What was it, you ask? Helping to restock a Colorado native species, the Greenback Cutthroat trout, to its ancestral waters. This species was thought to be extinct in the 1930's. Colorado Department of Wildlife has been working on this project for a couple years now. Last year's attempt did not seem to have very many survivors over the winter, so they are trying to do it with slightly older fish (yearlings) in the hope they will be stronger and more able to survive the harsh winter of the Rockies.
Over 50 volunteers met at the Herman Gulch Trail head just off I-70. With the roar of the highway right behind us, we listened intently to the experts from Fish and Game and Colorado Parks & Wildlife tell us our mission. Each of us would be carrying about one gallon of water and 20 yearlings up the mountain.
There were 5 zones to release the yearlings. Of course, yours truly, chose zone 5 because it was the farthest. Our release zone would start at about 3.5 miles up the trail. Zone 5 would go first. We stand in line patiently watching the experts count fish into a bag, fill it with water, and then use compressed air to aerate the water. Once the bag was rubber-banded shut, we only had about 2 hours to get to our release point and get them in the water.
I had already met a new friend, Rachel. She was volunteering through Trout Unlimited. She and I got our fish together and headed up the trail. Rachel puts her ear buds in and we put our heads down and get ourselves into auto-pilot for the arduous climb up the first mile. The first mile is known for a steady climb that is seemingly endless. At about 1 mile in, Rachel and I start seeing zone markings. We had just entered zone one. As we climb steadily up the trail (because remember, we only have 2 hours to get up there), we laugh about how we're trying not to jostle and traumatize the baby fish in our packs. They, in return, are swimming frantically and pushing Rachel and I around.
„I reached down and cut the top of the bag. I face the bag up stream to allow the water to flow in."
Rachel and I keep climbing as the views start to open of Pettingell Peak (13,553') and Hagar Mountain (13,195'). Finally, we get to the beginning of zone 5. This is the point that we are to look for a game trail to follow the creek up and through our zone. Some folks were ahead of us so we know to find a place about halfway up our zone while they are locating the top of the zone. We need to cross the creek so we find a place and hop over some boulders. We find ourselves in some marsh, but continue to follow the game trail.
There's three of us in our group now as a young guy joined up with us as we got to our zone. We need to hurry, as we are at about 1.5 hours of having the fish in our packs. We find a spot for Rachel just below a water fall still covered in snow in the middle of July. The guy and I go downstream from there to find our spots. We both have to cross back over the creek. We are to be looking for eddies in the creek. This allows us to set the bag in the water for about 10-15 minutes to allow the temperature to regulate before we release. Furthermore, it gives the young fish a moment without too much of a current to fight to get used to their new surroundings.
It was a beautiful setting doing a beautiful thing. As I wait my 15 minutes, I take a moment to look around. I've been on this trail before and have gone all the way to Herman Lake. Today is a perfect day to be in the mountains. The sky is blue with some perfect clouds in it. The wildflowers are spectacular! Seems like this trail has an abundance of the Colorado State Flower, the Columbine.
I reached down and cut the top of the bag. The bag is faced up stream to allow the water to flow in. I wait for some of the fish to come out on their own, but I eventually need to tip the bag until they are all in the eddy I've picked for them. At this point, I feel little bit giddy at watching them take up residence in the stream. I'm smiling from ear to ear, lost in my own world when I look up and see a gentleman downstream taking pictures of what I'm doing. I figured he was with CPW, but it turns out, he's a reporter from the Denver Post. He asks me a couple of questions and a CPW worker comes up to check in.
We all look at the fish in the eddy. They are facing up stream just hanging out and some are already coming up to feed at the top of the water. All good signs. I leave the CPW worker and the reporter to talk and walk toward Rachel who is coming downstream to join us. She too has a huge grin on her face. We share our experiences and decide to not head up to the lake.
It's almost 2 pm and there are storms building. We hike down and share excited “woohoos” with fellow volunteers. I take my time coming down and take the pictures of wildflowers that I couldn't on the way up. This was a great day. I will definitely be doing it again. Check out your local Trout Unlimited, Defenders of Wildlife (which is how I heard about this), or simply your local wildlife office and ask about volunteering. There's always something to be done and there's no way for this kind of stuff to get done without volunteers.