Although just 55 years old at the time of his tragic death last weekend, life-long Lake City admirer Jack Nichols had in fact already lived several lifetimes. During the short lifespan of just over five decades, he was an accomplished outdoorsman and sports enthusiast who led an eventful life as river guide on torrential, white-water rivers in such diverse locales as Zambia, New Zealand and a variety of U.S. States, including Colorado, California, Idaho, and Arizona, including over 100 raft trips through the Grand Canyon.
He was a published author, formidable team member in the school’s community Knowledge Bowl sessions, past Chamber of Commerce president, and owner of an outdoor recreation business which promoted Lake City’s outstanding environmental surroundings.
At his death last Saturday, Nichols is survived by his wife, Hinsdale School Superintendent Leslie Trimble Nichols, and two sons, University of Denver student John Hatley Nichols IV, who graduated from Lake City Community School last May, and community school 8th Grader Thomas Nichols.
He is also survived by his parents, long-time Lake City seasonal residents John and Mary Ann Nichols, a sister and brother-in-law, Tracy and Mike Coffin, of Austin, Texas, and brother and sister-in-law, Dawson Nichols and Jenny Stewart, Seattle, Washington.
Others surviving are his in-laws, Henry and Sally Trimble, Pensacola, Florida, and brother-in-law and his wife, Chris Trimble and Lisa Christie. His nieces and nephews are Hannah and Rosie Nichols, Tyler, J.D. and Mary Hatley Coffin, and Hank and Mateo Trimble.
A memorial service is planned at the Armory in Lake City starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, January 13, with Phillip Virden officiating.
At the family’s suggestion, contributions in Jack’s memory may be made to Lake Fork Community Foundation, the Whale Foundation, an organization based out of Flagstaff, Arizona, which supports river guides, or to a college tuition fund which has been established to assist Jack’s sons, Johnny and Thomas Nichols.
A self-described third generation “fan of Lake City,” John Hatley Nichols III was born in Austin, Texas, on August 19, 1962, the son of John H. and Mary Ann Nichols.
With his brother, Dawson, and sister, Tracy, he was practically raised in Lake City during summer visits dating back to his infancy. The Nichols family association with Lake City dates back to the 1930s when his paternal grandfather, John Nichols, came here on fishing expeditions.
Jack’s first Lake City excursion came as a one-year-old. He was almost immediately enthralled with the mountains; his range of adventure gradually increased as he matured. “Lake City was the sort of place where there were no limits as long as you made it home by dark,” he later recalled.
Homebase for the family beginning in the late 1960s was the historic Thomas Beam house on Gunnison Avenue which was later enlarged and remodeled, and is now the second home of Jack’s sister and her family.
As an youngster, Jack was an avid dry fly fisherman by the time he was eight years old. He also took part in the “Blue Bottom Derby,” an annual early summer innertube race down the Lake Fork River which was sponsored by Dr. Harold M. Parker of Community Presbyterian Church.
In later years he credited the innertube race as his early awakening to a love of river rafting which extended throughout his adult life. In addition to his life-long love of rafting and kayaking — which later in life took him to such fabled white-water rapids as River of No Return in Idaho, and torrential rivers in New Zealand and South Africa, as well as the Zambezi below Victoria Falls where he served as a guide in the midst of the “biggest white water I’ve ever seen” — Lake City adventures in youth served as an introduction to hiking, climbing, fishing, camping, swimming, horseback riding, sailing, and canoeing.
New Lake City resident Karen Carter Shaw has a poignant memory of Jack’s 16th birthday in 1978 when she joined him and other friends on a late night climb to the summit of Uncompahgre Peak. Summiting just at sunrise, she recalls that Jack exclaimed “this is the best birthday present ever!”
When not taking part in outdoor adventures, Jack held down summer jobs at several area businesses, among them Bud and Irene Weems’ Sportsman’s Texaco, Jack recalling that Irene was a stickler for clean windows, and John and Venice Benvenuto’s Silver Spur.
Jack and family lived in suburban Chicago where he played football and basketball in school. The family later relocated to suburban Denver where Jack graduated from Golden High School in 1980.
He received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Natural Resources from University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1984 and further expanded his globe-trotting skills in Fairbanks, Alaska, while enrolled in a graduate geology program.
His career as a professional river guide began on the Arkansas River near Salida, Colorado. By 1995, he estimated he had rafted over 40,000 miles on 100 rivers in 10 foreign countries, all of which, he said,
“began in Lake City.”
Of all the rivers world-wide which Jack rafted, he was perhaps most taken by the 200-250-mile stretch of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
“The Grand Canyon,” according to his wife, Leslie, “was everything to him… it was his spiritual home.”
He navigated the Grand Canyon on more than 100 occasions, first on his own in the mid-1980s and starting in 1991 as a commercial guide.
Lake City residents Jud and Marian Hollingsworth recall a two-week rafting trip with Jack on the Colorado River in 2004 which also included Tom Hardilek, Dan Milski, his father, John Nichols, his brother’s father-in-law, Doug Stewart, and brother-in-law, Mike Coffin.
According to the Hollingsworths, they were impressed with Jack’s professionalism and sensitivity to the environment, sharing insights with his fellow rafters on such diverse topics as flora and fauna, geology, the constellations at night and the life force of the mighty river.
In the 1990s the lure of Lake City proved too strong and he returned here as a full-time resident. From 1994 until 2002 he owned the Wade’s Addition-based outdoor recreation company Cannibal Outdoors which specialized in guided river trips down the Lake Fork, guided jeep tours, natural history tours, gold panning, peak ascents, and mountain bike tours. The business was commenced in the old Griffiths house, 367 South Gunnison Avenue.
At its peak, the company employed 14 people and shared a love of Lake City’s natural surroundings with over 2,000 visitors.
Among Jack’s guides at Cannibal Outdoors was his future wife, fellow University of the South alumnus Leslie Trimble. The two attended university classes at different times but were formally introduced in Sewanee following one of Jack’s returns from Africa.
They married at Windy Point on Slumgullion Pass on September 23, 1995, and were the parents of two sons, John Hatley Nichols IV, “Johnny,” who was born in 2000, and Thomas Bjarne Nichols, who was born in 2004.
Jack and Leslie spent a delayed honeymoon in Chile kayaking in 1998 and in 1993-94 drove from Lake City to Costa Rica on a kayaking and mountain biking safari.
He served six years as a director of Lake City/Hinsdale County Chamber of Commerce, including two one-year terms as president. He published a 128-page guide book to the Lake City area’s little-known attractions, “Under the Sun at Lake City,” in 1995. The book provides concise and helpful information on local geography, natural history and human history, as well as multiple chapters on hiking and backpacking, fishing, mountain biking, river sports and boating, and skiing.
On the Democratic ticket, Jack was an unsuccessful candidate for the District 3 Hinsdale County Commissioner post held by incumbent Linda Matthews in 2000. He was also an early member of the Hinsdale County Lodging Tax Board.
In more recent years, Jack worked in the building trades and for a time conducted an inspection business, San Juan Property Services, for homeowners. Among his personal building projects was constructing the office of Cannibal Outdoors in Wade’s Addition and, most recently, a sizeable two-story frame home for the family which he completed on adjacent lots in Wade’s Addition.
He returned to guiding in the Grand Canyon after closing Cannibal Outdoors. From 2002 until 2007 he guided and managed operations for Grand Canyon outfitter Canyoneers. Since 2007, he has run trips with Arizona Raft Adventures as a rowing and motor guide, and trip leader.
He began part-time work as deputy Hinsdale County Building Inspector under Charlie Curtis in 2010, and was named Building Inspector and Enforcement Officer for both Hinsdale County and Town of Lake City in November, 2014.
He continued to serve as building inspector at the time of his death and is credited with extensive online and classroom instruction which he completed for accreditation, as well as completing office computerization for building office records which was initially begun under his predecessor. In his role as building inspector, he issued permits and made routine inspections, as well as keeping an eye on new construction and remodeling which occurred within the Lake City Historic District.
His work with the county included serving on the committee overseeing the county-owned Ute-Ulay Mine complex on Henson Creek. Jack was personally responsible for many of the improvements at the heritage tourism site, including the location of fencing and a new public walking trail which was finalized this past summer. Jack coordinated work by contractors on building stabilization at the mine and personally worked to stabilize several roofs at the complex which were in danger of collapse.
Drawing on his history and geology interests, Jack became a knowledgeable spokesman for the county on the Ute-Ulay project. He was interviewed for television and video segments on the mine on several occasions, and took particular delight in articulating the step-by-step ore processing which took place in the mine’s mill.
His work with the county also entailed the multi-year renovation of the historic Hinsdale County Courthouse which was completed with a ribbon cutting in September last year.
Jack’s recreational interests included a wide range of winter sports. He was an early ice-climbing advocate and was among those encouraging the creation of Lake City Ice Climbing Park at the mouth of Henson Creek. He enjoyed ice hockey from his adolescent years playing pond hockey outside of Chicago. He duly transferred that love to his sons, for multiple winters constructing an ice hockey rink in the yard of his Wade’s Addition home and encouraging his own sons and other local youth to take part in league hockey play in Gunnison.
His love of outdoor sports translated to coaching, including coaching his son Johnny and other area youth in Lake City Community School youth soccer, as well as coaching his younger son, Thomas, in the Gunnison Valley Hockey League.
In summer he took part in Lake City Area Recreation Dept.’s softball league. Nichols’ Cannibal Outdoors softball team won numerous summer championships.
As a professional river guide, he obtained his credentials as an Emergency Medical Technician, transferring those skills to Hinsdale EMS and Hinsdale Search & Rescue in the 1990s.