Stewardship in the La Garita Wilderness

By CMC Stewardship Crew member Bennett Muraski

Our week began early Monday morning in Salida for a briefing on the work plan and to load our crew vehicles. Once we were prepped for the project ahead, we hit the road. We were traveling to the Middle Fork trail located in the La Garita Wilderness to clear downed trees and gather information for the Saguache Ranger District of the US Forest Service.   The Saguache Field office has few personnel to manage and maintain 515,750 acres of the Rio Grande National Forest on both sides of the northern San Luis Valley, and conservation workers from outside the agency office like CMC’s Trail Stewardship Crew and many volunteers play an important role in maintaining its approximately 260 miles of non-motorized trails.  

After a short trip over Poncha Pass into the San Luis Valley, we took the turn onto CO 114 and it was clear the adventure had just begun as small cabins  and ranches gave way to open meadows and miles of rolling forest. Once leaving the pavement altogether we still were only halfway to our trailhead, and continued bumping and bouncing our way down a two track road, past herds of roaming cattle until the trailhead appeared through the trees at the end of the road.

After reviewing our work plan for the week and loading tools onto our packs, we set out to follow our trail up the Middle Fork Saguache creek. The first few miles were gentle and rolling,  with only a few scattered trees across the trail to remove and the occasional junction to redefine where range-grazing cattle had worn in their own trails more clearly than the purposefully constructed path.   It’s interesting to hike deep into the backcountry to still be surrounded by cattle in this rugged landscape of volcanic activity between the Gunnison and Rio Grande rivers. These rolling  grassy-bottomed valleys crisscross with multitudes of cattle paths, a testament to a grazing history likely dating back as far as the 1870s.  But this is recent history, this area has archaeological significance dating back several thousand years as one of the earliest human travel routes across the Rockies and seasonal home for several native american tribes including the Ute. To think of the difficulties of traveling and living here in say 1000A.D.  makes the heavy pack full of tools and the week’s supply of food feel much lighter, perhaps even comfortable considering all the ease and security that comes with modern backcountry equipment.

 As we approached Saguache falls we entered more beetle affected forest and the deadfall began to pile up over the trail. We cut using hand saws and a 5’6” vintage two-man crosscut saw for the larger trees. We use these saws in place of a chainsaw because this is a Wilderness area, and the use of motorized tools is not allowed. After removing nearly 30 downed trees and hiking 5.5 miles, evening was upon us and with it the end of the workday. As we set up our camp deep below the valley walls, right before sunset a storm came over the mountains to the north of us and began pelting our section of valley with strong gusts that had us rushing underneath a few trees on the edge of the meadow to cook and weather the storm.   As if to taunt us, a small gap in the clouds let the incredible colors of the low sun through and the rain gradually ceased,  but not 10 minutes later the sun rapidly fades and heavy hail begins to fall. This thoroughly interfered with our cooking plans as it drove through our cover from the trees.   After wolfing down near scalding dinners, the bear bags were hastily hung as the hail turned back into rain, and just after clammily crawling into the sleeping bag the rain ceased altogether.   I peaked my head out from the vestibule to see the night sky giving an incredible display of the milky way in the cold, crisp aftermath of the storm.  Thoroughly appreciating the lack of light pollution, I retreated to the warmth of the sleeping bag and drifted off.

The next two days are a blur as we cut tree after tree with hand saws (nearly 90), clearing the trail corridor for its many user groups, record problem areas and other data to help future maintenance using the RIMS mobile app program on 8.3 miles of trails accessible from this basin, and create cairns to guide though areas where trails have become faint or lost in meadows and the alpine. The Benito Creek trail was especially faint, many times fading into the forest of standing dead, more of a route than a trail, many times the only signs were decades old cut logs and small blazes faint on the long dead trunks of evergreens.   Even with the dead trees dominating the forest, the rugged beauty of this place is breathtaking, we all note in conversation several times a day just how lucky we are to be working in such a place.

These days were a flurry of activity, trying to work quickly and effectively to clear as much trail as possible in the short four days we had, muscles ached from hours of sawing, and when you were finished with one tree it was never a far walk until the next.   Some fallen behemoths dead from the beetle outbreak measured 30 inches or more across our cuts, took 40 minutes a piece to saw through, taking careful planning and observation to not pinch a saw with their heft shifting around the blade.

 We saw few people, and most were surprised to find a crew working in this area, one group on horseback to Machin Lake were especially friendly and grateful to see a cutting crew in this area.   Returning to our basecamp in the evenings,  the beauty of Saguache Falls and some excellent brook trout fishing took much of my attention until my stomach would dictate that I return to cook dinner.

All too soon it seemed, Thursday morning came and with it the rush to pack up camp before beginning the final workday and travel back to our respective homes.   Clearing the corridor by removing small trees, branches and brush encroaching on the trail , and creating drainage structures to address erosion problems on our way back towards the trailhead I couldn’t help but wish we had more time to spend here. These trails are infrequently maintained, and there could be work for an entire summer in just this one basin, many of them are fading away with lack of means to maintain them. It has been a great privilege to do meaningful work in such an incredible area,  and we return with a sense of some accomplishment, knowing these trails are in better shape than when we found them.

Learn more about the CMC Stewardship Program at www.cmc.org/stewardship

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