Marigold Lake

Due east of Odessa Lake, on a small shelf two hundred feet up the north slope of Joe Mills Mountain, sits a small puddle of a lake. It has no inlet stream to fill it with snowmelt and no outlet stream to drain it. With an area of about a third of an acre, it’s not much larger than the suburban lot my house sits on.

I suspect it is rarely visited, being somewhat difficult to find. I’ve tried to reach it twice before, without success. The only reason I want to go there is to add it to the list of lakes I’ve been to. I admit that’s probably too much effort to reach a body of water not much more than a puddle that probably doesn’t even merit the designation of “lake”.

Chad told me he wanted to go on a hike so we agreed on a date and I made a plan. I decided we should circumambulate around Joe Mills Mountain as on my first attempt at Marigold. According to CalTopo, the saddle between Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh was burned. Round Pond sits on that saddle. Based on what I saw on my Spruce Lake hike, I suspect the trees around the pond have survived. Why not find out? It doesn’t add any miles to the trip, but it does exchange trail miles for bushwhacking miles.

Saturday, October 22

The Park was very busy. The shuttle from the Park and Ride to Bear Lake was standing room only. We put boots on the trail at about 8:30.

It was a bit chilly. The forecast for the vicinity was “sunny and breezy, with a high of 46”. There were some thin clouds much of the day, but we could always see our shadows. In the woods, the wind is no big deal, and most of the day we’d be in the woods, so “sunny and breezy” sounds like a nice day.

An hour up the trail, we hit our departure point and headed cross-country. Our route would be to contour around Joe Mills Mountain at more or less 10,400′. From the trail to about the pond, the forest isn’t terribly dense and deadfall isn’t too bad, so the bushwhacking is a fairly pleasant stroll through the woods.

Before long, the ground in front of us started sloping down: we had reached the saddle, a bit west of it’s lowest point. We wandered around here for a short while looking for Round Pond but didn’t spot it. Frankly, it has a half-hearted search. I was more interested in getting to the burn. Missing Round Pond isn’t missing much.

The forest is denser on the north side of the mountain, and soon we’d need to traverse a fairly steep slope for a while, westbound to Marigold Lake. But first we started seeing burnt trees. Just individual trees here and there, all deadfall; burned with almost no damage to the surrounding forest. One was still standing: a hollow tree, like a chimney. After several of these we arrived at the edge of the burn scar.

I was expecting the edge to be “fuzzy”. Indistinct. Maybe a border of trees that didn’t ignite and kept their dead, red needles. But no. Green, apparently healthy trees directly adjacent to scorched earth: charred tree trunks standing like giant whiskers. The hillside won’t get shaved, but almost all those dead tree trunks will fall to the ground over the next several years.

It has been two years since the fire. Two summer growing seasons have passed. On my hike to Spruce Lake, the entire burn scar was carpeted with fireweed. Here, there were large areas where the ground is still black. I was surprised to find occasional piles of ash. I suspect they’re in dried puddles and the ash accumulated here. It’s bone dry now: disturb the frail crust and raise a bloom of ash.

On my hike to Spruce Lake, I noticed that the char on the trees is only a couple of millimeters thick, and it’s starting to flake off the dead wood. Here, I saw many interesting logs where the charred part has come off. The wood burned to different depths in random patterns, creating little topographic maps out of the tree rings.

As I said earlier, as we head west, the slope gets fairly steep for a while until we reach the bench that Marigold sits on. The forest isn’t burned here and is dense and there is much deadfall. It is a challenging route for about a third of a mile.

Chad had taken a little tumble shortly after we left the trail and his ankle was a bit tender. Now he mentioned that he was no longer enjoying the dinner he had so enjoyed last night. Then he asked me how steep I thought this slope was. And he was huffing and puffing.

We found a spot with a couple of flat rocks and a nice view and took a break. He told me later how uncomfortable he was. I had been thoughtless. Almost everyone I hike with is quite happy to go places I’m not comfortable going, so somehow I had the idea that, if I was okay going there, anyone would be okay with it. I know exactly what it’s like to find myself in terrain that makes me uncomfortable. It’s stressful. I should have gone over the route with Chad beforehand.

If we’ve navigated correctly, we’ll exit the steep, dense forest onto the bottom of a talus gully, right next to Marigold Lake. We came out a little bit below the lake but found it soon enough. After the dense forest, I was expecting that this pond would have no view. The view of Little Matterhorn from here is quite nice. In my plans, we were to take a nice break here, but unfortunately, there’s no place to sit. So we pressed on.

From Marigold Lake back to the trail, we’d go up a gully gaining about two hundred feet of elevation, then cross a fair amount of talus until we reached the Fern Lake trail about two-thirds of the way from Odessa Lake to the summit of the pass near Lake Helene. Although it’s a rather large talus field, the rocks are small and easy to cross and there are occasional outcroppings of grass.

Did I mention it was breezy? To now, it hadn’t been an issue. Sure, it was windy, the trees swayed quite a bit. On the forest floor, it wasn’t windy enough to disturb ashes. Crossing the talus was another matter. The wind was howling down from Ptarmigan Point unobstructed. I’d guess sustained winds were twenty miles per hour with gusts over forty or fifty. Several times, I was nearly blown over.

On the way, I came across the oddest thing. I found a solar-powered light. The kind with a stake on the end, so you can drive it into your lawn. Who would bring such a thing to the middle of a talus field? And leave it there? I packed it out. How long could it have been out here? The stickers on it were still intact. It came from WalMart.

Back on the trail, we reach the top of the pass, where the trail returns to the trees and out of the wind and it’s all downhill from here. We stopped for a break on a couple of nice, flat rocks in the sun on the lee side of a slope above what as late as August would be a small pond but is now dry ground.

Today’s beer was a repeat: Palisade Peach.

When we got back to Bear Lake, the line for the shuttle was pretty long. After the first bus loaded, it looked like there was more than a busful of people still in line in front of us. Somehow, we managed to get sardined onto the second bus. We didn’t even stop at the Glacier Gorge trailhead on the way down.

Traffic was bad all the way from the Park to my house. We were back to the car pretty much on my expected schedule, but by the time Chad dropped me off at home, it was half an hour later than expected. Traffic sucks.

In Summary

I enjoyed my day. I can finally cross Marigold off the list (or, more accurately, put it on the list). Marigold Lake had a nicer view than I expected, but I don’t think I’ll ever bother to return.

The time exploring the burned area was particularly rewarding. It won’t be like this for very long. The ash and black will soon be gone, and grass and wildflowers will soon be here. And I hope this will be the last fire in the Park for an extended period.

I’m sorry that I led Chad into a situation that he didn’t enjoy.

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.