The Mistaken Hike: Waterton Canyon

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I took the 300mm rental lens out for the first time on Friday. Small aside…I had originally intended to take it out a bit on Thursday to get the hang of it before I used it for anything important. However the FedEx guy SARed on me (stickered-and-ran, in other words, he never knocked or rang the doorbell, he just left a Delivery Tack sticker on my door and took off). I had to wait until almost 7pm for the guy to return to his delivery center with the package so I could go pick it up myself, as he was unable to return during the day, and delivery required a signature (which, ironically, I was there and waiting to offer…if the guy had just knocked!)

Despite not being able to practice with the lens, since there was no light out, I had decided to give the lens a quick testing. Its a good thing I did, as the lens was backfocusing due to some kind of funky configuration issue (see my previous blog). I managed to get the lens configured correctly by resetting my camera to factory settings, so I was good to go on Friday anyway.

Anyway, took the lens out for the first time on Friday. I first headed out to Cherry Creek, but there wasn’t a bird to be found. I headed down to the southern part of Chatfield State Park…this is the riparian area, where South Platt River flows into Chatfield Reservoir. Around the river are a bunch of small ponds and plenty of trees…its pretty much bird heaven. Well…usually.

Apparently, its bird hell this time of year…it seems very dry and its pretty hot, and only bird heaven only during spring and fall. There weren’t many birds around at all. I managed to capture a few shots of some Western Scrub Jays, but once they flew off there wasn’t much more than the distant chatter of a chickadee. I also started reaping the repercussions of resetting my Canon 7D last night to resolve a focus issue. I had quite a bit of customization preconfigured for birding…and it was all gone. My few shots around the Audubon Society outpost all ended up being JPEG rather than RAW. I also had to reconfigure my AF settings, reset my Custom User settings for the main dial, etc. That ate up about 30 minutes at least, but…at least I was able to focus. A bit of re-configuring is a better price to pay than no lens at all.

I had parked in the Audubon Society parking lot, and as I was walking the trails around there I realized I was near the trail head for Waterton Canyon, which leads to the head of the Colorado Trail. Some of my colleagues at work, total cycling nuts, had mentioned Waterton Canyon and that it was a haven for Bighorn Sheep. It seemed to be a frequent stop for my work buddies, particularly during the dog days of summer…apparently hanging out near the dam when its fully open really cools you off with the mist. I thought I’d remembered them saying it was a 6 mile hike, which I thought meant round trip, so I decided to head out and photograph the wildlife. I should have done my homework…because what a mistake!

As it turned out, and as I learned throughout the day, the Waterton Canyon trail leads up to a dam that is 6.5 miles in…one way. For the first part of the day I wasn’t paying much attention. There weren’t many birds around…I could hear scrub Jays in the trees munching down acorns, and the occasional chickadee, but that was the extent of birds up in waterton canyon. I moseyed on for a while, not sure how long exactly, looking for birds but eventually finding quite a throng of  insect life…butterflies, flies, bees, and other creatures were swarming around some kind of yellow flowers that grew alongside the path. I meandered along photographing what I could…with a supertelephoto 600mm lens no less. I think the results actually turned out pretty well, and as far as I was concerned at the time, the day was a success.

The variety of insect life I encountered was pretty amazing. I could see quite a few critters, and about 5 varieties of butterflies. I was only able to photograph some of them, as many kept far enough off the road and down the steep bank towards South Platt River that flowed through the canyon. I managed to capture three types of butterflies, a couple types of bee, one ugly sucker of a fly (more on this wonder of nature some other time), and some other critter that I couldn’t identify.

Intriguingly, outside of some of the butterflies which were black, yellow, and white…almost all of the insects on these flowers were orange in color. I think I also photographed a hoverfly which is more yellow than orange…but the consistency of color was rather curious. The trail itself and the scenery around was quite beautiful. The canyon is packed with oak trees of some kind, and the South Platt River runs through the entire thing. The river itself is structured (by man) to curb the rate of flow, it seems. Long stretches of the river have some kind of fresh-water weed growing in it, and there are schools of small fish everywhere. There were also flocks of Northern Shoverler and Mallard ducks hanging out above a small dam that seems to have been designed to collect water behind it for consumption (Waterton is a civil water district, so collecting water is the entire purpose), but they kept pretty far out of reach near the far side cliff.

A couple spots along the trail I also found a few lizards, which made interesting subjects for me as I’d never photographed any before. They were sunning themselves along the side of the road, and would start when I walked by. I managed to keep from completely startling two of them, getting a couple colorful shots. After I’d been hiking for a while, I started to wonder where the end of the trail was. There weren’t that many people in Waterton Canyon, outside of a few hikers and some cyclists, and the occasional water district truck, I was pretty much alone. I’d been hiking for over an hour, probably longer, although I never thought to track when I actually started the hike.

I started asking passers where the dam was or where the sheep were, and the responses varied from just around the next bend to down the path behind me. I finally managed to get some more information from someone, who told me the dam was about 6.5 miles in from the start, and that I was probably 2/3rds of the way there. That was the first time I realized I was in a bit of a dilemma. I’d spent a considerable amount of time getting as far as I was, and I didn’t want to waste all that time. I’d heard reports that there were as many as 50 bighorn sheep up at the top, along the hillside and down near the river. Several people also mentioned a mother bear and her cubs playing in the water, and that was a sight I really wanted to see and photograph.

I decided to head on, and that was my second mistake. It wasn’t more than another mile that I accidentally dropped my water bottle over the edge of the embankment. I would have gone down after it, however it seemed to explode on the first rock it hit, releasing all the water, and there wasn’t anything to retrieve. I figured there was only about two miles left to go, although there did not seem to be decent mile markers, so I couldn’t say for sure. I trudged on, not wanting to waste the effort I’d already expended, but I was really already spent at that point.

For those of you who have read my blog before, I have severe insomnia…so I’m not a particularly high-energy guy. The longest hikes I usually take at one time are about 3 miles, and I generally rest up pretty good before I hike any more in the same day. I’d done some 6-mile round trip hikes at the end of 2011, including a 6 mile (3 in/3 out) one in the dead of winter up in Rocky Mountain National Park…which was pretty grueling itself, but worth while in the end. I didn’t have the energy for what would be a 13 mile plus hike, as once I was in, I had to get back out. By the time I really realized this, it was already too late in a sense…I was almost 5 miles in, and it would have been at least a 10 mile hike either way regardless of whether I turned around then, or later.

When I reached the top of the trail, much, much later than I originally thought I would, there wasn’t anything there. No bear and cubs, and at first not even any sheep that I could see. Eventually I noticed some Bighorn Sheep up on the hillside. After watching them for a while, it was obvious they were moving up the hillside, not down…so if there had been a large throng of them earlier in the day, they had dispersed by now.

The dam’s valves or outlets were all closed but one, so the cooling effect wasn’t really present…and it had been a hot day. I knew I was pretty screwed at this point, and I realized that I’d expended a tremendous amount of effort (for myself, anyway) to gain very little. And worse, I still had to get out of the canyon. I spent some time up at the top, photographed some more insects…all the same varieties I’d already seen. I tried to get a couple shots of the Bighorn, but they were distant enough that even a 600mm lens was barely enough reach. The highlight of the top was a funny squirrel hauling acorns out of the oaks, across the path, and down the embankment to wherever he was stashing them.

A couple of cyclists came up and hung out, and I managed to get a drink of water from one of them before I headed back down. And thus ensued one of the most miserable timespans of my life. I started the return hike already exhausted, carrying a 5-pound lens, 1-pound teleconverter, and  3-pound camera, without any water. I’d already been out in this canyon since about 1pm, and it wasn’t long after I started down that I really just wanted to be OUT and DONE. I tried to hike as fast as I could, but it wasn’t long before my top speed was as slow as a baby’s crawl. It wasn’t long after that, when I realized I was simply just walking…everything was in pain, my arms, my legs, every single joint. I could feel blisters forming on one of my feet, and as I kept hiking those blisters started to become painful. One hiker who I passed by, about half an hour after I’d left the top, gave me another drink…but that was the last one.

From that point on, until I was about a mile from the start of the canyon, I didn’t see a soul. I was dehydrated, and I’d eaten the last of my energy bars. At the top of the trail I’d found an apple tree with bunches of nearly-ripe but small apple trees, and I picked a couple handfuls. For a while that gave me a little bit of moisture when I needed it, but it was also sugary, which may have exacerbated my problems later on. I left the top of Waterton at a few minutes past 4pm…I finally stumbled towards the only drinking fountain in the entire area, at the Audubon Society where I parked…a little after 7:40pm.

I never really knew what it was like to be completely, bone-dry, gasping, unable-to-swallow PARCHED…until then. After a while your mouth and throat become coated in some kind of nasty stick, and you literally cannot swallow. You try to breathe through your nose to preserve as much water as you can, but your nose dries out and plugs up, and you have to breathe through your mouth. Had to gargle to clear out my throat before I could really drink. When you have no other option…you simply keep going. I didn’t know how long I could keep going, so I just kept at it, thinking at some point I would just stop and not be able to continue any more. Its probably only by the Grace of God that I managed to embark, foolishly, on a 13 mile hike when I am not conditioned for it. I don’t try to hike more than 3 miles at a time most of the time (my feet have fallen arches, so I have very little support, making hiking a difficult endeavor on the best of days, on top of my other problems)…I’m amazed I survived a hike four times as long and then some, although it certainly wasn’t without cost.

I don’t think people often think of themselves as fools. Generally speaking, I’m a pretty smart guy. There is no question in my mind that I was a complete and utter FOOL to hike up and down Waterton Canyon. I’m sure I’ll be feeling the repercussions for a while, at the very least. My hips are shot…it almost feels like they have sand in them. Every single muscle and joint in my body felt like it was on fire, and are still in constant pain today. I still feel exhausted, as I’ve been unable to sleep more than a couple of hours since getting home. The ducks, jays, insects, lizards, squirrels and some deer I found well before the 3-mile mark…where I should have turned around (not that the three-mile mark was actually marked)! I did get some good photographs, and of quite a variety of subjects, but I’m not really sure the effort expended was worth the return in the end. I could have turned around after two, maybe two and a half miles and still had quite a collection of photographs that would have been well worth the effort…the extra 11 miles… Well, I guess that will teach me to embark on a trek without knowing exactly where I’m going…