Friday, March 25, 2011

High Uintas, Day 5

Day 5: Queant Lake to Brook Lake (7 miles)

Kevin was up first this morning. I was awake, but comfortable in my warm little cocoon, and the first indication that this day would be different was when Kevin walked by my tent to get the food. My understanding of the MOU from the night before was that the day would start early, weather permitting. However, there were clouds drifting by as the sun came up, so as far as I was concerned, the weather was not permitting. Wouldn’t want to get caught going over a high pass in a thunderstorm, so it made sense to me to stay in bed, take a lay day at Queant Lake, and try again tomorrow.

Curiously, Kevin’s response to clouds in the morning was to get up even earlier, and to get over the pass before the thunderstorms moved in. Crazy talk to be sure. Nonetheless, Kevin was up, and since he is not a coffee drinker, the situation was not likely to improve unless I got up to heat water. The rest of the hard working MountainGuys were up before the water was hot. Yep, this day would be different. Coffee was chugged, oatmeal was scarfed, cold oat bran was gustily consumed, and packs were quickly packed.

At least most of the packs were quickly packed. One of the enduring mysteries of the MountainGuy is how your correspondent can almost always be the first one up, yet without fail the last one packed. I was determined on this morning that I would not be last, but determination can only carry one so far. Alas, though I had but my water bladder to pack, and Oliver still had his entire kitchen to put away, I was still the last one working. Of course, the bladder had to be packed just so, with the Frisbee underneath it so that the water tube would not be pinched and the tube length would be not too long and not too short, but just right. It all takes time.

Though I could have spent a good deal more time getting my pack just so, I was feeling the pressure. It was time to go. By 8:15 a.m. we were on the trail. By 8:20 a.m., we had lost it. This was unfortunate, because off trail in this instance was a really bad thing. The map showed the trail following the northern and eastern edge of the lake almost all the way around before intersecting the trail up to North Pole Pass, which then proceeded north from the lake. Theoretically, this geometry should have meant that we could cut the corner and pick up the trail without walking all the way around. The trail, however, followed the backbone of a long low ridge that separated the Queant basin from the basin to the southeast. By cutting the corner we found ourselves first traipsing across a boggy meadow, then fighting our way uphill through dense forest along the side of the ridge, and finally scrambling across a tumbled landscape of giant boulders that filled the valley on both sides of Taylor Lake, all the while searching for the trail. 

 A long escarpment defined the western side of the valley above Queant Lake.

A long escarpment stretched from Fox-Queant Pass all the way to North Pole Pass, and since this was by far the most prominent feature of the landscape, we were never really lost. We had only to keep climbing up the eastern side of the valley above the creek that flowed out of Taylor Lake; the escarpment defined the western side of the valley. The climb was hard. The forest on the lower reaches was dense with deadfall. Promising trails would appear then disappear. At one point, Oliver startled a moose cow, but fortunately she took off, though I think Oliver was a bit unnerved. Higher up, the forest thinned out, but the going was even harder. Giant, jagged boulders covered the side of the ridge. There was no way but over, around, and between them. At times brush filled all the spaces between the boulders, and there was no way forward but by thrashing through the brush. It was hard, slow work.

Dan, I thought speaking for the group, exclaimed that this was the hardest hike he had ever done.

“Yeah! It’s great, isn’t it!?” Oliver responded, again, I thought, speaking for the group.

“No, I mean it’s the hardest hike I’ve ever done,” said Dan.

Oliver smiled wistfully. “Yeah, it was really great.”

“No, I mean it’s really hard.” Dan scrambled between two boulders and then forced his way through a particularly dense patch of brush.

“Yeah, I love this kind of hiking, too,” replied Oliver, leaping from one boulder to the next.

 Hard hiking. It was great.

At this point the discussion could have gone only one way, but fortunately it was interrupted by our arrival at Taylor Lake. The clouds continued to pass by, but they hadn’t yet started to build into big, dense thunderheads. Dan speculated that the clouds looked more like the edge of a front than a precursor to afternoon thunderstorms, but still the weather was a bit threatening given the prospect of going over a high pass. Without better knowledge of the landscape between Taylor Lake and the pass, we decided to take a rest, fill up on water, and scout out the trail without packs. 

 Rest spot, with Taylor Lake in the background.

Kevin and I went down to the lake to get water and to search for possible campsites should the weather turn for the worse, while Oliver and Dan, still using the same words but clearly not saying the same thing, went off in search of the trail. Rick chose to stay with the packs and to contemplate the map. Oliver and Dan were back in ten minutes, having found the trail just a quarter of a mile ahead. Once out of the trees, the trail was marked by a series of huge cairns, the first of which was visible from the spot we where we had stopped, clearly outlined along the ridgeline against the sky. As Kevin scouted the upper end of the lake for campsites, I settled down on a large rock to fill the water bottles. The lake level was about two feet down, and the rock I was on formed a perfect shelf that jutted out into the deeper waters of the lake. This would have been an excellent diving rock had the weather been warm, the skies clear, and no need to scurry over the pass to avoid possible storms. Kevin did find a good campsite at the head of the lake, which would have been welcome had we been turned back from the pass, but as it turned out, the clouds just continued to float on by, and we never did see any significant precipitation.

With the trail in sight and water bottles full, we scrambled the final 300 yards to the first cairn.

“That hike was really hard,” gasped Dan.

“Yeah, it was really great. I love this kind of stuff,” gushed Oliver.

The wind was brisk on the ridge top, and the air at 11,500 feet was really pretty cool, even when the sun was out. With the conversation clearly going nowhere, it was time to hike. The trail followed the ridgeline up into a small meadow at the base of the pass. From the meadow floor, steep switchbacks worked up the side of the mountain, quickly gaining several hundred feet of elevation. But after the initial steep section, the trail leveled off, and though still uphill, it was well graded. The views on the climb up were absolutely spectacular. Barren mountains framed against the cloudy sky, trees marching up the slopes and surrounding bright, blue mountain lakes down in the valleys.

From the meadow, Dan had taken the lead, step by step working his way farther and farther out in front. All at once he turned back and pointed to spot further up the slope, “It’s really steep. . .,” we thought he said.


“Mountain steep.”

Well, yeah, it’s all really steep. So we ignored him.

“Mountain sheep. Right there.” Finally we understood. A small herd of mountain goats was grazing along the side of the steep slope, their white wool blowing in the brisk wind. Mountain goats—how cool is that?

North Pole Pass is a broad open meadow of crumbled rock and small, hardy grasses. To the north, the ground continues to slope upward, and to the south, off toward Fox Queant Pass, the ground slopes gently down to the small rounded mountain that forms the northern side of the latter pass. At 12,226 feet, North Pole Pass is about as high as the Uintas get. There are a few higher peaks, but not many. 

 The long climb up North Pole Pass.

This is the kind of experience that defines the MountainGuy. When I hiked up the last few hundred feet to the top of the pass, Dan greeted me with a huge smile, his face flush with the excitement of BEING THERE. At that moment, there was no place better. It was cold, and windy, and the clouds were still threatening, but it was a great moment, just standing on the top of the pass with world spread out below. Oliver arrived at the top a minute or two after me, and Rick and Kevin were perhaps a couple minutes later. Like Dan and me, they were a bit gassed from the climb, but high on adrenaline and filled with the joy of just living in that moment.

 Dan at the top of North Pole Pass

 Kevin, high on adrenaline.

 Too cold to linger with only a rock cairn to block the wind.

It was exciting, but the wind was bitter cold, and it was time to get moving. Like the east side of Fox Queant Pass, the west side of North Pole Pass was brutal, descending steeply over a blasted and jagged rock landscape. The trail from the meadow at the base of the eastern side of North Pole Pass might have climbed 500 feet over a mile and a half to the top; the trail to the valley floor on the western side descended even further in little over half a mile. The footing was treacherous, and by the time we reached the bottom, our feet had that decidedly hamburger feel to them. We did the only thing we could. We stopped to eat lunch.

 A brief rest before stopping for a well-earned lunch break.

At this point, the plan was still to hike over Divide Pass to Island Lake. We reached the pass at 1:15 p.m., and were at the base of the pass on the western side by 2:30 p.m. Island Lake was still about four miles off, so a long lunch followed by a couple more hours of hiking seemed a plausible plan. We lunched in small stand of trees off to the north of the trail, just down from a small pond. Water flowed out of the pond through a small, snake-like stream that wound its way through the high meadow. With the prospect of a long lunch, and with water readily available, I heated water for coffee and hot chocolate, while the rest of the weary MountainGuys got out the food for lunch. Our repast included bagels and tortillas, peanut butter, tuna, dried fruit, nuts, berries, and of course, chocolate. Lunch finished, we continued to lounge in the shade in full repose. The clouds no longer appeared so threatening, though it was a bit cold whenever the sun would disappear behind a cloud.

Dan was lying on his back, eyes closed, with his jacket draped over him, when he said, “That was a really hard hike.”

Oliver was lying on his side sipping coffee. “It was great, wasn’t it?”

Pause. The remaining MountainGuys cringed in silence, fearing what might come next. “Yeah, it was great,” said Dan.

The lunch break lasted about an hour, but then it was time to move on. Old muscles were getting stiff, and there was still a long way to go. Rick broached the idea of stopping at Brook Lake, which we believed was but a short distance down the trail, rather than taking on another pass and the hike to Island Lake. The rest of us, though still hoping for a lay day, reluctantly agreed that stopping made sense. Packs were quickly packed, boots were laced up, and within no more than 20 minutes, we were hiking again.

We had left the trail at the last large cairn that marked the trail over the pass. But from that point, the trail disappeared completely. Though it was not our intention to go cross-country to Brook Lake, we never did find the trail, in part because we were under the impression that Brook Lake was closer than it really was. The map showed the lake to be nestled under the shadow of a steep mountain on the south side of the broad valley that fed into Fox Lake. The stream that flowed into Brook Lake followed a steep canyon down from the pass, so once again off trail, we simply followed the stream along the top of the canyon. Though the trail was shown on the map following the stream pretty closely, we concluded that the map was not entirely reliable—where the trail was shown on the map far from the streams it was far from the streams, and where the trail was shown close to the streams, it was still far from the streams.

Brook Lake proved to be about a mile farther away than we had thought, so we didn’t roll into camp until about 4:30 p.m. Our campsite was a fine spot at the western end of the lake, just across the stream that flowed out of the lake. There were plenty of flattish spots to put the tents on a small mesa above the cooking area, and the cooking area featured plenty of seating and a large firepit. As with so many of the sites we had seen, this one was well-used, but it suffered from an unusual abundance of garbage, including numerous cans, fishhooks, horse tethers, and an assortment of plastic utensils. Between them, Oliver and Kevin managed to pack up a lot of the garbage, and what they couldn’t carry they consolidated into a single neat pile. By the time they were done, the site was totally remodeled and in move-in condition.

With a bit of daylight left, I took off to go fishing. There was a fine little pool in the meadow just below the outlet from the lake. Through a complicated process of watching the bugs that were flying around, evaluating them for size and color, and with a hefty dose of plain dumb luck, I picked a black fly with light-colored bristles. Though I don’t know what the fish thought that black fly to be, whatever it was must have been really delicious. I caught fish on my first five casts. Three of the fish were native cutthroat trout, which are protected in the Uintas, and had to be thrown back. The other two were brook trout. One was too small and got thrown back. The other was a fine big fish about 12 inches long. It got eaten.

Dinner that night was spaghetti with pesto sauce, followed by trout cooked on a hot rock in the fire. What the fish lacked in spicing it made up in freshness. The meal was followed by a dessert course of chocolates and dried fruit, and a splash of scotch for those so inclined. Dan contemplated cooking his Chili Mac meal, but the pesto was really quite filling, and no one went to bed hungry.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

High Uintas, Day 4

Day 4: Kidney Lakes to Queant Lake (10 miles)

The day started a bit slow. I poked my head out of the tent a couple of times before finally getting up, but it was cold and the air was damp. I got the water going on the stove and then lit a fire. Both Oliver and Kevin were up by the time I got the fire going, so they went to retrieve the food from the hanging tree. This was a simpler operation at this point, since there was only about 70 pounds of food left. 

 View of Kidney Lake from the camp site.

Before the food had even touched the ground, Oliver made clear that he was done with oatmeal and that this would be a bacon and eggs morning. Concerns about the long hike were secondary. Whatever time it took, the bacon and eggs would be worth it. And they were. Oliver fried the bacon to get it warm and crisp it up, then made up the “egg mix” by adding water and letting it set for a few minutes. The egg mix looked a bit like yellow carpenter’s glue, but once he got done mixing in the bacon and frying them up, the eggs were a pretty good approximation of scrambled eggs. Served with cheese on a warm tortilla, they were a great way to start the day.

The sun was strong on that clear morning, and though everything was a bit wet from the prior day’s rain and hail, tents and bags did not take too long to dry. Dan offered to pump water for the trail, and managed to get about four quarts before the pump handle broke. Of course, we had a backup plan: a light pen, which fries viruses and bacteria using ultra-violet light. This was a new technology for us, and while totally cool in a sort of Star Trek way, there is something a bit weird about using a glowing blue wand to make water safe. Adding poisonous chemicals or straining out the microscopic little bastards make intuitive sense, but using light just seems wrong. And despite the claims of the manufacturer that the light pen is fast, 90 seconds of stirring with the pen immersed in a quart of water feels like a really long time when you are doing it. But it is totally cool.

The camp was packed up, and by 9:45 a.m. we were ready to start hiking. Almost. The traditional early morning disc toss delayed the departure by a few minutes, but by 9:55 a.m. we were hoisting packs, and by 10:00 a.m. we were on the trail. It was a beautiful morning, the air was clear and cool, and our packs were starting to feel lighter and more comfortable. Unless, of course, you were Kevin. Throughout the trip, Kevin had been stopping along the trail to pick up garbage, which he then mysteriously managed to stuff into his already over-packed pack. But by the time we left Kidney Lakes, Kevin had added about 15 more pounds to his load.

The situation is really quite odd. The Uintas are large and wild, and even in the heavily used areas one can find duff on the forest floor and firewood within an easy walk from the campsite. At the same time, many of the campsites have a well-used appearance, and it isn’t uncommon to find things like frying pans, cups, and garbage left around the firepit. Ironically, while hiking in Kings Canyon National Park two years prior, we had been confronted by hordes of unruly hikers (including the LA Sirens Hiking Squad), but even the most used sites were largely garbage free.

The campsite at Kidney Lakes was clearly well used, but it was in pretty clean shape. At least it appeared so upon first inspection. However, the situation was akin to sweeping dirt under a rug. The dirt is still there, but it is not immediately apparent. So it was at Kidney Lakes. There, in deep a crevice, amongst the rocks between the campsite and the lake, was either a cache or a garbage dump. Early rumors that the crevice contained a dead body proved to be untrue (the wrapped bundle turned out to be the fabric for a large awning or tent enclosure), but it contained tent poles, cooking gear, shoes, a tent, and other assorted camping gear.

At some point during the time that we were at Kidney Lake, Kevin had retrieved the tent poles and a bunch of other garbage from the dump, and somehow managed to pack it into and onto his pack. So as he hefted his pack there was an audible groan, from either the pack itself or from Kevin’s back, not sure which. As fellow MountainGuys, we had to applaud Kevin’s service to all of us and to the principles of environmental stewardship that his selfless act demonstrated. We were so moved that we even talked about taking some of Kevin’s food burden to offset his burgeoning load of garbage. I don’t think any food redistribution ever actually occurred, but we did talk about it.

The hike from Kidney Lakes to Fox Lake went pretty fast. The trail was well marked, and with the exception of a couple of steep sections, pretty well graded. Ironically, had the vote for the high road gone the other way, the low road would have taken us to our destination at Kidney Lakes much more easily and directly, and probably would have meant a true lay day. 

Fox Lake is kind of an ugly lake, as high mountain lakes go. It lies in a shallow bowl, and may not have been a true lake at all had it not been for the dams that had been built along the eastern edge. Several detour signs had been placed to keep horse and foot traffic off the dam, and bulldozer tracks were evident along the dam and also along parts of the lakeshore. Fortunately, the backcountry road crews were much like the road crews along any state or federal highway. The signs were up, the cones were in place, but there wasn’t anything going on and no work crews were evident anywhere. Hence, we were free to traipse across the no-traipse zone unimpeded, although the bulldozer tracks did raise some interesting questions about how these crews could have gotten such a large machine into the backcountry in the first place. Though a contentious point of speculation, we finally concluded that Homeland Security was probably involved since the Fox Lake dam was almost certainly a target for angry Jihadists and unruly Canadians.

A lunch of bagels with salami and cheese, dried fruit, trail mix, and dark chocolates provided a welcome respite from the hardships of the trail, and by 1:15 p.m. the MountainGuys were once again ready to hike. By 1:20 p.m., we had somehow lost the trail. However, as the trail would have wound its way up the ravine to Fox Queant Pass if we had been able to find it, we simply improvised and hiked uphill toward the pass. The ravine narrowed as we moved upward, which had the beneficial effect of reducing the amount of space that the road crews had to hide the trail. Eventually, the combination of thinning forest, narrowing ravine, and eagle-sharp MountainGuy eyes enabled us to once again find the trail, though in a bitter dose of irony, the pass was clearly evident at that point, and the six-foot high rock cairns were not really needed.

The hike till this point had been relatively genteel, but that did not stop Dan from complaining about it. In fact, he had started complaining about the climb before we left Fox Lake, and he complained continually to anyone who happened to be nearby all the way up until that point where we once again sighted the trail. The sight of the pass finally short-circuited his long lament, however, and he set off for the top with determination and purpose. This was as clear a case of Pass Induced Fever, or Passitis, as I can ever recall. The hardship is forgotten, the goal is in sight, and it’s time to go. Though we were all filled with a little bit of pass-induced adrenaline for the last part of the climb, Dan kicked ass and was at the top at least three minutes before the next MountainGuy got there.

Looking east from Fox Queant Pass.
Looking west from Fox Queant Pass.
Fox Queant Pass is not the most scenic of passes. It is really a low saddle between two mountain-sized mounds of boulders and broken rock, and though it is high relative to the surrounding peaks—the pass sits at about 11,200 feet and the mountains on either side are probably only a few hundred feet higher—the views over both sides of the pass are largely obscured.

The hike up to the pass took only about and hour and fifteen minutes from our lunching spot, so we were at the top by 2:30 p.m. A brief rest and snack, and it was time to hoist packs and get going again. Like MountainGuy machines, really. 

 MountainGuys atop Fox Queant Pass.

The trail down from the pass on the Queant Lake side was brutal. The trail was carved out of a steeply-sloped rubble field, and the footing was treacherous over loose stones and small boulders. In places, one could see where the trail had been wiped out by a rockslide and then rebuilt. A small acid-blue lake filled the bowl at the bottom of the rubble field, and though beautiful, the trail demanded concentration so the view did not get the attention it deserved.

Once at lake level, the trail continued winding its way down through high meadows and thin forests, but the hiking was pleasant and not too difficult. By 3:30 p.m. we were at Cleveland Lake, which was significant because it meant that it was once again time to start a spirited discussion about which trail to take. The main trail continued east for half a mile or so past Cleveland Lake to a junction, where the trail to Queant Lake turned off to the north. However, the map seemed to suggest that by taking off cross-country, we could easily cut the corner and save some time. The decision to go cross-country was aided by a strategically placed spur trail that led up the steep embankment to the left side of the main trail, and seemed to offer the perfect short cut. The spur trail disappeared after about 200 yards, but no worries. Armed with only a compass, a map, a GPS, and the unerring MountainGuy sense of direction, the five of us confidently set off in five slightly different directions. After a few minutes, the five wanderers had banded into two loosely affiliated groups—the north by northeast group, and the east by northeast group. In the event, the EbNE group found the trail first, but the NbNE group actually ended up further up the trail and well ahead of the EbNEs. None of this really mattered, because it turned out that Queant Lake was but a quarter mile up the trail, and we all arrived there at about the same time.

 Queant Lake.

Queant Lake had that well-used look about it, but it was easy to see why—it’s a truly gorgeous lake. The trail intersected the lake in the southwest corner. The southern and western sides of the lake were heavily forested, while the northern and eastern sides were more open meadows interspersed with small groves of trees. Our campsite was a fine spot on a small peninsula that jutted out on the northern side of the lake. It featured numerous duff-covered flat spots in a small copse of trees for sleeping, a well established fire ring with ample seating, good kitchen facilities, a large table built between two trees, and a lovely open Frisbee meadow sloping gently down to the lake.

 A fine campsite with excellent kitchen facilities.

As always, we quickly got down to the business of setting up camp. However, the workman-like scene was just as quickly shattered by a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ down by the lake. Actually, down in the lake. There, covered with the native water grasses, but otherwise naked, was Kevin, who had seized the moment and gone for a swim. Naked, but for water grasses. The idea was simply too good to pass up. The rest of us, inspired by Kevin’s fear-no-shrivel attitude, quickly followed suit. The water was brisk, but the bath, however brief, felt great. Fortune was shining upon us: the water was cold, the sun was warm, and the event was not recorded and will never be seen on YouTube.

Dinner that night was chicken burritos, prepared by Chef Oliver. At this point, only about 55 pounds of food remained, and yet somehow Oliver continued to produce one excellent meal after another. I suspect alchemy, though excellent planning also could be part of the explanation. Oliver reconstituted the freeze-dried refried beans, which he then added to the fried onions and chicken that were already in the pan. This was simmered just long enough to allow the spices to meld, and then served on warm tortillas with melted cheese. Each of the hard-working MountainGuys got two large burritos, which was a very satisfying meal at the end of the long day of hiking. Initially, Dan claimed that the burritos were so good that he could eat another 17,000. But, perhaps embarrassed by his obvious hyperbole, revised his claim to an additional 17 burritos, as long as they were large ones. In other words, he was really pretty full.

Dinner was followed by a spirited game of Mountain Meadow flying disc, which in turn was followed by cookies, chocolates, and the last of the tequila. This last was a moment of such sadness that we had to break out the scotch to restore our spirits. Once again, an example of how the tough of spirit use spirits to overcome dispiriting moments. 

 Flying disc meadow, adjacent to the campsite.

As the stars came out, the conversation naturally drifted to the plan for the morrow, and though we were all basically in agreement, reaching consensus proved impossible. Nonetheless, the bare roots of the plan was to rise early, forego the fire, eat oatmeal, and weather permitting, be on the trail by 8:00. Our goal was to climb over North Pole Pass (12,226 feet), descend into the Fox Lake valley, and then climb over Divide Pass so that we could take a lay day at Island Lake. That way we could relax, knowing that we would have no passes to cross should the weather turn nasty. With the ethereal calm that comes from having a plan, sort of, we doused the fire and said good night.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

High Uintas, Day 3

Day 3: Upper Davis Lake to Kidney Lakes (1.2 miles)

The night was cold, cold enough to freeze water-bladder tubes left exposed and to cause ice to form on the surface of the lake. Though strikingly repetitious, I was again first to rise, followed shortly by Kevin. The air was cold and damp, which is not conducive to movement among cold-blooded animals, like MountainGuys, but the promise of hot coffee got Oliver and Rick to shed the tent and get moving. Dan was a bit slower, since, as a non-coffee drinker, his wake up call was cold oat bran. Sure would hate to sleep through that.

Because of the cold air and the high elevation (11,000 feet), tents and bags were slow to dry. We did not hit the trail until 10:00 a.m. Though a good showing for many casual campers, for MountainGuys any departure after 9:45 a.m. is a bit of an embarrassment. However, the late departure did give us the opportunity to repair the firepit and replace the sod, and also afforded us one more chance to look at the map and re-review our options. Every contour line had already been dissected, each bend in the trail evaluated, but still, the options had to be reviewed. Stream camp by the Uinta River, a campsite further up the river toward Gunsight Pass, Kidney Lakes, Queant Lake, all were discussed. In detail. To those who did not want to do the 50-mile loop, Gunsight Pass looked suspiciously like a set up, for those who wanted a lay day, the stream camp along the Uinta River looked seriously boring, and for those who had tired feet and weary legs, Queant Lake looked decidedly far away. Nonetheless, they were all good options, and so none could be rejected. There was but one thing to do: punt. We would boldly strike forth to Kidney Lakes, take a look around, and then decide what to do.

 Ready to hike in the morning. Lower Davis Lake in the background.

It was a good plan, a plan that no one was stumping for but whose obvious simplicity made it obvious. With a flurry, final preparations were made, packs were hoisted, and we were off. The path from Davis Lake to Kidney Lakes first took us across a high, boggy meadow, and then over a low rise, where we picked up the trail. By 11:00 a.m. we were at Kidney Lakes, and though we still had grander plans, we kind of figured that as long as we were there, might as well look at the campsites.

The trail proceeded down a narrow isthmus between the two lakes, and though there were several promising sites, there was nothing particularly exciting. But then word came back that at the end of the lake, just across the stream, there was a very fine site. And a fine site it was. Large and flat, with many tent spots, a good cooking area, an excellent food hanging tree, and of course, lakefront property.

Now, normally, we would sneer at any site that was but a mile from our last encampment, but this day was different. Clouds had been building up in the south and west since about 10:00 a.m., and it was starting to look like we would see some nasty weather. And besides, a short day of hiking wasn’t all that different from a lay day, a chance to rest weary bodies and sore feet. The short day would also prove beneficial in other ways. By stopping at Kidney Lakes, the long loop trail was out. Stream camping along the Uinta River was out. There was but one option left: Queant Lake. It is just his kind of bold decision-making that sets us apart from run-of-the-mill outdoorsmen, from people who make plans and then stick to them. MountainGuys do not fear the uncertainty of indecision or the ennui of uncertainty. It is a state of mind and being that is unique to the environment, because it would almost certainly lead to a near-death experience if our women-folk were around.

With renewed energy, the kind that comes from knowing that you can finally kick back once all your chores are done, we set to work. Tents were erected, food was sorted, firewood was collected, and the food-hanging tree was set up. Chores done, it was time to fish, and nap, and even hike back to Davis Lake. There was a lot to do.

 Campsite at Kidney Lakes.

Though not before lunch. The decision-making had been a bit acrimonious to this point, but there was one thing we could agree upon—mealtime. Lunch was a casual, if gaseous, affair, featuring peanut butter and jelly on tortillas, cheese and salami on tortillas, dried fruit, almond clusters, trail mix, and, of course, chocolate. Lunch also proved to be a delightful social time, with a chance to say hello to our three bow-huntin’, horse-ridin’, mule-draggin’ cowboy friends, who, it turned out, had spent the night at Kidney Lakes and were just now hittin’ the trail for Milk Lake, their ultimate destination.

The three cowboys were barely off before we had the pleasure of welcoming a young bow-hunter from a camp situated up the creek between Kidney and Davis Lakes. He was a friendly sort, who was happy to explain that he lit out three to five miles a day in search of elk. Wanted to know if we seen any, then answered his own question by noting that it wasn’t likely since we had been making more noise than a freeway. Guess that he and his companions had heard us up at Davis Lakes the night before, had heard us hike by their camp in the morning, and could pinpoint our location without difficulty from two miles off due to excessive flatulence. With such a positive greeting, we felt obligated to offer him the opportunity to join us in peanut butter tortillas, but he politely declined, saying that they gave him gas. With a friendly wave and a nasty comment about being “catch and release” fishermen, the young guy melted into the forest in search of his elusive elk.

With social hour over, it was time to button up the camp and get off to whatever afternoon activities were on the agenda. As noted, the clouds had been building throughout the morning, and by noon were starting to look really threatening. By 2:30 we had rain. By 3:00 we had snow, and by 3:15 we had hail. Some of it not so small. Oliver and Kevin were on their way back from Davis Lake, where they were on a mission to retrieve Kevin’s wayward knife, when they were overtaken by the fast moving storm. Of course, they were prepared with proper rain gear and their unerring sense of MountainGuy direction, so returning to camp was no problem. As they explained later, “We could have stayed out longer, but cross-country exploration just isn’t that much fun in white-out conditions.”

Dan and I were downstream from Kidney Lakes fishing when the storm went through. Of course, we were prepared with the proper rain gear. But fishing in a hail storm isn’t much fun either, especially since the fish don’t appear to be interested in coming to the surface to feed when the surface is being pelted with marble-sized hail. So Dan and I returned to camp was well.

Rick was holed up snug in his tent during the storm. Sleeping snug in your tent in a hail-storm is cozy and warm, so Rick had no place to return to and no reason to do anything different.

The worst of the storm had moved through by about 5:00, though the rain continued to fall for some time after that. Oliver and I reviewed our options. We could sit under the tarp and stay dry while making dinner, with the risk of having to retire to bed at 7:30 p.m. to stay warm, or we could attempt to build a fire in the rain with the hope that the skies would clear and we would be able to stay up all the way till 9:00 p.m. Again, a bold move, but aided by tinder-dry pine needles from a nearby deadfall and the large stash of dry wood we had collected earlier in the day, the fire was started with a single match, despite the inclement conditions.

With the fire started, we began to heat water for dinner. This was a slow process, however. Wood would be piled onto the fire to get it going, the rain would start falling, and we would retreat under the tarp. The rain would abate, we would pile wood onto the fire to get it going, the rain would start falling, and we would retreat under the tarp. Slowly, the conditions improved, and as the sun went down we were treated to a really fine sunset with vibrant red and orange clouds lighting up the evening sky.

Hanging out in the kitchen.

Dinner that night was beef stew, which was, admittedly, a bit of an experiment. I had been seeking a way to provide a hearty and tasty soup in a light and easily carried package. The package was light, and easily carried. The soup was not wholly unflavorful. However, it was not adequately hearty owing to an oversight at the food-sorting table. The two cups of converted rice that were to bulk up the beef stew had been left behind, so while the soup was hot, it lacked heft. Nonetheless, despite the less than stellar reviews, primarily from Dan, who claimed he could feel his stomach shrinking with each bite of the thin gruel, I was encouraged that the quest for a good meal that could be easily cooked on a cold, long day would be fulfilled. A new and improved beef stew will be on the menu for next year. 

 Clear skies after the storm.

By the time dinner was done, the clouds had blown off and the stars were out. The air was getting cold, and even the fire and the tequila were insufficient to keep the cold at bay. We extinguished the fire, and with a final toast to a fine day, set off for the cozy warmth of our tents.

Friday, March 4, 2011

High Uintas, Day 2

Day 2: Island Lake to Upper Davis Lake (8 miles)

Monday dawned bright and clear. I was up early to start the fire and the coffee water, and watched Venus rise over the Eastern side of the lake. Kevin was up shortly after, and together we went to retrieve the food. It was a two-person job, as there was at least 100 pounds. By the time was reached the campsite, we were both huffing and puffing from the 10,300 foot elevation.

The morning was cold and damp, and efforts to dry wet gear were in vain, as it ended up wetter than it started, at least till the sun came up. The fact that it was so damp and cold really slowed us down, even though we are usually a testament to efficiency in the morning. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal and fruit (Kevin brought some amazing dried fruit along; the apples and the pears were especially good on oatmeal), oat bran, coffee, and hot chocolate. Despite the simplicity of the meal, however, we were not on the trail until 9:45 a.m.

 Island Lake in the morning.

Our trail took us along the northern shore of the lake, climbing well above lake level before dropping back down to the shore on the southern side. We scrambled over a small stream and past a marshy section along the shore, and then started up the stream that fed the lake from Divide Pass. Wildflowers bloomed along the banks of the stream, but the grasses were already turning brown and going to seed. It was spring and high summer all at the same time in the high country.

The trail followed the stream up to Divide Pass. The way was steep and rocky, as the stream tumbled down over jumbled boulders and sculpted sandstone. Shaded pools were still covered in a thin layer of ice, and in one spot an ice flow sprung forth from the hillside, down over trail, and into the stream. Lost in this magical world of wildflowers and ice sculptures, Oliver, who was leading, came to an abrupt halt. Were it not for the steepness of the trail there would have been a MountainGuy pileup, for sure. There, not fifty yards ahead on the trail, was a big bull moose, his antlers etched against the blue sky above the pass. He looked down at us. We looked up at him. He looked down at us. We looked up at him. This went on for a while. But eventually, he decided that five MountainGuys were too many to mess with, and he took off. We did not follow him. The moose stopped about a quarter of a mile away, in a little copse of trees on the hillside, from which he could keep an eye on us. We continued on up the pass, but also continued to keep and eye on him. I guess this confrontation was a bit of a guy thing, really: a lot of chest thumping and a bit of milling around on both sides, but no real desire to mix it up.

We made the pass about 11:45. The pass was not sharp and well defined, but was more of a rolling meadow between two well-rounded peaks. In the center of the meadow was a small pond, which was fed by a spring higher up, and which in turn fed the stream we had followed. We stopped for lunch just over on the south side of the pass. The day was spectacular and clear, with little wind, and no clouds in sight. From our lunch spot we had a view over Divide Lake, the Uinta River basin, and in the distance, peaks of the High Uinta Range, including South King’s Peak. Lunch consisted of tuna sandwiches and fruit, along with assorted munchies. 

 Lunch with Divide Lake, the Uinta Valley, and South Kings Peak in the distance.

With lunch done, it was time to review the map and evaluate our options. As on any MountainGuy trip, map reading was a contact sport, and no single MountainGuy was permitted to view the map alone for fear that he might reach an independent conclusion not informed by the collective wisdom of the entire group. The discussion centered on destinations for the night, but it was also understood that the destination would have implications for subsequent possibilities. However, all was not simple. Factions had begun to emerge with respect to the destination. The 50-mile loop trail that had been vetted as our original goal from the comfort of our living rooms was starting to appear a bit longwinded. It would almost certainly mean no lay-day. Yet two of us still favored this path. A second faction, though not a majority, was strong on lay-day, though less specific about destination. A third group, one lone MountainGuy, a faction unto himself, would reveal no preference, though under the calm surface we suspect he was a seething cauldron of emotion. Nonetheless, the argument had no clear winner. There was but one thing to do: punt. Our goal for the night would be Kidney Lakes, neutral territory, as it was on both possible paths. But wait. There were two paths to Kidney Lakes, the high road and the low road. Another complicated choice and at least ten more minutes of discussion. This time, though, a clear winner, with the vote going either 4-1 or 3-2 for the high road, depending on whether the count was done with paper ballots or electronic voting machines.

 Map of or trip through the High Uinta Mountains.

With a new-found sense of purpose (Kidney Lakes, high road), we hefted our packs and set off for Fox Lake. As we crossed the meadow on the way down from the pass, we saw a moose cow with moose junior about half a mile up the valley. Kevin was disappointed that they were so far off; the rest of us were, I think, okay with it.

The junction between the high and low roads to Kidney Lakes was not more than 1/2 a mile past Fox Lake. With just the briefest of breaks to discuss the merits of high versus low one more time, we set off on the high trail. It was a good trail whenever we could see it, which was about 50 percent of the time. The trail wound through meadows and forests, sometimes marked and sometimes not, but eventually it started to turn steeply upward to climb over a low ridge. From the map it appeared that we had a 400-foot climb to get over the ridge, and that it would be mostly downhill from there. In fact, the map, which sported 100-foot contour intervals, did not accurately reflect the hardship of the chosen course. After climbing up 300 feet to what was apparently the top of a contour line, we then went down and up 97 feet six different times before climbing the last 100 feet to the top of the ridge.

Bearing the fatigue and the emotional scars that come from a failure to accurately discern the lay of the land from the map, we stopped for a short break in a large meadow about an hour from the junction. From that vantage point we could see all the way down to the Uinta River. King’s Peak and South King’s Peak could be seen to the west at the head of the Uinta River valley, with Gilbert Peak off to our north.  It was a spectacular spot, and one that was just crying out for some Mountain Meadow Frisbee. 

 Flying disc meadow, looking west toward Kings Peak.

Or was it?  Just as Oliver and Rick and I were getting started, Kevin wanted to know how “flying disc” and “leave no trace” could operate simultaneously. Could one claim environmental sensitivity credentials and yet still trample a virgin meadow chasing a flying plastic disc while wearing large boots? Fortunately, this unpleasant line of questioning was halted by the arrival of three bow-huntin’, horse-ridin’, mule-draggin’ cowboys, complete with lariats and handlebar mustaches. We exchanged pleasantries, talked of moose and elk, wished them well as they departed, and then wished they hadn’t told us that Kidney Lakes was still two miles off, “as the crow flies.”

The trail became progressively harder to follow as we went along, and after cresting the last little ridge before starting down toward the Kidney Lakes, we somehow misinterpreted some trail signs, and ended up off trail on the way to Davis Lakes. The error was quickly discovered, but Davis Lakes were close and Kidney Lakes were far. Easy choice.

Our campsite at Upper Davis Lake was on a small rise on the western edge of the lake. On the eastern side the land climbed steeply upward to the ridgeline and peaks standing over the lake, and behind the campsite to the west a densely forested hillside sloped down to Lower Davis Lake. Though reasonably homey, the site did lack some basic amenities, specifically, a good cooking spot, a firepit, and a decent food-hanging tree. Oliver, in his usual work-with-what-you’ve-got kind of way, managed to shelter the stoves behind a modest boulder, which also served as a decent place to lay out the tableware, napkins, and pre-dinner snacks. The firepit was a bit of a challenge, as all of the flat spots were covered in meadow grasses. Our solution was to cut out the top layer of soil, which we set aside, and to line the shallow pit with flat stones. The fire ring was then built around the stones. In this way we hoped to limit the damage to the roots and the soil under the firepit.

The food hanging tree proved to be the most difficult of all, simply because there were no good places to hang the food. Eventually, Kevin, Rick, and I managed to get a line over a snag that was leaning about 40 degrees from the vertical. All was looking good until we actually tried to hang the 89 pounds of food that still remained, as we almost brought the whole snag down. A new tree was quickly found, and we did get the food well off the ground, but it probably didn’t hang more than a foot from the trunk of a tree that any self-respecting black bear could easily have climbed in a minute. Fortunately, there were no self-respecting black bears in the neighborhood that night.

Dinner was teriyaki chicken with rice, followed by a panic inspired by Dan’s anticipated starvation. Fortunately, since Dan had been anticipating starvation even before the trip started, we were all treated to a serving of freeze-dried spaghetti from his private stash of separate and additional food. This was followed by a round of Oreos for dessert. A final nightcap of dark chocolates with a splash of tequila sealed the evening.

With the stars coming out and the temperature dropping, the fire was extinguished, and we were set for the cozy warmth of our tents. But, alas, the seemingly idyllic scene was but a patina, a gloss, an overlay on a simmering emotional issue: what to do tomorrow. A lay day would be nice, but so would a day later in the week, perhaps when we were at a more soul-satisfying location. The 50-mile loop was still a possibility, but was entirely at odds with any type of lay day. And so it went, back and forth. Though a discordant moment, the discussion was fruitful, though no difficult decisions were made. We decided we would get up early, break camp, and hike. A destination was out of bounds as being entirely too tiring to talk about, but at least we knew we’d be getting up.