Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Popo Agie Wilderness, Day 6

Day 6: Pinto Park and a Commanding View to Three Forks (4.5 miles)

The night was very cold. The last of the clouds cleared out and there was no moon, so the sky was dark and clear. When I crawled out of my tent sometime around midnight, no imagination was needed to see the earth suspended in space, surrounded by stars. I felt as though I might bump my head on one of them they pressed so close. Even without the moon, the light of a billion stars was enough to illuminate the landscape even off in the distance: Lizard Head and The Cirque of the Towers were etched against the sky, their shape and texture defined by the starlight reflecting off the snow.

Though a long battle was waged between toasty comfort and bladder pressure before I reluctantly got out of the tent, I would have enjoyed staying out to watch the earth spin through the sky had it not been so cold. We just don’t have stars like that in the San Francisco Bay Area. But my business done, I quickly retreated to the relative warmth of my tent. I am not sure about the science, but there is no question that the need to seek relief in the middle of the night is inversely proportional to the outside temperature. It might even be a logarithmic thing.

When I finally got out of my bag in the morning, all of the other guys were already up. Our plan for the day was to hike back to Three Forks, and camp there on our last night. Ranger Bob had said that there was good camping up among the trees away from the river, and that suited us just fine. But as I surveyed the scene in the bright light of morning—Pinto Knob behind our campsite, the view from the veranda, and the little notch in the ridge across the valley that was just begging to be explored—I could not help but wish for another day here. 

The notch in the ridge crying out for exploration.

“Hey! What would you guys think about staying here another day?” I asked, striding down the hill to the kitchen area.

“That’s a great idea,” said Oliver, not even looking up from his packing. “ I would like to climb up to that notch that is just begging to be explored.”

“You don’t seem very enthusiastic,” I said, disappointed by the tepid response.

“You do know that it’s 14 miles to the trailhead from here.” Rick looked at me sternly. “No way we hike 14 miles, get burgers and beer, and drive eight hours all in one day.”

“We could forego the b…” I stopped midsentence as Oliver’s golf disc went whizzing past my head.

“Don’t even say it,” Oliver growled. “ We’re getting burgers.”

The question settled, I checked on the water that was heating on the stove, and then made myself a cup of coffee. No use being an immovable object in a field of rolling stones—something is bound to get broken. But the view was uncommonly excellent, and it sure would have been nice to have it for another day.

I was clearly not the only one who felt that way. Despite our determination to leave, no one was anxious to go. We talked about playing a round of golf, Oliver talked about climbing up to the notch, and Kevin talked about making a complete study of the ecology of Pinto Knob, but mostly we lollygagged from task to task as a means of enjoying our excellent accommodations for just a little bit longer.

When we finally got on the trail, the sun was well up in the sky, and the clocks were spun well around to 10:00 or so. The snow was melting very fast, perhaps two feet a day, so a lot of the northwest slope of Pinto Knob was now clear. By staying up above the meadow, we were able to wind our way around the remaining snowdrifts almost all the way to top of the saddle. Once we reached the top, however, we were back in the trees, the soft snow was just as treacherous as ever—too spotty for snowshoes, but still deep in a lot of places. Fortunately, we ran across our outbound tracks relatively quickly, and even though the hiking was hard, we at least knew where we were going.

Within a quarter of a mile, the snow was mostly done, and the worst we had to contend with was the small stream running down the trail and an occasional patch of soggy snow through which we had to slog. It was while passing through an especially soggy spot that we ran across two very attractive women who were taking a day hike to Pinto Park. They were both wearing shorts and trail running shoes with short gaiters, and both had the long, lean legs that come with running up mountains for entertainment. They were curious about the conditions over the pass, so we stopped to share all we’d learned.

Soggy hiking.

Once satisfied, the women remarked on the large size of our packs, pointed to their own dainty day packs that included an extra pair of socks, an energy bar (one), a small bottle of water, and of course, an iPhone, and then suggested that carrying such a large load as we were was tiring, slow, and really quite stupid. We thanked them for their thoughtful assessment of our approach to the outdoors, noting along the way that they might get cold if they decided to spend the night, that at least two of us might die if we only had one energy bar for a whole day, and that running 14 miles to the top of a mountain just so you could turn around and run 14 miles back seemed quite stupid as well.

So we parted friends, each of us grateful in our own way: on our side to be rid of their youthful zest, and on theirs to be rid of our ponderous pace. “Bye!” we all said.

“We’ll see you later,” responded the women as they hiked by, their tone of voice not so much hopeful as certain.

I, for one, was grateful not to be visited by that indignity on top of everything else. It was bad enough that they viewed a 28-mile trek as a day hike, and even worse that they had already done 13 of them by 10:45 in the morning. If they also lapped us on the way down, that would be just plain rotten, and would have seriously damaged my self-esteem. Fortunately, despite their confident predictions and uncharitable assessment of our hiking pace, we did not see them again.

Within half a mile of meeting up with the two women, we reached the Deep Creek Lakes Cutoff. We stopped briefly to note how much snow had melted, and then continued on. Though nothing was said, I suspect that the other guys felt as I did—that being lapped by two women who were out to hike in one day what we would hike in six somehow made our adventure less adventurous, and that it would be good if this didn’t happen. Thus, with the wind at our backs, the slope in our favor, and the silent but still urgent need to maintain the manly integrity of our adventure, we quickly covered the three miles between the Cutoff trail and the Middle Fork trail, just below Three Forks.

It was at that point that we met up with Gus the Forest Ranger. Gus the Forest Ranger sat upon his old mule, Charlie, with an easy familiarity that suggested his butt had conformed completely to the shape of the saddle. Charlie looked no less comfortable with the situation. Gus had been up there for a really long time, and there was no sense in trying to peel him off now. They were stopped in the shade of a big pine tree, and until we walked up, I’m pretty sure both of them had been sleeping. The mule opened one eye, a hint of suspicion in his glare, but as soon as he got a good look at who was coming down the trail, both eyes closed and he went back to sleep. I have hard that mules are a good judge of character, but this one clearly had no sense of just how dangerous we really are.

Although Charlie appeared largely unperturbed by our arrival, Gus was positively gleeful about having someone new to talk with. We exchanged greetings, and quickly got into the business at hand. With but a few well placed questions, we learned that the river was running unusually high, that several streamside campsites were flooded, that the river can rise and fall quite quickly, and that Gus had rescued a good bit of gear from a campsite that had been occupied when the rising river had forced the campers to abandon the spot in a hurry. Gus confirmed that there was some very good camping up in the trees away from the river, and noted that it was easy to find if we just walked to the end of the big meadow, turned right, and then left as we entered the forest.

This sounded simple enough, so we gathered up our hiking poles and got ready to go. It was then that I made a fateful mistake. “I was hoping to do some fishing,” I said. “Any recommendations? So far the fishing has been lousy.”

Charlie had kind of perked up when Oliver, Rick, Kevin, and I made ready to go, but as soon as I said the word, “fishing,” he let out a snort and closed his eyes again. This might have set alarm bells to ringing, but we didn’t yet know what we were dealing with.

“Well,” said Gus, “usually folks limit out right here. Mostly brookies up this high, but also some browns and cutthroats. The Bloodback Nymph is a good choice. That fly was developed by a local guy. With the water running so high, you probably won’t see much action here—maybe in a couple of weeks.” He took a breath. “You might have some better luck up in the lakes. They’re starting to open up. Got big cutthroats at Shoshone Lake—that’s a big lake so it doesn’t freeze like some of the smaller ones, so it opens up earlier. Worthen Meadow Reservoir is usually pretty good, but the road was closed ‘til just a couple of weeks ago, and I don’t know how the fishing is now.’”

Okay, thanks,” I said, taking a step toward the trail.

But it turns out Gus was just getting warmed up. “Now up in the high country…” Oliver, Rick, and Kevin were glaring at me. Even Charlie was giving me the evil eye. But Gus just kept going. Every time one of us would take a small tentative step to be on our way, Gus would raise his voice ever so slightly to bring our attention back around. “…Now Smith Lake, that’s a great lake. Might even catch some goldens up there. Pretty good-sized lake, too. I imagine nymphs would be better than dry flies right now, but the mosquitoes are coming out so the fish might be feeding on the surface.” Again a big breath, a couple of tentative steps by us, but then Gus launched right back in. “Not far from Smith is Cloverleaf Lake and also Cook Lake. There’s some good spots up there. Don’t want to use to big a hook, though…” This monologue had been going on at least ten minutes, and Gus was showing no signs of fatigue.

Probably would have gone on longer, too, but Charlie had closed his eyes shortly after Gus took us up to the high country, and with each additional lake, Charlie’s head hung down just a little bit further. Finally, after we had managed to tour 22 of the best local lakes, including type of fish, type of fly, hook size, and at least three recipes specifically developed for the fish caught at one lake or another, Charlie’s head had lolled so far down that he just fell over, fortunately onto a tree. Gus almost certainly would have fallen from the mule if his butt had not been molded to the saddle. But the tree caught Charlie, and Gus was stuck tight, so all that happened is that the fall broke Gus’s train of thought.

“Well, thanks for the information,” I said quickly. “This is our last night, so we probably won’t get up to any of those lakes on this trip, but maybe next time. Bye!”

Oliver, Rick and Kevin also quickly said goodbye, and we headed on up the Middle Fork Trail. Can’t be sure, but as we were walking away, I think I saw Charlie smiling—he may have used that same maneuver before.

“So, did you find out what you wanted to know?” asked Rick, once we were out of earshot. His tone was slightly sarcastic.

“Sorry, guys,” I said, “I had no idea.”

The imprecise nature of the directions we had gotten from Ranger Gus complemented the sparseness of the directions we had gotten from Ranger Bob, leaving us without a lot to go on. They both agreed that the campsite in question was “up in the trees”, which was helpful but not specific since the whole river bottom was heavily forested. Both rangers had made it clear that the site was across the trail from the river. This made sense in an obvious sort of way because most of the land between the trail and the riverbank was underwater. We passed at least two fire rings that were submerged in no less than two feet of water. The only remaining guidance was “at the end of the big meadow,” which was subject to interpretation. What is a “meadow” in this context? What is “big”? These questions occupied us as we hiked up the trail.

The Big Meadow.

“Does this look like a meadow to you?” asked Rick.

“No. It looks like a big field of rocks that is barren of trees,” Oliver declared.

“I see a wildflower,” offered Kevin. “That seems kind of meadow-like.”

We all had to agree that a wildflower was a good sign, but does one wildflower constitute a “big” meadow? What happens after the wildflower season is over? Is it still a meadow if no more flowers are blooming? The existential nature of the questioning led me to believe that it was time for lunch, but I was keeping silent after my faux pas with Ranger Gus. We passed one rocky, bare patch, then another, and finally a third, this last slightly larger than the first two. I decided it was time to take a flyer, if only to change the quality of the conversation.

“This is it!” I left the trail and started hiking toward the trees on the other side of the rocky, bare patch (aka, meadow).

Curiously, none of the other guys questioned my judgment. They just followed along. I would like to attribute this behavior to my strong leadership skills, but I think by now we all know better. They followed because they knew I was right, and they knew I was right because each of them would have made the same decision if he had been hiking in front. Somehow, the imprecise directions led all of us to the same place. We might have been unsure of the words, exactly, but we knew the spot when we saw it.

Despite our certainty, we did not find the spot that Ranger Bob and Ranger Gus had recommended until after we had already set up camp. We crossed the meadow to get up into the trees, but once in the trees we turned left to parallel the river. The trees were closely spaced, the ground was level, and the forest duff was thick underfoot. Except for the cow pies that liberally decorated the forest floor, this little forest offered excellent camping possibilities.

About a hundred yards along, we came across a small clearing with a fire ring at the center. We had found our spot. All four of us quickly shed our packs, removed our boots, and slipped on our camp shoes. The campsite was at the western end of the little forest, up against a bog that was thick with grasses, vines, and stunted trees. Mosquitoes had not been a big problem the last three nights, but they would be here. 

Despite my hunger, I was hoping for a campsite with a few more amenities—a view would have been good, and perhaps a nice little hot springs and a small waterfall. So while the other guys started to get their lunch stuff out, I decided to have a quick look around before everything was unpacked. Behind the campsite, away from the river, was a steep embankment, maybe 20 feet high. Beyond that, it looked like the ground flattened out again, as though the land had been tiered. As I reached the top of the embankment, I was startled by the sounds of crashing brush and broken tree limbs as a moose cow disappeared into the trees not more than 20 yards away. Although seeing a moose in the wild is cool, it is also a bit unnerving. Moose are really big and notoriously ill tempered. I am all for majestic and wild and all that, but still I am happier when what I see is moose butt in retreat.

I scouted around for a bit longer, but didn’t see anything as nice as what we already had. “Those aren’t cow pies,” I said, striding into camp. “They’re moose pies. I just startled a moose cow up there, beyond the embankment.”

Kevin stiffened as I said this, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s just not fair! You traipse through the forest with all the stealth of a tractor, and you are the one to see the moose.” He crossed his arms, slumped heavily on the log he was sitting on, and said “Harumph!” And he meant it.

Kevin’s mood lightened some about midway through our meal. He was sitting, facing the bog, when he quickly sat up, reflexively reaching for his camera. This was a completely different face from his ‘I want to take an emergency picture of you eating peanut butter face,’ so of course we were curious.

“QUIET!” hissed Kevin. “There…in the bog…something moving.”

We all turned around slowly so not to frighten Kevin, and there, partially hidden in a dense thicket was a mink. We did not know that at the time, however, and a lively debate ensued as to what we were seeing. Weasel? Maybe. But too big. Fisher? Probably not, unless it was on vacation from Canada. American mink? Possibly. At least it’s American. Ferret? Unlikely. Ferrets are domesticated animals. Black-footed ferret? No. The black-footed ferret is endangered, and lives on the prairie. Stoat? Not out of the question, and native to the area, but an animal of dubious moral character. Polecat? Come on! The polecat doesn’t live in North America. American marten? Fighting chance. It is, after all, American. The debate lasted awhile, the animal long gone before we concluded that it must be either a mink or a marten.

“Wow! That was great!” gushed Kevin, holding up his camera triumphantly.

“No kidding!” agreed Rick. “Who would have thought that we could name all of those animals in the weasel family without access to Google? Astounding!”

“You’re right!” said Oliver, holding his hand up. “We rock!”

Rick and I immediately got up to give Oliver a high five and celebrate our Jeopardy moment. Kevin just hung his head in dismay, more convinced than ever that the three of us were unworthy to witness nature’s wonderment. Without another word, Kevin picked up his bags and went off to set up his tent.

Shortly after Kevin left, Rick pointed out to the bog. A moose cow was picking its way past our campsite, keeping a wary eye in our direction as it wandered past. “Alright!” said Rick. “I can hardly wait to tell Kevin that we saw another moose!”

The day was still young, and we were all anxious to enjoy what was left of our time in the wilderness. However, before darting off, we would have to hang the food. We had been using the new two-line technique all week, and the results were indeed impressive. It was not a perfect system, though. Although it enabled us to make use of less-than-stellar trees for hanging, the system, by its nature, required that we hang two lines. I got the first line up pretty easily, but the second line proved my undoing. After getting the pilot line over three different branches and then pulling it down because it was not the branch I was aiming for, Oliver’s impatience boiled over.

“What’s wrong with that one?” Oliver demanded, as I was pulling the line down for the fourth time. “Don’t you dare pull that down.” Oliver wanted nothing more than to be done with the food hanging so he could go set up his tent.

“I don’t like the angle of that branch,” I responded, giving the line one more tug and pulling the rock down out of the tree. I looked at Oliver. “Oops.”

Oliver demanded the rock and the pilot line. I handed them over. He tossed the rock overhand over a decidedly inferior, yet admittedly adequate, branch, lowered the rock to the ground, and attached the second rope to the pilot line.

“That hanging job is an aesthetic nightmare,” I said. “Hardly worthy of a MountainGuy.”

Neither is spending all afternoon making it look pretty. Just clip the damn food sacks on those carbiners, and let’s move on.” So I did. But I sure as heck didn’t take any pictures of that food-hanging job.

The campsite that the rangers had told us about was up the hill a ways from our site. Oliver found it while scouting for a place to put his tent. The site was not really very appealing, and I imagine the rangers steer visitors there so they don’t stir up trouble elsewhere. It was big and flat, but was denuded of forest duff. A large log was suspended horizontally between two tall trees for hanging food near the oversized fire pit. The site looked as though it was used by large groups of horse campers, who, over time, had packed the ground down rock hard and swept it clean of all ground cover. The hanging log was nice, but the rest of it reminded me of car camping, with big piles of horse shit in back.

With camp established, the food hung, and time to enjoy ourselves, I put my fishing gear together and headed down to the river. Oliver and Rick played golf, and Kevin spent the afternoon sneaking through the forest in hopes of seeing a moose. The fishing was still lousy, although I did at least see a couple of fish swim by. The afternoon was not a total loss, however, as I got a chance to see a bull moose grazing on a small island in the middle of the river. I decided not to tell Kevin. But I did take a picture just in case the subject came up and I had to prove myself.

Bull moose across the river. Or Sasquatch.

The mosquitoes arrived at the dinner hour, even though we had not issued a formal invitation. The buggers were ubiquitous, but still early season—that is, slow and stupid. The clothes I had treated with permethrin were still working, so I didn’t have too much trouble, although I did have to spray a bit of picaridin on the top of my hat to keep the buggers away from my face. Neither Rick nor Kevin seemed too bothered by the mosquitoes either, but Oliver was in full defensive posture. He had his head net on, long sleeves and long pants, and he was swatting wildly left and right. By the time dinner was ready, he had a pretty good pile of dead mosquitoes lying about his feet.

While Oliver was swatting, I was cooking. On the menu was curried rice with chicken, which Oliver had graciously offered to let me cook. This is one of my favorites. The menu selection seemed particularly appropriate to the venue as well, since the thick clouds of mosquitoes reminded us of some of our adventures in the Indian jungle. However, we were still at 8,500 feet of elevation, and unlike the Indian jungle, by the time dinner was done, the temperature was down and so were the mosquitoes. 

Dinner party, bog side

This being our last night, we were all in a bit of a celebratory mood, so Oliver whipped up a batch of dessert pancakes. Dessert pancakes are like regular pancakes, except you eat them for dessert. Add a little cinnamon and sugar, a little honey, and a little jam to the batter, and they make for a nice finish to a long day. Top that off with a bit of scotch or tequila, and it’s just like a regular party, except that it gets cold once the sun goes down, so the party is over in a hurry.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mountain Apple Cobbler

In response to several inquiries, I am posting Kevin's recipe for mountain apple cobbler. This is worth doing. The results were excellent! The recipe is reprinted from Kevin's notes. JT

Hot apple cobbler.

I soaked dried apples all afternoon for cobbler,
so after the main dish I heated them over the fire, added the sugar mixture,
and topped it with the almond meal+flour biscuit dough with O's help.
Then put the pot on a bed of coals, and loaded the lid with more coals.
The wind whipped them to red hot and flaming.
After about 10 minutes I checked inside, and the dough had risen to the
pot lid.  We feasted and decided that was worth doing again.
So here's the recipe, more or less.  I probably doubled it for our trip.
Before the trip:
   Dehydrate ~2 pounds of peeled, cored apples (makes ~4 ounces),
     or buy  ~6 ounces of commercial 'dried' apples,
     and pack in a ziplock.
   Mix the dry ingredients of the biscuit dough topping:
     1/2 c almond meal
     1/2 c flour (either wheat or gluten free)
    (1/2 to 1 c chopped pecans or walnuts, optional)
     1/4 c butter (softened, or mix it all in a food processor)
    (1/4 c powdered buttermilk, optional)
     1/2 t salt
     1/2 t baking soda
     1/2 t baking powder
   Put in a separate ziploc (or 2, if you're worried about punctures)
   Mix the apple syrup ingredients and put in a 3rd ziploc:
     1/2 c packed brown sugar
       4 t cornstarch
     1/4 t mace or nutmeg
     1/2 t cinnamon

   In camp;
     Put the dried apples in a pot and barely cover them with water.
     Cover and let soak for at least 1/2 hour.
     Check occasionally to stir them and see if they need more water.
     Towards the time to cook there should still be water in the bottom,
        but not enough to cover them.
     Heat the apple/water mixture until boiling.
     Meanwhile, add ~1/4 cup water to the biscuit mix and stir until blended.
        It should be a sticky dough; not dry and not liquid.
     Add the "syrup" ingredients to the apples, stir, and return to boiling
        over gentle heat (don't scorch the thickening syrup!).
     Add the biscuit dough on top of the apples, replace lid, and cover the lid
        with coals and/or burning sticks.  Plenty of heat up there is fine;
        it may brown the top of the biscuit.
     It may be done in 10 minutes if the wind is stoking the fire,
        more like 15 if it's calm out and/or the coals are wimpy.
     Serves 4 moderate appetites.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Popo Agie Wilderness, Day 5

Day 5: A Blessedly Snow-Free Spot Below Lower Deep Creek Lake to Pinto Park and a Commanding View (3 miles)

The wind howled throughout the night. Squalls came through periodically, dropping buckets of rain and then moving on. I worried for awhile about Kevin and his collapsible tent, but as the conditions really got nasty after midnight, I stopped worrying about Kevin and started worrying about me. I have used the same ultra-light tent for many years, in some really ugly conditions, but this was the first time I worried about the tent collapsing. When the big gusts would blow through, the entire structure would be staggered by the blast, the roof pressing down on top of me. But I made it, and so did all of the other guys. Kevin said that it got so bad at one point that the wind was even shaking his pillow. Oh, the horror!

The squalls passed through sometime in the night, but the wind persisted into the morning. None of us had slept well, and we were all a bit grumpy and anxious to leave. The site had proven accommodating, but it wasn’t spectacular. Despite the deep snow and the high water and the complete hatchet job that the snow and the water had done to all of our excellent planning, we held out hope that spectacular still might be on the agenda.

We breakfasted on oatmeal and coffee and hot chocolate, all the while packing and preparing to hike. We had agreed that our only choice was to make for Pinto Park and hope for the best. The North Fork valley might have been appealing if we had one more day, but none of us were anxious to set ourselves up for a really long day of hiking followed by eight hours of driving on the last day. Besides, Oliver already was rehearsing what he might order when we got back to the brewpub in Lander. I found his long recitations about the merits of the bacon burger, and the mushroom burger, and the California burger (California burgers? in Wyoming?!) to be mildly annoying, sort of like being poked in the eye with a sharp stick, but I have to admit that a hot, juicy burger with grilled onions and a bit of fresh avocado did sound mighty good.

Although we were all anxious to get on the trail, the wind made packing a challenge. Nothing lightweight, like a tent or a tarp or a jacket, could be set down even for a moment without a rock or something heavy on top. I momentarily lost sight of the stuff sack for my tent, and ended up having to chase it almost all the way to bear-scat rock, which was only about ten yards from the creek. Another gust, and it would have been gone for good.

The skies had been clear when we got up, but clouds began to drift in about 9:00, just as we were hoisting packs and getting ready to hike. They did not look terribly threatening, but anytime the clouds show up that early it is cause for concern. Nonetheless, we were all happy to be back on the trail, and excited about the prospect of a noteworthy adventure.

Most of the snow in the area where we were camped had melted over the last two days, and the trail conditions were very good. Only a few small snowdrifts remained, so we were hopeful that the trail to Pinto Park would have cleared up some as well. We should have known better.

The wind subsided as we rounded Pinto Knob to the east side, but we immediately found ourselves wading through deep drifts. If anything, the hiking was more difficult than it had been on the hike in. Although a lot of snow had melted, the snow that remained was soft wherever it was exposed to the sun, yet deep drifts were piled high in the shade under the trees. Ten steps on solid ground would be followed by a steep climb to the top of a drift, every second or third step would result in a deep posthole, and after struggling to clamber back to our feet on top of the snow, there would be a steep climb or quick slide down to solid ground. The worst of it only lasted for half a mile, though, and forty minutes after leaving our campsite, we were back at the junction with the Pinto Park trail. A lot of the snow had melted here, despite the thick forest canopy, and the trail was mostly clear of snow. The ground was very wet, and water was dribbling and oozing and trickling and flowing everywhere, but after struggling through the snow, wading through the muck was a pleasure.

Crossing snowdrifts.

From the junction with the Cutoff Trail, the Pinto Park trail ascends for about half a mile to Pinto Park, which straddles the low pass between the Middle and North Forks of the Popo Agie. Within a quarter of a mile, we were once again hiking through snowdrifts. A faint set of tracks appeared here and there to help us with finding the trail, but the tracks had melted away with the snow at more or less regular intervals. The intervals were not regular with respect to time or distance, however, but rather with the condition of the trail markings. Where the trail was distinct or easily identified, the tracks in the snow were plainly evident. Where the trail makers neglected markings such as cairns or blazes altogether, the snowfield would be pristine, uninterrupted by the telltale signs of travelers.

The going was very hard here. The snow was soft and in many places the drifts were deep. Stunted trees were widely spaced, no path possible that did not require crossing sun-warmed snow. We struggled for half an hour to cover a quarter of a mile, with no sign of the trail anywhere.
Eventually, we agreed that Kevin and Oliver should drop their packs, put on their snowshoes, and go on a scouting mission in search of the trail. Within five minutes they were back.

“Did you find the trail?” Rick asked.

“No,” said Oliver. “But we found a dry meadow on the south side of the saddle that we think must be Pinto Park. There’s more snow going up to the right, which is where we think the trail is.”

Dry ground suited us better than slogging through pine-scented Slurpee, so we hoisted packs and struggled up the last bit of hill to the south side of the saddle. I cannot tell you how disappointed we were to finally reach this bit of “dry” ground. The meadow was free of snow, but its entire surface was covered in at least two inches of water, more in some places. We tried crossing the meadow to get up on some rocks on the far side, but there was water sloshing around even on the hillsides. The grassy tundra looked dry enough from a distance, but the saturated ground was thick and spongy, so even on the slopes the water was two inches deep. By the time we had gone a hundred yards, we all concluded that as bad as it was hiking on snow, snow was far preferable to wading through the meadow.

The dry meadow. Worse than hiking in snow.

Our epiphany coincided with the end of the meadow in any case.  The meadow straddled the southern side of the saddle, nestled up against the northern flank of Pinto Knob. Aside from this small meadow, the saddle was heavily forested, and snow lay deep amongst the trees.

The deep snow was both a blessing and a curse, depending on who you were. If you were Oliver or Kevin, carrying snowshoes, the snow coverage was an improvement. If you were Rick or me, it meant there was no relief from the postholing and groin pulling and rolling around trying to right oneself in snow that was wet enough to swim in. We tried for a bit to have Oliver and Kevin take the lead and stamp down the snow, but Rick and I continued to sink, and their efforts were sometimes counterproductive, causing them to sink after breaking through the hard snow at the top. 

Tough sledding.

Our choices at this point were unsavory: we could turn back, we could hike due north and try to find the trail, or we could hike to the northwest and hope that we could pick up the trail a bit further along. In addition, clouds were building in the western sky, adding a sense of urgency to our deliberations. Whatever we chose to do, we needed to do it soon. None of us were inclined to turn back, and hiking uphill into the trees to find the trail we couldn’t follow when we knew more or less where it was didn’t make much sense, either, so we chose to hike downhill to the northwest.

Rick and I struggled to follow Oliver and Kevin, especially Rick. Between his small feet and his overloaded pack, it seemed as though he was sinking on every step. Every time I turned around to check on him, one of Rick’s limbs was sticking straight up out of the snow while the rest of him was buried. How he kept up I don’t know; I think he may have fashioned a snorkel out of a reed and swum most of the way. But even the snowshoes were not foolproof. Oliver and Kevin were having an easier time of it, yet they too would occasionally sink in a particularly soft spot, and then the snowshoe became an anchor as they struggled to haul themselves out of the hole. 

The forest thinned out as we worked our way downhill, slowly opening up into a broad meadow. The snow was only two to three feet deep here, but it was very soft and there was a layer of running water on the ground under the snow. These are dangerous conditions, and it was only a matter of time before one of us fell through into a stream or deep hole.

Rick and I finally caught up with Oliver and Kevin at the top of a small rise. The snow-covered meadow stretched out before us, a prelude to a wide-open view of the North Fork valley. We had finally found spectacular. Perched above the North Fork, across the valley, was the monumental Lizard Head Peak, draped in diagonal bands of snow. Behind Lizard Head was “The Cirque,” a dramatic ring of high mountains along the Continental Divide. Wind River Peak towered over the valley to the southwest, the north face clothed in ice and snow. But for a few small problems, all that spectacular was ours to enjoy. 


First among these problems was finding the trail, closely followed by finding a dry patch of ground upon which to camp. Kevin was inclined to head straight down the meadow across the snow. I was inclined to take a perpendicular path to get up into the trees and onto the small patches of dry ground that bordered the meadow.

“If we cross the meadow that way,” argued Kevin, pointing to the southwest, “it looks like there are some dry patches that might be large enough to set up camp.”

“But that involves hiking across this unstable snow, and we already know that there is water flowing under the snow everywhere. I really don’t want to sink into a deep hole and end up soaked,” I argued right back. “I’d like to find the trail, too, in case we need to hike out in bad weather.”

“What good is that going to do?” Kevin snapped. “We couldn’t follow the trail in the bright sun. How will knowing where it is at this one spot help us follow it in bad weather? And why hike that way,” asked Kevin, pointing to the north, “if we’re going to end up on the dry ground over there?” He pointed over to the bare patches off to the southwest.

“We hike that way,” I said, pointing north, “so that we don’t sink through the snow into a big puddle of water. And the last time you found a “dry patch,” it was a soggy, waterlogged bog that was worse than hiking on snow. You go where you want, you snot-faced snowshoe snob, but I am going to head up into the trees.” I wanted to stomp off for effect, but that would have been a bad idea, so I gingerly tiptoed my way across a small depression, hoping there was no stream underneath.

“Fine! Slink off into the trees, you wuss. Lot of good that chair is doing you now!” Kevin called after me.

Rick and Oliver had remained silent throughout the exchange, more amused than anything. “Looks like the kids are getting restless,” said Oliver, “must be lunchtime.”

As it turned out, Oliver was right. It was getting toward lunchtime. Oliver quickly passed me by as I struggled to reach dry ground, not surprising since he was wearing snowshoes while I was sinking to my knees every third step.

“Hey!” exclaimed Oliver. “Here’s the trail.” He had reached the edge of the snowfield, and there, running just inside the trees on the edge of the meadow, was the trail.

This was good news. I was vindicated. And I lost no time in letting Kevin know that. Sadly, my victory was short-lived. The trail skirted the edge of the meadow for perhaps a quarter of a mile, and then veered off in exactly the direction that Kevin had indicated we should go. He was vindicated. And Kevin wasted no time in letting me know that.

Tired of listening to us quarrel, Oliver suggested we stop for lunch. We had found the trail, at least for the time being the clouds were holding off, and a break would afford us the opportunity to consider our options. Directly across the meadow was a snow-free patch of ground that looked like it might be dry enough to camp. If that didn’t work out, the trail continued down the meadow, across the stream, and into the trees, and we figured we might be able to find a good camping spot as we got down into the North Fork valley. Both options were highly speculative, but they were the best we had. The only things we knew with certainty were that the entire meadow, at least where it was free of snow, was under four inches of water, and the spot we stopped for lunch was not an option. Small snowdrifts lingered under the trees, but even where the ground was free of snow it was wet and too sloped to be comfortable.

With the sun shining down, a warm spot to sit, a belly full of food, and a spectacular view to contemplate, I started to feel a bit bad about my little spat with Kevin. “Hey, Kevin!” He looked over. “Sorry about most of those things I said. You’re not as big an asshole as I implied.”

“Thanks, John. That means a lot,” Kevin answered, “especially since your not really the biggest jerk I have ever known.”

So with things all patched up, we agreed to send out scouting parties to get the lay of the land. Oliver and Kevin offered to explore the dry patch across the meadow, and I agreed to scout down the trail a ways.

My scouting trip proved a disaster. The snow-free parts of the meadow were more swamp than anything, and getting across the stream to the trail on the other side required a long hike around the bottom of the meadow, crossing the stream in three places, and all for the opportunity to discover that the trail completely disappeared under deep snow once back into the trees. Fortunately, Oliver and Kevin had better success. Crossing the meadow was treacherous and wet, but the spot we had seen from our lunch spot was dry enough to camp, and the view was top tier. Despite all the hardships and struggles we had endured to get there, being there made it all worthwhile.

However, worthwhile does not mean trouble free. The rain had held off long enough to us set up camp, and for Oliver to create a nine-hole disc golf course, but a whole day free of precipitation was out of the question. Rick and Oliver and I were just starting the first round when the rain came. It rolled in slowly, a light sprinkle, a bit of breeze, a band of thick clouds forming over The Cirque. We played in rain gear, though the conditions never really got bad. Actually, Rick and I played in rain gear, which was stylish but not conducive to disc golf excellence. But as bad as the rain gear was, it was lot better than the poncho that Oliver was wearing. Oliver figured that the poncho would be lighter than rain gear and a pack cover, and would do pretty much the same thing. To a certain extent he was right. The poncho was lighter than rain gear and a pack cover, and it did cover both Oliver and his backpack, after a fashion. The problem with poncho technology is that there is no chance it will keep you dry in the rain if there is any wind or you move around at all. And it does absolutely no good for your golf game. So Oliver was fortunate that we did not get much rain or wind, and Rick and I were fortunate that Oliver had handicapped his game by wearing what is essentially a tent with a hood.

Stylish rain gear versus a tent with a hood.

By the end of the first round, the weather had blown off to the east and the warm June sun had returned. This was all the encouragement we needed to play a second round, although not before taking time out for refreshments and a brief rest. Conveniently, the first tee was very near our kitchen area, and the last hole even closer. Oliver has been building mountain disc golf courses for many years, and he has learned the importance of building in amenities to encourage less dedicated golfers to keep playing. That group includes pretty much everybody else, and a long hike from the ninth hole to the snack shack would almost certainly mean the end of the game. 

A comfy spot on the veranda. (Photo KR)

The second round was much more pleasant than the first, and much more competitive as well. Rick and I had shed our rain gear, and Oliver his hooded tent. Kevin even emerged from seclusion to join us, and to share in the magic of the moment. And magical it was. The sun was warm, the sky was blue, the snow was white, the trees were green, the ground was brown, the flowers were yellow, and the breeze was light and scented with pine and rain and the musty damp earth. Clouds danced around The Cirque and Lizard Head Peak to the west, and a view of a thousand miles stretched out past the mountains to the north. Well, maybe I exaggerate—the clouds weren’t really dancing. After three days of battling wind and rain and snow and high water and muddy ground and the proximity of bears and shitty fishing, we had found our bliss, and it came in the form of disc golf on our dry little knoll on the northwestern shoulder of Pinto Knob.

The moment was short lived. The dancing clouds, taking exception to the sight of four old MountainGuys doing their own little disc golf dance to celebrate the moment, quickly formed a dark phalanx that charged across the valley on a rising wind. We could see the rain coming as the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the temperature dropped. Then, Boom! The lightning and thunder and rain chased us under the tarp. Of course, we had been prepared for the weather—our stoves and chairs and snacks were all set up and ready to go—but the ferocity of the downpour caught us a bit off guard. The skies opened up and dumped, just as it had the day before.

The downpour lasted only 20 minutes, long enough to plant seeds of doubt about camping on an exposed knoll, open to all the weather blowing in from the west, but not so long that any of us became too anxiety-ridden to drink a cup of coffee. It was bad, but not that bad.

The squall passed just as quickly as it started, moving off the east. The bright June sun returned, quickly warming the air and sending up plumes of steam from the rocks and tree stumps and ground. We were even treated to a double rainbow stretched across the low pass between the Middle- and North-Fork valleys. A hot cup of coffee, bright sun, steaming ground, a double rainbow, and three good friends to enjoy it with—I’d take that hand any day of the week.

Double rainbow.

Dinner that night included chili and pan-fried spoon biscuits. Soups do not typically offer enough heft to sate the hunger after a long day of hiking, but the chili and biscuits did a pretty good job. Oliver had produced another culinary masterpiece, artfully blending the spicy chili and the warm, heavy biscuits with a wide-open venue that was perfect for dissipating the gasses that were sure to form after such a meal. You know he was awarded the Fry Baby badge for his efforts.

Sunset from the veranda.

The rest of the evening was devoted to lounging and snacking and waiting for the spectacular sunset that was sure to happen. In the interim, we were treated to a lightshow of clouds and peaks and rays of sun. The sun dipped behind Lizard Head, and we could all feel the anticipation welling up—either that, or we were all shivering because it was starting to get cold out there at 10,299 feet with a mostly clear sky and lots of moisture in the air. But we were not disappointed. The moment was brief, and in that moment the clouds turned bright red, the diffuse light highlighting the bands of snow draped around Lizard Head. We oohed and aahed, gave a couple of low whistles of appreciation, Kevin and I snapped pictures, and then it was done. At that point, it is hard to say what was moving faster: the light draining out of the sky or the four of us as we dashed off for the warmth of our tents and sleeping bags.