The difference between pea-size and dime-size shouldn’t be discounted.
To start our Tuesday, Dad drives us on a truck-only road to one open only for hikers and horsemen. I mean horsepeople. No, that makes this sound like Chronicles of Narnia. Horse riders?
Although Mom enjoys a good walk and natural scenery, rigorous hiking isn’t her bag. She and Ben stay behind at the cabin.
Shannon and I sit in the back while one of Mom and Dad’s friends, Belle A, sits up front. Belle A is an avid hiker, here in Red River for a couple weeks with her husband, who is not.
A man standing beside the road holds a shotgun over his shoulder and seems to be searching the woods. “Maybe there’s a rabid bear out there,” Belle A guesses.
The trailhead — elevation 9550 feet — starts us out on a closed road that even when open is intended only for 4×4’s with short wheelbase and high clearance. A mountain stream alongside us babbles “good morning” and its clear water reveals its bed of smooth rocks. Leaves of aspen trees at forest’s edge dance in the breeze and shimmer in the sunlight.
Blue is the only color in the sky.
Soon we are under the forest’s canopy, where the water rushes loudly over increasingly large boulders. The smell of evergreens fills the air, and their fallen needles pad our footfalls. The lady with whom I’ve shared the past 15 years of my life is right there with me, as is the man who sparked my love for the outdoors. My first real hike in the Rockies is off to a perfect start.
(Click any image to enlarge and sharpen.)
Within a few minutes, two paths lay before us: a forest road that switches back and forth and climbs ever upward, but takes us away from the creek; or the trail, which pretty much follows the creek the whole way, with unpredictable undulations and sections steeper than stairways. Both lead to Middle Fork Lake, which sits at 10,840 feet above sea level. That means whatever route we choose, we’re going up about 1,300 feet in two miles. I start to understand why the guide sheet rated the trail “moderate to difficult.”
Hiking sticks in hand, we choose the more scenic, more difficult path. Although I am glad we picked it, I also am glad we aren’t backpacking. Carrying a fully loaded pack of tent, sleeping bag, food, and clothes would have proven too much for me considering my lack of recent hiking and the high altitude. As it is, we rest as often as we need to and nobody cares much about our pace. An added bonus? We see other people only at points where the trail and the road intersect, and anyone we see is friendly.
I’m glad the road is closed to vehicles that day. According to the guide, it’s usually bustling with ATV’s and 4WD vehicles. The closure made for a much quieter, more peaceful hike — a nice perk for someone accustomed to hiking in the Ozark National Forest, where there are no roads leading to such secluded destinations.
My heart tells my lungs it needs more oxygen, and isn’t very understanding when they explain that they are doing the best with what my nose gives them. (keep in mind, the highest point in the town where we live is about 600 feet, and the state where we both spent most of our lives peaks out at 2753 feet.)
At the only creek crossing, Shannon is dismayed to find that an hour of hiking has carried us only half way to the lake. She says, “I don’t know if I can make it,” but she marches on.
We hear thunder in the distance.
The experience of hiking up to a lake is a reversal for me. Any trail climbing 1300 feet in the Ozarks is unlikely to have any water nearby, much less a reservoir. Lakes, far below any trails of significant height, typically require a downward hike.
Finally Shannon, who by this time has a headache, says she wants to try the road’s gradual grade, and I breathe an internal sigh of relief. We join her and reach the top two hours after our first steps into the woods. That’s an average of 1 MPH. Like I said, we stopped and rested a lot. I would love to blame that on the 60-somethings in our group, but that would be a lie.
Not much happens at the lake, because our stay is cut short. A few sprinkles of rain hit us just as we reach the shores of Middle Fork. Straight across the lake is a mountain, its top dotted with snow patches. A cool breeze floats in to refresh our trail-worn bodies. Shannon says, “This is beautiful,” and sits on a lakeside rock to take it all in. Dad and I stroll to one side of the lake for a view of another snow-capped peak. Belle A tries to feed a chipmunk a bite of her breakfast bar, but it takes the whole thing.
Then the dark clouds above us — soaked, tired, and stressed out from all that thunder — relax to release their burden.
The four rain ponchos Dad brought along do us no good. They’re in his truck.
We scramble back together and quickly find the road. Using it for the whole trip this time will require more steps, but few if any rest stops and no up-and-down hiking. We don’t mind covering a little more distance if it gets us out of the storm sooner. Within minutes we’re below the hill, out of sight of the lake.
Then the hail starts.
“Ouch!” Shannon shouts. “It’s hitting my arms!”
From pea-size to dime-size, it pelts us without mercy. Chunks that don’t bounce off get stuck in our hair. The trees, evolved to sluff off heavy snows, just provide runways. Belle A leaves us to take the trail down.
Although by this point I’ve tucked my camera equipment inside my day pack, I worry about the rain soaking through. I turn and yell back, “Shannon, I’m going ahead. I don’t want my stuff to get wet.”
I run-walk, carefully choosing my steps around loose rocks. My glasses are wet enough now that the world’s blurry, but I manage to make good progress. Surprisingly, my head sustains few direct hits. A part of me thinks this is kind of fun.
Despite those thoughts, I re-think my plan. As in, leaving behind the wife in a hail storm, even with my own perfectly capable mountain man father, is not a good one. I see a dry spot at the road’s edge, under a tree, and make myself as small as I can to avoid getting wet standing still. Somehow, that idea seems worse than getting wet while moving.
I listen. There’s nothing like the sound of the forest in a storm. “Ouch!” I shout, reaching a hand up to rub my head. “That was a dimer!”
The hail stops 10 minutes after it started, and the rain starts coming down harder.
Shannon and Dad catch up to me. We proceed down the hill together, Shannon shivering from the cold. I start to feel the cold sinking in, mostly in my fingers. We pass by a group wearing ponchos, sitting huddled together under a dense stand of trees. They must have figured it was just a short summer thundershower.
We hear a voice call out, “Hello?” We’re pretty sure it’s Belle A.
We repeat back the same.
A few more switchbacks and we see Belle A stepping onto the road. “The first rule of hiking is don’t get separated from your group,” she says. “I didn’t follow that too well.”
The creek crossing goes well. Several more people are gathered there, apparently waiting for the rain to stop.
The rain stops.
Already plenty wet and cold, we continue down the road. As the road flattens, our feet kick up dust and there’s blue sky above. One hour from when we started our descent, we reach Dad’s truck. That’s half the time it took us to get to the top.
That eventful hike over, and the weather looking better, we’re ready for our next adventure.
We find out that day that my brother and his family will not be able to make it out for the trip. The original plan was for all of us to be there, but unforeseen circumstances in my sister-in-law’s family put things up in the air. We were disappointed, to be sure, but sometimes life makes plans for us. Good news is, things turned out great on their end and a celebration was in order.
Next up: “Sorry, cash only,”; uplifting moments; Ben and I win the race; “gorge” is a noun or a verb