Thursday, March 22, 2012

Yellowstone Report, Day 4

This is a continuation of the Yellowstone Adventure (September 2010) by guest author, Oliver Lignell.
Day 4 – Many miles to Shoshone Lake (15 to be exact)
When I opened my eyes early the next morning, the tent walls were dripping with condensed moisture. The outside of my bag was wet.  I cautiously struggled in to dry gear trying to avoid the chill dampness and keep my bag from getting wetter, with limited success. I unzipped the fly and peered out to see a transformed world. A thick cloud of fog shrouded the camp in a ghostly embrace. I could barely see the trees next to my tent.
“Hello?” I said.
“Over here,” said Rick. He was up already and trying to drape wet gear over wet tree branches in the dripping fog in order to dry them. Good luck, I thought.
His movement was all the confirmation I needed to get going. Life was stirring. I gave up on trying to dry anything in the near term and bee-lined for the packs. I lowered them and began to dig out stove, coffee, and all the essentials. It was a chilly 36 degrees and coffee was required before real cogitation could commence – at least for this MountainGuy.
With coffee in hand, we could begin to think and talk about the day. As the second pot of water boiled, the rest of the group gathered. We all admired the fog. Water infused the air. Even spider webs sparkled with dew as the first beams of sunlight finally reached the small clearing. Clearly, the combination of cool air, warm water from the hot springs, and steam from the nearby steam spout created perfect conditions for megafog. We stamped around trying to get warm and find little patches of sunlight to spread tents, clothes, and sleeping bags for drying.
As we worked, we talked about the plan for the day. It was going to be our longest hike. It would take 12 miles of hiking to get up and out of Bechler Canyon, cross the Continental Divide, and come down to our camp on the shores of Shoshone Lake, where we would enjoy our layover day.  As we discussed the plan to visit Mr. Bubbles again, the MountainGuys displayed an unfortunate tendency to mock Dan S. The slurs, gibes, profanity, sarcasm, and hurled insults will not be recorded here in order to preserve a certain level of decency. The reader will just have to use their own imagination. Use a lot.
The group agreed that another Mr. Bubbles visit was imperative, despite the length of the hike. To that end, the group packed gear that was not even fully dried and hit the trail by 9AM, hustling to the hot pool after a quick meal but satisfying spicy breakfast burritos. Once at the pool, the MountainGuys relaxed. Gear was spread out to more fully dry, exploration of Jupiter’s bowls was initiated, and many pictures were taken. Relaxed hot pool lounging was enjoyed by all, even Dan S., though we did notice him anxiously checking the sky from time to time, no doubt watching for fast approaching thunderheads.
Finally, about 10:30, the gear was dry, pictures taken, bowls explored, and maximum wrinkle-ation had been achieved. After all was “tight and right”, we hoisted our packs and began to hike. We would return to the main trail and then head north for 10 miles to the junction with Shoshone Lake trail. While turning to the north at the junction would take one towards Old Faithful, we would head southwest instead and, in two miles, reach Shoshone Lake.  We were looking forward to the five star campsite we had reserved on a peninsula jutting out in to the lake. 
We made decent time. Packs were lighter, we were clean and lean. Rolling hills rose towards the Divide as we bid farewell to the Bechler River. The Dans, who both had sore feet, decided to blaze forward and get it all over with sooner. Rick, Kevin and I were a little too relaxed from Mr. Bubbles, so we set a more leisurely, but still manly, pace.
The trails began to show tiny black pebbles mixed in with pine needles and dirt. These tiny and sometime large pieces of rock caused much speculation. Was it compressed lava from millions of years ago? A form of obsidian? Ejecta from a crashed spaceship? Vitrified soil from forest fires? The question was never answered, but we continued to see this ubiquitous stone everywhere over the next two days.
We stopped for a late lunch near Douglas Knob, the high elevation of the trip at 8,800 ft. We sat in the shade of a tree next to a large meadow, perhaps a mile wide.  Brilliant fall colors from Mountain Ash at the margins of the meadow and clusters of shrubs with tiny yellow, orange, and red fruits created a choice autumnal backdrop to our lunch.
After lunch, it was over the pass, hang a right at the trail junction and head downhill to Shoshone Lake. By this point, our feet were pretty pounded and we were like horses that could smell the barn. We traded the point position as the most motivated MountainGuy would surge to the front. The last mile or so followed a beautiful valley. Kevin described it perfectly:
“It was a beautiful, lush valley, with the stream wandering from side to side, separating small meadows from each other. The dazzling water had lots of swaying grasses and seaweed. We hiked above it on a dry, lodgepole covered hillside. The shade was a blessing, but our feet were hurting. We hiked over or around several large "cow pies", and discussed whether they could possibly be from cows. We decided that moose or bison were much more likely”
In less than an hour, we reached a small junction with the trail that circled the entire immense lake. Unfortunately, there was no sign that indicated where our 5-star campsite would be. However, the trail we were on crossed the circumnavigating trail and appeared to head straight to the lake. We reasoned hopefully, that it would lead straight to our campsite and forged ahead expectantly. We were wrong.
The trail ended at the shore of the lake, but not at a campsite. With little appreciation of the beautiful lake spread out before us, we threw down our packs in a combination of exhaustion and disgust. Where the hell was our campsite? The map we had of the sites did not show enough detail to tell. However, not far from us, we saw a canoe pulled up on the shore and a couple talking and taking pictures. Maybe help could be found. We approached and Dan T. asked if they had a map. This led to a discussion where we learned several unpleasant facts.
First, we were nowhere near the peninsula camp site. They pointed out over the water. We looked. Across a large inlet we saw a peninsula. It was far away. Second, the site was occupied.  At the very end, we could see what looked like two tents. We contained, for the moment, the worst of our reactions and thanked the couple. We retreated to our packs to begin the process of re-evaluating, position finding, additional map viewing, swearing, and blaming. Pressure was mounting. I’m pretty sure there was a scuffle as words were exchanged between Rick and Dan S., but no blood was spilled. I pulled out the permit again to see if I could figure out anything new. I examined it closely.
 “Crap!” I cried. “Look at this!” I pointed to the permit.
The others crowded around. I waved the paper. The Site we would stay for the next two nights was clearly printed. It was campsite “8R3”. Not “8R5”, as we had requested. Every other site had been exactly what we had requested. The reservation I had received had confirmed we had 8R5. However, the rangers must have made a change some time before they printed the permit. And I had not noticed. We all groaned. I looked at the high level map campsite map, and oriented it to where 8R5 sat across the inlet. The picture was all too clear. We groaned again. Three more miles of hiking!  Some serious talk ensued about whether we should just find our own site and the hell with Yellowstone rules. I believe Dan S. said he would even cover the cost of any fine, however Kevin extolled the virtues of an epically long hiking day and swayed the group to stick to the straight and narrow.
Coping with frustration at Shoshone Lake--3 more miles to go.
We grimly hoisted packs, tightened boots, and adjusted hats. When the going gets tough, the MountainGuys buckle down. Literally. Back up to the Shoshone Lake Trail. Turn right and hike northwest. Up and down the rolling shoulders that surrounded the southwestern edge of the lake. Afternoon light filtered down through mixed forest of Ash and Aspen. Gold, green, and brilliant red leaves brightened the woods. The trail was mostly soft duff and about 18 inches wide. It was a great trail. And a good thing too, our feet were sore. We marched and marched. Small talk was non-existent. We just wanted to get it done.
Finally, we got to the sign for the site. It marked a short trail about a quarter mile long leading down a long slope to the edge of the lake. There we found the three star site. It was small and perhaps 5 feet from the shore behind a screen of several trees and bushes. A stiff wind blew off the lake. The lake was big enough that the wind caused waves a foot high across much of the lake. The view at least was excellent. We could see the southwest end of the lake where we had first arrived about a mile away as the crow flies. From our vantage we could see multiple columns of steam marking the Shoshone Geyser basin. This high profile thermal area was one of the reasons for coming to the lake.  We also had a clear view to the far shore to the east about half a mile away. Shoshone Lake is shaped like a large hour glass tipped half-way over. We were on the lower half. The upper half was bigger. Overall it stretched more than two miles from end to end. 
View to the southwest end of Shoshone Lake--thermal steam rises, falls, and drifts down the shore

 We were bushed and our feet were hamburger. Despite the Park rules to pitch tents far from the cook area, Dan T. and Dan S. grabbed the closest flat spots nearby. Dan T. was 4 feet from the cooking area. Dan S. was much safer, all of 15 feet away.  Given that the biggest mammals we had seen were a few squirrels and chipmunks after four days of hiking, this seemed a reasonable risk. Rick, Kevin, and I spread out and wandered upslope looking for flat spots to pitch our tents. We all found nice spots with good views, pitched our tents, and collapsed with sighs of relief. Groans could be heard as boots were gingerly removed.

The sites by the Lake did not allow campfires, so it was stove-only as we prepared a dinner of Potato Corn Chowder. Though tired, we did feel a strong sense of accomplishment. The view was great and we watched the few clouds and the thermal steam turn pink as the sun went down. It was perhaps the longest day the MountainGuys had ever hiked. While unplanned, we found we could do it. And, perhaps, it might be the only way we would ever do it. Who plans for 15 mile days? We pondered this thought over cookies and tequila.  The next day was our layover day and we could sleep in with not a care in the world. Life was good.

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