Of Moose and Men

Grand Lake, CO I don’t know exactly when I became fixated on moose. Somewhere around 20 years ago I suspect. I have no idea what started it but my love for these beasts is not waning.

Despite this my affection seems unrequited. They do not seem to be a fan of me. I have had very little contact with the creatures.

I was sure we would see lots of them when we vacationed in Alaska in 2006. We rented a class C and drove all over the state for a week. We saw a lot of amazing things but not one moose until our last night in the RV.

We stayed at a park on the outskirts of Anchorage. We were told we would almost certainly see a moose there. Sure enough at dusk a couple ladies made their way down the highway and bedded down near the entrance to the park.

This was my one and only moose encounter up to this summer. And it just wasn’t the kind I was hoping for. It was not the same as spotting a moose, preferably a male with a huge rack, in the wild.

So you can see why I was so excited when we had our run in with the moose near Flaming Gorge. Ok it wasn’t exactly up close and personal. But it was a bull and it was in the wild.

Our next stop seemed to promise more moose encounters. The town of Grand Lake sits on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. We fell in love with this little place and ended up staying 2 weeks.

Our very first morning there we went for a drive in the nearby national forest. We spotted a bull moose in the trees on the side of the road. Jim turned the truck around and the moose had crossed the road and climbed way up a hill.

We also saw a large female nearby. After further driving we saw 3 more moose! A young male …

and two females.

They were pretty near the road so I was able to get several good pics.

Thank goodness we had such a positive early experience because we didn’t see any more moose the remainder of our stay. We know they were around, we saw moose tracks and moose poop. Jim was walking along a river and a fisherwoman said “did you see those two moose that just passed?” Nope, he did not. But that’s OK, because we saw 5 moose in one morning!

Despite not seeing more moose we did have a wonderful time. The town was just big enough with great restaurants and nice gift shops. We had pizza the day we arrived at Grand Pizza and it was so good we went back for more before we left.

We also went out to breakfast one Saturday morning. The Fat Cat had the most amazing breakfast buffet. The chef was English I think and every dish was outstanding. I know, 3 meals out in only two weeks, what were we thinking?!

I don’t think the calories hurt us though. We did plenty of hiking, mostly in the national park. I’ll share that with you in my next post.

The town of Grand Lake is on the shores of Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake. It is not overly crowded and moves at the slower pace that Jim and I prefer. It had everything we wanted and we didn’t have to share everything with throngs of people.

One weekend while we were there they held a regatta. They had races for kayakers, SUPs, canoers, and rowers.

Another weekend they hosted a free corvette show. There were at least a hundred corvettes on Main Street.

We visited Shadow Mountain Lake and checked out the dam where they release the lake waters and they continue on for a few miles as the Colorado River before backing up and becoming another lake, Granby. What we saw there got my fisherman pretty excited. The trout and salmon were going crazy trying to jump up that dam and continue their trek upstream, impossible.

We returned to the spot several times and Jim enjoyed the fishing.

He had some luck and we have some trout in the freezer.

This was the perfect area for us because he was entertained and there was so much for me to explore. I hiked along the east side of Shadow Mountain Lake which is part of the 3,100 mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. This is a trail that, when complete, will travel along or near the continental divide from our northern border with Canada to its southern terminus at the Mexican border. It is currently only 72% complete and for now requires some travel on motorized roads.

The mile and a half hike beside the lake was a bit difficult because of the number of downed trees I had to go over, under, or around. There were about 20. I counted them on my return trip. But it was worth it. The lake views were outstanding and I ran across a deer and her fawn. They were a little skittish but in the end they decided I wasn’t a threat.

That trail continued on south of the dam and was less difficult. Jim joined me on it another day when the fishing was disappointing. He is so much better than me at spotting wildlife. He saw this osprey which was just a blob in a tree and I had time to get my telephoto lens out before he flew away.

I also walked many miles through the on-site campground, Green Ridge, chasing photo opportunities. The hummingbirds were plentiful but just won’t be still enough for a good shot. The chipmunks were a little more cooperative.

The lake was just gorgeous in the mornings.

We spent the first 10 days of our stay at Elk Creek Campground, an extremely nice, if a bit tight, RV park just outside the town of Grand Lake. We planned to stay 3 nights and then find a boondock in the national forest. But it was just so convenient there so when they said they had a cancellation and could accommodate us for another 7 days we decided to stay. Their daily rate for the full hookup site was $49 and the weekly rate was $309. It was definitely a splurge.

For our last three nights we moved over to our new happy place, Green Ridge Campground. We moved to the first come first served site early on a Friday morning. By early afternoon the place was packed. We paid $21 per night for a sight with zero amenities.

Texas’ Colorado River

Columbus, TX – February, 2016 West of Houston a short ways is the Colorado River, no relation to the more famous river by the same name out west. This Colorado River starts and ends in the state of Texas. We decided to spend a week at the Thousand Trails Colorado River Campground since the weather was looking promising, the river looked like a good one to kayak, and the campground was practically free with our membership.

The town of Columbus is fairly small and has many charming characteristics. It has the basic necessities: a far from super Walmart, two grocery stores, three Redbox. There are lots of beautiful old homes and a quaint town square with a gorgeous courthouse.

It is located between the banks of the river since the river makes a dramatic curve, an oxbow, north of town and returns on the other side of town.

We are always on the lookout for such a place where we can put the kayaks in on one side, have a pleasant float, and then take out on the other side and just walk back to get our truck. This place is perfect. It’s a 6 mile float but only a 1 mile walk between the two accesses. The walk is through the small town and the only downside is that you have to cross two bridges, the longest one had absolutely no room for pedestrians. We pondered this problem at length.

We looked for another access with no luck. We studied the nearby railroad bridge which had a nice wide platform you could walk on but also had a no trespassing sign. Jim was willing to walk the railroad bridge. I was willing to chance the highway since the cars can move over but a train cannot. We each thought the other was completely insane. We did agree if we only had a bike the bridge could be safely ridden over.

We had called the outfitter in town, Howell Canoe Livery, and left a message early in the week to ask about water conditions on the float. They didn’t open until Thursday so when they called back and said they’d help us shuttle our truck for only $10 we agreed our safety and marital bliss was worth that much.

We put in on Friday just before lunch. We only saw 3 other kayakers all day. The river was low but we never dragged. It was mostly flat water with only one or two minor rapids.

We watched this bird struggle with his meal for quite a while. No wonder, that’s a pretty big catch for someone with no teeth. He finally managed to swallow it.

The Colorado is considered a good bass river but the outfitter said no one was having much luck recently. Another kayaker that put in just after us and fishes the river frequently said he hadn’t caught a fish all year. So Jim was pleased that he caught 3 bass that day, the first before even leaving camp.

Earlier in the week we put in at the campground’s boat ramp one afternoon to see how far we could get up river. Jim has a trolling motor on a custom mount he built for his kayak. It is really great on lakes but can get him upstream in a river if the current is not too strong. In the slow stretches he can even tow me. Here is the view from my position of leisure.

I use a retractable pet leash as a tow rope. Jim seemed to take issue with being literally on a short leash when we first set up the system. It works well and he got over it. We do get some looks from other floaters and usually a comment or two. But on this day there was not another person on this stretch of the river and the only looks we got were from the many cows that stared at us from the river’s edge.

We got about a mile and a half up stream in an hour. We had plenty of battery power left and could have gone farther but it was already 2 o’clock. I paddled about half the way and let Jim tow me the rest.

The only problem with the motor is that it gets in the way of Jim’s paddling.  So he motored most of the way and only paddled in a couple places it was too shallow to run. There were very few places that had a strong current so we could have made it without the motor if we chose to.

Over the next two hours we floated back to camp and stopped at one gravel bar. Besides the cows we saw lots of turtles, two huge red headed woodpeckers, and a muskrat.

We visited Houston a couple times during the week to pick up this or that. Houston has about every store you could ever want. I had read about a restaurant in an old movie theatre that I wanted to visit. I decided it was a shame we had been to Texas twice in the last year and hadn’t gone to a Tex-Mex restaurant.

The restaurant was fun. They showed an old western on the screen while we ate. The food was pretty good and reasonably priced.

We thought we might go downtown after lunch but decided the trip from the store we wanted to visit to the restaurant was sightseeing enough. The fastest route was by a tollway that was exclusively for those with a prepaid tag. We really didn’t mind taking surface streets because we wanted to see more of Houston. What we saw was the grittier side of Houston, many miles of adult bookstores and strip clubs.

I’m sure if we had more time we would have found a lot of things we enjoyed in Houston but they sure don’t make it very easy to get around this city.  My biggest issue is with their toll roads.  They have many toll roads around the city and their system is not visitor friendly.

Most of their toll roads do not have manned toll booths.  They have entire highways that require you to pre-purchase a tag in order to access them.  This requires a one-time fee of $15 plus a deposit into your account of $40!  Ridiculous!

We encountered the same issue last year in Austin.  One particularly bad traffic day we said to heck with it and took the unmanned toll road.  We got a bill in the mail months later.  Ten dollars was high for 8 miles of toll road but better than being stuck in gridlock for hours.

Some of Houston’s roads say that you need a tag but it turns out that they have toll express lanes and you can in fact use the free lanes without getting charged a toll.  When a highway says things like “last free exit” and “EZ Tag required” I tend to believe it and get off the highway if there is another alternative.

After our first visit I went to their website to try to make sense of it.  It was not very helpful. So I called and waited 30 minutes for a customer service agent to answer my questions.  She was nice and helpful.  But it didn’t change the fact that their whole system sucks the big one!

The best advice she gave me was that if I chose to take a toll road, or inadvertently ended up on one, to just wait a couple days then give them a call. They would then be able to tell me what I owed and take a payment over the phone with only a $1.50 service fee.  OK rant over.

Colorado River

Colorado River below the Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona– May 2015

I was enjoying my camp on Lake Powell in Utah very much but I’m really a river person at heart. So I drove a little south into Arizona, over the dam that created Lake Powell, and looked down at the Colorado River emerging on the other side of the dam. I then drove a bit further and walked a half mile to the viewpoint for Horseshoe Bend 6 river miles from the dam.

It did look like an amazing portion of the Colorado. So I drove to the only public access point below the dam for several hundred miles called Lee’s Ferry. It was only another 9 river miles but 40 miles by road. The water was crystal clear but at less than 50 degrees it hurt to put your feet in it for more than 30 seconds so swimming was out of the question.

This area is considered the beginning of the Grand Canyon. Because it is the last access point before the canyon and where outfitters put in for their river excursions through the canyon. Soon after Lee’s Ferry the canyon walls close in around you and the only way out is to float on through or climb out. I hope to raft through the Grand Canyon someday but for now I was more interested in the 15 miles of river between the dam and this takeout.

I put in at Lee’s Ferry to see how far I could kayak up river. The output from the dam was high that day so there was a healthy current. The winds were also against me but I managed to paddle for three miles to this beautiful spot mostly by staying in the shallows along the edge.

As I was floating back to my truck I saw several big blue rafts that take sightseers for an hour long raft ride down this section. They had dropped their passengers off at Lee’s Ferry and they had kayakers loaded on and were hauling them up the river. I made a note of the company’s name, Colorado River Discovery (CRD), and called them the next day to make a reservation. They charge $25 per person, $22 per boat, and $25 for gear in excess of 50 pounds. They only take 8 passengers at 2 pm every day. I was able to make a reservation for early the next week.

I arrived a couple hours early on the day of my reservation. I had watched some of the Grand Canyon outfitters load passengers on their huge rafts during my last visit. It was later in the day this time and I had seen 4 rafts full of passengers float under the bridge 10 miles downstream when I stopped to have lunch. I couldn’t help thinking “how did they find 120 people that could spend $2800 to go camping for a week?” Now the outfitters were loading 2 big rafts with supplies from a semi-truck. There were so many boxes but the ones that stood out read Pabst, Budweiser, Corona. I think every beer was represented there. When you consider the amount of food and manpower (and don’t forget BEER) necessary to comfortably transport passengers through the canyon I realized $400 per day was probably fair.

While waiting I met 4 other paddlers that were waiting for a ride upriver that day, a Texas couple around 30 on a week’s vacation without the kiddos and another couple, 20ish from Phoenix celebrating the young lady’s birthday. CRD’s rafts arrived on time and unloaded their passengers and we all pitched in and helped load each other’s gear onto three of their rafts and were off. It took almost an hour to raft upstream. We chatted with the girl who drove the raft. She was about 20 and I was surprised to learn the job didn’t require any special training and was relatively easy to obtain. She pointed out the campsites that were available to us and other points of interest along the way before dropping us at a tiny beach just below the dam.

I planned to cover between 3 and 6 miles between being dropped off and making camp for the night. I had read there were 6 campsites available to campers on this section (turns out there were only 3). I thought I’d be happy with any of the first 4 as long as they offered solitude and a decent tent site. The other floaters seemed to feel the same. As soon as we got on the water a cold wind hit us. It was fierce and although there was a reasonable current you still had to paddle hard to get down river. We passed the first campsite after about a mile. It had no beach or gravel bar at all. You had to carry all your gear and your boat up a steep sandy path. After another couple of miles of grueling wind we reached the second campsite. The sun was setting fast in the canyon and it appeared everyone had had enough. No one was interested in going a few more miles to the next site. Solitude be damned!

There were two fire rings at this site. And there was a couple already camped at one. There were a few possible sites in some trees but the bugs got really bad away from the water. The two couples I rode up with shared a sandy area near the second fire ring and invited me to join them but I chose a clearing in the grass between them and the beach. I’m sure it was not what any of us had in mind when we started this adventure but everyone seemed happy to be out of the wind, setting up camp, and getting dinner ready. After dinner I took a walk and met the 4th couple. They had spent two days kayaking up to the dam under their own power. They had a tandem kayak with pedals and had often got out and pulled the kayak along from the bank. They had peddled, paddled, and ported the entire 15 miles to the dam before starting the float back just before we were dropped off. I was impressed!

The night was colder than I anticipated. I was grateful I had packed an extra layer of clothing because the blanket I brought was not enough and I got up and put on more clothing during the night. I had been unable to stay awake much past sunset the evening before but when the cold woke me at 2 am I couldn’t help but take a look outside and was pleased to find the night sky of my dreams. I took a short walk to the beach and sat under a billion stars for almost an hour marveling at the Milky Way clearly visible in the moonless sky.

The next morning I woke up anxious for the suns warmth and ready to start the day. After an hour cooking a warm breakfast and packing up camp I set off on the river. I enjoyed a near perfect day floating the last 11 miles. Horseshoe bend wasn’t nearly as dramatic from the perspective of the river, but still pretty.

I didn’t experience any more head wind until the last mile or so. I got back to Lees Ferry early in the afternoon and made the hour long drive back to my camp at Lake Powell.