In amongst all of my own trips during my sabbatical, I was flipping through Outside Magazine (a really great periodical, BTW) and saw an ad for something called the “Fjällräven Classic“. As the page linked indicates, it was to be a 20 mile backpacking trip, spaced over 3 days (2 “half” days and a full day, and apparently ended up being more like 22 miles), chaperoned by the lovely folks at Fjällräven. I thought that sounded interesting, and almost flipped the page, when I realized that it was in Colorado, and during my sabbatical. Fate? I don’t believe in that, but it was a pretty neat coincidence which I wasn’t about to let slide.
After making sure it’d fit in with some other plans, and debating if I was really up to hiking that far in 3 days (I’d never actively hiked that far in a single trip), I took the plunge and signed up. A few weeks later and I was getting up well before the crack of dawn and heading (conveniently) to my nearest train station which was the Denver shuttle pick up point. There, I loaded up with about 50 other people (there were another 2 buses coming from other locations) and we embarked on the long bus ride up to State Forest State Park (the worst-named State Park, ever).
We were greeted with a registration area, mini Fjällräven shop, last minute supplies like stove fuel, and some delicious breakfast and bag-lunches from local chef, Kyle Mendenhall. During registration, we were kitted out very, very well. We got a trucker cap of our choice, a t-shirt, a custom scarf/Buff, a ski-cap/beanie, enough Mountain House food to more than cover the weekend, a small “passport” (included trip details, and was used at check-points to keep track of everyone), a custom trash bag (nice water-proof draw-string bag, to help us LNT) and a Grayl to cover our clean-water needs. So much stuff! This meant some adjustments to our packs to fit everything in, then we were ready to roll.
With 120+ hikers participating, the plan was to leave in separate waves. Since I’m an eager-beaver, I jumped in line to leave as part of the first group. We got a few words from Carl from the Fjällräven mothership, an official welcome from Fjällräven US folks, a shotgun salute, and then we were on our way!
Pretty quickly, the first group (me included) got off to a bit of a rough start. There was some confusion at the first checkpoint (which was also at the first/only real turn on the trek), and we went off in what turned out to be the wrong direction (going in reverse around the loop we were supposed to hike). With all the excitement of getting people started, it took a while for them to realize where we’d gone, and then to come and get everyone, so we’d actually hiked almost 3 miles by the time they caught up to us in a Polaris/ATV thing. Since I had ended up at the very front, I became the very last (along with Zach and Jack) to get picked up. By that time, we were getting rained on, and had of course sent our packs ahead… with our rain gear. We got hustled back to the first checkpoint to wait out some of the rain, and managed to score a beer or 2 and some snacks while we waited. The plan was to take us to roughly where we should have been if we’d hiked about the same distance, but in the right direction (rather than just dropping us back to the back, and having us try to “catch up”). Since they could only access the trail at certain points, that meant I got dropped off a little before Checkpoint 2, and then continued on from there. At that checkpoint we were served up some Swedish Fish and hot potato/cheese soup, which helped stave off the chill from hiking in alternating rain and hail (mountain weather is crazy).
Eventually, after what felt like “up” forever, we reached the lake which marked the end of day one’s hiking. There was some doubt and debate based on the trail markings, but it turned out we were in fact in the right place, so we set up camp (tent city!) in a beautiful alpine meadow, and explored Jewel Lake. It was quite an experience camping in such a remote place, with so many other people nearby, who were all on the same journey. I didn’t know if I was going to like it, but it turned out that it was really cool. We were treated to a pretty awesome sunset, some nifty mist, and then a really chilly, frosty night (someone later suggested it was as low as about 25 degrees). Since we were close to a running water source, we were easily able to use our newly acquired Grayl water bottles with inline filters to get fresh, clean water. I’m really bummed that mine somehow went missing in amongst the shuffle on the bus ride home, so now I don’t have it to use on future hikes.
After a chilly night’s sleep, it was up and off for another full day of hiking. This was another day that felt like mostly uphill. A big, long, slow climb up an alpine valley, towards a saddle that had some amazing views of Kelly Lake, which was technically our destination for that day. At a checkpoint along the way, we were greeted with more Swedish Fish, beef jerky and other snacks. At Kelly Lake we were greeted with a happy hour that included some bourbon, more Swedish Fish, snacks and general merriment.
Since we reached Kelly early, and since there really wasn’t that much room to camp there, a lot of us continued down the trail to spread out over the next 2 miles or so, into another valley of meadows and creeks and amazing views. By the time the sun was falling, someone had started a fire in an existing fire ring (ssshhhhh), and the evening was spent passing around flasks and gourmet chocolate, listening to a very acoustic set from 2 of the talented guys from Kind Hearted Stranger, who were to be playing at the closing party tomorrow.
This night was also frosty, although not as cold as the previous one (about 1,000ft lower elevation definitely helps). In the morning I was up and joining the line of folks heading out towards the end of our journey. This last day was (thankfully!) pretty much all downhill, and we made pretty quick work of it. There was another checkpoint, this time with trail-side pancakes (!!), lingonberry and elderberry juice and more snacks. From there we were into an area of the park that had been devastated by mountain pine beetle, and so a lot of it had been cleared to try to prevent spread, and reduce fire risk. It was a bit of a bummer to end our otherwise-gorgeous trek with a lot of time spent amongst that, but we did get to pass through an Aspen grove, and at that point there was a lot of good conversation happening anyway, so I can’t really complain.
Back at base camp we were awarded a small medal for finishing, received a neat commemorative clothing-patch, and were treated to more music by the full lineup of Kind Hearted Strangers. There was also a much-needed and anticipated, massive spread from chef Mendenhall. Campfire-cooked trout, delicious steak, vegetables, and peach cobbler for dessert. Fantastic.
After a few hours of amazing food, amazing music, and reminiscing with a group of amazing people, it was time to load back onto our bus and head back to reality. I had a really great time, and will definitely make a space in my calendar next year for this event again. It is such a unique and fun way of experiencing the outdoors, even if doing it with so many other folks isn’t normally my thing as far as wilderness experiences go. A huge thank you to the folks at Fjällräven for organizing, Human Movement for event coordination, Kyle Mendenhall (and crew), plus Mountain House for the meals, and Grayl for the excellent water bottle. Looking forward to next time.