Cache la Poudre Byway

Joshua Hardin

The road west from Fort Collins to Walden goes from zero to 600 moose in 101 miles. Fort Collins has 170,000 people and zero moose (normally); Walden has nearly 600 people in town and about an equal number of moose living just beyond in the wide valley known as North Park.

The two places aren’t just at opposite ends of the urban-rural spectrum – they’re at opposite ends of the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic & Historic Byway.

Between them lies a wild, rugged land of evergreens, improbably shaped mountains and the untamed Cache la Poudre River, which people here know well enough to simply call it by its nickname – the Poudre.

The yellow raft rounds the bend in Poudre Canyon, giving the crew of six novice paddlers their first glimpse of the ordeal ahead. Whitewater river guide Brad Modesitt makes sure they are appropriately terrified but not overwhelmed. 

“If you’re not scared now, you’re not paying attention,” Modesitt shouts over the Poudre’s din. “If you get scared, paddle harder.”

They have arrived at the Class IV rapid known as Pineview Falls. With the paddlers as his motor, Modesitt veers left to clear the V Wave, right to dodge the Ledgehole, then left again to evade fang-shaped Tooth Rock. By the time they hit the final, Disneyland-style chute, just 20 seconds have elapsed, though the adrenaline in everyone’s veins makes it seem far longer.

At the end of the trip, Modesitt smiles as big as anyone, even though, as owner of Fort Collins-based Mountain Whitewater, he is technically at work. He has paddled the equivalent of the Earth’s circumference in river miles, yet there is still no place he’d rather be than on the Poudre. It’s the river that changed his life – and perhaps saved it. 

Twenty-five years ago, Modesitt was a Colorado State University wildlife biology major who didn’t know if he’d live to see graduation after a sudden illness caused his weight to plummet 50 pounds. “Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” he said. “It was horrific.”

Deciding to live while he could, Modesitt and his brother, Kent, got in a canoe and paddled all the way down the Poudre until it joined the South Platte River. They kept going until the South Platte met up with the North Platte, then to the Missouri, the Mississippi and all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. 

His brother returned to Colorado to start law school; Modesitt kept the adventure rolling, bicycling the length of South America until the road ran out just shy of Tierra del Fuego. His never-diagnosed mystery illness seemingly cured, he returned to the Poudre for good.

The Poudre flows free and undammed thanks to its status as Colorado’s only river protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It rushes down Poudre Canyon, with Colorado Highway 14 running parallel. Traveling upriver, motorists pass numerous camping and hiking spots on the way to the Mishawaka, a century-old log structure with a bar and restaurant inside and the Northern Front Range’s smaller, rustic answer to Red Rocks outside: the beloved Mishawaka Amphitheatre. 

With steep mountains rising on two sides and the Poudre’s whitewater rippling right behind the stage, “the Mish” is a favorite concert venue of Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and, returning to headline this summer, Bruce Hornsby and Ziggy Marley. Rafters and kayakers park their boats at the Mish’s riverside deck to order food. “It’s not quite drive-thru rafting, but we’ll do our best,” said Louie Leber, the Mish’s food and beverage manager. 

Six years ago, this deck was a base of operations for firefighters battling the High Park Fire. The blaze had been raging for two weeks when, on June 24, 2012, it came within a river’s width of the Mish. The historically destructive wildfire went on to burn for another week, claiming 87,000 acres, 259 homes and one human life. 


For the rest of the story see the July/August 2018 issue of Colorado Life.

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