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.
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)|