Madcap Adventures for a Spring Training Hike

Welcome Creek Wilderness – our spring-time challenge in a strange and wonderful little corner of the Montana back country world, just off the blue ribbon trout stream, Rock Creek. We should have thought it through a little more, but just needed to get out and do a nearby trail. So Evie and I threw our three little furry friends, Tina, Koda, and Lucy (miniature Pomeranians) in the van. We loaded up our 13 year old boy (told him we were heading for the Welcome Creek Wilderness Cafe), and headed east up I-90, 20 miles from Missoula to the Rock Creek exit.

You head south at the Rock Creek exit on a paved road, winding your way up stream. It’s a beautiful Montana back-country drive up Rock Creek canyon. The pavement ends around 11 miles up, and a narrow dirt road leads another 3 miles to the parking area for Welcome Creek Trail #225

The madcap adventures began there. The trail leads from the parking area across a wonderful suspension “swinging” bridge over Rock Creek Across the bridge, taking a right turn, the trail follows down Rock Creek about a quarter mile, turns left and heads up the narrow Welcome Creek side canyon. Sounds pretty straight forward. Right off, the poms, apparently dying for a drink, diverted our attention to getting them down to Rock Creek’s edge for a drink of fresh river water.

Back on the trail again, we found our son had already disappeared up the trail – a positive if you’re encouraging an independent spirit and gusto for hitting the trail for your child. A parents dream gone bad when finding a fork in the trail at that first quarter mile, right after having to cross the raging springtime torrent of Welcome Creek on a narrow log bridge. Which way did he go? Was he lost in the forests of Montana!

We had hiked that trail with him a couple of times before, so hoped he managed the log bridge and vaguely knew to take the left turn up Welcome Creek. Our 13 year old, Geno, with delays, ADHD, and motor problems functions around an 8 to 10 year range, and is not wilderness guide material at this point. We took the Welcome Creek turn, and herded the wild eyed poms up the trail, calling repeatedly for Geno. To our surprise and delight, we promptly ran into him, heading back down the trail. He had concluded he had covered enough trail and it was time to go back – all of a half mile on the trail.

Convincing Geno to continue further up the trail with us, we proceeded on this foolhardy adventure. We herded a band of hounds that were over and under and tangled in everything,along with a young man with limitations to his motor abilities. Taking a turn for the wilder, we rounded a corner and discovered a jungle. The trail was piled high with tree trunks and brush where fallen timber had not been cleared for spring. I had never encountered such a jumbled mess on a trail before..

Regardless, I refused to yield. Maybe this was an isolated jumble along the trail and it straightens out just around the next corner. We pressed onward. The crazy little dogs, too small to climb over many of the logs, had to each be ferried over. We then discovered Geno’s incredibly limited motor ability required helping him climb up onto and over log after log. You just don’t realize those limitations as he ambles along relatively level terrain for years. No doubt more training out in the forest, climbing hills, and over logs and rocks is in order. But we pressed onward!

Struggling under the last tree across the trail, the fallen timber mess finally ended. By then everyone was ready to stop off for lunch at that great Welcome Creek Wilderness Cafe – perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just the way we like ‘em. Settling into a spectacular old growth forest grove, lunch was on – as the first raindrops hit!

Montana in June is often wet in a good year, and the weather had forecast rain. We were driven to get out and do a trail, regardless. But now the rain, the unruly poms, the massive log jamb on the trail, and the kiddo so physically challenged – the fun takes on a ridiculous scale. Following a hasty lunch, Evie, Geno and the maniacal poms hit the return trail – enough was enough. With my pack outfitted with raingear, I was compelled to do the next mile regardless of the torrential downpour.

A wonderful winding rocky trail follows right next to Welcome Creek. Long stretches of the trail follow the base of massive rock slides covered with mosses like scenes from a fairy land. Pushing on in the downpour another mile, the weekend spring training trail run was accomplished despite the weather and the faltering, stumbling beginnings. Finally conceding that the trek would be an ongoing soggy slog through tall ferns, grass and brush along the trail, even I turned back

Back at the trailhead 45 minutes later, soaked to the skin, I discovered the crew all snug and taking a snooze in the dry comfort of the van. They too had been caught in the downpour but managed to dry out in the meantime. Surprisingly good spirits prevailed in light of the ridiculous challenges thrown at us, and we hit the highway back to Missoula.

id’s Wild Fishing in Colorado’s Raggeds Wilderness

The trout literally leaped to snag our hooks as we cast them again and again into the small pools of Trout Creek as it cascaded down through the brush, waterfalling from rock to rock. No, really, that is one of those rare memories from childhood that stands out as a boggling phenomena, one of few that I clearly recall. Beyond that I don’t bank a lot on my abilities to recall a lot from years past, and this trek into the Colorado backcountry almost seems like a journey to OZ.

Trout Creek was a small side creek to the Anthracite in western Colorado between Paonia and Crested Butte up on Kebler Pass. I was 13 years old, and trekking into the Raggeds Wilderness with my buddy Steve, his dad and brother. We followed an obscure overgrown trail around Marcellina Mountain down into the fabled Dark Canyon to fish and camp, following Anthracite Creek out to the other trailhead.

My family had driven over Kebler Pass many times, and Marcellina Mountain stood tall and daunting right near the road, jutting up in the Colorado backcountry to a lofty 11,348 feet within the Raggeds Wilderness. That we were actually going to backcountry trek around that peak, hiking through the Raggeds Wilderness and down legendary Dark Canyon – a childhood dream come true.

To get there, we followed Highway 133 around 16 miles east up the North Fork of the Gunnison River from Paonia, Colorado to the road fork below Paonia Dam. Turning right the road leads up Anthracite Creek 5 miles to Erikson Springs Campground and a switchback, the road leading up Kebler Pass. Around 5 miles past the switchback, forest Trail 836, leads east into a tall stand of aspens. Trail 836 leads to Trout Creek following it down to Anthracite Creek and the heart of Dark Canyon, connecting with Trail 830.

Our trail circled Marcellina Mountain looming tall south of Dark Canyon. North of us, the Raggeds Mountains rose tall and inaccessible as we worked our way down toward Anthracite Creek. Herein lay the wonder of the trek into this rugged backcountry. Crossing into the Raggeds Wilderness, we hit Trout Creek, receiving our fishing instructions from Steve’s dad. Issuing each of us a small barbless hook, we tied them to our lines, and were then instructed to enjoy.

Never since have I experienced such amazement. Trout Creek, true to it’s name was teaming with trout as this wild little stream crashed through the brush . With no fly or bait on the hook I expected nothing. Instead to my disbelief, every cast into a pool below a rock prompted a rush of trout, all fighting to grab that shiney treat hitting their waters. Every time – boom – a set of trout would strike, one of them seizing the prize and the point of a hook. The majority of course, were far too small to be of any use whatsoever and were all tossed back – hence the barbless hooks. As Steve’s Dad pointed out, we would catch more than enough for our dinner and breakfast down on the Anthracite.

We boys whooped and hollered at cast after cast. It was beyond unreal, falling into a category of sport fishing I had never encountered before. Working our way down the small creek through the brush we finally hit Anthracite Creek, and headed down through the fabled Dark Canyon, a deep and mysterious gorge through surrounding benchlands of aspen and spruce. The canyon narrows with rimrock cliffs and caves in the outcrops above. The narrow valley and the walls of Dark Canyon close in high above, casting deep shadows as the rock cliffs rise 1,700 feet above the river in the darker stretches. As the day waned, the trail grew dark and narrow, as it led through a deep forest of aspen and enormous spruce trees.

Following our narrow trail around 5 miles from our beginnings up on Kebler Pass road, and down into Dark Canyon, Steve’s dad knew the perfect place to set up camp on the banks of Anthracite Creek. We set up our meager sleeping quarters in a park-like setting under the towering spruce. I strung my best tarp between two trees, staking the corners and figuring a good spot to sleep on the ground with a couple of wool blankets Mom was able to spare for this adventure. Within minutes after hitting the nearby pools of the Anthracite, we had more than enough fresh trout to ccommodate our evenings dining pleasure. Fortunately for us boys, Steve’s dad was skilled at wrapping the trout in foil with butter, quickly cooking them in the campfire coals to nothing short of gourmet erfection.

The shadows grew longer with a deep, dark night settling upon us, far down in Dark Canyon, a prime Colorado habitat for bears in the heart of the Raggeds Wilderness. Despite that brief concern, our exhaustion from the days journey and excitement brought a deep, restful sleep to the bunch of us. Dawn came early even as the sun seemed to take forever to pierce into the canyon and warm us. As another of those wonderful memories of this journey into Dark Canyon, Steve’s dad had rustled up a morning catch of trout, and was again foil cooking a mouthwatering breakfast on the campfire to start our day.

We packed our gear and later that morning hit the trail for the next 6 miles of trail to follow the rest of the way down through Dark Canyon. As the day progressed we paused along the trail to pull in yet more wonderful trout, filling our limits working our way down stream. The canyon and the surrounding forests were a wonder as we worked our way through old-growth spruce and aspen, with views back up the small side canyons toward the surrounding peaks. Finally in late afternoon we straggled out the other end at the trailhead at Erickson Springs Campground where Steve’s Mom picked us up.