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.

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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.

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Tomorrow: Enter the hurricane

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