Weminuche Wilderness 2021 – Day 1 What a Fucking Great Train Ride!

November 7, 2021 § Leave a comment

If you read the planning post then maybe you have been wondering 1) Did I even do this adventure?, and 2) If I did do this adventure, when the fuck was I going to get around to writing about it? Well, it wasn’t my only adventure this Summer of 2021, though as I write even that, I realize I am lying to you. While I rode Ride the Rockies, where you can read about that here, here, here, here also, and also here, and “oh look it’s here as well“, I didn’t get around to writing those adventures up until Fall 2021 had begun, which is actually after Weminuche had also completed. Not sure if I will write up the wedding of Daughter #2, but isn’t that also an adventure? So, expect to see something about that as well in the future.

I did write up the planning of this trip which you may have read here, but even as I wrote that, the planning wasn’t really complete, and there was a lot of churn right at the end, that all worked out into a tremendously good time before the adventure even began. I am going to limit this post to the focus of Day 1, and I will leave the details of the days leading to this day to another post.

On this day we had the logistics all figured out. We spent the last night in our guest estate, miles out of town, but with the graces of Walt’s truck, and the Dan and Trish rental, there was enough room to get all of us and our gear down to the Durango & Silverton train station well before 7:30 in the am. As back country adventurers, I was told we should be there by 7:30, so that when the gate was opened, we could load our backpacks into the baggage car. See, this train, the diesel train, was equipped with a baggage car, and this was the train used by backpackers to gain access, primarily to Chicago Basin, to the the Western section of The Weminuche Wilderness. Though we were there by 7:30 and fairly close to the gate, and in spite of the fact that we all munched a few things before we vacated the McBride residence, some of us were still hungry, and the site of backpackers slipping over to the local coffee shop for a little something was too enticing to ignore. Jim headed over, and might have been followed by Paul.

So here we were, Jim K, Paul Z, Dan G, Walt E, Kevin H, and me Eric H, aka Big Byrd, though this crowd doesn’t aka me that way. They all know me as I have always been known, though on some of Walt’s adventures I was known as Legs Malloy for my giant unending strides. By the time Jim and Paul returned from the coffee shop we had loaded their packs into the box car with the “Elk Creek” as our destination, so as to differentiate our shit from all the shit that was going to “Needleton”, which was most of it. We boarded and took up our seats in a closed car that was 3 cars behind the big diesel. The steam train is the big attraction of this line, so even though it was a summer Saturday, the 8am diesel out of Durango was not even close to capacity. We were told that inside a closed car we could ride without our masks as long as we kept the windows open, but it didn’t take long to realize that in an old train car the mechanisms that keep windows up were pretty dodgy/sketchy, and my window, at least, would suddenly shut like a guillotine blade with no apparent warning.

The train set off for a slow roll through town, as it does every morning. There are gates to control access, and the train sounds its horn(s) at every crossing, so I imagine that when it comes to downtown apartment living in Durango, there is no such thing as sleeping in on a quiet morning, because there are no quiet mornings. It is the 8am, so at least it isn’t like living along the Jersey Coast line to Manhattan where those trains start at 4:50am and don’t cease until 2am. Durango downtown isn’t really all that large and soon we were rolling along the Animas River behind the fair grounds, where only two months before I had spent two nights sleeping in the fields, and not long after that road crossings were few and far between. The train never went faster than about 20 mph. That kept the wind blowing through the windows that were open to a minimum, and for the open air car in front of us, meant enough fresh air to mask the diesel fumes, but not so much that you couldn’t wear a hat if you wanted.

Soon, we were passing below the house we had stayed in, and all of us pointed up the hillside where in the previous days we sat on the deck staring down at the various trains rolling North and South. This time it was our train. That didn’t last long, and the other people in the car with us had no idea what we were so excited about. To them we are simply riding alongside Route 550. There was nothing spectacular about where we were, yet, we were pretty excited. It continued this way all the way to Hermosa. For some reason, probably a good one, we cross from the East side of 550 to the West side. The Weminuche is East of 550, so why are we on the West side of it now? A question for the railroad designers, however the terrain began to change at this point. The previous 8-10 miles were all flat and straight as an arrow, and if it wasn’t flat it couldn’t have been more than a .5% grade. On the West side the grade increased a little bit, the sound of the diesel told you that, and the train was weaving left and right as it followed the tracks. It stayed west for only a couple of miles before it passed beneath 550 and then the paths of the highway and the railroad diverged until they met again in Silverton.

There was a stop at Goulding Creek, and then within a half mile we joined up with the Animas River, and the terrain went full on river gorge. That was when the train ride went from a 5 to a 10. Maybe even 11. This is the section where the sign that reads some thing like “Before you stick your head out to take a photo looking back, see what’s coming up first” hits home. There are sections where they only blasted enough rock to fit the train through. With that said, and as you might expect, if the train follows the river, and the river isn’t straight as an arrow, then there are a lot of scenes where the train wraps around a bend, and front can see the back and the back can see the front, and those are some of the nicest images of the whole ride.

You also get to witness that very little waste occurs in this train business. The line was first run in 1882, and since then the tracks have been replaced many times over. In some cases for general maintenance, and in others because the tracks wash out certain years depending on the melting snowpack. All along the gorge you find old track used to build up the structure of the support bed for the train, whether that is high up on a shelf, or down low where the tracks aren’t much elevated above the level of the river. I would be lying if I said I had full faith in everything I saw, but the train runs that route many times a day all season. So fret not.

It was 10:30 or pretty much “On Time” in train lingo when we reached Needleton and the majority of backpackers dis-embarked for their long ascent up to The Chicago Basin. The train, or at least our section, was considerably empty when the horn tooted we were leaving. The morass of young future 14er summiteers scrounging around for their packs, and anxious to get a move on was exciting to see. We did pick up a couple of backpackers, and that is when the conductor told us that on our return, if we got to the train early, we were welcome to board and take the train all the way to Silverton and hang out before the return journey back to Durango, and that is what these folks who just boarded were doing. They had achieved their goals for their trip and were heading to Silverton for some much deserved real lunch. We tucked that bit of information away for later consideration.

Less than an hour later we reached Elk Creek, and it was us who disembarked. Not the crowd that we saw at Needleton, in fact, it wasn’t a crowd at all. It was the 6 of us, and two others. Apparently not that many people do what we were doing. The horn tooted and we watched the train disappear over the river and around a bend before we looked at each other and got our shit together and set off. There was a large meadow here, and a turn-around was built where the train could back into one way, and then pull out the other, thus turning around. I am not sure this section was large enough for the tourist versions of the trains, so maybe this was for maintenance trains. It was along this spur that we hiked and saw the connector trail ascend out of the meadow.

It was a pretty steep ascent, as I recall, but it was just a connector, and wasn’t (fortunately) an indicator of the kinds of grades we would see on this adventure. Within a couple hundred yards we connected with The Elk Creek trail and once on that the elevation gain was much more gradual. With the train long gone, we were left with all the local sounds, and those sounds were running cascading water. Either from Elk Creek itself, or from the many feeder creeks that we came across. Those started early, and came often, and none of them were foot wetters. As in they were easy to cross on rocks, so no getting your feet wet. We had read, but weren’t entirely convinced, that we could execute this entire adventure without removing our boots for a crossing. So far this was true.

What was also true, was that except for small variations in the terrain, like a single downed tree, or a feeder creek that has eroded it’s own little gully, every step we took forward was onto ground that was higher than the ground behind us, and that was expected. We were hiking against the direction of flow of Elk Creek, and except for very special circumstances, water always flows from a point of greater potential to one of less potential, and hence downhill. There are other factors at play on this day. We were dropped off at 11:30, so a rather late start to the day. It was our first day on the trail; The first of eight, so we had all our food for the entire adventure, and hence our packs were at their maximum weights. The point being made here is that when I planned this day out, my first plan was two days on this side of The Continental Divide. A short day the first day, and then a longer hike the second day. However, in the weeks leading up to this, in discussion with my fellow adventurers, we all felt that if we pushed the first day, and got somewhere near the tree line, then our second day hike could get us over and into the Vallecito Valley, and that would give us more options for a day hike. It also meant that my brother-in-law, Walt, could do the entire trail with us, as it would put him in a position to only spend 5 days out. I think I mentioned in the planning post that there were debris flow obstructions from 2019 along this route that might be hard to get around. In discussions with The Forest Service, we found that three of the flows had been cleared, or as they say, “blasted through” leaving one to navigate. That, as you might expect would be the last one, or the one furthest into the day’s hike. Surprisingly, Google had updated satellite imagery and you can see the debris flows. I had located an area just past the last debris flow that looked like it was just before the trail emerged above the tree line, and had areas flat enough that there might be fire rings and camping, and that was what we were shooting for.

It wasn’t too long before we hit the first debris flow. I have to admit, that when I heard about these I thought they were avalanche debris. We saw debris like that in The Eagle Cap Wilderness, and the terrain we were in was certainly ripe for it, however there was also another factor going on here. There were a lot of dead trees due to the Pine Bark Beetle, and all those dead trees don’t hold the soil so well, so another kind of debris flow is when the ground becomes saturated with water, say from a rainier than normal season, and the ground just can’t hold it all and slips away. In the winter the ground is frozen, and avalanches tend to snap trees, whereas this debris was entire trees, so it was more likely the ground just giving way. That was what this debris flow looked like, and as was foretold, there was a nice blasted path right through it, and we walked easily through.

Another feature that we came upon fairly often was when the elevation gained a lot in a short distance. The trail would veer away from the creek, and then switchback up a fairly steep section. We could glimpse the creek falling away below, and looking back we started to get some of our first open views beyond what we could see simply by glancing up at that mountains on both sides of us. The roar of the cascades usually picked up here as this was where the creek would fall greater distances as falls, or just rocky cascades. While we couldn’t always see the water, we could see the mist generated by those cascades. The emerald green of the surrounding moss was also evidence that this water runs throughout the Summer and Fall seasons. Each “step” took us higher, and the higher we got, the more the land opened up and treated us to some sweeping vistas.

We found a nice spot to unload our packs and take a break for lunch. Lunch implies more than it was, as we were simply snacking on the energy bars I made, and anything else we wanted to snack on. We didn’t have a big breakfast, and there really isn’t anything to eat on the train, so for future backpackers reading this, make sure you depart the train station with a bag of breakfast. We had eaten well in the days leading up to this, so we weren’t in bad shape at all. Snacking was all we needed, and we were soon on our way again. Some of us might have taken time to get more water as most of us decided that carrying too much water was too much weight and didn’t carry more than a liter. Those who consumed their liter, took time to refill. I operate much like a camel, and don’t require as much hydration as some, plus I don’t sweat as much. Some of that can be because my heart rate just doesn’t get as high as others, so the reality is I am not working as hard as them, and require less. In any case, snacked, and watered we pressed on.

The afternoon played out as a sequence of repeated segments. We gain elevation, it levels out, a debris flow is hiked through, and the land opens up. Along the way, the wild flowers are vibrant and many, and butterflies are busy pollenating many of them. Every time we stop and stare, our jaws fall open at the dramatic beauty of the place. One thing we did not see was a lot of other people. A lot of people got off at Needleton, but just us and two others started up Elk Creek. On this day, we didn’t see anyone descending, and I think we never really saw the other two that departed with us. They were younger, and stayed ahead of us. There was another single backpacker who had hiked in from the road, and we leap-frogged each other a few times. Anyway, these segments repeated, and soon we had all but the last debris flow behind us, so we weren’t all that far from coming upon my hoped for (all our hoped-for) camping site. Actually those two who started with us, we came upon their camp just before the last debris flow. They were probably getting water when we passed, and so we didn’t see them.

The last debris flow was huge, and it wasn’t cleared, however many had passed this way, and it was clear how all the various people had carved out trail detours to get through. Most weren’t that bad, and easy for a 6’4″ long legged tree hopper like me, whereas my friends had a little more effort expended to straddle many obstructions. The worst obstruction was actually one that we had to go under, and so at my height that was harder for me, but if you held on to the right branch, you could just swing and roll and clear it. Dan was the first through it, and made it look effortless, so when I attempted to repeat his actions I did so but my arms had to support a much greater weight than Dan’s did. I wouldn’t want to hang there, but momentum got me through, and we were clear. We actually had a slightly harder time with a section where it wasn’t immediately clear that the trail climbed to the right, and I went straight and climbed into a notch where there was nowhere to go but back. Dan found the mistake and soon after we were humming along looking for a camp site.

It wasn’t long and we found a site, that wasn’t too far from Elk Creek, was off the trail, and pretty flat. The only issue was that it wasn’t really all that large. We were six, with 5 single person tents, and my large footprint Tyvek Tarp and it just didn’t seem like there was enough room for all of us. As leader I told everyone to take off their packs, and wait, and I (packless) would would walk further up the trail and see if there was a more suitable site for us. Within a couple hundred yards there was an even smaller site, and then further up I spotted a trail that went down to the creek, but it didn’t look like a campsite trail, so I pushed on until the trail opened up into a wide expanse. The next set of trees was very far away, and this area wasn’t flat at all and I just didn’t see any point in going further, so I turned around. Before I returned to my companions though, I took the side trail down to the creek, and found a tremendous pool of water where I am sure many campers have immersed themselves for a cold escape from a hot day, or to soothe tired muscles. I touched the water, and it was quite ice-pick-in-the-forehead cold, but I am sure many have braved it.

We then managed to squeeze ourselves into our campsite, leaving plenty of space around the fire ring for both our fire, and our seats. I managed a plot of ground next to a downed tree that gave me some purchase for supporting my tarp, and it seemed like we were settled in. There was no shortage of dead wood, and though I don’t usually like burning pine (exploding sap), this wood was so dry, that all that sap was gone, and the wood actually burned like a lot of harder woods. I started cutting some larger sections of logs to burn while Walt and the other gathered what was needed to get the fire going. We had checked with the authorities, and since it rained practically every day in July, the fire restrictions had been lifted in the San Juan Mountains, and we were free to have a fire. Which we took full advantage of. Not a huge fire like our weekend warrior camping trips, but large enough to warm all of us, and we set down to boil water for our dinner meals. Even with my dromedary filled with Steri-Penned water, it was easier simply to fill my pot from the creek and boil that. I had packed in my old MSR two liter pot with a lid. Inside I could fit the handle, my covered cup (also stuffed with the stove, and flint), and my coffee Vias, and a collapsible cup with gradient markings to use for measuring. With that setup I can accommodate 3 or 4 dinner preps. The way things played out in this first camp is pretty much how they played out the entire adventure. Dan usually took care of himself. He had his Jet Boil, and it made enough water for his meal. He was used to taking care of himself, and there was no reason to impose any other option on him. Jim brought a Jet Boil as well and used it when we needed it. We were working our way through to cannisters that Walt brought with him before digging into the new cannisters we bought for this trip. Before long, we were all awaiting our hydration times, adjusted longer because of our elevation. I think I went with the Katmandu Curry on our first night. A double serving so I could load up on as many calories as possible. I don’t know why they call that a double serving, as it was really just a single serving to me. When our hydration times were up, we all dug in and devoured our meals. As is usual for these kinds of meals, it isn’t until you get to the bottom that you miraculously find some portion of the dry ingredients that escaped the hot water bath, and you get an acute taste of seasoning, or in my case, a crunchy lentil. This happens a lot with noodle dishes, and you can hear people crunching through their last caloric bites. Don’t want to miss out.

With a fire going, it makes disposal of trash easy. Just burn it, and anything else we collected throughout the day. After we were done we set in around the fire to relax and enjoy the warmth when we noticed a couple of women come up the trail. There was actually a group that passed going down the trail, and our short memories couldn’t recall if we saw a nice site on this side or the other side of the last debris field. If it was this side, the only reason we didn’t take it was because we had our eyes on the area we now occupied. Anyway, these two ladies came up the trail and asked what we knew about further up. I told them they were in luck as there was a site a few hundred meters further up the trail, but before they left they noticed our fire and began to alert us that we weren’t supposed to have any. One of the women was from the Land Down Under, and with her accent it was very hard to understand her, but we tried our best to assure them that we had checked with authorities, and that there were not any fire restrictions in affect at this time. When they settled in, if they wanted to, they were welcome to hike back with chairs and enjoy our fire if they wished. Thanked we were, and off they walked, and that was the last we saw of them.

With a big day ahead the next day, and our supply of wood diminishing, the first mumbles of “I think I’ll turn in” began to be said. If it wasn’t Kevin that went first, it Jim, and soon Walt and Jim or Kevin followed leaving just Paul, Dan and I. We stayed up a bit longer, maybe even taking in a last sip of Oban, and then spreading out the hot coals over as wide an area inside the ring as possible to quicken it’s cool down, and to minimize any chance of sparks flying out. It wasn’t windy at all, and I think we had enjoyed a fire where the smoke went up and not across into anyone’s position. When the coals looked like they were going to settle down to die, we turned in, and that was the end of day one. We were close enough to the creek that the white noise of cascading water would benefit our sleep. Tomorrow would be another day.

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