Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 4: Popo Agie Wilderness

Day 4: Accidental Lay Day

The wind settled down, and the clouds passed by sometime during the night. We awoke in the morning to clear skies and the bright light one gets at 10,160 feet of elevation. (Ain’t GPS great?!)

Despite the beauty of the morning, however, we were unsure about our next step. Ice Lakes was clearly out as a vacation destination, leaving us three choices: we could hike past Deep Creek Lakes and down into the North Fork valley, we could stay where we were, or we could head back the way we came and try to make Pinto Park. None of these options was exciting, but our plan to do the Ice Lakes loop was now hopelessly bruised.

To suggest that we were glum at our prospects would be overstating the seriousness of the situation. It is hard to be glum and feel sorry for yourself when adventures of all sorts abound in every direction. But these would be unplanned adventures, and therefore of unknown and perhaps dubious quality. They certainly would not be adventures that you would read about while planning a trip. Okay, maybe if one of us had thought to climb to the top of Pinto Knob, that would have been a worthy adventure. But none of thought to climb the Knob, so you won’t find any adventures worth reading about here.

We breakfasted on oatmeal, and talked about the various possibilities. Oliver, it seemed, was taking the lack of planned progress personally, and he was determined to do something about it. After all, he had invested a lot of hours into putting together the perfect hiking plan, including dinners, and just as a fine wine must be paired with the proper meal, so our reconstituted dry meals were developed to suit the venue in which they were to be served. The ginger beef should have been paired with a lake view while the sun was setting. The colors on the water would have brought out the subtleties of the beef in a way that is not possible in a dense forest glen. So in hopes of salvaging some of the menu-venue pairings, Oliver suggested that he would hike back to Lower Deep Creek Lake, don his snowshoes, and see if there were any good camping options past the lake. Kevin agreed to go along.

I quote here from Kevin’s notes about the scouting party.

“Oliver was excited like a puppy to be hiking back to Lower Deep Creek Lake. He was bounding up the trail, brimming with optimism about finding a superior campsite. I had trouble keeping up with him.

“Once we reached the lake, we were disappointed to discover that the snow had not melted overnight. Granted, that was a long shot, but it doesn’t cost anything to hope. So we put on snowshoes and started skirting the edge of the lake. The snow was still hard and crusty. This made for good hiking, but finding the trail was not always easy.

“’I think the trail goes up that way,’ said Oliver, pointing up a steep hill across a virgin snowfield. ‘Look, we just cross this dangerous little snow bridge over the stream, hike up that avalanche-prone, near-vertical slope, and we’ll be at the next lake!’

“With that, Oliver was gone. I followed carefully, not wanting to be another victim of his unrepentant enthusiasm. And so it went. Several times Oliver seemed to sense the perfect campsite just ‘over there,’ which invariably involved crossing the most dangerous terrain that was immediately available. Twice we discovered sites that were no less homely than the one we already occupied, preferable only because they were so hard to get to.”

While Oliver and Kevin were out scouting, Rick and I cleaned up the camp, and then settled in to await their return. I was so sure that they were not going to find anything that I took the opportunity to set up my fishing rod and go fishing. Rick spent his time reading, mostly while sitting in my chair. I took a lot of grief over that chair, but I’ll tell you what: when my butt wasn’t in it, someone else’s was.

Nothing like reclining with a good book.
Our campsite was situated along a relatively flat and wide stretch of stream. Marshlands bordered the near side, but most of the marsh was underwater. A few small, grassy islands remained exposed, which allowed me to work my way out to the deeper water where I could cast a line without immediately catching on grasses, bushes, or trees. I fished for well over an hour, trying first one little island and then another. I fished up, I fished down, but the results were all the same. No fish. I had been really excited about the prospect of fishing in Wyoming, but with the water running so high, this was the worst fishing I had encountered in many years.

Inundated marshlands.

As I was returning to camp, I found a large bear scat sitting on a rock. It looked as though it had been deposited there by the bear after the snow had melted, which probably meant in the last several days. Although the scat was about a hundred yards from our camp, this was still closer than I would have liked. I poked the scat with a stick a couple of times to see what was in it, and was happy to find that there was no plastic or packaging that might have come from eating human food. I was also happy that there were no gold teeth or gold rings or body piercing jewelry that might have come from eating humans as food. But it was a good reminder that we were not alone in the wilderness.

Oliver and Kevin returned from the scouting trip shortly after I got back to camp. The upshot of their report was that we could move for the sake of moving, that the campsite we were in was as good as anything we were going to find, and that we were already here so we might as well stay. Since it was already 10:30 in the morning, convincing us to stay was not a hard sell. Oliver even suggested that Rick and I should take the opportunity to hike back up to Deep Creek Lakes and snowshoe around. That sounded like fun, but even with Oliver’s enthusiastic description of the vertical slopes and death-defying leaps over ice-cold raging waters, it didn’t sound fun enough for me to give up the disappointment of fishing.

After a quick snack, I loaded up my stuff and headed off downstream to see if I could find any better place to catch fish. Kevin offered to join me, but we parted company at the bear scat, where he decided to use forensic polyambient orthographic oscillating projection (POOP) analysis to reconstruct a holographic image of the bear. The image was not as detailed as he might have liked, but there is only so much electro-fluorescent science one can do with a single emergency signaling mirror and a small headlamp.

Kevin's bear. (Thank you Hanna-Barbera).
I continued down the creek for perhaps a mile until I reached a small lake. The creek was flowing too fast to fish, but the lake looked promising. My hopes were buoyed by the sight of a single fish swimming in the shallows next to shore, but nothing I offered seemed of interest, and I finally gave up. Clouds were once again starting to build up in the western sky, so I collected my gear and headed back to camp.

Deep Creek.

Promising fishing.

Rather than follow the creek back, I took a more direct route through the forest. The trees were closely spaced, and the uneven terrain meant that I frequently could not see more than 30 yards in any direction. So I started to sing. I knew there was a bear around, and I didn’t want to stumble upon it unannounced. I figured my singing would alert the bear to my presence, and that the sound of me singing would send it fleeing for safety.

Rain started to fall just about the same time I started back to camp. But these were light sprinkles, and came and went pretty quickly. However, the weather was changing fast. The wind was rising, the clouds were thickening, and the temperature was dropping. By the time I got half way back to camp, the rain was steady, though still light. By the time I reached bear scat rock, I had my hood up and I was wishing that I was wearing my rain pants, too. With 30 yards to go to the dry confines of the tarp, I decided to make a dash for it. Oliver was already seated under the tarp, and Rick was just deploying the chair.

“I call the chair,” I shouted as I sprinted for the tarp. Rick turned around, and I slid past him and into the chair. The sky opened up, and the rain came down. “Just in time!”

It was the kind of rain that will soak you in ten seconds, big fat drops so closely spaced that it resembles a continuous stream of water. But it didn’t last long. The squall passed through in about 10 minutes, the wind died down a bit, and the sky lightened up. But this was just the first foray in a long afternoon of wicked weather. The rain came and went, and the wind would periodically whip through the camp, tearing at the tarps and the tents, threatening collapse.

Tarp People.

It was in one such moment, as Oliver, Rick, and I were enjoying an afternoon cup of coffee, that we heard a muffled cry for help and desperate thrashing about from the direction of Kevin’s tent. The wind had collapsed the tent with Kevin in it.

“When did Kevin get in his tent?” Rick asked. “I thought he was down in the marsh studying the relationship between species of grass and proximity to the stream.” Rick paused for a moment. “Should we go help him?”

“I guess we could,” I answered, taking a sip of hot coffee. “Sure is wet out there, though.”

“Yeah. No point in all of us getting wet,” said Oliver. “Besides, we don’t want to encourage him thinking that he can continue to bring that silly Boy Scout pup tent along because we will always be there to bail him out.”

Of course, we had never had to bail Kevin out before, but that was beside the point. He did have a silly little Boy Scout pup tent, and it was really wet out there. By now, Kevin had managed to free himself from his fabric cocoon, and was laying half out of his tent, face down in the wet duff, gasping for breath. So he was clearly okay.

“I’m going to heat more water for coffee. You guys want any?” I offered.

“Yeah, I’d have more,” Rick replied.

“No thanks,” said Oliver, “Now that the rain has let up, I’m going to check on my tent.” Oliver started down the hill toward his tent, which took him right past Kevin, who was still laying face down in the duff. “Glad to see you’re okay. You had us worried there for a minute.”

Kevin raised his hand a couple of inches, struggling to acknowledge Oliver’s passage. “Thanks,” he croaked. “I’ll be fine.”

The weather settled down a bit after awhile. The cold wind would still periodically blast through our camp, and a few brief rain showers passed through, but nothing so severe that we felt compelled to hide under the tarp. Oliver even suggested a round of disc golf on the nine-hole course he had created earlier. The match was close until the second hole, at which point I scored a double bogey, and my game went downhill from there. Rick and Oliver were competitive to the last, however, with Oliver eking out win on the final hole.

While the three of us were golfing, Kevin spent his time building a log wall to shield his fragile tent from the wind. The construction was impressive, including just the proper amount of ventilation through the wall to equalize the high- and low-pressure areas on either side, and thereby create a little bubble of still air just large enough to engulf the tent. 

One wall of the log cabin.
By late afternoon, dark clouds started to blow in on a rising wind. All four of us were lounging under the tarp, but as the weather deteriorated, I decided to build a fire before the rain returned. We had tried to store dry wood under a plastic garbage bag that Kevin had brought along as a pack cover, but the howling winds earlier in the afternoon had soaked all but a few pieces. The rain returned as I laboriously built a fire teepee out of the bit of wood that was still dry. However, rain and fire are not natural bedfellows. If I had not been carrying little solid-fuel tablets, normally used as fuel for a small stove, we would not have had a fire, and this chapter would have come to an abrupt end. Thankfully, I was prepared.

While I was lighting the fire, Oliver was taking no chances and had started to cook dinner on the stove. This was probably a good strategic move on his part, because from start to finish the fire lighting episode took at least half an hour, comprising 25 minutes of pride-fueled futility, 2 minutes devoted to collecting the fire tab from my pack, and 3 minutes to get the fire going with the use of petroleum products. After much discussion, we all agreed that I could avail myself of the fire starter much sooner without damaging my MountainGuy reputation. Upon reflection, I am not sure that this was intended as a compliment.

Kevin took over tending the fire as soon as it was started. Once we determined that this would be a lay day, he decided he would take this opportunity to make an apple cobbler, a project he had tried once before that got interrupted when Oliver nearly succeeded in chopping his thumb off with a hatchet. As soon as we made the decision to stay, Kevin began soaking his dried apples in water, and now that we had a fire, he would be able to bake the cobbler in the coals. So Kevin set out to make coals. Most of our wood was wet and small. Although a devotee of the microstick method of fire creation, this was enough of an emergency that Kevin decided to skip all of the intermediate steps and go directly to real firewood. Like a man possessed, he began dragging small logs into the kitchen area, where he then ferociously banged them on rocks to break them into fire-sized pieces. Splintered wood was flying in all directions, and from our duck and cover position under the tarp, I can honestly say that Oliver, Rick, and I were very glad that our tents were far away from the kitchen area.

By the time the splinters stopped flying, Oliver had produced an excellent tortellini in mushroom sauce, and Kevin had built up the fire to point where we could all stand around it and be comfortable, even as the wind whipped through and the occasional raindrop fell. The tortellini with dried wild mushrooms was perfectly suited for our heavily forested site, and Oliver had even taken the liberty of adding some fresh wild mushrooms that were growing near the campsite. As he noted when he served it, the tortellini would either be delicious or kill us, perhaps both. Since it didn’t kill us, Oliver was awarded the Menu-Venue badge for superior food planning and preparation.

Dinnertime for Tarp People.

Once dinner was done, we had a bed of coals deep enough to bury the aluminum pot to bake the cobbler. And an excellent cobbler it was. By piling coals around and on top of the pot, Kevin succeeded in producing a hot cobbler with a rich apple syrup and a light and fluffy topping, with just a hint of crisp. A Sweet ‘n’ Sticky badge for sure.

Hot apple cobbler. It's tough out there in the wilderness.

We retreated to our tents shortly after dinner was done. The wind was biting and cold, mercilessly blasting our little encampment, and even bellies full of tortellini and cobbler could not stave off the chill.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Popo Agie Wilderness, Day 3

Day 3: A Nice Spot Just Below Three Forks to a Blessedly Snow-Free Spot Below Lower Deep Creek Lake (6 miles)

I awoke to sounds of MountainGuys stirring in the bushes and around the camp. I cannot explain the role reversal, but once again I was the last one awake. The only sensible explanation I can come up with is that my fellows had been infected by a fever while backpacking in Yellowstone last year (a trip I was unable to join), which was causing them to wake at the first hint of daylight.  I don’t think it is me.

By the time I got out of my tent, Kevin and Rick had retrieved the food, and Oliver had started boiling water for coffee. Our plan for the day was to hike to Pinto Park and beyond because we were still under the illusion that our revised alternative and subsequently modified plan, as amended, could be achieved. Thus far, our trail had been snow free, and aside from everything we had heard or been told about the snow level being about 9000 feet (we were camped at 8900), we were prepared to believe that these snow-free conditions would continue.

One interesting aspect of having the sleeping accommodations so far from the kitchen area is that multitasking is much more difficult. Our usual practice is to comingle coffee drinking, packing, eating, and aimless milling about as we get ready to hike. But with the kitchen area so far from the tents, packing while eating and drinking is much more difficult. This puts a lot of pressure on the aimless milling about, which has to absorb some of the time that might be spent productively packing. I was very glad I had a chair.

Despite the heavy effort devoted to milling aimlessly, we were packed and ready to hike by 8:50, just like we would have been had we been able to pack while eating and drinking. This counterintuitive result is a bit puzzling, although I guess it is possible that concentrating our efforts on packing after we had finished eating, drinking, and milling was actually more efficient than trying to stuff a sleeping bag while eating oatmeal with one hand and swilling coffee with the other. More science needs to be focused on this subject, but I would surely hate to discover that we had been operating sub-optimally all these years.

The morning was bright and clear. Kevin was offered the role of scout leader for the morning hike, but after taking a wrong turn before hiking 50 yards, he was demoted to end of the line. This spots suits him, and us, better in any case, since Kevin, like the meter maid or garbage man, is prone to sudden stops and backing without notice. He will see something of interest, and everything else, including putting one foot in front of the other in a somewhat regular way, becomes secondary. The worst possible combination is to put Kevin in front with Oliver second, since Oliver tailgates and daydreams while Kevin is stopping, starting, and lurching unexpectedly from side to side. Even a bright and clear morning comprising excellent hiking conditions cannot prevent a pileup under these circumstances.

Map of the Popo Agie Wilderness experience.

We had not hiked more than half a mile before we reached the trail junction just below Three Forks. The Pinto Park trail led off to the right, and the Middle Fork trail led off to the left. According to Ranger Bob, the Middle Fork trail was closed due to high water less than a mile from the split, so our only choice was the Pinto Park trail. 

“Wow, I had no idea we were so close to Three Rivers,” I said. “We hiked more than nine miles yesterday. No wonder we were so tired.”

“Where’s Three Rivers?” asked Rick in a puzzled tone.

“He means Three Forks,” answered Oliver.

“Where’s Three Forks?” Now it was my turn to be puzzled.

“Three Forks is up the Middle Fork trail, and Three Rivers doesn’t exist.” Oliver was getting impatient.

“If Three Rivers doesn’t exist,” I asked, “ then why are we trying to go there?”

“We’re not trying to go there. We’re trying to go to Three Forks.”

“But you just said Three Forks is up the Middle Fork trail, and we want the Pinto Park trail. Really Oliver, you’re not making much sense.” I cinched my waist belt a little tighter and started up the trail to Pinto Park.

Rick turned to Oliver, who was deciding how forcefully to respond to this latest affront. “I see three possibilities,” said Rick. “Could be that John is still pissed off about missing lunch the day before yesterday and is just being an asshole, or his faculties have diminished with age and he cannot grasp that it is Three Forks and not Three Rivers, or, most likely, the BPA in his water bottle has stimulated an estrogen-like response in his body and he is just behaving like a woman.”

Oliver laughed at the thought, and I had to admire Rick’s clever use of humor to defuse the situation. At least I hope it was humor.

The Pinto Park trail climbs steadily but not steeply from the junction in a west-northwesterly direction. Within a quarter of a mile we ran into our first snowdrift. This was exciting and novel, so we stopped for a moment to enjoy it. Within half a mile snowdrifts were routine, the novelty had worn off, but the snow was still kind of fun and interesting. By the time we had gone a mile, most of the ground was covered with snow, and the ground that wasn’t covered with snow was saturated and muddy. The trail was mostly obscured, often identifiable only because it was the largest trickle in a landscape of flowing water. We were just over 9,000 feet.

The trail.
By the time we reached the junction between the Pinto Park trail and the Deep Creek Lakes Cutoff trail, we had been hiking for about two and a half hours. Both trails would take us to Deep Creek Lakes, the Pinto Park trail around the north side of a small, unnamed peak (Pinto Knob?), and the cutoff trail around the south side. Ranger Bob had told Oliver that the view from Pinto Park was spectacular, so our original plan was to hike around that way. But Pinto Park straddles the pass between the Middle Fork and the North Fork of the Popo Agie River, which meant that we would have to climb up over 10,400 feet before looping around toward Deep Creek Lakes. With the snow already deep in places and getting deeper as we climbed, the cutoff trail seemed the better bet. 

The better bet.

The cutoff trail led south across a heavily forested east-facing slope, and while it might have been the better bet, it still wasn’t a good one. Snowdrifts were piled in some places six feet deep, and the snow was soft and wet wherever it was exposed to the sun. Both Oliver and Kevin were carrying snowshoes, but the snow cover was just spotty enough that they were not really useful.

About half a mile from the junction, we crossed a creek that flowed in an easterly direction toward the Middle Fork. Until that point, we had managed pretty well by following an old set of footprints in the snow and by wading through the deepest puddles on the soggy ground. The trail on the north side of the creek (which had a southern exposure) descended steeply into the little gully, but the trail completely disappeared in deep snowdrifts on the southern side (which had a northern exposure). The going here was very hard. Two or three steps on hard snow would be followed by a step in which we would sink to our knees, or even deeper (known as “postholing” in the vernacular). Following in the footsteps of the person in front was no guarantee that one wouldn’t posthole, and even after we had scratched and clawed our way out of the gully, we couldn’t find any hint of the trail.

Fifteen minutes of searching produced at least three pulled groins and a bewildering array of clues about the location of the trail, none of which were reliable. Although we hated the idea of returning to the little creek and starting the search anew, doing so was better than continuing in the wrong direction. Returning to the creek proved easier than we thought. We had tracks in the snow to follow, and good information, or at least better information, about where not to step to avoid sinking. And upon returning to the stream, we also discovered a small campsite and an excellent reason to stop for lunch.

Our lunch spot proved reasonably accommodating. The forest duff was thick here, so the ground was not particularly muddy. A good-sized log and a large boulder offered comfortable, dry seating in the sun. From the top of the boulder, we even had a view of the Middle Fork canyon. The bright blue sparkle of Pinto Lake could just be made out through the trees. Using the lake and the slope of the land down the canyon as reference points, we were able to determine our location on the map with some precision. So we were all in agreement that the trail had to be upslope from the luncheon spot. We were also in agreement that the trail was most likely close by. This was a transient campsite, not a destination campsite, so it wouldn’t make much sense to diverge too far from the trail. Finally, we all agreed that even though the trail was close, it could not be seen from a comfortable seated position, so finding it would have to wait until after lunch.

In truth, we did not have to wait long. Kevin quickly tired of the theoretical discussion about the location of the trail, and went off to find it using standard grid-pattern searching techniques. This suited the rest of us just fine, since we had great faith in his ability to apply these techniques while we continued to speculate about the location of the trail, eat snacks, and rest with our boots off. Our faith was not misplaced. Within ten minutes, Kevin was back. The trail was no more than 25 yards away, just a little bit upslope of where we had been hiking earlier.

Finding the trail boosted our confidence in the merits of our chosen path. The going was still hard and slow, every third or fourth step resulted in a deep posthole, and the trail would go missing at more or less regular intervals. Oliver and Kevin traded places at the front of the pack, searching out the trail and inadvertently alerting those further back in the line about the location of the deepest drifts. But snow is finicky and pernicious, and even if one guy—or three for that matter—was successful in transiting a drift, that was no guarantee that the next guy in line wouldn’t sink up to his hip despite stepping in the very same spot. Nonetheless, the day was warm and bright, the snow was an entertaining and interesting challenge, and both Oliver and Kevin were awarded the Snow Dog badge for their efforts in sniffing out the trail.

Earning the Snow Dog badge.

The Cutoff trail leads south from the Pinto Park trail junction for about half a mile, traversing an east-facing slope below Pinto Knob, and then turns sharply to the west on the south side of the knob. The change in trail conditions at that point was dramatic. The ground on the south-facing slope was much drier than on the eastern slope, the snowdrifts were small, and the trail was largely clear of snow. We were even treated to the sight of dramatic snow-covered peaks off to the southwest, with a few small, puffy clouds floating by. These factors all seemed to vindicate our decision to take the Cutoff trail, but our planning experience thus far should have provided a cautionary note. It did not.

The snow-free trail had us soon believing that we would easily be able to make it to Deep Creek Lakes, and that the planned trek past Ice Lakes was virtually guaranteed. Little thought was given to why these lakes were named, “Ice,” we were going to make the planned hike after all.

So you can imagine our surprise when encountered deep snow at Lower Deep Creek Lake. From the spot where the trail makes its bend to the west, it is about a mile to the lake. The trail slopes gently upward, and by the time one reaches the lower lake, the elevation is about 10,400 feet. What is odd is that even though the snow was starting to build up before the lake, nothing prepared us for the complete inundation of snow once we got there. We went from a few drifts here and there and mostly clear trail to complete snow cover and no trail whatsoever in about 30 feet. 

Lower Deep Creek Lake.

“What do you think?” asked Oliver, clearly itching to go on like a guy who was carrying snowshoes.

“Looks doable to me,” responded Kevin, sounding like another guy who was carrying snowshoes.

“I’m not so sure,” cautioned I, like a guy who was carrying a chair.

“I think it’s going to rain,” said Rick, like a guy who carrying neither snowshoes nor a chair, but who had the good sense to put on rain gear before getting wet. The small, puffy clouds we had enjoyed earlier had built up into a solid mass of threatening grey clouds. We would get rain (or snow). It was just a matter of when.

Our options at this point were limited. We could continue on and hope that we could find a dry spot to camp before the rain really started, or we could turn back and claim the small campsite we had seen about half a mile back.  Both Oliver and Kevin were anxious to use the snowshoes they had been carrying, and I was willing to have a look around in hopes of finding a better campsite, but I don’t think any of us were particularly optimistic. The snow cover was almost complete, and while it was mostly hard enough to travel on without snowshoes, camping on the snow would have been miserable. Daytime temperatures had been in the upper fifties and low sixties, and even with the cloud cover, temperatures would most likely remain above freezing. Snow camping might be fun, but not on wet, melting snow.

A brief exploration along the shore of the lake revealed nothing more than uninterrupted snow and one large bear scat, both good reasons to turn around. Rick had remained with the packs while the rest of us went on our scouting mission, spending his time studying the map.

“I have a theory about why there is no snow along the southern side of the knob,” Rick said, holding out the map so we all could see it. “If the storms blow in from the west or the northwest, then this stretch of trail is largely protected behind the knob. So the snow doesn’t build up so deep, and the southern exposure means it melts away faster. “ This was fun nature fact, but we all sensed that more was coming. We were not disappointed. “There are no other land features like that anywhere around here. This may be the only dry ground we find unless we head down into the North Fork valley.”

We had to admit that Rick’s argument made sense. He had the power of speculative nature facts on his side, along with the sprinkling of hard evidence that comes from visiting a new spot once for about five minutes. There was no way we could counter that kind of intellectual tour de force, so we all agreed that Rick should get the Map Time badge, hefted our packs, and headed back down the trail.

The campsite we had seen was still unoccupied when we got back, and we got back not a moment too soon. Although the site was a bit dreary, lacking basic amenities like a view and a big rock porch, we were still glad to get there. The wind was starting to rise, and rain was starting to fall. The temperature was starting to fall as well. Level spots were hard to come by, but in conditions such as these, one cannot afford to be too picky.

Once the tents were set, Oliver and Kevin turned their attention to setting up the tarp, while Rick and I worked on the food-hanging rope. The job would have been plenty hard enough with the cold weather, the dense trees, and the occasional thundershower, but with the tarp deployed, both Oliver and Kevin sat down to enjoy the spectacle of our rope hanging efforts.

“Looks like Tuma is going with a three rock,” said Kevin quietly, in his best golf commentary style. “A bit unusual for such a dense tree.”

“Yes, it is a bit unusual,” answered Oliver, in the same hushed tone, “but the smaller rock might just slip between the branches.”

I swung the rock around on the pilot line like a sling, and at just the right moment, let it go. The rock followed a beautiful trajectory along its prescribed path. Unfortunately, the rock slipped out of the pilot line, so while the rock flew straight and true, the line fell limply at my feet.

“Oh! Into the rough. That’s going to cost him a stroke plus a penalty, and it looks like he’s lost his rock.” Kevin was clearly enjoying this.

Rick handed me another rock, this one a bit larger. “A two rock,” continued Kevin. “A much more suitable choice for this throw.”

And so it continued. Eventually we managed to get the lines hung—we were using the new two-line technique once again—but not before losing a couple more rocks and having a couple of promising tosses swatted down by a limb in mid flight. The only good news from this sorry spectacle was that getting the lines hung took so long that Oliver got up and left out of boredom to collect firewood, and Kevin eventually shut up because he could think of nothing else clever to say. 

Staying dry and enjoying it.

Dinner that night was hot and sour soup, followed by marinated ginger beef over rice, and finally Oreos for dessert. Even with the fire going, Oliver did most of the cooking over the stove so he could stay under the tarp. Rainsqualls came and went throughout the evening, accompanied by a blustery wind. We hung out under the tarp as long as we could, but at 9:00 we tied the tarp down to the ground over the pots and pans, and headed for the warm comfort of our sleeping bags.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Day 2 Popo Agie Wilderness, Wyoming

Day 2: Trailhead on the Middle Fork to a Nice Spot Just Below Three Forks (9 miles)

The night had been clear and cold, and neither of these circumstances seemed to encourage rising early to meet the day. I was very comfortable and warm in the back of the truck, with two sleeping pads and a sleeping bag underneath me, and another sleeping bag wrapped around me.  This was a level of cushioned comfort I was not likely to experience for a week, and I was in no hurry to give it up.  My fellow MountainGuys, however, were made of sterner stuff than I, and eventually I realized that I would have to get up and get packed, since they were already up, about, and drinking coffee.

The June sun reached the bottom of the canyon early, and as the air warmed up, so too did much of the natural world, especially the mosquitoes. One advantage of taking a late summer trip is that the worst of the mosquito season is usually over. Not so on this trip. There was water everywhere, and the little buggers were everywhere as well. I imagine that their presence may have contributed to the efficient way we packed up our belongings and made ready for the hike. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad as long as one was moving, but stay in one place for any length of time, and the vile little creatures would just eat you up.

The Bruce parking lot was surprisingly large, and featured a good-sized pit toilet at the far side. The whole facility seemed too big and too modern for a trailhead parking lot. But, it turns out, this was not just merely a trailhead parking lot, but the staging area for all sorts of ventures up to Popo Agie Falls. The parking lot was half full, and large numbers of people were milling about in various stages of preparing to hike, finishing their hike, or buying and selling drugs in the back corner of the lot. It was a regular scene.

The trailhead parking lot is across the road and the river from the trailhead, and a large steel bridge spans the river at that point. A good thing, too. Without that bridge, we wouldn’t have been going anywhere. The river was running too high, and any effort to cross the river on anything less than a large bridge would almost certainly be a death sentence.

 River view from the bridge.

Once across the bridge, Kevin suggested that we take a group photo. A group photo on the bridge would have been nice, but there was no way to set a camera for a timed photo that wouldn’t risk dumping it in the river, and there was far too much foot traffic on the bridge in any case. The large number of people on the trail and generally milling about the trailhead might have been some cause for concern, except that none of them looked like they were prepared for anything more than the one-mile jaunt to Popo Agie Falls. Many of them did not really look like they were even prepared for that. 

 Ready to hike.

In this latter category was a group of four fine, young Christian men, who kindly offered to take our picture for us. They kindly asked us where we were headed, and once their curiosity was satisfied, kindly launched into a long explanation of how their Christian values were being enhanced by a mandatory wilderness experience. I am a bit dim on the details because my eyes tend to glaze over and my mind goes numb when other people begin to describe their devotion to God. But in this, at least, I was in complete agreement with their church: God’s work may be evident in all that surrounds us, including Walmart and McChicken sandwiches, but without the distractions of the modern world, real faith is much more likely to take root and flourish.

This viewpoint, however, was completely lost on these four young men, who looked as though the effort required to drag their sorry asses all the way to Popo Agie Falls might kill them. Unburdened by packs, or even appropriate hiking shoes, they quickly outdistanced us as we all started up the trail. But their lack of joy in what they were doing quickly undermined the inherent advantages of unburdened youth, and we passed them just half a mile from the trailhead. They had stopped to rest on a rock overlooking the river, completely spent. I am pretty sure that if they truly believed that they could fool God, they would have turned around right then and there. Once we passed them we did not see them again, so I don’t know how this moral dilemma played out, but I am hopeful that they found the strength to continue, because the falls were truly spectacular.

Once we reached the cutoff to the falls, the crowds pretty much disappeared. We saw a few people here and there, but for the most part we had the trails to ourselves. We did run across a party of trail workers, including the ranger that Oliver had been talking with while he was planning the trip, and that was fortuitous. Ranger Bob is one of those small, wiry guys that is a lot stronger than he looks like he should be, and grizzled and dirty as he was from a day of trail building, he had a certain backcountry swagger that said, (in a gravelly, Clint Eastwood kind of voice), “Don’t mess with me!” In a fight between a grizzly bear and Ranger Bob armed only with a shovel, I’m pretty sure the smart money would have been on Ranger Bob.

Bob did not have much to add to what he had told Oliver two days before. There was still a lot of snow at 9,000 feet, the river was running high, though not as high as last year when it was over the bridge and it flooded a good chunk of Lander, no bear activity had been reported, and there was pretty much water everywhere. Despite the snow and the water, Ranger Bob figured that we’d probably be able to find places to camp, but of course, no guarantees. In other words, it was a pretty encouraging report.

Despite the dire warnings about snow and water and soggy campsites, the hike was splendid. The air was warm, the sun was bright, and wildflowers were abundant on the rocky hillsides of the canyon. And for this one day, the trails were mostly dry. We had a couple of stream crossings, one of which required carefully sidling along a slippery log before stepping to safety on the far side, but other than that, the trail was well graded and nicely built. The trail even featured a small bridge or two over what can only be described as “mere trickles.” Why the trail builders deemed those tiny watercourses worthy of a bridge is a bit of mystery, but perhaps they were having a Monty Python moment.

 Abundant wildflowers.

Dry trails.
We stopped for lunch at about 1:00, in a shady spot near one of the trickles. Our food strategy was new this year. Dinners were shared, as they have always been on MountainGuy trips, but lunches and snacks and breakfasts were no longer group meals. I had suggested this strategy as a way to reduce pack weight by improving portion control, but, if anything, we were carrying even more food than we normally do. No one wanted to be the ‘Guy who ran out of food, so we all were generously supplied. Even so, I like the way this worked out. I was able to carry what I thought I would need, eat what I planned to eat, and not feel guilty about devouring more than my fair share of the food.

Shortly after lunch, we reached a spot where the trail had been squeezed between the river and small cliff. The trail itself was underwater, and a narrow use trail had been even more squeezed between the trail and the cliff. The passage was muddy but manageable, and we could see on the cliff wall that the water had been at least six inches higher just a few days before. Whether this bit of trail could have been passable then is hard to say. The water might not have been particularly deep, but the river’s swirling currents and debris-laden waters would have made the passage dangerous. The ground shook from the force of the thundering waters, and mist filled the air everywhere within 10 feet of the river. A slip here, or anywhere along the river’s edge would almost certainly have been doom. On the bright side, the water could not have been more than 34 degrees, and if you did slip, your muscles would have been numb from the cold water before you hit the first rock.

Our hope for the day was to make Three Forks, but by 4:00 we were spent. Oliver and I were hiking together, and as we rounded a small bend, there was a gap in the jumble of rocks that lined the trail away from the river. Sensing something promising, we scrambled around the rocks and found a nice little campsite, tucked up in the trees and out of view of the trail.

“What do you think?” I asked, hopefully. I was ready to stop.

“Hasn’t been much good camping along the river,” noted Oliver. I suspect he was ready to stop, too.

Rick came around the bend, and climbed up beside us. “Looks good to me,” he said, without breaking stride.

“Where’s Kevin?” I looked down the trail, but he was nowhere in sight.

“Back there somewhere,” replied Rick as he swung his pack off his shoulder. “He stopped to study an unusual cambium layer on a tree that had been struck by lightning.”

“Hope he thinks to look back here,” said Oliver, dropping his pack by a big pine tree.

By the time Kevin rolled in, about ten minutes later, the rest of us had managed to disassemble our packs and pitch our tents.

“Hey Kevin,” greeted Oliver, “Glad you found us.”

“Wasn’t hard. You guys make enough noise to scare off a whole herd of buffalo.”

“That’s excellent,” I said, ignoring Kevin’s intended slight. “I wouldn’t want anything to do with a whole herd of buffalo.”

 “Besides,” added Rick, “There are no buffalo in this part of Wyoming. So even if we’d been super silent, you still wouldn’t have seen any.”

Kevin just shook his head. He had just used buffalo as an example, and we all knew it. But our loud lack of sensitivity just confirmed his worst fears that any dreams of seeing wildlife were going to be dashed once again.

The southern Wind River Range is black bear country, and there hadn’t been a confirmed grizzly sighting anywhere near where we were for at least five years, and maybe never. Still, the rangers would not rule out the possibility of grizzly bears, so the recommended practice in the Popo Agie Wilderness is to set up a kitchen and pack storage area well away from the sleeping accommodations. A small fire ring decorated the site where we placed out tents, but it was filled with pine needles and probably hadn’t been used in five years. We didn’t do anything the change that.

Our kitchen area was located about 50 yards away, on top of a large granite slab behind the tent site, away from the river. The top of the slab featured a filtered view down the Middle Fork canyon, and a nice, open spot to sit in the sun. A small fire ring had been built up here, too, but unlike the one by the tents, this one had been used relatively recently. The ring itself was in disrepair, but there was no build up of pine needles, and traces of ash still lined the bottom of the pit. 

 Kitchen area.

While Oliver set to work rebuilding the fire ring, Kevin and I scouted around for an appropriate food-hanging tree. Sadly, there were none to be found. Most of the trees were small, and even the larger ones had slender branches and thick canopies. We were going to have to get creative. Creativity is not easy to come by in any circumstances, but when the situation that demands creativity follows a long day of hiking (seven miles by our reckoning), the only hope is an unanticipated spark of genius. Or perhaps a lucky guess.

“We have two ropes. What do you think about suspending the food between two trees,” I suggested. “These two here look promising.” The trees in question were adjacent to the rock slab and close to the kitchen area, both relatively large, and a rope between them would hover over a bit of ground below the rock slab, at least 15 feet off the ground.

“That’s an interesting thought.” Kevin pondered the possibilities. “How did you plan to do that?”

“I have no idea. That’s where you come in.” I starting looking around for an appropriate stone to tie onto the pilot line that we use to haul the big ropes into position.

Kevin studied the trees first from one angle and then from another. He climbed to the ground below the slab and studied the trees from there. He climbed back up the slab and started drawing complicated diagrams in the dirt with a makeshift compass and straightedge he had fashioned out of sticks. He moistened his finger and stuck it in the air to assess the wind. Finally, Kevin took a sun sight with the compass and straightedge. I may be wrong, but I think this last bit was just for dramatic effect.

“We’ll use that branch,” said Kevin, pointing to a thin branch near the top of the tree closest to the kitchen. “Get it in close to the trunk so we don’t break it.” He paused for a moment. “And we’ll use that branch,” pointing a large branch about two thirds of the way up the other tree. We want the rope about two feet out from the trunk so that the line has a straight fall.”

Now it was my turn to ponder. The branches Kevin had selected were very good choices, and would make for a very secure food hang. In the event, the line over the first tree ended up on a branch about a foot below the one Kevin had diagrammed, a branch with a much less favorable angle. The line over the second tree was too high, too close to the trunk, and hopelessly tangled in the thick branches. Kevin had to climb well up into the tree to free the line and pull it down to the ground. All this raised some interesting questions about just how secure the food hanging was, since black bears climb trees much better than Kevin. Nonetheless, we had achieved our objectives. The food would be off the ground, and we would receive the Well Hung badge. In fact, Kevin was awarded a Double Well Hung badge, one for each line in this innovative double-line hang. The lack of food security was troubling, but not so troubling that any of us was willing to revisit the issue. 

 Double Well Hung, for sure.

I retreated to my chair to savor our achievement, which was set up right next to Oliver’s kitchen. This was the first time I have ever carried a chair while backpacking. Carrying a chair creates many problems for the backpacker, not least of which is the psychological damage of being such a wuss. But carrying a chair also opens up the possibility of being really comfortable while hanging around camp, and that in turn changes the way one backpacks. No longer would I have to choose between standing to ease the pain in my back and sitting to ease the pain in my feet and knees and hips. I could now sit comfortably with my back supported by the chair and my feet supported by the rock on which they were resting. I could sit and think, or even just sit, and watch the world go by. Carrying the chair is a pain, the abuse I received from my friends was painful, but while Rick was hopping from foot to foot, and Oliver was arranging stumps to lean against, and Kevin was retreating to his tent to lie down, I was sitting comfortably sipping scotch. I might be a wuss, but I am a comfortable wuss.

From my vantage point in the chair, I was able to study the complicated cooking arrangement that Oliver had created. The fire pit featured a fire chimney with a shelf to support the pot, ventilation holes, a second low temperature pot holder, and two rocks operated by levers to send smoke signals if such a need should ever arise. While Kevin and I were hanging the food, Oliver had made refried beans with fried onions and chicken, which he was keeping warm on the low-temperature rock, cut sliced cheese, and prepared the fire to heat the skillet to brown the tortillas and melt the cheese. As always, the burritos were great. Actually, they were better than great. With a professional kitchen in which to work, Oliver was able to create burrito masterpieces, including the salsa. 

 Burrito masterpiece.

The sun was setting as we savored our delicious burritos. But there was much else to savor, too. Despite the difficult logistical challenges we had so far faced, this entire day had pretty much gone as planned. Granted, it had pretty much gone as planned in our revised alternative and subsequently modified plan, as amended, but it had followed that plan almost perfectly. What more could we ask? We were a fat and happy group of MountainGuys that night, and by the time the light drained out of the sky, about 9:30 or so, we put out the fire and headed for bed, ready for whatever we might face the next day.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Great Wind River Adventure, Day 1

The MountainGuy News:
The Great Wind River Adventure OR
Water, Water, Everywhere
Popo Agie Wilderness, Wyoming
June, 2011

There are some backpacking trips that go exactly according to plan. This was not one of those trips. There are some trips that don’t go exactly according to plan, but what actually transpires is not too far removed from that original plan. This wasn’t one of those trips, either.

We should not have been surprised. Even the planning did not go according to plan. Originally, this was to be a California trip, most likely in September, and most likely to the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The first hint of trouble emerged early, when I started searching for appropriate dates.

“The second week of September could work,” said Oliver, “unless I am in England in September.”

So September was out. “How about August, then,” I suggested.

“August could work, unless I go to England. I can’t take that much time off from work all at once,” Oliver replied.

So August was out. “I will be out in South Dakota in June for a wedding,” I noted, thinking out loud (a dangerous habit, for sure), “maybe we can do a quick trip to the Wind Rivers then, and figure out the MountainGuy trip later.”

“That could work, though I may not be able to take a second trip later in the summer even if I don’t go to England,” said Oliver.

So September was out. August was out. California was out. June was in. Wyoming was in. Quick was out. A week-long trek was in.

With the dates set, Oliver started searching for an appropriate venue in the southern Wind River Range. Cathedral Lakes looked spectacular, but a little high for June, especially in a year of unusually heave snowfall. The Little Popo Agie Basin looked good, but again, the trailhead was at 9,400 feet of elevation, too high for June. So we chose to hike up the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River, loop past Ice House Lakes, and then back down on the other side of the river. The trailhead was at 7,400 feet, and we figured we could just do a lower-elevation trip. We figured wrong.

Initially, things seemed to be going well. The snowpack was unusually heavy, but the road up to the trailhead opened up about five weeks before we were planning to hike. Ten days later, three feet of snow fell at 7,000 feet, and the road was closed again. It did not reopen until two weeks before the hike, and there was some concern that even though the road was open, the trails might not be. So at this point we should have realized that things were not going to go according to plan.

But one of the traits of MountainGuys is moose-headedness, I mean, persistence, so we weren’t going to let a little frozen precipitation alter our thinking. For that matter, we weren’t going to let a little liquid precipitation alter our thinking either.

I got into a regular habit of checking the forecast in the three weeks leading up to the trip, and the forecast was pretty consistent. Rain, snow, and thunderstorms over the next 7 days, and then beautiful, clear, and blue 7 to 14 days out. We would get to 7 to 14 days out, and the next 7 days would be rain, snow, and thunderstorms, and then beautiful 7 to 14 days out. In other words, the near-term forecast, that part of the forecast that is reasonably reliable, was consistently wet, gray, and gloomy. That part of the forecast that was based on historical patterns, hope, and prayers was consistently fabulous. So, of course, we based our plans on historical patterns, hope, and prayers.

With those scientific, metaphysical, and spiritual forces all working in our favor, we agreed to meet in a brewpub in Lander, Wyoming at noon on Sunday. Oliver, Rick, and Kevin would be driving in from Boulder, CO, while I would be driving in from Spearfish, SD, where I would be attending my niece’s wedding. It was a good plan. But this wasn’t one of those trips. At 11:30 on Sunday I got a text from Rick that they were at the brewpub. At 1200 I received a text that lunch was delicious, and that they were going to go ahead and get a campsite near the trailhead. At 1215 I rolled into Lander, hungry and bitter about being abandoned with nothing to eat—excepting the sandwich and fruit I had in my cooler, and the two large bags of groceries I was carrying for the trip.

I spent a goodly amount of time driving up and down the main road in Lander, mostly because I was just a little bit lost. The driving directions I had gotten from Oliver took me to the brewpub. After that, we all assumed we’d be traveling together. But the time was not wasted. Lander proved to be an interesting spot, the largest town for many miles, and therefore a cultural crossroads. The old Lander was still well represented, including ranching and agricultural equipment, hunting and fishing, and small houses on quaint little streets. The new Lander was also well represented, including the brewpub, more restaurants than one would expect to find in such a small town, large homes with big wooden decks on rolling one-acre plots, several bed and breakfast inns, and, of course, a Starbucks coffee inside the large grocery store. Somewhere in between the old and the new were the large Shoshone tribal community, including the Shoshone Rose Casino not too far out of town, and the somewhat smaller mountain climbing community that had set up camp sometime around 1972 and had never left.

One thing you won’t find in Lander is any signage that points you in the direction of Sinks Canyon. To get there, you have to ask directions, then turn the appropriate way on 5th Street, drive through a neighborhood of small but tidy homes, turn right on Fremont Street, and only then will you find yourself on Sinks Canyon Road. When I finally met up with Kevin and Oliver at 2:00, on the road to the trailhead, I had been stewing on my abandonment for two hours. My mood was grim. As Kevin lowered his window on the passenger side of the car, I felt compelled to share my black cloud. “To Hell with you guys!”

Kevin just smiled. “Lunch was delicious.”

“I had a bacon burger,” chimed in Oliver, from the other side of the car. “We were waiting for you at the Bruce parking lot. Turns out Bruce is just a trailhead, and we can’t camp there, so we got a spot at Sinks Canyon campground. Follow us down.”

With that, Oliver flipped his car around and took off. I followed along behind, grateful that they had not let me stew for awhile at the trailhead, too.

The campsite was small, but adequate, and nicely situated alongside the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River. The site featured a steel fire ring, a steel bear box for storing food, a picnic table that was canted ten degrees downhill toward the river, and two or three hard-packed and almost-level places to pitch a small tent. In most years, the sound of the water would have been pleasant background music, but not this year. The Popo Agie was running huge, so high that you could feel the ground shaking if you were within 50 feet of the river, and two of the best tent spots at our site were only inches above the water line.  This made for somewhat crowded camping, so I opted to sleep in the back of the truck.

 The campsite at Sinks Canyon State Park.

Rick greeted me as I got out of the truck. “Hi John! Too bad you couldn’t join us for lunch. The mushroom burger was excellent.”

“To Hell with you, too, Rick.”

With the formalities out of the way, I grabbed a beer and sat down on the bench to catch up with my friends. It had been a year since I had last seen either Oliver or Kevin, and at least four months since I had seen Rick, even though he and I live only two miles apart.

 Just happy to be here, part 1.

The Sinks Canyon campground is small, but neat. There are probably only 15 campsites, one of which is occupied by the camp hosts, whose large trailer was set up just 50 feet from the well. The well featured an ancient pump that gurgled out about a quart of cold water with each stroke of the pump handle. However, the pump handle was about four feet long, so pumping water into anything but a bucket was a two person job: one to man the handle, and one to fill the bottles, bags, and buckets. The pump lost its head as soon as one stopped pumping, and at least five, but no more than 20 pumps were then required to reprime the pump. There was no way to tell when the water would start flowing, exactly, so it was always a bit of a surprise when the first quart gushed out, usually onto the shoes of the person trying to hold the bottles.

 Just happy to be here, part 2.

The afternoon passed quickly as we divvied up food, ate snacks, drank beer, sorted gear, and prepared for the first-night feast. As usual, Oliver had outdone himself. The menu included fire-grilled lamb kebabs, chicken, pork chops, and steak. We had bread, and sweet corn. We had crackers and cheese, and Rick had brought along some elephant garlic pâté.  And for dessert, we had cookies and chocolate cake. Efforts to heat the cake over the fire were a mixed success, however. The cake was soft and warm as a result, but the smoky flavor did nothing to enhance the delicate semi-bitter cocoa taste.

With the fire burning down, the dishes done, and the food put away in the bear box, we offered one final toast to celebrate the beginning of a new adventure. The night had turned cold and damp, and we were all tired from a long day of travel. But aside from not meeting at the appointed place and time, not camping at the trailhead as we intended, not starting from the trailhead we had originally chosen, and now knowing with certainty that river crossings would be deadly and that we would not be able to make the hike we had hoped for, things were going pretty much according to plan. This was going to be an excellent trip.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

My First Boat

My First Boat

By John Tuma

My cousin Jeff and I were always in trouble. We didn’t try to get in trouble, it just sort of happened that way. Two incidents stand out. One was when we got arrested, but that isn’t what this story is about. This story is about the time we went boating without permission.

The boat in question was my first boat, or rather, our first boat, since it was a jointly held asset. We were in for equal shares, which was probably good, since that meant there were no clear lines of responsibility. I sure wouldn’t have wanted to bear the full wrath of our parents; a half share was more than enough.

My Uncle Mort and Aunt June lived about 50 miles from us, and I only saw Jeff when we all got together for big family parties, which, as everyone knows, are trouble waiting to happen. The adults would start talking, and sometimes they’d play cards or games, and usually there was a bit of drinking, so the kids were left largely unsupervised. In the long boring time between when everyone would arrive and we would all sit down to dinner, us cousins were left to figure out how to entertain ourselves.

I was 11 years old at the time, and Jeff was 10. My family had just moved into a new house out at the edge of town, a place where immature suburban landscapes rubbed shoulders with lots of open farmland. It was a glorious place to be a kid, and there were always adventures to be found, most of which involved trouble of one sort or another.

I remember telling Jeff that all we had to do was walk to the end of the street, turn right, and go down a couple of blocks, and we’d be out in the fields. So, of course, he had to see for himself.

It was February, and it was probably cold, but what I most remember is that there had been a lot of rain, and there was a lot of water pooling on the ground. The grasses in the fields were tall, the fields were really muddy, and at first we didn’t dare venture out there, for fear of getting dirty or sinking in quicksand. I don’t know much about the geology of modern youth, but I know that when I was growing up, there was a lot of quicksand and we were always worrying about sinking into it and disappearing forever. To the best of my recollection, we never did lose anyone, but at the time there seemed to be a lot of close calls.

So at first Jeff and I just stayed on the path that ran through a greenbelt on the edge of the housing development. We threw rocks for a bit, which landed with a most satisfying, “thwup”, as they got swallowed up in the gooey mud, but you can only throw rocks for so long, and I had already proved my point that the fields were right around the corner.

Throughout the time that we had been throwing rocks, we had continued walking, and pretty soon we came to the place where the pavement ended and it was all open fields from there to Woodland, about 10 miles away. This was further than I had ever ventured, and it was all pretty exciting, but we had seen the fields and it was time to get back home. At this point, neither of us was particularly dirty, and we had learned long before that there was a tolerable level of mud and staining that we could attain without garnering undue attention. Since we hadn’t crossed that threshold, and since we wouldn’t be late, returning now would make a lot of sense.

Generally speaking, though, I wouldn’t wager a lot of money on the sensibilities of a 10-year old and an 11-year old, especially when they are working on a vexing problem together. This time was no different.

“You ever been around that corner?” Jeff asked, pointing to a bend in the dirt road that continued on from the end of the pavement.

“No. This is the farthest I’ve ever gone.” I considered the situation. Since I was older than Jeff, I was expected to be wiser. It was a dreadfully heavy burden. “What time do you think it is? Think it’s dinnertime? Maybe we should be getting back.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said Jeff. “But I sure would like to see where that dirt road goes.” He paused for a moment. “Think there’s any quicksand out there?”

“Pretty sure there is. But my friend Kenny said you can tell where the quicksand is by looking at the animal tracks. You can see where the tracks go in, and then they disappear, and don’t come out the other side.”

Jeff nodded. The argument made intuitive sense.

“Paul from next door said he heard the same thing.” (Probably from Kenny.) Since just about everybody I knew was telling me that you could identify quicksand from disappearing animal tracks, I felt pretty confident that I could keep us out of trouble, at least with respect to quicksand.

As we debated the merits of going on, we had continued walking along the dirt road, so by now going around the bend in the road was a foregone conclusion. We rounded the corner, and discovered, to our amazement, that there really wasn’t much to see. The road branched off in two directions, there were some old, gnarled trees in the corner of the field between the two roads that had once been part of a windbreak, and other than that there was just a lot of weeds and mud.

I stopped to survey the fields for any sign of something interesting, but Jeff continued on down the road to the right. My survey revealed nothing, though not for lack of effort, so I picked up some rocks and stood there, idly tossing them into the mud waiting for Jeff to come back.  When he didn’t come back after what seemed like a long time, I began to get worried. I know I had explained to him the finer points of identifying quicksand, but maybe he hadn’t been listening. I ran up the road, fearing the worst, calling Jeff’s name.

“What are you hollerin’ about?“ Jeff asked. “I’m just right here.”

Jeff was off the side of the road, crouched by the edge of a large pond. He had a long tree branch with which he was trying to discern the depth of the water, but without much success since it kept floating to the top. One thing was clear, though. The water was pretty deep.

“Look out there!” Jeff pointed out into the middle of the pond, which was really just a low spot at the corner of the field that had filled with water. “It’s some kind of tractor.” Jeff paused for a moment. “What do you think happened to the driver? Think he’s still stuck out there?”

I looked to where Jeff was pointing. There was an old broken-down combine squatting in the muddy water, slowly sinking into the muck. Both the pond and the tractor had been hidden from view because the weeds were tall and we were short.

“No, I don’t think he’s still out there. Sure hope he didn’t get caught in some quicksand.” I scanned up the road. “I don’t see any footprints.”

“Maybe we should find out. I’d hate to leave him if he’s still our there.” Jeff had point. There was no one better qualified than us to make sure the driver was safe, at least no one nearby. Besides, we needed a reason to undertake the dangerous task of exploring the combine, and that was as good a reason as any. “How do you think we should get out there?” Jeff continued.

“Well, we’re gonna need a boat,” I said. “There’s probably quicksand at the bottom of that pond, and there might be some alligators or even some piranhas in the water.” Jeff looked up at me alarmed. “Kenny said that Paul told him that there were alligators in the fields when he first moved out here. I believe him, ‘cause Paul’s house was one of the first ones built.”

So it was decided then. We would have to explore the tractor to make sure that the driver was okay, but we’d have to have a boat or almost certainly we’d be eaten by alligators before we even had a chance to sink into the quicksand. This was turning out to the best adventure ever, and all thoughts of returning home for dinner clean enough and on time enough were completely forgotten.

About the only sensible thing we did that day was our decision to stay together while we scouted the perimeter of the pond for a boat. This had more to do with fears about being eaten by alligators than any overriding good sense, but it was a good decision for all that.

Scouting the perimeter of the lake proved to be a lot harder than it first appeared. The ground was very soft and muddy, even though we tried to stay up where the weeds were growing, and we were both covered in mud before we got ten steps off the road. We were committed now, and there was no sense going back home this dirty without at least making our best effort to get out to the combine. But it was 30 feet from the shore even at its closest point. About half way around the pond, we came across an irrigation pump. Debris was littered around this spot, and amongst the debris was a rusty, old, steel tank, about six feet long, cut in half. The tank was probably an old water tank, but it could just as easily have been used for carrying pesticides or fertilizer. We didn’t care about any of that. The tank was half floating in the pond with maybe three inches of water sloshing around the bottom. This was our boat!

Since the tank was half floating, we figured that it would be no problem to push it into the water the rest of the way, hop in, and pole our way across. Jeff still had his tree branch, which he had carried along in case of alligators, so he was set. All we needed was another long stick, and we’d be ready to go. I rooted around for a bit in the debris around the pump, but all I could find was a piece of 2 x 4 about three feet long. It would have to do.

While I was searching for my stick, Jeff had been trying to push the tank off the mud and into the water. But the tank was stuck, and even using his stick to pry it off didn’t work.

“How about if I get in, and try to paddle while you push,” I suggested. Jeff nodded. I carefully clambered over the sharp edge of the tank, and with my feet splayed against the sides a few inches above the water in the bottom, I slowly worked my way out to the end. With each alternating step, the tank would rock first one way and then the other. The combination of me inadvertently rocking the boat, along with my weight at the floating end of the tank, was just enough to break the tank free from the suction of the mud. But with the tank no longer level, the water came rushing down to my end of the boat, causing it to tip even more sharply in my direction.

By now I was pretty scared. The round bottom was not very stable, and every time I moved the boat would rock back and forth, the motion amplified by the water that was swirling around my feet.

But Jeff was elated. “Okay. Hold on. I’m gonna to get in.” Jeff tossed his stick into the boat and gave it a little nudge as he climbed in over the end. The boat slowly eased off the shore, and I was sincerely hoping that Jeff wouldn’t tip us into the alligator and piranha-infested waters. All thoughts of paddling were secondary. The boat rocked wildly once or twice, but with Jeff’s weight now on the shore-side end, the water that had been lapping at my feet flowed back the other way, and the bottom of the tank settled once again into the thick, clay mud. With that, the boat stopped rocking and we stopped moving. 

“Well,” I thought, “that’s no fun.” My momentary terror was replaced with supreme disappointment. How were we ever going to rescue the driver if we couldn’t even get our boat off the muddy bank? Jeff tried to push us off with his stick, but the stick just sunk ever deeper into the mud and the boat just sat there. It was quicksand for sure. I leaned over the end of the boat and started paddling with my 2 x 4, and Jeff kept pushing with his stick, but nothing worked. Finally, I suggested that Jeff slowly shift his weight toward me. Maybe we could float off.

Jeff took a couple of steps in my direction, and that was all we needed. The boat floated free. I paddled hard to get us off the bank, and then Jeff moved back to his end of the boat and started poling us toward the combine while I continued to paddle.

The combine was listing to one side, which was perfect since it meant that we could tuck the boat up behind one of the wheels and climb onto a long board that ran from where the driver sat all the way back along the side. “Hello?” I squeaked, not at all sure I wanted to find anyone to rescue. Nothing. “Hello!” I said, louder this time, a little more confident we had the tractor to ourselves. Still nothing. It was clear that the driver either had jumped to safety before the tractor crashed into the pond, or else he’d been eaten by alligators. I climbed onto the running board, and started working my way forward to the driver’s seat. Jeff climbed up after me.

The driver’s seat was a wooden bench, about three feet long. There were three or four long levers with grip handles that had been used for controlling the combine, but they were rusted up, and we couldn’t move them at all. Even so, we had a grand time pretending that we were driving, and when that got boring, we left the driver’s seat and explored the rest of the tractor, clambering all over the outside, and even poking our noses into the inside. But eventually, we realized that the sun was going down, and it was time to go.

“You know,” I said, “it’s getting dark.”

“Yeah,” answered Jeff. “It’s probably time to go.”

The boat was where we left it, which was good, since we had not thought to tie it to anything. Getting back into the boat was a bit tricky. It sure looked like there was more water in the thing than there had been, but it was hard to say since we had never checked for leaks. After studying the situation for a moment, Jeff turned backwards so that he could lower himself into the boat while still holding onto the running board. The boat was pretty tender, especially with the water in it, but he managed to plant his feet firmly on both sides of the boat above the water. From there he retreated to the back of the boat and picked up his stick so that he could hold the boat steady while I got in.

I lowered myself into the boat, and gave us a firm push to get us moving.

“You, know,” I said, “since we have the boat, we should circle the entire pond and check for tracks.” Jeff nodded in agreement.

So he poled and I paddled, and we circled the tractor and explored every inch of the shore, but we didn’t see a single track, either from the driver or from an animal that had gotten caught in the quicksand. This whole operation didn’t take more than ten minutes, but by then it was clear that we were taking on water. As much fun as it was, we needed to park the boat and get back for dinner. We pole-paddled back over to the spot by the irrigation pump where we first found the boat, and beached it the same way we had gotten it off the bank.

Jeff climbed out and I followed. We said goodbye to our trusty (rusty) vessel, picked out way among the weeds back over to the road, and headed for home. We caught hell when we got there, too. Dinner was done, we’d missed the birthdays and the cake. My Aunt June, who was never shy with her opinions, let us have it. All of our other parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles glared silently in the background as Jeff and I slumped lower and lower in our chairs.

“. . .and we’re really disappointed in you. What were you thinking?”

Both of us sat there, a bit shocked. We expected to get in trouble, but not like this. We’d already been home for 15 minutes, and no one had offered us dinner. The situation was increasingly grim.

“Well?!” Aunt June demanded.

“I, uh. . ., wanted to show Jeff the fields,” I started, haltingly. “And we found this tractor. . .” I stopped under Aunt June’s withering stare. My own parents seemed disinclined to help me.

“The tractor was stuck in the mud,” blurted out Jeff, coming to my rescue, “and it was surrounded by a big pond, so we had to find a boat to see if the driver was okay after crashing into the pond.”

“Yeah, we had to have a boat, because there was all this quicksand, and Kenny said we could know it was quicksand by the animal tracks.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Jeff.

I was watching my father as Jeff was talking about rescuing the driver, and I knew then we were going to be okay. Uncle Mort and Uncle Cliff were nodding slowly in the background. The argument made intuitive sense. We couldn’t just leave the driver there—they’d all have made the same decision if presented with the same facts and the same opportunity. However, none of them were likely to intervene, either, and so far Aunt June, Aunt JoAnne, and my mom were not persuaded by our compelling argument. The grilling went on for another ten minutes or so, but we did eventually get dinner and even some dessert.

That old tank was as good a boat as any I’ve ever had. It was rusty, and sharp, and it leaked, but it got us there and it got us back. As ugly and dangerous as it was, the boat was a magic carpet to a great adventure. And the best part was that all the kids in the neighborhood knew that we had braved the alligators and piranhas and quicksand to explore the pond and the combine, because they could see where our tracks went in, and where they came back out.