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.

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