Ptarmigan Tarn

It’s officially unnamed, but if I don’t apply names to some of the officially unnamed bodies of water I visit in the Park I’ll confuse myself. In the past I’ve resorted to calling them things like “unnamed lake at 11,200′ on Hunter’s Creek”. That’s a bit cumbersome and I don’t really want to continue very far down that road.

But I’m not certain how to name this one. Is it Ptarmigan Tarn, or would Fern Tarn be better? It sits beneath the snow field at Ptarmigan Point, but it’s at the source of Fern Creek. Do you name the tarn after the glacier or the stream? Is it a glacier, or just a snow field? Is it a tarn if a stream flows from it? Too many questions. I’m going with Ptarmigan Tarn.

Sunday, August 25

It’s a fairly short hike, just a bit over three and a half miles, and about fourteen hundred feet in elevation gain. That meant we didn’t have to get too early of a start. I had Chad meet me at my place at 6:30, and we stopped for a quick bite of breakfast as we passed through Boulder. Historically I haven’t been too concerned about getting a parking spot at the Park and Ride, but this summer I’ve seen the lot there get quite full, so I did have a bit of low-grade anxiety about getting to park there after 8:00. The anxiety was not founded, as the lot was back to what I’m accustomed to there: it was only about a third or less full, and there was no line waiting for the bus.

We hit the trail at Bear Lake at 8:36 and spent most of our time on the trail discussing the relative merits of various Sci-Fi television series. I usually make a note of the time when I reach various navigation points, which in this case would be the junction with the Flattop Mtn trail and upon reaching Lake Helene, but we were in the depths of plot line analysis of various Star Trek and Farscape episodes, and how many demerit points Farscape deserves for ripping off a Gilligan’s Island episode. So I didn’t note the time until we reached our destination, not quite two hours after leaving Bear Lake.

I have somehow never noticed that there’s a fairly well-developed trail leading up the hill around the west west side of Lake Helene. I’ve never gone any farther up the canyon than some large rocks overlooking the lake, and I always went around the east side of the lake to reach them.

Odessa Lake, Lake Helene, and Two Rivers Lake

This trail served us well on the way up. It was covered for a few yards by a bit of snow, and there really aren’t many cairns marking the way, but it was fairly obvious which way to go. I did note one place where I thought might be easy to make a wrong turn on the way down. But overall it was easy route finding and we avoided what little willow and krummholz we saw.

My map shows one body of water up here, but in reality there are two. In spite of a forecast high in the upper 90’s for Denver, it was quite cool here at nearly 11,000′. And to say there was a stiff breeze would be a bit of an understatement. Unable to find a spot that was both out of the wind and in the sun, the best we could get was the leeward, shady side of a large boulder beside the easternmost, smaller lake. And “leeward” isn’t quite right, either, as the wind swirled around our rock chaotically. Within a few minutes we had both donned our jackets to keep warm.

Ptwo Ptarmigan Ptarns

I set the GoPro up where I thought it least likely to get moved by the wind and placed a rock behind it as ballast. We had our early lunch, well before eleven, and watched the wind whip whitecaps on the water. And twice while we sat there, the wind blew my hat off sending us scurrying to grab it before it could start a trip to Kansas.

After our blustery break we headed back down. And, of course, we managed to make one wrong turn on the way down but it wasn’t difficult to get back to the route we took on the way up. As it was still early, I considered taking another pause on the shores of Lake Helene but it was still fairly windy here and neither of us particularly wanted to deal with it, so we headed back down the trail and into the trees.

Odessa Lake and the Fern Lake burn scar

Very quickly we encountered two twenty-something women. They asked us if we could point them to Lake Helene. It turns out they were headed to Ptarmigan Tarn as well, and that’s the name they used for it. I donated my map to them and we gave them a couple of route finding tips and a warning about the wind.

Approaching the junction with the Bierstadt trail I considered the option of walking back to the Park and Ride, but Chad had just run out of water. So I’ll save that option for another time. We made it back to Bear Lake by 1:15. After a stop for food and beer we headed back home. The thermometer in Chad’s car read 101 as we passed through Boulder, and our chilly, breezy picnic was just a fond memory.

Two Rivers Lake

Sunday, March 19

I talked Chad into hiking with me. Somehow, two weeks in a row. Last week we took the short hike to Emerald Lake. It snowed the whole time. I don’t know if it technically qualifies as a blizzard, but it was snowing and the wind was blowing. I told him it was some of the most dramatic scenery around. But we couldn’t see any of it.

After many months without hiking, followed by an unsatisfactory hike, I felt I had to do it again. So I asked Chad if he wanted to do another hike, a little longer this time, and hopefully better weather. He didn’t accept right away. Perhaps he finally agreed in spite of his better judgement.

It was a beautiful day, with a forecast high in Denver of over 80. One of the great things about hiking in the Park is that you can get away from the summer heat. It’s only March and it’s a bit distressing that I’m already looking to escape the heat. A March hike along the divide is one way to do it.

Before we hit the trail I warned Chad to be careful whose footsteps he follows. We’d be crossing a couple of open spaces where the footprints get blown away and the “beaten path” might be hard to find. And we need to stay on the beaten path because we’re wearing micro spikes rather than snowshoes. If we get off the path we could be postholing.

When we got to the first of these open areas we met a group of four hikers heading back to Bear Lake. They’d built an igloo and camped nearby. We didn’t find it until we were on the way back; must have walked right by it somehow. It was a big one – sleeps four!

We found ourselves on a fairly well-traveled path, but as we got closer to the lake I began to dislike it. We were following tracks that seemed to take a more difficult route than was necessary. We were climbing too far up Joe Mills Mountain for my taste. Before long we met another couple of hikers on their way back. These two said they visit Lake Helene quite often in the summer, even climbing up the canyon above it to a small unnamed pond beneath Notchtop.

Last year when I hiked here, everybody I ran into thought Two Rivers Lake was Odessa Lake. These two, who have visited here often in summer, told us that Helene was real close and that we’d already passed Two Rivers. They were wrong. What they thought was Helene was actually Two Rivers. It’s funny how a little snow can change the terrain.

Once at the lake, we found a spot out of the wind and settled down for a picnic. Actually, it was more standing around than settling down as all the snow-free rocks that would make nice seats were in the teeth of the strong wind. We opted for shelter in the trees, where there were no good places to sit. We stayed nearly an hour.

We followed a different set of footprints on the way back. On one of the steeper open slopes we spotted below us the route we followed in the morning. Then we managed to get off the tracks we were now following. I decided we were too high up the hillside and the tracks we really wanted to follow were below us. So I headed off into virgin snow.

I knew our morning route was below us but we were descending a bit more than I wanted to, so I decided to contour along the slope. With these warm, bright days and cold nights the snow was pretty crusty. Had to tread carefully, though, as I was often on the verge of breaking that crust and stepping crotch deep into the snow. A few minutes later we came across the beaten path again.

This morning when I told Chad he’d have to be careful whose footsteps he followed, I’m pretty sure he didn’t think I was warning him about me.

Two Rivers Lake

Sunday, June 5

For the first hike of the year, my latest first hike in eight years, I headed toward Lake Helene. Either Helene or Two Rivers. I figured this would be an unremarkable hike. This is the third or fourth year in a row I’ve hiked this way at this time of year. Familiar territory and conditions.

It’s a short hike, probably the shortest I’ll take all year. That meant I could have a leisurely morning and didn’t need to arrive at the Bear Lake parking lot until about 9:30. I arrived pretty much on schedule to a nearly full lot. I parked in the third or fourth spot from the bottom of the lot. I was on the trail by 9:45.

My first encounter with other hikers was a bit of foreshadowing. Four young women were at the trail sign at the start of the Flattop/Odessa trail. Their discussion sounded a bit confused. I asked if they had things figured out. They didn’t. They were looking to go to Nymph Lake. I showed them Nymph on the map and told them how to get there, as that trail wasn’t on this map. They had no idea where they were and couldn’t make sense of the map.

Shortly after ten I arrived at the Flattop-Odessa trail junction. I stopped and put the spikes on. There was more snow here than any of the last few springs. About the only snowless patch from the junction on up is at a rock outcropping with a view of Bierstadt. Not far past that there’s a meadow. On winter hikes I’ve sometimes had trouble finding the route – the blowing snow erases most of the footprints. Plenty of steps to follow today, and here’s where we deviated from the summer route.

The summer trail crosses over to the flank of Joe Mills Mountain but the snow trail stayed on Flattop side. I soon caught up to three hikers: mom, college aged daughter, junior high son. Mom was in sneakers, none had spikes.

The daughter told me, “We’re going almost to Odessa. I was there yesterday and dropped something. We’re going to look for it.”

“You don’t have spikes? You made it to Odessa? I won’t go to Odessa this time of year even with spikes. Too steep.”

She confirmed that she’d been to Odessa.

A short while later I met a young couple coming down the trail. They didn’t have spikes and also said they made it to Odessa. The next hikers, two guys, said they wanted to go to Odessa but when they got to an overlook decided “no way.” They didn’t have spikes, either.

Continuing to follow the steps in the snow I soon arrived at the outlet of Two Rivers Lake. The trail stopped here in the rocks that will probably be under water in a matter of days. A few skiers had traversed the slope on the south side of the lake, and there were a couple sets of footprints, but this was the end of the line.

2016-06-05 11.30.56_stitch_resize

It finally clicked – all those people who said they went to Odessa had no idea that they’d only been to Two Rivers. No official trails go to Two Rivers or Helene; they’re not on any signs. The only lake on any of the signs they’d seen was Odessa. Of course they thought they were at Odessa. Only about a third of the people I’d met had the slightest idea where they really were.

I managed to take only a handful of photos with the SLR before the battery died. I was disappointed, but not surprised. It’s been a while since I used the camera. It was breakfast before I thought to charge the batteries. I only charged one battery for a short time. But it’s not like I don’t already have pictures of place, no big deal.

I found a nice log to sit on, got comfortable, tucked into lunch, and proceeded to watch the world go by. Before long, a small bird arrived on a branch very nearby. Small, gray with a white head and black collar. Black stripes on the eyes, not horizontal like a raccoon but vertical. I don’t know my birds; I think this was a White-throated Sparrow. She sat on this limb and fluffed and preened. Spread our her feathers, rearranged a few with her beak. Birds never pose that nicely for me when I have a working camera. She flew off after a while but did come back later. She spent a lot of time on the ground looking for food.

Also notable was the mated pair of ducks that were feeding in the shallows. They motored past me to the outlet where they ran their beaks back and forth under the surface and occasionally went deep, putting their butts up in the air. They were the only two ducks at the lake.They eventually worked their way back past me, occasionally bobbing their tails up.

I stayed at the lake for forty minutes, had the place all to myself. The weather was great, bright sunshine, scattered clouds, calm. As the clouds moved eastward they darkened a bit, incipient scattered showers.

When I started back, I found it easy to exactly retrace my steps. I saw no other hiker using spikes, so my prints were obvious. That lasted until I met a couple hiking up. They were “just going to the lake”, Odessa presumably. Between the two of them, they only obscured about a third of my footprints. Then I met the hikers who had spikes.

As expected, I crossed paths with more people as I progressed down the trail. At the clearing, where our route regained the path of summer trail, a group of snowshoers were just leaving the trail and beginning to head up the side of Flattop. Just before seeing them I passed a couple of women who were switching to hiking boots, one from skis the other from snowboard.

I stopped and enjoyed my plum at the Bierstadt overlook. The plum was nearly perfect – skin still crisp, the flesh at maximum juiciness. Sweet and flavorful.

A group of five young guys approached the Flattop trail junction from Bear Lake as I got there from Two Rivers. They turned to go up Flattop wearing flat soled canvas shoes. “You’ll be hiking on snow from here on, and you’re a long way from any kind of view!” But they were undeterred. I wonder how far they went before they turned around.

In the end, I didn’t get the expected “unremarkable” hike. It was another beautiful day in the park. Even though I’ve been through this area repeatedly, the snow cover and altered route breathed freshness into this visit. I found solitude after a short, easy hike and enjoyed watching the birds.