I never knew that it was legal to camp in one of America’s National forests without having an official campground, but at least in the San Juan National Forest, it is not only legal, but it makes your stay completely free. We didn’t have to pay a penny for our parking, and slept in the most beautiful camping area I could have imagined. It was a student budget dream.
Ice Lake is located in a massive valley that probably gave New Zealand a run for their money as the shooting location of Lord of the Rings. It is hard to reach. A massive river runs through the valley, with vast swaths of wildflowers lining the shores, and locals assured us that the wildflowers only get better after their monsoon season at the end of July.
To reach our camping site on the first of the Ice Lakes, a person needs to climb up to 12,000 feet, and bring everything they are going to need, but Eric and I didn’t have most of the things a camping person needs, and a lot of the stuff camping people try and avoid bringing.
Neither of us own a tent, I had also forgotten my camping backpack and was awkwardly trying to carry two backpacks in its place, I had a warm weather sleeping bag good until 40 degrees (it usually reached 30 or lower at the 9,000 foot parking lot), we were bringing a pair of large pillows, had only a massive luxury stove used in car camping, and embarrassingly enough, had no bear bag (serious camping faux paux). We were still a little hung over from the night before, but very excited.
The ranger looked more than a little concerned when we told him we were going to just find a spot in the woods, and set up a camp there.
“Look out for bears.” Was all he really said, but his eyes said, “I really hope I’m going to have to come looking for you two days from now.” Particularly after he found out we were out of state students from Boulder. We nodded our heads and smiled when he gave us the okay, then persisted to pack our bags full of beer and just enough food to spend a night comfortably. He must have been really concerned.
Going the wrong way has become something of an unfortunate habit for me. Instead of turning to the left and crossing a stream, we decided it would be far better to follow the not so defined path up a steep waterfall, because it felt like the right direction. While the nice trail with comfortable switchbacks lay over to our left, we were struggling up a vertical slope with our arms full, because like the guard rails on the roads, the people who made these trails felt it wasn’t too important to include little signs and trail markers.
After twenty minutes of physically exhausting climbing, our hands full of pillows and cooking stoves, the trail ran us through the base of a waterfall. If there hadn’t been people on the other side, we looked for any other trail leading anywhere, but it soon became prevalent that the only place we could cross was right before us.
The water was ice cold, as it had just recently been melted from the remaining snow above us, and was still trying to work its way down to warmth of the Rio Grande. We had to take our shoes off to cross it, which is a lot harder than it sounds if you have never tried walking around on a freezing cold and rocky river bottom.
The water was painfully cold. I got to experience it twice as I had to make two crossings to make sure neither my pillow nor camera bag got wet. The pain lasted while I was in the water, and then for a few minutes while I was on the other side. The closer I got to the edge, the less I got hit with the waterfall, but also the closer I got to falling off a cliff. So I danced awkwardly through the middle, making primal noises for the audience of an elderly couple and Eric who sat with warm feet on the other side.
Despite our series of trials, it was all worth it when we finally reached the first lake. The area rolled out into green pastures lined by jagged cliffs, and with some peaks teasing a beautiful view of the mountain range in the distance. We quickly found where we wanted to camp, right by the lake, but that it was going to be harder to reach, as the small stream crossings people usually take to get there were now flooded into small rivers with snow melt.
It was exhausting to have to walk all the way around the valley to reach an area that could have easily been reached by hopping a stone over the stream. So I had the bright idea of throwing all of my bags over one of the streams, and then finding a place to cross a little further up without having to carry all of that weight. Seems like a great idea right?
A few streams later, and we were finally back on track, when I started to smell something delicious. “It smells fantastic right now. Like really good pasta sauce and cheese.” I said.
“You’re just imagining things. I’m pretty starving myself.” Eric said.
“I don’t know, it smells a lot like pasta sauce, and it didn’t smell like that before.”
“Lets just get to the camp. I’m sure it’s fine.”
But I wasn’t fine. I had smashed the pasta sauce in the grocery bag carrying anything with flavor in it, coating my bag and clothes in delicious smelling sauce (a beacon for bears), and kind of ruining our dinner. Now not only did we not have a bear bag, but I had managed to marinade myself in delicious smelling pasta sauce, and might as well have had a huge neon McDonalds-esque sign written in bear language, saying, “Delicious and already marinaded human fast food right over here. Both slow, and easy to kill.”
With all of these frustrations bearing fruit, we decided it was time to make our bland dinner, and build our fort and nightly resting place.
I was pretty excited about the fort, until I realized that the only suitable fort building sticks around were massive logs close to my body weight. While Eric was cooking our pasta and a little chili, I was trying to carry obscenely heavy and spike riddled logs out of the woods. And while both of us were distracted, our camp was under attack.
The Pika is kind of like a woodchuck, but lives in high altitude environments. They will look cute to the un-experienced camper, but one finds out quickly why they have been placed in the category of rodent, rather than pet.
While I was busy grabbing the wood, and Eric was focusing on dinner, this little creature had managed to chew his way through a pair of my sandals, and part of my camping pad. He would have done considerable damage to my camelback as well, if I hadn’t returned from my log gathering in enough time to run down the hill flailing my arms and raising enough hell to scare him away presumably forever.
But the next time I left, he was back again. This time it was to nibble at my friend Eric’s bag and pad. We finally figured out that they don’t know how to climb trees, and stashed the rest of our gear in the branches of the pine trees around our camp. He stopped coming around sunset, which made me think of the predators who must be roaming the area.
After the sun went down, we realized the fort would either make or break the night. Outside of the fire we had built, it had become freezing cold, and I knew that at least my sleeping bag wouldn’t keep me warm enough. It would have been perfect to camp out under the stars that night, with the galactic carpet lighting the massive basin and log pole pines around our area. So Eric and I hunkered into our very cramped sleeping shelter, and spent a surprisingly comfortable night.