Monday, February 27, 2012

Yellowstone Adventure, Day 1

[This is a continuation of the Yellowstone Report by guest author, Oliver Lignell.]

Day 1 – The Yellowstone Way: Trailhead to Fall River Cutoff (8 miles)

The next morning was a surprise: 26 degrees and foggy. Our first indication that moisture on this trip might be different than the more typical high mountain trip. The first activity, after coffee, was shuttle trip logistics. Dan, Dan, and I would take both cars to the Park entrance. I would be dropped off to get our permits, while Dan and Dan drove both cars to the far trail head, left one, and returned to pick me up in the remaining car. Meanwhile Kevin and Rick would organize the camp and pack. What could be simpler?

Rather than filling out a form, paying, and leaving – the California Way, or scrawling a rough note in trailhead ledger and leaving – the Colorado Way, Yellowstone Way required forms. I had to fill out a form to watch a wildlife safety video, sign a form that I had watched it, and then fill out the post video forms. At one point, I was confident we wouldn’t make it to the trailhead until nightfall. However, the ranger was kindly and patient. He even confirmed that there was a hot spring near Ferris Creek, saying something about “Mr. Bubbles.” However, I did not get much detail. I was on a mission. Finally, I was certified, finished the paperwork and ran back out to the road. I figured the guys would already be there, irritated and waiting.  After all, they only had to drive 12 miles up the road to the terminating trailhead and return.

I waited. And waited. I sat by the road, stood by the road, explored by the road, and even read the labels on trash by the road. Approximately 8,000 cars drove by. I watched the masses leaving the country’s first national park. Finally, I saw a familiar car. It was them! I yanked open the door to give them an earful. Not that I was impatient or anything.

Dan S. said, “You know, those directions you gave us really sucked. Do you know there are actually several different trailheads up the road?”

Dan T. said, “Yeah, we drove past a couple before we stopped and then asked and found out we had to drive back again to the first one. And the traffic was terrible."

About 30 different comments went through my head, including, “The first trailhead on the left 12 miles up the only road in sight was complicated!?” and, “Yeah, well, I was stuck here getting carbon monoxide poisoning.” Instead, I paused, took a deep breath, and settled for, “Oh well, it’s a beautiful morning, let’s go!” It truly was. Who could stay angry? The fog had lifted, the sun was shining, and we were headed to the trail.

When we pulled back into Flagg Ranch it was pack-like-mad time. Kevin and Rick were done, but the rest of us had to hurry. The plan was to make two trips to the trailhead. Do the math – 5 guys, five full packs with a week’s worth of food, and one small 4-door Toyota. However, Dan S. became convinced that we could make it. If only we had a video: unstrapping, wedging, stuffing – and in only an hour, we were done: four packs, or pieces thereof, into the trunk. The last pack straddled Dan S., Dan T., and me in the back seat. The back window shelf was filled with odds and ends, Dan S's hiking poles stuck out the window like Martian antennae and Rick, in the passenger seat, had to contend with at least two sleeping bags and a stove under his chin. Success was reached thanks to Kevin’s superior shape and weight analysis. For his efforts, Kevin earned the Get Stuffed Badge. By doing this in one trip, we probably saved…about an hour. The car was only 2 inches off the ground, but we could drive.

Arguing about what the best approach would be.

After a short 15 mile drive, with the last few miles bouncing heavily in and out of potholes and the car bottoming out, we were finally at the trailhead. At the base of a small dam, the trail headed out along the outlet. At first we weren’t even sure this was the right one. It was a huge paved lot and we were the only car. But, finally, a sign was found to confirm that we were, in fact, at the right place. We were good to go.

Our target was camp 9UI, just over 8 miles away traveling first northwest up to Fall river and then west along the river until we reached the Fall River cutoff. Yellowstone has designated sites that must be reserved and, unlike any other trip we had ever taken, we knew exactly where we would stay and how far we would go each day. The sky was incredibly blue and the trail modest, rolling through thick pines and the occasional meadow. In fact, we experienced what would become the pattern for nearly the entire trip. Dense forest, limited views of hills and bluffs, easy rolling trails and, fording streams. Strangely, when I asked the ranger whether we would need to prepare to ford streams he said “nope, nothing to worry about at this time of year." A statement which leads the reasonable person to conclude we would only encounter mere trickles as we hiked. What could be the problem anyway? According to the map, we only needed to cross one stream on the first day.

However, long before we came to a stream to cross, we came to something else. Since it was not a stream is must have been a river-ette or perhaps it was creekish.  In any event, we soon learned that stopping for crossings would become a frequent feature of our hike. Yellowstone has water. As with many backcountry features, this provided an opportunity to test gear choices. And, through rigorous field testing, we determined that Crocs™ were the superior gear in this regard.

The first of many river-ettes.

Later, during our first lunch stop, several remarkable events occurred. Rather than interpret, we are able to reconstruct events through the careful notes that Kevin made: 

“When we finally stopped for lunch, DS ran into the woods to deal with his excess gluten consumption of the past 24 hours. Meanwhile, a youthful, beautiful, ex-Yellowstone ranger approached our sprawling party, with bear spray at hand. She stopped to talk, and we learned that she was about to start a new job elsewhere, and was taking a day to do the one hike she had always wanted to do, but never had the chance; to Union Falls. Unfortunately, that's not where we were headed, and we wouldn't have been able to keep up with her anyway. After she departed, Oliver defended us and our food from a chipmunk which had identified us as easy marks. His ninja skills (mostly noises, with a makeshift spear for good measure) finally drove the beast away. We were relieved that we didn't have to resort to the bear spray yet. DS finally returned from his second trip, and O wanted to know if he needed a new blowout preventer.”

The time passed quickly until we came to a large meadow. The trail split and the team headed up the trail until I called a halt. It did not feel right. I convinced the MountainGuys that we should go the other way. After the usual grumbling and nay-saying, my suggestion was supported. We went back and, viola – found the camp site about 150 yards away.

Yellowstone Meadow near Fall River

The campsite was on the edge of the meadow, along a creek, with scattered mature pines. In a word, it was beautiful: level ground, numerous shaded spots to pitch a tent, and what would become – the ubiquitous cooking and food cooking area. We learned a number of things about camping the Yellowstone Way at that first evening Fall River.

First, Yellowstone requires back country campers to pitch their tents at least 150 ft from the cook area. Initially, this seemed rather odd though logical, considering the concerns about bears and foods. We quickly learned to appreciate this design. Each campfire ring was substantial and commodious. There were many fine spots to set up one’s tent. And, hanging the food did not require infamous “Well Hung” badge skills. Instead a tree trunk was chained at right angles between two live trees next to the fire ring. It was usually about 15 feet up, forming a large “H”. We pitched two ropes over the log and literally pulled up our entire packs. Camping made easy.

Second, the unmentionable: back country toileting. A topic usually skipped in the more polite journals, but a necessity nonetheless. Yellowstone solved this problem by setting up a pit toilet at every designated tent site. My greatest fear – after being mauled and eaten by a bear, was having a large green phone both sized pit toilet right next to the campfire. I could envision it all too well. Instead, there was a small trail from the fire that led about 50 yards away to a low profile brown toilet in the middle of the trees: one lid, no walls, no smell. One hesitates to say tasteful, but it was at least not too bad – and removed any chance of finding unwelcome surprises while looking for a quiet spot to do one's business. The set up was well designed.

After a satisfying meal that was not noted in any detail, the MountainGuys went off to their separate areas to drift in to a relaxed slumber while listening to the gurgling river. Tomorrow would take us in to the mouth of the Bechler River canyon and Ouzel Falls.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Yellowstone National Park, September 2010

September 2010
By Oliver Lignell 

Copyright Oliver Lignell, 2012

[Readers: This edition of the MountainGuy News has been written by guest author, Oliver Lignell, one of the original MountainGuys. But please do not hold that against him. Enjoy the story, and, as always, comments welcome. Ed.]

Preparing and Staging for the Bechler Canyon-Shoshone Lake Shuttle Trip—September 2010
(Author’s note #1 : Rather than the usual exaggerated, one-sided, semi-fictional hyperbole published as MountainGuy news, this report is fair, balanced, and a purely factual account of the events. It is not only based on the author’s rigorous and extensive note taking, but exhaustively cross checked against the meticulous notes kept by Kevin. Therefore, relax, make yourself comfortable, you can be sure that everything you read is unadulterated mountain gospel.
Author’s note #2: This narrative could not be fully experienced without use of the excellent pictures taken by Kevin. In fact, this narrative is peppered with more than the usual number of photos, for which I apologize, however there were just too many amazing photos and for each one you see there were a handful of others you did not. This speaks to the spectacular nature of the nature we saw. Naturally.)
Yellowstone! What an icon. It was a definite bucket list item for the MountainGuys. The most discussed topic? Bear. Bears were the content of almost every planning conversation for months as the mighty MountainGuys pondered, planned, and philosophized about taking on the fearsome bear-infested Yellowstone backcountry. John did serious research, Dan S. trained for the trip by wearing a home-made sign on the back of his pack that read “ Bear Meat”. He also changed his mind about going at least four times. I invested in triple-redundant safety systems: a personal siren, pepper spray, and a REALLY big knife. Kevin maintained a steadfast optimism. Rick played it cool.
In the end, a route was found that – in theory, avoided the greatest concentration of grizzlies, and only featured an average population of black and grizzly bears. It was a 60+ mile shuttle trip featuring a multi-day journey up the Bechler river canyon. Were the MountainGuys nervous? Yes. Would they admit it? Perhaps – but only as a sign of maturely admitting fear to show even greater, though understated, courage. Little did we realize that bears would be the least of the threats they would face. Far greater threats would arise as we took on the Bechler Canyon-Shoshone Lake shuttle trip.
In the last month leading up to the trip it was learned, with dismay, that a key stalwart member of the pack would not be able to join the adventure. John was not going to come. Not only did this leave the dubious task of journalism to yours truly, but it shook the foundations of the MountainGuy institution or, at least, caused some indigestion and maybe a little gas. John ALWAYS came. How would we do it without him? There was no easy answer, but John’s absence, while doubtless for reasons that can not be assailed (but were), did provide someone to blame for any issues that occurred in his absence: a proud MountainGuy tradition.
So, a reduced team gathered in Boulder one fall morning and departed for the wilderness in two cars. This trip was to be a rare shuttle trip with a car at either end, allowing for greater mileage and scenery. And, as usual with our map and route finding, we agreed to disagree. We drove North and West, one car guided by Mapquest and the other by Google, each sure that the directions they had were more efficient.  In this case, Google (and Dan S.) won the race to Laramie. We continued on to Lander – where a terrific burger place was discovered (to be revisited). Lander is the home of NOLS and had a healthy percentage of granola mixed in with the usual agricultural/rural mix of small town western America. Past Lander, through the Wind River Indian Reservation and, finally, ten hours after leaving Boulder we caught sight of the majestic Tetons rising in the west. Finally, we were approaching the launching point and mere moments from our trailhead lodgings on the outskirts of Yellowstone.
Once we reached Jackson Lake and completed the requisite oohing and ahhing, we turned north and soon reached our destination. While the tradition, and a good one, is to find a convenient campground close to the trailhead, this proved nigh impossible for this trip. The state campgrounds were closed this late in the season and the Yellowstone campgrounds were full months in advance. That left us with an odd fifties style KOA style campground called Flagg Ranch. An “authentic” western cheapo lodge/gas station/restaurant with a ring of campsites hosting RVs, Campers, and a few lonely tents. The ratio was, I think, about 50 to 1. But, we had a spot and it was ours. We squeezed our five tents in to a spot made for four and called it home. Yours truly managed to grab one of the few spots with duff and Kevin, by far the politest guy in the group, was stuck camping on the gravel parking pad next to the car. Hey, it’s a dog eat dog world.
The MountainGuys soon made it a comfortable spot. Tents were pitched, food bins unloaded, and beverages consumed. A strange incident then occurred, as the group was milling about organizing and unpacking.
We noticed a somewhat disheveled women in running shorts jogging along the paved road linking the campsites. She appeared somewhat disoriented, bobbing her head in one direction and then another. She gazed our way.
Dan T., trained in handling situations like this, asked in a kindly voice, “Do you need some help?”
“Um, well, kind of, yes.” She wandered a little closer – at least as close as a lone woman would come to a group of scruffy and getting scruffier outdoor kind of guys.
“You see, um, my husband.” Her eyes darted around nervously.
“Yes. I see, your husband.” Dan was comforting.
“Well” She paused. “I need an axe. Do you have an axe?” Her voice was plaintive. She seemed in real need.
To confirm we all understood this, Dan said, “So, you need an axe. For your husband.”
“Yes”. She said.
“So, there’s been some trouble?”
“Well, I didn’t bring one and I really need one and, you know” she paused rather breathlessly, “do you think I could borrow one? I’ll run it right back. No problem”.
Dan seemed to be weighing the situation. But I, always ready to be helpful, jumped in. “Sure, we have an axe – will this do?” I handed her the large axe that I, as a prepared MountainGuy, had within easy reach.
“Oh yes, thanks!” She grabbed the axe and jogged off rather quickly with the axe held at the ready.
“Wow!” said Dan S. “What a nut case, I wouldn’t have given her the axe. Who knows what she’ll do with it?”
“I know what she’ll do with it”, said Dan T., “and I wouldn’t want to be in her husband’s shoes right now!”
“Oh, come on, you guys are so suspicious”, said Kevin. “She was just a little distraught. I’m sure she had a perfectly good reason.” Kevin was the trusting one.
Not me. “I’m checking for blood when she brings it back – if she even comes back.” Everyone burst out laughing.
Alas, the axe was returned, there was no blood (I checked), and no further suspicions could be reported.
Thereafter, a fine evening fire-side mean of grilled pork chops with chipotle raspberry sauce, veggie kabobs, and yams was enjoyed by all.  We each retired to our tents that night replete with food and anticipation for what our trip would bring.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Popo Agie Wilderness, Day 7

Day 7: Three Forks to the Bruce Trailhead, via Popo Agie Falls (11.5 miles)

Kevin finally saw his moose on the morning of the last day while he was peeing in the bushes behind the tent. No word on what the moose was doing at the time. By the time I managed to get out of bed and get down to the kitchen area, all three of my traveling companions were awake and sorting through food and gear. Kevin was doing his little moose dance in celebration of seeing the moose, and I was very glad that he had finally seen one. I felt bad the day before when he learned that I had seen a bull moose, although he kind of beat it out of me.  I hadn’t wanted to tell him, but he insisted. “How was the fishing?” he asked.

“The fishing was crappy,” was my response, “but I saw a bull moose grazing on some willows on an island in the river. Want to see the picture?” So I had no choice. Kevin went into a bit of funk after that, but he recovered enough to join us for dinner.

Breakfast was a hurried affair, and we were fed and packed and ready to hike by 8:30. We had a long day ahead of us, and we wanted to get a good early jump on the day.

We passed the spot where we had met Ranger Gus, and from there it was 10.5 miles to the trailhead. The trail conditions were mostly pretty good. The trail was soggy in a few places, but still much better than it had been even a week before. About five miles below Three Forks, we ran into six backpackers. They were part of a group of ten people, eight of whom had paid for a guided trek into the North Fork valley. This was the second large group we had seen with guides, the first a group of climbers who passed by our campsite on Deep Creek on their way to the Cirque. I guess this shouldn’t have been surprising, since Lander is home to at least one outdoor school, and maybe more. At the height of summer, after the snow has melted and the high passes have opened up, I imagine there is plenty of traffic on the Middle Fork Trail, a lot of it from these schools. As we looked back on our week in the wilderness, we couldn’t help but enjoy the irony—the snow made travel difficult and forced us to change our plans, but it may also have been the reason why we had the backcountry pretty much to ourselves the whole time.

Excellent signage.

We were hiking out on Saturday, the first Saturday of July, and two days before the Fourth of July. Five miles below Three Forks, fellow hikers started to dribble in. Six miles below Three Forks, the dribble turned into a trickle. Two miles from the trailhead, the trickle became a steady stream, and once we reached the junction with the trail to Popo Agie Falls, a mile from the trailhead, the stream had developed into a flood. They came in all shapes and sizes: big, small, fat, skinny, tall, short, dressed, and undressed. There were families with kids, kids with dogs, and dogs with families. There were hikers hiking alone, hikers hiking in groups, and groups hiking in shorts. There were kids, and teenagers, and parents, and old folks. There were old folks dressed as kids, and kids dressed in inflatable tubes. Because, it turns out, Popo Agie Falls is a local hangout and a vacation destination. It is a place where visitors go to admire the wonderment of the natural world, where vacationers slide down a big rock chute into a deep pool at the bottom of the falls, and where locals go to drink beer before sliding down the big rock chute into the deep pool at the bottom of the falls. Like the parking lot at the Bruce trailhead, Popo Agie Falls is a regular scene.

Popo Agie Falls.

But on that particular Saturday, the scene was a bit quiet for the first week of July. It was still possible to admire the wonderment of the natural world, but no one was sliding down the big rock chute. The big rock chute was indistinguishable from the rest of the falls, and even the term “waterfall” is too timid to describe what was going on. The whole mountainside was a roiling cascade of near-freezing water, churning over rocks, pouring through the trees, and tearing through the landscaping that Mother Nature had worked so hard to establish. Meaningful conversation was nearly impossible anywhere alongside the roaring cacophony of falling water, which was okay with us since meaningful conversation is not part of the MountainGuy Creed.  There has never been a Thoughtful Conversation badge, and come Hell or high water, there will never be one. That’s part of the joy of being a MountainGuy. (By contrast, a Thoughtless Conversation badge, or even better, a Thoughtless Comment badge, might very well have a chance.)

The big rock chute is in there somewhere.

Nonetheless, we learned all this and more from a friendly couple who had established themselves on a bench overlooking the part of the mountain where the big rock chute would have been if the whole mountain had not been underwater. They had to shout to make themselves heard, and we had to cup our hands behind our ears to hear what they were shouting, but we learned a lot, at least about the couple themselves. We learned, for example, that they were from Utah, and that they came out to see the falls at least once a year, and that their children used to accompany them until they got too old and moved on with their lives, so now the couple comes by themselves, but they are not bitter, and it’s sort of more fun now that they don’t have to worry about their kids sliding down the chute into a big rock ‘cause that happens sometimes. We also learned that all those people we saw climbing around in flip-flops while wearing a bathing suit and carrying a floaty tube or a flotation vest were not insane, just early. But this had been a record-setting water year, and the rock chute would be a certain death sentence for at least another month. The couple agreed to take our picture by the falls, we thanked them for their hospitality, and then we made ready to leave.

MountainGuys at Popo Agie Falls.

At least Rick and Oliver and I made ready to leave. Kevin had somehow persuaded himself that we had hiked the half-mile from the trail to the falls because we had a deep and abiding desire to fill our lungs and hearts with the intoxicating thrill of nature in the extreme, but mostly we had hiked out just because we wanted to see the falls. Now that we had seen them, it was time for burgers, and even the spectacular sight of Popo Agie Falls in the fullness of snowmelt would not delay us. Our cup of Spectacular already runneth over, and now we wanted nothing more than to fill our cup with flame-broiled greasy goodness, smothered in cheese and grilled onions. So we left Kevin at the falls where he could fill his heart and lungs, and told him that we would wait for him at the trailhead at least as long as it took us to get packed up and ready to go.

We did not have to wait for Kevin at all. He lingered at the falls for a few minutes, until he was so intoxicated with the thrill of nature that he risked getting a DUI for weaving his way down the crowded trail, but Kevin travels fast when he wants to, and the promise of burgers was a mighty powerful draw. So despite the weaving from his intoxicated state, Kevin caught up with us before we had gotten halfway to the trailhead.

The Bruce Trailhead parking lot was even more of a scene upon our return than it had been at our departure. The same guys were still selling drugs in the back of the lot, but now the lot was two-thirds full with hikers, bikers, and adventure seekers of all kinds. The crowded conditions made changing from our trail-stained clothing into clean travel clothes a little more challenging than usual, and even though we waited for an appropriate moment, no one seemed to take any more notice of us than usual.

The Gannett Grill was hopping by the time we reached Lander at about 1:00 in the afternoon. Nonetheless, we were able to secure a fine table in the shade of a large oak tree in the seating area between the Grill and the Lander Brewing Company. A cold beer seemed like a good idea, but one that would have to wait. Oliver and Kevin were looking at a seven hour drive to Boulder (five hours and 46 minutes with Oliver driving, including getting pulled over and being issued a warning for driving slightly faster than the speed limit), while Rick and I were just going to drive as far as we could, but at least as far as Park City, Utah. So we had to forego the beer, but the burgers were very good, served with a big basket of steak-cut fries.

The trip had not gone as planned; not even close. This had not been the California trip we had been expecting, it was not in September as we had originally thought it would be, we had not been able to hike our intended route, and had, in fact, only hiked about 34 miles altogether. The fishing had been terrible, too. Nonetheless, it had been an excellent trip. We had endured snow and sleet and rain and hail. The winds had tried mightily to blow us down, yet we got back up. We had eaten excellent food, including hot apple cobbler, we had discovered Spectacular, and we had learned more about Popo Agie Falls and the local fishing hot spots than we could have wanted to know. And as we sat there in the beer garden at the Gannett Grill, we realized that not all of our efforts had been wasted: our plan to eat burgers and fries had come to fruition exactly the way we had planned it. 

Spectacular, one more time (photo KR)