This is the first time in 14 years Ellen and Reid have received more than a one page weekly letter.
I don’t exactly know how or why a journal came about. Writing about the trek to the Bridger Wilderness just felt right. I suppose it adds to the family archive.
Disclaimer: What’s ahead are 17 single spaced pages of one man’s recollection. Caveat emptor.
July 22, 2014
Ellen/Reid: I’m going over the edge a little bit, make that quite a bit, this week so you’ll just have to bear with me.
This letter is really a multi-page journal of the Bridger trip. I’ve thought about writing up other jaunts but never got around to it. One of the things I fully intended to do before hitting the trail was to buy a little spiral notepad to tuck into my pack so as to jot things down at the end of each day. It seemed the sort of adventure that could use a chronicling. But in the final rush to get ready, the note pad and pencil stayed forgotten. It’s too bad since there was plenty of time to reflect after setting up camp and heating the dehydrated food for dinner to scratch things on paper.
So I bought a binder at Safeway in Jackson on Saturday morning to detail things from memory on the plane rides from Jackson to Salt Lake and Salt Lake to home.
Day 1, Friday, July 11
There is no flight path in the U.S. like the north-to-south approach to Jackson.
I don’t often ask for seats but I’d buy a buy a right window seat into Jackson if I had to.
The Tetons to your right are worth the window seat. The kid next to me was busy at a video game until I prodded him to push his camera against the window. The view seemed to get his attention.
Tom got there before me, and once the duffel with my pack and other gear made it to baggage claim, we rode the shuttle to the rental car spot in Jackson. We were just about to hit Hwy. 191 for the roughly 80 miles to Pinedale when we noticed the SUV’s tank was on ‘E’, so we had to backtrack to the rental car place to get a full tank of fuel. Hardly the way to start your journey; running out of gas along some two lane road.
Once we got going, it was a scenic ride along the Hobart River which was pretty roily from snow melt and/or rain. There was considerable snow in the Gros Verde and Wyoming Ranges, which should’ve been a tip off about what lay ahead. I’d never seen this part of Wyoming so green. We’d have fires for sure.
About a third of the way to Pinedale is the Elkhorn Trading Post, a way spot on the road that is part cowboy bar, run down general store and coin operated laundromat.
The Elkhorn is a dump, but that’s how cowboy bars should be.
We’d stopped there for sodas and the occasional beer before and now we thought it would add a little Western flavor to the ride. Since neither Tom or I had eaten much beyond peanuts on our airplanes, we ordered up some wings with our beers. The wings were small but tasty.
The walls are of logs, and drunk people (not us) sign dollar bills with all sorts of sayings/profanities, hundreds of which were tacked on the timbers and ceiling.
What we wrote may not have been salacious by Elkhorn standards but it was the best we could do at the time.
Thinking we’d do the same, we signed a Washington rather benignly, ‘Tom and Dave, We were here, Tarheels.’ Tom tacked it to the log wall. Then it was on down the road to Pinedale.
Tom did the honors to pin our buck on the wall for perpetuity – or until someone needs it to buy a beer.
The Wyoming landscape is open, but I really like this stretch. Not overly developed, and the Wind Rivers were a constant on our left the entire route. We saw our share of solitary male antelope. The males must stay off by themselves until the fall rut brings the herds together.
Once in Pinedale we checked into the Baymont on south side of the road just west of town. It’s posh by local standards. The next stop was up the street to the Outdoor Shop for flies (Humpies, Parachute Adams and Wooly Buggers per Tim’s instructions) and a spare long sleeve Patagonia shirt since it seemed that was the one missing piece of warmth I’d need. Tom saw bear barrels for rent and I relented. I’m not convinced the canisters are a necessity. One of these years maybe I’ll be proven wrong.
Our last meal was at the Wind River Brewery.
We’ve been to the Wind River Brewery lots over the years. Award winning beer and mountain food.
Reid, you’ve had lots of pre and post hike meals there. You and Tim ate there too, Ellen. I had a burger, Tom had a chicken BLT although I appropriated all his bacon since it’s not on his heart recovery diet.
We had a couple of final bits of packing back at the Baymont. One was to fill small bottles with about 12 oz. of the denatured alcohol. Tom judged that was enough fuel to suffice for the whole trip since you only burned 1/2 oz. at a time to boil water even at high altitude. Since I didn’t think to bring squeeze bottles like Tom, a 16 oz. rinsed-and-dried OJ bottle from a convenience store would have to work out. My Osprey got one final packing and it was lights out. We’d be up early on Saturday.
Day 2, Saturday, July 12
We were up before dawn. Tom is one of the, if not the, most fastidious, organized people I’ve ever known. He took repeated joy from packing and repositioning everything in his ultra-light pack, every day, including this morning. There was a place for everything and everything was in it’s place. But I say that in a good way. Me, I shoved the lighter stuff to the bottom and laid the heavier items, the bear canister and the tent, on top and that was it for packing.
We drove up the main drag to Stockman’s for one last civilized breakfast that wouldn’t include instant oatmeal. Stockman’s is an old-timey place – you’ve both eaten there – in the same vein as the Elkhorn. Neither spot has adapted any sense of decor other than to be filled with Western things. I settled for eggs and buttered English muffins.
I erred in not following Tom’s lead on the hash browns at Stockman’s.
Tom took the waitress at her word and ordered the hash browns which he later endorsed and made me feel as if I’d missed out on something. For $14 we both got out of there stuffed.
It was further down Hwy. 191 to the ranger station. We wanted to make general inquiries but it was closed, oddly, on Saturdays. We walked next door to the former Schaller’s to buy our fishing licenses. The math made the Wyoming non-resident season license the best deal – if you call $104 a best deal. My line clippers were back home in my kayak, so another $10 was dropped on a new set. The store had big trout mounted on the walls, fish far bigger than we’d catch.
We headed south-southeast on 191 toward Boulder. It’s about 12 miles. We zipped past the New Fork River where Mark Haverland and I did snatch a few big fish on an earlier float trip. At Boulder you make a left on the paved road that heads east from town. You can’t miss it – it’s the only road that goes east. Tom calculated we’d drive another 20 miles on a two lane road that turns about halfway from rough pavement to washboard gravel. Tom knew all of this ahead of time. He had plotted every mile to various turns and notable points on hand drawn maps he drew to scale, whereas I would have totally winged it. I mean, the man is organized but I suppose you need that on a venture of this magnitude.
We gained altitude as we went past more sage and more antelope.
The Bridger begins to open up. Some folks see only desolation in the sage-covered landscape. I find it wonderful beyond description.
The country was rougher now and there were no more homes or spreads along the way. Tom was riding shotgun, and he was on the lookout for a turnoff to the Big Sandy trailhead, our jumping off point.
Tom’s navigational skills got us to the turn to Big Sandy as predicted.
We arrived at the turn as he predicted. Our progress was stopped momentarily by a blockade of open-range herefords
Herefords were a bovine speed bump that slowed us to a stop. No sense honking, and no reason to. It’s all part of the getting there.
which yielded only because we crept forward. A real cowboy in a ball cap waved hello as we inched by his herd. The high peaks of the southern half of the Bridger were now visible to our left. It looked as we knew it would look; broad, deep, jagged, magnificent, expansive and encased in all that snow. Snow would be a recurring theme.
We crossed a few cattle guards and each time the need for the four wheel drive became more evident. The treeless sage gave way to pine and aspen. We crossed the Big Sandy River, a main drainage for the gigantic range, and it was running very full and very clear – a sure sign of more snow runoff than usual at the higher elevations. There was virtually no vehicle traffic which gave us the sense that, like the northern half of the Bridger, we’d have the hills to ourselves.
That wasn’t to be. At 9:45 in the morning the trailhead (9,204 ft.) was packed with 25 – 30 vehicles and a number of hikers were loading their gear as they readied to hit the trail. This was disappointing. We were accustomed to a handful of cars at the New Fork trailhead north of Pinedale. We parked in one of the last available spots.
I was anxious to get a move on. At Tom’s near-incessant urging to ‘go light’, I’d pared my load from the usual 45 – 50 pounds to about 30. My 3,200 sq. in. Osprey Atmos 50 weighed pounds less than my old cavernous Gregory. The MSR and it’s fuel was gone, replaced by an ultralight stove fueled by denatured alcohol. The clothes on my back were all I took beyond the new Patagonia shirt, an ultra-light Marmot jacket for cold mornings, spare pair of socks, rain jacket and rain pants. I swapped out the old Lowa boots for some low cut Salewa’s. The heavy Nalgenes were replaced by one tall Smart Water bottle from the grocery store. Food was minimal and individual meals were packed in small plastic freezer bags. Pour in hot water and mix, no plate needed. Breakfast was three bags of instant oatmeal per day and small packets of Starbucks coffee. Lunch consisted of a soft taco shell to dredge peanut butter out of a single serving cup. Dinners were dried taco filling with Minute Rice. There was just less of everything.
That included less of me. My weight was down about 25 lbs. from the last time in Wyoming when Tom and our friend Richard left me 300 hundred or more yards behind in the proverbial dust, huffing and puffing like a steam engine. It was like that with you, Reid, in ’06 when there were hundreds of yards of clear space between you and me. Since last July, I frequented the local Y five days a week for a half hour on the elliptical machine and 10 minutes of pilates plus a 2.5 mile evening walk and more mileage on both weekend days. As Tom reminded me, the net loss in equipment and body mass meant I would lug roughly 40 pounds less on the trails. My first hours on the trail would be the hoped-for validation that all that hard work would really be worth something.
We locked the GMC SUV at 10 a.m., signed in on the hiker’s log, and hit the trail. There are two basic paths that lead you to the Cirque of the Towers. A right turn on the more popular of trails would take you directly to the Cirque (the major attraction for most hikers in this portion of the Bridger) about 12 miles away. In his wisdom, Tom had plotted a route that would instead take us left against the flow of most trekkers. It meant our circuitous clockwise route to the Cirque would be about 40 miles but we’d see fewer people and more scenery.
Our first day was slated to be a relatively short 5.5 miles along the Fremont Trail to Dads Lake, with a moderate gain of about 500 vertical feet, a good way to find our groove without breaking the exhaustion bank. But this being the wilderness, signage isn’t what it always ought to be and before long we took an unknowing right turn toward Big Sandy, the polar opposite of our intended route. It wasn’t until we chatted up a group of Boy Scouts exiting the wilderness that we learned of our navigational error. We could retrace our steps or go forward to an alternate cutoff that would lead us to where we needed to be. It was six of one, half a dozen of another so we plowed ahead to the V Lake trail and worked our way back to Fremont. It was mildly deflating that two experienced types would somehow miss signage, but the bonus three miles we now tacked on to the day’s hike came early enough that at the time it didn’t seem to matter. We’d still make Dads in plenty of daylight.
Our first ford came at Fish Creek. The stream was wide and running high and fast and undoubtedly ice cold.
A first-day ford. After a while, we stopped counting these crossings.
Tom wore cross trainers that would drain quickly, so he waded right in. My Salewa’s were leather, so I took them off and went barefoot. I learned quickly the hard way to avoid rocks and keep to sandy portions of the bottom. (It recalled a few years ago when Tim ferried the women across a similar ford on the north side. That guy is a soldier.) My tip toe done, I plunked down on the closest rock and wiped my feet clean and dry with my red bandana. On we went.
The upward trail got progressively rockier. Tom was in the lead and for once I was able to keep pace with his long strides. We alternated between pine cover to open landscape and as we moved upward the Bridger opened up in front of us. We’d stop every so often not so much for rest but to scope out which peak was which as a way to keep our bearing and orient us that much more to the map. I’ve been all over the Rockies on foot, but never have I seen see-scapes like these.
I’ve hiked all over the Rockies but the unbroken, panoramic views in this part of the Winds are absolutely unchallenged.
You can see breadth and scope and horizon throughout the Bridger. That’s what makes it so special. Granted, the peaks aren’t as high as they are to the south in Colorado, but the views are just as magnificent if not more-so.
At Tom’s brisk pace – we calculated 30-35 minutes per uphill mile, not bad for a couple of guys in their sixties – we’d arrive on time at Dads Lake (9,741 ft.) despite our V Lake trail miscue. We did and descended from the south to the triangular shaped lake. Tom’s early recon uncovered that the better camping spots lay along the western shore and we veered left straight away. Sure enough, we staked our claim to the first camp spot we came to, wonderfully flat with tent sites covered in soft pine needles and with the possibility of enough morning sun to dry out what was sure to be damp gear. Within 15 minutes my tent was up, ground pad and sleeping bag unfurled and gear stowed. Tom, on the other hand, pays a price in time. His ultralight (8 oz.) tent takes extra handling, and he simply has more stuff, much more stuff, all of which is of high utility value to a hiker. He carefully sorted and accounted for it in his half-pound shelter. On the lake, telltale circles formed where trout were rising, and I assured Tom we would each catch our allotted evening dinner of one brook trout. In the time it took to ready my portion of the camp, I had assembled and rigged my Scott A 4. I was ready to fish.
Common sense says to go where the most fish are rising, so I traced the shoreline 300 yards to a small stream that entered Dad’s on the opposite side of same end of the lake. Brookies could queue there for whatever food might wash into the lake. This would be the 3 weight Scott’s first acid test. My fly casting skills are suspect at best (C+) and it wasn’t until May in Wisconsin that Tim pulled his father in law aside for an on-the-water refresher (i.e. remedial) course. His makeover sunk in at Dad’s; notably a strip-in retrieve with my left hand while the line slid through my right thumb and forefinger that held the rod. This was incredibly more efficient and gave the Adams a much better action. The remedial lesson, topped by the more side arm casting acton employed by Tim, payed immediate dividends with a strike that what felt at first like a nice fish.
No sooner, though, had the trout struck than it was off the hook. I reeled in 20 yards of line but the size 14 Adams didn’t come in with it. The fly-less tippet corkscrewed where the artificial should have been, a sure sign of a failed clinch knot. Peeved at the loss of a good first fish (and a $1.75 fly), I hurriedly tied on another Adams and instantly got another solid strike, a sure brookie based on the flash of reddish orange fins as it rolled on its side. But in a repeat of fish #1, fish #2 also escaped, freed by another bad knot. I was never a sailor but I can talk like one, and I did. I redoubled my concentration on clinch knots; string the line through the hook eyelet, wind the line around the tippet 7 times, pass the free line through loop created at the hook eyelet then back through the larger loop. Pull to close. Should be a piece of cake. I’ve employed this most basic of knots my whole adult life.
But scenes one and two repeated themselves a maddening third, fourth, fifth times. It really sent me over the edge. By now, Tom had joined me and had already landed the first official fish, a fat 11” brook.
The camera does not do Tom’s 11 inch brookie justice. The trout were the fattest, healthiest I’d seen in a long, long time. It was usually catch and release for us but since we could have an open fire we’d keep one fish each for dinner.
At this rate, he’d eat fire-broiled fish and I’d be relegated to dried taco something-or-other. Worse still, my store of go-to Adams was quickly running low and this was only Day One of the trek. The remaining Adams went into a special reserve and the switch was made to a Humpy, a thick bodied fly. I yelled for general purposes and Tom yelled back something about an improved clinch knot. At my wits end, I tried his suggestion.
His suggestion worked on the very next fish. In came, at last, a plump brookie in the 11” range, far larger than others of these fish that I usually catch. The body mass for our fish was startling. The same Humpy and I conspired to catch (and release) several more, each as dense and thick as the first. I had never seen such a healthy group of brookies. That overall heartiness was perhaps a byproduct of the massive snows – 500 inches of it over the winter according to locals. I’m no biologist, but surely the high water meant the trout would gorge themselves on huge hatches of water-born insects.
Both fish were worthy of a cooking fire, but the camp site was devoid of enough wood so we fanned out to retrieve what we could. We managed to scrape together some sticks but the evening was getting on and the air was cool and damp. Kindling wouldn’t cooperate with lighters or a fire starter. Twigs, bark – nothing took the flame. It was almost dark and we were ready to abandon our catch to the woods when Tom suggested we douse the sticks with a splash of denatured alcohol. Sure enough, the flame held. While the fire died to embers, the trout were dusted with some mesquite seasoning and wrapped in non-stick foil.
We flanked the fire with two large flat stones to serve as a cradle for our cooking grate. 14 minutes later – 7 minutes per side – we dined on some of the best pink fleshed trout we’d ever eaten. They were that memorable in their flavor. We incinerated the remains in the fire to keep the scent from grizzlies.
We zonked out about 9:30. We’d need to be fresh; the next day’s hike would be 10+ miles to Hailey Pass and beyond.
Day 3, Sunday, July 13
We both rose about the same time, 6 a.m. It was very damp with temps in the mid 40s.
Our camp at Dads Lake was the first in an unbroken string of great camp sites.
The tents and ground cloths would need to air dry in the sun. We set about to place everything on rocks and trees in direct light while we got the breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee going.
The $89 Anti Gravity Gear stove Tom prodded me to buy is a design of pure genius. The burner is literally punched from a Pepsi can with the Pepsi brand and logo still visible. You pour a half ounce or so of alcohol in the burner and lay it on the ground. This is covered with a conical aluminum windscreen. Your pot with however much water you need (topped by a lid) fits snuggly in the top of the cone to make a nearly sealed stove. Tom’s flint sparker lit the fuel which burned so clean you couldn’t see the flame. It boiled three cups of water in 4 – 5 minutes. Incredibly efficient. I’ll never go into the back country without one again. The speed was appreciated once I poured the Starbucks powder into my plastic cup. There was no clean up since the hot water also went directly into the plastic freezer bag filled with oatmeal. To be spared the tedium of heating more water to wash pots was a great thing. Camp broke fairly quickly. The big onus was accounting for the bear barrel in my Osprey. It easily consumed one-third of the available space. Without it I’d be home free weight-wise.
We had our day’s work cut out for us. Tom’s plan showed at least 10 miles, spread over an elevation gain from 9,741 to 11,888 at Hailey Pass, then down another 2,000 feet to Grave Lake on the wilderness boundary. On the north side of the Bridger at least I knew what to expect. Here in the southern half it was not the case.
I took the morning lead. We’d head straight north on Fremont Trail and once past Marms Lake we’d split off to the right onto Pyramid Trail and trudge above timberline for the final push toward and up Hailey Pass.
We saw some hikers, not many, on the way up. My load felt good and I thanked Tom on end for his encouragement to shave ounces and pounds. We crossed a number of streams that, in dryer conditions, wouldn’t even be a footnote but now were legitimate fords. Tom continued to plow right through the icy water while
At first I’d remove my Salewas and socks to handle the fords, but there were so many crossings that practice came to an end. Like Tom, I’d wade right in.
I took off my socks and boots and went through the foot drying process again once on the other side.
The going got tougher above Skull Lake and just before Mae’s Lake.
We could see the notch of Hailey Pass above us to and to our right but not the pass itself. It was a still a mile or more away.
The saddle that marks Hailey Pass is visible on the left. We just didn’t realize there’d be hell to pay to reach it.
We were already above timberline. The route quickly became very steep and very rocky.
The going got tougher a couple of hours out of Dads Lake. Nothing unusual. It’s just how back country trails are.
The trail would have us traverse south and east around the base of 12,030 ft. Pyramid Peak but overall we were still headed north. On the topo map it looked benign and semi-flattish at about 10,500 feet. Yet it was anything but. This is when issues with the trail – as in ‘where is the trail?’ – began to appear. Previous hikers built cairns to mark where the path should be but still the path was not always obvious or clear. As we swung east of Pyramid, it dawned on us why we saw fewer hikers; a massive snow field bordered Pyramid around its eastern flank and completely obliterated the path.
We got up close and personal with our first taste of snow about a mile short of Hailey Pass.
A roaring stream spewed from a blueish water-carved tunnel beneath the snow; we’d have to get past it, and we weren’t particularly excited about going over the snow lest one or both of us fell through. We moved down from the snow field and could ford the stream of snow melt easily enough. After that, Option A appeared to be overland sans trail. Tom was concerned that we’d be off path but since we were in the narrow valley leading up to Hailey Pass, technically we would never be far from the path. We just couldn’t see it.
We moved from cairn to cairn through a couple of hundred yards of boulders but ran smack into another broad snow bank and now we had no options other than to traverse it or possibly climb higher and then around or over more boulders.
Tom splits a couple of snow-submerged boulders as we worked our way between Twin Lakes. Snow would be an increasing issue for us as we found out soon enough.
Truck size boulders jutted through the flattish snow. Tom advised to steer clear of these rocks since they’d warm in the sun thereby causing nearby snow to be unstable. We’d navigate probably 200 yards of snow that was slushy on top but firmer underneath. We weren’t certain how thick it was (if it did give way) so we took our time and went slow. We were at 11,000 ft. with almost 900 feet of elevation to go.
I fell through the snow up to my groin at the far end of the snow field. I crossed my trekking poles to leverage myself up and out of the snow, no worse for the wear but was glad my pack was no heavier than 30 pounds. Tom got through without incident. We could see short stretches of the trail on the other side of the valley but it would take more work around boulders to get there. The actual start to Hailey was 600 yards away. Due to the complicators of snow and boulders, our progress had become very slow.
We slid/climbed down a steep chute of rocks then easily crossed the rivulet that rushed out of the mostly frozen Twin Lakes.
Twin Lakes were at least half ice covered and lay directly below the Hailey saddle.
Now we were back on the trail, or at least on the right side of the valley. I felt good at this stage. What we just encountered seemed no big deal and only added to the adventure. The walk was flat until we started switchbacks leading up to the pass. These were uneventful and we reached the saddle of the pass at about 2:30 p.m. Mountain time. Tom and I congratulated ourselves on our pluck and skill at making it this far.
That’s when we saw what awaited us on the other side. The north face of the pass was much steeper and longer than what we had just scaled – and almost completely covered in a steep, wide snow field which fell away from us for hundreds of yards. The snow was shaded from afternoon sun by steep rock faces that comprise the northern portion of Pyramid Peak. It completely covered the path. All we could see were a few yards of route before it totally evaporated into the snow. To the east, our right, was an enormous boulder field.
We worked over and around more boulders than we bargained for. It was tough sledding three points of contact at a time.
To our left was scree and sheer rock walls. A mile and a half away or more and roughly 2,000 feet lower we could see a flat bog that we assumed was the tail end of our destination, Grave Lake. The problem was how to get there.
From on high we debated our options. Tackling the snow head on – a zig-zag traverse actually – was immediately ruled out. We didn’t have the right boots – Tom wore very flexible cross training shoes – let alone crampons nor ice axes in the event we’d slip and need to arrest a fall at any speed. The slope was probably 40 degrees, plenty ominous when you’re carrying a pack that doesn’t necessarily help your balance. We determined to head toward rocks at the eastern edge of the snow field. To reach the outer edge, though, we’d need to cross 150 yards of the upper snow field at a mild angle.
I suppose this is what the back country is all about – you pays your money and you takes your chances. Adversity was the spice of life for us.
I led the way, stomping my Vibram-soled heels into the snow to create steps for Tom. This tactic worked pretty well until Tom fell about three-fourths of the way but he quickly rammed the business end of his hiking poles into the snow to stop his slide.
To reach the larger rocks we had to tromp through loose scree. You tend to sink and simultaneously slide in scree, which in some ways is worse than snow since you never really gain firm footing. After 100 yards of slip-sliding downhill, we reached a small patch of green turf. We surveyed our situation again. The trouble was these patches of solid ground were few and far between, and our lesser-of-two-evils route was blocked by what seemed an endless boulder field. It was about then we wondered aloud ‘do we go back up?’ or move ahead and down. The steep scree and snow answered that for us.
We also needed to get to Grave Lake. Without reaching that milestone, we couldn’t continue our big loop that would eventually lead to the Cirque. We really were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Others must’ve thought better of following us.
Tom took a spill on the steep slope but he jammed his poles into the snow to arrest his fall. If he hadn’t, he might still be sliding.
We looked up at the pass to see three young guys and their Malamute who’d been behind us on the trail and were now in the saddle coming down toward the top of the snow field; we watched for a moment to see if they’d blaze some magical path we didn’t know about, but they apparently reconsidered, turned around and left. We never saw them again.
We strategized for a few minutes about the boulders: always have three points of contact before taking a step; the tips of both poles (or one or both hands) in crannies on adjacent rocks and at least one firm foothold. No jumps or big steps – no matter how short – from rock to rock. Test the stability of every step, every rock. Take your time. We never verbalized as much, but we both knew the consequences if either of us lost our footing and took a hard fall. (Two cracked ribs in ’12 from an ill-considered jump between slick rocks along a stream not far from where we stood were sufficient reminders to go slow and sure. On my mind, too, was Tim’s recent rescue of a buddy with a broken leg in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The only problem was Tim wasn’t here. Ellen, let him know I packed a big roll of athletic tape per his suggestion – just in case.)
The next 90 minutes were no fun. It was slow going to step from rock to rock. All I could think about were the three points of contact – and how far we had to go. Sometimes we headed toward a sliver of real land and walked where we could, but there always seemed more damned boulders. Mountain sheep droppings were everywhere which meant we were in a place better suited to them than to us. I’d gone over rocks plenty of times before but mostly as fun and never to this extent.
At last we exited the boulders but the trail was nowhere in view. Per our maps, the trail was on the north side of the bog, still a half mile away yet there was what appeared to be a path on our side of the bog. Now we were on firm ground and we were determined to make up the several hours lost on the scree, snow and boulders. This is when I made a serious error in judgment.
Between us and the north side was a stream masquerading as a river. It was moving swiftly and was very wide and, apparently, quite deep. It was perhaps more water than we could handle. In looking at our topo map, the non-trailed south side of the Grave Lake was flat except for one small outcropping that showed as a sheer vertical drop; I theorized we could easily bushwhack it and meet up with the trail at the east end of the lake. Tom agreed.
So we continued down the south side of the bog only to find it was not attached to the lake. In fact, the bog was at 10,400 ft. and the river plunged down a ravine into a series of falls with the lake (9,900 feet) a half mile or more away. The trail petered out, too, and now we were bushwhacking far earlier than we intended. We were off trail with no assurance of where to camp or how to proceed, and it was dusk.
We got no further than this flat, wet spot on the the Day from Hell. We were exhausted and frustrated at my navigational mistake.
We made our way across several little sub-streams of the main body of the ‘river’, and by now I was too exhausted to remove my boots for the minor fords. I waded right in. My boots were never dry the rest of the trip. We came upon a flat, damp, mosquito infested campsite and pitched our tents at 8:30. We fired up our stoves and ate in the dark. We called it the Day from Hell.
Day 4, Monday, July 14
Everything was sopping the next morning. The tents and bags would need to air dry, again, so we draped everything over rocks and trees to get early sun. I put wet socks and boots on, opting to keep my dry socks for the sleeping bag at night. The little stove worked quickly on enough hot water for two cups of Starbucks and three packages of oatmeal.
We checked the maps again. Indeed, the southern side of the lake looked flat and doable. In about a mile, we thought, we’d run into the main trail and be on our way and back on schedule. We broke camp about 9:30 and off we went. We had two immediate fords; my boots stayed on for both.
Now it was all about winding our way through pine forest. I clomped through small stands of short pines and worked around logs and the occasional pile of snow. Foliage was dense enough that you picked your route looking ahead no more than 10 – 15 feet.
Bushwhacking was fun at first; we thought we’d simply blaze a trail along the southern shore of Grave Lake. Alas, it was not to be.
I wouldn’t call it enjoyable but more of an off-trail challenge. The least navigable part was around and through the willows that grew close to the lake or small streams. You can brush by pines but willows are thick and dense. Very hard to plow through. We worked our way over several snow fields (small by the prior day’s acreage), and on one Tom broke through the surface. In doing so one of his graphite poles snapped. Other than that, things were actually going pretty well and we thought our plan to bushwhack was about to pay off.
Literally, we were 300 yards from the end of a mile long lake when we came to that ‘sheer vertical drop’ I’d dismissed the day before as no big deal.
I know I let out an expletive, and then another, when I saw it. Tom was 25 yards behind and I yelled at him to come see this. The sheer rock shown on the map was indeed there, only below it was a severe slope of snow, perhaps 150 yards in length, the edge of which hung over the lake.
Our next path to the Cirque was in sight but we were utterly stymied by this steep snow field that jutted out over the lake. We couldn’t see the bottom, and the cliff to the right was straight up. We couldn’t dare take on the snow if we fell with full packs.’t literally had no real escape route.
The slope was steeper than what we reconnoitered the day before. This was rapidly becoming a worst case scenario.
We stood there, stunned. We could see hikers on the trail we coveted only a few hundred yards away. But we were completely blocked. We took our packs off and just sat. Our immediate possibilities included traversing the short but steep snow field or climbing higher on the rock face above the snow for a potential way around. We agreed that if the lake was shallower, say no more than 2 – 4 feet, we could wade through it, dry our clothes and continue onward. At the far side of the snow field, however, the water was at its deepest; we could not see the bottom. One slip with full pack on the snow above that abyss could be disastrous. We dismissed that idea quickly. I volunteered to climb higher on the rock wall for a possible route unseen from our current vantage point next to the snow field.
The rock wall turned out to be no place for people with packs. I looked at several potentials but it was far too steep and would give us little margin for error along some narrow ledges. I climbed down to Tom with the bad news. We took about 15 minutes to repair his broken pole by inserting a length of willow branch down the hollow broken portions of the pole braced by taping three triangular tent pegs around the break. It held surprisingly well.
Our plan to reach the Cirque of the Towers was now in complete disarray. Instead of plugging ourselves back on course for the Cirque, we retreated. We were forced to backtrack the entire length of Grave Lake we had just bushwhacked. This time the return trip went slowly, the path wasn’t so evident and pines weren’t brushed by so easily. The snowbank had taken the wind out of our sails. It took several hours to reach the camp site we’d left only hours before. We pitched our tents once more in the same grassy footprints our tents made the prior night. This entire predicament seemed so totally out of the realm of possibility.
We were in full retreat at the end of Day from Hell 2. The hike back from Grave Lake was slow and tedious. It was just tough to deal with knowing we may have to abandon the Cirque – the whole reason for our trip.
We were downcast to say the least, and grasping at how we might escape the valley in one piece. The cold dampness – it would be in the mid 30s overnight – made things that much more depressing. The mosquitoes were out en masse but even their superior numbers were of no concern vs. the situation we faced.
Now, though, other alternatives began to be discussed. Could we climb the 2,000 feet up the scree and snow and boulders back to Hailey and exit that way? Would the stream swollen by snow melt be ultimately passable? We even floated – briefly – the idea that we were trapped and we ought to sit tight to await a rescue. One thought was to stake out Tom’s bright orange space blanket as a signal for rescue. But I told Tom, no, we were already off the beaten path and we’d have to find our own way out. No one, let alone wilderness staff, had any reason to wander our way. That we were in trouble never really crossed my mind. If anything, we just faced a stiff challenge, that’s all. We had a lot of experience behind us.
That evening I took the Scott with me on a short recon/semi-fishing mission. We weren’t aware the roaring stream split itself into several fingers once it slammed into the valley floor. It meant rather than ford one behemoth stream, we could cross the shallower, slower, narrower fingerlings. The fishing was half hearted and wholly unproductive. For the second night we ate no trout and retired to our tents, beaten and downcast, before the sun was down. This had been Day from Hell II.
Day 5, Tuesday, July 15
There’s a lot to think about as you roll around in a sleeping bag trying to avoid rocks and sticks beneath your tent as you hyper-listen for any noises that could be construed as a marauding grizzly.
I thought a lot about the stream and the trail, and I know Tom did, too. It is his style to methodically explore all options whether it’s the weight of materials – or escape routes.
It was very wet and clammy in the morning. Everything would need time to dry and after the bags and tents were hung out in the sunniest spots, we ran through what we might do from here. Tom wanted to get to the path as soon as possible. There is a sense of security on the path. The map, however, showed conflicting whereabouts of a trail we’d not really set foot on in more than two days. After another breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee, and back in my still wet boots and socks, I led Tom to our potential salvation from this portion of the wilderness. We could see the first two of four portions of the stream. The individual fords looked doable although the precise location of the trail was a bit dodgy. He agreed, and now we were in business. We packed our gear and within minutes had crossed each waterway.
To our utter amazement and relief, no sooner had we stepped on the north shore of the fourth fingerling than the path appeared before us. It was not 150 yards from the spot where we had forlornly bunked for two anxious nights. Not perhaps where we expected it, but it was still the path. It was the first cheery news we’d had in a couple of days. From where we stood we could turn left toward Hailey Pass or turn right and continue onward in a big 25 mile arc to the Cirque.
There was one problem with turning right. We heard through the hiker grapevine that one key pass, Texas Pass, was also thought to be unnavigable due to heavy snow. Without any verification, and in view of our tumultuous experience at Hailey, we chose to turn left. Hailey was a known quantity and we were relatively confident we could scale the slope that had taken hours for us to descend.
We were also well ahead of schedule. My computations were that to find the path might take hours, and we were already on it and headed upward and west. The river just to our left was still a raging torrent but it was quieter – less water flow – in the early morning hours before the afternoon sun accelerated the snow melt. I wondered if this might be our chance to safely ford the beast as we neared the bog. Indeed, by 9:45 a.m. we reached the point where the path intersected the 40 yard wide stream. The water was down sufficiently that we could wade through a slower current nearly up to our waists and use our poles for stability. The body of water we most feared was bypassed in a matter of a few minutes. Hailey Pass lay straight ahead three-quarters of a mile.
Now our attention turned to scaling the pass.
It was going to be hell going back up to Hailey the same way that had cost us to much time coming down. But we came, we saw, we conquered – thanks to thinking our way through it.
We knew the east side, with its scree and snow and boulders, could be handled. We’d done it before. At the foot of the slope – we had about a 1,200 foot climb ahead of us – we talked through how to get from our Point A to the saddle’s Point B. There would be no avoiding the snow. Tom suggested we tape both hiking poles together should the more stabile points need to be jabbed into the snow to stop a fall. He also thought we should use parachute cord to tie the poles to our belts to avoid the loss of the poles sliding down the steep slope in the event of a mishap. It was another good idea.
By themselves, our graphite poles were no match for the slope. But Tom suggested we tape our sticks together for some added heft in the case of a fall. That scenario never happened.
To minimize tromping on the snow and avoid the boulder fields, we plotted a new path that would steer us wider and up the east valley wall. We could see strips of green – solid footing – that would keep us largely off the boulders. We started the climb about 10 a.m.
Going up proved easier than the trip down. You can press your weight forward into the slope as opposed to leaning backward as you descend. This made a huge difference. We pretty much followed the tracing of the snow much of the way up and walked on green spaces where we could. There was very little boulder hopping. Once on the snow I kicked steps for Tom to follow. The final quarter mile featured a 100 yard strip of snow on the steepest part of the slope. The trail was visible at the top end of the snow and zig zagged all the way to the saddle.
Tom covers the last few yards up to the saddle of Hailey Pass. He really did a good job of strategizing how we ought to tackle the ascent.
We made the final yards in good order and continued to the top of the ridge marking the pass where we high fived each other and knelt in a moment of thanks for our deliverance.
Our planning, experience and guile had paid off. We were no nearer the Cirque but at this point we felt relief. By 11:30, the ascent was finished, several hours ahead of my forecast.
Rejuvenated, we continued past Twin Lakes and over the familiar snow fields and fast streams. Our initial goal was to get to Dads Lake, but we instead descended about three miles to an all but deserted Mae’s Lake and about 4 o’clock came upon an incredible camping site atop a plateau overlooking the lake to the south. We’d get plenty of sun, there was ample wood for a fire, the ground was dry and the trout were on the rise.
My Mountain Hardwear tent went up quickly, my pack was emptied of gear, I pumped water for Tom’s Platypus and my SmartWater bottle, a fire ring was built and wood collected for the evening fire with the full intent to catch something to cook over it. This evening would end much better than those before it.
While Tom went on with his preparations, I asked him: “Could you eat one fish or two?” “Two” he responded. I rechecked my clinch knots, and in a few minutes of moving along the shore to cast to the circles, I had my first fish, a nice 8 inch brookie.
By mountain standards, these were wonderful brook trout. They’re the best flavored of the high country fish.
It didn’t reach my recently revised (upward) size measurements so back it went. But the next fish was a keeper in the 10 inch range. I yelled to Tom to get the fire started. Trout two, three and four of similar size were collected in short order. I stripped a willow of all but one twig as a temporary stringer and slid the now gutted trout through the gills onto the branch and headed the 200 yards up to our fine encampment. I unfolded the non-stick foil (barely wide enough to contain these beauties) and dusted the brooks with seasoning as Tom reduced the fire to coals. There’s nothing like mountain trout at the end of a long, but thankfully successful, day. We returned to the lake once more to pump water and for Tom to get an impromptu lesson in casting a fly. In moments he was floating the line like an old pro.
An elevated camp site at Mae’s Lake did wonders for our spirits. It was here that Tom announced our plan to get to the Cirque through the back door..
He’s a studious guy and it was impressive to see him handle the rod. Later, and like you guys did as kids camping in Minnesota, we kept tossing sticks into the fire to keep it aflame into the evening as we sat on our bear canisters and recounted our adventure – to this point – into the darkness.
Day 6, Wednesday, July 16
There was no fishing this morning. I wasn’t altogether sure of what we’d do now, but Tom seemed to have hatched a Plan B to the Cirque. We could see the backside of it a few miles due east of Mae’s but there was no path to it and we were in no mood to further bushwhack or take on unknown passes. It effectively would tack on almost 20 miles – at least – to our jaunt and we’d lose whatever rest day Tom had planned for us. We’d need to backslide eight miles to the V Lake Trail cutoff and over to the Big Sandy Trail and on up to Big Sandy Lake, a popular pre-Cirque camping area. From there it would be rugged four mile climb up the gut to the Cirque itself.
We wrapped things up in camp and it was nice to be headed downhill at least for a few miles. My pack got lighter by the day as food was consumed. Even through our pitfalls I experienced no problems, no fatigue, no huffing and puffing. It was just full steam ahead. Of course, it helped that I was in the lead rather than try to play catch up with Tom’s brutal pace. We saw very few hikers on the trail; perhaps news of the difficulties of two hapless trekkers at Hailey Pass had filtered down the mountain.
Tom and I were in something of a celebratory mood; and when we got to Dads Lake, our camp for the first night, Tom mentioned out of the blue that we ought to take a break to fish. It was not a bad idea to recoup some of our $104 license fee. A sizable stream entered about midway on the eastern side of the lake. Most hikers would hoof by it for points north or south. It didn’t looked fished. If my theory held, trout would school up there for easy pickings entering in the stream rather than endlessly cruise the quiet lake. The Scott fly rod assembles fast and in a few minutes – after checking my clinch knot on an Adams I’d held in reserve – I waded through the willows to the exact place where the stream entered the lake. We had watched an angler earlier in the day use a sidearm motion beautifully, and it only validated the casting action used by Tim, the best fly rod practitioner I’ve ever seen. As of today, that would become my go-to cast.
There was a hatch occurring and almost as soon as the Adams drifted to the water at the stream-lake juncture, something smacked it. Line zipped off my Orvis Battenkill as the fish made a run for the grassy weeds. It was a good 20 yards away and rather than risk losing the hefty trout, and with my boots already wet, I waded in and began my retrieve. It was a strong fish. The weeds were between me and it so I couldn’t muscle it ashore. Instead, I waded out further and this time the fish moved to open water. I could see it now, and it was big by my standards. Maybe 12-13-14 inches.
I reeled in as quickly as I dared. All I could think was “Knot, don’t fail me now.” The fish, a brookie, came closer and its girth was amazing. It was thick. I grabbed the tippet with my free left hand and guided the fish to shore. It exceeded by a couple of inches the length of my boot which was now alongside the lunker. Fisherman are notorious for overestimations of size and scale. But this was, by far, the largest brookie I’d ever caught. My immediate guess was it pushed two pounds. I yelled at Tom to come verify my catch, and soon enough, the fish was free.
Tom had some issues with his Tenkara set up, so while he tried to sort things out I moved up the stream 30 yards yards to the 15 yard wide pool where he’d been trying to cast. Instantly, another strike. Another strong fish. This one, too, made a dash for safety the overhanging bank. It bent the Scott nearly double and as I got a first look at it I wondered “How could another big fish be in here?” If anything, it was larger than the first, with a huge, gaping mouth and body mass to match. I wet my hands to release the beast, and it too went free. Unfortunately for Tom, my luck gave me something to rattle on about on the way to V Lake Trail, another two hours down the way.
In theory, the V Lake Trail would save us a couple of miles. We missed it on Day 1 to the tune of nearly three added miles in an unintentional detour.
Unbelievably, we missed it again. We’d intentionally watched for and talked about the V Lake Trail sign but we blithely marched right by it, unaware of our second error until we reached the Big Sandy Trail more than a mile later. We were furious.We just padded our mileage total again and this time it wasn’t so forgivable; an afternoon storm was blowing in and the temperatures were falling off. We had no alternative but to head up Big Sandy Trail. Big Sandy Lake was now more than six miles away and a storm loomed. To top it off, at this point we were only one half mile from the car.
One of the things about venturing into the backcountry is simply being prepared. This especially applies to changes in weather and moisture. We had all the gear we needed but when the weather goes bad, you have to be ready. We hadn’t been on Big Sandy Trail all that long when the wind whipped up and the first drops of cold rain fell. We were both wearing our long sleeve polyester shirts but within a mile our shirts and pants were soaked and it was time to break out the rain gear.
We stopped at absolutely the worst possible moment. As we took off our wet shirts and were down to bare skin and rummaged through our open, exposed packs for rain pants, the skies opened up and the wind blew mercilessly. It poured and got colder. The temperature dropped fast. This was not your typical fast moving, short lived afternoon mountain storm. This was part of some larger system. Skies were gray and rainy as far as we could see. I struggled to pull balky rain pants over wet boots as the skies opened up. My shirt and pants were waterlogged as I pulled on an already wet rain jacket. Tom got out his GoreTex gloves. I took my gloves out too – which were already wet. Seemingly every stitch of what clothing I brought was wet. And cold. My guess was the temperature bottomed out in the mid 40s – perfect hypothermia conditions.
Now the final indignity: it began to hail. We officially hit rock bottom in terms of comfort about 4:30 p.m. as we huddled on a log under a pine. The wind and rain found us beneath Tom’s space blanket. I was soaked to the bone and beginning to chill. I reminded Tom we were oh-so-close to the car. We could make a run for it. Please. In his reasoned way, Tom explained that we had been in these conditions before (true) and had the experience and gear to handle what came our way (true). But I just felt beat up from the prior few days. I wasn’t sure what was left in the tank especially if we had to set up camp in a rain storm with none of our gear dry and warm. The deciding moment came when Tom got up and put on his pack. I followed suit. He assured me I’d warm as we motored onward and upward. The hard rain continued.
Tom knew of my close brush with hypothermia some years before. It was high atop the Rawah Wilderness west of Ft. Collins, Colo. in 1979. Two friends and I had scaled a 13,000 ft. mountain – the photo of me atop the peak sits in my house – when a fierce afternoon storm blew in with us well above timberline. My friend Marty Johnson was wearing jeans and a red flannel cotton shirt when all hell broke loose in drenching rain, wind and cold temperatures. We abandoned the trail for the shortest route down. Before long, Marty went quiet and started to stumble. He was losing his coordination – one of the first signs of a drop in body temperature. He became incoherent and shivered violently. We led him by the hand down. By some act of mercy we found our stashed packs. We stripped Marty naked as his friend warmed him in a sleeping bag as I fired up the old MSR Model A to make hot liquid. I’ll never forget that experience. Today threatened to be a repeat performance.
I was not warming very quickly and began to trip over small stones and roots. My coordination was slipping and I began to shiver. All this with three or four miles to go. All I could think was, “I’m ready to quit.” It was pure misery.
Tom was right though. I had to keep moving. The best I could muster was put one foot in front of the other. Evidently my pace wasn’t quick enough – Tom moved in front of me and now we moved significantly faster. Eventually my body warmth recovered but I worried how my last line of cold defense – my Marmot sleeping bag – fared in the rain.
We were like a couple of drowned rats at Big Sandy Lake. Everything – almost everything – would need to dry out before we hit the trail.
By the time we got to Big Sandy Lake after what seemed like an endless slog, the skies were clearing and we pitched camp at the first spot that appeared suitable. I was spent and could go no further (not unlike when we hiked near Crested Butte with John and Mac when you were a teenager, Reid). The bright spot was my sleeping bag was dry, as were the Patagonia long sleeve shirt, my fleece stocking cap and my spare pair of SmartWools. I stayed up long enough to boil hot water for yet more taco filling and instant rice. I crawled, still cold, into my bag at 7:30.
Day 7, Thursday, July 17
There wasn’t enough sun to dry everything the next morning. We rigged a clothesline between pines to drape the tents and such. Shirts hung on trees and every available rock surface was host to something that needed to dry. The coffee tasted good but rest assured this will be the last instant oatmeal consumed by me for a long, long time. Gotta mix up that menu the next time.
If we were going to make the Cirque, this would be the day. We had a solid 4 – 5 miles ahead of us to say nothing of the trip down. The route was fairly heavily traveled as the Cirque is sort of a destination attraction. As is not uncommon, hikers stop to talk to hikers about remaining distance, condition of paths, etc. so we asked people what lay ahead. The topo maps showed one definitive route to the top – Jackass Pass – but we heard conflicting reports about a second trail; as was told to us, if you take a left, the path is shorter but not as pretty. If you turn right, it’s steeper but the views are better. But no one was clear – and neither were the maps – about where the “Y” would occur let alone the exact location of the path. That would become significant for us. Yet no matter how you sliced it, we would hike from 9,690 to more than 11,000 feet.
We reached a routine ford about the same time as other hikers. On the far side was a path that split in two. There was general confusion about which of two trails to take. One veered right and away from the direction of the Cirque (which was still a few miles away) but the map showed the correct route lay to our left. Tom and I, and some others, walked left.
Soon it became clear our choice was wrong. The trail faded away into a field of massive boulders. For what seemed the umpteenth time in a week, we were left to navigate over and around boulders for several hundred yards with no path in sight.
We were sick of losing trails and hopping boulders. We just wanted the last few miles to the Cirque to be routine. The reality: not hardly.
We moved from cairn to cairn that were perched atop rocks as alleged guideposts. Tom and I were losing our tempers as we became stymied among the barely navigable garage-sized rocks. Where was the real damned trail? We determined it had to be above us and not to the left which appeared to be an impassable watershed. Other trekkers were frustrated, too, with people calling out for directional help. Eventually, we did move higher to the one true path but at the cost of nearly 45 minutes of precious time.
After another half hour we broke for lunch on the upper end of North Lake and watched an endless stream of hikers troupe by. That’s the one thing I like about the northern part of the Bridger; fewer people even though the views aren’t quite the same quality.
We pressed onward up a steep switchback which lifted us to near timberline. Now we came to the infamous “Y” – and again we chose wrong. Based on the map, we were on the trail, but this too soon vanished into nothingness of rocks and scree. The Cirque was within our grasp; a half mile away we could see some of the peaks included in its vast circle of mountains. What we couldn’t see were other hikers, and we had no real clue where the real path was. The faux path – the one where you turn left – was visible hundreds of feet below but it was largely hidden by snow and boulders on the western side of Arrowhead Lake. It was too far for us to reach at this stage of the ascent, and looked wholly impassable at that. Unless we found the security of the honest-to-goodness route, we’d need to bushwhack from here.
Tom had had enough. He cursed our luck and declared he would go no further. But as he had done for me in the rain and hail, now it was my time to buck him up. I told him we were this close and there was no way in hell we were going to quit now. We had, at most, one third of a mile to go. About this time, we spied a group of hikers in straight line formation above us, a certain sign of a path. We traversed to their height and sure enough, there was the well-worn trail.
The rest is history. We scaled a nice overlook and saw enough of the Cirque to say we’d been there.
At last – and after about 20 extra miles – we reached the absolutely incomparable Cirque of the Towers. It was worth every step.
The views weren’t savored very long. A couple of high fives and a few photos and we were on the descent back toward Big Sandy Lake – this time on the genuine trail. We came, we saw, we scrammed.
Given all that we had encountered on our journey, the Cirque was relatively anticlimactic.
Nothing is left to the imagination when you come upon the Cirque: big, spectacular, massive, awe-inspiring in all ways.
It’s easy to see why so many people flock to it; jagged peaks, deep lakes (Arrowhead had gigantic icebergs floating in it), uncompromising terrain and see-it-to-believe-it scenery. (Part of me still likes the familiar north side of the wilderness where both of you have trod. No marquee attractions, just trails, hard work and fishing. For as many times as we’ve been out there, there are still huge chunks of the north in need of exploration.)
Today though, it was back down the same way we’d just come. Smooth sailing – as long as we stuck to the path. We passed a few other hikers, found a large hunting knife on the trail (which we gave away), stopped to fish for a largely fruitless 45 minutes along the west side of Big Sandy Lake and on past the camp spot where we tried that very morning to dry out after yesterday’s icy deluge. We decided to push on at least another hour – two miles or more – to find a final spot for our tents along a flat stretch of the Big Sandy stream. Tom was now in the lead and he was booking it. My pack was at least five pounds lighter which made keeping up relatively easy by my standards. There were no more trails to miss. It was a straight downhill shot.
About 7 p.m. we found the flat water and an ideal place for one last evening under the stars.
Our final night’s camp. One thing about the Bridger – both north and south halves – there is no shortage of unbelievable spots to pitch your tent.
We were yards from some of the best looking trout water I’d ever seen. After my tent and gear were in order and a fire ring was constructed – rather than lug rocks to the site, to save some effort I heaved them sidearm down hill for a final roll to the general vicinity of the cooking spot – I snuck a peak at a very large pool (probably 50 feet across) at the end of a riffle that flowed from yet another wide and gigantic stretch of flat water, with more of same above it.
This stretch of the Big Sandy has some of the best looking trout waters to be found in the back country.
As predicted, several brookies idled – oddly facing downstream – in the back half of the clockwise eddy. They were oblivious to me as they rose and fell, making small dimples in the slow moving but deep water. I went back to the fire ring, built a tepee of kindling topped by larger sticks in anticipation of our evening meal, fetched the Scott and made the bold prediction to Tom that we’d eat trout tonight.
The fish struck quickly and often but were small (five to seven inches) by this trip’s higher expectations. In aggregate these juveniles would have made a nice meal, but we deserved something larger for our last evening.
Brookies loll at the top of the water waiting for the eddy to bring the food to them. This was among the highlights of the trip: 15 minutes watching these trout feed from up close.
My theory was that this unbelievably attractive pool, not 50 yards from the main path, attracted fisher-people who saw the same qualities to the water as I did. Up the stream another 125 yards was a pool of equal quality. I tromped through the marshy portion of the stream’s north side and began Tim’s sidearm cast. Bam. A first fish in the acceptable 10 inch range. Onto the shore it went. Evening was closing fast so there was little time to spend looking for better pools. A few moments more and the last remaining Adams found its way into the mouths of several more fish, none though of keeper size. With the clock winding down, a final cast brought one last stroke of luck; another 10 incher. Now we could eat in style.
The fish were laid parallel on our remaining tin foil on a rock that served as our table and dusted liberally with our last ration of seasoning. One match and the fire burned nicely. Tom balanced the grate on two rocks and soon you could hear the brooks sizzle in their tin foil roasting pans. Seven minutes a side, and we had one last meal of fresh fish.
One final fire brought our final night to a fitting end. As much as a bitched and moaned, I can’t wait to do this again.
We lifted the fish by their tails and starting beneath the tail, our utensils pulled the meat downward as gravity easily made the pink flesh fall from the bones. These two brookies were just as good as their brethren enjoyed in our first dinner of trout six nights earlier at Dads Lake. We stayed up a little longer than usual to feed the fire since a downed tree with plenty of wood was 15 feet from where we sat on our bear canisters. I called it a night before Tom and slept pretty well. As camping spots close to gorgeous trout streams go, this was about as good as it gets.
Day 8, Friday, July 18
Our last morning was spent on chores as other mornings before it; hanging out the tents, ground covers and other damp things on trees and rocks to dry in the early sun. There was no particular rush. Nothing would ultimately need to be really dry anyway. It would all be stuffed later into the big REI duffle bag. The parking area was scarcely two miles away and we’d cover that distance in well under an hour. Can’t say that I will miss another breakfast of instant oatmeal but the coffee sure was good. My 16 oz. bottle of denatured alcohol was still half full. In seven days it only took eight oz. to cook breakfast and the trout-less portions of my dinner. Amazing.
About 10:15 we hit the path one last time. The Big Sandy was alongside us the entire way, and a couple of times we detoured – intentionally – off path to see if there were fish in the larger holes. There were. But this was no time to drop a line. We were ready to exit the back country. We made one final ford for old time’s sake and then the trail broadened so we could walk side by side. Soon enough we saw the glint of car roofs and we were back to a hiker’s ground zero.
We signed out on the Forest Service log to officially end our excursion and proceeded to the SUV. Next to us was a young couple with a Subaru with New York plates. They were on some sort of major pilgrimage and their station wagon was filled with camping gear. They were busy sorting and resorting everything they’d need to climb the Cirque. They were very nice and Tom talked shop – light weight gear and food – with them until it was time for us to shove off for Pinedale.
As soon as the car was in Drive, Tom said how different it was to sit on something that had a back to it rather than slouch on our bear barrels. He was right.
About 45 minutes later on the two lane road we reached Boulder and stopped at a convenience store for a bottle of anything non-water to drink. I washed my hands in the Men’s Room and noticed a week’s worth of gray stubble. It would have to go. We bought a medium bag of chips which we split, mostly for the salt, on the 12 miles to Pinedale. We first retrieved the duffel we stashed at the Baymont, returned the bear canister to the outdoor shop, answered the staff’s questions about fishing, then walked next door to the Wind River Brewery for a beer (I had two brown ales) and a burger (Tom got another chicken sandwich). You don’t have to ask if it tasted good. Oh yeah.
The Bridger was vanishing in our rear view mirror as we pulled into the Elkhorn Trading Post for another beer and although we’d eaten only 75 minutes earlier, Tom suggested another basket of chicken wings. The same waitress was there. With her bare hands she dug into the freezer next to the deep fryer and, without counting, pulled out an appropriate number of wings. We picked up our conversation with her from the week before with more questions about the psychology of hunting. She reached back to pull a black hat off the shelf. The white stitching said something to the effect “I shot a bear’ and was sold only to the select few hunters who brought in the actual head of a dead bear – black or grizzly – to verify that they qualified for the cheesy hat. As the waitress relayed it, the good old boys plop their kill on the bar which is protected by a plastic sheet. One can only imagine the revelry associated with such debauchery. A couple of beers helped to wash down our wings which we judged to be as good as before (but yet a couple of notches below Macs).
The Gros Verde and Wyoming and Teton ranges were lost in a haze which we dismissed as lingering humidity from all the recent moisture. As we later learned it was the smoky residue from fires further north and west in Idaho and Washington.
I’m not sure what to make of Jackson in the summer. The traffic at 4:30 p.m. when we pulled into town was just LA or New York-like. It’s all the folks drifting down from Yellowstone. The Four Winds was as it always is; semi-run down but only a block or so from all the action. We spread our stuff on the beds for sorting, and Tom volunteered to do a load of laundry after he showered. Our trail clothes were stuffed into plastic grocery store bags and off he went, bless his heart.
After a shower I walked a few blocks over to Broadway, the east-west main drag. The Silver Dollar Saloon was along the way but the bar was packed and real life cowboy couples who weren’t dancing to a live country band had all the tables taken. The town square, the one that features arches made of elk antlers, was over flowing with visitors. Nothing much looked interesting in the stores that ringed the square.
Tom brought back folded laundry, no less. We walked straight south about 4 blocks to the Snake River Brewery for a meal of pizza (Tom) and pasta (me). We ate at the bar. The service is mediocre and the food rates a six but at that point it was just nice to have someone else do the cooking. Then it was back home for a half hour of final packing and an early lights out. We had to be out the door not long after 5 a.m. to get Tom up to the airport for his flight.
Day 9, Saturday, July 19
This entire week we watched for moose while we were in the high country – but we had to wait until a few blocks north of town on the early drive to get Tom to the airport to see one walking by a fence along the highway. Go figure. My flight through Salt Lake to Charlotte wasn’t until the early afternoon so I drove back to town since that would be where the rental SUV would be turned in. A shower came first and it took almost 15 minutes and two disposable razors to make a clean shave the stubble.
The second priority at that early hour: a strong cup of black coffee. I packed the SUV and parked down the street a ways from the Four Winds and walked east of the square one block to a local coffee shop/bakery on the north side of Broadway. My cup and I sat reading the paper while the couple seated next to me complained about their accommodations.
There was one final bit of Wyoming to enjoy – a trip to to the Saturday morning farmers market in Jackson, cup of strong coffee in hand. Jackson is one helluva spot.
A farmers market was in progress on the east and north sides of the square so that was my last real chance to mingle among the locals and visitors. About 10 a.m. I headed toward the Safeway on the west side of town to buy a spiral notepad and pencil to get this journal started on the plane ride home.
It occurred to me that this had been one hell of a week. By some stroke of providence the two of us managed to survive another year blister and injury free. The gear worked well and the lighter amount of it made the walking portion of the journey a relative breeze.
You guys probably wonder why it’s always the Bridger and no place else. The honest truth is I’ve been to most other places and I’ve yet to see anything remotely comparable to it in terms of size and scope, panoramic views and suitably difficult challenges. It’s a wilderness area, not a park, and that means when you’re out there by your lonesome Ranger Rick isn’t going to trot along to see how you’re doing or offer a steaming cup of hot chocolate. You’re left to your own devices and there are no alternatives but to respect the risks and make of the high country what you will. You don’t just walk in and walk back out. I like that aspect, and so did Tom. We said a couple of times ‘we came, we saw, we conquered’ and while part of that is debatable, we did emerge no worse for the wear. I find this particular chunk of the Wind Rivers invigorates and energizes me yet at the same time brings a peace and serenity that is of high value. I’ll make this an annual pilgrimage as long as is humanly possible and my legs hold out, whichever comes first. When Emma is of sufficient age – 8 to 10 – I’d hope to show her why this is such a special place to her Papa. Of course, her parents and uncle are welcome to join us. Just stay out of our way.
Day 371, July 24, 2015
So, what’s wrong with looking ahead?
Reid, we have dates set aside for 2015: July 24 – August 1. It will be a command performance for you and Liz. I plan to drive to Wyoming (through St. Paul, Ellen). The mountain route will be the pedestrian and routine from the Big Sandy Trailhead up the six or so miles to Dads or Marm’s Lake. Either would serve nicely as a base of exploration. It will truly be the pleasure cruise of backpacking. And fly fishing.