We’ve all had those times when something Colorado-ish just clicks — a moonrise over the aspen, a rainbow framing a deer, a trout rise in the early morning mist. My mile-high moment came last weekend, when even the good lord above would’ve had a hard time scripting a more scenic scenario from our 38th state.
It came while floating the Carpenter Ranch stretch of the Yampa near Hayden. I knew as soon as we put on in our collective craft — a motley hodgepodge of canoes, sit-on-tops, inflatable kayaks, tubes and stand-up paddleboards, carrying 16 people, from toddlers to grandparents — that we were in for a treat.
Temperatures were topping 90 degrees in town, the river was cool and clear, and the level and difficulty were well within range of my 80-year-old mom propelling herself in a solo inflatable. (Excluding when she asked, “Which way are we going?” as soon as we put in. Answer: downstream.)
Rounding a bend on my paddleboard, we spied a nice, sandy beach for lunch and bee-lined for it. As I paddled into the eddy, I happened to glance down from my higher-than-normal-paddlecraft perch and eyed what at first looked like a bunch of sticks protruding up from the sandy bottom, about 3 feet below the surface.
As the current whisked me by, it became as clear as the water that it was a full elk antler rack, prongs facing skyward toward the heavens and catching errant rays of sunlight filtering through the golden water. But then I was past it and they were gone.
“Holy Toledo!” I mustered, quickly sizing up a bush on shore as a reference point from which to line up a search. As soon as we beached our craft, we grabbed our snorkel masks (yes, we brought those, too) and fanned out to find the sunken prize.
Combing the area in question, forming an avalanche transceiver-type grid pattern in the waist- to shoulder-deep water, we came up empty until we heard a piercing cry from 11-year-old Emily.
“I found them!” she shouted, diving under with her mask.
Pulling it up out of the water, we hoisted a full five-by-five rack complete with half a skull, meaning it wasn’t a shed, out of its resting place in the water. Drips plopped off each point into the river in cadence with their size.
We then carried it to shore, where we posed with it and eventually mounted it to the front of our canoe as a figurehead for the rest of the trip. It was in the middle of all of this that we turned to see Chuck paddle up on his paddleboard, showcasing another icon of Colorado: a 20-inch rainbow trout on the end of his fishing line. Through the antler's framework on the prow of our canoe, I saw him play it and land it, his rod arcing with the grace of a gymnast’s backbend.
Colorado’s calling card wasn’t through. Just then, we turned our heads skyward to see a bald eagle swoop by, paralleling the river with a small bird in its talons and the prey’s mother giving chase. For us, it was a hat-trick even Thoreau or Muir would have a hard time topping.
It all happened at about the same time — antlers, trout and eagle — rendering us with Centennial State Sensory Overload Syndrome (CSSOS), an affliction we were more than willing to endure as we cracked a Coors on shore.
Of course, as a Broncos’ orange and blue sunset covered the sky on the float out, the antlers casting a lattice of shadows along the canoe, we also bore witness to one of Colorado’s other seasonal wonders that too often comes with the territory: mosquitoes.
Nothing in life, it seems, is free.
Eugene Buchanan is the magazines editor for the Steamboat Pilot & Today.