt … It was opening morning of rifle sea- tered the bull! We took one load of moose. Even though I’ve hunted from the son and as I lay on the hillside, chilled meat down to the trailhead that day Southern Alps of New Zealand all to the bone, I realized this was right and returned the next day with my the way to the Wrangell Mountains where I wanted to be. My father had brother to retrieve the last load. That of Alaska, the San Juan Mountains pulled me out of school early on a night we sat around the dinner table will always hold a special place in Friday so we could get to the trail- in our house, eating fresh elk tender-


San Juan Mountains Journal

trail, you have to do just that. Get off the beaten path, leave the trail, and strike out into the true wilderness. That’s the fun part, because in leaving the trail you’re making your own way through God’s vast creation and it can fill you with wonder at all that’s hidden and which most people will never get the chance to see. Then, at the conclusion of a full day of hunting, successful or not, you can sit down at camp, whether that’s a puptent, an RV at the trailhead, or your house, knowing that you gave it your all. It’s even better if you shared that Elk Herd Photo ©Allison Stewart day, that experience, that hunt, with loins and recounting the tale from I mean “get lost” figuratively; away family or friends. Plenty of people the day before. It’d been a successful from the daily stress of life and all have forged friendships and even hunt, not just because I’d harvested a that distracts us throughout the day. more have strengthened their relabull, but because I’d left that moun- The mountains promise peace and tionships through a hunting trip in tain with a lasting memory. quiet. A way to disconnect and chal- the San Juans. lenge yourself, beThe San Juans are not just a mounHunting isn’t just about the kill, the trophy, cause while game tain range in southwestern Colorado. or sometimes, even the is plentiful, if you They’re a playground for the advenwant to harvest turous spirit. They offer the chance at meat. It’s about the expea nice trophy freedom of body, mind and soul, the rience; being able to climb chance to make memories high into the mountains, where few people have that will remain with you Mule Deer Buck Photo ©Edna Mason ever been; being out in through the years, and the the wilderness away from all the dis- and make some chance to harvest the tromemotractions of life; exploring the moun- great phy of a lifetime, no matter tains, rivers, forests, and meadows; ries, you have to the size of the horns or antlers. The San Juans will aland spending that time with friends go where most Bull Moose Photo ©Edna Mason and family, making memories that’ll other sportsmen ways be one of my favorite don’t. last a lifetime. places on earth; they hold many rich The San Juan Mountains are memories for me. And if you dare to Ten years after that successful elk hunt, I still remember that day vividly blessed with an abundance of public visit these vast peaks, reaching high and with fondness; the snow falling, land. Which means, while there are into the sky, I know they will grant the peaks towering around us, and places seemingly untouched by man, you the same gift, too. t the smile on my father’s face after the others are overrun with sportsmen. bull dropped. That’s what hunting is To truly get away and blaze your own all about and it’s easy to make these kinds of memories in a place like the San Juans. When a location like this is so vast and rugged, there’s sure to be a plethora of game. From elk to mountain lion, mule deer to black bear, bighorn sheep to moose; these mountains have them all. But they also hold something special, something that’s becoming increasingly rare in this day and age. There are places in the San Juans that have hardly been touched by man and it’s a great place to get lost.

Fall/Winter 2017



Mountain Biking on the Eastern Frontier by John McEvoy

Two-Wheeling Near Del Norte, South Fork and Creede

Participants in the grueling Twelve Hours of Penitente Mountain Bike Race ride through Penitente Canyon and its golden fall foliage. The Third Annual Twelve Hours of Penitence will be held in October. Photos ©John McEvoy


he western side of the San Juans from Ouray to Durango, has long been a mountain biker’s paradise. It has received the most attention in magazine and newspaper articles and also usage by back country bikers seeking the thrill of single track trails cushioned with pine needles and surrounded by high mountain peaks. It has become so popular, some consider it crowded. By contrast, the eastern San Juan Mountains area has long been an open, mostly high-desert playground, filled with scenic volcanic mountain vistas and few visitors. This is an area yet to be discovered on a large scale by many outdoor recreationists seeking new territory to conquer on two wheels. That is, except for the lo-


San Juan Mountains Journal

cals. Long time Del Norte residents, Bonnie and Marty Asplin, had a vision for their town. The first phase of trails in the “Del Norte Trails Master Plan,” was drawn up by the Asplin’s and adopted officially in 2008. The land south of town is now the 200acre Lookout Mountain Park Trails System. It will remain undeveloped and will be open to bike riders, hikers, and equestrians only. “The goal has always been to provide Del Norte residents and visitors easy and safe access to the outdoors for health, wellness, and enjoyment,” reads the plan. “The project has been a collaborative effort by The Town of Del Norte, Rio Grande County, Rio Grande Hospital, Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), and a multitude

of private citizens both local and from afar.” From this initial master plan, a larger master plan for the entire San Luis Valley, with interconnected trails, has now begun to materialize. “Bonnie and Marty, were active participants in San Luis Valley Great Outdoors,” said Mick Daniels, Director of SLVGO. “They had a vision for a better community and making it appealing to a younger group of people because Del Norte had an aging population and new people were not moving in.” Daniels said once a master plan for the town was drawn up and implemented, things started taking off. Trails out at the nearby Stone Quarry east of town and Penitente Canyon north of Del Norte were built.

“Now, Del Norte is different,” said Daniels. “There is a whole lot of younger people who have moved here and a lot of them are getting out on our trails.” It is not just newcomers who are enjoying the local trails. Some people who have lived here for years are now getting out and enjoying the fine recreational trail system that is in place. “When I moved here in 2013, I’d go on a ride and never saw anybody and if I did, I knew them,” said Daniels. “Now, there many new faces and it has made a big difference economically for Del Norte.” The eastern San Juan’s are brimming with rugged features from long extinct volcanic activity and the entire area is rich in geologic history and is part of the San Juan Volcanic Field. Some geologists believe that the largest volcanic eruption known to man occurred here around 27 million years ago. The La Garita eruption, is estimated to have been a 9.2 on a scale of 1 to 8. Off the scale! As a comparison, the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens was a mere 5. The well known Wheeler Geologic Area near the town of Creede, was Colorado’s first National Monument and is comprised of eroded layers of volcanic ash which is part of what is left of the La Garita eruption. Many two track roads, ideal for beginner and intermediate mountain bikers, stretch for miles throughout geologic features that are absolutely stunning in form and scope. Patti Kelly, a resident and avid cyclist since 2002, said some of her favorite trails are the two track roads between Del Norte and Penitente Canyon, and further north all the way to Carnero Creek, over to Twin Mountain and west to Embargo Creek. “It’s endless miles of easy, flowing, wide open space perfect for a beginner or intermediate rider,” said Kelly. “And no one is out there, I mean seriously nobody. It’s the perfect shoulder season ride as it’s ridable far into the fall and early in the spring.”

Depending on the amount of precipitation, winter can surprisingly be a good time to ride this high desert area, even after it has snowed. The snow melts quickly from the amount of sunshine the area receives and most trails are navigable within a day or two of snowfall, or sooner if you have the right bike. Fat Tire bikes are ideal for snow because of the considerable traction and control they have. In the summer months, the blazing sun makes it very hot and dry and riders must be sure to bring adequate water when traversing these areas. During the summer of 2015, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) hosted two volunteer projects to improve the trail system in the Penitente Canyon Recreation Area. The trails the volunteers built were used in the inaugural 12 Hours of Penitence, a 12-hour bike race. The event brought nearly 200 participants and volunteers to the San Luis Valley, and proceeds from the race benefitted Volunteers for Out-

door Colorado (VOC), an organization that routinely provides $100,000 plus of value to BLM-managed public lands in the San Luis Valley. Penitente Canyon is best known for its world class rock climbing and there are more than 300 routes to hewn ones technical climbing skills and endurance. Hiking the canyon brings one through fantastic volcanic rock formations that tower above. The isolated canyon is named after a devout Spanish religious group Los Hermanos Penitente that practiced flagellation (whipping or beating oneself) to drive out the evil within. A painting of the Virgin de Guadalupe is on a high rock face, next to a popular climbing route. This painting is said to be the result of three Penitente men sharing a bottle of Thunderbird. A rope was tied to an old automobile tire and one man was lowered from above by the others. Unfortunately, the face of the painting has been shot at numerous times. Some repairs were attempted, but the original beauty of the paint-

Fall/Winter 2017


ing has been lost. The 3rd Annual 12 Hours of Penitence endurance mountain bike race is set to be held October 14, 2017 at Penitente Canyon Recreation Area. Although most of the major trail development has been centered around Del Norte, there are many fabulous trails to be explored further west out of South Fork and from there, north into Creede and beyond to Lake City. From South Fork, there is Trout Creek Trail, which is a well maintained ATV trail that is also used by hikers and mountain bikers. It is four

Fat Tire Bikes and their wide tread ride easily through the snow. Photo ©John McEvoy


San Juan Mountains Journal

miles one way to the creek with many switchbacks during which you will pass through areas of high cliffs and boulders. On the way back, it is the same course and all in all, there will be 2000’ total elevation gain going in and coming out. Rated Intermediate. There is also Palisade and Alder Bench Trails. Both are rated Advanced and the latter is mostly vertical for at least the first mile. There are other hiking trails around South Fork that may allow bikes. Check with the

Forest Service for accessibility. The Silver Thread Scenic Byway starts out of South Fork on Highway 149 and meanders all the way to Lake City and on to Blue Mesa Reservoirs. On the way, is the historic mining town of Creede, which is 21.5 miles north of South Fork and well worth a stop for a day or more. Colorful Western characters like Bat Masterson, Bob Ford (who killed Jesse James), Frank James, con artist “Soapy Smith” and Martha Cannary (“Calamity Jane”) and her pal Poker Alice, are some of the famous historic figures that spent time there. Deep Creek is probably one of the most popular Mountain bike accessible trails in the Creede area and will be found off Highway 149 before actually reaching the town of Creede as you head north out of South Fork. A well marked sign with a turn lane leading off to the left of 149 will take one to the northern trailhead. One can start here and go up, up, up, but all the locals know it is more fun to go down. For a shuttle experience, park one car in the dirt lot here at the trailhead. Take another car and continue (left) west on 149 to Creede and after crossing the bridge, instead of turning into town, take a left. Continue on 149 a few miles until you see a turn off for Middle Creek road and take a left there. The following detailed directions are courtesy of scottywic on mtbr. com. “Follow Middle Creek Road until it turns into a dirt road. Soon after turning into dirt, the road will

A woman rides solo on one of the most popular trails east of Del Norte, called “Stone Quarry Trail.” Photo ©John McEvoy

split. Bear left at the split towards Lime Creek Trail Head. This road will wind around for about a mile or two and you will come to a right turn, take a right, and then after about 100 ft you’ll take a left. There will be a

sign about logging traffic. You will now stay on this road until it ends. It will go up to Lime Creek Trail Head, but at the trail head you’ll go left and just continue onward. When you get to the end, the road will stop and be blocked by some logs and a national forest “no motorized vehicles” post. This is where you’ll park.” Get ready for some fun and speed on your bike. There will certainly be obstacles. Be prepared. After ascending a small hill to start, the singletrack begins to drop down into spruce forest. It is not well traveled, but should be easy to follow. Be aware that there may be cows and the refuse they are known for in, on and around the trail. There are a few creeks to cross and if it is early spring or summer, they could be deep and treacherous. Some have bridges, or logs and one that does not, may have a hidden deep hole, so better to walk it over, rather than ride and splash. Rated Intermediate/Difficult. Creede is in Mineral County and

95 percent of the area is public lands. Forest Service roads are numerous and offer access to 15 trails that can’t all be listed here. Many also lead into the wilderness, where no mechanized travel is allowed. Check with the Forest Service office in Creede for advice (when open), or go to the Rio Grande National Forest website for more detailed explanations for travel and trail descriptions. Another great resource is the MTB Project, which offers an app for your phone with mountain bike trail maps: Be prepared for spotty cell service in the Creede area. It is good to have a well prepared itinerary before actually riding. Further references to trail descriptions also at: www. http://trails. Whether you are a novice twotrack trail rider, or a seasoned professional shredder, the mountain bike (and hiking) trails in the eastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado have everything you could wish for. t

Fall/Winter 2017



Otto Mears and the First San Juans Toll Road Enabling a Boom of Settlement in the 1800s


Left: Otto Mears circa 1890. Photo courtesy of Saguache County Museum, Photographer unknown. Right: Typical toll road gate with home for gate keeper attached. Photo from Harper’s Weekly, Author’s collection.

resent day travelers driving in relative comfort through the San Juans over Wolf Creek Pass or Dallas Divide may take paved roads and cushioned seats for granted, but it has not always been so. In fact, when the first American prospectors reached Colorado in great numbers in 1859, they quickly realized that the geologically young San Juan Mountains were steeper and more rugged than any they had ever seen. Although the Utes (who would soon be forced to cede the San Juans to an expansionist United States), had created a network of travois trails, the prospectors and miners demanded more substantial wagon roads for heavy equipment and supplies. Building roads in the San Juans, however, would be no mean feat. Besides the terrain, climate, and Native American challenges there were also financial hurdles, as neither the federal nor state governments had any desire to fund roads at the time and the newly formed Colorado coun-


by P. David Smith

San Juan Mountains Journal

ties had not yet levied enough taxes to tackle the job. Although mountain roads were expensive to build, the Territory of Colorado came up with a solution–toll roads. In this approach, private individuals were authorized to build roads and charge a toll. All it required was a written statement as to general route (a map helped but was not mandatory), a fee schedule for the charges to be made for various travelers depending on the mode of transportation, and payment of a five dollar fee. The toll road lasted for as long as the owner wished, up to twenty years. A small but far-sighted man, Otto Mears, was the answer to early San Juan Mountains transportation and to the founding of many of its mining camps. Mears was a true Horatio Alger story. He was a Russian orphaned by age three and was sent from relative to relative until he found himself alone at age twelve in California when an uncle, who was supposed to meet him there, left for Australia be-

fore Otto arrived. The young boy did odd jobs, slept wherever he could, and took care of himself. When the Civil War erupted, young Mears joined the Union, served honorably with Kit Carson as his commander, and was discharged in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He soon found himself in the southern San Luis Valley in Colorado, where he and Lafayette Head, later Lt. Governor of Colorado, built a store and grist mill. By 1868 Mears was living in Saguache in the northernmost part of the valley. Mears was a true entrepreneur. Even as a child in California he had somehow saved a few dollars and bought and sold California mining stocks, he was always up to any task if someone could help him come up with the money, and his character was that of a “careful“ gambler, who minimized his risks but still took them. During his first year in Saguache, Mears built a trading post, grew 160 acres of wheat, and built a toll road over Poncha Pass to help get

San Luis Valley produce to the now booming mining area of California Gulch (the future site of Leadville). Mears then was the main force behind building a fifty-five mile public road from Saguache to the Ute Indian Agency just over the Continental Divide at the top of Cochetopa Pass, which allowed Saguache farmers and ranchers to bring cattle and produce to be used for allotments and private purchases. From the Ute Agency the stage was set for a toll road into the heart of the San Juans. Mears soon discovered that the new town of Del Norte, on the Rio Grande near the eastern edge of the San Juans, was planning a toll road for the prospectors in the vicinity of Bakers Park (where Silverton would soon be founded) as soon as the Utes sold the area to the United States. However, the mountains near the Continental Divide at the upper Rio Grande were extremely steep–not something a wagon could travel over unless it was unloaded at the top of Stony Pass, taken apart, reassembled at the bottom of the pass, its load packed down on mules or burros to the bottom of the pass, and the cargo

repacked in the wagon. Although some freighters went to this trouble, it made transportation from Del Norte to Silverton expensive, tedious, hard work, and in most cases, it was still totally impossible. Silverton, in fact, would rely on trails and a long, rough wagon road for transportation until the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1882. Otto started his much easier route to the San Juans before the United States had ratified the Ute treaty and had his friend Enos Hotchkiss build a good trail in the middle of the winter of 1873-74 from Saguache to the future site of Lake City. Hotchkiss and two others spent several months living in the San Juans in deep snows and below freezing temperatures and laid out a trail over Los Pinos Pass, down Cebolla Creek, then west from near today’s small settlement of Powderhorn to the Lake Fork. Hotchkiss then made it up the Lake Fork to the area of today’s Lake City by spring. The trail was used heavily but many travelers reported it definitely was not a road. Then Mears hired Hotchkiss to start back at the Ute Agency in late summer of 1874 with a crew

of several dozen men to make the trail into a 100-mile wagon road that would extend another thirty more miles past Lake San Cristobal to Burrows Park, on the route to Silverton. Mears personally inspected the trail, was able to avoid several dangerous spots, and cut over a dozen miles off the route. Mears’ wagon road arrived in the brand new mining camp of Lake City in early summer and beat the Del Norte wagon road by almost six months. While the Saguache and San Juan Toll Road was being constructed near Lake San Cristobal, some of Mears’ road builders found good ore. They sacked eighteen bags of it that they had merely picked up off the surface, and promptly shipped it to Denver in two wagons. The ore netted them $18,000, a sum equal to a quarter of a million dollars today, and the Hotchkiss claim was soon staked. The Hotchkiss (later called the Golden Fleece) and Ute Ulay Mines caused Lake City to boom. Within two years, Lake City had gained the reputation as “Queen of the San Juan‚“ and had over 2,000 residents. Its merchants offered all kinds of specialty goods

Left: Early William Henry Jackson Photo meant to show how rugged the trails could be. This is the Cunningham Gulch area. Photo by W. H. Jackson, Author’s collection. Above: Lumber hauled by mule trains usually was dragged and lost an inch or two in length by its destination. Photo courtesy of Author’s collection.

Fall/Winter 2017


Above: Ore being delivered to smelter by wagon; Tomboy Mine, Telluride, CO. Photo courtesy of Author’s collection. Right: Most of today’s jeep roads in the San Juans were original wagon roads. Photo courtesy of Bill Fries, III, Author’s collection.

like expensive cigars, eastern newspapers, caviar and champagne, and fine women’s dresses, as well as the usual mining supplies and food items. As a direct result of the SaguacheLake City Toll Road, the first big San Juan mines were quickly sold to capitalists who could afford the expensive task of developing hard rock mines. The high-priced sales verified that the San Juan mines were indeed not “humbug‚“ as some Denver newspapers had declared but rather part of a great mining region (eventually second only to Cripple Creek in Colorado). Both Saguache and Del Norte became known as “The Gateway to the San Juan Mines.” Farsighted Mears soon bought an interest in the Del Norte toll road, and started a general merchandise store, a freight company, and a newspaper in Lake City. For five more years


San Juan Mountains Journal

the Del Norte and Saguache roads were the only wagon roads into the San Juans. Lake City, Saguache, Del Norte and all of the northeast San Juans prospered. No other man can take as much credit for the opening and development of all of the San Juans as Otto Mears. He eventually was the founder and/or an early merchant of Saguache, Lake City, Del Norte, and Silverton as well as the builder of virtually all the first wagon roads into almost all the San Juan mining towns, and Mears built the first railroads into the mining towns of Red Mountain, Animas Forks, Telluride, Rico, and Dolores. Mears ended his San Juan transportation career between 1887 and 1892 by building his two famous San Juan narrow gauge (three feet between the rails) railroads. The Rio

Grande Southern and the Silverton Railroad both went where the D&RG was afraid to build because of the tough terrain and the costs involved. It is little wonder that Mears came to be known as “The Pathfinder of the San Juans.” Unfortunately Mears got trapped by the Silver Panic of 1893 and had lost almost everything he owned by the time of his death in California in 1931. Nevertheless, one thing he did not lose was his reputation as a man who built roads and railroads where no one thought it possible. Mears’ stained glass portrait is in the rotunda of the Colorado Capitol building in Denver, a fitting honor as he had been also chosen to oversee its construction. However, Mears’ heart was always in the San Juans. His ashes were scattered near Ouray at Bear Creek Falls, where the toll gate to his “Million Dollar Highway” once stood and a monument now honors his memory. t

Fall/Winter 2017



THE SNOWSHOE HARE Designed for Winter by Lyndon Lampert


xactly why mother nature sends rabbits, though this means little to the some creatures to bed for a long casual observer. Of more interest are winter’s nap and why she keeps others the differences between the two aniactive throughout the coldest months mals’ young. Baby rabbits are born of the year is a mystery no one has naked, with eyes closed, and basicalsolved yet, but those who enjoy view- ly helpless. Newborn hares, however, ing wildlife throughout the year can are much better equipped to face the world on be thanktheir own, ful that born with a many anicoat of hair, mals enliven the open eyes and s n o w y the ability to winter move about l a n d on their own power shortscapes of ly after birth. the San Juans. Even knowThe snowthese Snowshoe Hare Photo ©Edna Mason ing shoe hare is one common San Juan mammal things, howthat is marvelously equipped to con- ever, the genfront the challenges of Rocky Moun- eral similarity tain winters rather than to merely of appearance between hares sleep through them. rabbits Those who become familiar with and will undoubtthe snowshoe hare will discover an unusually approachable animal that edly contincan be seen and enjoyed every month ue to make of the year. Hares are not rabbits and identification rabbits are not hares. While many confusing to people call showshoe hares “snow- many. All hares belong to the genus shoe rabbits,” the truth is that the only true rabbit in the San Juans is Lepus, which is widespread throughthe cottontail. Snowshoe hares and out Europe, Africa, the Near East the unfortunately-named jackrabbits and North America. Eleven species are technically hares, and are really inhabit North America, and Lepus quite distinct from rabbits in sever- americanus, the snowshoe hare, al significant ways. First, true hares ranges throughout the “snow zone” have longer ears and hind legs than from Alaska to Labrador, and from rabbits, as is demonstrated rather ob- the ranges of the West coast through viously in jackrabbits (I would like the Rockies to the states of the northto call them jackhares, but I doubt east. The average snowshoe hare that anyone else would). Second, the weighs from 2 to 5 pounds and is structure of the digestive system is from 16 to 20 inches in length. The somewhat different in hares than in sexes look similar, and in the sum-


San Juan Mountains Journal

mer their coat is gray or gray-brown, and in the winter, white. They prefer woodlands to open territory, and in the San Juans are found most abundantly at elevations above 9000 feet. In some locales, where winter food is plentiful, they may live above timberline, especially among willow thickets. Few other San Juan mammals are as well-equipped to survive the long mountain winters as is the snowshoe hare. Of first importance is a warm layer of insulation in the form of thick hair. This, combined with a sheltered cavity in the snow or under a lowhanging evergreen bough, enables the snowshoe to survive several nights of -30 degrees, or colder each winter. Next are the hare’s namesake, its two hind feet. These feet are disproportionately large for its body size, enabling the animal to hop over the surface of the snow where other animals would plunge through. This is a particular advantage when the snowshoe hare is being pursued by predators such as coyotes, which have great difficulty in maneuvering through snow that is more than a foot or so in depth. The last among the snowshoe’s “winter surPhoto courtesy of Shutterstock vival gear” is its coloration. Shortened daylight hours in the fall cause the hare’s coat to change to a brilliant white that will persist until late in the spring. This snow camouflage, coupled with remaining virtually motionless, generally renders the snowshoe hare virtually invisible to all but the keenest predators. In years of low snow, however, their snowshoes are of no great advantage, and their white camouflage may actually cause them to stand out prominently against bare earth.

Snowshoe hares are vegetarians, and while their favorite foods are in short supply in the winter, they will feed on willow shoots above the snow and aspen bark. They, in turn, will be prey for coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, weasels, eagles and pine martens. Because they are so prolific, snowshoe hares are an important link in the food web wherever they are found. Snowshoe hares are classified as a small game species and have some fear of man, yet most of the time their first reaction to danger is to freeze rather than to run. Thus, they are often quite approachable, and even when they do run, they will often remain in the general vicinity. As a result, the careful observer can actually study a single hare for quite a while, or over an extended period of time. In the San Juans, snowshoe hares are most commonly found in the subalpine zone spruce/fir forests, and following a fresh set of tracks in the winter is one of the best ways to locate them. The snowshoe hare I knew best lived in the woods a couple of miles upstream from the Big Blue Campground, north of Uncompahgre Peak. I met him in his gray coat on a fishing excursion one summer as he sat calmly not four feet off the trail waiting for me to pass. Somehow he must have known that my quarry was trout and not hares, for he displayed no fear as we observed one another for a few moments before he calmly hopped off. The next trip I saw him again in virtually the same location, and began to wonder if this hare enjoyed observing people on the trail as much as people enjoyed observing wildlife. This winter, keep a sharp eye out for the adaptable snowshoe hare just about anywhere among the San Juans from 10,000 to 11,500 feet. And if you see one decked out in its dazzling winter attire, give it some admiration for its ability to take the winter head-on in a place where most of its neighbors merely sleep. t

Suzanne Stewart fine art

Fall/Winter 2017


Day Hike

Winter on Molas Pass Adventure at Your Own Pace by Mark Winkworth

The road up to Little Molas Lake on a winter afternoon. Photo ©Mark Winkworth


here are very few places in the United States where one can easily drive to 11,000 feet in the winter, but the San Juan Mountains have more than a few. With that elevation comes big views, lots of snow, some hardy wildlife and everything else that comes with the mountains in winter. While winter outings might seem daunting to some summer day hikers, a little bit of forethought and preparation can make winter day trips some of the best of the year. Awesome scenery, easy access and a variety of options make Molas Pass, just an hour north of Durango, a great choice for a winter day trip for the entire family. Whether you are planning on cross country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, backcountry skiing or snowmobiling, all are available in this area. Here we will be looking at some basic, easy cross country skiing and snowshoeing options, suitable for many skill levels. These are plentiful on Molas Pass because you don’t need a trail or a particular destination, just a good place to park and some (relatively) flat ground. Molas Pass is wonderfully convenient for a quick trip from the Durango or Silverton areas, but keep


San Juan Mountains Journal

in mind that winter days are short. I have a lot of experience in the mountains, but I must admit, I have never been one for early morning alpine starts. If you do get out early then it should warm up as you go. If you begin your trip in the afternoon, just remember that it starts getting dark as early as 4:00 P. M. and it gets cold quickly as soon as the sun disappears. A great 35 degree day skiing in, cutting and hauling a Christmas tree, can finish up at a chilly 9 degrees when all is done and loaded. Bring an extra warm jacket and maybe some hot drinks to have in the vehicle when you get done. Molas Pass can be enjoyed any day of the week, but bear in mind that the area can be pretty busy on a sunny winter’s day. Familiarize yourself with its different pullouts and safe parking areas so you can avoid any crowds and still park far enough away from the highway traffic. This is especially important when kids or dogs are along for the trip. At least four different parking spots within a mile of the top of Molas Pass can work very well for the start of a day trip. You should never park along the highway shoulder where speed-

ing cars and busy snowplows make for unnecessarily dangerous conditions. If you can’t find a safe place to park, change your plans. Sometimes after a big snow, the usual parking spots are slow to get plowed out, so just head somewhere else and give the plow drivers the time and space they need to get their work done. Abundant options are one of the features that make Molas Pass a great destination. The best parking is usually the large plowed area about 1⁄4 mile up (east) of the Andrews Lake road. Don’t park at the Andrews Lake Road itself. The plowed area varies by how much snow has fallen, but it can usually hold a couple of dozen cars comfortably, even though seeing that number is rare. From there it is easy to follow relatively flat ground in any direction to explore the area. Snowmobiles have access to most of the area and can pack down the trails for easier travel. If you want to avoid the snowmobile tracks, the area around Andrews Lake, known as the Doughnut Hole, is motor-free. Parking is also available at the large overlook at the top of the pass. It works well to park back out of the way so people who stop to take pic-

tures have room to get in and out. Once on the snow, this area is a bit hillier in most directions, so it makes a particularly good sledding and play area. Just down the hill from the top of the pass is the turnout for Little Mo- las Lake. This usually has a parking area plowed out to the gate large enough for six or eight cars. Park here and follow the level road up to the campsites and the lake, or explore the variations in and around the meadows. For a different view, aim northeast along the flat limestone benches below Sultan Peak. Another one-half mile down the road toward Silverton is the parking area for the Molas Pass Trailhead. This area is plowed but also usually shared with a snowmobile outfitter and the snowcat skiing operation. Be sure to leave them plenty of room to do business, but there still should be adequate parking space. From this parking area, you can ski the flats nearer to the road or follow the Colorado Trail down the hill into some lower meadows. Keep in mind a good turn around time so you can do the

View through the trees while exploring Molas Pass. Photo ©Mark Winkworth

longer pull back up and out. Watch for snowmobiles, but there should be no problem sharing the vast space. In general, any of these starting points and routes can work on most days on Molas Pass. If you are skiing or snowshoeing with newbies, kids or dogs, take things easy, slow and short until you have a sense of everybody’s capabilities. Schedule in a couple of confidence-building days before going out for a long tour. This also allows you to refine your gear selections as you learn, or relearn, what is needed and what works. Entire books have been devoted to winter gear selection, so suffice it to say use the equipment you have on hand at the beginning. The trick is not to try to fit your gear to the route you have chosen, but rather to pick a route that works with the gear and equipment that you have. Again, being conservative in your plans, and flexible in your goals, helps to ensure you’ll have a good time and not an exhausting epic. You can do epics later, once you have your system and stamina dialed in. I have spent dozens of days in the winter and spring on Molas Pass and probably never traced the same track twice. I have also never had a problem finding solitude, even on a busy day, just by exploring off in my own direction. The area is often wide open and close enough to the highway so that it is unlikely you’ll get lost. It is also easy to stay on flatter ground if you are not trained in avalanche avoidance. The snow can vary from thin December sugar, to February powder, to dense late May melt-out. The weather, of course, can change minute to minute from warm sun, icy breeze, or mountain snowstorm. It is always a new experience. The real beauty of Molas Pass is not just in the scenery but also in the ease with which we can experience it so close to home. Be safe, plan for the conditions, bring your family and experience winter on Molas Pass at a pace anyone can enjoy. t

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Encouragement from the staff of the San Juan Mountains Journal

Fall/Winter 2017



Embracing Winter: Enjoy a Fou “H

ow do you survive the winters?” This is the most frequent question asked of me by our summer tourists in the San Juans. Inevitably, there comes a season when the wildflowers have long bloomed out; the golden aspen leaves have fallen; the temperatures drop; the days shorten; and snow begins to pile up in my little town. However, at this point winter is just beginning. Everyone dreams of a white Christmas: glistening treetops, days that are merry and bright. I adore early winter. My children spend the first few months of winter amusing themselves by building snow forts, sledding, skiing, and ice-skating. Last year, my five-year-old proclaimed, “That was sick powder on that black diamond, Mom!” The kids are even convinced that shoveling the snow is fun; they will bicker over whose turn it is. The excitement lasts through the holidays, and even into January and February. However, sometime about the beginning of March, I am done with winter. This happens to be long before she’s done with me. At this point, I ask myself, “how do you survive the


San Juan Mountains Journal

winters?” Well, I lace up my snow boots and trudge over to my local library. I return home with a stack of books: an Antarctic expedition account, a collection of mountaineering stories, and an assortment of Himalayan ascent stories. My winter coping mechanism for years has involved

comparing my well-fed, wood-heated, marshmallow-on-top experience of winter to Shackleton’s expedition, Krakauer’s stories, and Reinhold Messner’s climbing struggles and triumphs. “At least I am not shipwrecked in the Weddell Sea, being chased by a leopard seal,” I reassure

The east ridge of 14,001’ Sunshine Peak rises above Logan Rhodes. Photo ©Mike Ralph

Photo ©Amanda Hartman Panorama from the summit includes neighboring 14,034’ Redcloud Peak immediately to the left of the Hartmans. Photo ©Mike Ralph

Fourteener in the Off Season myself. “I am neither hanging from a frozen waterfall in Alaska, nor missing any fingers or toes.” I do not imply that living through a San Juan winter is equivalent to the accomplishments of such great men. But, knowing that I somehow belong to the same species as these explorers, I am inspired to endure a few more months of cold, dark days. As I am wishing winter would just go away and pick on someone else, my husband, a back country skier, has an entirely different approach to late winter. He simply embraces it and proclaims, “The snow pack is just getting good. You just need to get out there and enjoy it!” I don’t mention to him that I feel like punching winter in the face. I am weary of winter. I miss the color green. I want to go for a trail run. I feel like spring will just never come. In the beautifully written Endurance, Alfred Lansing says of the great Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton, “Of all their enemies–the cold, the ice, the sea–he feared none more that demoralization.” While singing the winter blues last March and facing

Antarctic-scale demoralization myself, I was invited to join an adventure. So, I decided to stop pouting and try this whole “embrace winter” thing. The project: a winter ascent of Sunshine Peak, one of Hinsdale County’s five Fourteeners. At 14,001 feet, it is the shortest of Colorado’s 54 Fourteeners. In warmer months, Sunshine is generally ascended from the south in conjunction with its near neighbor Redcloud Peak. In the winter, it is best approached from the East. The team: a rag tag group of local trail runners, which included two native Colorado guys, two guys who spent portions of their adult lives in Alaska, and, um, me. As a South Alabama girl, my qualification for this journey is limited to the books I have read while whining about winter. As we embarked on our journey, I noticed one of my friends is totally geared up with a pack big enough to carry anything we might need. One guy is wearing jeans and not carrying much at all. I am wearing an assortment of thrift store winter gear, snow boots that are intended to pair nicely with a cute corduroy skirt, and

by Amanda Hartman

Logan Rhodes surveys snow cornices near the summit. Photo ©Mike Ralph

yard-sale snowshoes in my pack. My husband, the only skier in the group, wears his spiffy red telemark boots and carries his heavy skis in his pack. Yeah, he’s clearly embracing winter. The day: absolute perfection. I have climbed our five Fourteeners multiple times in summer and fall, yet have never had such beautiful weather for the duration of the trip. March 11, 2017 was just a gorgeous winter day. We set out from County Road 30 at

Fall/Winter 2017


Amanda and Christian Hartman pose atop Sunshine Peak. Photo ©Mike Ralph

Mill Creek Campground around 7:30 A. M. with snowshoes and skis on our backs. We teased my husband about his heavy ski boots and heavy skis, but he assured us he would get the last laugh on the descent. We climbed up through some rocky, cliff-riddled areas. The route is fairly steep, gaining roughly 4,600 ft in 3.5 miles. At points we were hip deep in powdery snow, but we persevered in our boots for as long as possible. On this type of outing, conversation topics generally include, but are not limited to the following: other outrageous things we’ve done, places we’ve been, food, beer, and eventually what other outrageous adventures we’d like to attempt in the future. As we each took turns breaking trail in front or sucking air in the back, we quickly moved through these topics and up the trail as well. We warmed up and dropped some layers. The snow was soft and deep in the trees. We wearied of slogging, and strapped on our snowshoes and skis. By some chance, we were a fairly matched group and stayed together on the trail. Around 12,000 feet we popped above treeline and beheld the slopes of white that awaited us. The gentle east ridge could be followed all the way to the summit. The snow was set up and we were able to stay on top


San Juan Mountains Journal

and move easily up the slope. I had snowshoed other trails before, but I had never traveled this high on my own two feet in winter. We began to take in the surrounding views. It was beautiful! At 12,500 feet, we sat for a snack and considering the firmness of the snow pack, decided to take off our snowshoes. We could see the summit, which still looked pretty far away. The ridge continued to narrow between 13,300 and 13,600 feet. This was one my favorite sections of the climb. Usually, steep exposure makes me nervous. I can attribute this to the fact that for the first half of my life, the highest point I reached was the top of the magnolia tree in my backyard. Following the ridgeline, I glanced at the jagged cliffs dropping off the face of the world to my right. On this perfect sunny day, climbing the friendliest-named peak around, with a great group of guys, I was reminded that mountains are mountains and still deserve serious respect.

I acknowledged this fact and steered clear of the cornices above the cliffs. The last 400-foot push to the summit surprised us. We had to kick some steps in the hard snow, but summited with ease. It was warmer than some of my summer climbs and almost windless. Looking at the expanse of peaks and valleys below, I witnessed everything marvelously covered in snow. “I love winter,” I exclaimed. “I could just kiss winter.” My husband was victorious in his summit and even more so victorious in convincing me to embrace late winter. Despite having been born in these mountains, this was his first winter summit as well as his first peak ski descent. Peering over the peak to the southeast, it seemed the whole world waited below the tips of his skis. After a few awkward, nervous turns off the steep edge, he found his legs and sailed down, leaving the rest of us to kick in our heels and step carefully back down the trail.

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After picking our way down the narrow ridge, we had a blast glissading down the lower snowfields. We all ended up cruising down on our bottoms at some point. Our pal in the jeans covered some serious ground sliding down penguin-style on his chest. We crossed paths with my husband once as he flew down on his skis. Enjoying the last laugh, he had definitely earned his turns by carrying his gear up 4,600 feet. The lovely sunshine that warmed our morning path up the mountain, had, by the time of our descent, melted our tracks and turned the snow lower on the mountain to soup. We settled into a rhythm, which can best be described as: “slosh, slosh, slosh, crash, moan.” I fell about every fourth step; crossed my poles in the snow for leverage, and righted myself. I would have been embarrassed by this, but each time I fell, I noticed at least one other guy up to his neck in snow behind me. The soupy snow indeed slowed our progress, but provided many laughable moments as well. We struggled to navigate down in the trees. Since we couldn’t find our morning tracks, we followed my husband’s descending tracks. Here’s a mountaineering tip: if you’re snowshoeing, don’t follow the skier! I think he was playing around in the trees, traversing as much terrain as possible, unaware that we’d try to stay in his tracks. We were unaware that while he was moving much faster on top of the snow, he was also slightly lost. Despite our detours, we all returned to the truck at about 4:00 P. M. with all our fingers and toes intact. Back to town for dinner, we chowed down on some barbeque and talked of other peaks we’d like to conquer before winter’s end. My husband was later able to top out on Uncompahgre with some friends and ski off the summit. I had a few more adventures in the woods with my snowshoes, too. So, next time I am asked how I survive winter, perhaps I’ll have a different answer: I just embrace it. t

Fall/Winter 2017



WOLF PUPS A Breath of Fresh Air for Parents Who Worry By Kevin Muirhead


here’s not much on the Parental Cautionary List that supersedes Ski School. Think about it. You walk into a place filled with adults you’ve never met before, and about whom you know nothing. And then you leave your child there. All. Day. Long. And it’s certainly not like child care, where the kids are contained within a building with child-proof door handles and high fences around a padded playground. In fact, the only thing you do know about these people is that they’ll be taking your child out into the wide world to wander the forested mountainside. And not just idly, but at speeds of 10, 15, 20 miles per hour. On purpose. And to cap it all off, they’re not hiking up to begin these mad descents. No, no. They’re riding on a seat suspended in the air twenty feet off the ground or more, without direct adult supervision on the chair with them. Kid’s Ski School is at least number three on the list. Right behind Carnivals and Swimming Lessons. If you’ve decided to visit Wolf Creek Ski Area, nestled in an extremely snowy corner of the San Juan Mountains, and are considering ski school for your little one, the fears and worries and possibilities can really begin to pile up in a parent’s mind. The question about ski school can quickly morph into a statement of “Well, I’ll stay home with (insert


San Juan Mountains Journal

Photo ©Ryan Scavo, courtesy of Wolf Creek Ski Area

five-year-old’s name here) and the rest of you can go ski.” Truly, there’s a lot that can go wrong on the ski slopes for a child. Kids are little, and the laws of physics (particularly that of momentum) still apply at the ski area. So how do you justify the risks and actually make the drive up Wolf Creek Pass? As a parent and a ski instructor, I think I’ve figured it out: it all comes down to trust in complete strangers. Yipes. But that’s the key. Are these

instructors (these people, remember, whom you’ve never met) going to care for your child as well as you would? The answer comes down to two things: reputation and first impressions (possibly desperation for a day off, but let’s not go there). Reputation is kind of sticky, like honey. People see excellence and it sticks in their mind forever. But reputation is also a knife that cuts both ways. Make but a few mistakes in a row, and it can bury you.

Photo ©Ryan Scavo, courtesy of Wolf Creek Ski Area

In this respect, Wolf Pups, Wolf Creek Ski Area’s program for teaching children to ski and snowboard, is a shining example of how to do it right. Pitch Pitcher, who started Wolf Creek Ski Area in 1941, and his wife, Charity Jane Pitcher, implemented the Wolf Pups program in the mid1980s. It didn’t take long for the program to grow, and in the mid-90s they built the Wolf Pups building with an exclusive magic carpet (a moving sidewalk for skiers) for the children to use. Rosanne Pitcher, Vice President of Operations and Sales at Wolf Creek, emphasized Jane’s role in establishing Wolf Pups: “She was always vigilant about the children’s program, making sure that the food was healthy with plenty of snacks and comfortable surroundings for the kids.” She and Pitch would always make frequent visits to the Wolf Pup Building to ensure everything was running well and to the highest of standards. Wolf Pup Supervisors through the years have carried on this tradition. Chrissy Karas spent many years refining the program, and for the past fifteen years, Brent Palmgren has taken it to new heights.

So now, when a mother walks into the Wolf Pups Lodge and sees friendly smiles and caring eyes, she can take that first nervous breath and exhale a little anxiety. These first impressions set the tone for the rest of the day. However, more often than not, the children venture happily into the world of Wolf Pups, forgetting even to return their parents’ farewells – and these are only the first timers. Those veteran child-skiers blitz to class in a manner which would incite envy in even the most talented and experienced first-grade public-school teacher. The bottom line is that time and time again, Wolf Pups has been a beacon of hope to parents who have a tough time leaving their beloved child in a stranger’s care. Because when a ski school, “as intrinsically awful as it appears to be on paper” inserts as much joy into a family vacation or ski day as it does, it is a rare thing, indeed. Sol and Molly Kanthack, parents of three girls who learned to ski in Wolf Pups, will say as much. “It’s a great experience,” Sol said, “took the stress out of the day. And the instructors who taught the girls have really become like an extended part of the family.” Molly, who learned to ski as a Wolf Pup herself, elaborated. “Wolf Creek staff [make] every child feel that they are cared for and that above all else they are safe while on the slopes and they are having fun! There are so many choices on where to take a fam-

ily ski vacation, but if you are looking for a family resort, top notch instruction, and overall for your children to learn not only to ski but to have a real passion and love for the sport, then Wolf Pups is without a doubt where you should be.” So, come to Wolf Pups. Swallow that “what-if” trying to leap out of your throat. Give these random strangers you’ve heard about a chance to train your blossoming little skiers to handle the risks and craziness of bombing down the slopes. And then go have a blast shredding the hill with them. After all, there aren’t many sports you can truly enjoy as a family. This is one of them. That ought to move Wolf Pups down the Parental Cautionary List a little. At least get it behind Fishing Trips with Uncle Danger. t

Words of Wisdom: Avoid Christmas and Spring Break crowds. Bite the bullet and ski a random week in January or February. Don’t forget Sunscreen and eye-protection for your little ones! Reserve your place in Wolf Pups online! Request a private lesson for light-speed improvement. Hydrate or die. Also helps with altitude sickness.

Fall/Winter 2017



San Juan Mountains Journal



he winter had been a hard one. Mounds of snow lay upon the land like whipped cream on a latte served by an over-generous barista. A heavy layer of white was everywhere and the local deer herds were suffering. It didn’t entirely surprise me, then, when early one morning I raised my blinds and saw a mule deer doe lying lifeless in the patch of bare earth beneath the mature blue spruce in my front yard. Had she succumbed to starvation? Old age? Disease? I did not know, but what I did know was that a dead deer in my front yard was not my idea of a lawn decoration. A call to the local wildlife officer was in order. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday and even wildlife officers take days off from time to time. Thus, I knew it was likely that this dead deer would be in my yard and in my view for a couple of days. I was not happy about this prospect. But my dour opinion was about to change. About an hour later, I looked out of my window again and noticed that the dead deer was no longer alone! Sitting near its head now appeared one very healthy bobcat, looking smugly satisfied. For a moment, I wondered if the bobcat had been the cause of the deer’s demise, but quickly dismissed the thought. A cougar could bring down a mature deer, but not a medium-sized bobcat. More likely, the bobcat, in its nocturnal wanderings, had simply happened upon the deer and had staked its claim. Instantly, my frustration with having a dead deer twenty feet from my front door transformed to excitement for the opportunity of watching another living creature that I had only rarely seen, and then for only seconds at a time. Bobcats had been seen dashing in front of my headlights or bounding away over a snow-covered field, but never posing twenty feet away for minutes or hours at a time,

The Visitor as this one appeared willing to do! The bobcat that was now my guest was not large, perhaps twice the size of my slender tabby housecat, Justice. But a more beautiful creature could not be envisioned! Its tawny, mottled coat was luxuriously thick in its full winter’s glory, the kind of fur you want to run your hands through. Fanciful tufts of hair tipped its pointed ears, and its bobbed tail echoed that of a favorite Manx cat from my childhood. As a life-long cat lover, I was thoroughly enthralled. As the morning wore on, I began to wonder what the cat would do with its found treasure. At one point it began to gnaw on the carcass, but surely a smallish bobcat could only eat so much at one sitting! I contented myself with watching through my window and observing my guest. Most of the time it simply sat contentedly over its prize. After several hours, I had to go out on some errand and the bobcat bounded from under the tree and across the street, where it disappeared between two unoccupied houses. I felt sorry that I had caused it to run, as though I had been a rude host. I wondered if I had frightened it off for good. But that evening the bobcat came back. And the next morning, and the next evening. And by the time Monday arrived, I noticed that it had begun to cover the deer with a fresh layer of needles, just like bobcats and cougars do with their kills in the wild, their version of putting meat in the freezer! It was with a bit of sadness when I returned home later on Monday to find fresh tire tracks in my driveway, drag marks, and no deer beneath the tree. Apparently the local wildlife officer had received my message and had done his work while I was out. With its “freezer” now emptied, I knew the bobcat would not be back. Yet, in the two days that the bobcat had been my unplanned guest, I had

gleaned some true wealth. I had enjoyed the privilege of relatively close contact with a wild living creature, which in turn put me in touch with my own existence as a creature. I had experienced afresh the fraternity of creaturehood. Although we humans are not accustomed to thinking that we have much in common with bobcats, in truth we do. The bobcat in my front yard had a beating heart, respirating lungs and circulating blood. It had ears to hear and eyes to see. The bobcat undoubtedly preferred a warm place to sleep, just as I did. It experienced hunger and satisfied its hunger when it could, just as I. And when it had more food than it needed, the bobcat was prudent enough to save some for the future, as I do when I put food in my cupboard. Most of all, the fraternity of creaturehood reminded me that there is a certain stability in remembering that both the bobcat and I are marvelously created beings. As creatures, we both owe our existence and our sustenance to the same all-wise Creator. Millenia ago, King David recognized this when he wrote these words of praise to this same great Creator: “The eyes of all look to Thee, and Thou dost give them their food in due time. Thou dost open Thy hand, and dost satisfy the desire of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16) The bobcat taught me that being a creature is something to be celebrated. Bobcats, humans, bluejays, trout, elephants, iguanas and wildebeests raise a united chorus of glory to the One Who gives them life. It is indeed good to be a fellow creature. Thank you, my brief bobcat guest, for reminding me of the simple joy of creaturehood. The next time you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by again. I’d be delighted to renew our fellowship. t Lyndon Lampert

Fall/Winter 2017



San Juan Mountains Journal

Profile for San Juan Mountains Journal

San Juan Mountains Journal Fall/Winter 2017  

Celebrating America's Greatest Mountain Range

San Juan Mountains Journal Fall/Winter 2017  

Celebrating America's Greatest Mountain Range