A cracking boom in the distance cut through the white noise from the stream. It came from up near the top of the fire-scarred mountain in front of me. I looked up into the bright sunshine and noticed a small chunk of the mountain sliding downhill.
From where I stood this dump truck sized rectangular boulder looked small. It moved slowly at first, pushing a wave of rubble before its prow. As it reached a ledge above a small rock band it seemed to nearly come to a stop. But the big slab of rock went into a slow-motion tilt and then dropped off the edge.
A corner of the big block struck the sloped ground at the bottom of the ledge and then hell was unleashed.
The boulder commenced a wicked death-machine cartwheel and it was headed straight towards me. Surely it would veer off to one side or the other, or break into a million pieces, or be stopped by something. But, as I watched with increasing concern, it just kept barreling my way.
Normally at this point, if you could call this absurd scenario normal, I would pick a direction, left or right, and run away from its path. But, I couldn’t. At that moment I was thigh-deep in the middle of a swift-water ford of the South Fork Cache La Poudre River. I was pinned by fast water that turned to whitewater just below my position.
So, I stood there in the rushing water and watched as this multi-ton block of hurtling stone turned the mountain-side into a horror show of mayhem. It sprung bowling ball sized rocks high into the air like cannon shot. It dropped live trees like tall blades of grass and exploded standing dead trees into shrapnel.
As it got closer the whole mountain seemed to roar and boom all at once. The boulder now seemed unstoppable.
Quite alarmed now I glanced to the whitewater downstream then looked back up to the killing machine coming down the hill. My only evasive choice was a bad one—dive right into the whitewater and hope for the best.
My heart rate quickened. I turned to face slightly downstream, ready to take the leap. As the massive spinning rock with its enveloping dirt cloud approached the bottom of the mountain it dropped from my view, obscured by the sparse treetops along the riverbank. But I could still hear it coming: the thudding, cracking, and crunching of rock on dirt, rock on rock, and rock breaking wood. Less than 100 yards away now, it was like an angry beast crashing through the brush, unseen, but obliterating everything in its path.
Then, the sound stopped and nothing moved except a swaying tree top and a billowing dust cloud. The roaring of the rockfall dissipated and the softer white noise of the river returned. Relief.
This is the kind of experience that will get you thinking about the gods. I worry about a car accident on the way to the trailhead, or a lightning bolt from a sudden storm—things that are actually plausible. But this? What are the odds? When people say “stranger things have happened” this must be the kind of thing they are talking about.
I don’t know what dislodged the boulder. I do know that the mountainside it came from was burn-scarred from the 2012 High Park Fire which probably destabilized the soil on the steep slopes. My theory is that I unknowingly spooked a large animal, perhaps a bighorn sheep or deer. In its haste to avoid being seen by the human in the river it scrambled up the steep slope and dislodged a loose rock, which nudged a larger rock, and so on.
This happened in the Cache La Poudre Wilderness Area, one of my favorite hidden hideaways in Colorado. Few humans set foot in the heart of this wilderness even though it is within an hour or two from the three-plus million people of the Denver metro area. There are no high alpine peaks and no lakes. The only official trail is a short loop that just grazes the edge of the area.
The core of this wilderness is an almost inaccessible 16mile stretch of the South Fork Cache La Poudre River.
This wonderful boulder-adorned, trout-filled stream twists its way through a rugged canyon of ponderosa pine trees and rock outcroppings before spilling into the main stem of the Poudre.
The stream is physically and logistically hard to reach. One way is to do a swift-water ford of the main Cache La Poudre, which is only feasible on some years in the lowest of water flows. The other way is to start at a bridge that crosses the main river a few miles above the confluence with the South Fork and scramble down the bank, negotiating loose talus and ledges,and probably rattlesnake dens, on the way.
If you get to the confluence of the two rivers you can bushwhack up the South Fork for only a short way before you run into cliffs at which point you will have to start fording the creek multiple times to make further progress. This, again, is only safe in low water. It’s not an easy place to get to or get into.
The few times I’ve been there I’ve never seen another person, and that’s part of why it’s one of my favorite places.
The landscape of the area has been changed by the 2012 High Park Fire which has left a patchwork of burned and green forest. This lightning-caused fire was catastrophic at the time (one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in Colorado’s history). But the area’s ponderosa pine forest and the wildlife it harbors will benefit from this natural fire for decades to come.
Protected wilderness areas of this kind are rare in the Rockies. Most of our wilderness areas cover high alpine and sub-alpine terrain. The Cache La Poudre is different. It’s a hairy, rugged, rocky hinterland with a beautifully wild trout stream threading a circuitous route through the middle of it. Flying killer boulders make it all the more exciting.
*Featured image courtesy of mapcarta