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Poudre from the Source

By: Evan J. Stafford
Photographer: Various

Walkin' in-photo:Evan J

For the last few years the Big South Fork of the Cache la Poudre has been an elusive run. Access has been all about timing. If you couldn’t just cancel work for a day because the gate was open, you couldn’t count on making a run. For me this year was shaping up to be similar to the past four; below average snowpack and little chance of getting the Big South more than once (and that “once” is only because it is within my abilities to cancel work, “just because the gate is open”). Oh that forever locked enigma. The latched door to the best class V wilderness run in the state. The only road block to “a steep low-volume run of the highest quality.” The gate at Long Draw Road.

Frenchy in Prime Time-photo:Timmy T

We decided that this year we weren’t just going to wait it out. And no, we didn’t steal a forest service key, ram the gate, do the shuttle with dirt bikes or even hike from the trailhead. We gathered up the crew (Brian Gardel a.k.a. Frenchy, Ethan Greene, Randal Ramirez, Patrick Forster and myself) and we ran it from the source. Well, we didn’t exactly “run it” from the source.

From Poudre Lake, situated high in Rocky Mountain National Park, on the knife edge of the Continental Divide, we hauled our boats down the snow covered headwaters of the Cache la Poudre. We dragged across snow for an easy mile and when the snow ended we weaved through shrub willows and Brush Cinquefoil. One by one we put-on, feeling the urge to start paddling, between one and half and two miles in. You could still easily hop across the crick in places. After about a mile of scraping boat abuse, we independently exited the creek at various places and began to weave through the willows again. There’s just something noble about dragging your boat through the wilderness.

Ethan re-surfacing-photo:Timmy T

After about two more miles of walking we crossed the creek and continued to drag the boats, cutting a diagonal towards the confluence with Chapin Creek. Well, everyone continued to drag their boats except me. While we were crossing, it looked like we were getting a little more flow, so I put-on. I was sort of in back so nobody saw me put-on and they just kept on hiking. It turned out that there wasn’t much more flow, that it had just become a little more steep and constricted, but I was just happy to be in my boat. As soon as the posse saw me in the creek from a high vantage point, about a half mile later, they made their way to the creek following my hand signal that it was all good. Well, as soon as they got in the creek we encountered a snow bridge and it flattened considerably. Sorry bros. We scraped down to the confluence with Chapin Creek anyway, just happy to be in our boats.

Clean Ten-photo:Pat Forster

It only became marginally better with the inflow of about 30cfs from Chapin Creek, making our grand total in this upper section of the Cache la Poudre about 65cfs. We scraped on. And on. And on. We found a few more feeder streams and the scenery beacame outstanding. Floating through classic Colorado wilderness that rarely saw human traffic, my mind was at ease (mainly because I hadn’t started thinking about the next day’s rapids and it became easy floating). A half mile above the confluence with Hague Creek, we came across a short but beautiful gorge. Of the five drops in the gorge, all save two had strainers. We portaged the wood and ran the drops that we could. There was even a clean ten footer in the exit to the gorge. Finally a small taste of whitewater to wet our appetites.

Tough Guys-photos:Ethan G

With the confluence of Hague Creek, our flow doubled, and it was a fast mile or so to the ever important confluence with La Poudre Pass Creek, better known as Weird Creek and to the start of the Big South run proper. Jubilation was felt by all when we looked up Weird Creek and saw that they were still releasing over 100cfs from Long Draw Reservoir. The Big South was in. We paddled excitedly towards the first rapid of note, Starter Fluid. We launched off of Starter Fluid with clean left boof strokes and set up camp in the flats below. The wildflowers were blooming in our majestic camp meadow and the high mountain sun warmed our bones. The weather was in such agreement with us that afternoon that Patrick and I decided to run Starter Fluid again, minus our tops, tough guy, twice. We cooked up some grub over a blazing fire and we were all in our bags before the fading light became true darkness.

Worse day in Cool World-photo:Evan J

We awoke to another beautiful day. Blue skies and a healthy flow. We put on and began our long awaited first run of the season down the Big South ...and the gate wasn’t even open yet! As we worked our way through the first couple of mini-gorges, it became apparent that the heavy boats and the long hike-in were going to take their toll on this run. I slammed into the wall on the right side entry to Fantasy Flight, got spun and ran the big drop backwards. Randy flipped in the left entry to the same rapid, pinned between the narrow walls and took a swim. Patrick was the only one who decided to test just how “cool” he could be in Cool World …instead he found out it’s a cruel world, taking a swim as well after flipping in the left chute, missing a swirled roll attempt and running the drop upside down.

Evan J Slideways-photo:Dave Frankel

We all walked Meltdown. As we moved into the second half of the run things settled down. Prime Time Gorge was a hoot and everyone was feeling good, yet we still had miles of whitewater to go. By the time we reached Double Trouble the taxed looks on our faces told the tale. We all walked Double Trouble. Some of us more reluctantly than others because the level looked perfect for the double drop. We aced Slideways in various forms, some walking the hole at the bottom for fear of a thrashing, but still getting the superb boof move at the top. We took out early above the mank at the bottom of the run and hiked our boats a final half mile to the shuttle vehicles. It had been done before, but not for a long time. What the top section lacked in whitewater, it made up for in scenery. And what's more, we were given the chance to run the Big South, the hard way.

Randy skipping out-photo:Dave Frankel

The Big South is a special run and with time and hard work we may be able to secure access earlier in the season. Keep an eye on this site and at for updates on our struggle to open the gate earlier in the season. Until then, if it’s May or early June and you just have to get in there, grab your dry bags, stuff your boat and hike in from the top. You won’t regret it. A special thanks to Tim Hawkins, Dave Frankel, and Zach for running various legs of the shuttle and for taking such excellent photos. We owe ya one.

Meadow Camp-photo-Pat Forster