This past Thursday, I took a day off of work to assist Colorado Parks and Wildlife in stocking hundreds of baby Rio Grande cutthroat trout into watersheds around the San Luis Valley. My assignment was a remote and rugged small watershed near the Conejos River called Sheep Creek. So with the help of 2/3 of my terrier pack (the third was in Denver getting a haircut) and a couple of retired homeowners who knew the area, we loaded my 105 liter Osprey with 2 bags filled with trout fry and pointed south.
On our hike over to the creek, we stumbled across a herd of about 60 elk and watched for 10 minutes or so as they crossed over the drainage, regrouped, and then headed out over the ridgeline. Eddie Vedder gave a menacing (but just soft enough so that only I could hear it and be impressed) growl to let them know what he would've done to them had they stuck around...
On arriving at the overgrown creek, it was immediately clear that it was already inhabited by a robust population of cutthroat trout, and a single bow and arrow cast with my trusty 7-foot-3-weight produced a nice 10-inch cutthroat. Nevertheless, our assignment was to release this next generation of trout into the wild. I identified a couple of pools that did not appear to have any sharks in them, allowed the temperature in the bags to slowly equilibrate to the temperature of the creek, and released the Rio Grande cutties.
An though I would've loved to stick around and fish for a while, with the rest of the family waiting for us in Westcliffe, we began the slow trek back to the truck. After a sweltering hike out, during which we walked through an aspen grove that had ample evidence of recently housing the herd of elk, we arrived and began the drive home.
The dogs were completely spent, a tired that only a wilderness adventure on 4-inch long legs can deliver.
It was a good day.
I've been wanting to do the Comanche / Venable Loop for a while, and it certainly was all that I had hoped it would be.
There was very little running on the way up the Comanche Trail due to it's relentless grade (and my advancing age), but moving slowly allowed us to take in the incredible views along the way. It was windy as hell at Comanche Lake, which made fishing a challenge, but there were a ton of cutthroat cruising the northern shoreline and I was able to pick up one (~13 inches) with a size 12 stimulator.
From Comanche Lake, we began the steep uphill climb to Comanche Pass, which sits somewhere around 13,000 feet. It has been a while since I have been at 13,000 feet, which may explain the brief period of light-headedness and tunnel vision... Following a nice a cruiser of a run from Comanche Pass over to the top of the Phantom Terrace (on the SLV side of the mountains), we descended across Phantom Terrace to the perched Venable Lakes. While a little bit sketchy (pucker factor 4/10), I never felt at any real risk of plummeting to my demise, though I can imagine that the risk level goes up in weather or during melt out...
On the descent, I had the unlikely but pleasant surprise of running into longtime Flyathlete Katie Burgert who was hiking / fishing the loop in the opposite direction with some friends. They had just left lower Venable Lake, where they reported that they had crushed a bunch of cutthroat using the same size 12 stimulator, which fortunately remained rigged up on my rod...
Lower Venable Lake was as advertised, with 4 identical 10 inch cutthroat trout landed in a dozen or so casts. Plenty of casting room, eager fish, I would highly recommend this lake to anyone who is learning to fly fish and wants to be successful. The one caveat is that it is pretty exposed up there, so if weather rolls in, I'd be prepared to descend quickly into the Venable Valley.
With clouds beginning to build, we decided to bail out and head towards home. The descent was punctuated by a whole lot of sloppy running (tired legs and jagged rocks), a side diversion to Venable Falls, and finished off with an iconic breakfast stout from Founders Brewing.
An outstanding way to start my Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge summer...
As those of you who have participated in past Flyathlons know, before every event, we sacrifice a shitty-mass-produced-domestic-beer to the craft beer gods.
This year, there was one beer that was the runaway winner when cruising the swill aisle in the liquor store...
And now that we have spilled your low calorie and refreshing 4.6% ABV blood in the woods, let the Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge officially begin.
run. fish. beer. six feet apart.
Greetings Socially Distanced Flyathletes!
Over the past decade, I have been asked countless times how I came up with the odd idea to pair the seemingly disparate leisure pursuits of trail running, fly fishing, and craft beer consumption. Fact is, our origin story is pretty straight forward.
Simply put, I have always loved being outside. Early on working for the U.S. Geological Survey in the woods of Colorado, I invested in a complete set of National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps so that when the work day was done, I could easily find a remote trail to run, a remote creek to fish, and a remote meadow in which to camp and enjoy a craft beer. And for most of these adventures, I was all alone. Social distancing. (Before it was cool…)
But then, on a chance run with a friend in Boulder, I discovered that there were other people who also enjoyed these three disciplines. And so, in the Summer of 2013 against my introverted nature, we piloted an “unofficial” and mostly illegal Flyathlon at Monarch Lake in Grand County, Colorado. Just fifteen friends and family showed up at the start line on that rough Sunday morning after an epic Saturday night bender, but on that day, a tradition was born.
In the seven years since that foggy July morning, the Flyathlon has evolved well beyond my wildest expectations. We have held fifteen official races in four different locations in two states. We have brought together nearly 500 people from 20+ states (and Canada). We have raised nearly $250,000 through the incredible fundraising efforts of our Flyathletes. We have created a unique non-profit organization to ensure that money raised is spent on projects that benefit native trout and the incredible places that they live.
But perhaps most importantly and unexpectedly for me is how this strange and unique outdoor experiment has spawned such an amazing community. On the surface, we come together to “compete” in our various Flyathlon events, but really, we do it because we want to hang out with incredible, fun people who care about this world and are willing to work for its preservation. And though planning these events is a ton of work for our Board of Directors and all of our dedicated volunteers, we do it willingly because it brings our amazing Flyathlon community together.
Which is why this year is so hard.
For all of us, COVID-19 has upended our sense of normalcy and safety. And for many of you, it has likely had more serious and lasting implications than a change in day to day routines. Importantly, several of the incredible communities that play host to our Flyathlon events have weathered high infection rates with limited medical services. The world as we knew it has changed, and as reasonable and responsible people, we have to be a part of the solution as we begin the long, winding trail back.
In May 2020, the Running Rivers board convened virtually to discuss our path forward. We had a great but challenging conversation, many virtual craft beers were shared, and ultimately, we came to the unanimous decision to cancel all in-person Flyathlon events in 2020.
That was the bad news. Luckily, there is some good news.
As essential as it is to remain vigilant in our social distancing, we believe that it is equally important to continue to engage the community that has developed through the Flyathlon. We also believe that getting outdoors in a safe and responsible manner will be essential in maintaining our physical and mental well-being during these strange and unprecedented times. Finally, we believe that our responsibility remains to do our part in taking care of the public lands and public waters that feed our souls.
And so we created the Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge...
The Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge is an adult adventure scavenger hunt of sorts, wherein you earn points for inherently Flyathlon things such as crushing a trail run, catching a huge fish, supporting your local brewery, drinking local whiskey, raising money for conservation, cleaning up a local stream, etc…. Earn enough points, and we will send you some awesome Flyathlon gear. Of course, in traditional Flyathlon fashion, there will be epic prizes from our incredible sponsors that we will raffle off at the end of the summer for those who complete the challenge. And as always, we will save some of the best gear for our top point earners!
So far, nearly 150 socially distanced Flyathletes have signed up for this challenge! We are very much looking forward to the hearing about and sharing the adventures that will come from making the best of this challenging time. And so we have created this blog as a forum to share your epic backcountry running / fishing missions, your craft beer reviews, and your conservation musings.
We will post from time to time, but we are hoping to get our best content from all of you. Which is why we are awarding 10 points in the challenge to anyone who submits a compelling / entertaining / inspiring post. And who knows, we may even have an awesome award at the end of the challenge for the best post (as voted on by the entire group)!
Starting tomorrow (July 1st, 2020), it is time to go grab your maps, a craft beer or three, and start charting your own Flyathlon adventure!
Stay positive, stay safe, and stay awesome. We will get through this and convene again in the woods sometime soon…
run. fish. beer. (six feet apart)
Andrew and the Running Rivers Board of Directors