South Platte

January 22nd, 2007

Tributary Eight
The Uhlhorn Wilderness Area
By Carl Pudlo, Colorado

"Stern discipline awaits him who leaves the path;..." Proverbs 15:10

Every fisherman has a secret place, a place that holds a spell, even an enchantment over the angler. There was no exception to the gentleman who had me spellbound with his tales of the South Platte. He had mentioned places like 'Boulder Canyon,' 'The Ranch,' 'The Confluence,' and the one that stuck in my mind most, 'The Uhlhorn Wilderness Area.' I looked feverishly on maps to locate the area he described in such detail and with such awe. I checked topographical maps, bookstores, I even asked locals about the 'Uhlhorn Wilderness Area.' No one seemed to know anything about the area. I was again fortunate to run into the modest gentleman of the South Platte. I just had to know where, and what, the 'Uhlhorn Wilderness Area' was...

"My sons and I have named our favorite places for fishing with nicknames that sometimes describe the area, but more often than not, it describes an event or an occasion of a fishing experience. We named a place 'Boulder Canyon' because the river is filled with boulders the size of houses. We named a place 'The Ranch,' because there is an old run-down cattle ranch where we fish. We named a place 'The Confluence,' because it is the confluence of two rivers. 'The Uhlhorn Wilderness Area' is named after a person and an incident involving that person. I would like to say 'the name has been changed to protect the innocent,' but in this case, the name has been retained to indict the guilty.

I had been to the 'Uhlhorn Wilderness Area' several times before, so I was familiar with the three mile drive on the gravel road, pitted with potholes and heavy-rain runoff. The drive into the parking area passes through a large fire damaged area. Four wheel drive roads shoot off the main road like the branches of a tree. Each road leads to a dead end in a mineralogist heaven. The rocks in the steep, winding roads can puncture an oil pan with the ease of a pin through a balloon. The many roads end near two rivers, one being the mighty South Platte, home of brown and rainbow trout, the object of our endeavors.

The parking area is a roundabout at the beginning of a trailhead. The trail to the river is short, only half-a-mile to the river. The trail starts with a moderate descent, and there is no indication the hiker is anywhere near the river. As one walks down the first stretch, the path crisscrosses a trickle of a stream. The first time I walked down this stretch, the path was clearly defined, with signs of the fire damage on both the right and left mountainsides. The second time I walked down the stretch was after a major rain. The fire had damaged all the foliage so there was nothing impeding the water from the heavy rains until it reached the trickle of a creek. Logs and rocks were strewn all along the path, carried by the mighty force of moving water. Grasses, that only two weeks earlier were standing tall and erect, had now been bent from the rush of water.

Three hundred yards ahead, the trail takes a right-hand turn along another ravine with another trickle of a creek. For the return trip to the parking area, hikers need to note the turn and identify the proper time to turn left to find the way back. The remaining stretch of the trail can best be described as a leg-burner. The trail is incredibly steep. Hikers carefully zigzag through downed trees, burnt logs, large boulders, and gravelly slides. The slides reach out and grab the ankles of a hiker to pull them down the trail in merciless falls. The crashing of the river current is heard long before the river is seen. By the time one arrives at the river, legs are burning from holding body weight, fishing pole, and waders carried over the shoulder. When I hike the trail to the river, I carry only the bare necessities, which includes drinking water. Fishing this section of the South Platte River makes the twenty-five minute hike well worth the effort.

Plans were made the previous Sunday for a companion and me to meet at the river at the end of the trail. I had given very explicit directions to find the trailhead and to hike the trail to the river. Since my companion had some early morning errands, we planned to meet at the river around 9:00 AM. Since I was going to make the effort to hike the trail, I thought I would get to the river about 6:00 AM so I could do some early morning fishing. Plans worked out well, I arrived at the river about 6:15. I put on my waders and stored my hiking shoes behind a large rock. I hiked an additional four hundred yards downstream to a spot I know contains some big fish.

The fishing was sporadic. The first hole is fished from either the upstream or the downstream side. A narrow channel marks the head of the hole where the water crashes between two garage-sized boulders. The cascading waterfall washes out the riverbed, so the water is over six feet deep. The boulder on one side forms a ledge where a cautious fisherman can stand and make downstream casts into the middle of the elliptic pool which is about forty feet at its widest. The current of the water rushes down the center of the pool and becomes gentle toward the bottom. I usually begin fishing the hole from downstream. From there, I can cast to the left, right, or the middle. There are large rocks surrounding the entire hole, giving ample cover for trout.

Next I went upstream to a second hole only one hundred yards downstream from the trail. This hole is similar to the first hole, except not as large. The current collides into a large boulder and forms a very nice drop-off next to the boulder. This is an exceptional place for drifting a nymph through the drop-off. I spent over an hour here drifting nymphs and catching and releasing brown and rainbow trout. It was getting time to get back to the trailhead to see if my companion had arrived.

As luck would have it, my companion was late, so I went upstream for some additional fishing. Ten o'clock had arrived, and I saw my companion descending the steep trail. We fished another three hours. I showed my companion the many holes and watched him fish the holes I had fished only five hours earlier. I spent time watching and waiting for the finicky fish to strike the many presentations of nymphs, streamers, and wet flies. The fish would occasionally rise to a well presented fly, but the hot sun and bright blue skies made the fishing difficult.

It was time for me to leave. The walk back would take thirty minutes, and another forty minutes to drive back to town. I had talked again to my companion to make sure he knew the way back to the parking area, but I could not help but think I ought to drag my partner with me. He had decided to fish a little more since it was a long drive back to Colorado Springs, and he wanted to get in as much fishing as he could. I returned home and went to my part-time job.

About 7:00 PM that evening I received quite a surprise while working. My fishing companion stopped at the store on his way home. When he walked into the store, he was visibly shaken. I didn't notice it at first. I was somewhat confused as to what took him so long to get back from fishing and why he had stopped.

* * * *
My Companion's Story

"I fished another two hours, and decided it was time to head back to the car. I started going up the steep rocks, there was no other way to go except up. I was following a ravine with a small creek, but the creek soon disappeared, and so did the trail. I knew I was going the wrong way. I had water with me, but that ran out rather quickly during the three hours I was trying to find my way back to the car. The heat of the sun and the weight of the fishing gear were taking its toll on me. I kept going up a ravine but I never found the car. I finally decided to leave a trail behind me so I left my equipment piece by piece in order to find a trail back to the river. First I left my fly line clippers hanging in a tree. Next I left my vest, and last I left my fishing rod and case. It was still very hot walking with my waders on. I kept following the small gulley hoping I would find something familiar. My life was flashing before me, would I ever get out, would I have to spend the night in the middle of nowhere, would I ever see my family again? I finally got to the top of an open area, and there was a road. Relief oozed from my body. I should be able to follow the road and reach some familiar sight if not civilization itself. I followed the road down, and got to an intersection where I recognized the number of the road. As I had hoped, the road took me to the parking turnaround where I was overjoyed with the sight of the car. Fortunately I had more water in the car because I think I was dehydrated from the hot sun and the long hot walk.

* * * *
I was laughing, in my mind, whole-heartedly while he was telling me his story. I felt guilty for not dragging the poor soul with me when I left. For me, hiking the 'Uhlhorn Wilderness Area' is like walking to the bathroom. I know my way in the dark. I just assumed that anyone else would be able to find his way from the river back to the parking area. Boy was I wrong! I totally underestimated the skill of my companion in navigating through the wilderness. It would be ill-mannered of me to ridicule my companion since I did not know his outdoor skills...but what the heck. I thought it was hilarious that he got lost for so long. The story amuses all to whom I tell it. I am fortunate my companion is of such good nature. I can tease him about the experience, for wearing waders to descend the trail, for not taking note of the trail markings along the way, for carrying all his equipment on such a rigorous walk. We frequently talk about the 'Uhlhorn Wilderness Area,' the peril and the beauty, and how someday my companion will return to the area with a global positioning device."

To be continued... ~ Carl Pudlo, Colorado

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