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.

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