Good Grief! — Fish the Boulders and
Hike Capitol Reef!
I blew out of town headed to Southern Utah for a weekend University of Utah Capitol Reef National Park hiking class. Man, was I excited. It was an unusually warm October and it would be a perfect time of year to visit and hike the canyons of this geologic wonderland. I ''outfit'' on the Boulders and the weather was great, so I left two days early for one last chance to hike into and fish a couple of lakes on the Boulder Mountains I'd been meaning to explore for a number of years. The Boulders and Capitol Reef are a short distance from each other and you can look down into the Reef's hot red desert floor from a number of points on the mountain. It's a lucky person who can hike Southern Utah and get college credit for it.
I met my fishing partner, Chuck Ledgerwood, a talented young taxidermist who owns "Prize Catch" taxidermy in St. George, Wednesday night at the Road Creek Inn, a wonderful bed and breakfast in Loa, Utah. The Road Creek Inn is a regular stop on my visits down South since I first discovered it a few years ago. Manager Mike Dearden made sure we were settled in and comfortable before dinner. Their menu is extensive (you'll have to try their smoked trout dinner to believe it!) and their rooms and facilities, which include a recreation room with pool tables, a sauna and hot tub, and a big screen TV and meeting room, are the finest in the area.
Early Thursday morning, Chuck and I headed up the mountain. Even at this time of year, the roads up the 11,000 ft. slopes were plenty dry; rough (they don't call it the "Boulders" for nothing) but passable. We set up base camp quickly and hiked to a small remote lake we'd located on a topographical map. The map indicated it was small, deep, and next to a sheer cliff, which generally means sizable fish in close quarters.
Both Chuck and I caught and released some nice brook trout in their fiery red spawning colors and moved on to another lake below. Smaller fish, but still beautiful, and we both lost count of how many we had released after 50 or so.
We dropped down still further and struck gold. Big blue-specked, red-bellied, hook-jawed male brookies full of testosterone and aggression. We both caught and released a number of 3-6 lb. trout. It's hard to describe working in large brookies on ultralite spinning tackle. Chuck was using small flashy lures and I had opted for black-headed jigs. Neither of us had brought along fly-fishing gear, but the way things were going, I suspect any minnow pattern would have worked. The best time for the larger brook trout is late fall, and early spring right after ice off. Christmas came early this year for Chuck and I.
We spent the night in a small 2-man tent and awoke to a clear unbelievably warm morning. I've been snowed and rained on in August at this elevation, and I was amazed at the weather this late in the year. The gods were still with us. More amazing still, we hadn't even seen another person on the mountain, not even a deer hunter, although we did hear a few shots far off into the distance. After a breakfast of hot oatmeal we hurried back to the lakes for a few more hours. We caught and released a number of fish and called it quits at noon. I hated the idea of leaving the mountain, but I had promised the University of Utah group I would have dinner waiting on them Friday evening, dutch-oven turkey breast, white rice, and a special bread stuffing. I enjoy cooking for groups, especially in a dutch oven.
As I've said before, driving down out of the Boulders is like driving into a postcard. Nothing short of spectacular. The ride was a 90 minute slow and go, rock and roll drive. Emerging from the green/gold fall colors of the Boulder mountains into the reddish Wingate cliffs and the tawny Navajo Sandstone formations of Capitol Reef National Park is simply a contrast in heavens.
It seemed as though every other vehicle I passed on the highway carried orange-blazered deer hunters, shopping the hillsides for likely prospects. I checked into the campground reserved for our group and fired up dinner. National Park lands are off-limits for hunting, so it was ironic that a small deer herd was grazing calmly inside our campsite, well within range of large-bore rifles, but legally out of reach. By seven p.m., class instructors Virginia Savage and Chris Quick, and most of the group had arrived, and we had dinner. All the students were required to do three-page papers on some aspect of the desert and give their presentation at various times during the class. After dinner, we discussed the following day's itinerary and the first four students gave their presentations.
I was up before dawn and had the pleasure of watching two large bucks (a four and a six-point) locking antlers against each other with wooden-like clacking sounds, much like two young boys sword fighting with sticks. The deer were jousting playfully now, no doubt in anticipation of the impending rut and the fierce territorial battles to come. I took a number of pictures of the pair, who were either oblivious or unafraid of my approach. But, it was too early and dark for decent shots.
We finished breakfast, packed lunches, and listened to and discussed a few more of the papers. At 8:30, we all strapped on day packs, marched out though the Fruita orchards and up the first series of switch-backs of Cohab canyon. The first half-mile was a strenuous climb and, as I've witnessed in other U. hiking classes, a number of young studly-like athletes, male and female, took off in an uphill drag race to see who would be king. At our first break, our teachers, Virginia and Chris, explained a little of the group dynamics theory of sticking together for the general safety and cohesion of the entire group. Darn good thing,...I was crawling on my hands and knees the last few hundred yards as it was. I was beginning to wonder about my sanity (again), taking another backpacking class. If it weren't for another of Susan Ann Stauffer's aeorbics classes at the University, I'm sure I would have been dead and buried on the trail, a simple stone to mark the place of my demise. I could picture a small obituary scrawled in the sand: "Here lays a dipwad who never learned when to quit."
Four miles later we took a half mile detour and had lunch at Cassidy Arch, a huge arch hollowed out by the winds over the span of millions of years. We had a presentation by a young French foreign exchange student on the more technical aspects of "canyoneering" and she passed around pictures of her and friends in France using the various ropes and safety harnesses used in climbing. I took a million more pictures, and we worked our way back to the Frying Pan Trail (it gets extremely hot here in the summer months) and dropped down another mile to the Grand Wash, a two-mile stretch of canyon cut out by the flash floods of countless centuries. The Grand Wash contains a series of narrows similar to, although not as pronounced as, those found in Zion National Park, according to Chris. He's spent years hiking the parks of Southern Utah.
Eight and a half miles later, we reached Highway 24 and sat down for a breather on the banks of the Fremont River. We were then shuttled over to the Hickman Bridge trailhead where a few of the students gave presentations. That finished, we began another steep ascent up a trail where we had a view of Capitol Dome, a natural structure molded over the years into roughly the shape of the Capitol Building, and then onward to Hickman Bridge. It was there that I learned that the only difference between a bridge and an arch was that a bridge was formed by water flows, while arches were formed under the might of the winds whistling through the canyons.
That's another advantage of taking the outdoor hiking classes through the Recreation and Leisure department at the U.; the knowledge you pick up along the way. Virginia is an expert at wilderness and desert survival skills and is an instructor for Outward Bound, a non-profit international school that enhances personal development, and care for the environment, through intensive outdoor challenges.
We shuttled back to camp, hungry and extremely tired. I noticed Virginia and a few other students moved their tents to different places Nobody gave any reasons for the move. Couldn't have had anything to do with the rumor that I snored, I don't suppose. While dinner was being served, the dark clouds in the distance moved in and settled over us and we were treated to a fierce lightning and rain storm that lasted till two a.m.
My 25 cent tent was awash. It wasn't made for situations such as this. I should have had the sense to rent one of the more "techie" tents offered through the Outdoor Program at the university. You know the movie, "A River Runs Through It?" It was named after my tent. I spent the last hour or two sleeping, sort of, in the front bucket seat of my jeep, water dripping off my sleeping bag, not to mention my nose. The next morning found some people sleeping on the covered campground picnic tables and others who were soaked and hadn't slept at all. Hot chocolate and coffee was utmost on everyone's mind.
After breakfast, artist and realtor Diane Borg quickly rendered a water-coloring of one of the areas we had visited the day before, as her presentation. Watching her swift all encompassing brush strokes was amazing. Seeing the startling colors of Capitol Reef come to life on paper in a matter of minutes is hard to describe. This kind of talent is easy to appreciate.
We spent the rest of Sunday with a short stop at the visitor center and took a ride to view some petroglyphs, where a student in therapeutic recreation, Tom Batey, treated us to a mystical presentation involving a Shamanic Indian drumming ceremony and a smoke offering (called a smudging), in which a rolled-up stick of sage and cedar is lighted and held up to the heart, the head, and the sky, signifiying a purification of the body, the mind, and the spirit. As I understood it, the intent of the drumming was for us to take time to get in touch with the earth and try to do our part to heal it, and change our ways to help save the earth for future generations. He concluded with a reading of an ecological letter from Chief Seattle replying to then president Franklin Pierce, who wanted to purchase Indian lands.
The letter asked the president how you could buy a land sacred to his people, for no man can truly own the land and sky in which he lives, as we are only guests on earth. This ceremony and presentation was surreal.
Al1 22 students and teachers were spellbound.
We concluded our class with a 90 minute drive, and a few short walks on side trails, on the scenic loop within the Park's boundaries. Excellent teachers, a good group of people, and a wonderful part of the state. I couldn't have asked for more.
This was another great trip I've taken through the University's Division of Continuing Education and Recreation and Leisure Departments. These classes are open to the public and you all should look into them. There are a lot of great hiking and outdoor classes you can take throughout the year. Just call John Cederquist at 585-3204 for more information. He'll be glad to talk to you.
About the author: John Campbell is a free-lance writer, amateur dutch-oven cook, and a US. Forest Service permitted outfitter in the Boulder Mountains overlooking Capitol Reef National Park in Southern Utah. If you 'd like to join him fishing, or for hiking trips through the contrasts of the red desert and the cool greens of the Boulders, give him a call at (702) 566-8841 for a brochure, or see his website.