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.

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