In late July, a small band of hikers – four from Charlotte and one each from Chicago and Berkeley, CA – set out about 11:00 on a Friday morning to walk in the southern portion of Wind Rivers, and in particular, walk the trails of the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming.
This is the first of seven successive daily installments about that trek and the people who made the trip beyond memorable. This stretch of the Winds are marvelous in their beauty, humbling in scope and enabling as we met, or exceeded, challenge after challenge. This has become something of an annual pilgrimage for me. I wouldn’t trade this trip for anything.
If you know of hikers who enjoy this sort of narrative, pass the blog link along. It was part adventure, part fly fishing extravaganza and utterly exhilarating in its totality. If you’re interested in the 2016 dates of just such a trip, let me know.
Dave Bradley at email@example.com
Day 1, Friday, July 24, 6:15 a.m.
One would suppose you can tolerate four grown men, a couple of them snorers, for at least one restless Thursday night in the same cramped room at the Baymont Inn on the west side of Pinedale, Wyoming, given that the next seven days will be equally uncomfortable at 10,000 feet or higher. The youngest and least tenured of the hikers, Reid, sacrifices his comfort to sleep on the floor. As members of the age 60-plus crowd, Vince, Tom and I aren’t so chivalrous. We don’t hesitate to snag the two available beds. A couple of doors down are Katy and her daughter Rebekah.
A couple of us are up early, no doubt in our excitement about an adventure that should begin sometime in the next few hours. What passes for a ‘free’ hotel breakfast is cold cereal and self-made waffles, some stale shipped-in danish that have now been out of the package too long. There is the one requirement expected of an overpriced $147 room on the outskirts of town: hot coffee.
Our packing is done the night before or at least most of it is. There is last minute finagling/juggling of necessities but those come with a sizable caveat: leave enough stowage space for Forest Service bear canisters. The barrels are recommended but not required. In theory, grizzlies can’t crush or mouth the hard black plastic protectors. If you stay below timberline you can probably hang food from tall pines and be perfectly safe, but for lots of folks the barrels are a security blanket. We won’t pick the invasive canisters up just yet since the ranger office won’t open until 8 a.m., local time. So packing is largely a moot point until we know how much of a void these space eaters will require in each pack.
It’s hard to believe that in roughly three hours, the variable being our packing skills, we’ll have driven to the Big Sandy trailhead, some 40 miles away as the crow flies, and a year of anticipation, planning and hiker recruitment will be underway.
We retrieve the black canisters promptly as the ranger station doors open, plunk down an $8 donation although none of us are sure where the money goes, and head back to the Baymont. All our food, about 8 lbs. per person, is repositioned in the four pound barrels which somehow fit each pack without further ado.
Also important to the culinary portion of our trip were the favorable readings on the arching green-yellow-red fire meter at the ranger station. The needle points to ‘Moderate’ which means we’ll have campfires to grill trout. At the Great Outdoor Shop we buy non-resident Wyoming fishing licenses at $14 per day. It used to be you got a discount (small, of course) the more days you bought. The state did away with that knowing it can gouge visitors like us and get away with it. It’s state sponsored hostage taking.
Gear fills every spare inch of the Yukon and as a newbie, poor 6 ft. Reid again volunteers to relegate himself to the cramped seventh seat – the same perch he inhabited on the 80 mile drive from Jackson to Pinedale. He’s so far back and insulated by so much stuff if he squawks about his poor luck or bumpy roads, I won’t hear him.
About 9:30 a.m. we turn the SUV south on WY. Rte. 191. Some 10 miles later at Boulder, we turn left onto state road 363 and head past surprisingly green hay fields that are surprisingly green for late July, and isolated ranches. There’s not much in the way of housing. This is the ranch life where you drive your pickup down the lane to get your mail and it’s at least a half day trip for groceries. Local antelope are the star wildlife attractions. We see quite a few of the smallish animals, some within 20 yards of the road. As we climb, the dominant sage and scrub brush landscape becomes dryer and browner. After another dozen miles, the pavement gives way to maintained gravel. It doesn’t slow us down much. Such roads often feature occupant-rattling washboards but Reid doesn’t moan too much about the vibration and bumps.
Before much longer is another sign that points left toward the Big Sandy trailhead. We head east on it. Up and to our left are the high ridges of the Southern half of the Bridger Wilderness. There is very little snow in evidence, a far cry from last year when unmelted snow fields bamboozled Tom and I. Trace amounts of snow mean two things: fewer mosquitoes and fewer and shallower fords across streams. Somewhere in that terrain are the trails we’ll traverse over the course of the next week.
Below us in the valley we can see one final sign that will steer us toward Big Sandy. We’ll be truly off road for 10 miles of rock-and-roll dirt and crushed rock road that slows our pace to 10 – 15 MPH in many spots. Reid absorbs some serious butt compressing jolts along the winding, dusty, narrow potholed road. We yield regularly to horse trailers coming down from the back country, some with stock, some empty.
We steadily gain altitude and the rough final 5-6 miles take another 20 minutes. What’s odd is that beyond the occasional trailer, there is no other vehicular traffic but as we round the bend to the jumping off point parking area (there is no parking lot, you jockey for space along the road), there are easily 70 – 80 cars, trucks and SUVs jammed or wedged into every available parking crevice. The predominant license plates are WY, UT and CO. By dumb luck we land a just-vacated spot. This number of cars is unnerving, but even a few hundred visitors in this large and vast portion of the Bridger will disburse to nothingness soon enough.
Within minutes packs are on and cinched and Katy signs the six of us in on the forest service log book (we are the only apparent visitors from North Carolina) and we hit the trail (9,205 ft. alt.) at 11:50 a.m.
The opening stages of our walk are moderate at worst. We head up Fremont Trail, which breaks slightly to the northwest and away from the more traveled Big Sandy Lake trail. Big Sandy Creek is to our right, and will be for a while.
Its water level is much lower than in ’14 when near-record snows caused near bank-high torrents in every stream. Today’s goal is modest, too; six miles and 600 feet in elevation gain on our way up to our first overnight: Dad’s Lake. Day One is basically a shakedown cruise.
The route is mostly non-rocked and smooth, with plenty of shade from pines. The plan is to rest 10 minutes for each 60 walked on the trail. After a couple of easy miles a sign merges us left to Dad’s Lake.
It’s altogether wonderful country. Already the views are beginning to form. Vince and Katy stop for photos despite assurances these minor vistas are nothing compared to the grandeur of what’s ahead.
A few hikers pass us on their way out and we step aside as a standard courtesy to those on exiting the back country. One of the kids has his standard issue bear spray clipped to his left hip belt but on his right hip is a holstered pistol of some large calibre. I wonder why people bother. A charging grizzly had better be damn close, and the shooter quite calm and collected, and accurate, for that gun to be effective.
As we saddle up after our first rest break which features a quick review of where we are on the topo maps (we are not yet halfway into the Day One jaunt), we see three orange tee shirt-clad hikers charge up from behind us. I mistake them for scouts but there were no youngsters among the trio. The packs of the two men and one woman are not of the overnight variety. These folks each have two big radios affixed to their belts plus assorted rescue gear. They are on a mission.
They approach us. The tallest of the three, John, asks if we’ve seen a hiker gone missing for two days along this trail. On John’s pants in big, bold letters is SAR – Search And Rescue. These are apparently forest service people. The name of the missing hiker they say, is Greg, and his last known whereabouts had him headed south on the very trails leading to and from our destination, Dad’s Lake. As John retells it, the 6’, 240 lb. Greg was part of a large group but he had become sick.
Our conjecture was altitude sickness or possibly Giardia intestinalis, an intestinal parasite that makes its way to water via animal fecal matter. But it would take days for that bug to manifest its symptoms of dehydrating diarrhea. At any rate, Greg is gone.
In a severe high country blunder, part of the missing man’s group broke off to continue their journey, leaving him behind with two others who, according to John, didn’t immediately escort Greg down when the poor man decided to make an ill-advised break for Big Sandy Trailhead. They assumed he had beaten them to the parking area when they arrived; however, Greg had not emerged and no one had seen him since. Now the group was split and a search party formed.
The three SAR staff stay roughly on our course and fan out across the wide expanse of the Dad’s Lake watershed, and loudly call out to Greg by name. The thinking was that a sick man, possibly dehydrated and disoriented, would not be able to stray too far from the trail. We meet the threesome often enough that more and more details of the man’s disappearance emerge.
We’d also become de facto assistant searchers, and Greg’s disappearance was now part of our on-foot conversations. It underscored that the Bridger is indeed a wild place; beautiful when docile and unforgiving when it turns the other cheek. The missing man and his group found this out the hard way.
Our route to Dad’s is mostly smooth and gradually uphill with a few big rocks and gradients to remind you of where you are. We pump water as necessary. Hydration is a big deal in the dry altitude. Reid and I pull most of the pump duty. The new $50 filters should sift out any Giardia which in itself is worth any cost.
We walk into Dad’s at almost 4 p.m. under beautifully clear, blue skies. Dad’s is a good lake. Tom and I have camped there before (indeed, there is no shortage of top end – and flat – camp sites in the Bridger, quite unlike my experience in Colorado and some other states where you sometimes sweat where you’ll overnight). Our hoped-for spot in the southwest corner of the lake under a tree canopy is already spoken for by a nice family from Germany. We opt to left to head up a path to find our consolation prize, an even larger, even more airy spot about 50 feet above the lake with nice views to the north of Pyramid Peak, our destination for Saturday. Also visible to our right within two miles, and running parallel to our south-to-north route, is the back side of the Cirque of the Towers although there is no direct path to it. It remains just another nice view, for now.
Our tent village is up in short order. My Mountain Hardware one man takes literally moments to erect, and within 10 minutes my sleeping bag, Thermarest ground pad and other gear is laid out or stowed inside.
Tom has loaned three of his spare ultra-light tents to Katy, Rebekah and Vince. The tents, weighing mere ounces, are of state-of-the-art materials and technology. Reid is stuck with my old three person Mountain Hardware tent, but he is deemed young enough to handle the added 6 lb. weight.
Basic duties done, the search for firewood is on. A few armloads from dead pines about 75 yards away and we have enough for a nice fire. A year ago Tom and I caught big, fat brookies at Dad’s and we talked often during the planning stage about the specter of delicious cold water trout seasoned and broiled in foil over a camp fire. Making it easier on us is a ready-made fire ring of medium size granite stones. Indeed, all the signs point to a fish dinner. On the surface of the lake are the telltale circles of rising fish, many in the eatable 8 – 11 inch range. Reid, Tom and I rig our rods, Reid an Orvis given to him as a child, Tom with his reel-less Tenkara and me with a new Scott A4 recommended by Reid’s brother-in-law, Tim, the best fly caster I have ever seen. The Scott is a spectacularly responsive rod. Typically we are catch-and-release fishers, but tonight we angle for supper.
Reid and Tom break off to the shoreline directly down from camp, and I head toward the south end of the lake where a small stream enters, possibly washing food down the mountain and straight to the waiting trout.
It is good to cast again. But after decades of self-taught technique, my casting/retrieval mechanics lack proper elements of style. I recalled Tim’s sage advice to hold the fly line with my right thumb and forefinger as line is stripped in with my left hand. It gives onlookers the false impression that I know what I’m doing.
There are a lot of strikes in the first 10 minutes but no hooked fish, a clear sign of a poor angler. That changes as the first fish clamps down on the Adams. It’s about a 10 incher, just fine for our evening meal.
A make-shift stringer is fashioned from the branch of a mountain willow that is stripped of branches except for a final twig at the bottom of the main branch. The tip is run through a gill and the fish is slid to the bottom of the branch. The two foot fish holder is laid in the water along the shore and held in place by a couple of rocks. The trout is now secured. Not too long later, a second fish is landed, then a third. I can only hope Reid and Tom have combined to land a similar number.
And sure enough, Reid has. One of his catches is the fish of the day, a gorgeous 11” brook. He lands a couple more and now we have enough for dinner.
To clean a mountain trout takes a matter of no more than 60 seconds, tops. You slit the fish up from the anus to the top of the underside where it meets the gills. The innards are pulled out (the gullet, which feels like a tough tube of gristle, rarely comes out in its entirety). Your thumbnail is useful to scrape blood collected beneath a membrane along the length of the spine. Then comes a final rinse. That’s all there is to it. Most of these fish are females loaded with eggs. This drives their need to feed voraciously in the shortened season. I wonder if enough time remains in the summer for eggs to mature and hatch and for the fry to survive heading into the harsh winter.
Brook trout aren’t the toughest fish to catch. Some anglers consider them almost a nuisance fish due to their great numbers and their propensity to crowd out other less populous but more favored game fish such as natives and cutthroats.
Indeed, the Jackson newspaper reports the state of Wyoming plans to eradicate brookies along a 38 mile stretch of another river to make room for these other species. Some high country lakes I’ve fished seem to have huge populations of what appear to be stunted brookies that compete fish-on-fish for available insect resources. But not at Dad’s. These trout have shoulders. For the once-a-year back country diner, these pink-fleshed trout hold an honored place as tasty – and valued – protein on the fireside menu.
The real genius of dinnertime (and breakfast), however, is Tom’s introduction to us of ultra-light, ultra-efficient stoves fueled by minimal amounts of denatured alcohol (antigravitygear.com). One-half oz. of alcohol is enough to bring a small pot of water to boil for two cups of coffee and piping-hot liquid for our dried meals. The fuel is dumped into an old soda can – mine held Pepsi at one point – stamped into the shape of a fuel burner with holes punched in the side for flames to escape upward. The pot slips atop a near airtight siloed windscreen and the burner does the rest. Vince assembles a very old and very well used, rusted out version of the same concept. It did the job just like the new models.
So rather than lug several 30 oz. bottles of white gas as we’d done for decades to power increasingly complex and finicky Mountain Safety Research (MSR) stoves, 11 oz. of denatured alcohol in a plastic orange juice bottle bought for 98¢ at a convenience store was more than enough for the entire seven days of oatmeal/instant Starbucks breakfasts and horrid day-after-day rice dinners.
The stoves were the tip of the less weight, less stuff, less overall poundage iceberg. That owed squarely to Tom’s persistent prodding that less is better. We carry no dinner plates; meals are sealed in freezer bags, hot water poured in, stirred and dinner is served. The plastic serves as a mini-trash bag.
The ‘less is better’ mantra applies to every conceivable item from minimalist hiking shoes in lieu of clunky boots to the tents to ground pads. Why use a thick, heavy Nalgene when a much lighter SmartWater bottle will do? A Tyvek ground cloth saves several ounces vs. regular plastic. Take one spare shirt rather than two. Parachute cord weighs much more than the same length of very thin nylon lines favored by serious backpackers. A down jacket weighs less than a fleece one. No need for a full tube of Neosporin when the salve can be squirted into one-half inch sections of drinking straw melted to seal both ends. And the list goes on. With 8 lbs. of food, my Osprey Atmos 50 tops out at about 32 lbs., sharply down from the overly burdensome, shoulder-crushing 45 – 60 lbs. of prior years. I voilate Tom’s cardinal ‘minimal weight’ rule with two stocking caps, six too many tent pegs and a bulky (but safe) PUR water filter system, among other ounce padding no-nos. But it is true: an ounce pared here and an ounce saved there, and pretty soon you’re talking a real savings in poundage.
We wrap up dinner just as the sun sets. Water bottles are filled a final time at the lake. To thwart aromas that might attract bears, we immolate the trout skeletons in the camp fire turned pyre. Temperatures turn chilly quickly after the sun slips down and out and we all hit the sack at the first real darkness. The only light in the tents is the glow from headlamps as hikers stow their gear or get ready for shuteye. Saturday would be our first full day on the trail. We’ll gain 600 feet in the six mile northward trudge up to Mae’s Lake, the gateway to Hailey Pass.
On Tuesday: Enter the helicopter