Spruce Lake

The East Troublesome fire was first reported on the afternoon of October 14, 2020, eighteen miles west of Rocky Mountain National Park. Nine days later, it jumped a mile and a half over the Continental Divide to Spruce Canyon. That same day, it jumped the mile-wide burn scar from the Fern Lake fire of 2012, ran past the Morraine Park campground and reached Beaver Brook.

The East Troublesom and Cameron Peak fires burned a bit less than ten percent. It’s more than ten if you add in the Fern Lake and Big Meadows fires, both in the last decade.

The thing to keep in mind is that wildfires are a natural part of the lifecycle of the forest. They provide for renewal and increase the diversity of plants and animals. However, we spent a century suppressing wildfires, and we’ve seen climate change contribute to beetle kill. There’s much more fuel in the forests now than is usual. And with increasing temperatures and drought conditions (climate change again), the fires we get burn much more intensely than ever before. Historically, fires were smaller and tended to burn in a haphazard pattern – a mosaic. Today’s fires tend to burn everything. They can create their own weather – when East Troublesome jumped highway 34, it had created winds of 150 miles per hour. The result: scorched earth.

Last week, the NPS posted on Instagram that they had just re-opened the Spruce Lake trail after some trail work. I don’t know how long the trail has been closed – it’s possible it’s been closed since the fire or was just closed for the duration of the work.

I’ve been to Spruce Lake four times, most recently in 2019 on a two-night stay with Gordon, in an attempt to visit the four lakes in upper Spruce Canyon. Although that wasn’t the most pleasant of hikes, I did enjoy the extended time I spent there. I watched a cow moose and her yearling calf for a good, long time.

I wanted to find out how badly burned the place is.

Friday, September 16

My timed-entry permit was for 6-8 am. I arrived at Fern Lake Road at about 7:15. The road was lined on both sides with parked cars. In the meadow right next to the road was a large herd of elk. A disproportionate number of people had serious glass on their cameras, lenses as long as my forearm. I’d guess those guys could count the hairs in the nose of the majestic bull facing them from about twenty yards away.

A few yards up the road, two bucks were grazing maybe six feet off the road. Nobody paid them any attention. I got a picture, though. I see does all the time, but not many bucks.

From the parking lot to a little bit past the Pool, I can’t say I noticed anything different from my last few hikes here. At the parking lot, I noticed that a couple of the tall aspen had been burned, but nothing else looked like it had burned since the Fern Lake fire.

After the Pool, though, it’s a different world.

It is now the end of the second growing season after the fire. When I hiked through the Big Meadows burn scar just weeks after the fire, pretty much everything was black. There wasn’t a blade of grass, not an insect, no birds. The tree trunks were black, the ground was black, many of the rocks on the trail were black.

Two seasons after East Troublesome is already quite different. The black is starting to fade. Plants are starting to cover the ground. Today I learned why fireweed, one of my favorite wildflowers, got its name. It’s mid-September, well past the prime time for wildflowers. But today I saw more flowers than on my last three or four hikes combined. Almost all of them were fireweed. In some places, fireweed must have made up 90% of the plants. It was everywhere.

The tree trunks, both those still standing, and new and old deadfall, are still black. I saw a number of tree trunks had been cut by trail crews in years past. Some of them were unburnt on the cut end. This showed me how deeply the tree trunks are burned. It’s not thick, and it’s starting to flake off many of the standing dead trunks.

Standing on the hillside, looking north to the Fern Lake fire scar, the difference is obvious. Those trees, burned ten years before, are brown. The fresh ones are all black. Eventually, they’ll all be gray and you’ll have to look at differences in live plants to tell which happened first. And it might not be obvious.

The trail zig-zags up a north-facing slope. This whole slope is burned, except along Fern Creek, where some forest survives. Away from the creek, total devastation. After the zig-zags, the trail straightens and heads southwest towards Fern Lake. The trail parallels Fern Creek, but not always closely. Where there was water on October 23, there is still life. I stopped at Fern Lake first, as it’s only about a hundred yards above the trail to Spruce.

The old cabin is gone, razed to the foundation, which is now covered in brown tarps. But most of the trees around and above the lake aren’t burned in the same way as those below. Those below are scorched trunks only. Above, the fire clearly wasn’t as hot. There are still some green, live trees mixed in. And the many of the dead ones still still have their brown needles.

The bridge across the outlet was undamaged, but the privy has been replaced with a brand new one. And I find it a bit amusing that the little restoration area between the trail and the lake survived. It’s not amusing that that bit survived: it’s right next to the water. It’s amusing that one of the few unburnt places is fenced off, with a sign saying to keep out.

The trail to Spruce Lake climbs over a ridge, gaining about two hundred feet on the Fern Creek side. This slope is all burned, but from the top of the ridge, or a bit past, to the wetlands adjacent to Spruce Lake, it alternates between burned and unburned. The recent trail work included rebuilding the bridge with a bogwalk across the outlet. There are a couple of other new bogwalks, too, but others survived (if a bit scorched).

Speaking of trail work, a substantial amount of work was done on the trail where it zig-zags up the slope. There are a couple of long sections where the trail is paved with rock. The width of the trail (about four feet) for lengths of sixty feet in one place and more than a hundred in another. Looks like it’ll last centuries.

Spruce Lake has less damage than Fern Lake. The campsites look undamaged. The privy survived, but just barely: a tree trunk two feet in front of the stool is scorched. The wetlands at the outlet didn’t seem to get burned at all. In fact, there’s an enormous amount of dead tree matter that’s been there for years – it’s all gray – that doesn’t have a black mark on it. I’m amazed it’s still there.

The forest above the lake, on the way to Loomis, looked undamaged except for a small area of “slightly” burned trees (still with needles) high on one slope. Seeing no fire damage on the way to Loomis and an intact forest to the north and west, I decided not to go any farther. More about this decision later.

I haven’t seen any big game since the buck by the side of the road. Before I set out this morning, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be any left in any of this area. I’d imagine any moose or other deer would survive if they could get to the lake. But if they did, is there enough left to keep them here? Although I didn’t lay eyes on any game, I was happy to spot fresh moose shit and deer shit.

After only a short break at Spruce, I headed back to Fern. The idea was to get a short time-lapse sequence there, then hike down to somewhere before Fern Falls to eat my lunch and get a longer sequence, prominently featuring the burnt tree trunks. But, as Helmuth von Moltke noted, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

The Fern Lake bit of the plan went off well. But the weather was turning. I packed up after only fifteen minutes, and a light rain started to fall a few minutes later. It didn’t take long before it was raining hard enough to convince me to don my waterproof shell. Naturally, as soon as I did, the rain stopped. But I wasn’t fooled and kept it on. The rain came and went until I reached Fern Falls.

I stopped there for a quick snack. The sun was shining again, and it was calm. I took the shell off but kept it handy. The skies looked pretty threatening – everything to the west was dark. I was lucky to have a few minutes of nice weather for my snack and didn’t expect that luck to continue. And, not long after leaving the falls, I had the jacket back on. I wanted to have my picnic, but not in the rain. I hoped I wouldn’t need to eat my picnic in the car.

By the time I was perhaps only a quarter of a mile from the car I decided to stop. The threatening clouds hadn’t moved down the canyon with me. The sun was shining. I found a nice place to sit next to the stream and had my lunch. It wasn’t until a family went by on the trail that I realized just how close to the car I was. They weren’t carrying their toddler, she was walking. Still, better a picnic here than in the car. In the car, I wouldn’t have drunk today’s beer (a returning favorite, Left Hand Brewing’s Wheels Gose ‘Round).

My picnic spot was a three-minute walk from the car.

Conclusions

When I got in the car, I figured I had a few options, depending on what I saw. I could just go to Spruce Lake. Or, if the fire above the lake was bad, I could go to Loomis to check on it. Or, if the fire was worse below the lake, I could contour around and take a look up Spruce Canyon. I took my squirrel-eaten poles with me, in case I went anywhere beyond Spruce Lake. Good plan!

But silly me didn’t bother to refresh his memory about the fire or to even look at the fire history on CalTopo. Had I done this, I would definitely have taken a peek up Spruce Canyon. Now I have an excuse to come back next July or so to put eyes on what I didn’t bother to look at this time.

You see, it occurs to me that, after the fire, another try on Rainbow Lake, Irene Lake, and Sprague Tarn might be considerably easier. Route finding would be much easier, and although the big deadfall will still be there, it should be substantially easier to navigate. I only managed half a mile an hour before, where I generally can manage twice that bushwhacking. It might be worth another shot.

It would mean another two-night stay at Spruce. There’s a privy there. We watched moose eating aquatic grasses. It’s not a long hike. Why not do it again? But only if I get a look at Spruce Canyon first.

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