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.


  1. Glad to hear that you guys actually made it to the Wind River area. Thought about you being out there occasionally when I was out hiking this summer. June does seem pretty early for an area like that, but sometimes it makes a great challenge! Looking forward to the next installment.
    Congrats on the getting your stuff in a book form and publishing it! I was going to order a copy, but I am wondering about getting an autographed version from you. I am a bit of a collector...

  2. I would be happy to send you an autographed copy. The book is $15.95, and shipping is $3.00. You can reach me at (510) 366-1476 for details, or send an email to