Last summer the Bull Draw Fire swept across 36,000 acres of the Uncompahgre Plateau. For over two months, despite the best efforts of firefighters, the fire ravaged some of the most rugged and wildest real estate in western Colorado. The rains of early October finally extinguished the fiery monster.
Earlier this summer I joined Paul Koski, Jim Maggio and John Stewart on a mountain bike ride along the Atkinson Bench Trail that winds its way through some of the forest that was affected by the fire. The landscape is a mix of steep slopes and narrow benches that make up the escarpment of the Uncompahgre Plateau.
The vegetation is a rich mosaic of conifer trees, aspen groves, Gambel oak thickets and shrubby benches. The Atkinson Bench Trail isn’t much more than a narrow path, repeatedly used by ranchers and their cows. Volunteers from the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA) intermittently clear deadfall from the trail, but not much other trail work is done.
To access the trail, we rode down a steep two-track that leaves the Divide Road. We soon intersected the singletrack and rode off into a shady aspen grove. The trailside vegetation was over chest high, the result of last winter’s snowfall.
Ironically, the trail itself was dry and dusty – no significant rain in two months. A stark reminder of how fast the landscape can dry out. Once all that vegetation dries out it will be fodder for the next lightning strike or unattended campfire.
We soon rode by charred tree trunks. Many of the standing aspen trees were dead. Once those dead trees fall some will block the trail. Fortunately, COPMOBA volunteers had cut out plugs from this year’s deadfall.
Our group progressed steadily along the trail. We had to dismount on several occasions where rocks and thick brush made riding difficult. In several places I noticed fresh elk and bear scat. I have seen both on past rides. Paul lead most of the time and would frequently whoop and holler to make our presence known.
Several miles in, we stopped for a break. From that vantage point we could see the burnt remains of a steep canyon slope that had once been graced with tall spruce trees. A little further down the trail we encountered the blackened trunks of Gambel oak poking up through a green carpet of grasses and wildflowers – what a contrast.
Come to find out that after the fire the federal land agencies had dropped 80,000 pounds of native seed on the land affected by the fire. Moistened by the fall rains and covered by winter snows, the seed had sprouted, grown and stabilized fragile soils.
What I found the most surprising was the sheer randomness of the fire’s impact. Some areas burned so hot that nothing grows. Other areas were untouched. At one point we lost the trail because a large area had burned, destroying any hint of a trail. Several times we noticed that small, isolated areas had caught fire, the result of a hot ember that had been carried by the wind.
We finished our ride with a steep climb off the bench and a short spin on the Divide Road. The Atkinson Bench Trail is a gem in the rough like many Uncompahgre Plateau trails. But without some trail love it may not survive the ravages of fire and neglect.
Bill Harris has traveled the back country of the Colorado Plateau since 1976 and is author of “Bicycling the Uncompahgre Plateau.”