Thursday, July 21, 2016

Day 37: Dipping Vat Lakes to North Fork Conejo River

A lone elk barked his wake up call near the lake. The clouds had cleared in the night, and a nearly full, pale gold moon lit the dawn sky. A mist rose from the lake as the sun began to rise. 

Sierra's 13th birthday. She has spent a lot of birthdays on the trail: her 7th at Evolution Lake along the John Muir Trail, her 9th at Drakesbad, just past the halfway point on the Pacific Crest Trail, her 10th at Mesa Verde, the day after completing the Colorado Trail, her 11th in the Great Divide Basin along the Wyoming Continental Divide Trail, and her 12th in the Bob Marshall Wilderness along the CDT in Montana. So it is only fitting that she should celebrate her 13th birthday in the Southern San Juans in Colorado as we finish the CDT.  

The weather cooperated to give Sierra a beautiful, sunny birthday morning. We climbed up the ridge and hiked through lush, green alpine meadows sprinkled with  a rainbow of wildflowers and dotted with small tarns. We stopped at a snowy tarn to celebrate the moment of her 13th birthday with a picture and a strawberry shortcake roll. 

The clouds began building like clockwork, but it was difficult to make rapid progress through such spectacular scenery. We stopped to admire the reflection of the mountains in the water, smile at the cheerful bouquets of bright yellow sunflowers, marvel at the perfectly formed purple and white columbines, feel the soft, fuzzy white beargrass, and listen to the marmots chirping as they scrambled over the rocks. We also stopped to talk to a solo hiker exploring the trail from his base camp perched high in the trees just below the ridge. 

"Unmarked left turn at cairn!" The Databook and our CDT app both warned. But as we passed at least a hundred cairns, it was understandably difficult to discern which one indicated the unmarked turn. Of course, we missed it, as we happily crunched along on a soft, Christmas scented bed of fir needles. Backtracking and route finding, all in a day's work on the CDT. 

A soft, low rumble, like the distant rolling beat of a timpani, notified us that the day's thunderstorms had begun. And yet a patch of sunshine seemed to follow us throughout the day, even as it rained on distant ridges. 

We spotted another lone backpacker as we crossed the Middle Fork of the Conejos River. He quickly scuttled away as we approached, only reemerging again to watch us as we climbed out of the canyon. An unusual encounter, as most hikers we meet are quite friendly, but we respected his privacy and left with only a passing wave. 

We climbed over two mountain passes in quick succession. A large elk herd peacefully grazed near a small tarn on the other side of the pass. We dropped down to the North Fork of the Conejos River, and made a comfortable camp on a soft bed of fir needles with incredible views of the rugged mountains above and the lush green valley below. We had been warned to expect storms, and sure enough, the wind picked up and lightning flashed on the ridge while directly above we enjoyed a sky full of stars and the rising golden moon. 

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