Return to Trappers Lake
September 17, 2007
I found Trappers Lake breathtaking the first time I saw it, nearly a decade ago. It took my breath away again in early September, but this time it wasn’t the signature squared-off mountain and deep green forests reflecting in the lake’s still waters that had me tugging out my camera at every turn. Rather, it was the startling alteration of a landscape ravaged by wildfire in 2002 that left me gasping – and snapping photos of this familiar, yet different place.
It was mostly dread that kept me away from Trappers Lake for a full five years. It had become a favorite autumn haunt, but a couple of momentous forest fires in summer 2002 combined to burn more than 22,000 acres in and around a section of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in northwest Colorado, in the northeast tip of Garfield County.Lightning sparked the Big Fish Fire, which burned 17,056 acres, including the land ringing Trappers Lake. The blaze also took out part of the historic lodge near the lake’s northern tip. A short distance to the north, the Lost Lakes Fire, also started by lightning, consumed another 5,538 acres.
Trappers Lake Lodge and Resort, with its rustic assortment of cabins tucked in the pines, has always been my choice for accommodations, though several campgrounds are also available near the lake. The main lodge, built in 1918, was destroyed in the Big Fish blaze, but for a stone chimney and its timber flagpole. The building was a restaurant, essentially, and it has been replaced. The lodge also lost several of its historic guest cabins, a couple of barns and what had been a fairly new lounge building with a hot tub. The lounge is gone and the hot tub is inoperable on a deck next to an empty foundation abutting burned timbers. The stables have been rebuilt, and most of the cabins remain.The new restaurant is spacious but comfy, and still serves ample plates of food. The guest cabins – some of which date back a century or so – are exactly as I remembered: spartan affairs outfitted with a bed, table, shelves, gas heater and wood stove. Staying in one is akin to roughing it – lite. The toilets and showers are located in a shared facility.Sisters Carol Steele and Holly King purchased the resort buildings, on land leased from the Forest Service, in October 2005. The amicable new owners have spruced up the place and are running it with hands-on, tender care.The Forest Service let the Big Fish Fire burn to clear up “old and decadent” forest, but hadn’t meant for the flames to take the historic lodge. In August 2002, about a month after it started, the blaze jumped from about 400 acres to 7,500 acres in a day and a half, and advanced with a speed that left fire managers without time to secure the lodge property, according to the agency.
Now, five years later, the magnitude of the fire is unmistakable.My traditional first-day hike on a trip to Trappers – the eight or nine miles around the circumference of the lake – was admittedly depressing. The skies were gray and the almost complete lack of foliage overhead gave the day the feel of late November. The burned trees, stumps and fallen timber stretched for miles – as far as the proverbial eye could see in some places – all gleaming black and buff. I could almost swear the faint, acrid scent of fire still hung in the air, and when I moved in for a close sniff of a blackened tree trunk, the odor was plain.A chance encounter with one of the few other folks on the trail proved enlightening. A retired U.S. Forest Service official and his wife were out for a hike, and he was drilling core samples from the standing, dead trees. The core from a lodgepole pine indicated the tree was at least 150 years old, he estimated.
Lodgepole, along with Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir, predominated around the lake, he noted, but the forest floor was almost devoid of post-fire saplings, except in the vicinity of trees that had been spared by the intense flames. Lodgepole will regenerate after a fire when its tightly compressed cones, glued shut with resin, open in the heat and spread the seed. The gentleman theorized that the fire had burned so hot that it consumed the seeds from the opened cones, many of which still clung resolutely from otherwise bare branches. Only in one spot around the lake did I find new lodgepole, not quite knee-high, sprouting beneath burned specimens.That’s not to say the forest floor is barren, though, and blue skies and subsequent hikes up through the fire zone to the undisturbed Flat Tops above the lake softened the initial shock.The aptly named fireweed, a wildflower that quickly takes root after a blaze, must have turned the woods into a waist-high sea of bright pink a month or two ago. Now its leaves have turned crimson and flowers have given way to pinkish, wispy seedpods. Wild strawberries, currants, geraniums and grasses are lush in the burned areas, and the meadow grasses are thriving.”When I go up there and look at it, I see great things out there,” said Glenn Adams, district ranger for the Forest Service’s Blanco Ranger District, which encompasses Trappers Lake.
Forest watchers have seen little erosion in the Big Fish Fire area, despite some steep slopes. Native vegetation – as opposed to invasive species, or weeds – has filled in with a vengeance, including the sedges and grasses that are first to take hold after what forest managers call a “stand replacement fire,” Adams explained.In a sense, the forest is starting over.While mostly conifers ringed Trappers Lake, aspens are coming in around Big Fish Lake to the west, according to Adams. That species spreads via roots that are typically untouched by fire and is among the trees that will regenerate rapidly after a wildfire. Aspens could one day ring Trappers Lake, he said.”This will be the aspen’s time,” he said. “We would not expect to see conifers for years.”From a casual observer’s point of view, it’s difficult to comprehend the time span required to complete the rejuvenation of the forest, regardless of the species.
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Above Trappers Lake, beyond a cliff band dubbed the Chinese Wall, the fire did not spread onto the true flat tops – open, rolling meadows dotted by stands of Engelmann spruce. Tallest among the trees are the gray, weathered spires of long-dead spruce, killed in a beetle epidemic in the 1940s. In 1945, all the trees up there were dead, according to Adams. Now, healthy stands of fairly large spruce have grown in around the snags. Below the Chinese Wall, the fire cleared out much of that old deadwood.But now, tens of thousands of newly dead, standing trees fill the fire zone, luring woodpeckers and, no doubt, snapping in high winds with cracks like rifle fire. How many will still be standing some 60 years later, like those ancient spruce trunks still spiraling skyward on the flat land above?Yes, I concluded, Trappers Lake is still beautiful, in a starker, less obviously picturesque sort of way. The burned trunks gleam brightly in the sun, the forest floor is resplendent, and the lack of foliage has opened up new vistas for the time being.
But I couldn’t help pondering how many decades will come and go before nature destroys the evidence of destruction. How many years will pass before some observant hiker making the loop around Trappers Lake notices decaying timber and rotting stumps and wonders, “I wonder if there was a fire here a long time ago?”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Trappers Lake is roughly midway between Meeker on the west and Yampa on the east, and can be accessed from either town. The route between them on the Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway (8 Road), is an 82-mile drive that includes 40 miles of unpaved, maintained gravel road. The unpaved section is not maintained for auto use in the winter. Gas and other provisions are only available in Meeker, Buford and Yampa, and travelers should allow at least 2 1/2 hours to make the trip (more to stop and look around).• Trappers Lake Lodge and Resort is open from Memorial Day weekend (weather permitting) through Nov. 15. Guest accommodations are rustic – the electricity goes off with the generator at about 10 p.m. and comes back on at around 7 a.m. There are no plumbing or kitchen facilities in the guest cabins, though outdoor grilling is permitted. There is a general store and restaurant. Horseback riding is available, and canoes and row boats are available to rent for use on the lake. For more information, go to http://www.trapperslake.com.• If you plan to hike, hunt or fish, bring along USGS map No. 122 – Flat Tops NE/Trappers Lake, Colorado.• Point of interest: Trappers Lake is dubbed the “Cradle of the Wilderness” thanks to the efforts of U.S. Forest Service official Arthur Carhart. After his 1919 visit, his recommendations halted plans for a road and homes around the lake. His call to preserve the stunning area from development is considered the start of the wilderness movement, which ultimately led to the Wilderness Act of 1964, according to the Colorado Historical Society. The trail that circles the lake is the Carhart Trail.