Monthly Archives: September 2015

Yeah, man: Keep on keeping on …

Those in my age range might have to sift through cannibis influenced memories to recall an old 1960s poster that showed some hippie striding along with the cheery admonition to Keep on keeping on.

Yeah, brother, that’s the best we can do. Keep on keeping on. Ellen and Reid counsel me to do that same thing but they use today’s lingo.


September 21, 2015

Ellen/Reid: The face is back to it’s old self – emphasis on old – and the swelling is down to nothing. With luck I can jettison bandages for good sometime in the next couple of days. The scar isn’t going to be very pronounced. Got a good post surgery report on Friday at the surgeon’s office so I’m off and running (and covered in sunscreen).

Finally have two offers on the Harley – sort of. One guy wanted to do an even swap out for his front end loader. Now what in the hell would I do with a front end loader? The other guy put down a $500 deposit and will try to scrape up the rest in short order. Not holding my breath, but at least he didn’t offer a piece of construction equipment. If Craigs List doesn’t work I’ll opt for Plan B, which might be eBay. I might plug something into the Charlotte Observer, too.

Ellen, there is a lot of upheaval at Caldwell. John has been unmercifully pummeled by folks who don’t have the full set of facts on the dismissal of an associate pastor. For some reason a gigantic accusatory email went out by one of the dissatisfied folks. It was filled with utterly groundless assertions so I, in completely uncharacteristic mode, opened up with both barrels in response to the full nearly 100 name email list. I was so hot. John has worked his ass off to build the right sort of church, welcomed blacks and gays, built a seven-day-a-week homeless shelter for 50 black women, started a Latino preschool and most recently, stood silently and by himself, in front of loud and mean-spirited anti-gay protesters on our sidewalk as his way of shielding his Sunday flock. And that’s the best he gets: vitriol which is totally baseless. He called Friday to say he was going to step away as part of a six week sabbatical. I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t come back. He’s such a good man. I’m shelving the church newsletter until this all gets sorted out. I’m rapidly loosing what enthusiasm I have left for it.

In somewhat good news, the bank is insistent that I take all my vacation days this year. You literally have to be off the clock for every one of those days “per standard procedure.” There are roughly two full weeks left to be taken so therefore will have a mishmash of mid week days off plus a couple of three day weekends.

It's been months since the Miss Emma has seen the water. That's about to change.

It’s been months since the Miss Emma has seen the water. That’s about to change.

Looks like I’ll use a few of those days to lug the kayak down to Charleston for the day. I asked to cede some of my days to those with young families or who are all out of days but was told bluntly that such largesse was not allowable. Not even a ‘thank you’ for the offer. I didn’t know a business could spend so much time and mental juice on something as benign as vacation.

My Central Piedmont Community College class on writing got scrubbed since it fell a few students shy of the required number. That’s okay and frees up my Monday nights for the next six weeks. There is a letter writing class coming up in October and hopefully there will be a few more students signing up since that is the course I really look forward to teaching.

Alright, old scarface will sign out for today. Be good, kiss the girls, say hi to Liz, and keep on keeping on.

Love, Dad


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Damn I love these mountains, the last steps on the last day and time for that beer…

If you think about the planning and sweat equity that went into our 2015 excursion to the Bridger Wilderness, what is truly amazing is how fast it comes – and with even greater speed how it ends in a blink of an eye. There is a sadness of sorts in that something so anticipated is now in the rear view mirror. It is gone, and all that’s left is what you see in photos or care to remember. But that’s why they allow a 2016 version of this adventure – you can relive it all over again. Count me in.

This is the last of seven installments. Maybe that’s good news to you, but for me and my trekking companions – Rebekah, Katy, Vince, Tom and Reid – there’s a wistful hope that what is now final perhaps might have lasted a few more glorious days longer.

Send Dave a note if you’re interested in 2016:


Our tent city was truly a moonlight kingdom, and as Vince captured we had a full moon on our final night in the back country.

Our tent city was truly a moonlight kingdom, and as Vince captured we had a full moon on our final night in the back country.

Day 7, Thursday, July 30

Our last day starts about 6 a.m., and for me it comes after a good sleep in relative warmth. That’s testament to my Mountain Hardware bag. What is gained as added weight is offset by a comfortable night’s rest. The others shivered throughout the week as they tried to sleep and this was by far our coldest night.

I go about my typical pack first-leave the tent second approach. It helps to get the juices flowing.

A 19 degree morning will do this to a guy's fly reel bag left outside overnight - coat it completely with frost.

A 19 degree morning will do this to a guy’s fly reel bag left outside overnight – coat it completely with frost.

My boots are ice cold. The grass is frozen and crunches as I exit through the zippered doorway. The tent will dry soon enough as the sun rises but that’s still some time, maybe 30 minutes, away.

My guess is the temperature bottomed out in the low to mid 20s.

Wrong again. Tom, also usually up and around earlier in lieu of later sleep, reports a bone-chilling 19 degrees, the lowest in memory and in part thanks to clear skies and no wind. If the breeze was up we’d ask Tom if he had windchill app but the wind has mercifully laid down. We’d be far colder.

Reid’s Nalgene is frozen solid and he smiles as he mentions it in some sort of morbid pride in the fact the temps dipped far lower than any of us might have expected. Condensation has crystalized inside most tents. It’s good we are in a broad open area; our gear will dry quicker in the sun that is just now peeking over the Continental Divide. Unlike other campsites in the canopy of trees, we will benefit from the warmth of the sunlight sooner than later.

I ask Tom about the whereabouts of Dan; he replies that Dan was up in the dark, packed quickly and efficiently and was on his way before dawn. No telling how far he is along on the trail. Good luck to him, I think. He was a valued newcomer to our little brigade, however briefly.

My mind turns to coffee. Like everything else, my bear canister is crusted in frost and I wipe it down with the cuff of my pants. I continue to be amazed that of the 11 oz. of denatured alcohol that has made the trip, at least five to six ounces remain. The lightweight and nearly-windproof stoves are incredible if boiling water is all you need.

A young ranger stops by the camp on his way out of the high country. Nice kid, and what a helluva job that would be.

A young ranger stops by the camp on his way out of the high country. Nice kid, and what a helluva job that would be.

And that’s just about all of us really want in a stove. Boil water. The instant oatmeal most mornings has been okay, if not good, but I’m ready for a real meal. So is Reid and, probably, the rest of our band. Trail food is trail food. You eat it because it comes together fast and fills your stomach. We wrap up our final meals.

Our little tent city sprang up quickly but after a frigid overnight, the sun dried us out quickly.

Our little tent city sprang up in a jiffy but after a frigid overnight, the sun dried us out quickly.

There seems to be a little greater sense of urgency to breaking camp this last morning in the back country. My sense is we’re ready for this to conclude on our terms. We’re lucky; there have been no blisters, no major injuries, no truly getting lost (we quickly corrected whatever missteps we took on wrong paths but our brief errors were nowhere near the magnitude the befell Greg the missing hiker),

Our final breakfast on a final cold morning. I like oatmeal, but damn, enough already.

Our final breakfast on a final cold morning. I like oatmeal, but damn, enough already.

no significant gear issues, more delicious fish than we deserved, and a crew of people who meshed and got along well.

I take a look around our final campground as we near the time to hit the trail. This was a good place for a last night stopover. The fire ring will be left undisturbed for the next hikers to use. The matted spots on the cushy grass where our tents were pegged down stand out in the morning frost. A last appreciative gaze is made toward the lake. Trout, in their voraciousness, create dozens of dimples as they continue to feed at the surface. Like the internal clocks of aging hikers, their seasonal clocks tick, too.

We have roughly six miles ahead of us. Our camp at the north shore of Big Sandy Lake adds only marginal distance to the hike. Tom and I know the Big Sandy Trail. It is as arrow straight as a trail can be, decent mostly rockless terrain and it should make for a quick, easy day. We heft our packs to one knee for the final time, insert one arm through a shoulder strap, give the packs one more upward motion to insert the other arm, and at about 10 a.m. off we go. Rebekah and Reid can smell the finish line. They take off and Katy and I, in the rear and moving as fast as we can, won’t see them nor Tom or Vince again until the parking lot. People, all of us, are really hauling.

Vince continued his photographic mastery even through the final day.

Vince continued his photographic mastery even through the final day.

We deserve a stress free path. We pass many other hikers, a mix of the young, the old and families on their way up to Big Sandy Lake, the Cirque or points beyond. We talk to briefly to some that stop momentarily. Invariably they all ask how long or how far to Big Sandy Lake. They probably don’t like our responses. It’s not an apples to apples comparison. We are on the downhill side and groups headed the other way have some steep, slow stretches ahead of them. They probably all wish the distance was shorter. All of us are anxious to keep going, those going up and us headed down.

Our trailside chats done, Katy and I never do stop to officially rest. Our packs never come off. We are the last cars of a train that races down the tracks.

I ask myself, not aloud, how many more of these adventures are left in me? Probably not very many which made this trek all that much more rewarding. It means every time you look at the mountains, you really look. Sure, there’s no absorbing what you see in totality. You can pause to appreciate the landscape for what it is and how it tolerates your temporary presence in its realm but it is never really yours to have or own. We borrow what we see.

The views slipped away rapidly as we made a fast exit out of the Winds and the Bridger. There seems to be a great sadness in that. Hard work, but why is it gone so soon?

The views slipped away rapidly as we made a fast exit out of the Winds and the Bridger. There seems to be a great sadness in that. Hard work, but why is it gone so soon?

The Big Sandy River, a beautiful wide slow flowing river, is to our left as it accompanies us virtually the entire distance. It features oxbows and long stretches of flat water with almost no discernible rapids. Nothing beyond ripples. We know there are fish along the banks but we aren’t about to stop to find out for certain. The Scott stays in its cloth sleeve.

The Biug Sa

The Biug Sandy is just a tremendous stretch of water. It really is divine.

I keep looking not only at the river but to keep an eye open for the idyllic camp site Tom and I called home for our last night in ’14. It’s where we watched a school of 7 – 8 brookies swim in place in a lazy clockwise eddy as they vied for whatever food might drift by. The larger fish idled closest to the surface and hence closest to the hatch.

We really make good time on our walk as we leave the Bridger in our rearview mirrors. Our quick pace exposes my poor estimations of time and distance. My ‘educated’ guess had us stroll into the parking lot about 3:00 p.m. Was I ever wrong.

Katy and I sense the finish line and motor at a good clip and arrive at the parking area way, way ahead of my faux-schedule. I was only off by the slimmest of margins: 90 minutes. How you err by a full hour and a half is beyond me.

Our lead pack - Rebekah, Reid, Vince and tom - beat Katy and Dave to the finish line by at least 45 minutes.

Our lead pack – Rebekah, Reid, Vince and tom – beat Katy and Dave to the finish line by at least 45 minutes.

Tom, Vince, Rebekah and Reid lounge on a table in the shade and only then does it occur to me that handing the SUV keys to someone else back at Big Sandy Lake could have allowed them to conveniently pre-load the beast. But no, the keys jingle at the bottom of my Osprey pack. Way to plan, ditz.

Dave checks our group out on the forest service visitor log. All are accounted for.

Dave checks our group out on the forest service visitor log. All are accounted for. God damn, I love these mountains. What am I going to do without them?

All that is lost in the wash as we high five and slap backs and congratulate ourselves as we celebrate our feat in which we came through unscathed and thankful. At last we could now talk about prior taboos that were off limits for conversations; showers, honest-to-goodness hamburgers and fries, an air conditioned car and yes, cold beer. In a swap probably engineered on the trail, Rebekah volunteers to ride back to Pinedale in the jolt seat previously occupied by Reid. She finds out the hard way that the dirt and gravel road hasn’t gotten any smoother in the week we’d been up top in the Winds. Although we don’t feel worse for the wear, one look in the mirror shows the cumulative effect of no shower or stream side bath for days on end. My face is caked in grime although no one ever bothers to point this out to me, probably as a hiker-to-hiker courtesy. The dirt was likely not just limited to my face.

Return trips on the same road always seem to feel faster than when you first drive it. I’m not sure why that is. We browse for more antelope on the same stretches of gravel or pavement we just drove past the week before. His hard work done, Tom nods off in the passenger seat. Vince finally can close his eyes, too, without the interruption of the three most dreaded words in backpacking: let’s saddle up.

Nothing wrong with a final beer after a journey well taken: from left to right, Reid Bradley, Tom Bohr, Rebekah Fergusson, Vince Pratt, Katy Hill.

Nothing wrong with a final beer after a journey well taken: from left to right, Reid Bradley, Tom Bohr, Rebekah Fergusson, Vince Pratt, Katy Hill.

We make a pit stop in Boulder for something salty and liquid that isn’t pumped water and then it is on to Pinedale. Our first stop is the ranger station. We are anxious to rid ourselves of the bear canisters. We dissemble the pile of packs, remove the infernal barrels and stash the heavy plastic containers alongside the building. I go in to report the return, and just as I am about to leave the front desk, the ranger on duty asks if we’d been up near Hailey Pass during the heavy winds. Indeed so, I say, and add that the winds were the strongest I’ve ever felt anywhere at any time. I estimate 75 – 80 MPH – but she revises that upward to a stunning 100 MPH. All I can do is stand there and shake my dirty, unshowered head. Pinedale had seen the fierce winds, too, as Mother Nature had swept the entire range clean.

We pile back into the Yukon for the short ride down West Pine Street for our second visit in seven days to our traditional host for pre and post-hike celebrations, the Wind River Brewing Company. We trudge up the stairs to the upper terrace, plop down on real chairs and exhale, all seemingly at once. The waitress stops by for our order but she doesn’t need to ask what we want.

It is time for that beer.

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The sweep of the Cirque and Rebekah’s fish …

Most times, good things happen to good people. In the case of Rebekah, the new fly fisher, she fell for the craft hook, line and sinker. In a manner of speaking, so did her first trout. Rebekah’s was a double-dip for she and her companions: Our first up close and personal look at the Cirque was all it should have been if not more.

This is the sixth of seven installments about a 40+ mile walk through the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming’s Wind River range.


Day 5 included an evening fire for cooking trout and for quiet conversation. Nice that the wind wasn't whipping for a change.

Day 5 included an evening fire for cooking trout and for warmth and for quiet conversation. Nice that the wind wasn’t whipping for a change.

Day 6, Wednesday, July 29

We have reached our stated goal and now the Cirque of the Towers lies squarely before us, scarcely one mile away yet hidden from sight by tall pines.

Our reward is there will be no rush this cloudless morning to break camp and get a move on. Per Tom’s carefully crafted spreadsheet that shows potential camp sites, distance and altitudes to and at various check points, we’re within five miles of tonight’s camp site, Big Sandy Lake. After five days we are on the trail with ever increasing efficiency. By 6:30 a.m. my pack is ready (short of the bear canister) and my tent dries in direct sunlight on a 20 foot length of paracord tied off between two pines.

I head down to the North Popo to pump water. In the river before me swim trout to the left and right and within yards of the bank. For fisher people, particularly aging fishermen whose clock is ticking, you either fish now or the opportunity may never present itself again. At age 65 there’s no telling when or if I will habituate any mountains in the next year or two or three, let alone this spectacular back country. Coffee, tiresome oatmeal, the tent and the damn bear canister can wait; it’s time to put a line in the water.

As a practice, we haven’t eaten fish in the morning. It takes time and effort to get a fire going when we’re mostly on the clock to get going on the trail. The Scott is retrieved from its propped up position on a pine. I goop fresh floatant on the Adams set to work in the spot where Vince scored his break through monster. When the first fish is landed, it is immediately freed. Same with the second and third fish. It’s nice to cast in relative calm without wind whipping your fly all over the place. A three weight rod doesn’t have the muscle to heave line out against a stiff breeze.

As with several other trout forays, there is an interested onlooker – Rebekah.

A big whoop from the North Popo meant only one thing: Rebekah had her first ever trout and it was a beauty of a cuttie.

A big whoop from the North Popo meant only one thing: Rebekah had her first ever trout and it was a beauty of a cuttie.

The young woman is nothing if not persistent. I’m only too glad to give up the Scott. Like Vince, Rebekah has put in her time and paid her dues by going fish-less these past few days and her first trout is overdue. At least Vince has his trophy. The distance of her casts has improved to 15 yards or more. That’s plenty long enough to reach the fish zone. After a few quick pointers – 10:00 to 2:00 o’clock casting position, tend/strip line with her left hand, where they trout might hide near the cut bank, etc. – and she’s on her own in a stretch just below some riffles. She doesn’t need the nagging presence of my jaundiced eye. I wish her well and head back to camp for coffee and another breakfast of sweetened instant oatmeal. Yuck.

It’s a fairly relaxed morning absent the push to pack and go. As we’ve done most days, Reid and I use only one of the denatured alcohol stoves to heat enough water for pair of us. The little stoves continue to amaze in their efficiency. It is totally wild that 1/2 oz. of fuel is enough to boil a full pot of water for breakfast and a couple of stern cups of coffee. The MSRs guzzle five to six times that amount of fuel to achieve the same end. Sure, MSRs have their merits in higher altitude environments, but my days of lugging several heavy aluminum bottles of white gas are over and long gone. This is the new order of cooking.

The men sit around the fire ring on our bear canisters as we usually do, our impromptu kitchen gear spread before us. At least the canisters weigh less now as our food stocks have dwindled. Katy goes to the river side to watch her daughter ply the water.

The sun is still relatively low, and from the river side of the camp comes a back lit person silhouetted by the sun. It’s Katy, here to announce to all that Rebekah has her first fish. I rush to the river.

Rebekah beams as she stands on a rock holding her catch. It’s a gorgeous cuttie that she catches and lands by her own devices. Since the fire is still aflame this fish will not go to waste. Rebekah is apparently a student of the whole process, including the cleaning. We squat by the river a few yards from where she claimed her prize for a quick lesson on how to prep a river trout. A few minutes later some foil is located and the trout is seasoned and on the grill. She was about to find out your very first fish tastes the best.

The hike to the face of the Cirque was easy and routine. We had immaculate weather - and you know there are those who walk all this way only to have the peaks shrouded in clouds and rain.

The hike to the face of the Cirque was easy and routine. We had immaculate weather – and you know there are those who walk all this way only to have the peaks shrouded in clouds and rain.

Our camp was low enough in the valley that we won’t see the Cirque until we’re well along the North Fork Trail. Rebekah’s fish is history, we are packed and start to walk on the flat trail about 11 a.m. Events of the past two hours are a good way to break in the day.

After 30 minutes we reach Lonesome Lake at the very base of the Cirque itself. The peaks spread out before us – Watchtower, Wolfs Head, Sharks Nose, Symmetry Tower and Pingora – are spectacular and beyond belief, neither of which adequately describes the panorama. The Cirque of the Towers is everything we thought it would be, and then some. Although we’ve been on foot only briefly, we jettison our packs to give ourselves adequate time take in the vista we’ve walked more than 30 miles to attain.

Rebekah and her mother Katy lounge at Lonesome Lake and take in the panoramic view of the Cirque itself.

Rebekah and her mother Katy lounge at Lonesome Lake and take in the panoramic view of the Cirque itself.

Rebekah and Katy stake out a viewing spot on flat slab of granite that juts into the lake while the rest of us mill about, taking photos and gushing in glorified terms about what we think we see. It’s too bad a light breeze creates a light chop on the lake. What photos there would be of the water and the peaks beyond if the surface was as smooth as glass. Rebekah draws our attention to still more big trout cruising the shallows but not a moment’s thought is given to fishing. This is no time for fly rods. This is the Cirque.

Tom is first to heft his pack, our signal to get a move on. We will continue our southward exit from the mountains, but not without an ascent up Big Sandy Pass Trail to Jackass Pass, our final real pass of the trip. I’ve scanned the topo map and the isobars don’t look narrow-ish. This portion shouldn’t be that big a deal.

I am again proven wrong in the space of a few lung-burning steps. The trail becomes very steep, very fast and we are now in the midst of what seem to be a never-ending succession of damned switchbacks. Switchbacks are terrible, the absolute worst torture the mountains can inflict. They are a god-awful affliction, a pox on tired, drained hikers. The back-and-forth, back-and-forth zigzags mean you walk further and never seem to gain appreciable ground on the top. It’s exhausting to trudge up one stretch of path, make a sharp turn, then be required to endure yet added suffering until the next turn. And the next. As it is, switchbacks or not, the path seems near vertical to me. I’ve cruised along, unaffected by the altitude and challenges, except for today. I huff and puff like a friggin’ locomotive. So this is what oxygen deprivation must feel like on Everest or K2. Of course, Rebekah, Reid and Tom do their best mountain goat imitations as they seem to scamper up the hillside. Vince, Katy and I aren’t so spry this morning. We are the anti-goats.

We stop regularly, or at least I do, to catch our breath with our packs still on and also to look back on what we just saw a little while ago but only on a wider scale. It’s a view that would never get old.

The exit from the Cirque wasn't nearly as easy as the morning hike to the base of this spectacular ring of mountains. We ran head-on into a series of grueling switchbacks.

The exit from the Cirque wasn’t nearly as easy as the morning hike to the base of this spectacular ring of mountains. We ran head-on into a series of grueling switchbacks.

There is no wonder why the Cirque is a destination hike and is so much more overrun with hikers compared to the northern half of the Bridger. It is that spectacular. (A person could set up a nice base camp at Big Sandy Lake and walk to the Cirque and back in a relatively easy day. Many do.)

The hunched-over grind of climbing to Jackass Pass put our faces uncles and personal to flowers, such as this Indian Paintbrush.

The hunched-over grind of climbing to Jackass Pass put our faces uncles and personal to flowers, such as this Indian Paintbrush.

After what seems like forever, we eventually we make it to the curved saddle at top of the aptly named Jackass because that’s how it can make you feel as you inch your way up the steep slope. These past several hundred yards of Big Sandy Trail will be our last significant grade. It’s mostly downhill from here.

We make a well deserved rest stop between Warbonnet and Mitchell Peaks, each something over 12,400 ft. I joke, again, that I’ve put a $20 bill at the top of Mitchell for anyone who’s game enough to claim it. It’s a stale, old joke. There would still be no takers if the prize were a $100 or $1,000 bill. We scramble packless up a rock that juts up from the saddle for

Rebekah scampered up this rock during photo-op with the scale of the Winds behind her.

Rebekah scampered up this rock during photo-op with the scale of the Winds behind her.

goof off photos as we stand victoriously atop the boulder with the emptiness of the thin air of the valley behind us. We are very near to the spot where last year Tom and I went no further in our derailed quest to reach the Cirque. Below us to our right is Arrowhead Lake, a slender mountain lake that in 2014 featured actual icebergs from a vantage point some 600 or 700 feet above the lake where we could see ice protrude above the clear water as well as the bright white ice that sank below the cobalt blue deep-bottomed lake. There’s no ice this time around.

Now it is downward in earnest, for the most part, as we leave the last of the big peaks behind us. The trail is very rocky and is solid stone in many places, which makes it all the more unusual to meet a pair of non-typical hikers, a cowgirl and a cowboy, during one of our 10 minute respites. There are no horses with them.

It's not often you meet real honest-to-goodness cowboys hoofing it on the trail, but we did. Their gear had to make it a tough slog for them.

It’s not often you meet real honest-to-goodness cowboys hoofing it on the trail, but we did. Their gear had to make it a tough slog for them.

Both are in full western regalia. She’s a tall blonde in chaps studded with conchos, a pearl buttoned shirt, wide brimmed hat and boots with spurs. He’s a little overweight but he’s in a tee shirt sans chaps but otherwise looks and acts the part. This twosome is the real deal. They ask us how far to views of the Cirque. The pair is from Missouri and had trailered their pack horses to Wyoming just for the experience of being in the high country. They’ve visited a veterinarian in Pinedale as one of their horses had some sort of injury which the vet said would be remedied with a couple of days of rest. We ask where their horses are, and they say ‘back down the trail.’

Neither of them carries even a day pack. No water bottles. No hiking poles. No nothing. We say goodbye and part ways and only then does it occur to me that we should have offered them water since they had at least a couple of hours of stern walking ahead of them to see the same vistas we just exited. Given what they wear, they’ll heat up in a hurry and will need the liquid. But it’s too late now.

When they mention the whereabouts of their mounts, I assume ‘back down the trail’ to mean not very far away. We’re on the lookout now for the horses and further assume they’re tethered at North Lake, a near-twin to Arrowhead. There’s a flat spot on the northwest side of the lake. It’s perfect for rest and is at the bottom of a steep section of trail that would be a tough climb for horses. North Lake would seem a logical spot to park both animals. I now share the lead with Rebekah and Reid because I’m anxious to see horses that could navigate this sort of difficult trail.

But the nags are nowhere to be seen and we’re at least one mile from our meeting point with the cowboys. We press on and skirt the lake to the east and the trail is somewhat hidden and very rocky. This is no terrain for pack animals. I wonder, too, how the cowboys made it with heeled boots. Another 500 yards past the lake and we come upon the horses. They are handsome animals, a pair of roans tied off to a pine tree literally a few feet from the trail. What a surprise these beasts would be to unknowing hikers. I’m no horse expert, but one of the horses appears lame. It holds its left lower leg off the ground while its companion shifts on all fours. Perhaps this ailment is why the riders sought out veterinary help during a stopover in Pinedale.

The cowboys said we could pet the horses, and we do. These two are such a fine pair.

We wonder aloud how the horses could make it this far. Just below where the horses stand is a sheer slab of angled granite that makes footing problematic for us, let alone horses that weigh upward of 1,200 pounds. Perhaps the cowboys knew their steeds labored unsteadily up that rock and could go no further. Certainly, even before this point, the cowboys would have been forced to dismount and lead their horses by the reins. The trail features still more solid stone surfaces as we descend making us wonder to a greater degree how the horses got to their current spot at all. If the cowboys return sometime later we will likely see them again as the downward trail goes only one way, and that’s to Big Sandy Lake, maybe a couple of miles, if that, from where we are at the moment. But we never see the riders nor the horses again.

We easily cross a minor stream which is our last true crossing of the trip. Soon, we see the lake. It’s a big, broad body of water and a hugely popular overnight place for backpackers and day hikers since it is at the juncture of several trails; Big Sandy Pass Trail, Big Sandy Trail and Little Sandy Trail  as well as the jumping off point for pushes to the Cirque.

Our preference for camp would be somewhere close to the cover of trees on the west side of the lake but already we see smoke from campfires in several desirable spots where we hoped to spend our final night beneath the stars. At the north shore of the lake is a large grassy meadow, perhaps 600 yards across and several hundred yards deep. We know people have camped there before and it offers the closest stopping potential to us right now. We halt momentary to weigh our options. The open meadow would expose us to whatever weather might rush in but the treed areas already appear to be claimed. One plus to the meadow is we will get early sun to dry out our tents. We can’t go to the attractive east side since it’s way too far. It’s getting on in the afternoon and we need to set up camp before dark sets in. Besides, it’s our last night to fish and that’s a worthy consideration.

We take the shore trail east and soon we tromp through the grass looking for flat spots. There are plenty underfoot. We spread out with at least 25 yards separating each tent. The grass will be a good secondary cushion beneath the tents. Part of me laments that we are entering the final few hours of our adventure. We prepare to exit the Bridger just about the time we find our sea legs. At this point two weeks in the back country seems eminently doable. Just not this year.

The lake is alive with fish feeding at the surface but first there’s the matter of fire wood, a fire ring to be built and water to be pumped. I collect rocks for the ring. Those I can’t carry are rolled with a shove from my boots. I head into a nearby stand of pines in search of wood which seems not very abundant. Other campers have used up the resource. That scarcity pushes me several hundred yards away from camp. A big armload is gathered – the first priority is enough to cook our final night’s dinner of trout – and back I go. Reid sees his dad and beelines it toward a long dead pine up on a hillside and he returns toting a large armload, too. Directly adjacent to our ‘kitchen’ is North Creek which flows south from the lake of the same name. Another 150 yards further down stream it empties into Big Sandy. The inflow should be a good spot to fish as trout wait to ambush food that pours from above into the lake below.

The water is calling. I have to fish. It’s our final opportunity.

The north end of Big Sandy is relatively shallow. The incoming North Creek has created a sandbar that runs away from the shore and there appears to be a drop off. That’s where I’ll first try my luck. Another Adams is plucked from the tin fly box. I use an Improved Clinch Knot to affix the fly to the 3 weight line. A dab of floatant and the Scott is in business. Line is stripped out from the Orvis reel and after a few casts to load the ever-lengthening line, the final cast puts the Adams about 30 yards into the lake to the right side of the sand bar.

The late afternoon sun is such that I cannot see the first trout streak in to wallop the fly. What I find peculiar is fish seem to slam ersatz flies, but when they suck down other natural food, only a dimple is made. There is no rhyme nor reason for the savage attacks on something so obviously artificial. But this becomes a moot point as what feels like an okay fish makes a brief, and unsuccessful, bid for freedom. Another stringer of willow is the new temporary home of the 10 inch cuttie. I return to the shore to fish for more.

So does Reid. His rod is an old Orvis model that he’s had since he was four or five years old. It was a spur-of-the-moment purchase before I became somewhat more knowledgable about the weight and length and the other nuances of what makes a rod a good rod. It’s the only fly rod he’s ever known so he’s used to the quirks of a five – six weight rod that is one foot longer than mine. It might not be the best small stream rig ever invented but on a big lake like Big Sandy size won’t matter. That an artificial that drops plausibly on the water seems all trout are concerned about. Fish don’t know rod weight. Reid wields the Orvis like a pro. He’s off to my right about 30 yards and already he’s onto his first trout, something in the 10 to 11 inch class. That’s two on the willow. Four to go.

This is good trout action for a lake we presumed got a lot of pressure since many, many hikers find it to be a much-desired camping location. Hey, check this out. There’s a trout-filled lake adjacent to our tent. To our right 75 yards or so is another fisherman who can’t like that we’re pulling in trout and calling out to each other with each hooked fish. We haven’t seen the guy land anything. Could be that we are in the best spot where feeder stream meets lake.

The two of us trade catches and within 15 minutes we are at our dinner quota for the night. I am still amazed at the length and mass of what we bring to shore. Reid continues to catch-and-release while I head back to camp with our entrees. Who can blame him for staying put when there is fishing like this? He’s not sure when he’ll be back this way, either. When in doubt, keep fishing.

In something of a baton handoff in a relay, Rebekah is waiting at the camp for her turn. She grabs the Scott and she and Katy head down to the water’s edge. I go about cleaning our fish. It crosses my mind as it has on other nights: ‘This girl likes to fish.’ Rebekah is bound and determined.

The fire comes together pretty fast in the absence of howling winds that dogged us for days on end. However, there is one slight hitch in our meal plans. We are low on non-stick foil. We’ve reused the foil twice over prior fires and whatever spare sheets brought in reserve are on their last legs too. I try to cobble together enough foil but it will fall well short of what we need. If we place the cutthroat directly on the foldable steel grill the fish will burn and stick. I stew about a possible workaround. There is none. Around the campfire fixing their last meal of the trip are Tom, Vince, and now Reid comes to join us. Rebekah and Katy can be seen down at the lake.

It will be dodgy to cook these trout. I feel bad about the foil situation. Some fish are so big their heads and tails simultaneously stick out from the ends of the foil, Not a bad problem to have but never a good situation when it comes to turning the fish from one side to the other. We manage to put broiled fish on the plates of Vince and Tom but I make a royal mess of Reid’s fish. In the process of removing it from the grill with less than desirable cooking utensils (a forked stick), I dump his trout into the fire. The ‘five second’ rule is not in effect and Reid summarily rejects the retrieved fish. I toss it into my pan and use a spork to flick away the embers and dirt. The fish still tastes as good as ever, if you like the dull tang of carbon with a little grit tossed in.

The sun isn’t far from setting on the slope of Laturio Mountain (11,342 ft.) when Rebekah and Katy march triumphantly into camp. Rebekah has caught another large, gorgeous fish. It dangles from the line as the Scott is bent over. She intends to eat it. This is because, as she said, for the better part of 20 minutes the mother/daughter tandem tried without success to free the trout from the hook but could not. The trout is long since dead. I tell her, laughing, it’s a hook. How does it take 20 minutes to dislodge a size 14 hook? All you do is pull it out.

We stoop by the stream for Rebekah’s first hands-on lesson in how to dress a trout. I hand her my small Swiss Army knife, handle first, with another set of instructions to zip the blade from the anus up to the head of the fish. She squeezes the fish and inserts the blade but finds it difficult to run the business edge up the gut. A upward forward pressure and the blade should slid easily as if the fish were a stick of butter. You can chalk this up to instructor error since by this point I am laughing again, and as I laugh the harder Rebekah tries. Finally, the fish is slit from stem to stern and she handles the innards with ease. She gives her meal a good rinse and it’s upward to the cook site where she assumes responsibility for the entire cooking process with a newly discovered sheet of foil. The fire gives off a nice light as the real light of the day fades out for good. Rebekah seems to enjoy everything about the preparation from the cast to the catch, the cleaning and finally, her meal.

It will be a glorious full moon night that will be even more glorious in its streetlight effect on the open space where our tents are spread out. By now it’s about 9 p.m. and for some unknown reason I stand 50 yards away over at the trail. Maybe to look at the rising full moon. Coming from the east, and outlined by the rising moon, is a hiker. As the figure comes closer, it is a man in shorts and tee shirt carrying a small pack. How is he not cold? I think since the temperatures have dropped like a stone now that the sun is gone. I wear just about every stitch of clothing I own and am glad of it. But he looks unaffected and smiles as he nears.

Dan is one helluva hiker - the 'through' hiker variety. He was on the Continental Divide Trail and after months of walking, his goal was nearly in sight. He borrowed our fire to cook trout he caught with chunks of cheese. I said brookies weren't too smart.

Dan is one helluva hiker – the ‘through’ hiker variety. He was on the Continental Divide Trail and after months of walking, his goal was nearly in sight. He borrowed our fire to cook trout he caught with chunks of cheese. I said brookies weren’t too smart.

We’ve been universally accepting of all walkers we encounter who are willing to exchange pleasantries. We talk many of them up; a German father and his daughter at Dad’s Lake, a couple moving up the north slope of Hailey Pass, the scout leaders on Lizard Head Trail, the cowboy and cowgirl, and now this young man who appears in his 30s.

I ask where is he going – his name is Dan – and he said he is a through hiker on the CDT – the Continental Divide Trail from New Mexico to Canada. The CDT isn’t for the faint of heart. Only dedicated walkers, adventurers, and individuals comfortable in their own skin for months at a time need apply for such ruggedness. And here he is doing this epic journey on his own. I ask Where are you headed tonight? His intent is to walk through the darkness by the light of the moon. Tom is over at the fire and I yell for him to come over. Dan is Tom’s sort of distance hiker. Both (Vince conquered the AT in sections) have walked non-stop the full length of the Appalachian Trail. Dan has trod many of the major routes including the Pacific Crest Trail and others that are news to me but will be known by Tom, who I think aspires at age 66 for a few more good hikes. (He does have more long walks in him.)

These two, and Vince, hit it off instantly. Dan is a kindred spirit that Tom and Vince can relate to. None of the rest of us can relate to conquering the full length of the 2,000-plus mile AT in one sitting. But our two and Dan have much in common; strong knowledge (and opinions) on stretches of the AT trail, ultralight gear, through hiker practices, names of through hikers, and other resources that the rest of us can only scratch our heads and wonder about. This is fodder for a hiker-on-hiker conversation that could last awhile. We invite Dan to the warmth of our campfire and he accepts.

We immediately huddle around Dan to hear of his many exploits. He departed Mexico in May and literally he is on the home stretch through the upper reaches of Wyoming and then into Montana (we share routes that are squarely adjacent to and intersect the Continental Divide in several locations). In typical through hiker fashion, his possessions appear to be minimal. What we do know is he has two small trout in a baggie that he intended to eat at some point during his light-of-the-moon trek. I am amazed Dan has no rod nor reel. The fish were caught with a hand line and a piece of cheddar. No high-dollar Scott or Orvis gear. A line he slings out and chunk of yellow cheese. The man is an improvisor. Dan subsists on food drops (as have Tom and Vince) along the route. His apparent plan is to veer off the Continental Divide once he’s parallel with Pinedale and perhaps where he can find work until he earns sufficient money to continue his walkabout. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s ventured to Pinedale. He worked in the gas fields until he tired of it, and he also spent time in the Great Outdoor Store where we bought a few final small items of gear. He accepts a shard of tin foil and proceeds to cook his fish on the grill and prepares another side dish of a rather simple meal. I have no idea what he uses for heat for all his other meals. He carries no stove.

It is now past 9:30 p.m. and it is pitch dark except for what is illuminated by moon glow and our final fire. It is now really cold and getting colder. The night air already has to be around 30 degrees and I shiver. Dan has put on a shirt, flannel I believe, in a simple acknowledgment of the air temperature. Several of us are ready to call it a night, and we tell Dan, not ask him, that he is welcome to pitch his tent in our small encampment. He accepts that offer, too,

Tom, Vince and Dan stayed up into the night to talk about serious hiker stuff.

Tom, Vince and Dan stayed up into the night to talk about serious hiker stuff.

but he and Tom and Vince are in the midst of some serious hiker talk so they continue the discussion while Rebekah, Katy, Reid and I retreat to our tents.

I bring my SmartWater bottle into the tent for fear it will freeze although with one day to go it wouldn’t be a huge loss if it froze and burst. I slide all the way down into my sleeping bag, don a fleece cap, zip up and cinch the hood of the bag tightly. The moon light brightens the interior of my tent. Too bad the moonbeams offer no warmth.

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Why they call these mountains the Winds, not the Calms …

There is some sense of satisfaction that this was, after a year’s delay, the view we finally got to see after nearly 30 miles on foot. Pictures can’t (and don’t) possibly do it justice. We got lucky with the weather, too – it could’ve been dodgy but we had sunshine on the days we needed it most.

This is the fifth of seven installments about the visit by a small band of hikers to the Wind River range and the Bridger Wilderness in western Wyoming. Send Dave a note at if this sounds like your sort of adventure next year.


This is what we came back for - our first view of the Cirque of the Towers.

The view Tom and I were denied in 2014 – the Cirque of the Towers – came into full view as we walked with four of our friends.

Day 5, Tuesday, July 28

Early to rise, early to get on the trail. By 6:15 a.m. I’m up, my gear packed and in another little while the tent, always the final item to be tended to, is rolled and stashed under the top flap of my pack. I silently curse the infernal bear canister that sucks up way too much space.

After a wind-whipped night, the morning is very cold, very raw but very clear. Tom has a temperature app. Hello, upper 20s.

The saving grace is the wind, at last, is down. This is welcome since much of our day will be spent above timberline and the last thing we would need is another day of enthusiasm-sapping wind, especially when it’s as frigid as it is. But it does make the instant, hot Italian roast Starbucks taste that much better. Reid and I postpone our breakfast of oatmeal. Coffee is enough for now and protein bars will suffice for a two footed breakfast somewhere down the line.

There’s not much talking as we break camp at least two hours earlier than normal. That’s likely due to the early bird start and it is so very cold. We just each go about our business. People understood the gravity of what we faced. This will be our longest single day. We have roughly nine miles ahead of us as we head east, then south, to Lizard Head Meadows, a very wide, very long flat spot that lies just east of the Cirque. We’re beyond the halfway mark of our trip. That’s not a bad feeling at all. Everyone is in good shape and in good spirits.

Katy and Rebekah were prepared for a cold morning in July.

Katy and Rebekah were prepared for a cold morning in July.

The fleece cap worn in my sleeping bag stays on my head. Everyone has on about as much clothing as they have. Vince loses a glove and we try to help him locate it but it remains missing. Not a crushing loss but we won’t be in the warmth of sunshine for at least the next few hours.

Water is pumped one more time by the flat rock where Reid caught the Big One. A quick glance shows no trout has moved in to fill the vacuum of the prime space. The bottles are redistributed and from the look of things, we are nearly ready to be on our way and on time, no less. We say goodbye to our encampment and are on the trail within minutes of Tom’s hoped-for start. Part of his desire to shove off early isn’t related only to the mileage ahead; summer afternoon storms can be violent and dangerous and we want to be at least on the downslope of Lizard Head Trail before the storms build up and blow in. I wonder about the likelihood of storms given the cool temperatures we’ve had. Mild temperatures wouldn’t contribute as much to the thermals that are the backbone of volatile weather. But Tom’s thinking is sound so off we go. His planning is always methodically considered and fact-based there is never any reason to question it. He is our alpha dog.

The fleece caps and gloves stay on for warmth. Given the short height of the trees around Valentine, we aren’t all that far from timberline.

After 10 minutes of hiking we pass within 50 yards of the Plan B camp set up by the horsemen who were turned away from Valentine by our timely fortune. It appears to have worked out well for them; they are in a fine grassy expanse in the near treeless zone at timberline with good views of the line of mountains to the west. Their horses are still tethered to a rope strung between two short trees. The cowboys and their clients don’t appear to see us silently trod by. They have a breakfast fire going. I wonder if they eat better than we do. The guessing is yes.

Now we will endeavor up, up, up Bear’s Ears Trail until it intersects with Lizard Head Trail just below Cathedral Peak. A series of switchbacks are an early test. We are still on the shaded western side of the mountain, with ice on portions of the path.

Yeah, that's solid ice. Testament to the air/temps you'll find above timberline, even in the summer.

Yeah, that’s solid ice. Testament to the air/temps you’ll find above timberline, even in the summer.

Our usual Rebekah-Reid-Tom-Vince-Katy-Dave pecking order is in place. We are now above timberline and the sun begins to warm us but we do tiptoe across some runoff that has turned to solid ice on the trail as it waits for the morning temperatures to moderate. The stocking caps and gloves will be shed soon enough.

Vice, Reid, Tom, Rebekah and Katy bask in the sun, but bask in the views to the west, too.

Vice, Reid, Tom, Rebekah and Katy bask in the sun – but bask in the views to the west, too.

Even in the shaded western slope of Mount Chauvenet (12,250 ft.) the range to the west is in full sun under still another day of deep blue skies. The views are beyond stunning, some of the best I’ve ever seen in the Rockies. Vince stops regularly to take photos. This is the finest scenery yet. We stop regularly to absorb what we cannot fully fathom. In what will be a regular epiphany for me on this stretch of the trail I find it hard to process the scope and magnitude of what is spread out before me from south to north for miles and miles. I wonder, almost aloud, if anyone can.

Rather than look up as we had to with prior peaks, we are even with or straight across from Buffalo Head and Payson Peak to our right and Loch Haven further north to our right. The falloffs from the peaks are nearly vertical.

Our initial climb ends in what is loosely termed a saddle from Cathedral Peak (12,166), just to our south. We are at the junction of Bears Ears and Lizard Head Trails.

We’ve been on the trail about 90 minutes. It was time for our first break and Rebekah and Reid find us a nice stopping point in the shelter on the lee side of some rocks in the saddle. We don’t hide so much from the wind but to absorb the warmth of the sun. This is about 9:30 or so.

A short while before we’d seen a group of hikers coming up fast behind us but still far below. They are now upon us. It is a group of Scouts from Virginia. It is still plenty cold enough for hats and gloves, but a number of the scouts seem oblivious to or unprepared for the conditions. Several are clad in only shorts and tee shirts. The teenagers look and act cold. Stopping only to verify their position on the map, they head onto Lizard Head Trail not too many yards from where we now saddle up from our 15 minute rest/fueling stop among the protection of the granite rocks.

A minor stream we must cross is partially frozen and some scouts have clearly broken through the ice rather than pick a drier spot. We surmise their socks and boots must now be soaked. We find a saner spot and cross without incident.

Katy powers up Lizard Head Trail as it skirts Cathedral Peak and only feet from where the scouts broke through ice that covered a stream.. We were above timberline a long time.

Katy powers up Lizard Head Trail as it skirts Cathedral Peak and only feet from where the scouts broke through ice that covered a stream.. We were above timberline a long time.

We head almost due southwest now, and climbing, around the base of Cathedral Peak. At 11,600 feet, it is our high water mark for the trip.

To look at the map, Lizard Head Trail looks flat without much elevation up or down.

Reid consults the top map. No real way to run astray when you're above timberline and can bushwhack.

Reid consults the top map. No real way to run astray when you’re above timberline and can bushwhack.

But that’s another mountain misnomer. 40 feet in elevation separates each contour line and we go up and down plenty of these lines as we head almost due south toward the Cirque.

We run into the scouts repeatedly. They are in a long broken line, some stop often and some seem to be separated by one-half mile or more from the rest of their troop. Their leaders admit they aren’t prepared for the unpredictable weather at higher altitude. I think to myself what would happen if an all-too-frequent afternoon storm blew in to drench this group of 12 – 15. The trail is completely exposed.

The scouts from Virginia seemed a pretty disjointed bunch. Not well prepared for clothing or the concept of staying together.

The scouts from Virginia seemed a pretty disjointed bunch. Not well prepared for clothing or the concept of staying together.

That’s one reason we rousted everyone in the morning chill for our early departure; to get off the mountain before thermals create storms and storms create a cold-to-the-bone rain. We don’t sense that happening. It may be too cold for thermals to form but if conditions change for the worse we’ll already be headed downward and off this particular stretch of mountains. Having seen a friend, Marty Johnson, soaked to the skin in 30 degree temperatures while wearing a red and black cotton flannel shirt and jeans and then become utterly incapacitated by hypothermia above 12,000 feet was a lesson learned the hard way about this mountain danger. That was 35 years ago and it might as well have occurred yesterday, so fresh is the memory.

The scenery is beyond imagination and perhaps our comprehension. Vince and Reid both tote full size SLRs, all the better to capture what they see but even the best lenses and imaging technology will be inadequate to record the full scope and grandeur that is scarcely a mile to our immediate west. It stretches in a line for miles to the north where we came from and beyond to the northern half of the Bridger.

Tom, usually at or in the lead, stopped momentarily in front of arguably as good a scenery as can be found. Miles after unbroken mile of it.

Tom, usually at or in the lead, stopped momentarily in front of arguably as good a scenery as can be found. Mile after unbroken mile of it.

This is a wild area among wild areas, the enormity of which is hard to grasp. At least it is for me. Colorado may offer higher mountains but it’s hard to compete with unbroken vistas of sharp, jagged peaks such as the scene that unfolds before us.

What’s puzzling is the wind is still up. It was down in this morning’s camp and on our initial ascent. This is the third straight day of much stronger than expected winds. I suppose that’s why they call these mountains the Winds rather than the Calms because the range is anything but serene.

Around noon we take another break, this in a far more exposed location than any spot where we’ve made a momentary halt.

The wind was still up, but not as cold as prior days - and a rising, high noon sort of sun helped. But we still had to find haven behind available boulders.

The wind was still up, but not as cold as prior days – and a rising, high noon sort of sun helped. But we still had to find haven behind available boulders.

We settle behind low rocks that don’t quite offer the protection we need. Even with the stiff chill wind, Vince has the knack to slip his pack off quickly and making do with whatever terrain he’s on for a short nap; dirt, pine needled forest floor, flat rocks. We’ve seen him zonk out plenty of times before. This is nothing new.

We are now close to the Cirque, out of sight but not much more than a few miles away. To the south we can see Dogtooth Mountain, Big Sandy Mountain and the Monolith. All are on the far side of Lizard Head Meadows, a flat plain that lines the broad valley spreading east from below our ultimate goal. The Meadows, however, also lie too low to yet be in view. What mountain flowers there are, in their shortened growing season, are out in full bloom. Vince stops to shoot arrangements of blue bells, fireweed,

Vince has the photographer's eye. When he stopped to take photos, he made them count.

Vince has the photographer’s eye. When he stopped to take photos, he made them count.

shrubby cinquefoil, scarlet gilia, bitter root, silky Lupine and Indian Paintbrush. Every so often we come across the columbine, the most prized bloom of all.

The spectacular vistas are unbroken, mostly to our right in the west. It is amazing country. We begin our descent almost directly across from Lizard Head Peak (12,842 ft.)

Lizard Head Lake cuts an imposing profile. It's just around the corner, in a manner of speaking, from the Cirque.

Lizard Head Lake cuts an imposing profile. It’s just around the corner, in a manner of speaking, from the Cirque.

and below it is the deep blue of Bear Lake. The temperatures are warming now, into the upper 50s is my guess, and we shed the outerwear that made the morning hike comfortable. We commingle with some of the Scouts as we head down the mountain for the valley of the Cirque.

As we begin our drop in altitude, the winds drop too. This is very welcome after consecutive harsh days of it. Rebekah, Reid and Tom are seen far below on the switchbacks and also coming into view, at last, are the Meadows. Katy and I continue things in the rear – it gives us that much more time to gaze at what is before us. Whatever we’ve gained in height we are in the process of losing in a major way; we drop from 11,600 feet to just over 10,000 ft. in little more than an hour. The downhill sections can be as tough on the limbs and knees as the uphill is on the lungs. In some cases we step from rock to rock along with a little sliding in the dirt along patches of the route that have turned to dust. Dust offers no real stability.

There is is off to our west: the Cirque of the Towers. We won't get up close and personal until the next day.

There it is off to our west: the Cirque of the Towers. We won’t get up close and personal until the next day.

The Cirque now sweeps into view. It is as the photos show; rugged, sharp, broad and varied in more or less a semi-circle with Lonesome Lake at the foot of it all. Tom and I were denied this view last year. But not today. We congratulate ourselves for having made it, not just on today’s long jaunt but on summoning the resolve to come back when all we saw of this attraction in 2014 were the tops of the arced range itself. This is much better, incredibly better, and far more satisfying.

We descend down-down-down and enter the valley not much more than one mile due east of Lonesome Lake. We’re now along the north bank of a small tributary of the North Popo River which empties from Lonesome. It’s about 3:30 p.m. and we look for a stopping point, most of which appear on the far side of the river in the middle of the valley. There won’t be many options to the north at the foot of Lizard Head Peak. Now accustomed to fords, some of us walk directly in the shallow waters. Others of us (Reid and his dad) skirt the river and keep our feet dry by walking atop the mountain willows piled up on the riverbank.

Reid leads the advance team toward a slightly elevated stand of pines that looks promising. It is flat. Often, these are the best campsites of all, what with fallen pine needles as a carpet. Sure enough, we find numerous tent sites not much more than 100 yards from the North Popo. It’s a fabulous looking body of slow and wide water. But like the stream that poured out of Mae’s Lake, will it have been overfished or fished out by the campers who’ve left fire rings and other evidence of recent overnights there? We immediately break into our routine; tents up, gear arranged, firewood sought, fly rods rigged. It’s a large enough area that there can be at least 50 yards between each tent.

Within 15 minutes my tent is up, the usual gear in the usual places inside the tent. Everything is ship-shape. A quick walk for firewood shows not much available. We’ll need to be inventive for dry timber. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Reid and I take a few minutes to put up Katy and Rebekah’s shared tent. We first kick away any loose stones and branches that can gouge backs in the middle of the night. Their site is ideal with a small degree of slope from top to bottom, all the better to direct runoff in the event we have rain, which doesn’t appear likely.

We have new neighbors along the North Popo. This band of visitors has reached this spot on the backs of several llamas. The pack animals graze not far from their large tents and among the goods the beasts have transported include the yoga togs and mat of a woman now seen going through her routine in the afternoon sunshine. The grandeur of the alpine zone apparently induces some degree of inspiration in practitioners. I suppose it should be far from the fisherman to opine about someone else’s leisure. At least the unusual gear didn’t add much to the load of the llamas.

Since our part of the camp set up is done, Reid and I agree to hit the nearby Popo. It’s nice, flat, clear water; a classic mountain stream/river in all respects which is much larger than anything we’ve fished. Seen near the cut banks are idling trout; look like cutthroats, maybe brookies. Either will do. We’re on the hook for food tonight so some fish better be on the hook, too. We’ve got to combine for at least six. Expectations are high. Since you don’t find trout like these in any market in Charlotte, Chicago or California, the locales we hail from, in culinary terms you best make hay while the sun shines.

It’s about 60 yards from my tent to the nearest riffles. A quiet pool form behind several large rocks at the head of the pool and I flick the Adams about 10 yards toward the backside of the rocks to let the fly drift in the slow current. Within seconds, the strike comes. It’s a plump cutthroat; its orange slash below the gill plate is visible as the fish rolls. One down, five to go. I make a few more casts in hopes of a straggler but no more hits. Just like several other of our overnight locations, I’m guessing this chunk of water sees a lot of action since our campground appears to see frequent use.

Reid is downstream about 75 yards making gorgeous casts. I don’t know if he’s caught anything. Beyond him another 100 yards is the stretch of slow moving river of the most interest. On both sides are cut banks with overhanging willows. It will be difficult to cast to but should hold fish.

Dare to walk through leg-grabbing willows and this can be what awaits you: enough cutthroats for dinner.

Dare to walk through leg-grabbing willows and this can be what awaits you: enough cutthroats for dinner.

What makes it doubly appealing is the degree of difficulty to get there. There are several small offshoots of the same stream we forded to get to our camp. While not very wide, each is too wide to jump and each is choked with discouraging, and foot catching, willows. You have to look carefully for a spot to cross. This would discourage a lot of fishermen who avoid the difficulty factor. It didn’t phase Reid nor me.

I’m first to arrive along this portion of the river. The deep, fishable current is about 25 yards past the slower water and the fly is cast to a 2 o’clock position to my right and allowed to float right-to-left with the flow. Per another of Tim’s lessons, I try, mostly without success, to ‘mend’ the line. That is, use wrist action to flick the looped line backward against the current to keep the fly in the hit zone as long as possible. Within the first half dozen casts, two more sizable cutthroats join the first fish on the makeshift stringer of willow. Reid sees this action and it hastens his trip to meet me and he sets up shop on a sandbar about 35 yards to my right, and he too begins to get strikes. In short order, he comes up with the last three filets. Our stringer is filled. Dinner is ours.

This fly casting – and catching – activity also does not escape Rebekah’s watchful eye. Some 100 yards away she circumnavigates the dense willow for a passable route toward the sandbars where Reid and I work the water. Her license is active, and she wants to fish. You have to like that in her. Both she and Vince would have fished a lot more if circumstances allowed. We just didn’t have enough rods to satiate everyone. At least we had two rods and not one.

To manage fly line, read the water, trod stealthily to not spook fish, make decent long casts to tight spots and avoid snags – let alone actually catch a trout – is a challenge for any angler, including first-timers. But you have to start somewhere, and Rebekah and Vince began their trout odyssey several days ago at about 10,000 ft. Now it’s crunch time, time to get serious about it. time to catch a fish.

Rebekah was like the Little Train That Could when it came to fly fishing: 'I think I can, I think I can ...'

Rebekah was like the Little Train That Could when it came to fly fishing: ‘I think I can, I think I can …’

Rebekah’s assignment is the smooth water along a cut bank a few yards from where Reid and I had good fortune. The cut was 3 – 4 feet deep and shaded by overhanging willows. Some nice cruisers face into the current. She must be spot-on to entice these 10 – 12 inchers to the surface. I’d love to see her make the 25 – 30 yard cast to swifter water but she’s not quite there yet. There’s no doubt whatsoever that a few more days of effort and practice and she would be.

For the newbie, flat water is the toughest with no margin for error. Rebekah’s casts are improving but not so her luck. Nothing was coming to the top. That’s just the way it is some days. It’s unfortunate she’ll return to camp empty handed.

I retrace my steps along the creek to doable portions where a long hop would get me across. The fish are gutted, cleaned and rinsed, returned to camp and encased in foil and spices.

Rebekah gets back to camp and now it’s Vince’s turn to angle. The Scott A4 shifts from one hand to the next, and Vince goes straight to the stream where the riffles meet the flat water. It is a good spot not only for fish but it is relatively open behind him with minimal threat from fly-grabbing plants and rocky debris.

Vince claimed his first-ever trout - and it was the biggest of the trip. Hard to tell if he's happy or not.

Vince claimed his first-ever trout – and it was the biggest of the trip. Hard to tell if he’s happy or not.

And he doesn’t disappoint. As the rest of us boil water to hydrate our non-fish dried dinners, he returns to camp with the rod in one hand and a big, big fish in the other. He has hooked and landed arguably the largest fish, 12 – 13 inches at least, of the trip. It was his first-ever trout and this giant of a cutthroat will make a delicious meal.

Vince and Tom dig in on trout. They don't need to be told twice. Fresh broiled mountain fish are a delicacy.

Vince and Tom dig in on trout. They don’t need to be told twice. Fresh broiled mountain fish are a delicacy.

(We find the white meated cutthroats not quite as tasty as the pink-fleshed brookies. But that’s tantamount to splitting hairs; these are still a delicacy you’ll find nowhere else. And Vince’ is the biggest of them all.)

It doesn’t take much for a fire to get going and after broiling the requisite seven minutes per side, we dine on another meal of fresh fish. There is something communal about fires like this. I’m on scrounge-for-wood duty and enough is found nearby that we keep the flames lit and the conversation going until after the sun goes down, about 9 p.m. Then it is off to our tents; day five is in the books.

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Of mountain storms, nice fish and those damned winds …

It’s day four of our Wyoming adventure. The wind is up but so are our spirits. When you catch fish, how can that not be?

Installment five will be posted tomorrow. If you’re interested in this sort of trip out West in July 2016, send Dave a note at


A makeshift fire ring barely manages to deflect heavy winds that have plagued us for two straight days.

A makeshift fire ring tucked beneath the ledge of a garage sized boulder barely manages to deflect heavy winds that have plagued us for two straight days.

Day 4, Monday, July 27

What is with the damned unrelenting wind? It blows all night. The morning is gray and dark, a direct contrast to the sunny beginnings of every other day.

My gear is stowed, again, before I am out of the tent. When I do unzip the rain fly it occurs to me that I’d better keep it on for a while. Out of the southwest and seemingly just grazing the peaks are low clouds that race across the sky. One figures the wind has to be blowing in something. Maybe rain is what it pushes. I hustle back in to retrieve my rain gear just in case. Does it usher in a front that potentially brings days of poor, damp weather with it?

Since I have an advantage in that I’m mostly pre-packed except for the tent, and because the others won’t be up for a while and because my Scott is rigged and standing up against a pine, I want to fish. Not the lake, but a stream we crossed several hundred yards away and before we came upon our overnight spot. So I head that way, mindful that I’ll intersect the path where the bear paw was seen. It does put me a little bit on edge, or at least on alert status.

The stream is a beauty. Steep but not overwhelmingly so. I cut my fly fishing teeth on just such streams like this in Colorado. These aren’t the stuff of long, flowing casts that grace the pages of slick magazines. This is more dip-and-dunk where short accurate casts of maybe five to 10 yards, at most, are the rule. The stream is perhaps seven or eight yards wide at its widest spot but it features some very deep pools that certainly look fish worthy. My theory is that trout in this habitat are opportunists. They must strike or the food escapes them.

The theory is validated almost instantly. A big brookie, 11 inches or so, rises to hit the fly like a small train. I wet my hands to hold it and pause for a moment to take in its color and form. This fish hasn’t missed many meals. It is such a pretty, healthy trout with its dark spots and brown-purple-red coloration. This is a catch and release morning. This fish goes back. So does the next, and the next after that. I love little streams.

The dense clouds continue to build and grow darker as they move quickly across the low sky. This looks like rain to me so after 15 minutes I hightail it back to camp. By now the others are leaving their tents just about the time the clouds begin to spit rain.

We hustle back under cover to wait out the expected storm. The betting is some rain. This delay may throw off our departure although time really isn’t of the essence. Today is our shortest hike of the week, only three miles by Tom’s calculation up to Valentine Lake.

I have no idea how deep the storm system is. Worst case scenario is that we’ll be socked in for hours or perhaps it’s a larger system that could make the next few days miserable. Ultimately we’d hike in the rain if it significantly threatened to ruin our schedule – as long as there was no lightning. We won’t be above timberline today. It’s walking in the unprotected open spaces where you have to worry. One sour thought goes through my mind: What if the Cirque is shrouded in clouds and rain? We would have come all this way only to be denied the view we crave so desperately?

The thing about mountain storms is they can spring up in a hurry – and they can vamoose in a hurry, too.

Not an hour before this shot of Reid was taken, the skies were leaden and spitting rain. But the clouds zoomed out and the bright sun took over.

Not an hour before this shot of Reid was taken on the north shore of Grave Lake, the skies were leaden and spitting rain. But the clouds zoomed out and bright sunshine filled the gray void.

This one opts to leave. We get a sprinkle, nothing more and in the space of 20 minutes the clouds evaporate and we are again under impossibly blue skies. The skies of North Carolina are one shade of blue. But these blue skies are another thing altogether. This is Wyoming.

It was a leisurely paced break of camp. Reid and I dismantle the bigger tent of Katy and Rebekah while they do the same for Reid’s ‘new’ tent. The thick gauge plastic groundcloth is a pain. It doesn’t make for a tight roll. This makes it difficult to shove the tent in the stuff sack. Tom had recommended, for weight saving purposes, that I scavenge a construction site for Tyvek but I was unable to find a large enough sheet of the moisture proof material. It would have been ideal under the tent and made packing much easier. Meanwhile, Vince and Tom are old hands at camp site organization and they were trail ready in almost no time. I string the paracord between two pines to give the rainfly a quick air dry. The tent will be the last item cinched tight on the pack.

At about 11 a.m. our packs are on and we reunite with Bears Ears Trail. The temperatures feel already in the 60s which means a very comfortable hike.

Of note is the sturdy wood and steel bridge that spans Grave Creek at the very eastern tip of the lake.

A bridge that spans the outlet stream from Grave Lake is the only manmade structure we saw during our week in the Bridger.

A bridge that spans the outlet stream from Grave Lake is the only manmade structure we saw during our week in the Bridger.

The stream is very wide and a bridge is almost a necessity for most hikers since the stream would be a difficult ford under even in the best of low water conditions. Other than trail signage, the bridge is the only man-made structure we see in the back country.

On paper the hike looks short, the altitude gain quite modest at 430 feet, but there’s plenty of up and down to keep our attention. Looking ahead on the map is one possible ford of significance. We will dip down into the valley carved in part by the South Fork of Little Wind River. For a mountain river it is fairly sizable and where Bears Ears Trail crosses the river will require Reid and I to wade for the first time. The water shoes bungie corded to my pack are pressed into service for the first time.

One by one, we dip our feet in the icy cold water of the small river. It's our first, but not last, real ford.

One by one, Vince and Katy dip their feet in the icy cold water of the South Fork of the Little Wind River as Reid dons some water shoes. It’s our first, but not last, real ford.

I head over first while Reid removes his boots. The water should be “shin deep” according to Tom’s well prepared notes but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in icy coldness. The ford is about 25 yards, and after successfully avoiding a slip, once ashore I fling the water shoes over to Reid and in a few minutes he sits by the trail drying his feet with his bandana. Another 10 minutes and we’re off again.

We tromp to the north end of Valentine Lake (10,399 ft.) and arrive around mid afternoon. The lake takes us almost by surprise. You don’t see it at first since you sneak up on it from below and its partially blocked by rocks and trees. Then all of a sudden it’s there. The first order of business is to find suitable camp sites. It’s been a no stress issue for us every day as we’ve had our pick of prime locations. Until now. Reid heads to the west shore to investigate flat spots but he reports there are none. Tom and Vince also find no suitable candidates. We cross the small unnamed stream that pours out of Valentine to continue our search and to our left is the only apparent area that might work. It has seen its share of visitors. We add ourselves to that list.

The wind still howls and has grown tiresome. It’s been blowing for three days now without relent. Enough already. But camp goes up per usual. And not a moment too soon.

Down the trail headed west toward us come riders on horseback plus two pack horses, each with panniers of maybe 70 – 90 pounds per animal. A cowboy guides an apparently well-heeled couple (to rent pack horses and cowboys isn’t cheap) and it’s clear we are in the spot where they had hoped to overnight. From 50 yards away you can hear one of their number say ‘Someone’s already there.’ Not in an unpleasant manner but almost a resignation that the site the cowboy had routinely used before is now gone and he’ll have to figure out a Plan B. I don’t know where Plan B would be since we scouted the west side of Valentine and found nothing. The horses need nearby water and grass and ample room, both of which are available – if only they had beaten us to the punch. We didn’t see much in the way of camp sites on the walk-in leading up to the lake either. The pack train moves across the stream to continue their search. Part of me wants to say ‘Hey, stay here with us’ since we could have reconfigured our tent city and we’d have someone else to talk to other than ourselves. By the time the idea comes to my slow-witted mind, they are past the stream and gone. If the horsemen had been 20 minutes earlier, it would have been us walking by them wondering Where will we stay?

I collect empty or near empty water bottles and head to the outlet stream to pump. I sit down on a flat rock that borders the stream and almost absentmindedly glance to my left. There in the water, facing into the current, swims a thick, big trout (big as defined by the aforementioned mountain stream standards). This fish is on the 12 inch side. It does not notice me only three or so feet away. Since we were denied fish last night at Grave Lake, we’ll try to augment tonight’s dinner. The pumping done, I head back the 35 yards to camp, redistribute the filled bottles and tell Reid of what I’ve just seen. In short order he’s ready to fish.

I don’t see his cast, but later we all see his post-catch fish. Reid has landed the Big One in the deep but quiet hole that is no larger than a bathtub at the spot where I pumped water a few minutes before. The cutthroat is a keeper. There’s a series of varied sized pools between where our trail crosses the stream and the lake, a stretch of maybe 75 yards. Reid works up the stream toward the lake, always casting upstream since the fish always swim into the current.

Reid makes short work of a dinner entree as he works the pools up to Valentine Lake.

Reid and his Orvis rig makes short work of a dinner entree as he works the pools just below Valentine Lake.

He takes care not to be seen and his reward is bites the entire way. He has us on the board with only five fish to go.

The wind is going to be a campfire issue. We’re not worried about sparks blowing into tinder-dry trees. No, the gale, still blowing a steady 25-30 miles per hour with higher gusts, will play havoc with cooking the fish. Behind the camp and a few steps up is a double car garage sized boulder that is flanked by other protective rocks. We can’t possibly have a fire ring in the wind tunnel near the tents. The boulder has an overhang that, if we can find the right flat rocks to further block the wind, might work. I find enough flat-ish stones to complete the circle, and head out to help Reid snag dinner if he doesn’t already have enough trout. The kid can fish.

The Scott is rigged and I walk Reid’s way. So do Rebekah and Katy to watch Reid in action. He’s close to the lake now and he calls out, semi-quietly, that he’s at a pool where a dozen or more sizable trout are schooled in the slow water. The school now has one less student, Reid having landed another fish which slides nicely onto his make-shift willow stringer. Two big ‘uns down, four to go.

As a lot of mountain streams do when they drain out of lakes, there can be multiple smaller rivulets much like we saw at Maes Lake, that might be a couple of feet wide but can hold marauding trout looking to slam anything that floats by or makes the mistake of flitting on the water’s surface. I dip my #14 Adams (I really don’t use much else in the way of flies) where one of these little fingers has carved an 18 inch wide space to accommodate its flow and – bam! – the third trout is had, not as nice as Reid’s but it will make one of our number a fine meal.

Now, as my ace caster son-in-law Tim can attest (he reminds me as much), I’m no fishing expert, but I do know that once you work a pool successfully – as Reid has on his way up to where he now offers fly after fly to a school that is increasingly balky – if you give the fish enough time, say, 15 to 20 minutes to calm down – the pool can produce again.

As we fish, the camp-less horse train comes back, this time headed east. They were apparently not able to find a suitable overnight spot. They gaze over to our camp site as they move silently onward. Almost certainly they’ll need to set up at dusk if not in the dark. I’m glad to not be in their saddles. They’re too far away for me to make the verbal offer I missed during their first passing.

I turn back to the water and wing the Adams to my right at a 3:00 o’clock position about 20 yards out into a swifter portion of the stream where it then widens to about 30 yards across and let the fly drift right-to-left. I don’t see the fish move in for the kill but it does slam into the fly and now flees down stream on a frenetic run for safety. It cannot be allowed to do so. Rule 1 is to keep your rod tip up followed closely by Rule 2 which is to keep the line taut. In moments, fish four is on the ‘stringer.’

What it shows is that these mountain fish are instinctive, reactive and compete aggressively for top water food resources (although Tim says 90 percent of what a fish eats is below the surface) in the abbreviated feeding season. Eat to survive. This especially applies to females which are most of what we catch. Virtually every fish we land carries the eggs of the next generation.

I move to the lake itself. There are telltale dimples of top feeding fish. In short order another trout is hooked. I motion to a watching Rebekah to come over to reel it in. I know she is anxious to catch a fish by her own efforts but rules 1 and 2 will be important to her development as a fly fisher. She does what she’s told but the fish still escapes to swim free, as they’ve done countless times to me. We try again, and trout number five takes the bait. There’s one to go.

The final cutthroat ambushes a fly about 25 yards downstream in a pool we fished not many minutes earlier. Our catch is cleaned and rinsed on the flat rock where water was pumped less than one hour ago. The willow and our bounty soon hang from a pine branch adjacent to our newly constructed fire pit. The wind is still merciless; it is raw and cold and unrelenting. Everyone fuels up their mostly airtight stoves and huddles near rocks to lessen the force of the wind as they boil water for their dried dinners.

There’s no dirth of kindling around. In typical Boy Scout fashion, a tepee is built of bone-dry tiny scraps of wood at the center and surrounded by increasingly large pine twigs and branches. Pinecones or pine needles should light fairly readily but the wind negates the flame from my butane lighter. Matches would be no good in this gale. But after a few moments the pine cones take the flame and we’re in business. The trout are spiced up, wrapped in foil and the broiling begins. Seven minutes a side is the fireside recipe. This isn’t the relaxed a serving of trout we’ve previously enjoyed. The wind batters us and our tents in a tiresome, noisy way. So as the trout are ready, I call down to the tent site and one by one, Tom, Katy, Rebekah, Vince and Reid file up the small hill, get their entree, and open the foil as it sits on granite rocks that suffice for tables. They’re old hands now at de-boning the fish. The remains are cremated in the coals.

No one lingers by the fire as we have other nights. There is no other fishing. We clean up from our meals and stow the bear canisters about 25 yards away. Tom announces a 7:30 a.m. start. We’ve got a big, long day ahead of us. Already there is a cold night in the air, and we’ve shivered enough as it is in our sleeping bags on other less-chilly nights.

Tomorrow we get our first look at the Cirque.


Friday: Shivering scouts, views beyond belief, and the Cirque itself

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Moby Trout, a mountain hurricane, and proof of bears …

This recounts the third of seven days in Wyoming’s Bridger Wilderness. Day four will be covered tomorrow.

This was a day – winds beyond belief – unlike anything I’ve ever experienced while backpacking. I don’t want to see another one like it anytime soon. Then again, I don’t want to meet the business end of a grizzly either.


Photos just don't capture the ferocity of the mega-winds in the saddle that is Hailey Pass. Steady at 70 - 80 with MPH 100 MPH gusts - that's near hurricane force. Rebekah and Reid do their best to stay upright.

Photos don’t capture the ferocity of the mega-winds in the saddle that is Hailey Pass. Steady at 60 – 70 MPH with 100 MPH gusts – that’s near hurricane force. Vince, Rebekah and Reid do their best to stay upright.

Day 3, Sunday, July 26

I am out of the tent early, before dawn. Most of my gear is already stowed and the rain fly struggles to dry while draped over paracord strung between two trees although the warming sun isn’t up just yet. It is a frosty, clear morning. Such cold reminds you that it is you against the weather, and the only protection you have is what you wear at the moment or have in reserve in a ditty bag. It occurs to me just how narrow the weather window is for visitors. You couldn’t get in here much before mid May and you’d want to beat the snows by mid October. It is no exaggeration that it can snow-sleet-hail even in summer months.

My fly rod was left rigged overnight. Since no one is up quite yet, I head to the East Fork but get no action. The rivulet where the big brookie lurks isn’t too far away so I walk that way. But Moby Trout remains out of sight and is disinterested in my fly. A behemoth like that is a long shot at best.

By now everyone is stirring and it’s time to fire up the stoves. Hot coffee is the other defense against cold and Reid and I gulp down our allotted two sleeves each of instant Starbucks. Katy and Rebekah opt for tea and I’m not sure what Vince and Tom do for a hot beverage. Two packets of oatmeal will have to suffice for my breakfast. We have a pretty stern hike ahead of us. No more shakedown cruise. This will be the real deal now. By 10 a.m. we shuffle toward the trail.

We must climb from 10,343 to the 11,200 ft. elevation of Hailey Pass. The trail will have us skirt the southern and eastern bases of Pyramid Peak. We’ll be above timberline in less than one hour.

Sections of the Hailey Pass Trail, which extends north a few miles to nearby Grave Lake, are now nearly solid rock.

Reid steadies a cairn as we trek up, up, up to Hailey Pass. We relied on cairns as guideposts to help discern where the path might be.

Reid steadies a cairn at the base of Pyramid Peak as we trek up, up, up to Hailey Pass. We relied on cairns as guideposts to help discern where the path might be.

Cairns prove useful as markers although as we cross the navigable stream that empties from Twin Lakes, the trail proves to be elusive. It’s open country above the trees, however, and there’s literally no way to get lost. We are in the valley between Pyramid and Dike Mountain that effectively funnels us up to Hailey. If we had to, we could bushwhack our way but we do find the path and off we go. Last year this was a snow field and the lakes were still ice-locked. The now small stream roared then with snow melt as it tunneled through the snow field. Tom and I walked and slid gingerly over hundreds of yards of corn snow, marked by a few incidents where we fell through to our waists.

Today, though, we encounter a very steep 40 yard downward section where hiking poles are of no use.

In proof that life grabs hold where it can, a wildflower clings to a rocky ledge alongside a downward chute that was very, very steep.

In proof that life grabs hold where it can, a wildflower clings to a rocky ledge alongside a downward chute that was very, very steep.

We use our hands to make contact with the stone walls on both sides and lower ourselves instead of walking down. The uppermost Twin Lake is immediately to our left.

Straight ahead and now only a few moderate switchbacks away is Hailey Pass. We’ll be there within a half hour or so. It’s a very pronounced saddle and the main route for hikers walking the longer of the clockwise circuits to the Cirque. It’s one of those places you want to get past while the day is relatively young since the threat of afternoon storms is always in the back of your mind.

But that’s not what greets us as we near the pass.

It is wind, and not of the gentle variety. It seemingly has come out of nowhere. We have no inkling of this until the last 50 feet of upward climb to the pass. The gale overtakes us in a seeming instant.

Reid leans into the harsh wind. The gale was unlike anything I've ever experienced anywhere.

Reid leans into the harsh wind. The gale was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced anywhere.

These are harsh, steady winds of at least 60-70 miles an hour, with incredibly high push-you-over gusts. Our estimate of the gusts is 80 miles per hour – and upward. None of us have experienced anything like it. I haven’t in all my years in the Rockies. (The forest service would later verify even higher gusts.)

I’ve never been in a hurricane but that is what it must feel like. One of the stronger gusts pushes under my pack. It has leverage and catches the Osprey like a sail. It forces me off balance and my weakened left knee slides awkwardly and buckles – the one movement and consequence I hoped to avoid – as I try mightily to steady myself. Several of us drop to the ground to avoid being blown over. If we can stand, we are pitched at a good angle into the wind as it props us up. So strong is the cloudless howling gale that yelling instructions from one person to the next more than a couple of feet away goes unheard. I’ve been on the shoulder of many Interstate highways as I stood next to my Harley, and have felt the blasts from semis passing at 70 MPH only a few feet away, but those could not match the ferocity, nor knock me over, like these winds.

Our impulse is to get over the pass and head downward as quickly as we can. Rebekah and Reid lead the way down what appear to be 500 yards of switchbacks on very steep descent. But the lee side of the pass offers no relief from the blast. It bears down on us, and shoves Tom and me into crouched positions more than once. Some while later, once down to a resting point, we equate the curvature of the pass and the strong wind’s force to how the leading edge of an airplane’s wing provides lift. Aerodynamically the wind rushed over the pass and pushed down with enormous strength.

This complicates our descent on the trail of loose debris and dust that already makes secure footing a challenge. Tom is forced to take a knee just a few feet ahead of me when a particularly vicious gust forces itself upon us. Rebekah and Reid scurry far ahead.

This is what greeted Tom and I on Hailey Pass in 2014: nearly wall to wall snow field.

This is what greeted Tom and I on Hailey Pass in 2014: a nearly wall to wall snow field that was far steeper than it looks here.

This trail wasn’t visible to Tom and me the year before when we reconnoitered the eastern edge of a valley-wide snow field. Even with the gale, this year’s downward hike of several hundred yards is somewhat more preferable.

We finally exit the switchbacks and the slope becomes a manageable trail once more. It’s been almost two hours since we’ve really had a rest and the lead walkers find us a grassy spot perhaps 200 yards east of the base of Mount Hooker (12,504 ft.).

Rebekah and Reid found us a spot for welcome rest after the descent from Hailey Pass (background). Safe to say the winds were a shock to us.

Rebekah and Reid found us a spot for welcome rest after the descent from Hailey Pass (background). Safe to say the winds were a shock to us.

We are somewhat, but not entirely, out of the wind. We look back at the steepness of Hailey’s north side and are relieved to have it in our rearview mirror. Hooker has an imposing eastern face with a very pronounced boulder field; we conjecture about the apartment building-sized granite blocks that must’ve made one helluva racket when they tumbled down, whenever that was.

In another half mile we look for a place to cross Baptiste Creek, more of a small river really, as it tumbles down from Hooker Glacier and on to the west end of Grave Lake, our next overnight spot. The creek is down from ’14 but remains broad and deep. We pause to look for a narrow, non-ford opportunity. The trail shoes of Tom and Katy can be submerged and will drain quickly. Reid and I move upstream about 150 yards where we can hop from rock to rock. The rest have already crossed and wait while the two of us manage the task without removing our boots. We stay dry. As we look to the north we see the spectacular Musembeah Peak at 12,355 ft. but it’s on Wind River Indian Reservation land, the boundary of which is only a few hundred yards from where we stand.

We are now on the eastbound stretch of trail with perhaps a shade more than 1.5 miles as the crow flies to campsites said to be toward the east end of Grave, a very large lake by mountain standards.

Directly ahead of us, however, looms a potential trouble spot for broken bones or worse. Large rocks have calved off Grave Lake Dome over the millennia to create a complete blockage of giant boulders that extends from the dome to the lake. We don’t see a potential walk-around beneath the shear face of the dome and there are no sign posts or cairns to indicate otherwise. We have no option other than to boulder hop for at least several hundred yards. There will be no walking around these granite monoliths which range in size from large trucks to small houses. We will need to tackle each boulder one at a time with full packs on our backs. That’s not inherently bad; that no one is carrying 50 – 60 lbs. in taller old style packs is good in that the modest weight and lower center of gravity of small packs adds to stability. Our walking sticks will be utterly useless on solid rock. We need to adopt other ways to stay safe.

Rebekah, Reid and Tom continue to lead the way and are soon out of sight even though the going is tedious and very slow. There is no need for speed and the resultant poor decisions too much haste can create.

Far from it. A single slip or misstep could be disastrous. I think back to a three week Outward Bound course in 1974 that included a mountaineering section in the Gore Range just east of Vail, Colorado. Our leader was Dick Pownall, who in 1963 led the advance camp team for an unsuccessful U.S. expedition to Mt. Everest. As we encountered rock fields – nothing remotely on the scale of the jumble below Grave Lake Dome – Pownall’s advice was to adopt “three points of contact.” That is, place some combination of hands and feet on adjacent, manageable portions of rocks. It could be both hands and one foot, or both feet and one hand. Pownall felt that the most serviceable part of your foot to use on open rock was the arch since it offered the best balance point and could pivot front and back. He had us avoid flat, and potentially slick, rock faces and instead place the arch on edges or visible fissures on each stone. I always thought it as sound advice since it worked.

Katy and I bring up the rear. We put the three points of contact strategy into use from the first stone. Vince and Tom call or point out the best routes among the rocks and their trail breaking advice is invaluable. Katy starts out hesitant but finds her legs as she moves along. Some of the steps between rocks involve a considerable leap of faith; if a step is missed, nothing good will happen in even a short fall. This sort of dangerous off trail, rock-to-rock process forces each of us to think 3 – 4 – 5 steps, and stones, ahead. There’s no real way to practice this. It’s learn as you go. I wonder if the park service is well acquainted with this particular rock pile. My guess is they are – no doubt rangers have rescued hikers injured in mishaps on the very stones we struggle to reconnoiter.

Her hopscotching done, Rebekah returns, pack-less, to her mother’s side to offer encouragement. I work in front of Katy and Rebekah takes the rear. Rebekah is like a mountain goat, sure footed as if she’s done this before; she stands astride each rock, calling out to Katy the more favorable hand holds and foot falls. Some rocks are climbed; on others we lift ourselves down, find a foothold on the next boulder then haul ourselves back up. We perform this act over and over and over for nearly 400 yards. We exchange mid rock-hop greetings with a young couple who employ the same three point technique but who are going the other way.

After more than an hour to wend our way through the scrum of stone, we finally emerge unscathed from the boulder field about 4:30 p.m. But we come out into the still heavy wind. It has not abated or lessened, even this late in the afternoon. It had been a long, trying day. We are ready to get our packs off. Bears Ears Trail, however, is not done with us just yet. We have the better part of a mile to go. Across the lake and upward is Chess Ridge, the tormentor to Tom and I for two full days last year. Sightseeing and story telling about our ill-timed and snow ridden trek almost exactly 365 days ago to the day can come later. We just want this stretch to be over.

That’s when the first bear print is seen. For all her track gazing, Katy, who is just a few yards in front of me, has somehow missed the salad dish sized paw with crescent shaped claws ringing the top as we weave our way alongside dense willows.

After years of no real signs of bears, we come across the first evidence that we are in active bear country. It catches your attention in a hurry.

After years of no real signs of bears, we come across the first evidence that we are in active bear country. It catches your attention in a hurry.

The paw is perfectly captured in drying mud. It was perhaps 2 – 3 days old. I stop to memorialize it in a photo but did not alert, nor alarm, Katy with this solid evidence that bears were indeed in the vicinity. Other than the occasional pile of scat, it was the first verified sign of the business end of a bear in several years.

As we approach within a few hundred yards of the lake’s eastern shore a large expanse of perfectly good, flat and tree protected camp sites appears to our left. Reid drops his pack, as do the rest of us, and ventures onward to see if better locations for our tents exist on the true eastern shore of Grave. We watch him the whole way until he enters a wooded area. After a few minutes he steps out of the woods into the fading sunlight and gives us a ‘stay put’ sign. It is merciful we will not need to carry our packs even a short distance more. We fan out and claim our spots and as with the first few nights, go about the business of creating a community of six small tents.

There is one minor glitch. A graphite stay snaps in the ultra-light tent Tom loaned to Rebekah. Repairs aren’t possible since the sleeve that contained the stay is very tight. But necessity becomes the mother of invention. Reid volunteers to give up his three person Mountain Hardware tent (in reality, a comfy space for two) to Katy and Rebekah to share; in turn, he will bunk in Katy’s tent while Rebekah’s damaged tent is relegated to mothballs for the remainder of the trek.

That we take shelter among trees helps to somewhat negate the still strong winds. There will be no fires or fishing in earnest tonight even though we cast a few flies in vain onto the wind-whipped whitecaps. No trout falls for such a hapless presentation.

Our dinners are the same as last last night and the night before, or at least mine is; instant rice and some insipid dried spice in a watered down slurry of nothingness. At least the others have the sensibility to cook a variety of foods. The highlight of my meal is the decaf coffee. I miss broiled trout cooked with heads and tails intact as the main course. I really do.

Tom and I gaze directly across the lake to the locale where we were foiled the year before

Tom looks straight across Grave Lake to the southern shore that in 2014 was a solid snow field. If we could have cleared 200 yards of snow bank, we could have continued our hike. But we were forced to turn back, and the detour cost us nearly 25 extra miles.

Tom looks straight across Grave Lake to the southern shore that in 2014 was a solid snow field. If we could have cleared 200 yards of snow bank, we could have continued our hike. But we were forced to turn back, and the detour cost us nearly 25 extra miles.

by a  steep snow bank and busted hiking pole. It doesn’t make for very good storytelling. That was last year. This was this year. No one wants to hear any more of it.

We turn in under what will be a full moon sometime in the next day or so. The bright light drowns out the stars and galaxies and meteors which on a dark night would be a sight to behold. It will illuminate trips to the trees as we answer nature’s call in the darkness.


Tomorrow: A first ford, more trout, and lonesome cowboys.

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A helicopter up high is never a good thing …

This is the second of seven successive daily installments about a visit to the backcountry of the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming by a disparate group of six hikers.

A similar hike will take place the final full week of July, 2016. Lace up your boots, put on your pack, learn to cast a fly. Let’s go.


Day 2, Saturday, July 25

Overnight temps dip no lower than the mid 40s. Special warmers – long undies, fleece cap, mummy bag drawn tight – were in the clothing stuff sack (aka ‘pillow’) but aren’t needed.

I am awake for good before first light, about 5:30 a.m. Part of the high country get-ready-to-hike routine involves efficient management of all your stuff. Before exiting the tent, before even needing to pee, loose items such as an Ibuprofen bottle, camera, headlamp, etc., go into the correct ditty bag. The 10 degree rated Marmot sleeping bag is stuffed into a compression sack with the straps drawn tight. The sleeping pad is deflated, rolled tight and tied off with paracord. Nighttime clothing heads back into the clothing sack that doubles as a pillow. If I absolutely had to, I could deconstruct the tent and be on the trail in 15 minutes.

This morning, though, there is typical condensation inside the tent. The nylon would need time to dry but my tent site is chosen specifically with first sunlight in mind.

One thing about a one person tent- there's not a ton of wiggle room.

One thing about a one person tent – there’s not a ton of wiggle room.

A light breeze will help drying time as will the low humidity altitude. Still, I string paracord between two 10’ pines to drape the rainfly. Down below at the lake, trout feed at the surface and while it kills me to deny it, there is no time to fish. The four section Scott had leaned against a tree overnight but it is disassembled and slid into one of the Osprey’s side pockets.

Others begin to stir. Our day on the trail should be lovely; the sky is already bright blue. The summit of 12,030 ft. Pyramid Peak to our north is already bathed in sunlight which slowly cascades down the eastern slope as the sun rises.

Now it’s onto a top priority: strong coffee (Starbucks dark Italian roast), then oatmeal. The little denatured alcohol stove made easy work of hot water for Reid and me. We two have the same repetitive breakfast: two packets of oatmeal, raisins, powdered milk and brown sugar in sealed bags. Add water, and voila. We eat straight out of the bag as we straddle our bear canisters as impromptu seating. We all prep food and eat at our own pace. There’s no particular hurry today. The six miles the feature a modest grade should take something short of five hours at a decent clip including rest intervals.

It doesn’t take long for an audible reminder of yesterday’s search for Greg. To the south is heard the thump-thump-thump of an approaching helicopter. It can only mean one thing: a heightened search for the missing man. The SAR teams were unsuccessful on foot and now the rescue effort moves to the air. The low flying chopper swings repeatedly back and forth and up and down both sides of the valley. This has to be an expensive proposition and we wonder who will foot the bill. Our guess is Greg’s family.

We are surprised when the helicopter pivots directly above our camp and descends to land 150 yards away on the precise spot on the south shore where we caught fish last night. Two SAR members exit the helicopter and it vaults back into the air to resume its flyover. The two young uniformed rangers, a man and woman, walk directly to our camp. We anticipate what they will ask.

We tell them, no, we’ve not seen Greg. They produce photos of the missing man, and in a surprise, ask if we would stay put at the camp for the day in the event Greg might return. Tom and I exchange furtive glances, and it’s clear a delay would throw a wrench into Tom’s well thought out itinerary. The rangers sense our hesitation, and allow that it’s only a request. A half hour earlier as I pumped more water to refill our bottles, I chance upon the German man who lets on that his family will remain at Dad’s one more day. I counter with that information and that perhaps the Germans would stick around to be on the lookout for the hiker. The ranger team seems satisfied, and they turn and head down the hill to the other camp.

That rangers would take to the skies is sobering. I wonder, too, about the ethics of our role in any search. We are six and the rangers are two (granted they have a chopper). Are we bound by some back country morality to aid in the effort? Do we put our own half dozen at risk in any way to injury or animals? But it’s now a moot point; we continue our packing as we ready to hit the trail.

Experience and pre-packing make a difference in our readiness. Tom and I are the first to be hike-ready, followed closely by Vince. One by one, everyone dons their packs and a final sweep of the camp is made for stray items. None is found. At 10:30, we hit the road.

We rejoin the Fremont Trail on the east side of the lake. Already, a pecking order of hikers has sorted itself out and is based entirely on speed; Rebekah and Reid lead the charge in front, followed closely by Tom, then Vince and Katy, with me bringing up the rear. This is a semi-official mountain code. Most groups should have experience front and back. Reid and Tom have loads of time at altitude, Rebekah is a former college athlete with tons of hiking experience, while Vince was days removed from walking the entire width of northern Spain. (Tom and Vince have also walked every mile of the Appalachian Trail or ‘AT’ in their lingo.) It is the same orderly file as yesterday and give or take some momentarily jostling, the order of cadence will remain this way the rest of the week.

The trail to Mae’s Lake isn’t much different from Friday. If there is a change, it becomes increasingly rocky. We move up through broken trees and our legs are tested by steep but minor rises and some switchbacks but nothing we can’t handle. It feels as if we are still in the shakedown phase of the hike.

We are lucky on the weather. It had rained enough the week before to create perfect conditions to capture animal foot and hoof prints on the rutted path. Most noticeable and frequent are the splayed hooves of moose. Their tracks loosely resemble two side-by-side kidney-like elongated ovals. Moose apparently make a habit to follow the paths as routes of least resistance. We hope to see the fairly benign creatures given the abundance of tracks and the large, wide areas of low-slung mountain willow. There are limited early signs of other animals: the v-shape hooves of mule deer and the circular prints of shodden pack horses. We seen no other indicators of other animals.

But the most asked about tracks – and most watched for – are those of a bear. This is active grizzly country, yet in all my years I have never seen a grizzly or a black bear in the wild. It would be a thrill to see a ‘grizz’ on our terms; close but not too up close and personal. There are a persistent question as we walk: Is that a bear? The answers are persistent, too: No, that’s a dog or No, that’s a deer.

Yet only a fool would dismiss the potential conflict with bears even in the absence of physical evidence of their presence. The bears are there. They will choose the time and place of any human-omnivore meeting. The bear canisters are heavy and take up a disproportionate amount of pack space. We’ve armed ourselves with another line of defense for several years now: we clip bear spray – a pepper concoction – to our waist belts. The thin bottles, with an effective range of about 30 feet in windless conditions, have never been used. But when you see professional rangers toting one, if not two, of the aerosol bear repellents, they apparently know something we only suspect. John of SAR confirmed the day before that grizzlies have spread throughout the Bridger and the rest of the Wind Rivers.

The heavily used trails in these parts of the mountains offer plenty of chances for hiker/bear encounters. When you have that many campers cooking who knows what, who can blame the bears for coming close to take a sniff – or a taste? Tom and I constantly debate the need for barrels and spray yet we always default to take these carry ons since the hard plastic offers security, especially to new hikers who feel a measure of preparedness. Bears are scavengers and ambush hunters and the effectiveness of the spray is entirely based on humans to be alert and quick on the draw – if you even have time to react. A charging bear will close a 30 foot gap before you can say What the … ?

Pyramid Peak is now squarely in our sights and inches closer. One of the lakes near its base is Mae’s, where we will overnight before we bear right to start a sharp ascent up to Hailey Pass. We anticipate arrival at the saddle around midday on Monday.

Before then, however, is a steep uphill section that proves one of the indisputable laws of hiking. What looks to be the crest of whatever you’re trudging up is never the real crest. It is invariably a morale-sapping false, pseudo crest. We learn this truism several times over the course of the week. When we do reach the real thing today, we come to an open expanse of some size and width. It is where several trails intersect; Freemont, Pyramid and nearby Shadow Lake. It is where we encounter our first potential foot-drenching ford. Washakie Creek, a gorgeous stretch of flat trout water and also a so-named trail we’ll hit later a few days hence, bisects the plain roughly from east to west. It’s where we depart Fremont which heads west to parts not shown on the topo map as we split off to the north and east on Pyramid. The difficulty of our trek has just ratcheted up. We are really hiking now.

In 2014, Tom and I found Washakie filled with snow run off and the swift, nearly groin high and ice cold water was a major challenge. Rocks submerged in ‘14 were now visible and dry above the water line. We could gingerly pick our way across from rock to rock. This is where hiking poles could be planted in the rocky bottom for balance. Our four foot aluminum rod cases prove up to the task for Reid and me. More importantly, there would be no need to remove our socks and boots, thereby losing precious time on the other side to wait for our feet to dry. The water was of no real concern to Tom; he waded right in. He hikes in what is essentially a sturdy running shoe that could drip dry as he rolls onward. The water shoes bungie corded to the back of my Osprey pack will remain there for the time being.

Not too much further ahead and just before Skull Lake is Washakie Trail which heads right and steeply upward to a pass of the same name at 11,600 feet. We do not take this trail. Had we done so it would have offered a much shorter hike to the Cirque and, granted, less wear and tear on our little band of six. But a shorter path is not the point. Our longer, stouter route adds roughly 12 or so miles. So we press onward straight ahead.

We encounter another steepish section perhaps 600 – 700 yards in length and it creates a 300 – 400 yard separation between front runners Rebekah, Reid and Tom and those of us closer to the rear. We reach the southern end of 10,343 ft. Mae’s Lake around 4 p.m. We are right on schedule. There is a stiff wind. It is an omen, a precursor, a cruel harbinger of days to come. To the immediate right at the very point our leaders have stopped to wait for us followers is the Hailey Pass trailhead.

The group is ready to stop. Directly across from the Hailey Trail sign is a flatfish open ground. We head there and find a large area suitable for many more tents than the six we carry. We set up camp but with the heavy wind, not only will casting directly into it be difficult, a fire will be problematic. The wind creates white caps on the lake. No fish will be feeding up top in these conditions. It will be tough to catch/eat brookies this night.

Still, this is the one of two days Rebekah and Vince hold valid fishing licenses. They’re expecting their baptism into the ritual of fly fishing. I rig the Los Pinos and Scott rods. Vince is first to wander over to get his fishing career started. Welcome to Fly Casting 101.

We head to the lake, about 200 yards away. It blows a gale straight into us fisherpeople. The lesson essentially is this: when you take the rod/line back, let the weight of the heavy fly line pull out manageable lengths of line behind you; but let it straighten and ‘load’ first. Don’t force the line out. Don’t rapidly whip your cast. Your rod action should be from the 2:00 to 10:00 o’clock position. Don’t go much beyond those perimeters. Strip in the line with your left hand as it passes through the thumb and forefinger of your right hand as it holds the rod.

Vince pays attention. Starting with short lengths of line, he gets his feet wet in this fine art. But the wind might as well be a brick wall. I see no trout cruising the shallows but there’s a less-windy option to our left about 100 yards. The East Fork River spills out of the lake. The plan isn’t to introduce Vince (or Rebekah) to stream fishing so quickly, but the short casts in these conditions will be easier to handle. We pick a quiet stretch about 25 yards long and 7 – 8 or so yards wide. One short cast, or even a dip of the fly as Vince strips out line, will get the fly moving down the stream into the strike zone.

My belief is this stream is heavily fished since it is very close to several apparently popular camp sites and while Vince deserves his first fish, it may not happen here. But he does as instructed and gets the fly in the water and lets it drift. There are some strikes but no takers. He works several other minor pools downstream. Clearly, he enjoys this. As much time as he spends hiking, my guess is some sort of lightweight rod is in his near-term future. I wish we had full-time rods for he and Rebekah but one week rentals are, at nearly $100, just this side of exorbitant. The cost per pound of fish caught would be on par with fine beluga caviar.

Rebekah isn’t about to be left behind. Once her camp site is squared away, she too wanders down to dip her toes in this trout tutorial. The wind remains unmerciful. Nothing will come to the top until the wind abates and it doesn’t feel like that will be today. But we know trout exist – and big ones at that – near the lake. In a small rivulet not one foot across but at least twice that deep or more that cuts through the meadow up to the campsite leisurely swims a gigantic brook trout, easily 12 – 14 inches in length. It uses this small channel as a personal feeding trough. It sees me, too, and saunters back, unhurried, beneath the cut bank and no amount of enticement – a fly mimicking a dance on the water’s surface – will make the huge fish abandon its lair. It is unaware it would be released since one fish would not make a dinner for six hungry walkers.

We hunker down for dinner near a large boulder. Even in the windy conditions, it amazes me that the efficient little airtight denatured alcohol stoves will boil water so quickly. There was no fire to help us wile away the early evening hours. Once it got dark, the only lights to be seen, other than the stars and an emerging moon, is the glow of headlamps inside each of the tents.


Tomorrow: Enter the hurricane

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