Day Three: Water, Water Everywhere
- August 21: Campsite above Bulldog Gulch to Dalton Lake
- Miles: 20
- Elevation gain: 3,000 feet
Counting the nap, I must have slept well over 12 hours by the time I woke around 5:30 a.m. But in my efforts to revive, I had drunk more water than I should have, and now faced an 18-mile walk to Dalton Lake on less than two liters.
It was 6:15 when I reached Bulldog Gulch, where, to my great surprise, there was a small pool of clear water just to the right of the trail. I laughed out loud, cameled up, and took on three liters.
As it turned out, there was no need to carry that much water. As soon as I started up the other side of the gulch, I heard a lovely trickling off to my left. Then my right. Then my left. Bulldog Gulch ran freely with cold, clear water, which bubbled intermittently to the surface for the next mile or more.
Guess the shuttle guy was right, I wrote later in my journal. I don’t think I’m going to have water problems after all.
The climb out of the gulch included some 1,000 feet of elevation over three miles, a gentle-enough grade, then the CT trundled down some 500 feet through ponderosa pine-oak-birch forest. Although Whetham and Huhtiniemi’s Centennial Trail Facebook page indicated that Elk Creek, “Can be raging, high water or dry,” I found it running beautifully with clean, clear water. After dutifully removing shoes and socks for the first three crossings, I finally gave up and started stomping through knee- to thigh-high water. The creek bottom was pleasantly cool and I was pleased to see a leopard frog and a very fast snake of unknown species.
I switched to sandals before starting the next climb, which switchbacked gently and offered expansive views of the high, rocky cliffs looming over the creek; seen from below, they hadn’t looked so imposing.
The 12 miles from Elk Creek to Dalton Lake included another 1,500 feet of fairly easy climbing. The landscape was pleasantly varied, including glowing birch forest, a cluster of rock outcroppings rising as high as 50 feet and a brief view of Black Elk (formerly Harney) Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.
The 800-foot descent to the lake followed a series of switchbacks, the final one of which offered enticing views of the water before continuing a good half mile west. By the time I got to the small, blue lake, I was hot and eager to swim. There were perhaps a dozen people scattered around the shore, all fishing. I dropped my pack on a dock and hung my shirt to dry.
“Do you mind if I take a quick dip right here?” I asked the cluster of people on the dock. “I don’t want to scare away the fish.”
“Ain’t no fish to scare away today,” one older man said. “Go for it.”
“You’re going to swim?” another woman said, her expression one of genuine horror.
I slashed into the inviting blue and came up spluttering; the water was considerably colder than I’d expected. I splashed quickly back to shore and reclined on the dock to dry out.
I’d come close to 20 miles and it was only 2:30 p.m. The weather looked good, but 15 of the next 16 miles of the CT were open to off-road vehicles (ATVs, dirt bikes, and four-passenger “side by sides,” aka UTVs). Staying at the U.S. Forest Service campground at the lake cost $18, which seemed like a lot, but I decided to stay.
“I let hikers stay in the picnic shelter over there for $9,” the camp host said when I approached to pay. “There are some pieces of carpet to sleep on.”
The shelter was open-sided, but if a storm did blow in, I could just shift around to the leeward side. It was perfect. By not continuing on, I would lose the four “bonus miles” I’d banked, but the price was right.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
I cooked one of the Mountain House meals I’d brought and immediately got a stomachache. Fortunately, the camp host was willing to sell me a bottle of Coke, which helped. I read Robert A. Heinlein’s “Tunnel in the Sky” until the sound of chuckling creek water sang me to sleep.