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Wyoming Wilderness Backpack

August 28, 2017

Recapturing past memories

For me, this was an odyssey done in honor of the memory of a dear, dear friend.

But it was also the first time I went into the wilderness with pack horses, and the first time I’ve even been on a horse in about 25 years. And it was the first time I’ve gone fishing in about that long, too.

 My friend Lafe

Lafe Culver was a wonderful Christian man who took me under his wing, mentored me, and taught me a lot about enjoying life and all of God’s creation. He loved the outdoors. He loved animals and had all sorts of great, detailed stories about animals and the way each one was so uniquely designed. And he had a charismatic sense of humor, which taught me something else: don’t ever take yourself too seriously. We all goof up once in a while – the best thing to do is just to learn to laugh about it.

 

Mythical lake in Wyoming

Lafe had lots and lots of stories, but there was one in particular that kept coming up. It was about his favorite place to go – a lake in the Wind River Range in the high country of Wyoming that was tough to get to, but beautiful in its remoteness. On top of that, it was good fishing. To hear Lafe talk about that lake was like hearing another humorous storyteller, Garrison Keillor, tell his folksy comedy sketches about Lake Wobegon, his imaginary Minnesota hometown "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." So to me, Lafe’s lake was almost in the mythical category - I never expected to actually experience it.

 

The opportunity pops up

Lafe is in heaven now, and I had relegated his lake story to a wistful memory. But then something happened. One of his granddaughters, Alexa Koch White, saw on Facebook that I was doing a lot of hiking. She contacted me and told me she was going on a hike - backpack to Lafe’s lake. She didn’t realize how close I had become to Lafe, and how much I’d heard about that lake. Well, come to find out, a friend of Lafe’s, an artist by the name of Mark McWhorter, was continuing the tradition. He was organizing another expedition to go up there in God’s country. I immediately contacted Mark and asked if he could fit me in, and he worked it out.  Boy, was I excited.

 

Preparation

One thing about backpacking is that it teaches you to plan. Six days in the boonies can be miserable if you forget something important. Little things that we take for granted – like band-aids, or toilet paper, or a raincoat, or an extra pair of socks, or some way to purify water safely. Mark provided a good list, (email al@outdoortracks if you'd like a copy) and I got everything together, checked off each item, did a trial run to see how it would all fit in my pack, and weighed the pack out at less than 40 lbs.

Decisions had to be made. Should I take my lightweight summer sleeping bag, or my cold weather bag that I use for winter camping? Should I take the self-inflating pad, or the waffle-type pad? How long would it take to drive from Sandy, Oregon to Dubois, Wyoming? (It’s 880 miles). Would I stay in motels, or tent sites along the way? Would I bring food for the road, or stop at restaurants? How much would my wife let me spend? Ha-ha

Should I take a spinning reel or my fly rod?

 

Dubois, Wyoming - a fun town to start from

As it turned out, Phil Sheldon was going from Portland Oregon too, and we were able to carpool. That was a tremendous help with the driving and the cost of gas.

Mark made reservations for us at The Trails End motel in Dubois, for the night before departing for the hills, and for the night we returned. (He thought we just might want a shower before heading back home. LOL) The Trails End gave us courteous and efficient service. The rooms were ready on time, the beds comfortable, and the shower had hot water – everything was good –I’ll gladly recommend them.

Dubois is over 6,900’ elevation, so getting there a day early was a good halfway step to adjust to hiking at the 10,000’ altitude. We ate at the Cowboy Café, where the service is great, the food is great, and the ambiance is great.

 Packhorses part of the way

Mark also made all the arrangements with our outfitters, Bear Basin Adventures. They met us right on time (not easy when they saddled over a dozen horses and loaded 4 trailers and drove an hour to meet us at the trailhead).

The horses all behaved (good thing for a greenhorn like me). They took us up the hard climb with many switchbacks, for several miles. We did get chilled when hit by some rain and sleet.

 

 

I almost look like I know what I'm doing on a horse. Actually, I was just hoping the horse knew what HE was doing.

Bye-bye to horses

When the horses dropped us off, we were on our own for the rest of the trip, including the rest of the way back out.

We soon saw why - a trail sign saying "Stock not recommended".

 

Tough trail

As Mark put it, the trail down to the main lake was one of the worst trails ever imagined. Can’t say I disagree with him. If the trail was much rougher, we could hardly call it a trail. Rocks and roots and switchbacks, very steep, along with enough gravel to function as roller bearings that take you for a slide that could well put you on your rump. And you really don’t want to fall when you’re carrying a full pack – you land that much harder.

 

Tough shoreline

We made it down to the lake with no mishaps. I did slip and fall when jumping from one boulder to another, barking my shin painfully, but nothing broken. Glad for that, because no-one would be able to carry me back up that hill, and there was no place for a helicopter to land either.

The campsite that we wanted was a little over a mile down the lake, but it’s no simple matter to get there. There’s not really a distinct, continuous trail; just a few various paths where some people have obviously walked; but each person seemed to have their own ideas about which way was the best. That’s because there are several obstacles, and more than one way to go around them.

 Boulder fields

There are rockslides that are better described as boulder fields. There are cliffs that can’t be gotten around unless you want to swim, so you have to figure out how to go up and over. In each of those cases, you lose the trail signs. Sometimes there are rock cairns that show you how someone else made it through.

 

Wildflowers

It wasn't all rocks. There were plenty of wildflowers, especially white columbines. But I saw a couple purple-tinted columbines - I think they were mutants.

 There was a little meadow near our campsite, full of flowers along a tiny stream

River crossing

Then there’s the outlet from the lake, which isn’t just a little stream that you can jump over. It’s a raging river, tumbling down through a gorge with multiple waterfalls. There was a log across the outlet, but the whitecaps on the lake were splashing over the logs. Walking a wet log that’s a little shaky to begin with is quite a trick. Two of us fell in. Fortunately, it wasn’t over waist deep.

Saw a golden eagle (or an immature bald eagle) fly overhead.

 A good campsite

It was after 7 PM when we finally arrived at the campsite. We were exhausted. It was one of the toughest hikes I’ve been on, even though it was far from the longest. But the camp was flat land, with logs to sit on, open forest, easy lake access for water, and a stone fire ring where we could boil water and cook our freeze-dried dinners. The fire was a surprise to me, because when I left Oregon it had been so dry that the fire danger was extreme and no fires were allowed in any of the northwest forests. But the Wind River Range had had enough rain for it to be safe to have a campfire. We had a couple light showers during the day.

 

Trying not to attract bears

On the hike in, I noticed a rotten log that had been clawed to shreds; probably a bear looking for grubs and ants. Two in our group were packing firearms, and several, including myself, had bear spray handy. But you don’t really want to have to use anything like that – it’s much better to avoid them in the first place. I’ve heard it’s so hard to stop a bear with a handgun that the odds are higher that it will just make the bear madder. Not only that, but I’d just read in an article in Backpacker Magazine ("The Unluckiest Hiker Alive", June 2017) about an experienced Custer Gallatin NF trail engineer who did everything right, including standing still when first aware of a bear ahead, then slowly backing away, then turning and going slowly back down the trail – but he was attacked anyway. He shot bear spray right in the charging bear’s face, but it didn’t stop her. He survived by playing dead, but he was seriously mauled.

So the thing to do is to gather every bit of food or anything that still smells like food, bag it and get it up high in a tree, away from camp. That’s what we were all very careful to do.

 

First morning

Being an early riser, but still a little tired from the hike in, I just took a day pack and did a little exploring. There was a little mountain up behind our camp, so I climbed it and set up my still- functioning tripod (before I broke one of the legs off of it) and made a little video. You can tell the weather was cloudy and windy and rain was threatening.

 More than one lake

From that little mountain, I could see other lakes, and wanted to go check the closest one out. So I headed diagonally back down to the shore of the lake we were camped on, and followed the shoreline to the river that comes into it. Then I followed that river upstream to a higher lake. On the way, I got a good view of a very interesting looking cave up in the cliffs on the other side of that river. So I looked for a way to cross it without wading, because I hadn’t brought my sandals. But the river was too big. Not only that, but there was a 2nd river that would have to be crossed to get up to that cave. Decided to bring fishing pole and sandals next time. Went back to camp.

 Pika colony

For another little jaunt, I went back up the lake about half a mile to a couple of the big boulder fields, because we’d seen a couple pikas on the way in. I sat and watched for them for a long time. They’re pretty shy. They only seem to live in rockslides, and supposedly they’re close to being put on the endangered species list. Finally I saw a momma pika scurry along some grass and flowers between rocks before she ducked under again. Then pretty soon a ‘teen-ager’ came out and watched me watching him. Sorry I just couldn’t seem to get close enough for a good picture, but here’s the link to a story I did on these fascinating creatures last year, with a borrowed picture.

 Trout fishing

That first evening, Brad and Aaron came into camp with 8 nice sized trout (or was it 9?). We fried them up and there was enough for everyone to get stuffed. (On the way down from that little mountain earlier, I had found an abandoned campsite and brought a humungous fry pan back to camp, so we could do all the fish at once.)

The next day, I went back to the upper lake to fish. My flatfish didn’t have enough weight to cast against the wind. After a while I gave up.

 Moose

After trying fishing, I decided to walk around the lake a ways to look for a campsite that Brad had mentioned the night before. I was looking in the wrong place, but that turned out to be serendipitous. While going up through the woods, scouting around quietly, I stumbled upon a cow moose that had just settled down for a nap. Little did I know that she was probably the same moose that had run right through our camp earlier, almost stepping on my tent. I didn’t find out about that until later.

 Up in the woods, I carefully followed her for a while, excited to get at least something on videotape – but you have to look closely – at first it just looks like I’m just walking through the woods.

By that time, my new friend Mark came up and I enjoyed just watching him fish. I made a little video of one of the cutthroat trout that he caught.

 Al the guide

When Brad and Aaron came up, they said they had still been in their tent when the moose came through camp, so they hadn’t seen her. This was a long shot, but I was pretty sure I could lead them right to her, because after I’d followed her for the video, I was keeping my distance, so she had bedded down again, and I left her alone.

Sure enough, she was still there. Aaron got a good look at her – his first time seeing a moose in the wild. That made me feel good – after all, my grandfather was a guide in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate N.Y. – so I came by it honestly.

 

Fishing success

Then Brad fixed me up with a small spoon that had enough weight to it that I could cast way out. Soon enough, I had caught my first cutthroat trout. I let him go, because I was still full from the dinner the night before.

 The whopper rainbow

That evening right after having freeze-dried suppers around the fire, it was a good time for more fishing, so I asked Brad for suggestions. He told me a good place to try. I went down along the lake to a nice little cove that he described. On the 6th cast, I hooked a 24” rainbow – definitely the biggest trout I’d ever caught and a great way to end a great day.

 Thunder and rain

That evening we were treated to earth-shaking thunder claps, and waking off and on through the night, I always heard rain on my tent. It was a nice sound, and it's nice to be dry. My Columbia Grants Pass hiking boots got a good test - boots soaked, but my feet were dry and comfortable.

 

Trout for breakfast

The weather turned nice and sunny Wednesday morning.

Brad had loaned me his long stringer so we could keep the big rainbow in fresh and safe in the lake overnight. In the morning, I cut that dude into 3 pieces, and Brad supplied the crisco and helped me eat it all up.  Mmmmm – Good.

 Lafe’s Lake

Some years ago, Lafe and several other men packed a little aluminum boat down the trail to the main lake. Don’t ask me how they did it – but anyway, they left it up there, hidden someplace in the woods. On the far side of the lake, there’s a waterfalls that comes from a small lake that’s fed by a glacier. You can’t get to the falls by walking around the lake – too many cliffs. So three of us paddled that boat across to the falls. We saw a bald eagle sitting on top of a tree on the island. After landing near the falls, we climbed, or should I say scrambled, up a nearly vertical ascent to that beautiful little lake. That’s the real “Lafe’s Lake”.

 In Lafe’s memory

Lafe’s granddaughter, Alexa, was on that climb. She had a purpose. She had brought a little bottle and filled it with water from Lafe’s Lake, and I’m sure that bottle of very special water rests somewhere prominently in her home now, as a precious memorial of her grandfather. Phil Sheldon came with us on that horrific climb, too. He had been there years before, with Lafe himself – so it brought back memories for him, too.

 A treacherous descent

Going back down was worse than coming up. And that’s the way it is on most climbs. You have to be extra careful, because most accidents happen when you’re tired. At times we had to do a little scouting to decide which route to take. In the steepest spots, there were times when we had to go down backwards, in order to be able to use our hands as well as our feet. But we made it.

About halfway down, we got a sideways view of the falls.

Hiking out

The next day we broke camp, packed up, and hiked out. It didn’t seem quite so bad on the way out. Maybe we were more used to the thin air at 10,000’.  I took my boots off, put my sandals on, and waded that river at the lake’s outlet – but Brad and Aaron walked the logs successfully without falling in.  Later, we saw another pika in the rocks. I think that was the first time Brad had seen one.

 The climb up from the lake to the high plateau where the horses had dropped us off was still very tough, but this time at least we knew what we were in for.

 

One last camp

After topping out, there’s a big clearing with plenty of good places to make camp in the open, park-like woods around the edges of the meadow. After getting the tent set up and having some supper, I took a little walk in the woods and found some scattered moose or elk bones.

 And one last mishap

Breakfast around the fire was quite an event. It seemed like everyone was getting rid of every extra ounce by burning anything they didn’t need anymore. Someone threw a little bottle of cooking oil in the fire and forgot to take the top off. It exploded and the oil was flaming. Some started our woodpile on fire. I was stamping that out and didn’t realize that my pantleg was on fire, too – until it started hurting. Need a new pair of safari pants.

 Farewell dinner

 Back in Dubois, we had reservations for much needed motel rooms. We each sort of needed a shower – LOL.

Then we all got together for a dinner at the steakhouse – Mark had arranged reservations so they could seat all nine of us.

There’s just something about sharing life event experiences that brings people close together. Buddies for life.

I miss every one of our group, and wish we could do it all over again.

 

More about the Wind River Range

 

More about Wyoming wilderness areas

 

 

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