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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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,
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.