The open field is ablaze in color. Bright purple fireweed mixes with yellow arnica blooms amid deep, although somewhat spotty, green. The explosion of color is a surprise, given that last fall this area was ablaze in a different way: by flames. That’s when the Mullen Fire spread across 177,000 acres of forest in the Medicine Bow Mountains.
I’m immediately west of Lake Owen, in an area that was logged just before last year’s fire. Due to the logging operation, there was limited timber to burn, and only a few scrawny sticks of blackened trunks remain now. Due to the open canopy, plenty of sunshine jumpstarted the post-fire vegetation, and the result is a colorful carpet contrasting with the darkened soil.
Looking to the distant hills, the fire is more evident, with pine trees still holding brown needles; the dead trees lack even a hint of green.
Lake Owen has always been a popular fishing and camping area. The brook trout are still hungry and ready to strike. Unless increased sedimentation flows into the lake over time, the fire has had little impact on the fishery. While brook trout are the most common, anglers might also reel in cutthroat and rainbow trout.
The angling is little affected, but the landscape is changed. Sitting on the southern bank near the boat ramp, the view to the far side of the lake is a mosaic of scorched, burned and unaffected forest. There are still green trees, but the blackened or brown-needled trees are more numerous.
The east side of the lake remains green with lush grass and shrubs. In fact, portions of the pedestrian path around the lake are losing the battle with Mother Nature. Woody potentilla bushes with bright yellow flowers are well established where once the white pea-sized gravel prevailed.
The Lake Owen Campground is slated to open later this month or in early August. Dead beetle-killed pines were removed several years ago, leaving little cover or shade. Still, once open, it offers handy camping just a short hike from the water’s edge.
The north side of the lake shows some evidence of last year’s fire, but this area was also burned during the 450-acre Owen Fire in 2014. Ground cover is good in areas untouched by the Mullen Fire, with a variety of native plants, including Indian paintbrush, shooting starts and tall green gentian or monument plants. It’s a colorful delight.
The real impact from the Mullen Fire is on the west side of the lake. The fishing pier was unharmed by the fire, although it is in need of repair. Train buffs should be prepared when they see the caboose that sits on a short segment of rail along the Medicine Bow Rail Trail next to the day parking area. The fire had a heyday, gutting what had been a nearly fully intact historic interior. It had cushioned benches, a heater, and a charming cupola on top where a person could lounge and look out into the surrounding tree canopy. When the caboose was in operation, the conductor sat in this high seat to see what was going on all the way up the train.
Now the caboose is a charred shell, its future uncertain. Those trees once viewed from the cupola are mostly gone. Those remaining have blackened trunks and brown needles; they’ll eventually tumble down or get removed.
The nearby toilet is singed, but, because there was little there to burn, remains intact and functional. The fence that was out front now consists of a few burned posts poking up out of the gravel lot. The Rail Trail map kiosk and three information reader boards next to the caboose are still there, but their surfaces are just blackened blanks with no information to offer.
Pedaling along the Rail Trail is quite interesting. The section from Lake Owen to Lincoln Gulch Trailhead is now open, so I went a couple miles. It offers spans of overhead canopies as aspen trees lean over and intertwine, making a tunnel of green. Then, 100 yards down the trail, where the fire passed, blackened bare lodgepole pines stand like sentinels on both sides of the pathway. In areas that burned especially hot next to the ground, the vegetation is sparse, just starting to return.
In spite of the fire effects, Lake Owen is an interesting place and still beautiful — but in a different way. It is the location for the upcoming Med Bow Rail Marathon and Half Marathon put on by Friends of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail. That inaugural race will be Aug. 14. While open to all users that day, the Lake Owen area will be particularly busy, and all visitors are asked to give runners space — and maybe cheer them on in their quest to run either 26.2 or 13.1 miles.