Total Miles: 330.7
The mountain pine beetle likely has no conception of its impact on the landscape. No larger than a grain of rice, it proves the adage that even very small things can pack an incredibly big punch. Unfortunately for Colorado forests, that punch has been right to the gut of millions of acres of lodgepole pines.
Even after only a few days walking among the forests of northern Colorado, it’s hard not to notice. Stand after stand of lodgepole pines, with trunks thin and straight as arrows pointed to the sky that it’s only by way of a craned neck that you can even see the first branches. But as you massage that craned neck, you notice something else: most of them are dead. Beneath them, the forest floor is littered with their deceased brethren. All of it courtesy of a humble insect that could comfortably fit on your fingertip.
It’s estimated that nearly three quarters of all lodgepole pines in northern Colorado have been impacted, and that it will ultimately deforest an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Little things can sure cause big problems. At least the woodpeckers are happy, as their symphony of pitched knocks against the husks of the dead can attest.
As hikers, the headaches that level of devastation can cause are many. Aside from the blowdown that occurs when unhealthy or dead trees fall and obstruct the trail, having that much of the forest die off significantly increases both the risk and severity of wildfires. As hammockers, it poses another problem—finding places to hang that are not only free of blowdown but have healthy trees to hang from. As I write this hanging in mine, I’m glad for the healthy, albeit thin ones that keep me from crashing to the ground.
As another cold morning came and went, we crossed into Rocky Mountain National Park—and yes, we played John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” to mark the occasion—on our way to the town of Grand Lake for a resupply. After stumbling upon a large herd of elk who quizzically stared at us before ambling off without any sense of urgency, we later came upon a huge meadow with a shallow creek wending it’s way through. After countless smaller versions that seemed like they ought to be veritably teeming with wildlife but were not, we saw two bull moose happily grazing away as a mule deer followed us up the trail before starting in on his own late morning snack.
With only 9 miles into town over pleasant trail, the first order of business was stuffing ourselves full of a late breakfast. Next stop was the post office, where we were expecting to find two boxes waiting for us (note the use of “expecting” there). When Ace came out empty handed, I knew it wasn’t good news. Overwhelmed by the volume of packages to process, we were told to come back and try again closer to the closing time of 4pm. And so began the waiting game.
After making a grocery list as a contingency plan and killing time under the brutally intense sun, back we went with fingers crossed. Luck was apparently on our side, or at least partly—our resupply box had magically appeared but with no sign of the second Amazon box. Never a dull moment.
For as much as the creature comforts of town are a draw, I always find it a relief to escape the stress that seemingly always comes as part of the bargain. If it’s not package troubles, it’s racing to grocery shop, eat, charge phones, catch up with family and friends back home, pay bills, etc etc etc. Just typing that made me annoyed. But the ice cream, pizza, showers, and laundry do occasionally make it worthwhile.
Following the CDT trail markers and posts as it wound its way directly through the center of town and out the other side, we were back in forest strolling along the lake with the sound of distant boats drifting across the water. Even the smell of the lake was enough to transport me back to childhood memories of family vacations to places so similar to this. Snapping out of my momentary nostalgia to look around, it was clear that our day would end the same way it began—surrounded by a forest fighting for its very life.