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

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When the vegetation grows back on this cleanup site, most people won’t notice the mine impact was ever here. Only the contours of the carefully designed water drainage system will give it away. The Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety conducts regular water tests on the site to gauge the effectiveness (by pH neutrality) of the project. So far so good.
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Ty Churchwell of Trout Unlimited (center), guide Andy Bryant (right), and TU intern Dylan Looze (left) rig up to fish in Henson Creek several miles west of Lake City, Colorado. Henson Creek has great potential as a trout fishery.
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Here, Ty shows off a brook trout he caught in Henson Creek. Brookies are the predominant fish in these waters. Though not native to the region, they have thrived throughout the high alpine streams and lakes in western Colorado.
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A fish made for fiberglass fly rods… I spent the whole trip in the Alpine Triangle fishing a Scott 6-foot 6-inch fiberglass 2-weight rod. It’s idea for flicking short, precise casts among the willows, and even a small fish like this feels like a monster on the ultra-light rod.
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Since photographer Kevin Cooley was getting into fly fishing, we weren’t going to let his wife, Bridget Batch (also a photographer), forego a chance to catch wild brook trout on Henson Creek. Andy Bryant gave Bridget some quick pointers, and she was fly casting like a champ in no time.
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When all is said and done, I find the solitude of fishing high alpine creeks to be an irreplaceable experience. I often do my best thinking when I’m alone in the high country. That’s not to suggest I do my best fishing… I’m usually distracted by the amazing scenery. This is Andy Bryant fishing a meadow section of Henson Creek.
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Leave your waders at home… the small creeks in the Alpine Triangle, are seldom deep, and often narrow enough to hop across, making them perfect for the wet-wading angler. I fished the whole time in a pair of Keen sandals. But I will admit that got chilly, as the temperatures above 9000 feet never got much above 60 degrees, especially under cloudy skies.
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The Alpine Triangle is largely Alpine Tundra, which, as the sign says, is only found in the Arctic and isolated high mountain ranges. As such, the unique plant life here is uniquely beautiful, but also quite fragile.
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We drove over Engineer Pass on our way from Lake City to the town of Ouray. Here is the view from the top, 12,800 feet above sea level. What other roads in America offer this kind of eagle eye view of rugged mountains, from this far above the tree line?
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The road out… I rode for a while with Chris Hunt in his jeep, and the whole way up and over Engineer Pass, we said to each other, “This isn’t so tough.” But once we made the turn toward Ouray on the west side of the pass, the driving got much more technical. In some places, it pushed our vehicles (and drivers) to their limits.
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In fact, in some places, progress was limited to foot-by-foot. Here Dylan coaches Chris over a tricky patch of rocks. It wasn’t so much a worry of falling over the side, rather getting stuck with your wheels off the ground or tipping over. Do that, and there’s no AAA to come out and tow you off the mountain.
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The road to Ouray (well, it’s in there somewhere). The drive over Engineer Pass was an experience I’ll never forget. Part adrenaline rush, part awe-inspiring, when we finally reached Ouray, we all looked around the lunch table and said, “I can’t believe we did that.” While I was glad to be back on the pavement, I vowed to make the drive again, as soon as I had another chance.
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It didn’t take long before we all got itchy to fish again, so we headed down to the town of Ridgway, and loaded up on flies at RIGS Fly Shop. Owner and guide Tim Patterson would take us fishing that afternoon and evening on the Uncompahgre River at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk Campground.
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While this stretch of the Uncompahgre is not inside the Alpine Triangle, the headwaters that feed this river are. That’s one of the important lessons of this tour–the effects on trout fisheries, positive or negative, are felt well downstream. As the birthing spot for some of the most prolific trout water in the world, the Alpine Triangle deserves our respect, attention, and best efforts to preserve it for future generations.

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.