Aspen is full of thrill-seekers, and while most skiers have their secret tree lines and mountain bikers get to know every stump and rock on local singletrack, there is one thread of mystery in the hills above town.It’s a secret that dates back to Aspen’s early ranching days.A narrow path through the bushes just off the Hunter Creek Trail leads to another world: Some 20 miles of a narrow, hidden, sometimes-subterranean waterway winding from east of Aspen to the hills above Woody Creek. And last week I set out to find out where it goes.The Salvation Ditch is a circa-1903 irrigation canal that crosses the Smuggler Mine property and traces a portion of Red Mountain and McLain Flats on its way to downvalley ranches and homes. The ditch was built after silver mining went bust and those who stayed in Aspen turned to farming and ranching. The water irrigates the land of more than 25 shareholders, most of whom inherited their shares with the land. The ditch is managed by the Salvation Ditch Co.But few along the stretch use the water for crops anymore – much of the ditch water sprinkles manicured lawns surrounding custom homes.Locals used to float the ditch on inner tubes – a few told me Red Mountain residents once held floating cocktail parties that flowed through the neighborhood – but with the glut of recent development the ditch runs through private property, through dangerous culverts and metal pipes, and the path is peppered with small dams, fences and “no trespassing” signs.On July 4 a woman trying to rescue her dog fell into a culvert along the ditch near the Sunnyside trail west of Aspen. She and the man who jumped in to help her became stuck, clutching one another and the frightened dog some 200 feet inside the dark tunnel. And with the risk of hypothermia from the frigid current buffeting them, the two people and the dog had to be rescued. The pair were taken to Aspen Valley Hospital for treatment.Not really a Sunday outing for the family anymore.Dangers aside, I decided to see if I could follow the ditch as it wound among multimillion-dollar homes along Red Mountain and into unknown reaches of the hills.Would I come up against security guards and Rottweilers? Or fast current, dangerous rapids and dangerous obstructions? Would there be garbage or glass in the water?
As a kid I remember days spent exploring Kaufmann’s Creek, a low, stinky runoff sluice near our home in suburban Pittsburgh. My friends and I held “boat races” with sticks in the current, or skipped rocks, hunted for crawfish, listened and looked for (but never found) the pheasant that haunted the underbrush. We wandered the water all day wearing old sneakers to protect our feet from the rocks.In those days I was ready for any adventure – would have said “yes” to finding a dead body like the kids in the film “Stand by Me” – and the years haven’t beaten the curiosity out of me yet.The few calls I made to learn about the ditch before embarking were not encouraging; the locals I talked with said it would be impossible, that the ditch went underground and crossed private lands near Aspen and that I’d better just float a few accessible spots along McLain Flats.I suited up in a smattering of whitewater kayaking gear – poly-pro shirt, bathing suit, neoprene booties, life-jacket and a hat for the sun – and after a short walk up the Hunter Creek Trail, made the plunge into the Salvation Ditch.Slogging through the water, I came to Red Mountain Rd., where construction crews are diverting the ditch to accommodate a gas line, and the workers gave me some sideways looks. I didn’t stick around to ask permission or listen to warnings, but sneaked across the road and slid back into the ditch.After a short chat with a backhoe driver fixing a culvert, I didn’t see anyone for the rest of the day – just overgrown scrub and curve-after-curve walking into the unknown. Maybe it was the noontime sun or the uncertainty of where the next bend would take me, but my imagination got busy.
Ducking low under thick underbrush, I become Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke,” broken shackles hanging from my ankles as I wandered the bayou and avoided the trained snouts of baying hounds.Then I’m Huck Finn, a switch of grass between my teeth as I wandered further into the unknown without a care.And next a ninja, padding silently in my neoprene booties, the big, empty “starter castles” now the ramparts of a samurai lord’s domain and I’m sneaking in for a silent assassination.But with one thought my Walter Mitty daydreams fell like a curtain: What if I’m trespassing near the home of somebody important?It’s clear the owners of Aspen’s mountaintop homes rarely live in them, but with the town full of luminaries for the Aspen Ideas Festival, I’d picked the very week to meet up with Gore, Powell or even Billary and a retinue of burly guards.My daydreams turned to visions of a violent secret service interrogation in a hilltop mansion. I imagined the laughter in the newsroom when my fellow reporters heard the police scanner crackle with a report about “a suspicious man walking in a ditch along Red Mountain Road. RP says he looks like an assassin. Please send dogs.”As I cut across lawns and sneaked behind parked Porsches, Audis and Lexuses (Lexi?) I felt downright criminal, but my worries diffused as the Red Mountain mega-homes gave way to bucolic stretches of pristine canal with spectacular views of Aspen, Buttermilk and Red Butte. I continued slogging through the water.I found large PVC pipes drilled through with holes used to pump water out onto lawns and for a moment – just a moment – my thoughts turned to ecoterrorism. This water isn’t going to any ranching operation; it’s watering the private putting greens and crew-cut lawns of people who earn my annual salary in a week or less. Didn’t Marx say a manicured lawn is one of the greatest indulgences of the bourgeoisie? What would Hayduke do?
Just a fleeting thought.Then I found the spot where Aspen’s tennis balls go to die, a Labrador retriever’s dream: a dam and a sharp dropping culvert meant any debris (such as tennis balls) was trapped and doomed to recirculate in the surface current.Where the ditch crosses the Sunnyside Trail – the spot where the two people and their dog got into trouble – there are fences and a sign reading “No Trespassing.” But like the iconic verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” I chose to read the other side of the sign because “That side was made for you and me.” I walked up the trail a bit before dropping back down to the ditch, following a long shale shelf carved in the hillside, until the ditch met McLain Flats Road.Tired and a little dehydrated, I called it a day and hitchhiked back to Aspen.
To tackle the next stretch from McLain Flats to Woody Creek I bought a big inflatable tube from a tire shop so I could float, and also opted for a wetsuit and water-tight paddling jacket to stay snug in the cold water.The ditch is exposed along much of McLain Flats, and I could see cars going by (and they could see me) as I floated along. Paddling carelessly, I could take in the views of the high peaks off to my left.I crossed a flew sluice gates and ducked under a few bridges where I had to nearly submerge myself to get under tight strings of barbed wire. Then the ditch came to another long culvert crossing private property.That meant walking up more driveways and skirting manicured lawns before slinking back into the watery trough.At one point I was in plain site of a massive mansion so I just lay face-forward on the tube and paddled along as quietly as I could, envisioning mastiffs, bodyguards and sharp-shooters.I wasn’t sure if slinking around would just make getting caught that much worse, but I decided to continue playing ninja.At one point a dog got sight (or smell) of me and started howling. The animal was 30 or 40 yards behind me, though, and I was on a fast-flowing section and just paddled along, not looking back.The dog lost interest and quieted down. A relief.Flowing low and silently through the tall grass at one point, I unwittingly sneaked up on a deer at the edge of the flow. I didn’t get much of a glimpse of the beast, but I was close enough to smell the animal and hear its deep guttural snort of fear. I could almost feel its heavy hoof strikes as it charged off into the underbrush.I decided I’d make a little more noise paddling so I wouldn’t scare any more game – particularly a bear hidden in a thicket.I watched finches flit from branch to branch a little like my thought patterns, which swung from worry to wonder, and I enjoyed listening and trying to spot fast-moving hummingbirds.
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I was relieved when the trench meandered away from the road and houses up to the mountainside, tracing a narrow shelf overlooking the few homes and sprawling fields along McLain Flats.But as the ditch flattened along the narrow shelf, it was too shallow to float and I had to walk more and more. I stepped on a pointed rock, leaving me with a sharp pain in every step on my left heel.At one point the ditch turned into a whitewater river, dropping about 100 feet to a lower trough, and I had to bushwhack through thick, thorny undergrowth that put a pin-sized hole in my tube. Soon, however, the path wandered back among more mega-homes, and I stood on Star Mesa Drive looking a little like an astronaut in Central Park.A father and son passing in their Jeep stopped to find out if I was OK.”You mean you tubed that sucker?” the father said, looking at the ditch and back over the hills toward Aspen. “Hey, we should do that, too” he said to his son.I tried to tell him about the culverts and the dogs and all the trespassing and Billary’s security detail, but they wouldn’t listen.Shortly after the road crossing, the ditch died.A culvert led deep underground, feeding a series of ponds and reservoirs scattered on the lowlands around Woody Creek, and walking on I was stopped by a wall of scrub-brush and a mansion compound that would put the average community college to shame.
My tube deflated, and now a bit deflated myself, I wandered back to the road to thumb a ride home. A man working in a field raised the brim of his hat just long enough to know he didn’t want anything to do with this frogman from the hills.While riding back to Aspen with a friendly caterer who picked me up, I traced the faint break in the foliage that marks the ditch’s hidden path as we rolled back toward Aspen.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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