It is a remarkable adventure to stand on a 13,000-foot-plus peak and see the beginnings of the Rio Grande, the corn fields of Kansas and the Piney Woods of Pritchett. I mean, see them at a distance, beyond the range of telescopes. Could not see California, but did not really need to.
What is more remarkable to me is that I still have a few friends who enjoy this adventure—my long-time friend, Ken Rueckert of Dallas, now 73, and my best fishing buddy, Frank Berka of Pritchett, a spry man of 65.
I am but 72, and can still carry a heavy pack for a week in the outdoors, though truth be told, we used pack horses to carry the food and cooking gear to our camp this year, so that we could make camp in one day.
This year we went to the Venable Lakes area just west of Westcliffe, Colo. The pack-in was 4 ½ miles, from 9,400 feet to camp at 11,700 feet, which is a 3,300-foot climb made in one day, thanks to those horses. Three thousand feet in one day is beyond the recommended climb ,so we were pretty much wasted and went to our tents early that first night.
Venable Lakes has some great lakes at 12,000-foot-plus, which are teeming with cutthroat trout, and also there are some beaver ponds down around 11,500 feet, with more trout in the willow brush. than you can count.
You might guess that Frank and I had a great competition for Fishing Champion. Several years ago I taught Frank to fly fish, and he is very good at it. he throws a tight, wind overcoming, fly-line loop which I envy and I had to do my best if I want to stay in the count. The competition was intense. Every day we caught 10 to 15 trout apiece, most about 14 inches long and full of fight.
The Championship held in the balance until the final day; one man ahead by a trout or two one day, and behind a trout or two the next day. The battle was decided by one trout on the final day.
I should have never taught Frank how to fly fish, which is the only way to catch cutthroat trout in the mountains.
A side story to our trip was the wildfires in Colorado. We had no problem with fires or smoke.
Our adventure was south and west of Colorado Springs and in a mountainous area known for rain and heavy snow. But on this trip, we saw very little snow in an area famous for it. So that is the problem this year in Colorado; no snowfall over the winter.
Normally, we have a snow bank close to camp to use as a “refrigerator” for our food; none this year, and thus fires around the state.
Camp was a “bench” (mountain slang for an outcropping on the side of a ridge) some 200 feet above the Upper Venable Creek Valley and the Beaver Ponds.
We thus had an excellent view of hikers and wildlife below in that willow- and spruce-lined bowl. Better yet, there was a tiny stream flowing through camp for cold, clear water and plenty of firewood nearby, so our camp was most livable.
Our food was not the usual backpacker’s fare, which is another reason we use horses —heavier cooking gear and good food. We had Sweet and Sour Trout, Cheese and Bacon Biscuits, Cowboy French Toast and other culinary delights, all prepared over an open campfire, and I have the burns and charcoal stains to prove it.
Frank and I took a long walk up above the valley to the top of Venable Peak at 13,334 feet. There is a spectacular view up there of the nearby 14’ers (peaks 14,000 feet or more above sea level), and also a view of all the peaks we have climbed in that area; seven of them for me, four for Frank. The trail was littered with amazing Wildflower color; unusual for this early in the year, probably due to the lack of snow and cold. The area above the lakes was particularly beautiful, with carpets of red, yellow, blue and white flowers.
Overall it was great trip. I do not know how many more years we can do this, but I am not ready to quit just yet. On Sept. 4 at the Pritchett Community Center meeting at 7 p.m., I will show a video with highlights of many of our trips and I will have copies of my book, How to Be a Mountain Man. The story is true and very funny, so I am told.
Oh, and as to who won the Fishing Championship. Well, maybe you have to ask Frank Berka, but I will give you a clue – only a First-Place Finisher would mention such a tale in The Gilmer Mirror and Frank has been very quiet lately.