Dawn Patrol

Friday, August 2

My alarm went off at 2:45am this morning. Crazy, yes?

Kristin and Coop are in the neighborhood with plans to do a week’s worth of back country hiking. I’ve known them online for about a decade, and met them a year or two back. They’re nice people and we share a common passion so I reached out to them to see if we could get together to break bread or something. They suggested a few alternatives. Two of them don’t fit my schedule, and the third was to meet at the Bear Lake parking lot at 5am for a hike up to Dream Lake to watch the sunrise.

To get to Bear Lake at 5am, I need to leave the house not long after 3. This sounds like a stupid thing do, so of course I said “yes”.

The reason behind this is that Coop is a much better photographer than I am. My photos tend to be more like documentary evidence that I’ve been somewhere, while his you could call “art”. There’s a fundamental difference in how we go about it. That’s probably not correct: there are perhaps several fundamental differences in how we go about it. One of those is that he wants to take pictures during the “golden hour”. That means being somewhere at sunrise or sunset.

Which, today, means getting my butt out of bed before 3 and driving a couple of hours, then hiking a mile in the dark, all so we could be at Dream Lake for sunrise; to see Dream Lake and Hallett Peak bathed in the colors of the rising sun.

It seems I’m always saying I got out of the house a few minutes later than I’d wanted, and that I arrived at the trailhead late. But today I managed to leave by my desired time, and as might be expected, I hit no traffic once out of the city. So instead of being late I was at the Bear Lake parking lot early. I could have slept another fifteen minutes!

We hit the trail at 5. First decision was whether to take the shortcut to Nymph Lake or not. We went for the shortcut, but none of us could find it in the dark, so the long/usual way it was. Once at Dream, Coop picked a spot near the outlet. Another photographer was already set up there, and space was at a premium, so rather than get a poorer quality shot of the same thing as the others, I went for a slightly different angle and found a spot on a rock outcropping that wasn’t in their view.

The GoPro is fully automatic but I set it running anyway. I figured it would have a hard time with the lighting conditions, but you never know how things will turn out.

I’m really not a very astute photographer, and I still haven’t figured out all the ins and outs of the new camera. (I figured since it was another Canon it would be fairly similar to my old one. It is, but it isn’t. Most of the features that are in common work the same way, but not all. And there are loads of new features.) So I made some guesses and tried a few different things hoping that maybe I’d get a result I like. In the end, I think I did okay.

After watching the sunrise and taking in Dream Lake and Hallett Peak in all their glory we headed up to Emerald Lake. Kristin wanted to go there because it’s been a long time since she was there in summer. Hiking up there, it became obvious to me that I haven’t been there in summer in a long, long time myself. There are some wood bridges we crossed that I don’t recall ever crossing. I’m pretty sure every time I’ve been there in the last thirty years involved hiking across snow most of the way between Dream and Emerald.

We were up there early enough that it wasn’t crowded yet. We weren’t alone, but there were far fewer than the fifty or so (minimum, even in winter) that I’m accustomed to. I set up the GoPro again and we hung out there for quite a while. Hikers came and went the whole time, but the biggest group we saw was a mama duck with her eight ducklings. They swam around and stumbled over some deadwood floating on the edge of the lake before getting onto the trail like they were going to hike back to Dream Lake.

When we got back to the Bear Lake parking lot we discussed where we should go for breakfast and headed back to Estes Park. We ate at Molly B’s, sitting at the tables outside. It was quite pleasant (another beautiful day in the neighborhood), in spite of the heavy truck traffic rumbling up and down Moraine Avenue.

They explained where they were going to be hiking. It sounds like a nice time. I don’t know that I’m up to spending a week in the back country, but four years ago I’d have said I wasn’t up to any backpacking at all, so perhaps my attitude will change.

I like to think that I know my way around the Park. I may not know the names of all the mountains, even the ones I’ve hiked beneath many times, but I’d like to think if you mention a lake I’ll know where it is. So when Kristin talked about Ten Lake Park, I nodded as if I knew exactly what she was talking about. I had no clue. So after getting home, I had to look it up in the Foster guide. This will certainly go on the to-do list, most easily accomplished by staying a couple of nights near Verna Lake and getting there by bushwhacking up and over the flank of Mount Craig. It’s certainly too much effort for me to do as a day hike.

So it was a short day: too early of a start for me to make a habit of watching the sunrise, but a pleasant walk in beautiful surroundings, with friendly people. If they want to put up with me again, I’d be happy to meet up with them again on their next trip.

Green Lake

The upper end of Glacier Gorge is arguably the most scenic terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills Lake and its little sister, Jewel Lake, are fed by Glacier Creek. This creek is fed by half a dozen named lakes and a multitude of ponds and rivulets cascading down the slopes of some of the highest and steepest mountainsides in the area. The eastern side of the gorge is formed by a monolithic wall that is comprised of Half Mountain, Storm Peak, Longs Peak, and the Keyboard of the Winds. The western side is Thatchtop, Powell Peak, Arrowhead, and McHenrys Peak. Forming the southern end are Chiefs Head Peak, Spearhead, and Pagoda Mountain.

When you arrive at Mills Lake, the peaks to the east and west rise fifteen hundred feet above you. From Mills to Black Lake is about 2.8 miles and a climb of 700 feet or so. At Black Lake, you are surrounded by granite cliffs towering twenty-five hundred feet. It seems that no matter how high you follow these streams, the summits you pass beneath climb even higher.

This is my second trip to Green Lake, my first being back in 2011. That was before I began this blog, so the hike deserves the full treatment here rather than the abbreviated version that other repeat visits generally get.

Saturday, July 27

The weather report warned me that I could be dealing with storms as early as 10am but that didn’t deter me. I had wanted to get out of the house by six but I, as usual, ran a few minutes late. Traffic wasn’t too bad and I was at the Park & Ride by a quarter to eight. My plan was to put boots on the trail at eight o’clock, and I missed this by only ten minutes.

I generally take the Fire Trail, skipping Alberta Falls and the heavy trail traffic that goes along with it, but I got to chatting with a couple from upstate New York and missed the turnoff. Still, I arrived at Mills Lake in less than an hour. It is here, for me, that the hike really begins.

One of the interesting aspects of the trail between Mills Lake and Black Lake is the rather large debris field that was the result of a micro-burst that hit, I believe, in the autumn of 2011. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the thousands of trees were knocked down by the time I hiked to Black Lake in March of 2012. That first summer it took the Park Service quite some time and a lot of effort to cut through all the tree trunks that blocked the trail for more than half a mile.

A fair section of trail just above Mills Lake passes through some fairly marshy stretches. These sections are made passable by a series of crude bridges each a hundred or two hundred feet long. I’ve crossed these bridges for nearly forty years and now they’re mostly rotten and decaying. This year the Park Service is rebuilding them in an effort that may match that of clearing the path of the downed trees from that micro-burst.

Bridge Reconstruction

It had started sprinkling at about ten and before long the sprinkles turned to rain, so I donned my rain coat. It wasn’t raining heavily, but the cool of the morning was still lingering, and between the light rain and light breeze, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the rain gear. I ran into a hiker here who had been to Green Lake on another occasion; he said he’d prefer it in the sunshine over this morning’s grey skies and light rain. Perhaps the weather will remain dull and damp, but perhaps it will improve. Besides, even a dull day in the park is a good day.

The last few hundred feet of trail below Black Lake rises beside Ribbon Falls on a series of steps not quite hewn from the living rock, lifting the hiker onto the outlet of the lake and onto a series of large rectangular stepping stones. Even though these stones form the trail itself here, many hikers find them inviting places to sit, and I don’t recall a visit where I didn’t have to step over or around lounging hikers here.

There’s no doubt that the view from these stepping stones is spectacular, but it’s just as spectacular if you go another few hundred feet to the eastern shore of the lake. There, you’ll face the sight that is McHenrys Peak. Water pours off the stark cliffs on all sides here. The main feeder of the lake is behind you, and a crude trail climbs beside it, gaining four hundred feet of elevation in just 1,600 feet of distance. Even late into summer there is snow on the southern slopes here.

Levitating snow

At about 11,000′ of elevation, the terrain levels off and you find yourself on a large expanse of granite slabs, clumps of willow, and marshy areas where water flows nearly everywhere. Every time I’ve come up here, I’ve found many elk. Being so high, the wildflowers are much smaller than those lower down. They’re just as colorful and diverse, but are tiny in comparison. The scale is different: you won’t find entire slopes splashed with color, but that color is all around you. You just have to look closer.

Navigation isn’t particularly difficult here. After a while the trail fades away, but hikers have left a multitude of cairns. There are sometimes so many that they’re not helpful on a grand scale, but they often will lead you through the sections of willow.

Busy bee

To get to Green Lake, I kept the main stream on my right until I was nearly to the lake. I had my micro spikes with me, anticipating that I might be crossing some snow. Just below the lake I came across the solitary section I’d need to cross, and it was only a few hundred feet. Arriving at the base of this snow field, I found myself in the midst of a herd of elk. To my left was a large bull, antlers large and velvety. To my right was a cow and two calves, still sporting their youthful spots. The cow had an ear tag and wore a big collar with a large 9. I’m no judge of female elk flesh. Perhaps she was a 9. Or, perhaps, the collar wasn’t intended as an indication of her beauty.

Bull elk

They were really quite close, twenty or thirty feet. I’ve been close to elk fairly often. I’ve never felt threatened by them, but just the same I didn’t want to put myself between the cow and her calves. I also didn’t want to be closer to the calves than I was to the cow or bull. But to continue on the last few hundred yards to my destination, I’d have to walk right through them.

I sort of yelled at them, “I want to go that way!”, pointing across the snow. They looked at me quizzically. They clearly weren’t getting my drift. After further hollering and gesticulation I clapped my hands loudly. This got the calves to move to my right, on the other side of their mother, and I finally felt it was okay to proceed.

Had there been no elk there, I probably would have put on the spikes. I carried them all this way, so why not use them? But I didn’t want to sit there in the middle of the herd any longer than necessary so I proceeded without them. I didn’t need them, and on the way back down I again didn’t bother with them.

Green Lake

The rain had stopped some time ago, and the small breaks in the clouds had turned to mostly bright blue sky. There were still clouds, but they were white and fluffy and (as always) relatively fast moving. It would be hard to expect much better weather for a picnic beside an alpine lake than I was having.

There’s a snow field that sits on the eastern shore of Green Lake. I think it’s always there. Today, there were two little icebergs (or would they be snowbergs?) that were floating freely in the lake, recently broken off the main field. It might have been interesting to have the time lapse camera recording them, but instead I had it aimed at Spearhead and the clouds behind it. I would have liked to sit on the eastern shore, but there wasn’t a lot of shoreline there free of snow, and the flow out of the lake was running a few inches too high for me to cross without risking getting wet feet, so I stayed on the northern end.

On the way up from Black Lake I encountered a couple of climbers who had spent two nights on a bivy permit on Spearhead. I came across another couple of climbers on their way down at about the point where the route to Frozen Lake diverges from my route. So I kept an eye out for climbers on Spearhead. I don’t really know what interests climbers, so I didn’t know where to look. But I did see somebody wearing a pink jacket or shirt who hadn’t very far up the cliff.

Gathering storm

After half an hour I headed down. My herd of elk was still there, but they’d moved a bit to the east and I didn’t have to split them to make my exit. On the way up, you’re facing the stark cliffs in the immediate vicinity. Heading down, you get a nice view of the Mummy Range in the distance. The clouds there were no longer white and fluffy, but steel colored and menacing. With the divide just a few hundred meters to the west, you can’t see what sort of weather is headed your way, but it was obvious that on the way down I’d likely get more than the light rain I encountered on the way up.

I’d kept the rain coat on through my lunch and only packed it away when I refilled my water bottle on the descent to Black Lake. My shirtsleeved hiking was short lived, though, as the clouds opened up by the time I got to the bridge leading to the Glacier Gorge campsite. The thunder that was rumbling in the distance was now crashing in the immediate vicinity, so I kept my pace up.

Usually there’s a fair crowd on the slabs that form the Mills Lake shoreline but not now. Nobody wanted to sit in the rain. It wasn’t heavy enough to entirely obscure the view to the south, but certainly heavy enough to make the view less pleasant. Between here and the trail junction I ran into a young couple on their way up to Mills: she wearing sandals and a jacket, he shirtless and smiling. Even with my jacket on and hiking a brisk pace, I found it slightly chilly.

A bit farther down I found a solo hiker standing in the shelter of a tree, assessing the skies. I told him it would quit eventually, but no telling how long that might be. He was going to wait it out. That turned out to be a short wait for him, as the rain stopped when I was half way down the Fire Trail, and the sun was again shining brightly. It was about here that I realized I’d probably left the passenger window of the car open an inch or two. Oh well.

Traffic down the mountain was heavier than last week, but what I’d call more or less the new normal. Until I got to about mile marker 10, where we came to a complete stop. At about mile 4 an ambulance had passed me going towards Estes, lights and siren on. It should have been obvious to me that I’d run into the scene of an accident but it didn’t click until we were stopped. It took nearly half an hour to get going again. They had the road down to one lane, letting a few dozen cars pass first in one direction then the other. When I passed the scene, I didn’t see any damaged vehicles. Had they already cleared the wreckage, or was it off the road, down the slope? I suspect the latter.

I can’t help but say that it was a very enjoyable day. A hike to the upper reaches of Glacier Gorge is always rewarding and satisfying.

Timetable

UpDown
Trailhead8:10 am3:31 pm
Mills Lake9:06 am2:42 pm
Black Lake10:25 am1:30 pm
Green Lake11:55 am12:30 pm

Round Pond

Round Pond is a small round pond that lies on the saddle between Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh. According to the map, it has neither inlet nor outlet streams. I happened across it when thinking of going to the two small, unnamed ponds 350′ above and about four tenths of a mile southwest of Lake Helene.

Not far away from Round Pond is another small body of water called Marigold Lake. (This should not be confused with Marigold Pond, also in the vicinity, a few yards down the outlet stream of Two Rivers Lake.) After studying the map for a while, it seemed to me that it should be possible to visit both these lakes on the same hike.

The Foster guide has the distance to Round Pond at 2.4 miles. The distance from Round Pond to Marigold Lake looks to be about a kilometer. Assuming I make it to Marigold Lake, I’d return to Bear Lake on Foster’s route which she has at 3.9 miles. So the whole thing is about 6.9 miles and less than 900 vertical feet. Should be relatively easy, yes?

Well, perhaps not. Both lakes are quite small and in the middle of the forest. With unobstructed views of Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh it would be easy to locate Round Pond, but I fully expect the forest to be dense enough to provide no views of either of those mountains. And it may be challenging to get from Round Pond to Marigold Lake by my route, having to traverse some fairly steep terrain between them.

And, who knows? If I get back to Lake Helene early enough, maybe I can get to those two unnamed ponds that caught my eye in the first place.

Saturday, July 20

I arrived at the Park & Ride at about ten minutes after eight. I’ve never seen that parking lot so full. There were only a few spots left, and the line for the shuttle wound back and forth several times. I didn’t make it to the Bear Lake parking lot until a few minutes before nine. No big deal, this hike shouldn’t take too long.

The only snow on the trail was the large drift where the trees thin out on the east side of Flattop. In the winter, when I go to either Helene or Two Rivers Lakes, this is where I always lose the trail. The wind blows all the time here in the winter, quickly erasing hikers’ tracks. But in mid-July it’s just a hundred yards or so of snow and not any sort of navigational impediment. The trail both before and after this snow is filled with the overflow of the rivulets that cross it.

Farther up the trail is another spot that gives me grief in winter. The trail crosses a talus field and in winter I’ve often resorted to going to the bottom of the hill to avoid the traverse. It’s steep enough here to give me pause, and better safe than sorry. Again, in mid-July this is not a problem, but this talus field is where I leave the trail in my quest for Round Pond.

Round Pond lies on the saddle somewhere in the center of this photo.

Immediately after stepping across Mill Creek I’m in fairly dense forest. A few minutes later an elk crashed across my path just a few yards in front of me. This was fortuitous, as it led me to a game trail. It’s not too difficult to cover ground but as I suspected, navigation is a challenge. It’s quite flat and level and no landmarks of any kind are visible. My game trail started to veer to the right when I thought I should be veering to the left, so I abandoned it and started making my own way.

On my cell phone I have a speedometer app that I use in the car. The car’s speedometer is not at all accurate, and in addition to the correct speed, it also displays (among other things) your elevation and direction of travel. It’s not a compass: to get a direction you have to be moving. This app works even when the phone is in airplane mode, so I often use it when I’m off-trail and need to make my way to a particular elevation.

Before long I figured I was in the right place and should be coming across Round Pond any minute now. But it’s really hard to judge, so I started doing a bit of a random walk across this saddle. It had been about an hour since leaving the trail and I hadn’t found it yet. I was just about to give up when I spotted a gap in the trees: there’s my lake. The trees are well back from the water, separated by, essentially, a giant sponge. Walking across it, my boots weren’t getting wet, but each footstep sank a few inches.

Round Pond

There were no rocks or fallen tree trunks to sit on, so I didn’t stay long. Not much to look at, either. Just a few Elephant Head flowers here and there. My options were to try to retrace my route and return the way I came, or to head for Marigold Lake. I knew I might have a hard time finding that lake, but given all my changes in direction to this point, I figured turning back wouldn’t be an easy proposition either. So onward it was.

After leaving Round Pond, the terrain remained flat and level, but the amount of deadfall was much increased. It was like navigating a maze. A short distance later the slope started to fall in front of me. Now the deadfall wasn’t so much a maze as a series of hurdles: almost all the trunks were lying perpendicular to the path of somebody attempting to traverse the slope. Between the steepness of the slope and all the deadfall, my progress had slowed considerably. I had to consider each foot step.

If I could keep my current elevation and contour around the mountain, I’d be a bit above the lake and it would be fairly easy to spot. The slope kept getting steeper and steeper until I was a bit out of my comfort zone. I’m okay traversing this sort of slope in the forest, but I really didn’t want to ascend or descend. And I figured there was a good chance I’d come across some large rock outcropping that would prevent me from traversing.

Sure enough, that’s what happened. I only came across one of these outcroppings, but it was enough. I couldn’t find a way over the top so I had to descend forty or fifty feet. By now I was getting a bit disheartened. This was taking much longer than I had anticipated. I still hadn’t had lunch as I hadn’t found a suitable place: a rock or log to sit on, with some sort of view and a bit of a level area to set my things. And I see I have neglected to mention the rich insect life of the forest covering Joe Mills Mountain.

Just as the steepness of the slope began to diminish, I came across a talus field. It had a number of flat rocks, sitting in the sun, with a view to the north and west. I rested here for about half an hour and had my lunch. It was now about 12:30, an hour and a half since leaving Round Pond. And I guessed that I hadn’t covered a kilometer yet, meaning I was covering less than four tenths of a mile per hour. That’s pretty slow.

Between Round Pond and my lunch spot, I caught only a few glimpses of the surrounding area. Once or twice I had partial views of Fern Lake and Odessa Lake below me, and the Fern Lake Fire scar on the slopes of Tombstone Ridge to the north. Only upon entering this little talus field did I begin to see Gabletop, Little Matterhorn, and Notchtop.

Having had my little picnic lunch, I resumed my traverse. My elevation was still a bit lower than Marigold Lake but there had been no sign of any sort of bench above me where a small lake could reside. But just a few yards after my talus field, I could spot some blue sky between the trees above me. Perhaps I was right below the lake!

I climbed a few yards but was stymied three or four times by dense vegetation. I couldn’t get through so I continued along the slope. After a short distance I could finally get onto the bench above me. But no lake was here. Dang.

To my south stretched an open expanse, mostly talus with some grassy/rocky ramps giving nice views of upper Fern Creek canyon. Heading mostly south, I soon saw the trail to Odessa Lake. It was now time for my final decision of the day. Should I go up the trail towards Lake Helene and back to Bear Lake, or down to the Fern Lake trailhead? It took me so long to get here that I didn’t have time to make my side trip up to those ponds above Helene but I headed back to Bear Lake anyway.

Upper Fern Creek Canyon

I passed the nearest point to Lake Helene at 2:30, stopped to refill my water when I crossed Mill Creek below Two Rivers Lake, and enjoyed the easy downhill slope all the way back to Bear Lake. There was no line for the bus and I was back to the Park & Ride at 4:20. This little excursion took quite a bit longer than I anticipated. The section between Round Pond and my picnic spot on the slopes of Joe Mills Mountain put me a bit outside my comfort zone but on the whole, the day wasn’t particularly strenuous.

Squirrel noshing on a mushroom cap

I can’t particularly recommend a visit to Round Pond, unless you’re looking for a navigational challenge. It would have been nice to visit Marigold Lake, but now that I’ve been in the neighborhood I think I can make it another time easily enough. Looking at aerial photos of the area, my little picnic spot was within 20 or 30 meters of it! If I’d have climbed slightly north from my spot instead of slightly south, I’m certain I’d have found it. So Marigold Lake is on the “to-do” list, but directly from the Odessa Lake trail across the open terrain of talus and grassy ramps.

The Trial of the Headlight

I don’t know what it is about the headlights on the Lotus, but it seems like I’m always replacing the bulbs. That’s an overstatement, obviously. I’ve had the car nearly ten years now and although it seems like I’ve replaced a headlight bulb a dozen times, it’s probably more like four or five.

On my Ohio trip my passenger side headlight died and last week I finally got around to replacing it. No trip to the store was required, or so I thought, as these bulbs are sold in two-packs and I still had a new one from the last time I did this.

Under normal circumstances, changing a headlight bulb is your garden-variety pain in the ass. Jack the car up, dismount the front wheel, remove the fender liner, unscrew the three bolts that secure the headlight cover, swap the bulb, then put it all back together.

Taking it all apart, though, it became obvious that it wouldn’t be the garden-variety pain in the ass this time. The bolts thread into little brass fittings that clamp over a piece of plastic. On the passenger side at least, one of the three brass fittings is missing. And the plastic where all three fittings go is broken. To be completely honest, I think two of the three were broken last time we replaced a light bulb. To continue the honesty, it may be that I’m remembering the plastic being broken on the driver’s side. So the problem likely exists on both sides. I’m going to ignore the driver’s side until one of those bulbs fails.

After a couple of hours of labor it became obvious that we wouldn’t be able to secure the headlight cover back on the car with the plastic all busted up. Before we started this operation the headlight cover was in place and secure, but we were unable to return it to that state.

A quick search of the internet provided some bad news: a replacement piece from Lotus will cost something on the order of $650. If you could order one. To say these parts are made of unobtanium wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

One fellow said he’d placed an order, but none were available. This was from a rather old forum post, but even if they were now available, I don’t particularly want to spend $1300. Because with the condition these are in, even if I didn’t think the other side was busted up the same way, it would look really silly to have one brand new one and one beat up one.

Michael found another forum posting about how these things could be fixed. That thread had a couple different flavors of the same solution. We’d buy some wire strapping from the plumbing department of the local home store, cut and fold and drill as necessary, and rivet them in place.

We only did two of the three mounting points. When we took it apart, only two were connected. And with the repair it’s much more secure than it was when we started all this.

The end product wasn’t quite a pretty as the second photo above as we had to enlarge the hole a bit to get the bolt to align with the fitting. But after some judicious Dremel work we had our fix completed.

In the end, Michael and I spent on the order of six hours over two weekends to replace one light bulb. The only supplies we needed to purchase was the 10′ roll of tab tape. It was the smallest quantity we could buy, but at least there’s plenty left to repair the other side when that light bulb calls it quits.

Upper Ouzel Creek

I don’t know what I was thinking. Obviously, I wasn’t. To think that I’d be able to reach Isolation or Frigid Lakes in early July is pure fantasy. So if you’re just curious what I found at either of those lakes, I’ll save you the trouble: I didn’t even make it to Bluebird Lake.

I ended up with a permit on this date because this site was already booked on the weekends later in July. For some reason, I fixated on doing one of my overnight trips in July, and only considered dates that included at least one weekend day. I could have had a date later in July had I been willing to do it in the middle of the week. Or, I could have had an August or September date had I been willing to make two trips in either of those months. But I was unwilling to take, or didn’t consider, those options.

But clearly taking a mid-week hike in July to try to bag Isolation and Frigid would have failed just the same. Certainly, this year. We had a very wet spring and there is still a lot of snow on the ground in the high country. That much is obvious from Denver.

The plan was to hike in to the Upper Ouzel Creek campsite, spend the night, explore whatever territory I could above Bluebird Lake for a day, spend a second night, then hike out on the third day. Even before setting out I knew it was unlikely I’d reach my goals. But so what? It’s a few days in the backcountry.

I filled the backpack with the usual stuff, then added more stuff. For these overnight trips I haven’t been taking the SLR. I decided to take it this time. I’ve been concerned about having my phone or GoPro batteries die, so I took along a battery that I could use to charge them. And, of course, the associated cables. And I knew I’d be trekking across a fair amount of snow so I included the micro-spikes.

Saturday began mostly overcast, but that changed as I approached Allenspark, where all skies to the west were a clear, clear blue. I wanted to arrive at the entrance a few minutes after eight. My permit was for 2 people in the party. I had asked Ed if he wanted to join me. He was in, until he was out, and a substitute could not be found. So I wanted to tell somebody that my party was just me.

At the gate at 8:10, they told me I might not get a parking spot. I was a bit concerned by this very thing; that’s why I wanted to be there pretty much as soon as the entry station was manned. Much later and the lot would be full for sure. When I got to the (first) bridge across the river I ran across a volunteer. She flagged me down. I told her I was backpacking and she said they generally save a spot or two for permit holders. But we happened to be in a radio dark spot and she couldn’t contact the other volunteers. She warned me that I might end up in the winter parking lot. Nothing like adding another mile to the trip!

At the trailhead lot I managed to shoehorn the car into a spot between a truck and an SUV. I had told the first volunteer at the lot that I had a permit, and asked where to park. He just told me to look for a spot. The second volunteer remarked that I’d parked where he didn’t know there was a spot, then said “You should have told me you have a permit. We have a couple spots saved!”

I was on the trail by a quarter to nine. That’s a bit later than I usually start on this trail, because on my day hikes I need to be six or eight miles in by noon. No such restriction today: I had all day to do about six miles. So I took my time.

Ouzel Falls

I’m using a backpack a friend gave me. This is my third trip with it. I’ve decided it’s too small. Other than that, I like it. Well, except that I can’t get my water bottle properly secured when I have the backpack on. I can get the water bottle out, but can’t put it back in properly. So, at least when I’m going solo, I have resigned myself to taking an extended break every time I want some water.

Then there was an additional break when I realized I’d packed my sunscreen in the bear vault. So much of this hike is in direct sunshine that the old SPF is in no way optional. It’s never optional for me, but especially so on this trail. So I stopped where the trail splits and Ouzel/Bluebird is to the left, Thunder/Lion to the right. And again along the top of the ridge where regrowth in the burn scar hasn’t blocked the view up the canyon. And again where the trail splits between Ouzel and Bluebird. Did I mention I was taking my time?

Big sky over the upper Ouzel drainage

I know people generally aren’t big fans of forest fires. I figure they’re a natural part of the life cycle of the forest and try to take the bad with the good. This area burned back in 1978. About ten years ago, along the top of the ridge above Ouzel Falls, you still had unimpeded views of all the surrounding terrain. But now the new growth is getting taller and thicker. Open views are still common and shade is sparse, but the forest is returning here.

Tree growth is considerably slower up higher, and by the time the trail is even with Ouzel Lake, it looks a lot like it looked in the first few years after the fire. The ground is covered only by grasses and a scattering of wildflowers. A few dead trunks stand upright over their fallen neighbors, and the trail is lined by raspberries for long stretches.

Along the way, I talked to a pair of twenty-something women and a thirty-something couple. It struck me that in both discussions we described the terrain in fundamentally different ways. They all oriented around peaks, I orient around lakes. I know the names of many of the mountains, but too many of the names are just names. I know Mahana Peak and Tanima Peak are around here, but it’s not important to me to know which ones are which. So there was some back-and-forth in these conversations translating geography: Hunters Creek to Mt. Orton, and the like.

When I got to about the end of the burn scar on the Bluebird trail, I ran into a guy in black shorts and no shirt that had motored past me earlier. “If you’re going to the lake, you may want to reconsider. I made it 95% of the way there, but had to turn back due to all the snow.” I asked if he made it to the campsite but he didn’t know. He showed me on his map how far he thought he’d gone.

I mounted the micro-spikes and continued. It was pretty easy going, but lots of big snow drifts to cross. Before long, it’s snow as often as not. Did he think this was too much snow, or that next stretch? Then I arrived at a place where I had to traverse high up on a steep snowbank. Even with traction, I didn’t like the looks of it. Without the backpack I’d have done it. It was an easy choice to descend a bit and climb some rocks rather than risk a fall.

As I started down, another couple caught up to me. She wanted to follow the tracks, but he thought my way was better. Turns out this is their third attempt to get to Bluebird Lake. First was in December. They snowshoed. They only made it to Ouzel Falls and the round trip was seven hours. Then in May they made it to “that boulder right there”. They swore they’d make it this time.

Snow-lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, all around my campsite

I pushed on a little farther, then took a breather. They took a breather then pushed on, and we happened to reach the spur to the campsite at the same time. They started up toward the campsite. I told them where they were going and pointed the other way. “See that log bridge over there? You go that way.” I’m absolutely certain they didn’t go much farther and will soon be making their fourth attempt.

Campsite

I was relieved to find the campsite free of snow. It was not exactly dry, though. It was pretty obvious that water had flowed here quite recently. Flowed here and puddled there. Luckily, the least wet spot was almost exactly the size of my tent. I got it set up then took a jacket and some water and headed up to Bluebird Lake. I quickly found myself at the bottom of the last steep bit to the lake. Later in the summer, this little section is one of my favorite fields of wildflowers. But right now it’s just snow.

So that’s where I stopped. In snow shoes, with an able companion, I’d have done it. With just the micro-spikes and solo, no way.

And that’s when I decided I didn’t need to stay two nights up here.

I sat for a while beside the stream, the outlet from Bluebird. The water was running fast and clear; a distinct blue. It cascades out of a tunnel it’s bored through the bottom of a huge drift of snow. The sound of the water was, in a way, intense. It is unwavering. It’s not as loud as nearby thunder, but it is certainly louder than the wind through the trees. It’s quite loud.

Front porch view of Copeland Mtn

By about six I made my way back to camp. It’s a nice camp. The view from the pad itself is nice, but it’s atop a large rock outcropping. A few feet down a gentle slope is a half log, seats two. Twenty feet below is the trail. I sat here after dinner and watched the shadow of the setting sun climb the flank of Copeland Mtn.

Although I’m a fair distance from the stream, the sound of rushing water is a dull roar, louder than any airliners passing overhead. I can’t see my stream, but across the canyon I can see six significant water falls. There’s still so much snow here, water is flowing everywhere, (except, thankfully, for my campsite).

By eight it was time to turn in. There wasn’t anything to watch for a while, and I knew I’d fall asleep before I’d get a good look at the night sky so I set an alarm for ten. Had to use the phone because the Fitbit wouldn’t sync with my phone without internet access. At ten, there were some scattered clouds. The crescent moon had set, or at least fallen behind out of sight beyond the divide.

I was awake again at 3:30 for a comfort break. The clouds had cleared and the Milky Way was spilled across the sky. I rarely see the Milky Way. Seems like few times I get to experience a dark sky, the moon is always shining brightly.

Surprisingly, I was able to sleep almost until seven. I took my time breaking camp and was on the trail by a quarter to nine. I hadn’t seen any big mammals on the hike in, but did see a solo deer in the evening and three more in the morning, below my porch.

Morning visitors

I was not exactly looking forward to putting that backpack on. Because it’s too small, almost none of the weight is on my hips; it’s all on my shoulders. My shoulders are sore, it it would be nice to have a day off. My one adjustment is to put (clean) socks between my shoulders and the straps. This worked better than anticipated. The discomfort was much reduced and I didn’t feel the need to stop as often. It took me more than six hours to go up, but not much over four on the way down.

Although I didn’t get to where I wanted to go, and I spent one night instead of two, I still had a good time. Any day in the Park is a good day.

No time lapse this trip. But there’s this, instead.

Lake Irene

Note that I’m talking here of Lake Irene, just down the road from Poudre Lake, not Irene Lake, near the base of Sprague Glacier. I hope to write about Irene Lake before summer is over.

Last of the low-hanging fruit, perhaps?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven the section of Trail Ridge Road west of the Alpine Visitor Center. But I can tell you, before today, how many times I’ve stopped at the parking lot for Lake Irene: zero.

It’s a small parking lot that will hold about a dozen cars. There are a couple of picnic tables and an improved trail of not much more than a hundred yards to small Lake Irene. There’s not much to recommend here, other than it’s easy to get to. I am fortunate to be able to make long hikes to the many beautiful lakes in the park. I probably take that for granted. But I do know that not everybody can hike like I do, and it’s good that there are some places that are more accessible. That said, it’s not ADA compliant. But it is relatively low effort.

Of course, I didn’t make the trip up here just to visit this lake. My real reason was to stop by the back country office to pick up my permit for next week’s hike. So we made a day of it, stopping in Estes for lunch then heading over Trail Ridge Road and returning to Denver via Winter Park and Berthoud Pass.

I would have liked to have taken Old Fall River Road up to the AVC, but that road isn’t open yet. And the snowbanks at the AVC are still something like ten feet deep. Lake Irene sits at about 10,600′ and there’s still snow on the ground there. Trail Ridge was so crowded we weren’t able to stop at the Rock Cut, but a brief glance at the Gorge Lakes told me they’re still well frozen.

My backpacking trip next week may be much more challenging than I was hoping. I’ll be staying at Upper Ouzel Creek. I don’t know exactly the elevation there, but it’s somewhere close to that of Lake Irene so I’m guessing there will be snow at the campsite. And my hope is to reach both Isolation Lake (11,985′) and Frigid Lake (11,824′). Frigid Lake will be, not doubt, still quite frigid.

At least it will be interesting.

Concours and Weigh-In

I’ve been negligent recently. I attended two car events the last two weeks without making any notes. So here I am, in catch-up mode.

Colorado Concours d’Elegance

The 36th annual meeting of the Concours was held at the Arapahoe Community College back on June 9. It has been five years since I last went, so I figured it was time to make another appearance. Last time, the day began with nice weather but in early afternoon we had a tornado warning and everybody had to go into the school for a short while.

This time, the day began quite chilly. I took a jacket and a hoodie and ended up wearing both for much of the morning. It looked like it might rain heavily, but aside from a few sprinkles early we stayed dry. And as the day wore on it warmed up considerably, with the clouds breaking up and bright sunshine (if not totally clear skies) by the end. We had so much sun, in fact, that I managed to get a bit of a sunburn on my face.

We had eight Lotus turn out: a Stalker (a Lotus 7 replica), a Europa, an Evora, an Elite, an Esprit, and three Elises. I thought I was the last to arrive, but another green Elise showed up a few minutes later. We were directed to opposite ends of the line, so our Lotus contingent was bookended by green Elises.

I almost never have the roof mounted on the car. It hangs on a bracket on the garage wall. I’ve pretty much decided the only time I’ll put it on the car is for car shows. I have vinyl outlines of all the tracks I’ve lapped displayed on it, but nobody ever gets to see them. So the car shows are a good excuse to put the roof on, and the track decals serve as an explanation of the somewhat rough condition of the car.

I made a lap of the field mid-morning to get a look at all the cars. Because it’s not my first rodeo, I pretty much knew what to expect. The show is put on by the same car clubs every year, so the bulk of the entrants are regulars. Although Lotus Colorado is one of the hosting clubs our turnout this year is fairly typical for us, which means we’re one of the smaller clubs to appear. The other clubs tend to have much larger appearances: Alfa, Aston Martin, Audi, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes, Porsche, Jaguar, Saab, Triumph, and a few others. A highlight for me was seeing a handful of really old cars: what I might tend to call horseless carriages, those cars that are now a hundred years old or older.

As a part of my recon lap I scoped out the food choices. There were a handful of food trucks there with a variety of menu choices. Towards one o’clock I wandered over to grab some grub and first picked on the Cajun truck. I decided I’d have the jambalaya. The line was fairly long; I found myself behind about a dozen people. After a short while, there were only about six folks in front of me. Then a gal came out of the truck with a sharpie and crossed off about a third of the menu, including the jambalaya. That was disappointing.

So I decided to switch to Plan B: toasted ravioli from the Italian truck. Again, I found myself at the end of a significant line. I turned to the guy behind me and said I hoped he wasn’t looking to have the ravioli. “Why? Do you think you’ll get the last order of it?” “No,” I answered, “Somebody in front of me will get the last order and neither of us will get it.” Sure enough, a few minutes later somebody came out and crossed off a number of menu items. Luckily, the ravioli wasn’t one of those deprecated.

I spent most of my time hanging around my car. Lots of people commented on or asked questions about the track decals. I challenged a number of people to name as many of them as they could. Some had some off-the-wall suggestions, including Brands Hatch and Sebring.

It was an enjoyable day, in spite of a couple issues at the end. I’d neglected to plug the car into the trickle charger in the preceeding days and when I went to leave it wouldn’t start. Wes and Toni gave me a jump and I was on the road. Dave G., however, locked his jacket in the boot. That’s not a big deal, except that his key was in his jacket pocket. We tried to get the boot open without success, so he had to Uber home to get his spare.

Lotus Only Car Show

The next Saturday, the 15th, we had a LoCo Meeting at Ferrari of Denver. It wasn’t just a club event, but it was mostly club people. The big event of the day was a weigh-in. Prizes were given for lightest Lotus, heaviest Lotus (an ironic prize, no doubt), lightest Elise, and lightest car overall (because, even though it was a “Lotus Only” event, there were other kinds of cars). Oh, and there was a food truck serving up fish and chips

The whole time I’ve owned the car, whenever anybody asked what it weighed, I’d tell them “the previous owner told me 1965 pounds”. This was my chance to see it weighed and get a number that wasn’t hearsay. I didn’t know whether that 1965 pounds was accurate, or which wheels were mounted, or if the hardtop was on, or how much fuel was in the car, or even if I remembered the number correctly.

Photo stolen from Ryan’s Facebook post. Don’t know who took it.

We did the Elises first, and I was second on the scales. Dave G’s car was first and came in at 1964 lbs. He and I were joking before we were on the scales about who had less fuel in the car. My low fuel light came on on the way to the event, so I knew I was nearly empty. He said the same thing, so with his car at 1964 I figured he was lighter. As it turned out, mine came in at 1901 pounds, lightest Elise by 24 pounds. Knock me over with a feather. So I’m guessing that 1965 figure is with the lighter wheels and a full tank of gas. My prize was a gift certificate good at Ferrari of Denver.

Total weight: 1901 lbs

When they were going over the results and giving away the prizes, there was talk of doing it again next year. They’ll have to come up with different competitions than this time, or chances are all the same cars would win. Ryan said maybe something along the lines of “the biggest loser”, seeing who could shed the most weight for next time.

I’m game!

Emerald Lake and Bierstadt Lake

Sunday, June 16

I think it has been four months since my last visit to the Park. That’s way too long. But it’s too early to do a nice long hike because that generally means a decent elevation gain, and from down here in the big city it looks like there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground in the high country. So I figured I’d do a short hike to get a sense of how much snow there really is.

Lacking any good ideas, I resorted to an old standby: Emerald Lake. For nearly twenty years, I managed to drag a rotating group of friends up to Emerald on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a bit past that time now, but close enough. I was hoping to make it around the lake and gain some elevation on the west side of it for a change of pace.

I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot a bit before nine. There were only a few empty parking spaces left. I probably should have grabbed the first one I saw, but hoping for a closer spot I found myself up at the top. There, one of the volunteers said, “Hey! We know that car!” Doc and I exchanged greetings; he wanted me to tell him about the car after I got parked. Well, Ed’s usual spot was empty, so I parked there. Before I was out of the car, another volunteer parked next to me. So I answered all of Doc’s questions and chatted with the both of them before hitting the trail.

Emerald Lake

Just before getting to Emerald I met a guy who had just skied down one of the couloirs from near the top of Flattop. Being a non-skier, this sort of thing strikes me as pretty hard-core.

At Emerald, I worked my way around the norther shore far enough to get out of the ever present crowd, but I didn’t try too hard to continue west to higher ground. Having failed to execute my original plan, it occurred to me that this hike is so short there isn’t any reason I can’t add another short hike to the day. When I recently redid my online photo gallery I noticed that I didn’t have any pictures of Lake Bierstadt. Why not make a side trip to Bierstadt and rectify that oversight?

Having arrived at the lake a few minutes before ten it was too early for lunch, so I just relaxed and took in the views. I couldn’t help but notice a bunch of debris on the ice over on the west side. There was an avalanche here back in early May. This debris is likely from that event. How else would a bunch of pieces of pine tree be on the ice in the middle of Emerald Lake?

Avalanche debris on the lake

The hike back to Bear Lake was at times painfully slow. This is what I call “conga line hiking”. There were so many people around the end of the trail at Emerald that it sounded like a high school cafeteria. On the way down, the only places I could make my way past long lines of people was on the snow: I had my micro spikes but most others were in sneakers. I would have taken the shortcut from Nymph to Bear, but I’ll only do that when nobody is watching – don’t want to let the general populace know about the shortcut. No chance of stealth today, so I took the long way.

Lake Bierstadt is named for Albert Bierstadt, a painter known for his landscapes of the American West. I saw a few of his paintings when I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. They’re big paintings of dramatic landscapes. So I find it a bit ironic that, in a Park with so many stunning lakes, the one with his name on it is, shall we say, not that impressive.

The hike from Bear Lake to Bierstadt Lake is about two miles. The first section is along the Flattop Mtn trail. This section of trail climbs a bit, and after the trail junction it continues to go up for a short distance. After that, it’s all flat or slightly downhill. It’s a forest hike with no views at all, except for a very short glimpse of Halleck and Flattop on a few yards of trail that goes west. The walking is very easy, with few roots or rocks to deal with. I was able to keep up what I call a “sidewalk pace”.

There were a lot fewer hikers here than at Emerald. Between Bear Lake and Bierstadt I ran into about two dozen other people. I made my way to a rock on the southwestern shore of the lake and ate my picnic lunch. I was joined in lunch by a duck who was working his way back and forth through the grasses nibbling as he went. And not far away I was somewhat surprised to hear the almost constant croaking of frogs. I know there are frogs in the park, but I’ve never seen any, and until now hadn’t heard them either.

Up to now, the weather had been quite pleasant. But to the north, some ominous clouds had formed and a chill breeze had picked up. I’d wanted to circumnavigate the lake, but with the threat of rain I packed up and headed down the trail to the Bierstadt trailhead.

Threatening clouds

So I still don’t have any pictures of the best views of Bierstadt.

The trail from the lake to the trailhead climbs something like 600′ in a mile. It switches back and forth across the mostly treeless slope on its way. I’ve made that climb a few times, but the last couple passages on this trail have been downhill only, like today. Just when I started down, I ran into a family coming up. They were only a few yards from the top. I couldn’t resist: I said, “Only another mile to go!” and waited a beat before adding “Just kidding.”

Mid-Ohio Trip – Naperville to Denver

Day 8 – Saturday, June 1

Slightly late start to the day. On weekends the hotel starts breakfast at 7 instead of 6. My plan was to have the car loaded before 7 so I could be out as early as possible without skipping breakfast but my route planning took a bit longer than expected.

First leg of the trip was to Clinton, Iowa, where I wanted to take a short break at a park by the Mississippi River. I took two lane roads almost the entire way; very easy driving. The park in Clinton was a hive of activity with some softball games going on. I walked maybe a half mile down the river, then back. US 30 crosses the river on a suspension bridge and the rail bridge is almost at the water line. It’s one of those bridges that has a center-pivot to let river traffic go by. I didn’t see this one in operation, but later when I crossed the Missouri I saw a rail bridge pivoted and open to river traffic.

Riverview Park, Clinton, IA

From the satellite photos, this little lighthouse is generally 70 or 80 feet from the water and there are four or five more light posts that are submerged. Clearly, the levees here are high enough to handle a lot more water. But if this were to be breached, the major part of this little town would be submerged.

US 30 bridge, railroad bridge, at Clinton

The next leg of my trip was from Clinton to West Branch for a quick visit to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Again, two lane roads, this time almost all state routes rather than US highways. I don’t think I had to pass anybody the whole way from Naperville, other than in the towns. I’m sure I’m sounding like a broken record when I say how much more I prefer the small roads to the interstates.

I didn’t spend a lot of time at the library. I watched the film that they show hourly and toured the exhibits in the museum. And, of course, the gift shop. For some reason, they have a bunch of trinkets related to ancient Egypt. I don’t recall Hoover having any connections, but I could be forgetting. In the museum was a hunk of the Berlin wall. Again, I’m pretty sure he had no specific connection to the Berlin wall, but it was cool to see it. In general, I don’t go around touching museum exhibits, but I couldn’t resist this time.

Most of the building is off-limits to the public, so I had to ask: If I were to be writing a book about, say, Belgian relief, could I get access to the library? The answer was that all I’d need to do is get a research license, which is about as hard to obtain as a library card. In the mean time, I was free to ask any of the staff researchers questions and they’d do their best to respond. Interesting. Not that I’m planning on writing about Hoover. Or anybody else, for that matter.

Hoover grave site

The Hoover library is only a few hundred yards from I-80. I’ve driven by here many times and never bothered to stop. Or even notice how close it was. Add this to the long list of places I ignored because I was in too big of a hurry on the Interstate. The more I avoid those roads, the happier I am.

Third leg of the day was from West Branch southwest to join US 36 somewhere in Missouri, then as far west as I could get. I had the endpoint tentatively at Bethany, Missouri. I reached Bethany before 6:00pm; clearly too early to stop. In my first iteration of the plan, weeks ago, I was looking at St. Joseph. As it turns out, I made it to Hiawatha, Kansas, about forty miles farther.

One of the reasons I don’t drive after dark is the danger of animals. This was illustrated perfectly just a few miles before Hiawatha. I came upon what I thought was debris in my lane. It wasn’t obvious to me at first what it was. Then I saw it was moving. Slowly. It was a good sized turtle, moving from left to right and about where my drivers side tires belonged. I avoided it, and the smaller turtle a few yards past it, which had almost reached the shoulder. I sure hope they both made it. Frankly, I’m a bit amazed they didn’t get clobbered by the clump of traffic about a quarter mile ahead of me: two semis, two tour buses, a motorhome, and two cars. I have no idea how they all managed to miss both turtles.

My minor irritations with technology continued. As soon as I pulled up to the hotel, my phone decided it didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had no cell service and no GPS. At first I thought it was just the cell service that was lacking. But I saw other people yakking on their phones and spotted a cell tower a short distance away. All was good after rebooting the phone. I guess the day wouldn’t have been complete without some sort of technical glitch.

One of the key events of Herbert Hoover’s tenure as Secretary of Commerce was his relief work in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. This was the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States. Twenty seven thousand square miles of land was inundated and 630,000 people were displaced from their homes. To try to prevent future floods, the federal government created the world’s longest system of levees and floodways.

Yesterday, one of these levees failed in the West Quincy area, and other levees were breached along the Arkansas river as well. Luckily, I was in neither of those places and saw nothing so dramatic. However, I did drive by a huge amount of acreage that was under water. Not being from the area, I can’t look at a river and tell if it’s high compared to other severe flooding years, but every river I saw looked very high. At Clinton, all the access stairs leading down to the river were closed, and lampposts on the river side of the levee were under water.

In Missouri, just east of the Mississippi, there’s the Platte River. This is not the same one that flows through Denver an on through Nebraska. I didn’t know there was another one. This one is sometimes called the Little Platte River. This Platte was well out of its banks, flooding perhaps a half mile on each side of the river. Most of Iowa and Missouri that I traversed through the day was rolling terrain, so there wasn’t much flooding to see. But quite a bit of land on the Kansas side of the Missouri is flooded as well as large areas of Illinois that I drove through. Of course, I also mentioned flooding last weekend through the section of Illinois that I went through farther south.

We aren’t in need of someone to do what Hoover did 90 years ago (feed and house more than half a million people), although there are still quite a few people affected by the high water. But I think I can say that the levee system did what it was intended to do (regardless of other good or bad side-effects). In 2011, the Mississippi rose a foot higher than back in 1927. And the flooding along the Missouri this year is worse than it was in 2011. But the damage and displacement of people is far, far less than back then.

Today’s miles: 525 road Total miles: 2,254 road, 407 track

Day 9 – Sunday, June 2

A fairly straight-forward and uneventful drive through Kansas and eastern Colorado. I well remember last year’s range anxiety on this same road. Today I filled up in Smith Center, Kansas, three hundred miles to Byers. I’d been getting a bit over 33mpg and figured I could make it easily. Just the same, I topped off the tank at my lunch stop in St. Francis, at the last working gas pump before HPR.

Today’s miles: 524 road Total miles: 2,778 road, 407 track

Total trip miles: 3,185

Mid-Ohio Trip – Chicago

Day 7 – Friday, May 31

The weather guy on TV said the sky today would be “milky”. That’s not a description I recall hearing before. Turned out to be fairly apt.

When picking a hotel for my stay in Chicago my first consideration was to be roughly half way between downtown and Autobahn. That meant a western suburb. Next consideration was proximity to a train station. Without knowing anything about Chicago mass transit I had to ask around. Bob suggested the best way to go was on the Metra. This is an entirely different train system than the “L” operated by the Chicago Transit Authority. With this in mind, I picked a hotel just a few miles from the Naperville Metra station.

I didn’t want to have to get to the station early enough to find a parking spot, so I grabbed a Lyft. At the station, I was expecting to buy tickets from a machine. That’s how it works for the BART in San Francisco and the Metro in D.C. It works differently for Denver’s train system, at least the one I’ve ridden. There are no turnstiles but you still get your ticket from a machine. At the Metra station, you actually go to a ticket window and buy from a person. How quaint.

The train cars are tall double-decker affairs. The lower level is two seats on each side of the aisle. The upper level is one seat each side, with some seats facing forward and others that are jump seats that fold down, and you face the aisle. Up there, you’re on one side or the other as there’s no floor in the center. A conductor comes through and checks tickets, and from the lower level he can collect from the folks above.

The train deposits you in Union Station. The trains are below ground level and there are many platforms. Not knowing where to go I just let myself be carried along by the crowd, turning right and left, going up escalators, I finally was deposited on Adams St on the bank of the Chicago River. The general plan was to wander the public spaces by the Lake, then spend some time at the art museum and go to the observation deck at either the Willis Tower or the Hancock Tower. I could either find dinner downtown or head back to Naperville.

So finding myself on Adams St at the river was a good starting place. All I needed to do was walk a few blocks east and I’d be at the museum. It wouldn’t open for a while, so I’d have time to wander through the parks and gawp at the skyline.

Bean There, Done That

I didn’t have a clear sense of how the place is laid out, so I just started at the northwest corner and went around clockwise. This meant I’d start in Millennium Park. The big attraction here is “the bean,” which is actually called Cloud Gate. When I arrived there were only a few people. Great luck, I thought. I can get some pictures without a huge crowd. I managed to take one or two photos before a busload of kids showed up. Ah, well, so it goes.

A few yards south of Cloud Gate is the Crown Fountain. I don’t think I’d heard of this before. I’m pretty sure I’d remember it. There are two sort of obelisks that face each other with water cascading down the sides. And I literally mean “face each other.” They have human faces on them. The faces are animated. That is, they slowly change their expressions. Periodically, they purse their lips and streams of water pour from their “mouths”.

Heading toward the lake you come across the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an interesting open-air venue, obviously designed by Frank Gehry. From there you can take a pedestrian bridge across Columbus Drive to Maggie Daley Park. It has all sorts of little nooks and crannies for kids to explore: forts and pirate ships, hall-of-mirrors gardens, sculptures, and so on. Heading south along Lake Shore Drive eventually takes you to Buckingham Fountain.

From here I crossed Lake Shore Drive and walked along the water’s edge. To the north you can see Navy Pier, to the south the planetarium, aquarium, and the Field Museum. Heading back west takes you through the south end of Grant Park. Before you get to Michigan Avenue you’ll find the loop’s railroad tracks below grade, out of sight. I skipped some of these little parks and worked my way back to the art museum, the Art Institute of Chicago.

It’s a big museum. I didn’t make it through the entire place, but I got close. I’m not the biggest art fan. That is, I like art, but there are some types that don’t appeal to me. So I was perfectly willing to skip various exhibits. As it turned out, I don’t think I skipped much. I’m not an expert on art or art museums by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d suggest that this is one of the top art museums in the world. Perhaps not “top ten” material, but not far from it. I was surprised how many of the works I recognized, and how many works by artists I recognized.

American Gothic on the left and Nighthawks through the doorway on the right

Among the exhibits that didn’t appeal to me are some of the works of modern art. This would include Jackson Pollack, who I suspect just sold his drop cloths. Another one was just a set of colored panels: a block of blue next to a block of red next to a block of green next to a block of white, or things to that effect. I don’t understand this stuff. Picasso may not be my cup of tea, but some effort obviously went into it. It’s a different view of reality, but there’s a viewpoint there, even if it doesn’t speak to me. A series of paint swatches seems like they’re just trying to pull one over on me.

The rest of the exhibits are amazing in one way or another. The miniature rooms were incredible. A woman did a series of rooms either based on real houses or her imagination that represented a place and time. Furnishings, art, lighting, rugs, views into adjoining rooms. I almost skipped that one and I’m glad I didn’t. I really liked the impressionists, too. The American art included quite a lot of furniture. “They don’t make them like that anymore” is an understatement. The level of craftsmanship is insane. The several rooms with armor and arms was great, too.

I did get a bit of a kick out of all the people taking pictures of the art. I’ve done this on occasion myself, to be honest. But these days I’m more interested in the room as a whole, or the people looking at the art. Because I can go on-line and find a much better picture than I can take of that Picasso.

The admission ticket that I bought for the art museum included a trip up to the Skydeck attraction at the Willis Tower. That’s the observation deck on the 103rd floor. I entered the building through the wrong entrance. A doorman there immediately asked if I was looking for the Skydeck. I jokingly asked him if he thought I looked like a tourist (because I obviously did: Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and a camera around my neck).

Other than the views, the attraction is The Ledge. They basically took out four windows and made bay windows with transparent floors. Groups of three or fewer people get sixty seconds, four or more get ninety. Everybody does it, so the line is long: maybe 20 minutes. I got to chatting with a group there where one of the guys wanted to do a handstand. He said he’s been doing handstands all over Chicago. Here, he was reluctant because he’s afraid of heights. I said, “Hey, don’t worry: nobody has fallen out the entire time I’ve been waiting here!”

I have a problem with heights, but this didn’t bother me

By now I was done. I’d been walking all day and I was looking forward to sitting down on the train. I managed to find the correct train without looking too much like a rube. I sat on the upper level this time, thinking there might be a view. There wasn’t. After some time, my phone rang. It was Bob. After chatting for a couple minutes I couldn’t help but notice that several people were giving me the evil eye for talking on my phone. I told Bob I’d call him back. Once off the train, I got the phone out and started to call a Lyft. As soon as it asked where I wanted to go, it told me I was down to 3% charge and shut itself off. (I left the hotel with a fully charged phone. Most days, it’s down to 55-60% by the end of the day. Some days it gets happy and goes through 90% by bed time. This day, it must have been positively ecstatic, to use 100% in 10 hours. And I hardly even used it.)

That’s just great. Not only can’t I call a car, I can’t even bring up a map to tell me which way to hoof it. I didn’t even really know how far it was. I was hoping it was closer to four miles than seven. On the way to the station I didn’t really pay attention to where we were going, but I did have a general direction. So off I went, expecting that I’d be able to stop at any number of places to ask for directions. I passed a Little Caesar’s Pizza place and a DQ. I considered going to the pizza place and ordering a pizza for delivery to my hotel, then catching a ride with the driver. But the line was out the door, as was the line at DQ. After that, I was in a residential area whose few businesses were all closed.

There were no other pedestrians and when a hippyish bicyclist came by I stopped him to ask directions. He told me I was going in the right way and that if I got to the highway I’d gone too far. I found the street I was looking for and soon found my hotel. The last hurdle to jump was the lack of a crosswalk across a multi-lane road with a high speed limit. As you may have guessed, I managed to cross without getting run over. Back in my room, I plugged in to recharge. I checked how far it was: less than three miles.

I had dinner at a brew pub next to the hotel and had a large beer.

More photos here.

Today’s miles: 0 road Total miles: 1,729 road, 407 track