Not long ago my friend Jeff invited me on a backpacking/fly-fishing trip along the Animas River. It was to be just an overnighter, we’d take the Silverton-Durango train, get dropped off at Needleton about halfway down the route to Durango, hike in about a mile, camp, fish, then hike out and get picked back up Sunday morning. It sounded like a pretty fun trip even though I had never fly-fished. I had always wanted to try fly-fishing and now seemed like as good a time as any. Plus it would be fun to finally ride that train and camp in the Weminuche Wilderness where it’s nice and cool.
I wiped the dried elk parts out of my backpack, hauling elk meat is all I’ve used it for in recent years, and packed for an overnighter. We’d be hiking for less than a mile so I didn’t give much thought to going light and packed lots of food and extras. I nabbed all the homemade granola bars my wife would spare from her baking business…love those things. I opted for my heavier but comfortable Army boots for the trip and water sandals for the fishing. I’d been meaning to get some proper raingear but opted for my Army Gore-Tex suit instead. It was new in 1995…not that long ago.
We loaded up with the latest flies that were supposed to be working for that area and trucked on down toward Silverton. After following a series of flatlanders at glacial speed through the Red Mountain area we were cutting it close to catch the second of three trains heading out of Silverton back down to Durango. We screamed into Silverton with a few minutes to spare and, having no clue where the train station was, headed for the first plume of black smoke we saw. Sure enough, that smoke column on the edge of town led down to a chugging but stationary engine. I ran up to the nearest costumed railworker and asked if this was the 2:45 train going south. He said no, this one was just warming up, the 2:45 was getting ready to leave from “in town” and gave an arm waive northward.
Back to Jeff’s truck I sprinted and we drove up the main drag looking for any sign of a train staging to leave. Now we were getting down to just a few minutes to spare when we saw the train sign and turned down to the road that held a train bristling with people. We parked, stuffed a few odds and ends (beer) into our packs and ran up to the last car. We asked railworker #2 for the day if this was the right train. He said they were just getting ready to go, please hand him our tickets. Oh yeah, tickets…Jeff had purchased those over the phone and we had no actual paper to show for it. Said railworker promptly rolled his eyes, folded up the stairs, and said they’re leaving now. We’d have to go get our tickets from the “station” that was “two blocks this way then two blocks that way” and waived his arm back down the way we just came. Then the train rolled away.
We knew there was one more train in the queue but that one didn’t advertise stopping at Needleton. After some quick explicatives and more than a little contemplation of just heading to the bar, we cinched up our packs and walked smartly “two blocks this way then two blocks that way” to try our odds with the final train of the day.
We did make it to the station where Kris, a very nice and understanding lady, hooked us up with actual paper tickets and a nice note explaining to Mr. Conductor-man our situation and instructions to please kick us out at Needleton. And oh, by the way, that train was boarding right now for a 3:30 departure. We opted to walk back down the tracks rather than hike “two blocks that way and two blocks this way” back up from where we just had come. Even in Silverton a guy feels a little silly walking the City streets with a full backpack and fly-rod case antennae.
The train ride was beautiful, everything people talk it up to be. After about an hour’s ride we got to the Needleton stop and disembarked. We were the only two passengers to leave and got lots of quizzical looks from the rest of the riders as they rolled past. Hah, we were going to have way more fun than just riding a silly old train for another two and a half hours.
We hiked back in about a mile to a spot just above the Animas River. The country was beautiful and this site had been camped before so there were even a few flat spots for the tents. We got camp all set up and headed for the river. After about 20 minutes of casting instructions Jeff apparently felt I was a slight enough danger to myself and the surrounding flora to leave me alone to fish. He headed downstream a bit. It was actually pretty fun, but about 45 minutes into it neither of us had a bite. Plus a storm was rolling in quickly and it was rumbling louder every minute. A couple more minutes passed and the lightning show was more than we could tolerate while waving fly rods around in the air.
So we headed back to the tents to hole up and wait out the storm. We waited…and waited…and waited until after dark and we realized there would be no more fishing tonight. I cursed myself for forgetting the book I had recently bought and passed the time inside my tent letting my cell phone whip my tail at solitaire. I found that my GPS has a few games on it too, but they require you to actually move around and find points so that turned out to be a letdown.
About 9:00 hunger was getting the best of me and my rumbling stomach didn’t seem to care about the torrential downpour outside. So I pulled on my Gore-Tex and go check on Jeff. He’s been killing time reading the instructions for his new tent and the finer points first aid in the tiny book that came with his new first aid kit. Such is the battle against boredom when you’re stuck inside a tent. Anyway, he was up for cooking up some dinner too, so we gathered up our goodies under the biggest Spruce we could find and commenced to boiling up dinner.
Dinner went down pretty well as we compared backpackers’ stoves and each weighed in on opinions of the various dehydrated meals available. Hawaiian chicken with a raspberry-chocolate crumble makes a darn tasty dinner even when a guy has his heart set on fresh trout.
Now, about the time that we’d gotten through the dessert, we’d been out in the rain for close to an hour. I was beginning to have my suspicions about the waterproof-ness of my 12-year-old Gore-Tex. My back and arms were feeling pretty wet, but I shrugged it off knowing I could dry out my shirt overnight and the next day should be nice and sunny. Plus a big hot meal in my belly does wonders to counteract the misery of feeling soaked and clammy.
So back to the tents we go with hopes to “hit it hard” in the morning. But we both knew the unspoken probability that the river would be brown and full of debris in the morning after this storm.
I woke up about 2:00 a.m. when the rain stopped. I contemplated taking my Gore-Tex outside to hang up as it was just laid out inside the vestibule of my tent probably just taking on more moisture. That idea lasted about as long as it took me to re-create in my mind the feeling of slipping on wet sandals and squishing around in the campsite. Back to sleep I went.
The next morning the river did prove to be blown out from the storm. We couldn’t help flicking the flies around a bit more in the hopes of landing a very desperate trout for breakfast, but again got skunked. We got everything packed up about 10:30 and started the hike back down to catch our 11:25 train up to Silverton. I remembered the conductor telling us not to worry about the first two trains of the day that wouldn’t stop, the third one was ours and it would arrive about 11:25-11:30. I thought it was a little odd that I hadn’t heard any trains yet this morning but dismissed it as just me not paying attention.
We arrived back at the Needleton stop where three others were also waiting. 11:30 came and went with no train. So did 12:00 and12:30 and we were starting to have our doubts. More backpackers started showing up and we all thought it was pretty weird that there were no trains. Then two Forest Service volunteers showed up and said something to the effect of this situation not boding well; the train was sometimes late but it always came. Through this time small rainstorms kept moving through so we all kept busy donning and removing our raingear several times.
The crowd started getting pretty big as the folks who needed to take the afternoon train back down to Durango filtered in. Now keep in mind most of us were at the end of our backpacking trips so had little or no food, were a little spent, and generally had several days or more of forest-living on us. Needless to say the group was spaced apart pretty well. And the unspoken consensus was that we didn’t want to think about just how screwed we really might be.
About 1:00 most of our growing band of backwoodspersons broke out our maps and again discussed our options. Some were growing more than a little nervous at the prospect of spending extra nights in the backcountry not knowing when or if a train would show. We decided that if there would in fact be no train, we’d have to hike out one way or another. There was the 20-mile-route up the tracks back to Silverton or we could go about seven miles down the tracks to Cascade then about 6 miles and 1500 vertical feet up and out to the Purgatory trailhead on the highway. Then we would have to hitchhike a ride back up to Silverton.
The second option seemed to make more sense to most of us since we could hopefully flag down a train if it ever did show on the stretch from Needleton down to Cascade. Two younger guys from Colorado Springs did not at all like the idea of hitchhiking and opted for the trek up the tracks to Silverton. We tried to talk them out of it, since they were pretty much out of food, but up they went. I did manage to give them a couple of my wife’s granola bars after their eyes lit up at the offer. Those poor people on the Front Range; these two kids were apparently A) very amazed that anyone would be offering them food in this situation and B) scared to death of hitchhiking. I hope they made it.
There was still a sizeable contingent that opted to just wait things out, or at least wait a few hours more before just hiking down to Cascade to camp the night. But we had a band of six that could wait no longer as doing the math put us out on the highway at about 10:00 or 11:00 at night. Remember that heavy pack I had filled with wet gear? I was not looking forward to this 13-mile trek but I’m not a good sitter either. So, after trading phone numbers and volunteering to make some calls for some of the crowd who opted to stay another day, down the tracks we went.
We made less than a mile down the tracks to hear what sounded like a sick little train whistle behind us. We stopped and waited to see our first sign of life from the train company. A front-end-loader came around the last corner down the tracks rolling our way. We saw that the loader was curiously not bristling with people who mobbed him back at Needleton so figured the driver must have a good story.
He did. Apparently the storm last night was quite a gully-washer. There was a huge rockslide over the tracks upstream from Needleton. He had gone up ahead of the morning trains from Durango to check the tracks and just stayed at the slide to work all morning. He said he had a flatbed railcar up near the slide and, after a couple more hours’ work, he would pull it down to Needleton, load all of us and our gear, and pull us down to Durango with his loader.
That sounded like the best plan we had all heard for a long time so turned around to go back up to Needleton to wait. With the schedule the worker gave us, we even had a little time to fly-fish. The Animas had cleared quite a bit during this ordeal so we spent another 30 minutes or so flipping flies around the river to no avail before the loader/flatcar combination rolled back down to our makeshift bivouac site.
Had I been thinking I would have hiked up to the slide for some pictures. Apparently it wasn’t far upstream from Needleton. The worker said it was about 50 feet high across the tracks and slide out into the river, damming it up for some time. He figured it was going to take about five days to get it open. He also said he had seen those two Colorado Springs boys, offered them the same flatcar deal, but they opted to keep going.
The workers warned us that the trip would take two or three hours to get back down to Durango and the rains were getting more frequent. So we all donned our raingear for the trip, piled our packs along the center of the car, and started rolling down to Durango.
We, workers included, all joked about what a motley crew we had assembled. We figured now we knew how hobos felt and this was just the Colorado version of a Central American bus. All we needed was a few crates of chickens and some other livestock on the car to make the trip complete.
Now, without any rain, this would have been an awesome trip. How many other people can say they rode in an open-air, a very open-air car on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge? And the equipment pulling us turned out to be a very good way to go. The little diesel offered no cinders, black clouds of coal smoke, or ear-ringing steam whistles like the locomotives do. The five or ten total combined minutes when it wasn’t raining, I did manage to get a few pictures. The trips across the bridges were spectacular since you could look right over the edge down hundreds of feet to the river. But for most of the trip it rained. And not the pleasant little oh-I-love-the-smell-of-fresh-rain showers that just knock down the dust. This was a holy-crap-I-can’t-see-ten-feet, full-on drenching where the raindrops are as big as your thumb and you can’t see much space between them as they fall. It absolutely opened up on us the whole way.
I decided that my seasoned Gore-Tex was all gore and not much tex, as I was soaked to the core. Thank God for a fleece shirt and synthetic shorts underneath, cotton duds might have been the death of me. I would have stayed dryer treading water in a pool the whole time. And even if our raingear had kept us all dry, we were still sitting in the gathering water on the gear on that flatcar. At least it wasn’t really cold, although I’m pretty sure I heard a couple sets of teeth chattering. I love Colorado, there is nothing quite like the prospect of hypothermia in July. At one point it even hailed on us for about five minutes. The best line of the day was from Jeff, as we were both hunkered down staring at our knees through the little oval of daylight offered by our cinched up hoods. I said “hey look, it’s hailing” and he replied “Of course it is.”
As miserable as we were, we all agreed that this was much better than walking out so nobody complained much. Backpackers are a unique slice of the American demographic anyway, as we chose to go back into that country in the first place knowing full well that Mother Nature is still very much in charge. Many of the crowd had spent a few days climbing the 14-ers in Chicago basin. We made our own fun. Several places along the line the tracks run directly adjacent to a rock cliff. During a heavy rain those turn into one wide waterfall. We all made the best of it whooping, hollering and arm-waving like kids on a waterpark ride.
We finally rolled into the stop of Rockwood a few miles outside of Durango where the train company had two buses waiting for our band of waterlogged refugees. One bus each for the Durango and Silverton groups. I was never so happy to see a bus in my life. On the faces of the awaiting drivers and the few Rockwood bystanders you could read their faces like a book: “I don’t believe what I’m seeing…this is crazy…they rode how far in this rain?…on that thing?”
We bussed up to Silverton, found Jeff’s truck, and scoured the Sunday afternoon streets for a store where we might get hot coffee. After we finally got on the road I decided that heated front seats were my new favorite vehicle option. If we couldn’t dry off we could at least try and steam our clothes dry. We placed a few quick cell phone calls to our wives and the conversations were pretty limited as this trip wasn’t anything that could be explained quickly. We met stopped in Ridgeway for dinner with a couple others from Grand Junction who we met on the wilderness hobo train. We got a few strange looks going in the restaurant and they curiously stuck us upstairs when there was seating available downstairs. I’m not sure if we looked more like drowned rats or California raisins but they apparently felt we were worthy of confinement away from their regular (and dry) customers.
We finally got home in Grand Junction about 11:00 Sunday night where, after laying out most of my gear in the garage, I still had to towel off before crawling into bed. My fingers looked like prunes until Tuesday. All in all it was a pretty wild adventure for my first ride on the Durango-Silverton Train.
Plus now I can say I’ve been fly fishing!