The clear blue skies over the grand vista beckoned to us Saturday afternoon in Breckenridge. We decided to risk it and break rule #1: Never go out hiking in the mountains past noon. Thunderstorms tend to gather and lightning is deadly. Even with intense two-mile-high sunshine, September had ushered in cool temperatures so I threw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. Armed with a fifteen-year-old trail guide, my husband Danny and I set out with our Bichon Roxy to trek up to Mohawk Lakes.
We realized after driving up and down Highway 9 that our guide was now antiquated. We finally found a new trail head and Danny pulled into the empty gravel parking lot. My first thought was, “Where is everyone?” Usually when hiking anywhere in Colorado, we share the trail with many others. This being Labor Day weekend, I expected more traffic than ever, but this was almost eerie. I also wondered if it was because of a bear warning I read in the morning’s Summit Daily Newspaper. This time of year they come down to lower elevations to feast before hibernating. It warned that their keen sense of smell combined with their inquisitive nature could spell trouble. The writer listed everything a hiker or camper should do to avoid an encounter with a black bear. The article suggested avoiding fragrances that attract them such as the smell of food and toiletries. “Toiletries? Would my shampoo attract one of those massive creatures? Nah! I have such a vivid imagination.” I didn’t even mention my concern to Danny and immediately dismissed it since we had only seen one bear in 15 years as it ambled across the road.
As we started on the trail, I was struck by the verdant understory. The magnificent evergreens towered over us and the burnt orange of their trunks contrasted with the emerald green of the forest floor. How could this be Colorado? By this time of year it is usually drought-ridden and fire danger is extreme, but it has been usually wet. What we were seeing seemed out of a movie set in Europe somewhere. While I took a deep breath inhaling the fresh pine scent, I noticed it was mysteriously soundless except for the roar of a nearby river. Where were all the birds and squirrels that usually chirped incessantly?
This was a new hike for us. We followed a lush trail along the river and saw the prayer stone stacks we had seen in Aruba. At first I delighted in seeing these familiar stacked stones, but after the 5th pile in so many yards I thought it was taking away from the natural beauty of this place. Kind of like, “Hey nature! We Humans are here to mess everything up!” I grumbled something to that effect to Danny as we continued up the trail.
Many trees had fallen recently and I found their roots fascinating. It must have been the inner botanical illustrator in me.
The terrain seemed like a fairyland complete with mosses, overgrown mushrooms, fungus, and lichen. More than once I felt watched and would stop to look around as well as up. I remembered a story of a biker who was attacked by a mountain lion as she biked under a tree. I had never felt this nervous hiking before, but the forest was still unnervingly silent as if in warning.
At one point as we followed the river upstream and lost the trail. “Danny!” I shouted above the crashing river, “I think we need to cut back up the mountain and away from the river. I think this is just a path made by animals.” He agreed so I swung back into the thick brush, bush-whacking as I scrambled across boulders and fallen trees, all the while keeping my eye out for the trail we had lost. When I realized he hadn’t followed, it dawned on me how easy it would be to get lost. I have written several fiction stories with this theme and yet I never imagined I would feel a similar panic. I called out to him, but with the crashing of the river, I knew he would never hear me. As quickly as possible, without breaking an ankle, I scrambled back down and found them farther ahead along the stream. Together we made our way back through uprooted trees and found the trail once again. This time I was happy to find those stacked stones marking the path.
As the trail wound up the mountain, I began to see many caves and hiding places peering out of the cracks and crevices of the earthen and rocky landscape.
Dead lodgepole pines, the recent victims of beetle kill, were now home to silver lichen which laced its branches like a veil of frost. The sun had disappeared behind a cloak of gray clouds and the temperature began to drop.
We continued on, driven by curiosity of what new extraordinary landscape we would discover. Our Bichon Roxy had been very excited to be out exploring the forest with us and was usually out ahead. Since there was no one on the trail we practiced keeping her under voice command. The trail opened up to a boulder field and again the stacked stones guided us. For being such a little dog, Roxy clambered through like a billy goat and she wagged her tail delighting in scents undetected by us. We had been hiking for almost an hour when we heard her whimper on the trail and she would go no further. “What’s wrong with her?” Danny asked. He ran back, leashed her and we continued on. Soon we let her go free again and she investigated with her sensitive nose continuing to forge ahead. But once again she stopped dead in her tracks, now she visibly trembled. This time we realized she sensed something we could not see and heeded her warning. We turned back with heightened awareness in this primeval-looking forest not sure what we would encounter on the trail.
As we hiked back down I was overwhelmed by an acrid musky odor. “Do you smell that?” I asked Danny.
He nodded and said, “Wow. It was just here!” Our female Bichon began marking her territory and we laughed, but picked up the pace.
It wasn’t until we were back down to the main trailhead that we heard the familiar sound of birds calling out and the chirping of an angry squirrel upset that we invaded its territory. Finally I relaxed when I heard the rumbling of cars going by on Highway 9. I am sure that many little creatures peeked out from their hiding places and watched us as we hiked by. The real question is were we being stalked?
When was the last time you felt watched?
Does your hair stand on end or does your spine tingle?
Photos and words by S. Lindau