Brian's Journal - Wind Rivers 2007

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Journal from Wind River Range solo backpacking trip September 3-7, 2007
Here is my route and here is a photo account of my trip. Here's a packing list of what I took with me and here's an annotated list of birds I saw during my trip.
9/3/2007 Pinedale to Big Sandy Lake 5.0 miles, 1000’ including exploration around camp
I left Driggs around 11AM, drove to Jackson resisting the urge to stop and hike up the meadowed ridges above the road, stopped in a fly–fishing shop to buy a license and some flies then continued southeast. In Pinedale I stopped at another outfitter – The Great Outdoor Shop – to get
specifics on fishing in the Wind Rivers; Andrew was very helpful, suggested I try Black Joe lake and stream for cutthroat.
Continuing southeast from Boulder following a USFS map and signs to Big Sandy Lodge, I passed antelope grazing in green meadows along the road; they tended to flee into the surrounding sagebrush when I stopped to photograph them. The distant Winds appeared now and then between sagebrush hills. As I drove closer the mountains dropped out of sight behind scrubby aspen and pine–covered foothills; small streams lined with tawny–yellow willow thickets meandered through valley meadows. A couple of near misses with big pickups
hauling horse trailers barreling around blind corners tempered my growing excitement as I neared the trailhead. It was about 3:30PM when I arrived.
At the trailhead the Big Sandy River flows placidly past golden meadows and low hills bristling with dark lodgepole pines. In the sunlit shallows along its banks 8" trout lie waiting for evening. I talked with a couple who’d just come out; he reported catching numerous brook trout in the small pond just below Big Sandy Lake. I gave them my extra gas since I couldn’t take it home with me on the plane. After a half hour of packing and repacking I signed the register, hit the bathroom and
started up the trail. Within a half mile or so a couple of old guys (Craig and Rob, gray–haired like me) overtook me and we got to talking. Turns out they were also going in for five days, camping at Big Sandy tonight then doing a loop to the north past Bear Lakes, over the Lizard Head high plateau, up around Graves Lake and back along the west front of the range. We talked about marathons (they’d both done a couple some years ago), hiking trips (they do one or two every year), work (they’re both family docs back in Minnesota/ South Dakota), families (kids a little older than David and Daniel, in the Peace Corps, in law school, one or two still in college, wives back home). They invited me to join them on their loop but I wasn’t sure how much hiking I should commit to, settled for camping with them and said I’d decide in the morning.
We reached Big Sandy Lake about an hour before sunset and found a camp site near a bear bin at the west end of the lake. I set up my tent then set out to explore a little, take some photos and get my bearings before the sun went down. Great reflections in the still surface of Big Sandy Lake, and intriguing ledges on a ridge which descends north down nearly to the
lake from Schweitzer mountain. I scrambled up the ledges chasing the last of the sunshine, returned to a cold supper of leftover zucchini and potatoes as the docs were washing up the dinner pots. When Craig and I took our food over to the bear bin at dusk and opened it up, we liberated a deer mouse which had apparently been trapped inside with someone’s trash.
9/4/2007 Big Sandy Lake to Bear Lakes 9.2 miles, 3100’ including explorations. Strenuous day, fun fishing, amazing scenery.
When it was light enough to see I got dressed, clambored down to the small lake below our camp and cast out a dry fly for the first time in maybe ten years and within a few casts hooked a colorful 10" brook trout, hauled him ashore and killed him. I caught and released several smaller trout and hooked and lost a somewhat larger one there where the stream flowed into the lake. I didn’t see much activity elsewhere on the lake so I headed down the stream below the lake. There I found numerous trout up to about 9" long in the shallow dark pools. Most were brookies but I also caught a cutthroat and a brown trout. I cleaned the four I kept on a boulder on the far side of the stream and hiked back up to camp around 7:30, just as the docs were cleaning up from breakfast. They were ready to go before I was so I told them I was planning to camp between the two Bear Lakes, and I’d see them there this evening.
I wanted to check out Black Joe Lake so I stashed my pack and hung my extra food bag about 500’ above Big Sandy Lake on the lower slope of Big Sandy Mountain. Carrying just a fanny pack and my fly rod I traversed over ledges and meadows and through open stands of limber pine and spruce to the outlet stream from Black Joe Lake. There I caught a 10" cutthroat in the first pool I tried, a short stretch of fast water sparkling in the sunshine between banks of willow and big granite boulders. Figuring I’d catch plenty more I released him, then caught no more trout all the way up to Black Joe Lake, though I did spook quite a few in clear still water where the stream meanders
along the far side of a meadow. The lake itself was clear and green in the sunshine; I didn’t see any trout at the outlet and didn’t take the time to explore up along its shores. I returned to my pack following a stock trail, apparently used earlier this summer judging by the old horse and sheep? droppings, which contours aong the southwest side of Big Sandy Mountain at about 10,400’. After lunch or bread, sardines and a tomato at my pack, I picked up the stock trail again and followed it to the hiking trail up to Jackass Pass.
No sign of the doctors – no surprise since they were now several hours ahead of me. Jackass Pass was not as tough a hike as I expected but as usual after lunch, I was tired and didn’t move very fast, occ soreness in lower shins as well. Took a number of photos of the interplay of light and shadow on the ridges and crags as cumulus clouds moved overhead. The meadows were gold and brown in the sunshine, clumps of willows providing yellow and green highlights. Lots of finches in the pines and sparrows in the meadows, along with an occasional raptor. A Swainson’s hawk soared low overhead above Black Joe Lake and a golden eagle rode an updraft up the face of Warbonnet Peak gaining a thousand feet a minute. Below Jackass pass I met hikers – two women, a man and two dogs – also headed to Bear Lakes. My only company all day.
Down at Lonesome Lake I found quite a few huckleberries, tangy and sweet but small and slow picking. I ate a few handfuls and saved a few for breakfast tomorrow. The outlet stream was full of cutthroat trout. I hooked and lost one about a foot long and spent too much time trying to catch one of the others in the same small pool before heading downstream. Below a long flat stretch through a meadow, the stream gradient increases and I spent another hour fishing. Each small pool contained several trout. There seemed to be two color variants, one yellowish brown with fine black spots increasing towards the tail and dull reddish belly fins, the other much more colorful with lots of bright yellow and red on the belly and sides, bright red fins and fairly prominent parr markings which may have been pink or lavender–colored – I didn’t land the larger one and didn’t take a photo of the smaller one which I did land. I kept and cleaned four more trout planning to give some to the docs for supper.
The sky had turned overcast by the time I resumed hiking down the trail. Hurrying a little, I turned a corner and there just 50’ in front of me was a cow moose. The wind was in my face so she didn’t smell me coming. My first thought was to grab the camera. My second was that she might be cranky and attack me. As she started moving towards me I backed up in a hurry and detoured off the trail around her, pausing to take a couple quick pictures. To save time I headed up the hill in a direct line to the Bear Lakes rather than returning to the trail. The moose, the fading light,
being alone in the woods some distance from the trail – all contributed to some anxiety but I made it to the lakes with no problems. After I found a camp site I discovered the doctors’ camp on a knoll across the outlet stream. I went by to visit but they were just cleaning up from supper – too late for trout. They’d seen a bear not far from where I saw the moose. Figuring we could visit in the morning I went down by the lake a few hundred yards from camp, dug out my new water filter–pump, got it working after a while, fired up the stove and poached four trout for supper. It was pretty much dark by the time I cleaned up, using just water and a limber pine tassel for a brush since I’d forgotten to bring soap. A Cooper’s hawk slid silently across the meadows as I made my way up to my tent.
9/5/2007 Bear Lakes to Little Washakie Lake, 9.1 miles, 3000’ including side trips. Temperature in the low 40’s much of the day, warmer when the sun came out around lunchtime.
Showers overnight, rain striking the tent with a sharp hissing sound – it may have been sleet.
Bright pink light illuminated the peaks briefly at sunrise but the overcast thickened through the morning and another sleet shower blew through before the sky cleared. The Minnesota doctors broke camp ahead of me; I glimpsed them briefly about a mile up the trail then they passed over a low ridge and I never saw them again. I ate their trout for lunch in the sunshine above Little Valentine Lake.
North of Bear Lakes the Lizard Head trail crosses several miles of alpine plateau, which is why I wanted to take it, to visit one of the broad high uplands so characteristic of the range. Boulder–studded meadows predominate up there, the grasses and forbs all yellow and brown accentuated
by the yellow alpine willow and bright red clumps of Sedum. Where bedrock is exposed it is deeply weathered, in contrast to the glacier–smoothed ledges on lower slopes. I parked my pack in a broad valley and took a quick side trip up a 12,450’ peak just south of Cathedral Peak. A storm was
moving in and clouds had enveloped the summits to the south so I lingered on top only long enough to snap a few pictures and to call Susan. From the peak I could see plains to the east and I had a good cell phone signal. She was on her way to the dentist but I was able to tell her my new route – hiking a loop around to Washakie and Shadow lakes rather than staying in the Big Sandy Lake basin. I choked up when I told her how good it was to be here. I left the summit when sleet began to fall
but the storm proved to be just a shower and within half an hour the clouds were beginning to break up.
The sun came out as I descended into the shallow valley which drains west from just north of Cathedral Peak down to Valentine Lake. While I sat enjoying the first real sunshine of the day, I spotted a pine marten among the boulders behind me. It kept diving under the rocks then reappearing for another look so while it was underground I scuttled over to a closer vantage point. For about ten minutes the marten kept popping up behind first one boulder then another, apparently trying to figure out what I was. Each time it appeared it made a low worried growl, something like "mmrrrrr". Terminally cute.
Continuing down into the valley I picked up another old stock trail. In the trail at one point I found chips of agate and jasper, some of which appeared to have been partly worked. I wondered who brought them, worked them, dropped them here hundreds of miles out of place.
I stopped above Little Valentine Lake to cook up the cutthroats for lunch in the sunshine. By the time I cleaned up clouds had moved in again and not long afterwards, I began to hear thunder off to the west. Rain began to fall over Buffalo Head and it felt like the temperature fell ten degrees with it. I dropped down into the woods below Valentine Lake in case the thunderstorm came my way but it passed by a few miles to the west. On the far side of Ranger Park I came across remains of
an old camp someone had packed up and stashed in the lee of a boulder maybe ten years ago, canvas rotting on the chair frames, plastic bags perforated by rodents. When I hit the stream which drains the South Fork and Washakie Lakes I tried fishing again, caught brook trout and two color variations of cutthroats – the colorful yellow and red variety as well as a silvery brown trout with yellowish wash below and no markings other than dense fine dark spotting. Not having time to cook them up before dark I didn’t keep any. The willows on rocky bars in the stream were all trashed and torn up – branches broken, bark shredded off. I suspected bull moose and didn’t care to meet him but fortunately I didn’t see any particularly fresh sign.
Up near Little Washakie Lake I found old windswept and stunted limber pine forest interspersed with more boulder meadows. Shortly before sunset the rain quit and I found a camp. Some previous occupant had built up pine needles and cone debris under a cluster of tall pines to make a soft tent platform and stacked fallen limbs between the tree trunks to make a windbreak. I was a little concerned to camp under the most prominent trees in the area in case another thunderstorm came through, but figured that was unlikely. Feeling very alone and cold, toes starting to go numb in my wet boots. I set up the tent, rigged a rope to hang my cook stuff then boiled up water for a hot meal of freeze–dried Kathmandu Curry. The hot meal helped alot and even my feet warmed up once I put on long underwear and crawled into my sleeping bag.
Wore my heart rate monitor today. Altitude seems to limit how hard I can push; even strenuous ascents didn’t get my heart rate above 160 and 140 was more typical. Not too tired today but lower shins still occasionally sore.
9/6/2007 Little Washakie Lake to Shadow Lake valley, 7.5 miles, 2000’ including side trips. PC, 33–50, wind SW shifting to W, 5–15.
Morning was cold and windy with STCU blowing in over the peaks. I broke camp before eating
breakfast hoping to find a sunny spot by the lake, and looking for photos. Boulder meadows, windswept limber pines, lakes crags and cliffs. Ate breakfast along Washakie Lake without really warming up then continued up to the next lake passing above its south shore to get up into the cirque north of Big Chief Mountain. I had thought to gain the ridge near the glacier but the moraine looked pretty loose so I climbd a talus slope instead. Difficult but OK with care, though slow going due to altitude and perhaps fatigue.
The top of the ridge is part of the same plateau surface as that along the Lizard head trail several miles to the east – nice to be up there again. I peered over the edge of the cliff down at Washakie Lake 1500’ below. Spooky. The clouds had thickened since breakfast so I didn’t get any sunbreaks up on top until I climbed Big Chief to call Susan. As I reached the summit the clouds began to break up and even allowed me some views. The summit is composed of big weathered granite slabs tilted on edge. A flock of about 200 black rosy finches circled the summit and settled on a bench just below me, not quite close enough for decent photos. Susan said she and David miss me. We talked until my phone went dead. From the saddle by Big Chief a gentle grassy valley descends to Barren and Billys lakes above Shadow Lake. I stopped part way down for lunch – leftover Kathmandu curry along with a sandwich made from the last of my tomatoes. Delicious.
Conscious that it was my last day, I took lots of pictures after lunch but most of them weren’t very good. I fished some in the outlet stream from Billys Lake and caught several brook trout, kept a 9" female. Below Shadow Lake I fished some more and kept a half dozen smallish trout for supper. All the trout in that drainage (and there are lots of them!) have relatively large heads and small bodies. I cooked and ate them where a somewhat recent gravel fan washes out
across the trail and down to the stream a couple miles below Shadow Lake. The fish didn't seem to taste as good as the earlier ones; perhaps they were too small, or maybe I was getting tired
of trout. The sun was setting by the time I resumed hiking, feeling the usual anxiety around the onset of darkness, all alone out here, not having a camp yet and with a long hike ahead of me tomorrow morning. At dusk I found a spot under some spruce on a little rise across the stream.
9/7/2007 Shadow Lake valley to Big Sandy trailhead, 10 miles, 300’. Clear, 27–53?
The night was colder than I expected, cold enough that when I woke up and it was still dark I didn't want to reach outside my bag to get my watch. Instead I wrapped a t-shirt around my head to block the drafts from my breathing hole and lay and thought about the upcoming day: hike out early, find my way out to the south without a road map so as to avoid the extra distance of returning to Pinedale, trying to get to Park City by 5PM for packet pickup, if there was a packet pickup for the marathon tomorrow, if there even was a marathon. Or if I still had the car keys, and could recall what my rental car looked like. Hadn’t thought about it for three day but it felt like much longer. I reassured myself that I’d put the car keys in the zipper pocket in my pack and hadn’t removed them, so they’d be there when the time came. I lay in my bag huddled up to keep warm and didn’t worry about not sleeping, and probably didn’t actually like awake long. When I did finally become to cold to lie in my bag any longer I checked my watch and it was 5:30, time to pack up and start hiking. The thermometer read 27, the same inside my tent as outside.
My fingers kept getting cold packing up. I swung my arms to get them warm again. Before setting out I took off my headlamp; it was ligth enough to see. Frost gave the meadows an ashen look as if the gold and russet colors of the previous evening had been erased overnight. I was intrigued by the contrast between dark firs and the pallid meadows and searched for photo compositions. In
between photos I hiked fast, feeling good. I reached the junction with the trail heading south to Big Sandy before sunrise, though the peaks to the north were starting to catch a pink glow. A shallow pond provided yet another reflection photo opportunity. After an hour on the trail I stopped to shed clothes. Continuing I passed smoking lakes as the sun began to touch the meadows and my trail.
I found myself repeating a nonsense four–syllable phrase in time to my breathing and footsteps so tried replacing it with ”Jesus saves”, ”I’m a sinner” and ”Jesus with me”, two beats for two steps inhaling and two beats for two steps exhaling. Oddly enough the mantras didn’t lose their meaning with repetition and I recognized that Jesus was with me and that in His attitude towards me there was no criticism for my self–centeredness, no condemnation for my sins. Focusing on the trail, avoiding rocks, balancing so as to minimize wasted effort, left too little spare attention to truly pray during the hike out but I did pray more than usual during my time in the mountains. Typically it was when I woke up during the night that I talked with Jesus. As I was hiking, fishing, birdwatching, I thought often of Dad and his knowledge of trout fishing, boating, the hills and rivers and ponds in Newfoundland, making his way in the woods. Most of that knowledge, acquired over a lifetime of outings in the woods, passed away with him. Some he passed on to me during the summer I spent with him after high school and for that I’m very grateful; otherwise I would never really have known him at all. I think of Eric, who to his loss never had that opportunity. As I considered Dad, I considered how my knowledge likewise will perish when I die, benefitting no–one. I believe though that there is knowledge of eternal value through Christ, and I’ve been presenting that question to Him – what can I do with my time and energy that will yield eternal value?
Earlier during the trip, one morning before sunrise I really talked with Jesus about my family and inquired how I should pray for them. I found it an effort to focus on them, to love them by my mental attention to them in Jesus’s presence. Nonetheless I persevered and felt that Jesus was advising me as to what to ask for them and that prayer on their behalf was a cooperative effort between Jesus and me. That session seemed to change something in me, and to rejuvenate my relationship with Him as well. Since then I’ve been praying more consistently than I have in years. Perhaps that is part of the answer to the question about knowledge worth attaining.
Part of the appeal of backpacking alone is how it simplifies thinking, replacing the complexity of work, relationships and responsbilities with a simpler set of decisions. What route shall I take tomorrow, or this afternoon? How is my strength – sufficient to reach the next lake or should I settle for this one, enough to spare to climb that peak or should I pass it by, and if I do the peak will I still have strength to pump water, set up camp, cook supper and eat before bed, or will I be able only to eat a couple bars and crawl into my sleeping bag? Do I have time to fish this stream and still make it to camp before dark?Should I get water here before I climb the pass or do I have enough to make it to the lake on the other side, and therefore not have to carry the extra weight? If I wait another five or ten minutes will the sun come out and turn this so–so picture into something better?
I thought to preserve the trip in memory by taking photographs so I took almost 300 in four days. Reviewing them afterwards I found them somewhat disappointing. Sometimes it was because I couldn’t see the LCD image very well in the bright light of the mountains, but more often the problem was not with what the camera captured, but with what it failed to capture about the experience. The beauty I found in the Wind Rivers was intertwined with my lifelong memories of mountains – scrambling up ledges with my family as a boy in New Hampshire, hiking up out of the trees so I could see how the places I knew were connected to each other, hunting in the autumn with Dad amidst the spicy scents of fallen leaves and berries thawing after frost overnight, exploring Colorado ”fourteeners” on weekend overnight hikes during college, getting reacquainted with the Rocky Mountain flora I learned in college. I don’t remember the origin of my emotional ties to mountains but for the most part those emotions that inspired me to photograph scenes in the Wind Rivers failed to come through in the resulting images. Instead, as I edit and annotate them the photographs begin to define rather than evoke the experience I had there. That’s not all bad – at least the photographs are alot more durable than the memories they redefine.
I ate breakfast, the last of my granola, sitting on a boulder on a grassy saddle just above Mirror Lake. After I sat down and unpacked I discovered two red–tailed hawks perched in two nearby trees. One was a light immature with an unusually pale face and crown and a pale stripe over the eye. The other was a typical adult with dark head and face and a prominent dark band of streaking across the belly. Then a prairie falcon flew by, close enough to easily see the dark axillars and brown and white face pattern. I’d expected to see prairie falcons in the high country but this was the first one of the trip. Then another prairie flew by and dove on the first, pursuing it out of site over a nearby hill. I spotted one or both several more times both perched and in the air over the next fifteen minutes or so before they apparently moved on.
My hips and butt–bones became sore by the time I made it out to Meek’s Lake, the last one before the trailhead. The trail didn’t seem to go where the map showed it but finally dropped down to the Big Sandy River with less than a half mile left to the trailhead. It was nice to get back to the car again. Heading out from the trailhead I turned west (right) on the Emigrant–Lander cutoff after 11 miles, then south (left) on Sublette County 118 after another 7 miles. That took me 24 miles to Hwy 20, where I turned right to get to Farson in another 5 miles. Good views of pairs of Ferrginous Hawks on either side of Farson, and photos of a coyote in the sagebrush west of town along 191. I took WY 191 west from Farson 29 miles to 372, then 372 west 22 miles to 189 which took me to Kemmerer. I stopped at a rock shop intent on buying a fish fossil but the place was closed. Reached Park City 5 hours after leaving the Big Sandy trailhead, and found out that packet pickup wasn’t until the next morning at the race start. Good dinner at the Loco Lizard in Kimball Junction.

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