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.

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