After Frank Rutherford and Vern Deneana made it to my house we left Ft Worth Tx around 16:30 on September 6th 1996 and arrived in Antonito Colorado at 04:30, September 7th. The drive to Antonito, CO was uneventful and seemed shorter than this same drive in years past. Maybe it was because the speed limit is now 70 MPH most of the way (which means we drove 75-80). The conversations, related to the anticipation of being in this beautiful part of the country and reminiscing of past trips, helped keep us awake during the late night and early morning portion of the trip. A quick stop at about 3:00 am on the bridge over a deep canyon formed by the Rio Grande river between Taos and Tres Piedras, NM served to revive us during the long drive (Vern had never seen this canyon). Standing on this high bridge and peering over the edge into the deep, moonlit canyon and listening to the roar of the water several hundred feet below was rather eerie. The 1-2 hours of “sleep” in the pickup upon arrival in Antonito also helped to revive us. A big breakfast at a local restaurant put on the finishing touches and we were off to the Cottonwood Fly Shop to stock up on recommended flies and some advice about the area we were hiking into. From the fly shop, we drove up the Conejos Rive Valley (beautiful, none of us had ever been here before).
The hike started at the Ruybalid Trail head in the South San Juan Wilderness at 9:10 am. Each of us had a 65# backpack (70 counting the water) with all the supplies and fishing gear we needed for the next 7 days. We started at 8000 ft & were to top out at 11000 ft. We would eventually end our first day of hiking 9 hours later at 11,193 feet at Alverjones Lake. The TOPOs from the USGS “SUCK”, there must be 30 – 40 switchbacks(we later found out there is actually 38) that are not shown on the maps. With the altitude, heavy packs, the steep grade, and only 1-2 hours of sleep the night before, we sounded like three vacuum cleaners moving up the mountain. We finally made it to the top by 2:30 p.m.
Frank had never owned or used a full framed backpack prior to this trip and was not familiar with how to properly adjust the hip belt and shoulder straps for proper weight distribution. Only a short distance up the trail and he realized something was not right. His legs seemed to be suffering from lack of blood flow as the hip belt was riding too low and was cutting off the circulation (I just thought he needed some sun). He had to keep holding up the pack with his hands behind his back to keep his legs from tingling. It was not until the next day that he realized he had his shoulder strap caught underneath the hip belt. Lesson number one.
When we reached the “top” (i.e. the trail became less steep and the switchbacks finally ended), we took a welcome break thinking we were really close to our first scheduled destination, Alverjones lake. We celebrated our supposed victory with a sip of the Chevis that Vern had brought along. Shortly after starting up the trail again, we realized just how bad the USGS maps were with regard to trail depiction. We figured the lake was very close to the first trail fork (wrong). After hiking for another hour and a half, we came to a trail intersection which was not on the map. We were dead tired, the trail was not clearly marked.
We had to do some scouting first to see which direction we needed to go. Vern and Frank decided to shed their backpacks and “quickly” investigate which trail went to Alverjones lake while I “guarded” (rested, took a nap,set on my butt, ect, ect.) the backpacks.
They each took different trails, (there were three to choose from), the two they picked were incorrect, Vern’s doubled back and Frank’s dead ended at the end of a long meadow. Frank and Vern decided to walk the third trail. After a couple rises that looked promising they came up empty handed, but decided to press a little farther since we knew the lake must be close by. Finally after another 3/4 mile the lake was in sight!! Now they had to come back, collect their packs and convince me it was just a “little further” and hike back to the lake. While they were gone a storm cloud rolled in and it looked like we were going to get wet so I put the rain covers on everyones backpacks, just so I wouldn’t feel totally useless.
Based on what an outfitter had told us on the way up, we found a good pre-existing campsite and quickly set up camp and started dinner. I would have went to bed without dinner if I had not smelled the food and realized how hungry I really was. I was exhausted but I was even more hungry. We ate and went to bed by 9:00 pm. We really overextended ourselves and had to spend two nights in this camp to recuperate, (which turned out to be a blessing).
DAY TWO-RECOVERY DAY AT FIRST CAMP(9/8)
After a quick lunch, Vern and Frank decided they had enough energy to take a short day hike and do a little scouting. Vern took a hike to the southeast and Frank decided to take a fairly long cross country (i.e. no established trail) hike over to Victoria Lake. The maps were good if you ignored the trails marked on the map and just used the clearing and drainage information. Victoria lake turned out to be a large lake but fairly shallow and did not seem to contain any fish. Frank said the hike to the lake passed through some really picturesque country and was so easy that he decided to continue on in a large circle back to camp and see if he could intercept the trail from Alverjones Lake to Laguna Venada (Deer Lake) (Laguna Venada was to be our second destination and our base camp for the rest of the week). Less than an hour from Victoria Lake, he intercept the trail and followed it back to Alverjones Lake. Along the way, he sighted a lone coyote out for an afternoon stroll (rather unusual during this time of the day).
Later that day I gave Vern some pointers on getting close to the fish in the inlet stream to the lake. After some hard casting on his knees he was also able to hook about a 14 inch cutthroat. We did not get to eat this one, although he got him to the shore he came off the line at the last minute and got away. This was Vern’s first trout/fish caught on a fly rod, it was a challenging catch and, as he said, great fun! (NOTE: As I was lifting him out of the water for Vern the fish jerked out of my hand snapped the leader & got away. I felt really bad about it since it was Vern’s first fish on a fly rod, but he was very good natured about it & kept on fishing. He didn’t even yell at me or threaten me.)
Conversation that afternoon and evening included details on how these fish were caught, what Vern and Frank had discovered on their hikes and where the trail was that led to Laguna Venada. I was still in the clouds from the trophy I had caught. Plans were made to fish the inlet the next morning, eat breakfast, and head for destination number two, Laguna Venada. Alverjones Lake was scenic and provided us with some very good eating and entertainment (and some much needed rest). We heard coyotes that night, their howling echoing through the valley with an eerie but relaxing sound. The mornings here were clear and cool, about 30 degrees, with a heavy frost.
DAY THREE-HIKE TO BASE CAMP(9/9)
Down at the inlet, Frank had to crawl through the frost covered, knee-high grass in order to sneak close enough to the inlet and not scare the fish. His heart sank when he first peeked over the grass and discovered that the inlet was covered with ice. He moved down the inlet, closer to the lake and found less ice. Finally, he found a section that was ice-free enough to fish. On about the third or forth cast, BAMM, a large, finned creature grabbed the black woolyburger tied to end of his 5x leader. The drag on his fly reel began to sing and the fight was on. The 15 ¾ inch female cutthroat tired fairly fast and was soon in hand. Frank finished fishing the inlet to no avail (probably because of all the silt that was stirred up from the furious fight) and walked back up to camp with his prize.
Great brunch! Fresh trout cooked over a camp fire, served with scrambled eggs , grits, and vast quantities of fresh mountain air is awfully hard to beat.
After eating, we broke camp, donned our backpacks and left by 11:15 am for Laguna Venada 3 1/2 miles away. Compared to the first day’s hike, this one was easy with only a slight uphill grade. Vern had stained his knee the first day and it kept nagging him on this short trip. We were already at 11,200 feet and were going to 11,413 feet at Laguna Venada Lake, this would not be as strenuous as the first days hike but we were still a little tired and had not totally adjusted to the altitude so all the little things like setting up and breaking camp, cooking, washing dishes, getting water, and even negotiating getting into a sleeping bag were still tiresome. We passed by Victoria Gulch, entered the timber and dropped slightly into the drainage of the valley where Laguna Venada lake is located. Laguna Venada is located in a large bowl at the end of this particular valley. With the exception of the direction we came into valley, all other passages required some vertical assent or descent to get in or out of the valley. Occasionally you just had to stop and take a few deep breaths so that you could go on about your business. As we neared the next location we saw an outfitters tent but no sign of life. We would later encounter the residents (they were bow hunting for elk) while scouting the area for another way out to the Elk river and once when they rode through our base camp on horseback with flashlights to guide them through the forest.
We made our objective by 1:45 p.m., not bad for flatlanders. We picked a camp site about 150 yards from Laguna Venada where we had a good view of the lake and protection from the wind, we were now at over 11,400 feet and situated in a good location for a day hike to Trail Lake which was about three miles away. We set up camp and went fishing, (did you expect anything else). We could see the fish jumping but they were very spooky. Frank finally caught (and released) one small, hungry brook trout on an elk hair caddis fly. That was the only catch of the day. We finally gave up and went back to camp. Just the same it was a good feeling to be in our base camp and know that we would not have to pack up and move out for a few days, this would give us a little more leisure time and a chance to explore this area without the full weight of our packs on our backs. We established a good camp kitchen, built a fire, and after a supper consisting of freeze dried sweet and sour pork (not bad), settled in around the fire and reflected on the last three days events and planned for tomorrow’s hike to Trail Lake. Lullabies that night included coyote choir performances.
DAY FOUR-DAY HIKE TO TRAIL LAKE(9/10)
This turned out to be a very interesting day of hiking and fishing. Once we were out of the valley where we were camped we had a whole new view of the surrounding mountain ranges. When we topped the first ridge, it was like entering a different world. Another main drainage formed a beautiful valley directly north of us with snow capped peaks beyond. The peaks and valleys just made you curious as to what it would be like to explore them (without 65 pound packs). Now I know a little how the first explorers felt and why they had a need to continue their exploration no matter how difficult the trip.
We were on a high meadow and working our way up to 12,000 feet. In the process Frank spotted two deer, Vern would later spot another one on the return trip. A little over half way to Trail Lake the weather started to turn for the worst, we had been looking at the building thunderstorms throughout the hike that morning, now it was our turn to get a dose of high altitude weather. Three fourths of the way up a bitchin storm caught us. We hid behind the only trees (junipers) on the ridge (they weren’t much more than a bush) while the storm moved in. We stayed under this protection for the next 40 minutes and used this time as an opportunity to relax and joke. The storm only lasted about 15 minutes. It hailed off and on at first but when the weather closed in, the hail although small started to fall in earnest. By the time it was over the ground was completely covered.
Once our hike resumed we had another trail dilemma. A little further up, we came across more trail junctions that were not depicted correctly on the map. The unrestricted view allowed us to see a number of lakes to the west and south in a gorgeous basin below us. These lakes and the incorrect trail information on the map caused a little discussion concerning the proper route. Vern was convinced that what turned out to be the Dipping Lakes was probably our destination but, Frank and I were not convinced and we continued on to the west where we finally caught sight of Trail Lake at 11,983 feet. Unfortunately more bad weather was on the way and by the time we had our day packs off it had started to rain with some thunder and lightning. The thunder was cracking directly overhead. It felt like you could reach up & touch the storm with your fingertips. As Vern was assembling his fly rod he noticed that he was being shocked by the reel each time it touched his chest. He then noticed that there was a little arcing from his fingertips to the rod. I was not interested in testing his theory on the amount of static electricity in the air, it was obvious that it was time to put down the pole, find shelter, and wait out this storm. We came very close to giving up and returning to camp but after finding better shelter we decided to stick it out in hopes that some of the clear sky we could see would eventually work its way over us. (This later proved to be the right decision as the weather was worse the next two days and would have prevented us from fishing this lake.) The weather finally cleared and it seemed safe enough for us to start swishing our hand held lightning rods around in hopes of electrifying some rainbow trout. The weather was too fickle to chance getting out on the lake in the float tubes, so we only fished from the shore. Once Frank finally worked his way down to the end of the lake where the bank dropped off quickly into very deep water, he caught the first rainbow trout which about 15 inches long. He eventually caught two more.
Vern’s initial efforts on the east side of the lake were met with little success, he could see some rock ledges on the west side of the lake that looked promising although he would have to walk across a significant boulder field to get there. He did this and was rewarded with a nice 16 inch rainbow after just a couple of cast. This was not due to any great skill in his casting abilities. Basically, Vern put the fly out about 35 feet and was letting it drift in the wind as he was admiring the scenery to the north and the fact that this lake was at the top of the world. Vern worked this fish lightly because he was unsure of its size and the strength of the tippet (4X). He let him run on a light drag setting, which made the catch a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately Vern had left his camera on the other side of the lake and was not about to walk back and get it so he reluctantly let him go in the hopes someone would get the opportunity to catch him again. It wasn’t long before he caught another, about 11 inches, which was also released. Although these were the only two fish Vern would catch at this lake he said it was worth the hike to get there and the view to the west was spectacular from the Continental Divide.
I managed to hook and land one little 10 inch rainbow. The fish in this lake seemed to have my number. If I cast 30 feet they would hit the surface at 40 feet. If I cast 40 feet they were at 50 feet, ect., ect., ect..
The scenery around the lake is indescribably beautiful. At 12000 ft. elevation we are above the tree line & right on top of the continental divide. We walked to the edge so we could see the western side of the continental divide. The scenery there was just as spectacular. Man, was it ever rugged over there. To think that we actually discussed hiking to this lake from that side made me shudder. I wished we had more time to spend at this lake but it was getting close to sundown and we had a long hike back. After a little more sightseeing, fishing from the shore, and a somewhat wet attempt at float fishing (Vern decided to give the tube a try. Lesson number 2: waist high waders are NOT high enough for float tubes. As a result Vern’s waders have gone to wader heaven.) we were ready to start back to camp.
On the return trip we took a shortcut which saved us about a mile of hiking and arrived back at camp with plenty of daylight to spare and provided us with a different view of the valley we were camped in. We even stopped on the way back to take pictures of the dipping lakes. What a wonderful day!
During the night we could hear the elk moving through the woods behind us. Twice I heard the cows talking to each other and somewhere in-between a coyote sang to us.
DAY FIVE-SCOUTING AND FISHING(9/11)
We had all agreed that we would rather head back on a different trail than we came in on, if possible, so we could explore some different country. By looking at the maps, we knew there was another trail that led back to the Conejos River valley through Elk Creek canyon. Frank and Vern decided to scout out a path just west of Victoria Gulch and into the Third Meadows of Elk Creek. (I stayed at camp & took a bath in the stream running out of the lake, burrrrrrrrrr! The water was cold but it felt good to wash.) Although the map showed this as some pretty steep terrain it appeared that it might be passable, we had to convince ourselves of this first though since we would be leaving with heavy packs the next day and did not want to get into a situation where we would have to backtrack with a heavy load. The route proved to be quite passable even with 65 pound backpacks. While exploring the route, they got a good look at the waterfall (not much water this time of year) and even found a nice spring along the way. The fresh spring water was ice cold and tasted a lot better than the filtered lake water we had been drinking. They emptied their water bottles and refilled them with the spring water, which they very kindly shared with me upon returning to camp. The scouting trip also gave them our first look into this valley which was much more scenic than the high country we had just came from. There were lots of aspen mixed in with the blue spruce and pine. Frank & Vern say that we can make it down the hill to Elk Creek so that’s the way we will head home.
After returning to camp Frank and Vern decided to take another shot on the lake. Since I had been so lucky earlier that morning I let Vern use my waders and float tube. The weather had started to change and the fish were not biting as they had been earlier. We looked toward the continental divide and decided we were glad we weren’t at Trail Lake, it looked real nasty! We went back to camp to fix supper and prepare things for the hike the next day. We were both excited about the new adventures of tomorrow and saddened that we would be leaving on our way out of this scenic country in the morning. We would also get some rain during the night that did not stop until early morning the next day. During this shower Frank would get a little water in his tent. It was a brand new tent and he had not taken the time to use seam sealer along the bottom seams. The water was steadily dripping through the spots where two loops were sewn into the seam. Luckily, his pad was water proof and he had enough plastic bags in the tent to store items that needed to stay dry. He will never forget to use seam sealer again. Lesson number three. Our tent stayed dry with the exception of the entrance wall and the window, as long as you were not touching the walls you were OK, we still worried most of the night that it might begin to leak badly and we would spend the next night sleeping in wet bags. All in all we fared pretty well with a minimum of items getting wet, our packs were well covered.
DAY SIX-NEW TERRITORY(9/12)
The hike was even easier than I expected as long as we took it slow downthe steep parts. We reached the relatively flat land in the valley floor about 2 hours later.
After negotiating the very steep mountain side it was good to finally get to the bottom of the valley so that we could walk on relatively flat ground. Elk Creek was a very pleasant surprise since it was the largest flow of water we had seen since we left the Conejos River and is a beautiful creek with rock gardens & pools that is classic prime trout habitat. We entered the valley in the third meadows area and started down the valley. The view was spectacular. What a beautiful valley. It is by far the prettiest place we have seen.. The creek from the bottom of the third meadows to the top of the second meadows is a beautiful rock garden with many small water falls & pools. Elk Creek looked like a trout haven and I wanted to fish the pools and ripples in the worst way, but we still had a long way to go and decided we’d better hike to the lower end of the “second meadow”, about 3-4 miles down the valley, before we stopped. The second meadows is fairly wide open. The creek is flat and meanders back & forth through the meadow.
We were now at about 10,200 feet, after taking a well deserved break and a snack (MRE) we began to work our way down to the end of the second meadows. Although the terrain was not difficult in this section it would be another long day of hiking that would leave us exhausted. There were some very scenic sections encountered during this hike, especially the areas where the creek made deep cuts through the rocks and where the next meadow unfolded in front of us once we rounded or came over a ridge.
Shortly after leaving the “third meadow”, it started to rain hard enough the we sought shelter. It let up about a half hour later and we continued on in the misty drizzle and fog that began to roll in. We pressed on through the “second meadow” which is very flat and Elk Creek begins to meander slowly. The hike was a little difficult due to the trail becoming muddy and slick. Upon reaching the lower end of the “second meadow” we discovered another problem with the map. It seems that there is a bridge over Elk Creek. The trail crosses the creek but the map indicates it always stays on the north side. Oh well, we had gotten used to the map by now. After a little indecision and discussion, we decided to set up our last night’s camp right next to the trail just before the bridge. The view up the valley from there was grand and there was just enough level ground for the two small tents.
This area had fair cover from the rain due to the two large trees we camped under and good protection from the wind because of a rock formation on the east. We also had a good fire pit and a nice dry place under a rock ledge to dry our boots and socks, the morning hike had left our boots soaked and socks and feet wet. We all needed something to eat since we had burned up a lot of energy on this forced hike. Frank, as usual, was always on the go and was the first off to do some fishing, Vern also finally got around to putting his gear together and attempted to sneak up on what turned out to be some very elusive fish. It only took him 30 to 40 minutes to decided he was wasting his time in this area. I think the fact that it was raining and cold helped him decide to come back to camp and have a cup of coffee with me. Frank showed up just before dark and was also unsuccessful. This evening and the next morning turned out to be the most eventful related to animal encounters, (after all we were camped on Elk Creek!).
After dark and about the time we were all settling in for some sleep out of the dark came the sound that Frank and I had been waiting for the whole trip, a bull elk bugle, We had been looking for Elk sign the whole trip and had only seen a few old ones. The serenade went on for about 20 minutes and was a pleasant way to fall asleep. Vern’s last words that night were “I hope we see them in the morning”
DAY SEVEN-THE HIKE OUT(9/13)
Breakfast and packing up camp were somber events for me. I really didn’t want to leave but then we all have duties and responsibilities at home. The sun broke through the clouds and the wind blew enough that most of the wet stuff was dry before it was packed. Down the mountain we headed, and I do mean down. At the end of the “second meadow”, the Elk Creek valley drops off rapidly. The creek becomes a series of waterfalls and rapids. About a half mile down the trail, it crossed back over to the north side of Elk Creek making the map nearly correct in this location. At the first meadows we took a split in the trail to the north and followed Notch trail. The Notch Trail junction with the main trail was a little further down. We took this “cutoff” and headed up and over the “notch”. A few switchbacks later we were at the top of the “notch” and headed down the mountain into the Conejos River valley. We had to do one more assent first and the rest was a real knee killer down hill. We stopped to take a few pictures along the way including a group shot at the wilderness area boundary. Once we reached the river we followed it on the west side doing a lot of up and down hiking, following cow trails, and interrupted once by rain until we said no further, the trail stops here!! We had to wade the river to get across. With 65 pound packs on our backs it was not much fun. I crossed first (Frank decided to wait and see if I made it across before he would attempted it).Vern was about 50 yards ahead he crossed where he felt comfortable followed by Frank at the same point I crossed. It had been a long hard hike. Vern’s knee was hurting and he needed to cool off so he stripped down and took his first bath in seven days. We made it to the highway about 2 p.m. Total miles from start to finish is something over 25.
We were fortunate that we had crossed near a state park and we were able to have a seat on some park benches while Frank JOGGED back to the truck. We had our last and final toast to the entire trip when Frank returned with the truck, it truly had been a great trip. A quick stop by the local lodge to pick up some maps and other data along with a Pepsi and we were on our way to Kansas to pick up Franks dog. We stopped in Alamosa for a great meal and a couple beers and then headed for Garden City, Kansas, where we would have our first shower in seven days and sleep in real beds. The trip home the next day was uneventful but pleasant, it also gave us time to reflect on the past seven days, it would be good to be home.
SUMMARY (Vern’s Version)
SUMMARY (Johnny’s Version)
SUMMARY (Frank’s Version)
This post originally appeared on flyfishing123.com.
Photo by By Gregstoner88 at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3623632