It’s gotta be about 30 degrees inside the tent and even though I’m swaddled inside blankets, a sleeping bag, sweatpants, a woolen shirt, a sweatshirt, thick socks, and a hat I’m too cold to sleep. Dog is snuggled up by my feet and appears to be impervious to the cold. I don’t know what time it is (there is no way I am reaching my arm out of my cocoon to check my phone) but outside the night is very very dark. At this point I hear soft and deliberate footfalls outside my tent. They stop near my head and I hear sniffing. What the hell is that? I locked all the food in a cooler in my car and was careful not to leave any wrappers in the tent with me. Whatever it is it isn’t human, that’s for sure. It is also sniffing around inches from my head, separated from me by just the thin wall of my tent. Dog hasn’t noticed anything and is still asleep. I can’t decide if this is good or bad. The list of suspects for my visitor includes raccoon, squirrel, fox, deer, mountain lion, and bear. The footsteps circle the tent and come back to sniff near my head again. I am completely still and thinking irrationally what if it is trying to smell me?
Flash back to fourteen hours earlier and I am standing in the Denver flagship REI staring at a display labeled “Bear Protection”. There are all kinds of air horns, sprays, bear-proof canisters, bells, and whistles. Bears were never a big deal back in Wisconsin. Out here though, I am knowingly camping in bear territory, and even though it’s still early spring I’m not sure if the bears are still hibernating or not. What if one of them woke up early and is hungry? I ended up leaving with just some small and necessary purchases (headlamp, camp soap, socks) but I was still thinking about wildlife as I drove away.
I borrowed a tent and a sleeping pad from my roommates and loaded up the car with gear, food, and the dog. We were headed to Golden Gate Canyon which is not too far from Denver, but which feels remote due to it’s vastness. There are a handful of year round tent sites up on Reverend’s Ridge which are available on a first come first served basis. Since it was a Sunday I was hopeful that there would be a site available for us. Up a 19% grade and through some dizzying switchbacks we drove before we got to Reverend’s Ridge. We lucked out and got one of the last sites. The whole area was in a forest of aspens with views of snowcapped mountain peaks visible between the trees. The air was cool, crisp, and clean. There was a fire ban in effect so most of the other campers were off hiking or taking in the sights instead of sitting around a campfire. As soon as the tent was set up and the sleeping gear was inside Dog and I set off to find a trailhead. Nearby was the Racoon Trail, which was deceptively listed as being only a little over two miles. With the hike from the campsite, it was more than three and included grueling uphill climbs, stunning panoramic views, and tough rocky descents. Since it was a looped trail it deposited us back at camp tired, exhilarated, and hungry.
Camp was a little busier as people got down to business eating dinner and cracking open beers. Dog and I ate our dinner and then headed out to explore the area. Most of the camping loops were closed for the season so the landscape was peaceful and populated mostly by noisy little birds. The sun was beginning to set and Dog and I decided to do a little night time walking in the woods…mostly so that I could try out my new headlamp. The temperature was dropping, but I was feeling snug and smug in my warm clothes. *Side note* I have felt plenty of disdain for girls who wear nothing but their identical outfits of Northface fleece, leggings, and Uggs/moccasins, but I wore my newly thrifted Northface pullover jacket and was nothing but impressed with the warmth and comfort. I think I might live in it forever.
Camping alone is a kind of meditation. When you are out there with friends, a partner, or family members you play games, you cook meals together, there is often beer; all in all it is a rambunctious social event. When solo, you are silent and thoughtful. You fall into rhythm with the daylight, the cold and the warmth, the wind, and the animal sounds.
With no campfires allowed (I probably couldn’t have made a decent one on my own anyway) the campsites were all fairly dark. Here and there larger groups had multiple lanterns or kept their car lights on. I had Dog decked out like a Christmas tree between her light up red collar and green harness light. For myself, I wore my headlamp. I got Dog and I packed us up cozily inside the tent and spent some time reading. It was the last time until daylight that I would feel comfortable.
Back to where I began. I lay awake listening to the animal outside my tent and tried to think rationally. This was difficult because I was sleep deprived, cold, and afraid. The foot steps were too delicate to be a waddling raccoon, and too heavy to be a squirrel. I doubted a bear could walk with that much grace either (phew). The only things that I could think of as being an attractant (besides my tasty human self) was the dog water dish, which I had left outside. In that case, perhaps my visitor was only thirsty? A thirsty little fox even? This was a comforting thought. My visitor returned to circle and sniff three more times. Later, I would look for footprints and find none.
The rest of the night was sleepless, but uneventful. I was glad to see the run come up and decided to get out and hike around a bit to get the blood flowing and thaw. Dog and I found a place to watch the sun come up. It was dazzling and made up for the cold night. I tried and failed to take a nice photo with Dog, so it’s just a picture of me.
As the sun came up the morning began to warm up too. Dog and I returned to camp for some breakfast and I re-cocooned myself in the tent to read and wait for the air to warm up even more. Around the camp people were beginning to stir. My neighbors had left sometime in the night, but everyone else was making breakfast and sleeping, or packing up their sites. We played a game of fetch and then decided to go on one last hike before heading out.
The last hike was on Mule Deer Trail, which proved to be just the right combination of hot and dry and steep to be utterly exhausting. Instead of hiking along forest trails and dodging patches of snow we were exposed to the wind and sun (not quite strong) in a huge open meadow. The trail skirted small streams and wound down and then up, up, and away into the foothills. It seemed like rattlesnake country. I was constantly dry mouthed and Dog was panting. The sites were beautiful, but we needed to make it back to camp in time before our parks pass expired. At the snail paced we were going, it was going to take a long time. That hike took a lot out of me. It might have been rewarding under different circumstances, but I was just tired and thirsty. I was so happy when we finally made it back to the car. Leaving a good campsite is always bittersweet. We waved goodbye to our little spot and began the descent back down. The temperature rose and the cheese its ran out. Finally back at home I was sore and tired and so was Dog. We both took long naps.
That was our adventure. Next time I will bring more blankets.