My Trip to Heron Lake
It has been a strange summer so far. Even the way it began—May 13 we stopped at Agua Fria Nursery and chose 9 tomato plants for our garden. Then my husband and I came home and planted them in pots since the Eldorado ground is way too dry. And we were proud of them and cared for them for five days–till on May 18, it snowed! I tried to cover the heavier tomato pots with blankets and pull the smaller pots under our portal, but the young plants were never the same after that.
Then June was not as hot as it usually is—much more rain! But I like the 90 degree days because they’re perfect if you want to go swim in (preferably) Abiquiu Lake. I swam a few times there anyway, but the lake had receded another 40 feet (added to the 40 feet it had shrunk since last year) and because of that, there were huge rocks and long sharp branches in the water which made it harder to go in. The ranger told me that water had been taken out of Abiquiu Lake and given to El Vado Lake. I tried to understand, but Abiquiu Lake was a lot less beautiful this year.
So I swam more in Cochiti Lake which has never been my first choice. The water is generally less clean there, but it was fun to take my niece, nephew and sister in law to swim one early evening. The water looked OK at dusk and we shared my two shortie wetsuits and took turns plunging into the cold water in June, though it was a bit rocky. By July the water at Cochiti had warmed up some, but we were out of town for two weeks in late July and early August. And then when we returned, it was all over the news: “Abiquiu Lake closed due to toxic algae.” A few days later, the same news emerged about Cochiti Lake: “CLOSED DUE TO TOXIC ALGAE.”
I knew it was not rational, but I was heartbroken. Especially because in August, we had finally achieved the 90+ degree weather! Perfect temperature to swim! And by August, the lakes are warmer which makes it a lot easier to dive in. But it turns out that exactly those warm temperatures and the warm water creates toxic algae! Especially if the water is shallow which is now true of many portions of Abiquiu Lake. And Cochiti is naturally warmer since it’s south of Santa Fe. But this poisonous algae has never happened before in these two lakes–and I have lived here for almost 28 years.
So what is a swimmer to do? Now the semester had begun, and how would I break free of obligations and jump in the nearest body of water? I’d also just found out that my first cousin (in his 50’s) had passed away suddenly in Buffalo and I felt pretty down about that–PJ was a really cool outdoorsman and carpenter with five kids and a wife. Then I decided I would not let the temperatures, the toxic algae, or my sadness about my cousin stop me. I could drive to Heron Lake!
Sure it was at least 4 hours round trip (much longer than a round trip to Abiquiu or Cochiti). But I was desperate to get in the water! I called Heron Lake Visitors’ Center first so I wouldn’t make that long trip in vain, and the ranger told me Heron Lake was fine–no algae blooms! She said they had been draining water out of Heron Lake recently though….and I thought, Jeez, I better go today cause Heron Lake might end up closed soon too!
So a couple Saturdays ago, I grabbed a few books on CD, gathered the rest of my supplies and wetsuit and hit the road. I invited my husband Mark, but he had a cold and wanted to rest. I was off on my adventure! And I vowed to enjoy it not just for myself, but for PJ.
There was not too much traffic on Rt. 285 or 84 either, and I grimaced as I drove by the sickly Abiquiu Lake. But then those red rocks! And Ghost Ranch! And the rocks shaped like cathedrals, and the cows and horses and rolling meadows on my way to Chama. And soon I hit Los Ojos, Highway 95, and then only 10 more miles to Heron Lake. I had not been there in 2-3 years, and I am always so happy to see the blue lake about 5 miles out.
As soon as I saw the lake peeking through the trees, I thought of Rushford Lake where I’d learned to water ski with my cousins—including my younger cousin PJ, one of my aunt’s 11 children. His older brothers and sisters used to water ski on one foot and carry a younger sibling on their shoulders. PJ was one of the little ones and he’d scream with laughter as they flew through the water. He would have loved Heron Lake.
Now I was almost there, but I needed to find a good place to jump in. Memories of Heron Lake rushed through my mind and made me smile: my husband and I had our first date there! I was trying to coax him into swimming with me, and he wanted me to like him, but he could only manage to go in up to his thighs. I, of course, swam in my pink bathing suit and it was in September of 1999, so the water was a brisk 60 degrees! But I had to show off a little and pretend I was not shuddering from the cold. It must have been a good date though–after 20 years, we are still together!
In earlier years, I skinny-dipped with my friend Judy in Heron Lake, and I also was swimming when the Los Alamos fire happened and I saw the huge mushroom cloud of smoke in the sky. I thought of all these times as I drove up to the water, or as close as I could get to it. First I had to hike for about 15 minutes over some semi-flattened rocks to reach the actual lake. It now is much smaller than it used to be. But then I was finally at the shore, and I pulled on my wetsuit and climbed in. And the water is still icy! Maybe about 65 degrees now, but that frigid mountain water is what saved Heron Lake so far from the horrible algae that kills dogs and makes humans very sick.
Heron Lake is healthy! I was so thrilled about that, I barely noticed how chilly it was. It felt glorious to swim under that sunny sky in the blue water that was so still except for the fish jumping! And me, doing the backstroke! I went in a couple times but then was shivering too much. By then, the sun was beginning to go down, so I took a few shots of the lake and the sky and then had to get into some warm clothes.
I wanted to hike a little before the light was completely gone, so I zoomed over to the Rio Chama trail and overlook. There used to be 120 stone steps leading down to the river, but now there is a sign saying the steps are no longer safe. They were first built by the Civilian Conservation Corps so they have been there for decades. But there still is a trail going down to the river, so I hopped on it and watched the ospreys sailing through the sky above me. I walked fast, all the way down to the rushing river and I felt so glad that I had come. I remembered once hiking on the other side of the river and almost getting bitten by a rattler. I watched my steps and sang a few songs–I couldn’t remember if that discourages snakes from bothering you, or bears. I hoped I was discouraging both. The trail was easy and not too rocky. But daylight was almost gone. So as soon as I reached the river, I took a few pics and then raced back up the trail and back to my car.
I hoped I’d see a few mule deer on the way out, but they tend to come out right at dusk, and now it was just about dark. They are friendly though cautious. But if you drive up to the Los Brazos turnoff and take that road, the mule deer there will let you feed them out of your hand. I had to get home though, so I nibbled on the chicken breast I had brought with me and then ate a few raspberries as I navigated the way back to Eldorado.
After four hours of driving, swimming, and hiking, I was tired when I arrived home. But I also felt energized that climate change has not killed off all the lakes in New Mexico, and Trump has not destroyed the trees like he plans to do in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. It is easy to get discouraged about the news these days, but that makes it even more important to go to beautiful places and enjoy them—for ourselves, and for those who are no longer with us.
Before I slept that night, I went to my computer and made sure I donated money to plant a tree for PJ, my late cousin who had loved the outdoors so much. In that way, he will live on.