Savouring the Colorado Rockies – by sailboat

Rachel Walker

THE WASHINGTON POST – When I arrived at the Frisco Marina on a bright June morning, my two sons stuffed with pancakes and eager for our upcoming sailing lesson, I was temporarily unnerved.

The water on Lake Dillon, a high alpine reservoir (elevation 9,071 feet) in Frisco, Colorado, was quite still. The surrounding peaks, many covered in snow, reflected on the lake’s surface – beautiful, but not promising for a day of wind-powered recreation.

Nevertheless, we headed out to the dock and met Thom Emrick, boat captain, instructor, owner of Windrider of the Rockies and a lifelong sailor.

“About the wind,” I ventured as he loaded us aboard and introduced himself to Henry, nine, and Silas, seven.

“These mountains make their own weather,” he said. “We’ll have wind. It can sometimes be unpredictable, but we’ll have it.”

Thus, the lesson began. Aboard a 22-foot Santana heavy weather boat – “ideal for the strong winds we do get up here!” – Thom gave us a tour and explained “points of sail”, or how the boat interacts with the wind. Sailing requires knowing how to orient the boat relative to the wind; it is virtually impossible to sail directly into it.

Thom explained the different points in a way that the kids and I both grasped, and he also had a laminated diagram explaining the points, to which we referred throughout the lesson.

Before leaving the bay, Thom let the boys explore the cabin, where windows were water-level and a cushioned berth invited some playtime. They studied Thom’s charts and eyed a bucket – the morning’s bathroom, if we needed it.

Frisco’s Lake Dillon, a reservoir in the Colorado Rockies, is a popular spot for high-altitude sailing. PHOTOS: WP-BLOOM
Windrider of the Rockies founder and owner Thomas Emrick instructs Silas Walker and his older brother, Henry, how to steer and rig a sailboat during a sailing lesson on Dillon Reservoir in Colorado

Back on deck, Thom explained how the rudder steered the boat and gave each kid a turn. After a few figure eights, we were ready for the open water. We motored out of the marina and into the heart of Lake Dillon, where the wind indeed picked up. Thom cut the engine, raised the mainsail (the jib was already up), and just like that we were sailing. In the mountains.

From the lake I spotted four “14ers”, peaks whose summit are 14,000 feet or higher, of which Colorado has 54. There were many more mountains whose summits range from 10,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level. The view was stunning and the crisp mountain air invigorating.

I realised I had never before seen the mountains from such a vantage point. For a lifelong landlubber, it was a unique way to experience the Colorado Rockies – and that’s saying a lot. I was born and raised in Colorado and love to run, ski, and bike through these mountains. I’ve had many profound, exciting, and even harrowing adventures in the Colorado high country. But sailing – this was something different. I loved it.

It helps that Lake Dillon, created in the mid-1960s as a drinking water supply for Denver, some 90 miles east, is picturesque and large; it spans 3,300 acres and has 27 miles of shoreline. Jet Skis, speedboats and water skiing are banned (motorised pontoon boats are allowed), so there were no choppy wakes to navigate.

This year, the marina was in the midst of excavating 85,000 cubic yards of dirt and lowering the lakebed’s level by about 13 feet, the first phase in a multimillion-dollar improvement project.

Even with the construction and piles of dirt, my kids and I enjoyed exploring the shoreline and marvelling at the bustling activity at the conclusion of our lesson.

Then we headed into Frisco to explore. Once a mining town, Frisco is close to better known places like Breckenridge and Keystone. For years, I thought it was little more than a bedroom community for those who worked at more posh and popular Colorado mountain destinations. I was wrong.

Although there are T-shirt shops and a roadside chain-saw-carved wooden animal statue lot, Frisco also has a mix of eclectic restaurants, a small park with an amphitheatre where bands give free summer concerts on Thursday nights, and a fascinating historic museum.

The self-guided tour takes visitors through 11 buildings ranging from the town’s original jail to the mercantile to the school house, and more. Each building is restored to vintage accuracy and features intensive interpretation and audio to explain its significance in Frisco’s history.

Like other Colorado mountain towns, Frisco also boasts a robust trail network busy with hikers and mountain bikers, and nearby white-water rafting and kayaking. The new adventure park with downhill mountain bike trails and Frisbee golf (and Nordic skiing in the winter), was busy when we stopped by.

But I keep coming back to the water and the equanimity I found on a sailboat on Lake Dillon. It wasn’t just the scenery. It was the act of sailing itself, that stealthy centuries-old mode of transportation. Our lesson only lasted several hours (longer options are available), and I didn’t step off the boat a sailor. I did, however, emerge with a strong desire to become one.