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.

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