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by Logan Wilcoxson
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I'm not as young as I used to be. I'm not old yet, but I found out recently that I'm not so young anymore. I went on a backpacking trip with John, an old college buddy of mine, and three college interns from the company he works for. Just an overnight weekend trip to knock off another fourteener or two. It's a pastime of many folks here in Colorado. With 54 mountains over 14,000 feet and a growing number of people hiking them, lonely is not a word used to describe many of these peaks. We had our sites set on Mt. Oxford and Mt. Belford outside of Leadville. A fairly simple trip, hike up Missouri Gulch to 11,000 feet the first day and camp in a large basin, then hit the summits the second day and return to the trailhead. The trailhead was around 9,500 feet so the first day involved a fair amount of elevation gain under a full pack. Lately I've been doing most of my hiking solo, or with partners several years older than I am. So I've grown used to a nice relaxed pace. Well I quickly found myself at the end of the line and falling back farther quickly. There are plenty of excuses. I was carrying the whole three-man tent, tired from the long drive, hung over from the night before. But excuses don't matter, I was slow. Not used to being last, my ego was completely trashed by the time we had found a campsite.
A hearty dinner and a good nights sleep strengthened my spirits and in the morning I was ready to roll. We got an early start and headed off toward Elkhead pass. My ego had recovered as well. I was once again the seasoned veteran leading a group of flatlanders into the high country. Well, that's what I tell myself anyway. Any mountain is challenging, but we had decided to knock off two in one day. Just follow the ridge up Mt. Belford, cross the saddle to Mt. Oxford and back again. Unfortunately crossing the saddle involves a good deal of elevation gain and loss. By the time we had made it to Belford, crossed over to the summit of Oxford and back to Belford, I was tired. The three young interns had decided to take the short route, switching back down the steep North face of Belford. John and I, in an effort to spare our tired knees elected to return by our ascent route through Elkhead pass. It was a little longer trail, but well worth the extra miles to ease the pain.
The trail down from the pass wound gently through the basin, meandering among scree slopes and down into a marshy area. We ran into a few people still upward bound on the trail as we descended. When we stopped briefly to chat with one couple on their way up they told us they had seen a moose further down the trail. This part of Colorado isn't really known for its moose population so we decided they had probably mistaken an elk for a moose. A common error among tourist and flatlanders. This seemed like a reasonable conclusion until another group of hikers told us the same thing. After the second warning we started to look more closely. We scoured the basin below us with binoculars and finally decided that any moose or elk had moved on to greener pasture already.
We had completely given up on seeing any large mammals when I first noticed the young cow lying in the creek. It was a little strange that I saw the cow first, because the bull was standing only a few yards downstream, displaying an enormous rack. If we hadn't been warned that there were moose ahead, chances are we wouldn't even have seen them. They both stared coolly at us we stood frozen in our tracks, afraid to move or speak for fear of spooking them. I snapped off my first picture from waist level I think, not daring to bother looking through the viewfinder to focus or compose. I just wanted some shred of proof that they were there, and that we had really seen them. I felt like I had just stumbled upon Sasquatch in his den. Some kind of bizarre standoff, where nobody wanted to back down. To many people seeing a moose is no big deal, but to me it was very special. I've lived in Colorado lees than two years, but I've made the most of it. I've seen plenty of wildlife while hiking and backpacking, but never anything bigger than me. Whitetail Deer in the Midwest are striking, but nothing compared to a moose. I saw a black bear in the Buffalo Peaks wilderness, crashing through the brush, running in the right direction, away from me. But never before had I stood so close to something so huge, that had absolutely no fear of me.
John and I stood silent for quite some time, gawking at the creatures. I eventually got up the nerve to take more pictures, even to focus. And the moose went about their business, feeding silently, but keeping a watchful eye on us. I even got brave, creeping five feet closer to improve the framing of my shots. The composition wasn't good, the light horrible, but I must have snapped off half a roll without a second thought. I had to get a decent picture if I took enough. I finally ran out of film, and it was time for us to move on, taking one last look behind us.
I've hiked many miles, before and after seeing the moose. I've been to higher peaks, seen the most beautiful wild flowers, even had a marmot sitting in my lap. But nothing else has compared to seeing my first moose staring right back at me. It's made an impact on the way I hike. Taking time to look around more often, peering closer into the bushes to see who's peering back. I'm sure that given time and luck, I will cross paths with more such wildlife. Perhaps next time I will even focus.
About the AuthorLogan Wilcoxson (email@example.com), a.k.a. Gecko, hikes and climbs throughout Colorado while trying to work as little as possible.
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