Chris Goes Family Camping: Heron Lake

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Time for another hike…wait…that picture sure looks like I’m on a lake and wearing a life jacket. Clearly, these would be difficult hiking conditions. Lets call this one “Chris Goes Family Camping: Heron Lake.”  When we think of family camping trips, we generally think of kids and parents, campfires and smores. On my own, I’m ill equipped for such an outing, fortunately my best friend, Ryan, happens to be married to a wonderful lady and has two kids who are pretty darn great in their own right. Add all those ingredients, a lake, a few boats and a few afternoon thunderstorms and you have the making for some classic memories.

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Heron Lake State Park is located in northern New Mexico near the town of Tierra Amarilla and just a tiny bit north of El Vado Lake State Park.  My first trip to Heron Lake was perhaps 15 years ago. People were worried about how far down the lake was at that point. The small island in the lake that sports a weather station was rumored to be much taller than normal. Paddling around in a friends cedar strip custom canoe with viking dragon head and tail made for a grand time. We felt like we were the fastest boat on the lake (which is strictly no-wake) until we saw a sailing trimaran that easily dwarfed out little boat. Other large fishing boats slowly trolled the lake using what looked like deep sea fishing tackle, and that made us nervous about what was swimming around underneath us.

This visit to Heron Lake presented us with a very different picture. The small island with the weather station has grown very large and now has several smaller islands, sandbars really, to keep it company. From our campsite, what would have been a short distance to carry our boats to the lake turned into a half mile haul. On a short trip to Heron Lake RV and Marine, which has a small general store, we were told that the lake was down by 175 feet. If you visit the store and its friendly staff, try the banana bread, its pretty good and be sure to give Hazel, the very talkative grey cat, a good scratch behind the ears.

This trip was the kind of car camping I haven’t done for awhile. The last few years the bulk of my camping has been of the sort that requires carrying everything on my back for a day or more. This was that kind of glorious car camping that makes camping with kids so much fun. We took two vehicles, both loaded with camp chairs and all of the other comforts of car camping plus a canoe and a kayak.

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Upon arriving we were able to snag a campsite with a good view of the lake and not too far from the bathrooms and potable water. Getting camp set up was a little bit of an adventure. My friend’s teenage son decided to try out his camping hammock and his daughter got to have her own tent for the first time. My friends had their own tent while I opted to make use of my camper shell set up that quickly became nick named “Chris’s Man Cave”.

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The son took a long time to get his hammock set up, mostly due to trying to find a better, faster way to set it up without damaging the trees. Kinda proud of the kid for asking all the right questions! The daughter needed some help getting her tent up which was provided by her Dad while I started puzzling out our kitchen dining fly after realizing that the tarp I brought was much smaller than I thought it was.

As is often the case, our first evening in camp consisted mostly of trying to get camp set up before dark, and to beat the storm that was closing in on us. After getting camp set up, we decided that it would be a good idea to haul the boats down near the water so we didn’t have to do it in the morning. Our first trip with the canoe was a painful one…primarily because I was wearing sandals and we hadn’t yet figured out a route to the lake that didn’t involve wading through an acre of stickers. Our second trip with kayak was much more enjoyable after changing into my boots. One of the challenges, we encountered was the lack of hard shoreline. Actually my friends daughter discovered this challenge up to her knees in the form of thick lake mud. We finally found a spot that was a little more rock than mud and positioned the boats well above where we thought any lake swell could reach them.

The next morning, the young lady of the camp arose early and huffed and sighed while saying to herself “I sure am ready for breakfast, I’ve been up for hours!” just a bit louder than she normally would. I remember opening one eye and wondering “why is this child up before the sun and not making coffee?” The obvious answer is that she is 10 and not allowed to light the stove yet….also I doubt most 10 year olds wake up thinking about coffee. After a time, the grown folks in camp did in fact wake up, stumble out of tents and trucks, make coffee and feed the children who claimed to be starving.

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After that, it was time to get out on the water! We packed up everything we’d need, checked to make sure that we had PFD’s that would actually fit everyone (the kids had grown a lot since the last time we were out!) and hauled everything down to the boats. After a quick talk about how to get into the canoe and a more detailed talk about boating safety, we were on the water and on  our way to the big island in the lake!

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After walking around the island with the kids for the morning, it was time to head back to camp for lunch before the afternoon storms rolled in. After lunch, the sky started to turn dark and the wind started to blow a lot harder than we had anticipated. We had pulled the boats up from the water, thinking that we could try to sneak in some more time on the water later in the afternoon. We talked it over, and decided that we may not have pulled the boats up far enough. Ryan and I put on our rain gear and headed out to accomplish two things. First, to pull the boats  up so they didn’t end up out in the lake, and second to just be out in the storm. Ryan and I grew up together working at a summer camp where we often would have to run out into thunderstorms to check on campers, so we get a little nostalgic when thunder starts rolling in. Ryan’s son, who did not put on rain gear, joined us. The wind had reached that point where it was fun to walk around in, but not yet quite strong enough to worry about.

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The wind was pushing the waves even higher than we’d thought it would and the back of the boats were floating where they had been high and dry before. I’ve spent a lot more time out on the water this summer and discovered that I’m actually a big fan of the lakes of New Mexico. If it weren’t for the approaching lightening, I would have stayed and watched the waves for a lot longer than I did.

IMG_1611Ryan’s son managed to find a large number of fishing lures. Side note: never ever walk around Heron Lake without some kind of shoes on! Not unless you are a fan of decorating your feet with rusty fish hooks.

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Before the storm hit us full force we made our way back to camp and waited it out in vehicles. After the rain had passed we made dinner and got a fire going so that we could have lots of coals for making cobbler in a dutch oven later. Normally, when I go camping I tend to avoid established campgrounds because I want some peace and solitude, which is often the exact opposite of what happens at a campground. This night however, was a great example of why it can occasionally be nice to camp near others. During dinner our neighbors stopped by to borrow a lighter so they could get their stove running. They were a really nice couple from Albuquerque, but their stove just wasn’t working that day. When the cobbler was ready we talked with the kids and decided that since we had waaay more cobbler than we were going to eat, that we should walk over and invite the neighbors over. They happily joined us and enjoyed a few servings of hot cobbler. It was one of those evenings that can remind you that despite the potential for noisy generators and the cry of “you ain’t campin if ya ain’t got yer music blastin!”, camping in an established campground with others can be a wonderful and memorable experience. We sat around the picnic table sharing stories and making new friends. Going camping with the family, any family, while not what many would consider a wilderness experience is still pretty wonderful. You can meet new people, help share the outdoors with kids and spend time with people who are important to you while free of the distractions that come with electrical outlets!

First Miles on the CDT.

One of the hardest parts of starting any long term project, even one that you are excited about, is actually starting the project. As I discussed in a previous post “A Grand Idea for a Walk” I’ve been thinking about hiking the Continental Divide Trail in sections for some time now. I’ve been worried that this 3100 mile long doosey of a long term project would languish in the preparation stage for years and ultimately collapse under its own weight. The trail doesn’t always lend itself to dropping a car somewhere, hiking a small section and then returning quickly. Setting up a vehicle shuttle isn’t always ideal either. The west is once again very dry this summer, fires are springing up everywhere and fire restrictions and forest closures are slowly tightening. All in all, these aren’t the ideal conditions I would choose for even weekend back packing, let alone the multiple days some sections lend themselves too. On top of all that, despite hiking all the time, its been a while since I had the weight of a backpacking load on my shoulders! In spite of all these reasons to stay home, or perhaps because of them, last weekend I roped in a backpacking partner, her dog and the dog she was watching for the weekend, found a short section that wouldn’t be too difficult and knocked out a beautiful first 7.5 miles of the trail!

Hopewell Lake and its nearby campground are located in Carson National Forest between Tres Piedras and Tierra Amarilla off of Highway 64. Although we wouldn’t be staying the night in the campground, it served as our base and we were fortunate to get a spot right next to the campsite host, a very friendly lady with equally outgoing and curious dogs, a healer and dachshund. I’d left word with family as to our intended route and schedule, but its never a bad idea to leave that information with more than one person so we talked over our plans with the host as well, who was excited to hear about our trek. We shouldered our packs, checked the map, set a waypoint for the campground and set off. Andrea, her dog Doc and Otis whom Andrea was watching for the weekend and I set off down Forrest Road 42B to the south and began to tick off some miles. A number of attractive camping sites popped up all along the road and if we return to take the trail north, we may use one of these free sites!

More than half of our distance followed the 42B which, for the first day, had a gentle, predominantly downhill slope. Walking downhill under a light cloud cover made for cool, easy hiking and we made quick progress. Free roaming range cattle are a frequent sight along the road and despite Doc’s natural instincts as a cow dog, Andrea’s training kept him right by her side. I’ve had less than stellar experiences hiking with my own dogs in the past, but Andrea’s skill at training Doc made hiking with him a real joy! Along the way we not only encountered plenty of cattle, but signs of deer and elk. When we stopped for lunch at a particularly beautiful bend in the road which overlooked a valley, we were listening to the cattle call back and forth when the unmistakable high pitched call of an elk range through the valley. Being nowhere near the rut, I hadn’t expected to hear any elk on this trip and it served as a delightful surprise! Andrea and I listened for several minutes as the call rang out several more times over the next ten minutes. Doc and Otis remained unimpressed, working to find cooler spots in the dirt and eyeing our lunch.

As we began to hike down and into this valley to the east, I kept checking and rechecking our position on the map (I’m sure driving Andrea nuts in the process) to make sure we didn’t miss where we were to turn south onto some smaller winding trails. Just as I was beginning to think that we had to right on top of the turn, we saw the first CDT trail marker of the day, right where it needed to be! As the trail went from maintained forest road to rough unmaintained road and into single track, the blue trail markers always appeared at just the right spot to make sure the correct path was easy to find. Based on an admittedly small section of trail, I have to say that the folks working on the CDT have done an amazing job of putting up just enough markers to make the route very clear without throwing them up on every tree! The “T” in the CDT marker forms an arrow that indicates the direction the hiker should take. Seeing that first marker made me nearly giddy! Not because I was unsure of where we were, but because it was the first time I had seen it out on a trail…it connected that spot to all the others hundreds of miles to the south and thousands of miles to the north.

In the area we intended to camp there were several reliable water sources marked on the map. In roughly the first spot we came across a neon green and brown cattle pond that I’m certain owed at least 1/3 of its volume to what the cattle had given back to the pond! At this point we got a little concerned regarding our water supply, but as there were supposed to be several more sources farther on we didn’t worry too much. Doc lapped water from the cattle pond, happy for the added flavor. Hiking through the forest we passed a few more CDT markers before we broke onto a small road amongst some small meadows and aspen groves. To our southwest we saw the boundary fence of a small private preserve and to the southeast a line of lush greenery came into view. The road ran into the preserve and short section of trail with blue painted rocks ran towards the greenery and crossed a small clear stream that did not run from the cattle pond. Doc and Otis both happily drank their fill. Near the creek crossing was a high flat area dotted with large healthy pines and we decided that it would make an excellent spot to camp for the night.

Our camp proved to be a nice spot for the night. Otis found a dead ground squirrel. With the rodent clamped in his maw he happily trotted into camp to show it off. Otis, who until now had been a very quiet dog, began barking at what we could only imagine were birds in the grass. He did this often, but as Doc was ignoring him, so did we. As it got dark, Otis seemed more and more nervous and found more things to nervously bark at. Again Doc seemed uninterested. We hung our bear bag away from camp and settled into the tent for the night, dogs and all. Doc quickly took a liking to my sleeping bag and spent most of the night on my feet. Otis stared nervously out of the window, flicking his head back and forth at every noise and slowly tried to either shove Andrea off of her sleeping pad or sleep on her face. Out of the dozen or so times I woke up during the night, only once was Otis not staring out the window in wide eyed doggie nervousness. Doc worked to shove me to the side of the tent and on a few occasions woke both Andrea and I as he tried to quietly crawl to the head of the tent in search of better snuggling conditions.

We awoke the next morning, as it often is on public lands, to small group of cattle next to our tent. Otis being sleepy and scared asked them to move away with a series of polite WOOF’s. Several times Otis had to provide this service before we had camp broken. Apparently we were on some of the good grass. After breakfast and caffeine, we pumped water into our bottles, shouldered our packs and started back up the trail.

In addition to the second day being almost entirely uphill (you always pay for those long stretches of downhill!) the weather was very different. Where the first day had been cool and cloudy, the second day was clear and hot. The heat slowed us a bit, but the dogs felt it the worst. We stopped more frequently to water them and let them lay in the shade to cool off. Otis, who had a pack, slowed the most. We stopped for lunch close to the same place under a large pine that provided ample shade for the dogs to lounge in until they were no longer panting, but cool and happy. As we rounded the bend we had lunched at the day before to head north we heard the first roll of distant thunder and the dark clouds that had been obscured by a ridge to the north. Not wanting to get stuck out in a thunderstorm, we picked up our pace and made for the campground. We never did see any rain while on the trail, but we did get the occasional cool breeze or few minutes of cloud cover, which the dogs especially enjoyed! I took Otis’s pack once he started to seem especially worn out.

We made it back to the campground ahead of the storms to an enthusiastic greeting from the campsite host, who was very happy we had a safe and enjoyable trip. Upon returning to Santa Fe, we dropped off the dogs and went for BBQ, because everything tastes extra good after hiking or back packing!

I now have 3092.5 miles left to go. I learned in this trip that it may be better to hike some sections first and then return to photograph areas that interest me, rather than trying to photograph every step. The important thing however is that the journey has been started. Its always that first step which is hardest. A few lines from Tolkien float to mind on occasions like this. They go something like “Be careful Frodo my lad! It’s a dangerous business going out your door in the morning. When you put your foot on the road, you never know to where it will whisk you away!”