by Fletcher McDonald
October 31st, 2018
Author’s note: this is a work of fiction.
Once you get to the road that leads up and past Idaho Spring Reservoir, it’s all uphill. The first leg of the Chicago Lakes trail had actually led downhill from Echo Lake. There is snow on the ground and wind whips in and out of the trees, stealing warmth.
The wind pushes at my back, making the push up the slope easier even as it chills me. My knees ache, and it’s hard to catch my breath.
I was a young man, once.
I’ve fastened and refastened the straps on my hiking pack, a worn but durable Northface, multiple times since starting this hike. I expect I’ll do so a few more times as well.
“What’s this?” I ask, pointing to my left. It’s a good chance to catch my breath, and I stop and look at a pattern of rocks lain in a rough spiral off to the side of the road. A sign nearby states that this is the Labyrinth; not much of one, though.
“Oh, just some rocks for tourists.” I’ve known Jason for years and when I suggested a hike, he suggested the Chicago Lakes trail, up in Echo Lake Park near Mount Evans. “The last time I was here, there were a bunch of people taking pictures. You know.” He waves his hand dismissively and smiles.
I take a few pictures and catch my breath. I grin. “I know.”
“I surprised they made it up here,” I say, talking while looking at my phone. “The cold and elevation are a double whammy. For me at least.”
“Maybe they drove up instead of hiking.” Jason looks up and down the road we are standing on.
“Maybe,” I say thoughtfully.
I look around at the fresh powder covering everything nearby. “Not today though. There aren’t fresh tire tracks.”
He nods. I’ve taken my pictures and it’s time to move. The sun is rising above the mountains, now, and it is shaping up to be a great day.
Hiking uphill in the cold isn’t that bad, or as bad as I make it out to be. Because of the incline, your body works harder, creates more heat, keeps you warm; where hiking gets me is the descent, the downhill portion involving greater impact on both the knees and my lower back.
“Finn,” Jason calls ahead, trudging through the untouched snow on the path ahead of us. Trees, bushes, and fallen logs covered in snow line the trail around us. “Finn, get back here.”
Ahead of us, Jason’s dog looks back over his shoulder, tongue hanging out in what approaches a smile. Or mischievous grin. Finn waits a long moment then trots back slowly, stopping halfway and waiting for us to catch up. His tongue still hangs out, and suddenly his ears perk up, his nose wrinkles.
He stares at a bush nearby, nearly covered in snow, then takes a few short, slow steps – and he dives, black muzzle torpedoing into the miniature snow bank.
“He’s found something,” I say, and Jason nods in the affirmative.
Finn’s paws churn through the snow for purchase as he tries to drive his muzzle deeper, but his head is too big and the snow too high. Whatever he is looking for has mostly likely escaped.
“What do you think,” Jason asks, “a chipmunk? Squirrel?”
“Probably a field mouse or some kind of rodent,” I say. “One of my dogs used to do the exact same thing and she’d come up with a mouthful of dead rat. Gross.”
A half second later, I add, “Tougher in the snow. Still gross.”
Jason doesn’t comment.
The only human tracks on this trail veered off miles ago, and we’re making our way through fresh powder. Here, a small pair of tracks are visible on the near-pristine surface of the snow and we take another break. My breath is visible in the air as I exhale and crouch to examine them, four sets of paws leading from a bush to a tree.
“That has to be a chipmunk or a squirrel.”
“Yep,” I agree. I follow the tracks to the tree, looking at the branches, but see nothing. Nothing leading away, either.
Finn wanders over but doesn’t bother with the tree at all, taking one look, one sniff around the tracks, before wandering off and bounding through untouched snow.
I take Finn’s disinterest as a sign.
The trail levels out and we pass through fields of burnt timer and fallen pine, the aftermath of a fire years ago. Snow lies in waist-high drifts agains tree trunks or rocks. Here and there, tall pine and solitary aspen rise from the debris, fed by the rich ashes left by the burn. Here and there, other regrowth peek out from beneath the snow, leaves pulling what nutrition they can from the growing light.
The trees get more dense as we follow the trail and the forest around us is eerily still. Without wind, then slight rustle of the tree branches has stopped. My stomach growls, probably not for the first time, but the first time I can hear it.
“Let’s stop,” I take a breath before finishing my sentence. Jason’s been leading for a while, and at a good pace. “And eat.”
Jason looks at me for a moment, inscrutably.
“Sure,” he says. “We really are taking a lot of breaks.”
“It’s better to stay hydrated,” I say, “and this way we won’t run out of energy.”
“True.” He sips on the nipple of his Camelbak. “How are the wife and kids? Getting to the gym much?”
“They’re good,” I reply, and shake my head to the second, pulling two Cliff bars from my pack. “Mint chocolate or peanut butter?”
Barely a question.
“Either one,” he says then yells at his dog. “Finn, get back here!” Finn is sniffing at the ground twenty feet away from the trail, following some scent. His ears are perked up and his hackles, a ridge of hair on his back, are raised. He’s a black-mouthed cur and was a stray when Jason found him living wild on some bit of rural country.
“Finn, get over here,” Jason says again.
Finn is staring in to the woods, looking for something he can only smell right now. As soon as Jason calls him a second time, he trots over to him, then turns and looks the same direction, alert.
I munch on my Cliff bar and sip on my water.
“Damn dog,” curses Jason. Finn looks back and forth at both of us and wags his tail.
We hear a distant crack, deeper in the woods, and see snow falling from heavy tree branches. Water drips from high branches, snow melting in the rising sun from higher pine boughs, and I take off my outer layer and stuff it in my pack before we move on.
“You know,” I joke as we hike, “this whole area used to be an Indian Burial Ground.”
“Mmhmm. Sure.” Jason’s heard this one before and I laugh at my own half-told joke. I don’t continue.
I’ve known him for years, met him through the grapevine. We both lived in downtown Denver a long time ago, and both worked as bouncers.
Busting heads and breaking hearts, I would say, past a lop-sided grin and picture-perfect teeth. This was back before Denver was gentrified. Back when I played rugby and was in shape, back before Jason became a cage fighter.
Chicago Lakes is a long hike and my knees are already sore. My back is already tight. I can see a large set of boulders ahead, past the trees. I’m leading now, ostensibly so I can take pictures of the trail and the untouched snow that covers it for a blog that I write.
I bet you didn’t know I do that. 😉
There’s a final grove of trees, densely packed and missed by the forest fire, and in the shade they provide I almost miss it.
Track. Big ones. A lot of them.
“Hold up,” I say. “Take a look at this.”
I crouch down to take a look. Big paw prints. Bigger than my hand.
“Something big,” says Jason, “Look, they’re all over.”
And indeed they are.
“They’re weaving in and out of the trees over here. And up here.” I take it all in, my eyes tracing every print, each step of something larger than either of us. I point to where a set of tracks leave the trail. “It looks like it went uphill. Whatever it is.”
Are those… I wonder if it’s a trick of the light, the sun reflecting off the snow and the deep shadows in the trees.
“Funny, those look smaller than the first ones we saw,” I say. I crouch down again near the clearest set of tracks I can find, trying to take a picture on my phone and looking to see if I have any reception. If I did, I could look the animal, or animals, up by the shape of the prints. I tell Jason and explain simply while holding my phone above my head at different angles.
“Different animals, different paws, different tracks,” No reception. Nothing at all.
“Finn, get out of there,” Jason says.
I look down to see Finn sniffing at the tracks and following them trough the snow, obliterating any trace before I can take a picture or get a good look. He stops, but they’re gone. I frown.
“Finn,” I say reproachfully, shaking my head.
“The last thing I want,” says Jason, “is a mountain lion attacking my dog.”
“Animals don’t really attack people in groups,” I say, continuing, “or with pets, because of the scent. As long as we’re loud, and careful, we don’t have anything to worry about.” I say it with confidence and Jason nods. It’s something we’ve talked about before, at some point in time.
“Most animals are protective of their young, though, so if we see any.” I let the words hang.
As we continue on, nearing the lower Chicago Lake, I remember an old joke, a bad one in this context; how fast do you have to be to to outrun a bear?
Faster than whomever you are hiking with.
We pass through the pine grove and into a field of dense brambles, higher than my head and impossible to cut through. I talk loudly over my shoulder, stopping to look at half-melted tracks that appear and disappear into the underbrush around us. Finn trots in the middle and Jason brings up the rear.
Lower Chicago Lake is downhill and to our left but the trail is uphill, towards the upper lake. The brambles clear for a moment as we summit a small ridge. A large boulder to our left, a large boulder to our right, the trail leading down the middle strewn with smaller stones and a muddy stream. The flat surfaces of both boulders to the side are almost identical, likely once a single rock that had recently split in half; recently meaning sometime over the past few million years.
Terrain like this gave the Rocky Mountains their name.
Beyond the narrow gulley, a steep incline, and several switchbacks will be the upper Chicago Lake; jagged mountains reach to the sky, hard stone with little soil, most of the latter stripped away by the erosion from summer rain and spring snowmelt.
A field of brambles, those switchbacks, that puny elevation gain are all that lie between us and our destination. I forge ahead, scrambling down into the gulley from one rock to another, using the larger as impromptu stairs and bracing myself on the split boulder walls. The stream leads downhill between rocks.
Between some smaller boulders or large rocks, there is a hollow. I see tracks leading into it. Fresh ones. Small ones.
And a set of larger ones, the same prints.
“Hey, Jason,” I say, upward inflection in my tone although I’m trying to keep the concern out of my voice. “I think-”
Finn growls and I look back. He’s looking in front of me. I swivel my head back and see two brown fur balls.
A series of yips let me know they see me, too. They look at us, big dark eyes staring at the two bipedal, hairless apes in front of them and the, compared to them, small dog that is now barking and growling.
Finn doesn’t know whether to be scared or angry, and neither do they.
I do. I know what to be. I’m scared.
“Let’s get out of here,” says Jason.
“Yep,” I agree with a degree of urgency. I back away slowly and then I hear a loud crash behind me. I start to turn when I hear Jason swear and instinctively I know it was involuntarily.
“Are you alri-” I begin to ask, turning. Jason is fine, just standing there. Frozen for the moment. Finn has stopped growling; there’s a small patch of yellow snow below him.
A large brown bear, a grizzly, blocks our path backwards. It’s just a massive ball of brown fur and claws and bared, yellow teeth, growling at us. Just that, until it stands up and roars.
Eight feet of feral roars at us, close enough that I, standing at the back of our improvised marching column, here to see the world and somewhat untouched wilderness, am splattered with a few strands of fetid bear saliva.
“Run!” Jason and I both yell at the same time, taking off in the opposite direction.
I sprint. The bear cubs are in our way. Only now do I notice how little they really are, how thin and emaciated they look. This late in the season, they should be fat, ready for hibernation.
Finn cowers in place and Jason grabs him by the collar, dragging him a short ways then swinging him up and into the air, over the bear cubs. Jason runs up a few rocks and around. Finn lands, rolls in the snow, then runs, his fight or flight response picking the obvious choice. Smallest mammal in the fray right now, Finn is.
I juke between the two cubs as one swipes at my ankle and the other’s jaws snap around thin air. My aches and pains are forgotten. I’m a young man, once again, at full speed in a blink.
I’ll pay for this tomorrow, I think, knowing from experience. My heart pounds in my ears. Jason yells something. The last time I was this agile? Never.
Rock walls rise to our left and right, too steep to climb, too few handholds, not enough time. Down the gulley we go. There is a slight turn in the gulley. I take it; there’s nothing else.
And we come to a dead end, of sorts.
Papa bear shuffles towards us on all fours, massive bulk and height blocking any avenue of escape. We come to a stop. Finn darts back and forth.
“Stuck between a rock,” I say.
“And a hard place.”
There was this night in Denver, after work, before gentrification – Jason and I and other members of the security staff had kicked a few people out of the club, the kind of people who thought they were the wrong people to kick out. Leaving the bar to go to the afterparty, via the employee entrance in the alley, these kind dudes thought they’d explain that to both of us by kicking our heads in.
Now, that is pretty hard to do when you’re unconscious in an alley. Back then, it was a rock and a hard place. Meathead versus meathead. Man versus man.
Every day is different, though.
Grizzly bears range from three to four hundred pounds for a female, four to eight hundred for a male. On average, they produce two cubs per litter. Grizzly bears are very protective of their young.
The baby bears mewled, and growled, and salivated at the thought of their next meal.
Mama Bear roared to the left of us.
Papa Bear roared to the right of us, and charged.
To the front and back, rock walls; so I looked at Papa Bear, into his dark brown and merciless eyes.
And in doing so, I understood.
A million thoughts flashed through my head. A million regrets. And I wished for my Smith & Wesson .44 Mag, bought for days like this. I wished for chance to say goodbye to my wife and my own babies. As eight hundred pounds of fatherly rage, bear testosterone, and pure feral barreled into me, I wished for more time.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Some factual inaccuracies may exist in the above fictional work; for example, grizzly bear males do not actually protect their young.
Inspiration for some lines of this fictional work were from the poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.