Flat Tops Wilderness Adventure for Servicemen
Adams Lodge Outfitters is a family owned and operated establishment, servicing hunters and fishermen for excursions into the Flat Tops Wilderness region of Colorado. Owner Bruce Clatterbaugh met us at the International Sportmen’s Expo in Denver last year, and he knew immediately he wanted provide an outdoor adventure for veterans of combat through Freedom Alliance.
For that reason, we assembled a group of four service members to venture into the White River National Forest for a four-day camping trip. As promised, the staff of Adams Lodge Outfitters met us at the Himes Peak trailhead with mounts and pack horses for all the gear.
Our three Marines and one Soldier benefited from an easygoing, hour-and-a-half equestrian ride into the Flat Tops Wilderness, all the way to a campsite in a gorgeous mountain meadow.
Once there, three canvas tents were erected—two for sleeping and one for the kitchen, complete with a wood stove and propane burners. Drinking water was gotten from a pipe at the base of a spruce tree, which harvested a steady supply of mountain spring water.
Master Sergeant Shawn is a near 20-year Army veteran, with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, currently stationed at Fort Carson. This New York native served as our wilderness guide and helped coordinate details for the trip.
After set up, Shawn led the campers the half mile to a clear stream running through the valley that accommodates Big Fish Lake. With fly and casting rods, the men, eager to practice their technique, quickly caught their first and only brook trout of the day.
No matter—they knew they would be delving into the deep waters of the lake on the morrow.
For the time being, the fellows had excellent chow and gear, all waiting at their first-rate campsite, which is where they trekked to next. Shawn cooked ribeye steaks, with peppers, onions, and mushrooms, over a campfire, and all the guys shared bites of the freshly caught trout.
Over the next few days, Shawn didn’t disappoint the hungry campers with outstanding meals of elk-meat stew, omelets and bacon, and fillets of halibut, which were caught during a previous Freedom Alliance event.
Although it rained at night and the temperatures dipped into the low forties, everyone stayed dry and warm in the tents. The storms were fierce in the eastern mountains but short-lived, and the capricious weather always turned mild again, allowing for awe-inspiring night skies and sensational daytime views of the rugged Colorado landscape.
So the time that was not spent on the water was used for getting to know one another. Although these men hadn’t met before the trip, they all had deployments to Iraq in common, and it wasn’t long before they were the best of friends.
Chad was involved in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, but ended up spending four years in the hospital undergoing many surgeries and therapy after his back was broken in eight places during combat. Today he farms in Iowa with his wife and three children.
Having been out of the Marines for some years, Chad was especially grateful to spend time with other service members, being able to chat about some of the personal consequences of a military career and combat.
Dave, from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is also medically retired from the Marines. While serving in Iraq, a sniper shot Dave through the helmet, two inches above his left eye. Doctors performed surgery in country to remove the bullet and fragments of debris from his brain.
Dave’s humorous catchphrase throughout the trip was, “Not bad for a guy who had a lobotomy.”
Staff Sergeant Kevin was deployed twice to Iraq and returned “not quite right.” He ignored the warning signs with his health until finally he lost his sense of smell and his Marine Corps superiors noticed a change in his behavior. He was then diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
Kevin’s wife and six children held the fort back in Wisconsin so that he could make the journey to the peaceful splendor of the Flat Tops Wilderness. The natural beauty and simple living made a favorable experience for all the men, who were able to relax, recharge, and ultimately return to their homes with a renewed state of mind.
Big Fish Lake lived up to its name when Shawn, Dave, and Kevin landed monster-size brook trout of 14, 16, and even 18 inches! They returned to camp with three of these trophies, which made up dinner for that night, feeding the four vets and one Freedom Alliance team member.
Bruce of Adams Lodge Outfitters came to pick up the men and pack up camp on the fourth day. He was able to see personally what a difference this trip had made to these heroes of war.
“Our minds are like a attic,” Shawn said, “full of dark places, dark memories; and you’ve just turned on a light.”
This feeling was shared among all the service members. Dave told us, “The past few days did more for me than the past two years of counseling.”
Thanks to Bruce, Freedom Alliance was able to say thank you to these four men who put their safety and well-being on the line for us. Even if it wasn’t spoken out loud, the Colorado countryside seemed to say it all.