Here are some photos from my 8 day backpack this summer to the Wind Rivers, my most favorite place in the world. I’ve been there at least ten times or maybe more. This time I went back to a place I was 10 years ago because I wanted my friend to see it–Island lake near Titcomb Basin, one of the premier places in the Winds. The weather was fantastic, even somewhat balmy. Our packs were each about 25 pounds. Koda carried his own freeze-dried food and some of ours. I call him my Sheepeater dog. That’s because the original peoples in these mountains, the Shoshone Sheepeaters, never had horses, but packed up their dogs with saddle packs, just like the one Koda carried, with all their supplies. Here he is below after a dip in a lake by the trail, getting a brief break from his load (me too).
Island Lake sits at 10,300′ with the rugged peaks of the Continental Divide as the backdrop curtain. The full moon rose over the lake as the sun set to the west. The moonlight, reflecting off the granite faces, basked the mountains in an eerie and beautiful light. It was so bright you could easily hike without any additional artificial light. It’s impossible to describe the strange beauty of that night landscape. That was the night I understood the craving mountaineers get for high places.
The wonder of the place is that it is as it was 10 years before and only because no human can live so high all year long, so it is preserved as part of the Bridger-Teton wilderness. The next day we hiked into Titcomb Basin, a gorgeous aquamarine-blue lake at the base of the access to the highest peak in Wyoming–Gannett Peak. We had passed many people on the trail that attempted the ascent, but few had made it.
We rested at Upper Titcomb Lake. A weasel came out from the rocks a few yards away and gave us a good show.
Interestingly enough, at both Island and Cook Lakes we were visited every night by Calliope Hummingbirds. Each night she’d fly close and inspect us and every bit of our camp.
Usually by the first or second week in August the mosquitos have abated. But this year we were three weeks behind and the bugs were bad. We’ve had almost 600% of normal snowfall this winter with a slow melt. The campsite we chose below was on a knoll with an open area that caught the breeze. If you were in the trees, watch out–the bugs were prolific. But a smokey fire, good 100% deet and a mosquito net got rid of the worst of them.
The next day we hiked up to Indian Basin. Although I’d been to Titcomb before, I’d never been to the Indian basin and the pass. Actually, its no longer an easy route to find. At first we followed some cairns that led us up the wrong route, coming to an impassable area of the river. We backtracked and realized we needed to cross down below, where huge boulders made for a treacherous cross. We probably lost a few hours there. But it was worth the effort. Indian Basin is the starting point for those who want to climb Fremont Peak, a non-technical climb up a lot of talus. The Basin is pure granite, the top of the world at the Continental Divide.
We had inquired at the ranger station about Lester Pass. Since the snow melt was so late, I wondered what the highest pass in the Winds might be like. The pass was clear but on the downslope–boy what a snowfield we had to cross and it was steep. I took my pack off, held onto it and my breath, and slide down on my butt. What a ride!
Our destination for the second half of the trip and the loop was Cook Lakes. I’d never been to this part of the Highline trail. Cook Lakes are a beautiful set of lakes set in a cirque of above timberline peaks.
A pika entertained us while we hiked into the Lake area. Fishing was excellent and helped supplement our bland backpack food.
The sad part of our journey was the proliferation of dying Whitebarks. At the uppermost elevations of timber, the White Bark Pines were in better shape, with maybe only 20% dying or dead. But as you got lower in elevation, even around 10,000′, over half of the trees were dead, most of these being the large, multi-trunked ones, probably hundreds of years old. These trees are dying not just from blister rust, but the double whammy of rust, beetles and climate change. White Bark Pines are considered a keystone species. They will be extinct in just a matter of a few years in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and are now already considered functionally extinct. These are trees that can live 1000 years and humans have been able to alter their environment to such a degree that this has happened very suddenly in only the last 20 years.
The forest service office let us know that we must secure our food because grizzly and black bears are frequent visitors to the Winds now. One outfitter told us that a Grizzly sow and her cubs had holed up all summer in the New Forks drainage. Not a surprise since there was a fire there several years ago. Grizzlies like burned areas. But on the entire trip I didn’t see any bear sign except about 5 miles from the trailhead I spotted off trail an old bear scat from the spring. Much ado about nothing still. Yes, there are a few bears that are reaching the Winds, mostly in the Green Rivers area. Bears that get into the southern areas come into conflict with sheep and are quickly moved.
Even though much of Bridger-Teton is Wilderness, sheep grazing allotments were grandfathered in on the southern half of the range. Where we were this year there are no sheep, but last year I was north of Big Sandy where hundreds of sheep had just gone down to the lower country. I had a bum water purifier and got giardia from those sheep. To me, wilderness and sheep no longer are compatible. There just have to be some areas we leave to wildlife. Transporting bears out of wilderness in the few areas where they can make a living, for the sake of protecting sheep makes no sense in this age of diminishing land. The sheep have private lands they can graze on, grizzlies don’t.
The hike from Cook Lakes back to Elkhart Park is a maze of creeks through the Pole Creek marsh. The Fremont Trail hooks into this area and I never saw the connection. We ran into scores of hikers, including one boy scout troupe, that were simply lost and disoriented.
One of the jewels of the Winds that we discovered on our hike out was Mary’s Lake. We loved that little lake surrounded by a rocky shore.
All fun things must come to an end. Here we are on the trail home.