photo adventures — backcountry camping at american lakes

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my return to Colorado by going on a quick , one-night backcountry camping trip to American/Michigan Lakes by Cameron Pass. My parents had gone on a day hike in that area the prior weekend and had raved about how beautiful the wildflowers were. I was eager to get up into the mountains, and this sounded like a promising/secluded location, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

I hadn’t been camping in a few years, and I actually can’t think of another time I’ve camped alone in the mountains. I wasn’t really nervous, but I was a little more…excited/careful/conscious than I was expecting to be as a result of being out of it for so long. This excitement/consciousness/not-quite-nervousness was amplified when I got to the parking lot around 4pm and only saw a couple cars. I didn’t expect it to be packed, but it was a Colorado weekend and I figured there’d be at least a few fellow campers. The parking lot seemed to indicate otherwise.

The not-quite-nervousness morphed into exhilaration once I actually started hiking, though. Nature’s good at facilitating that transformation.

Unfortunately, fatigue kicked in around the same time the exhilaration did…. I’ve spent three years in the flat lands at sea level, and all the Colorado seemed to have abandoned my lungs. I also wasn’t in the greatest shape (using the past tense here seems to indicate that this fault has been remedied…rest assured, it has not), and lugging ~30 extra pounds up the side of the mountain wasn’t helping. It didn’t take long before I started second-guessing that decision to bring a 70–300mm monster zoom lens…

The scenery was beautiful, though, and I was content to take the mountain one step at a time, as Robert Pirsig intended:

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.
– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

And about an hour into the hike, I was tipped off by some fellow hikers (heading down, not up) that there was a moose and her calf at the far side of the meadow… That 70–300mm was going to come in handy after all! I switched lenses and proceeded with eyes peeled. The mother moose was just where my hiker friends had said she’d be, but I didn’t see her calf. I snapped a few shots and waited for about 15 minutes for some action or a glimpse of her calf, but nothing really materialized. The mother turned to look at me shortly after I found her, but she lost interest with me far more quickly than I lost interest in her, and she returned to devouring wildflowers almost immediately. Eventually, I gave up on the calf and grew tired of staring at mother moose’s posterior, so I proceeded up the switchbacks.

I was pleasantly surprised a few minutes later when I came across the calf about fifty yards up the mountain. It was laying in some tall grass, and I could just barely glimpse its head. I snapped a couple pictures, and waited to see if it would provide any more of a show than its mother. The calf seemed less trusting of my presence than its mother, and eyed me warily. After a few seconds, it stood up and shakily wandered down to mom. Sadly, it didn’t seem to want to be friends.

Satisfied with my moose sighting, I shouldered my pack and once again returned to the trail. The rest of the hike was relatively uneventful, but no less enjoyable. I took my time and paused frequently to enjoy the wildflowers and the neighboring peaks and valleys (although, admittedly, the pauses were as much due to fatigue as they were due to a desire to soak up the mountains). The sky was sprinkled with big, fluffy clouds, and they cast dramatic shadows on the neighboring mountains. After so much time in the flat lands, these scenes had a strong impression on me.

I arrived at the lower of the lakes in late afternoon, and was surprised to find four or five other tents sprinkled throughout the trees at the base of the lake. I had only run into one other person (a mountain biker) in over an hour, and based on the number of cars in the parking lot relative to the number of descending campers I had crossed paths with, I was pretty sure that I was going to be the only one spending the night at the lakes.

By the time I got up there, my not-quite-nervousness has faded and I was actually looking forward to some solitude, so I was a little disappointed to see so many other people. They were all camping on the East side of the lake, though, so I trudged another several hundred yards (through some kind of slushy meadow…I didn’t take the best path…) to the Southwest edge to set up camp. I wanted to get set up before the sun dipped behind the Western peaks so that I wouldn’t have to set up in the dark.

After getting my tent ready, I debated going to sleep immediately (it was about 7pm, nearly my bedtime even on days where I haven’t transported an additional 30 pounds up a mountain), but opted to explore instead. I noticed an interesting patch of trees another hundred or so yards up the mountain, and headed for it. Once there, I realized it was an excellent spot for a campsite – flat, sheltered from the wind by the trees, and absent of the biting flies that plagued my lower-elevation campsite. So, not 10 minutes after setting up my tent, I disassembled it, lugged it farther up the mountain, and set it up again. I’m glad I didn’t procrastinate this campsite migration, because it started to rain as I was putting the finishing stakes in my rain fly. Whew!

I had been hoping for some kind of a sunset view, but with the off-and-on rain and the peaks to the West, nothing really materialized. I enjoyed the soft golden light, though, and read some Alan Watts at my campsite before turning in shortly after dark.

The night was as all nights camping in the mountains seem to be. Howling winds. Feezing cold then burning hot. Unsatisfying makeshift pillow. Bugs. Overall, a very enjoyable experience.

I woke the best morning extremely thirsty and with a headache – likely effects of some minor altitude sickness and the aforementioned makeshift pillow. Seeing the sunrise and golden hour at 11,000 feet in the company of an alpine lake and meadows of wild flowers far outweighed these petty troubles, however. After soaking up the moment, I began the descent.

I descended quickly, aided by gravity and unencumbered by excess food and water, and I reached the meadow where I had spotted the moose the day before around 7:30. I was trudging along, my mind on other things (probably a shower) and very much not in the moment, when the mother moose and her calf rose from the tall grass not twenty feet away and stared directly at me.

A moose is not an animal to be trifled with, and especially not a mother moose who feels her calf is endangered. I froze. Was I supposed to make loud noises and look big? No, that’s bears… Take a quick, poorly focused picture and slink away slowly? Yeah, that sounded right…

I spotted yet another moose a few hundred yards down the trail! This one was having some breakfast by the stream and was a comfortable distance away, so I watched her for about 20 minutes before deciding it was time to head home and enjoy that shower…

It’s been a few weeks since this adventure. The wildflowers have likely faded and the moose have moved on. But the memories will be bold and powerful for quite some time. And when they fade, I hope these pictures will bring them back. 🙂

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