Tourist Season in RMNP

We're in the height of tourist season here in Estes Park.  Unlike say, Colorado ski towns like Vail or Breckenridge which have busy winters and summers, with slower shoulder seasons, Estes pretty much only has a summer tourist season.  Sure, there are some visitors to RMNP in the winter, (winter meaning from the end of elk/aspen season around the middle of October until Memorial day), they tend to be few and far between.  Winter visitors also tend to be of the "We're here to brush up on our cold weather camping and ski mountaineering skills before heading off on a Himalaya expedition" type, rather than the mom and dad with a van full of kids from Chicago, version that the local businesses really depend on.  "OK kids, who wants ice cream and a t-shirt with a picture of a howling wolf on it?"

As some people may know, I've been working on a long term photo project about the story of the greenback cutthroat trout.  The greenback is the Colorado state fish, and is a federally protected threatened species.  For many years in the 20th century, it was believed to be completely extinct until a small population was discovered.  This population was bred, and has been reintroduced to a very small percentage (like 5%) of its original native range.  There are only a hand full of drainages in the entire world that contain greenbacks, and almost all of them are within a few miles of Estes Park.  In addition to that, they are a stunningly beautiful fish, especially when in their spawning colors.  So, yeah, these are pretty special fish.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in the outlet of Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in the outlet of Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout in Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I've been spending quite a bit time in the back country in RMNP over the past few weeks photographing fish, as well as speaking with scientists about the species and the reintroduction efforts.  Yesterday I got up early and hiked in to Odessa Lake from the Bear Lake side.  Odessa is in a beautiful alpine valley with waterfalls on two sides.  The lake itself is just below timberline, and the outflow falls a few hundred feet over not-quite a mile before entering Fern Lake, probably the best known fly fishing lake in the park. 

The outlet of Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, looking west toward the lake and the Continental Divide.

The outlet of Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, looking west toward the lake and the Continental Divide.

There are signs like this at the trail heads in the area, as well as on the trail as it approaches every lake in the area. 

When I arrived at Odessa Lake, I was early enough that there was only one family there ahead of me, mom, dad and 5 kids.  All of the kids were under 12, and two of them appeared to be under 4.  My first thought as I sat down my pack to get a drink of water was "wow, those are little kids to be in here".  Odessa isn't a really difficult hike, but it's almost 5 miles and almost 2000 vertical feet no matter how you slice it. 

It was then that I noticed the dad and the older three boys wading around in the log jam at the outlet.  I didn't think too much of this at first.  Most trails reach lakes near their outlet, and it's the logical place for tired hikers to spread out on the logs and rocks.  It's not uncommon to see families splashing around enjoying a few minutes with their boots off.  Then I heard one of the boys say excitedly "What are we going to do with him if we get one?"  I then noticed that the dad was wielding what appeared to be a sharpened, 4 foot piece of aspen branch, and was running around stabbing it into the water like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway.  Well, I should say he was stabbing the water when he wasn't bashing at the water swinging his spear over his head like a club. 

You've got to be kidding me...

I'm normally not a confrontational kind of guy, but seriously dude?  I ran over and kind of yelled over the noise of the river, "Are you killing fish?!?"  I explained that these are a federally protected species, and the reason that you can see them so well to bash at them is that they are currently in the shallow creeks to spawn, and by the way, you're in a NATIONAL PARK.  The dad, dripping wet after having just fallen in (there is a little karma) and still holding his spear/club replied "oh, I'm sorry I didn't know.  I thought these were rainbows [trout] in here".  Yea, so I guess that explains it.  If they're just rainbows, bash away.  WTF?!?

By this time mom has come over to see what I'm accosting her husband about.  She thanks me for letting them know that these are not, in fact rainbows, but are greenback cutthroats.  She then went on to tell me that they had actually read about the greenbacks in the park news letter, and they wanted to be sure not to go fishing for them, since you know, they're endangered and all.  I remember very specifically that she used the word "fishing". 

To be fair, he did apologize, and appeared to stop what he was doing.  When I approached him, I really expected a full on "I'm going to do whatever the hell I damn well please" kind of situation. 

When you're out there, be respectful and know the rules.  I am by no means anti-fishing, I'm a fisherman myself, but there's a time and place for most things.