Best Wild Places: Exploring the Alpine Triangle (Day Three)

Editor-at-Large Kirk Deeter and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days with Trout Unlimited exploring the Alpine Triangle, a rugged expanse … Continued

Editor-at-Large Kirk Deeter and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days with Trout Unlimited exploring the Alpine Triangle, a rugged expanse of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, so named because the region is loosely contained within the shape made by connecting the towns of Ouray, Lake City, and Silverton. TU wants Congress to declare the place a National Conservation area to protect its streams from mining expansion and new road development. Here’s what they found on day three.

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__I learned a very important lesson at the start of our third day in the Alpine Triangle: We don’t have to move mountains to help trout streams recover from the effects of hard rock mining.

Moving west from Lake City toward the town of Ouray, we stopped along Henson Creek, where Tara Tafi, project manager and reclamation specialist for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, showed us around the Henson Creek Repository project.

Here’s a little “mine influence on trout water” primer: Many of the mines left behind tailing piles. Those tailing piles contain a number of things that are harmful to the river (acids, heavy metals, etc.) As the rains and snows fall over the tailings, the runoff mixes into the river, lowering pH levels (2-4). In low pH, metals are easily mobilized. When this happens, trout and the bugs they eat can’t survive in an essentially sterile environment. And this can last for generations.

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On this Henson Creek site, the task of digging up and trucking away all the mine tailings was impractical. Instead, the Division of Reclamation used a new, innovative process of mixing lime and Portland Cement with the tailings to stabilize the materials. Now, they’re planting new vegetation over the site, so that a few years from now, a person who visits (or fishes) this area won’t see any more telltale signs of the project. Best of all, testing shows that the water samples from collection sites in the area are now more balanced.

It’s a small but important victory for what could become (and probably once was) an incredibly productive trout stream. Granted, this is a drop in the bucket; there are dozens of other sites in the region that could benefit from similar cleanup, and that will require millions of dollars to accomplish. But Tafi reminded us, “The 80-20 rule applies; 80 percent of the pollution comes from 20 percent of the sites.”

I just couldn’t help but leave this site feeling encouraged by what can be accomplished, but wondering why we don’t mobilize more to do away with leftover pollution that’s just sitting near closed and forgotten mines.

As we pushed west along the creek, we decided to get out and test the fishery the best way we knew how… by casting dry flies with light fly rods. Chris Hunt of Trout Unlimited fished together with our Scott fiberglass rods (Scott, from nearby Montrose, Colorado, www.scottflyrod.com has endorsed TU’s Alpine Triangle efforts). We traded shots on brook trout, and I stopped counting when we topped a dozen caught fish each. The biggest fish we caught was maybe 10 inches long, but the setting made it one of the best spots on the trip.

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We wanted to make Ouray for lunch, so we pressed on, up and over Engineer Pass. At an elevation of 12,800 feet, it’s slightly higher than Cinnamon Pass, but the drive seemed easier… at least on the way up. Once we made the split away from Silverton and toward Ouray on the west side of the pass, we descended into the trees and canyons, and the driving got dicey. Many times we had to climb out of our vehicles and plot the best path for keeping all our wheels on the ground. Ty Churchwell actually bent the step bar on the side of his Xterra.

I never felt like I was in any physical danger, but it was a full adrenaline rush the whole way. My biggest concern (a very real one) was that one of us would blow out a tire, or get stuck on a rock, and we’d be stranded for hours (see first photo in this post). Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but it was a long, slow slug through the mountains. We made Ouray for lunch… at 4 p.m.

After we collected our nerves, we decided to cap off the day with (what else) some more fishing. So we headed to the town of Ridgway (where the John Wayne movie “True Grit” was filmed) to load up with flies from RIGS fly shop www.fishrigs.com. From there, owner and guide Tim Patterson took us down to Pa-Co-Chu-Puk Campground in Ridgway State Park, to fish the Uncompahgre River.

Using size #14 Adams flies, I was able to land a few sporty rainbow trout, the largest being about 16 inches long. An even better highlight for me was standing next to Dylan Looze as he made a perfect cast into a riffle, then hooked and landed his own first fly-caught rainbow trout ever.

Truth be told, I have fished the Uncompahgre often at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk, dating back to when the river first opened for fishing here, and I was not much older than Dylan (18). It’s funny how, in the fly fishing world, an angler can branch out and explore new places, sometimes all over the country… and yet eventually they find their way back to home waters.

As such, the Alpine Triangle was a very memorable adventure, involving my favorite wild place. It’s a place I’d invite all anglers (and hunters, and ATV-ers, and campers, etc.) to see and experience for themselves. Once you visit, a part of your soul will always stay connected here. –Deeter

Click here to see more photos from day three of our trip.