Dunraven Scotch Whiskey

This is the second time I’ve camped at Lost Lake. The first time was three years ago, my first backpacking trip. That time, I only camped one night so I had too little time to get past Lake Dunraven even if I’d gotten through the willow. Two nights is the way to go to get to Lake Dunraven and beyond, perhaps to Rowe Glacier.

Saturday, September 14

Gordon was my companion again. We left my place at 7:15 and arrived at the trailhead and had boots on the trail by a quarter to nine. I was surprised at the light traffic on 36. And I was pleased to see that they’ve just repaved the top of Devils Gulch Road.

I described the trail fairly well in that earlier post, so no need to repeat it here (other than to correct the obvious mistake of misidentifying Glen Haven as Drake). I will add one note, though. We stopped for a break at the same place I stopped last time. Between there and the base of the grueling, stamina sucking climb there’s a section of trees that have been toppled and uprooted. It looks much like the section of Glacier Gorge that was blown down several years ago. Here it’s a much smaller area than in Glacier Gorge.

At the Boundary Creek campsite, two hikers entered the trail ahead of us. We leapfrogged them a few times until our break at the base of the climb. I knew what was ahead and I kept telling myself that it’s more mental then physical. I’m not sure I’m convinced. I tried to focus on the trail immediately in front of me, tried not to look too far ahead. I had to take three breathers before we got to the top.

I think I mentioned that Gordon races bicycles. He’s a bit of a hill climb specialist. So here I am, after five and a half or six miles into a ten mile hike on this steep section of trail with a thirty-five pound backpack. I wasn’t going all that fast earlier, but this brought me to a crawl. My heart was going in the neighborhood of 140 and I’m breathing about as fast as I can. At our my three breaks I couldn’t help but notice Gordon isn’t breathing hard. Not even breaking a sweat.

We get to the lake in six hours, arriving twenty minutes behind the father/son duo we leapfrogged on the trail. The father was checking out the status of the north side camp sites. The prime waterfront site I had before was occupied. The father/son took one of the southern sites, we took the other northern one.

After an early dinner, we headed up to the shelf Lake Husted sits on to get a good look at what we’ll have to deal with tomorrow to reach Dunraven. We went up the way I did last trip (directly from the camp sites on the north). We came down the trail from the south side camp sites. The trail is much easier.

A marshy wetland sits at the confluence of the North Fork of the Big Thompson and the outlet stream from Lake Louise. On the maps it’s depicted as three ponds, but they are surrounded by a sea of deep, thick willow. We walked downstream a bit, looking for possible routes. It seemed if we got to a gully on the other side of a krummholz forested hillock on the other side of the stream we’d have easy going. Who knows? It could be a good passage, or it could be filled with willow. There’s one way to find out.

After our recce, we stopped at the creek to refill our water bottles. Somehow, I managed to smack my shin into a rather large rock. That really hurt! Not much blood, but it swelled up considerably. Time for a beer.

Sunday, September 15

Gordon is trying a hammock this trip instead of a tent. In the morning he reported a lack of sleep. I slept okay. It was a bit chilly, but not uncomfortably so when I had to relieve myself in the middle of the night .

We put boots on the trail at about nine. In the forest just above Lost Lake we saw a cow moose and a bull elk through the trees a few minutes apart. We quickly and easily made our way to the stream in search of a way through. Early on we had a couple of short stretches of dense krummholz but avoided the disheartening willow. Where we expected easy moving, we found easy moving. We made our way along the border of the trees and the talus field above them. Eventually we had to cut across a large willow patch, but we found a nice game trail that took us where we wanted to go.

And that was at the base of a steep, wide gully that tops out on a tundra slope about fifty or sixty feet above the northern end of Lake Dunraven. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to retrace our steps on the way out, but that was a problem for later.

A sea of willow and krummholz

Lake Dunraven sits at the mouth of a valley carved by glaciers, drained today by the North Fork of the Big Thompson river. It is the first of three lakes. The other two have no official names, but in Foster’s guide she calls them “Whiskey” and “Scotch”. Arriving at Dunraven is the hard part: the three lakes are separated by just over a half mile of tundra and a climb of less than three hundred feet.

Lake Dunraven

I was thinking we’d have plenty of time to make an attempt to reach Rowe Glacier, at the very top of the canyon at a whopping 13,120′ of elevation. There are many peaks in the park that aren’t this high. But as soon as I saw the pile of sand, scree, and talus, with a skirt of snow on the southern shore of “Scotch” I said I’d gone far enough.

‘Scotch Lake’ and Gibraltar Mountain

I said to Gordon that he could go up to Rowe and I’d wait here for him. I have no problem watching the world go by for a couple of hours. It’s a beautiful day to sit on the shores of an alpine lake with a stunning view of Gibraltar Mountain. How long could it take him? Three hours max? So he’d be back by two. No big deal.

I set my day pack and water bottle by some rocks that would serve nicely as seats. Even if I wandered off, anybody going by on the faint game trail here would see them at about eye-level. I sat there for long spells, pondering the imponderable, and occasionally made little exploration trips. Up to the top of the rise that gives a view of the valley below, or around the outlet to see if I can cross, or out on a sandy stretch to start and stop the GoPro. But mostly I sat right there.

I’d shed my thermal under clothes and had them on a rock to dry out. After three aborted attempts, a ground squirrel made his way to sniffing distance of them. He ran off right away, but he wasn’t done. He scrambled back and forth along the fringe of the willow that was growing here, stunted to only be 12-18″ high. Every now and again, he’d climb to the top of the willow for a shaky look around.

He really wanted the salt from my shirt. Twice he had licking sessions that were longer than I expected, for such a jittery creature. I’d never seen them do that, but I guess I’ve never given them the opportunity.

Sitting there, I had a bird give me a bit of a buzz. It flew from behind me, silently, until it got inches over my head and flapped loudly. I wasn’t expecting it and it made me jump. Later, I saw the same bird buzz the ground squirrel the same way.

“Scotch Lake” has one of the biggest beaches I’ve seen in the Park. The hillside on the east is quite sandy, and the big pile that made me decide to stop was pretty sandy, too. There is a fairly fresh alluvial fan below a narrow crease in the slope, severely eroded. This one has been recent enough that almost no plants are living on it, but there were other, older fans. At first I wanted to attribute this one to the 2013 floods, but it could be more recent, with one of the older ones from 2013. Who knows?

Alluvial Fan

I go back and sit by my pack and water. One o’clock passes, as does two, and three. It’s been four hours. If he only went to Rowe Glacier, he should have been back a long time ago. Perhaps he went farther? It’s only a short climb to the top and then on to the summit of Rowe Peak, or Gibraltar Mountain, or even Mummy Mountain. He may also have taken a different route down.

It also occurs to me that he might have twisted an ankle, or stepped on a “wobbler” in a talus field and cracked his noggin open. By now, even if I felt I was capable of going up toward Rowe myself it was too late. I decide I need to leave “Scotch” by five or risk darkness before I’m back to camp. So I’m working through my options if he doesn’t show up before I leave, if he doesn’t return to camp by dark, if he doesn’t show by morning, given that it’s a nearly full moon.

I tried to make a sign out of rocks on the alluvial fan. “LEFT AT 5:”. The idea is that he’d be able to see it from the top, but it was obvious that I’d made the letters too small. I left promptly at five. It took me two hours to get here, so I figured it would be about the same to return. I made it from “Scotch” to the bottom of the gully below Dunraven retracing our steps. I easily found the same game trail we used before and followed it to it’s natural conclusion, somewhat downstream of where we crossed in the morning. Here was an easy crossing using game trails. Much easier than this morning, when we whacked through some krummholz.

When I got back to the camp sites, I ran into the father/son hikers. The father asked how my hike went. I told him I was worried that I’d abandoned my companion. “You talking about the guy you hiked in with yesterday? He got back about half an hour ago.”

That turns out to be half true. He made it back to “Scotch” by about one. How he left there without seeing me or my backpack, and how he made it through without me seeing him is a puzzle. He says that when he last saw me, I looked to be leaving “Scotch”, and he figured I’d be waiting at Dunraven. So when he didn’t see me at “Scotch” he kept going. He was back to camp by two. After a while he grew concerned that I wasn’t back to camp, so he made another trip up to Dunraven. He left Dunraven the second time at five.

In the end, no harm, no foul. I didn’t really mind sitting at this lake for six hours, except for the tension of wondering if he was hurt. I probably would have enjoyed two hours at each lake, but “Scotch” has a fine view.

From the map, we expected the lake at Rowe Glacier to be a significant body of water. Gordon says it’s more like a big puddle or two. [As I’m late writing this, I’ll add a late update from him: “I’m quite sure now that I didn’t make it to Rowe Glacier, but just below it. Foiled again!”]

So it was a rather late dinner. Gordon had had a beer before I returned and had his second while I had my first. One was enough for me tonight, so there was a leftover beer.

Monday, September 16

I didn’t sleep quite as well as the night before. I was a bit restless, and although the swelling had greatly reduced, my shin was still tender.

Not long before sunrise I heard a large animal walking through camp. I figured it was either an elk or a moose. It wasn’t moving very fast, and three or four times it made an odd noise. My immediate thought was “Indigestion!” With a noise like that, I decided it had to be a moose. We discussed it in the morning over breakfast. Gordon agrees it was a moose and commented on the odd noise it made.

I drank the last beer so Gordon wouldn’t have to pack it out.

The hike out was uneventful. We took a short break at the usual place, at the bottom of the grueling climb. I had my last peach: sweet and juicy. We were making good time; I told Gordon he shouldn’t expect it to continue.

We ran into a ranger on his way up the trail. “I see you have your permit hanging off your backpack. Thanks!” He asked us where we went; Gordon showed him pictures of Rowe Glacier. His parting words were, “Have a nice hike! I have a couple llamas coming up the trail.”

Second ranger, with llamas!

Saturday, it took us six hours to make the hike up. I was expecting it to take six and a half. When we left camp on the way out, I expected to be back to the car in five and a half hours. In the end it took only five, so my actual vs estimated variance was consistent.

See more photos of the trip here.

On Reflection

I thought it might be possible to bag four new lakes this trip. I fully expected to get three and have a decent shot at the fourth. I got the three. So although I didn’t bag the maximum, I didn’t come up shorter than expectations.

Which has usually been the case. It’s good to finally have a backpacking trip where I got to all the places I expected to get to. This was my fourth two night trip. Last year I thought I’d get to four lakes on the Gorge Lakes hike. I got one. My July trip was way too early to get either of the two high lakes above Bluebird. So early that I didn’t even make it as far as Bluebird. And two weeks ago when I reached one of four again in Spruce Canyon.

It was unfortunate that Gordon missed me on his hike down from the glacier. I didn’t really mind spending six hours there. But I did feel pinned to a spot. Six hours is a long time, and would have been more enjoyable if it had been two hours at each lake. But the GoPro battery held out a surprisingly long time. I ran the camera with five different views for a total of nearly two hours. I never get two hours of battery at the track.

It’s unlikely I’ll be back there. This was my second trip. It’s a long hike to camp. I much prefer the six to seven mile range to ten. Luckily, that isn’t much of a limitation in the Park. There are still many lakes I haven’t visited that are within reach from a campsite six or seven miles in.

I’m happy that we got through the sea of willow and krummholz as easily as we did. I obsessed for days over a photo I took last time that shows the area. Our recce Saturday evening was time well spent. All that miserable vegetation wasn’t nearly the roadblock I feared it could be.

I’m pleasantly surprised that I was able to average two miles an hour on the hike out.

I got almost twice the normal amount of time lapse footage. I didn’t use it all, but probably too much.

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