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: email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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),
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.