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 firstname.lastname@example.org if this sounds like your sort of adventure next year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.)
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
(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.