In Search of - Path Finding Adventures

Amazing how many places and physical features in the West are named after John Fremont and Kit Carson. Cities, towns, streets, rivers, peaks, counties, schools, National Forests, even a ghost town, and probably other things I have missed!

Recently, Outside Magazine had an article that adventures in nature, considered 'outdoor therapy,' are as good for mental health as they are for our physical well-being. For me it was a 'duh' moment for I have always felt that way, hence my level of excitement and butterflies when I think of an adventure with a purpose.


John Fremont set out with 34 men and 120 pack mules in November of 1848 to look for a railroad route on the 38th parallel to connect St. Louis to San Francisco, thus linking the US from coast to coast. Big mistake. "Fremont's Fatal Fourth' is a book by local Del Norte author Stuart Bryan. I have yet to read his book but what I did do prior to my journey up Embargo Creek was to stop by the Del Norte museum and ask a few questions about how to find Fremont's winter camp where he and his men got 'stuck' camping well into January before being rescued. In the process they lost all of their mules and 10 of the men died from cold exposure, starvation and two were killed. At the museum there is a display of a skull of one of the mules, a few artifacts of clothing and a bit of what the men were forced to eat to survive. They consumed mule meat, began eating leather items (yes, leather actually has nutritional value in total desperation), rose hips (small red bulbous parts on wild rose bushes between the size of a blueberry and a grape - lots of vitamin C - they often are above the snowpack), and even cannibalized one of their own men who had died. Such was their desire to survive.

I also stopped by the US Forest Service office in Del Norte to pick up a map and get any additional information on Fremont's journey. No one from their office had actually been up there to provide accurate directions to the campsite so I made a decision. For my adventure in discovery, I decided I did not want too much information. Simply use one of the 'steps' of the scientific method, OBSERVATION. I know some things about Narrow gauge railroads, that the track is three feet wide instead of four, and therefore, can make tighter turns in mountainous terrain. I also know how deep the snow can get in the mountains, and how quickly it can happen. I have seen extended Indian Summers late into November, then, in December, the jet stream drops south and flows straight across Colorado. Winter storms persist, low pressure systems guiding them one after another to tumble turbulently along the jet stream. It makes us wonder if it will it ever stop snowing! Such was that winter, and Fremont was told by many an experienced mountain guide that winter in the San Juans was not worth the trek. Carson did not make that trip as Fremont's guide, and after reading accounts about the two men's personalities, Fremont, being a hard driving 'take all glory' kind of person and Carson, the only voice of reason whom had influenced Fremont's decisions in previous expeditions. In my mind, knowing those kind of personalities in people, Fremont needed Carson's level headedness for that expedition to not be a disaster.

Following the road up Embargo Creek is deceiving. The gentle valley is open and inviting and the distant high ridges do not look as if they would have any difficult terrain to negotiate to get up there, nor do any towering rugged peaks appear beyond those level ridges. I imagined being a railroad engineer thinking that I could do the cuts along the creek with dynamite and human power, then add switchbacks to the narrow gauge track up the mountain ridges, to the top, and beyond. But though the San Juans are easily tamed on the east side

along the 38th parallel, the mountains to the west, to this day still have very few highways and only a few 4 wheel drive jeep roads upon which to travel. I drove the well graded dirt roads about 13 miles off US 160 between Del Norte and Southfork back toward Cathedral campground where the terrain begins to tighten. Past the campground, the road becomes a four wheel affair. I parked in a clearing by the creek and began my excursion on foot. The first storm of the winter was hovering on the Continental Divide a few air miles to my west but I was protected from the wind on the trail that was now in a narrow deep canyon with steep hillsides. Shortly, I came to a fork in the road. Road 885 or Trail 792. I took the latter, as it was the one on the general map that should take me to Fremont's winter camp. Except for the lack of deep snow cover, I was seeing the valley exactly as the expedition had seen it. Beautiful, rocky, many tree roots and large stands of beetle kill pine on the hillsides, aspens along the creek. I came to an active beaver pond with several aspen trees that were 'works in progress.' Beavers, being the best dam builders in the world, are patient felling trees. They work for several days, their chosen trees fall over and they begin to work on other lengths of logs they need for their projects. They remain active under the ice all winter and also stash willow branches in their ponds' pantry for their food supplies. They eat the bark. The expedition would have seen the similar sights earlier in the fall of 1848 had they gotten here sooner.

'Tis a beautiful trail and soon, I wandered into the woods after I had traveled up the rugged terrain perhaps two miles and tried to guess where that size of group would have camped. This area would not have been easy trekking in deep snow! I stood in one flat semi clearing and pondered about what the men were thinking. They were bogged down in the snow and they ran out of food. Mules and men began dying. Carson, I believe, would have told Fremont to wave the white flag and wait until early the following summer when there would be food available, no deep snow or cold to battle, and morale would be better. I stood there in the early November cold, alone, the sky a deepening gray, the afternoon wearing on, observing and hypothesizing. I had the luxury of returning to my car and back to a warm home. The expedition did not. Someone must have finally said after weeks of enduring, that their best chance of rescue was to send someone to Taos as quickly as possible, get food and other essentials for survival and return. But, Taos is 130 miles down the Rio Grande! In January, now on foot, in snow, no food... How well any of us would have done to survive on that expedition, we cannot know! My conclusion to this adventure/experiment? Fremont, with his ego, was not always capable of smart decisions. Without Carson, he had no one to make 'his decision.' As I looked at the terrain further up the creek, there was no way that expedition was going anywhere! Not sure Fremont's thought process. Small tributaries of larger rivers, of which Embargo Creek is to the Rio Grande, rarely go anywhere toward a natural and inviting path to travel for a railroad, or even on horseback.

History buffs can stop by the Del Norte museum and US Forest service and go online to find directions to Cathedral Campground and Fremont's Camp. One map shows Fremont's camp up the FS Road 885. Apparently, the signs to the exact location somehow disappear.

The trails and roads in the Embargo Creek Drainage are well maintained and receive light traffic. If in need of a unique perspective about pathfinding in the West for adventure buffs - I highly recommend a journey up this mostly unknown historical trail of the past...

Further reading - Fremont's Fatal Fourth seems to be the book with the most detailed and well researched information. Wikipedia and other websites provide limited information but make for an interesting study in early American Explorers and there pathfinding successes and failures.

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