Words by Heidi Lauterbach
Photos by Ryan Bonneau
Paddle boarding across a Caribbean-blue, glacial lake next to my best friend on a Monday in the middle of a hectic summer is my kind of date-day. We live with a work hard, play hard approach to life. In the summer, it’s not unusual for Matt to work 60-hour weeks and I find myself staring at a computer screen far past normal dinner hours a few nights each week. But it’s worth it, especially on days like these when we have an entire alpine lake all to ourselves.
Though not always easy, life in Telluride is good. For those that haven’t been and don’t know, Telluride is a small town in Southwest Colorado. It originated as a mining hub in 1878, boomed, busted and ultimately shaped into the ski town / destination resort it is today. It’s not unusual for locals our age to have multiple jobs or own a business (ourselves included) to make things work. We hustle hard all week so that we can fully immerse ourselves in the San Juan Mountains during those special days off.
Our Lake of Choice
The high alpine lake we decided on is insanely blue, the color spectrum likely mimics waters found near tropical islands in the Indian Ocean. And when the sun pops, wow. For a Colorado lake located at 12,693-feet with snow leftover from winter, it’s a confusing yet beautiful thing. Why there and why stand up paddle boards? Ironically, Matt and I had never been to this specific lake (a rarity with 11 years under my belt in and 18 under Matt’s) and we needed a day outside of Telluride’s immediate, and widely used trail system. As for the paddle boards, no better way to enjoy a lake than being ON the lake.
The typical route strenuously zigzags 16 switchbacks, gains a false saddle, traverses a beautiful basin and ultimately leads you to the water’s edge. I had a different plan for the day – switchbacks on foot aren’t really my thing. Plus, I really needed to scout a route I had committed nine fellow mountain bikers to later in the summer, a traverse of sorts from just below the summit of Ophir Pass that links into the standard route just below the false saddle.
Matt and I blocked off our respective calendars’ weeks in advance (probably the most difficult part of the trip), acquired the lightest SOL paddle boards we could find from friends, put the collar on our dog, jumped in the truck and headed for the alpine.
Forcing a paddle board into a 70-liter backpacking pack is no easy feat and one I later realized should be meticulously thought out. A fin gouging your shoulder blade is not a comfortable way to hike. Luckily the wildflowers were out in full force, a reminder there’s no place you’d rather be. After a few stops to glance at a GPS tracker, grab a sip of water and eat a quick snack we crested the basin to the lake. Without wasting much time, we pumped our boards, threw off our shoes and got on the water.
Living in the mountains, it’s not unusual to head out on a hike to enjoy an alpine lake. It’s a whole other thing to haul paddle boards up 2,000 feet across 8.5 miles to be able to fully embrace lake life. Exploring the snow-bergs, making up reasons why the water is so blue and racing to far nooks of the lake with Matt and our dog Annie Oakley is something I won’t soon forget. For a few hours that day, work stress evaporated into the high alpine air and we were able to enjoy each other's company in our happy place.
I can’t tell you how lucky we really were that day. Telluride and the San Juan Mountains have become increasingly busy, especially in the summer. A mountain range as picture-perfect as ours was always bound to be discovered. Throw in a douse of social media, a pinch of the World Wide Web and a dash of modern-day enthusiasm for the perfect photo and you get popularized hiking trails and alpine lakes. I can’t blame people for it, I’m out there too! But for just over an hour on that perfect Monday, we had the entire lake and basin to ourselves (thinking outside the box really is worth it). Big grins on our faces, we enjoyed every minute of our planned success. As time progressed and other mountain enthusiasts reached the lake, we decided it was time to pack up and head for home.
Reminiscing on our paddle board adventure a few weeks later, I’m filled with gratitude for the place I live. We work our assess off to live here, juggle multiple jobs, and sure, others are attracted to it as well. But I’d be hard pressed to live anywhere else. The ability to head out your front door to the most magical places on earth is an advantage of the mountain lifestyle we choose. For now, I’m happy to embrace the chaos of life in exchange for solitude in the mountains, and picture-perfect mountain lakes. Floating at 12,000 feet is always worth the hike.