Heading for High Ground

Article excerpt

STRAPPING ON A 50-POUND PACK and slogging off into the mountains away from table wines, television and flush toilets isn't just an exercise in exercise. Consider these reasons to head for the high ground:

Late last August, you were sweltering in the heat and humidity that make our summers infamous. I was 10,000 feet above sea level in Colorado's Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, putting on a heavy flannel shirt to ward off the early morning chill.

On Sept. 1, you drove home in the evening, listening to the radio detail pollution levels and pollen counts. I was looking at a full moon that shone like a spotlight on a mountain meadow. The air is so clean along the Continental Divide that you can shine a flashlight up in the air and not see the beam.

Try that at home.

On Sept. 3 somewhere in Missouri's hinterland, an entomological club composed of chiggers, mosquitoes, ticks and biting flies were meeting on a passing hiker's leg for lunch. High in the Colorado Rockies, the occasional mosquito represented more of a passing curiosity than a pest.

On April 14, 1993, President Bill Clinton was nice enough to sign into law a measure that added 20,750 acres to the 139,893-acre Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area because more and more vacationers every year choose Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states as a destination.

No one knows how many more. Cindy Gradin, recreational forester for the North Park Rangers District of the Routt National Forest, said, "We don't have the raw data to back it up, but it definitely has increased."

Keeping raw data on area use is difficult because in most areas, backpackers don't need a reservation. You can simply arrive at any of dozens of trailheads and march right in, any time of the day, any day of the week; credit cards and two forms of identification not needed, children and dogs allowed. The cost per night's lodging: zip, nada, zero, nothing.

Signing in and out, though, makes sense; rescuers know where to search if you turn up missing.

The Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area straddles the Continental Divide in Colorado near the border with Wyoming. Its more famous side is the west, near Steamboat Springs ski resort. The eastern side, near Walden, is closer to Missouri.

Designation as a wilderness area protects the land by imposing such restrictions as a ban on motorized vehicles. If you want to get there, you have to walk or ride a horse. Even the rangers who keep the trails clear of fallen trees have to leave their chain saws behind and use hand-driven axes and crosscut saws.

If I was a novice backpacker, the first trail I would try would be the one I took last summer with my fiancee, Janine, and our dog, Nikki. The Rainbow Lake Trail is an easy four-mile walk that leads to a complex of lakes - upper and lower Rainbow Lake and upper and lower Slide Lake.

These are pristine alpine lakes that turn shades of green, blue and grey, depending on what colors the sky chooses that day. The lakes are set like gems in forests of pines and quaking aspens. Slide Lake was formed when half a spectacular mountain fell into the valley below and its pretty little stream. If you have a worm, you'll have a trout. The lakes teem with fish, kept pan size by the crowded conditions.

I carry worms when I go backpacking. I don't like to play with fish. I like to catch fish in a businesslike manner and take them home to dinner. Backpackers primarily depend on freeze-dried or dehydrated rations, and fresh fish represents a welcome change.

Many visitors enter these realms for the fishing, and it's there to enjoy. Noisy streams cascade down mountainsides and pool up against rock slides as if Mother Nature designed a fly-casting area. Lakes run deep for the still angler. Fish are plentiful for the beginner with a bobber.

Rainbow Lake is an easy afternoon stroll from the trailhead, and it's been heavily camped. …