Pagosa’s Past: Trailin’ the Piedra River East Fork

Photo courtesy John Motter
Henry Gordon was an old-time cowboy who homesteaded on Gordon Creek in O’Neal Park. He was a bachelor who lived to an old age, raising beef on his ranch.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

Have you ever had a strong yearning that wouldn’t go away? A few years ago, I had a good job at Disneyland and a nice house in a nice neighborhood in southern California. I was living the epitome of the American Dream. But, I had grown up in rural southern Oregon picking wild blackberries and exploring wilderness trails. The yearning to move back to the country wouldn’t go away; you could say the yearnin’ kept’a yankin’.

I had the start of a young family with its attendant responsibilities. I knew jobs in the country were scarce and low paying. Flash! My solution was to enroll in and complete correspondence courses in wildlife management and parks management. 

Shortly after I completed the courses, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Management Department announced their intent to hire managers for about a dozen state parks. Along with several hundred other applicants, mostly with college degrees, I underwent oral and written testing for the positions. I finished eighth and chose to go to newly opened Navajo Lake State Park. You didn’t ask, but that’s how I got here.

As I settled into my new job at Arboles, I couldn’t help yearning, staring eastward at the long range of mountains making up the Continental Divide. One of the part-time employees told me how to find the trail following the East Fork of the Piedra into those mountains. My first adventures into the mountains were into that East Fork canyon. It was a tough hike starting with a steep climb. I carried a 40-pound pack. Once the trail leveled off beside a spectacular waterfall, there was a tin cup, hanging from a tree beside Tin Cup Creek. The sparkling creek supplied a better drink than any bar anywhere.

Fishing was great because not many folks were willing to burn the sweat necessary to get up there and so the stream was not fished out. No fish tastes better than a cutthroat trout cooked over a campfire. Drifting an American Beauty or mosquito fly tied on a number 22 barbed hook worked every time. Many a night, I poked a willow stick into a biscuit, balanced a frying pan on a rock at the edge of the campfire, feasted and then climbed into my sleeping bag.

An owl hooted and coyotes barked as I dozed off, stretched out on my back watching for shooting stars in the night sky. I woke at first light, fried eggs and bacon, washed the dishes, put out the fire and did some exploring. Rumor had it that a cache of gold had been hidden in that canyon. I never found it, but enjoyed looking at the wildflowers, rocks, etc. I did find a flint arrowhead which someone told me was the kind used by Pueblo Indians to hunt birds.

As time went by, I ascended, fished in and slept beside all of the rivers in this area. I fished the lakes as well, but without much success. Even today, when this old man daydreams, fishing up the Piedra East Forks tops the list.

This story was posted on July 13, 2020.