Wilderness explorers use geographical features like mountains, valleys, streams and lakes as landmarks for a reason: You can generally expect them to stay put where you left them.
However, last week when John Toepfer of Buena Vista came upon one of his longtime favorite sites for fishing and as a base camp for summiting some of the high mountains in southern Chaffee County, he found that Browns Lake was “no longer.”
“I popped over the hill and hiked over to my favorite campsite and looked at the lake and realized it was gone,” Toepfer said after returning home from the hike Friday afternoon. He said he called the U.S. Forest Service to inform them of his findings.
Toepfer noticed a large beaver dam with a gap of about 10 feet in it, and reasoned that the old dam was damaged by rains that brought flash-flooding to the high country last Sunday.
Photos Toepfer snapped on his phone show the lake, which feeds Browns Creek and sits below Mounts Antero, Tabeguache, Shavano and White, reduced to a small, shallow stream flowing through a gap in a beaver dam.
District Ranger Jim Pitts with the Forest Service’s Salida Ranger District said that the service would let nature take its course in regards to the lake’s future.
“Beavers come and go in systems,” Pitts said. Whether the dam is rebuilt and the lake can fill again “depends on whether or not the beavers are still in the system. It’s a natural response.”
Beavers are a keystone species, meaning they exert an influence on their environment that is disproportionate to their numbers.
That’s because beaver dams can cause streams to swell into wetlands.
However, Pitts said that abnormally wet conditions that the high country is experiencing this year make the migration of beavers to new homes more common.
“There’s some good examples in this area with the winter we had and the resulting runoff,” Pitts said, mentioning some abandoned dams along Poncha Creek that can be seen from U.S. Highway 285.
Even in the opposite conditions, like the drought-stricken year of 2018, can cause beavers to move out as streams dry up, he said.
“They’re a rodent that’s tied to water and willows and aspen trees,” Pitts said.
Toepfer said, “It’s such a well-loved hike for so many people in this valley, I just thought people ought to know.”
He was unsure if the event that emptied the lake had caused any damage downstream along Browns Creek.
Rain Sunday, July 14, worsened road conditions in the town of Alpine when a seasonal creek overflowed, The Mountain Mail reported. That creek itself is a remnant of a mudslide that occurred in 2007.
Chaffee County Road and Bridge superintendent Mark Stacy said that he didn’t know how much rain fell in the mountains Sunday, but that the rain event called road and bridge crews out to Alpine Monday with an excavator.
“It just flooded down one of the canyons and changed its course,” he said. “So we had to take an excavator and open it up.”
Toepfer said that the rain also flooded the Baldwin Creek trail to Mount Antero as well. Colorado Offroad Enterprises reported that its volunteers helped clear that trail July 13.