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.

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