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.