Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Poor Poudre Canyon

Fly fishing the Cache la Poudre River
The day following our visit to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River near Grand Junction, Colorado, Kali and I drove east for six hours, crossing the Continental Divide, and continuing on to Ft. Collins, about 1-1/2 hours north of Denver.

On the second day after our arrival, we drove Colorado Highway 14 west from Ft. Collins, up into the foothills of the Rockies through the canyon of the Cache la Poudre River.

First, pronunciation.  The name of the river (at least in northern Colorado) is pronounced "cash la POOH-der."  Most folks we spoke with just called it "the Poudre."  The name means "hide the powder," which I surmise refers to "gunpowder," though that's only my guess.  (Hide the baking powder?)  The Poudre is the only federally designated Wild and Scenic River in Colorado but, of course, it's hardly the only wild and scenic river in the state.  The river rises as the very modest spillover from tiny Poudre Lake, a glacial tarn that sits snug up against the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park at 10,758 feet (3279 m) in elevation.

At the beginning, the river flows as a slough through alpine wet meadows, and then begins its descent from the mountains, crossing onto national forest land north of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Then it turns east and cascades alongside Highway 14 through the Poudre Canyon.  After a few dozen miles, it spills onto the plains at Ft. Collins, and then continues to flow eastward - ever diminished by agricultural irrigation diversions - until what's left of it joins the South Platte River and thence, the Missouri and Mississippi.

The river's flow is over-allocated which, in Colorado water rights parlance, means that the various entities that have the legal authority to withdraw water from the river in sum could withdraw more water from the river than the river actually carries.  In some ways, it's amazing that there's any water in the river at all; I understand that in the winter, when most runoff is solidly frozen, the river level gets extremely low.
Cache la Poudre River in its canyon
In addition to being beatuiful, the canyon is a regional playground.  Numerous hiking trails lead off into the adjacent national forest, and plenty of folks use the river for kayaking, rafting, and fishing.
Rafting the Poudre
Kali and I stopped for lunch at a roadside turnout that is used by the rafting companies as a takeout point for their rafting trips.  We sat alongside the river downstream of the rafters' takeout, and had a beautiful, quiet lunch on the bank.
Lunch along the Poudre
Across the river, an American Robin was feeding ripe cherries to nestlings in the riparian conifers.

Kayaking the Poudre
Further along, as the canyon penetrates deeper into the mountains, the river becomes increasingly rocky and wild.  It was along this stretch that we began to see kayakers challenging the current.

About halfway up the canyon, we turned north and drove up a long, steep gravel road out of the canyon.  This road brought us to a set of small lakes called Red Feather Lakes that stud the national forest uplands away from the river.  We stopped at Bellaire Lake, but found that its shoreline had been beaten down by fishermen, many of whom seemed to be there that afternoon.  Nevertheless, I took a photograph, and I include it here because you can see several brown, dead conifers.  Much of the coniferous forest in Colorado is brown because pine bark beetles have killed a significant proportion of the the trees in the West, providing plenty of dry wood to carry fires.
Bellaire Lake
In fact, the day after Kali and I visited, lightning struck the forest in the Poudre Canyon and ignited a forest fire.  What started as a 2-acre blaze exploded into a 6,000-acre fire within six hours and eventually became the High Park Fire, which grew into the largest forest fire in Colorado history (since eclipsed by the fire that consumed parts of Colorado Springs late last month).  A combination of very high air temperatures, very low humidity, and the presence of many, many dead trees created a perfect firestorm - all of it centered in and around the Poudre Canyon.

I think nearly every day about that robin carrying cherries for its young.  Forest fires don't always burn clear through an area; they can be spotty and leave some trees unharmed.  Perhaps this robin family was among the lucky ones since they were against the river, but I doubt it, because the nest was right in the center of the fire.


packrat said...

Considering that "Rocky Mountain High" I'd say the powder they were hiding might have been white in color.

Scott said...

I KNEW I should have looked this up before finishing my post, Packrat.

From Wikipedia:

"The name of the river means "Hide the powder" in French. It refers to an incident in the 1820s when French trappers, caught by a snowstorm, were forced to bury part of their gunpowder along the banks of the river."