Estes Park sits at the doorstep to Rocky Mountain National Park, at an average elevation of about 7,500’. The drive up from Golden was glorious, and re-sparked a conversation about what life would look like from one of the several small towns bisected by rushing rivers that we passed through on our way to the Creekside campground in EP. We set up there on lush grass and hung one of the hammocks right next to the clear water. We’ve had some extremely pleasant camp set-ups over the past year, but this one was pushing max glory.
My title of course is a hat tip to C.S. Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia I read in early Junior High. The phrase, if I remember the context correctly, comes from The Last Battle, and is an exhortation from Aslan the Lion to explore the story’s thinly veiled metaphor for heaven. Now I’m not saying that the Rockies are heaven, that would be a little too easy and cliché. But I will say that I noticed a distinct, euphoria-inducing character to these mountains that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. I’ve always known on some level that the various mountain ranges have different “feels” to them: the Sierra Nevada are craggy and wild; the North Cascades are deep, jagged, and glacier-y; the Wasatch are somewhat dry and full of aspen groves – but for some reason this leg of our trek really drove the point home for me, as this stretch of the Rockies struck me as almost a Platonic ideal of mountains. The colors were vivid, the peaks were sharp, the air was impossibly clean and crisp, and deer and elk roamed freely through enormous meadows.
It’s difficult to convey how calming this all was. Multiple times I carefully placed my low camp chair into the stream and balanced my cold tolerance with the Zen of the water rushing over my lower half. I convinced Keeper to dip his head into the stream upon waking up.
This head-into-the-river/stream deal has become a bit of a “thing” for us, and bears further exploration. This has become my compromise of choice when I feel compelled to jump into a cold, clear body of water (usually flowing), and I feel that compulsion pretty much any time I see such water. Generally full immersion isn’t practical, though, due both to whatever I’m wearing at the time (old guys skinny dipping in public is frowned upon, and soggy cotton doesn’t jibe well with long trips in a vehicle* ) and the temperature of the water, in general. I don’t claim that this is normal behavior. But I do claim that it feels amazing. And for whatever reason, the kids, Keeper in particular, have followed my “lead” on this. So we’ve dunked our heads into quite a few American rivers this year, and this week we added Estes Park’s Big Thompson to the list.
We didn’t have much time remaining the first afternoon to accomplish much, but opted to pop into the National Park and stroll around one of the meadows. I could spend this entire post searching for novel ways to say “wow,” but pictures do a much better job.
One thing that became very clear during this stop was the extent to which hiking brings out the best in the kids. I love this. It’s one of the things we had hoped for during the planning/dreaming stages of our journey, yet it’s tempered by the fact that they fight us tooth and nail every time we suggest a hike. They seem to believe, deep in their souls, that they can’t stand hiking, and then get them out there and all the screen-addicted pre-teen nonsense falls away and they start playing exactly like you would want kids to play. What’s more, they suddenly like each other! Which isn’t to say that they normally don’t… in fact another welcome by-product of this trip has been the extent to which they have become close as siblings. They fight, because they’re required to by natural law, but in general they’re extremely decent to each other. But during a hike it’s all about “let’s go climb this rock!” “let’s take a selfie up here!” “come jump in the lake with me!”
We spent the majority of our second day on a hike higher up in the park, past a few alpine lakes. Again, ideal.
Early on in the hike the kids spotted a not-yet-melted snowfield a few hundred yards off the trail and insisted we bushwhack out there to check it out (and get some photos).
Little did they know that further along the trail would look like this…
At the trail’s terminus we found the lake still partially frozen, which led to what could easily have become hours of collecting, examining, and creatively breaking ice chunks.
Nothing like having to drag your kids away from a mountain lake because they’d just like to play “for five more minutes!”
The next (and last) day in Estes Park we went hike-less, but opted to do some fishing… wait, better add the scare quotes here, make that “fishing”… nearby. I’ll explain momentarily.
We first played some miniature golf in town. Not our normal activity, but this being somewhat of a resort town, they had an especially fun looking miniature golf course, along with bumper cars, bumper boats and a slide. Also, at altitude your putts travel 40% farther on average. That may not be true.
Anyway, after mini golf we passed a stocked (commercial) trout pond which we had seen on the way into town, and all of the kids agreed that they would like to catch some trout for dinner.
About fishing. We brought the lion’s share of our fishing gear with us in Davista. Which isn’t much really, but the grand concept in play was that fishing would become a family activity during our travel year. Keeper had even, on multiple occasions prior to our departure, thrown out the idea that fishing was something he was very much interested in, and could possibly “get REALLY into.” So that was a no-brainer – fishing everywhere, for everyone!
The problem is that I am… well, essentially I’m a sub-standard fisherman. Severely below average it appears. Not for lack of enthusiasm mind you, I just don’t seem to have that skill set. So poor Keeper, having had his first several fishing experiences with ME, well, his enthusiasm had dampened a bit.
Back to Estes Park. My intention was to get some fish on my kids’ lines and then walk them through the line-in-the-water to dinner process in order to show them how rewarding it can be (or yeah, so I’ve heard…). This place seemed tailor-made for that. You didn’t even have to bring your own gear. Just show up, catch some fish, pay by weight, and they’d even clean them for you. I probably should have been skeptical of the whole setup, but the idea of having my kids actually catch fish for once sucked me in.
I have this to say for the trout pond folks, they delivered exactly what they promised. It took more time for us to bait the hooks than it did to get a fish on the line. I had to wonder whether we even needed the bait… these trout seemed starved and desperate enough that a sharp, shiny piece of metal would have looked like a Thanksgiving dinner. Within about 10 minutes of arriving, all three kids had caught a trout. And since catch-and-release was prohibited here, we were done.
Except for the cleaning. As much I would have liked not only to teach the kids how to clean a fish, and, ok I admit it, to prove to them that I actually know how, because this trip hadn’t provided me the chance to do so… we had neither a good place to at this campground nor the proper knife for the job. Thinking of ease, sharpness, and weight, we’ve gone all ceramic. So I had the guys who worked at the pond clean the fish for us.
Not saying this was a mistake, as the outcome would have been the same regardless of who did the cleaning, but somehow Firebolt had yet to make the mental and emotional connection between swimming fish and on-the-plate fish. She was disturbed. Deeply. No father likes to preside over that sort of distress in his daughter, I think, but if he does, he’s hopefully ready with a pithy response when she agonizingly offers up that “it’s just not right! Those fish should be allowed to live their lives! Not get sliced up like that and eaten! Why can’t they just die naturally?” Hopefully. I, on the other hand, was not at all ready. I threw something out there about the food chain, maybe? Circle of life? Omnivores vs. herbivores? Whatever it was, it lacked conviction, eloquence, and forethought, and certainly didn’t change her mind in the least. She decided right then and there not only to forgo that part of dinner, but never to fish again. Well, shoot. Maybe she’ll date a fisherman one day. Or maybe she’ll become vegan.
And then there was the trout itself. I prepared it like I remembered from various camping trips of my youth, namely dusting it with flour and/or cornmeal, adding some salt and pepper, and pan-frying it in enough butter to make nothing else matter. And honestly? It was nasty. Tacco made a show of being appreciative that her husband and kids had brought home dinner. That was a nice gesture. But none of us made it past a few bites before deciding that these were not tasty fish at all. I don’t know whether I’m mis-remembering the flavor of fresh mountain trout, or if whatever horrible conditions those trout were living in somehow translated to our plates and palates, but either way, I seriously doubt I’ll be able to pull off serving trout to the family for a long, long time. And I think the fishing gear’s gathering dust in Davista’s lower compartment will become more or less an official state of affairs.
We did have a cool experience back at the campsite, however, before all of this unplanned rejection of our genetic stock as hunters. I saw a few large bull elk as I walked up to the bathroom. Knowing that there were abundant elk in the area, I didn’t think much of it, but did take a picture, as they were quite impressive with their huge antlers. Well, after I emerged from the bathroom I noticed that they were gone. I began to wonder where they had wandered to, but didn’t have to do so for long, as they had taken up temporary residence right behind Davista!
I quickly implored Tacco and the kids to take a look out the window, which led to walking outside to get a closer (but not too close) look.
I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to be rousted from a nap in the hammock by a nudging antler. “Dude. Wake up. I want to eat this grass.”
Overall I’m just happy to be back deep into the mountains, and these feel especially mountain-y to me. Life is good.
*True story: Once while road-tripping with Tacco through the Norwegian fjords in early May and wearing jeans, a long sleeved shirt and a wool Norwegian sweater, I walked to the edge of the water and immediately slipped on the rock, finding myself completely underwater a split-second later. Those clothes sat draped in the back of the car for days. They’re probably still damp.