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.

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