In the world of landscape photography, sometimes the best laid plans just don’t work out. Such was the case concerning Lost Lake, a remote alpine lake in the northern section of Rocky Mountain National Park. To reach the lake is a ten-mile hike from any direction. The most common approach is to follow a pleasant trail along the North Fork of the Big Thompson River that passes through forest and meadow while steadily gaining elevation. Due to the distance involved, my pack was heavier than usual. I wanted to be very adaptable and prepared for just about any eventuality that nature might want to throw my way. Weather was definitely one of those eventualities that I considered, but I never anticipated getting pinned down in my tent for three days by relentless, torrential rain storms. Consequently, a trip that held so much promise of photographic reward became a test of dogged determination to stay dry and protect my cameras. Photographically, Lost Lake was a bust.
History of the Lost Lake Area
Lawrence Gonzales, in his book, Deep Survival: Who Lives and Who Dies and Why, advises that one should pay attention to the names of places because they provide clues about a given area. Thus places like Thunder Mountain, Storm Pass, and Static Peak all suggest that lightning might be an issue. Lost Lake is no different. In fact, it is uncanny how much both the word itself and the actuality of the word, ‘lost’, describes the character of this area of the Park. The actual history is a bit murky, but you’ll get the idea.
Nestled in the eastern shadow of Hague’s Peak, Lost Lake may have acquired its name by a wayward trapper traveling east across the Rockies calling out the names as he trekked: First came Lost Lake, followed by Lost Meadow, on to Lost Falls, and finally, with resignation, to Happily Lost, our campsite for this particular trip. This is pure conjecture on my part and seemed like a colorful bit of fiction to explain so many ‘lost’ place names. However, truth may indeed be stranger than fiction.
In 1872, the British Fourth Earl of Dunraven, guided by none other than the legendary William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, settled into an area along the North Fork that became known as Dunraven;s Glade that now serves as the trailhead to Lost Lake. The Earl had grand plans of raising cattle, built a hunting and guest lodge, entertained the upper crust of the day, and provided “wagon loads” of whiskey for his guests. Apparently, one of those wagon loads was squirreled away in a cave near the river and a large stone rolled over the entrance. Few dispute the story of buried whiskey but how it became ‘lost’ is another matter. Some say the hired help, mostly vagabonds and drifters hired from saloons in Denver, got drunk and forgot where they buried the whiskey. Other accounts say that the servants simply consumed the aqua vitae over the course of a cold winter. Either way, the case of the lost whiskey remains unsolved and the legend endures to this day. By 1880, the Earl’s enthusiasm for his retreat soured due to opposition to his plans of owning all of nearby Estes Park exclusively for his private recreation. The always dapper and sparkling Earl sold off his land holdings and left his mountain retreat having never found his wagon load of misplaced whiskey.
Like the Lost Dutchman Mine located in the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, people still occasionally search for the missing hooch. There is one account of a treasure hunter looking for the Earl’s whiskey that sought a permit to begin his search. He proposed using a “divining rod” made of “ten nail kegs set twenty feet apart, with a gallon of pure grain alcohol under one of the kegs.” He never found the good stuff but reportedly located “oil, water, and minerals” in the ground.
Another odd incident concerning Dunraven Glade is found in an 1879 letter by an unknown author written to an Irish adventurer and acquaintance of the Earl identified as Second Baron Castletown:
”Dearest old darling — I am going to start a twaddle to you en attendant the mail which comes up tonight and I hope will bring news of you as I am so longing to hear what you are doing and where you have gone to an everything. Do pray take care not to get lost! We have heard today that one of the party of Scotch men, who went over into North Park from here, has been lost for four days. (At least it was four days when the messenger started on the 30th.) I hope he has been found by now; he was the only young and good looking one of the lot poor fellow. It was up near Laramie River, where Indians have been this year and they may have jumped the poor wretch perhaps — it seems he and another man and Rowe were hunting together and agreed to beat a bit of country walking abreast you know with a good distance between and this W. Dunbar in the middle; but at the end of the day when the other two met, he was nowhere. It must be too dreadful to get lost!”
As a photographic journey, you could say that it was a ‘lost’ opportunity on account of the interminable rain. The day had started off in fine weather, bright and clear. We reached our backcountry site at Happily Lost by early afternoon and had no sooner pitched the tents than the first downpour arrived. We were using a new tent, the Terra Nova Hoolie 3, on this trip and I am pleased to report that it held up well in the worst of conditions allowing us to remain warm and dry.
The problem was getting caught outside the tent. The monsoon-like deluges that repeatedly assaulted us came on so fast that in the few minutes required to dive for the refuge of the tent, we got soaked. In between storms the humidity increased to such a degree that condensation formed on my lenses. My Zero Image pinhole camera, being wood, was constantly in danger.
So, this trip didn’t work out as far as fine photography goes. Rather than lament what was lost, I prefer to dwell on the things that I found on this trip like good company, wine boxes, a hot meal, a warm fire just when we needed it, and the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. And, unlike the Fourth Earl of Dunraven, we found the flask of Stranahan’s Whiskey! Cheers to the Earl! No sign of the wayward “Scotch’ man though…