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Wolves, the Winds, and a Spotter Plane

I now have zero tolerance for mosquitos, and my annual visits to the Wind River Mountains for the last several years always come after labor day. Almost every September trip I can remember comes with at least one day of snow but not this year. Although a few nights were in the 20s, the days were warm enough for shorts. But along with warm weather came limited visibility from the fires in Montana, (and throughout the West) meant the craggy flanks of the Continental Divide mountains were barely visible.

This year I picked out a small area where I’d never been–Bald Mountain and Chain Lakes. My other choice was Sweetwater Gap, where I went last year with limited time to explore. Bald Mountain has the easier access via a paved eleven mile road outside of Pinedale to the Elkhart Park trailhead. With the easy access, I arrived at 3pm and hiked five miles to Sweeny Lake. Everyone was pouring out from the Labor Day weekend, most probably coming from popular Titcomb Basin. The trail up Elkhart takes you along a wooded ridge for five miles before it splits to either Titcomb or Pole Creek. An otherwise non-descript trek except for the evidence of beetle-kill. Large pockets of whitebark pines dead–a sad scene in one of the last strongholds for these trees in the Greater Yellowstone.

Sweeny and Miller lakes are in a bowl below the ridgeline and add only an extra 1/2 mile, well worth it especially since there’s no water for five miles till Elklund lake–a popular campsite destination. Sweeny is a gem with no one around and some good camping spots. The full moon rose orange from all the smoke and only a bugling elk broke the early morning silence. These lakes have been hit hard with beetle kill.

Sweeny Lake

Sweeny Lake in the Winds

My base camp destination was Chain Lakes, about another seven miles. The trail is rocky but easy, passing through granite knolls till it reaches the crossing at Pole Creek. Before the crossing I sat down for a snack when a deer suddenly burst down the trail headed for the river crossing, obviously spooked by something. When the deer saw me it did a quick 90 degree turn towards the brush. An outfitter appeared with two mules a few moments later, bound for his wall tent camp to pick up supplies. He’d be the last person I’d see for three days.

Setting up camp on a small rise between the larger upper Chain Lake and the lower, I found that no one had camped anywhere in this valley. There were no fire rings. I believe people see it as a pass through while either hiking further south on the highline trail, or venture into the Bald Mountain areas.

Chain Lake Wind River

Upper Chain Lake from my campsite. Smokey mountains in far back

The following morning I had a wonderful, yet strange and confusing experience. While making breakfast, wolves began howling directly across from my campsite, around 200 yards away on a wooded hillside above where the upper and lower lakes converge. A muddy rock hop stream divides the two lakes which I’d noticed was full of elk and wolf tracks. I ate my oatmeal breakfast on a rocky prominence and listened to the wolves singing, signaling an end to their night hunt. I’ve heard wolves in the Winds before, but never so close and their presence made me happy, signaling the return of the wilds in an area of Wilderness.

Pinedale area is right on the border of the Predator Zone (wolves were just delisted this spring) and I wasn’t sure if I was in a Trophy or Predator area, but knew I was borderline close. Hunting is legal in a wilderness area, and hunting for wolves in the predator zones is legal 365/24/7.

Still basking in the glow of ‘true wilderness’ calls, and the fact that I was the solitary human presence in this valley, twenty minutes after hearing the wolves, I hear another sound–a spotter plane coming into the valley, headed directly for the knoll where these wolves were howling. The plane comes closer and closer, finally to tightly circle over six times directly above the tree tops where I’d heard my wolves howling. I know Game and Fish spotter planes as they collar wolves in January in my home valley. This plane was white, unmarked, single engine with long wings. Who were these people then? The pilot was obviously trying to flush the wolves out of the trees, and also he had to have the GPS coordinates of a collared wolf in order to arrive just a few minutes after I’d heard their presence.

Wolf hillside

Small knoll where wolves were howling

After jumping up and down and yelling at that plane, they left after six tight passes only 50′ above the tree tops. Later that day I headed up the knoll to explore. A few nice small meadows indicated good elk food, lots of stock evidence of grazing of outfitter horses and mules, and…a dead mule about a month old, reduced to bones. This confluence of events confused me even more.

That morning, I headed up to the Baldy Lakes that sit directly below Mt. Baldy. What a beautiful high elevation spot. A series of small lakes leads to a waterfall and a high rocky meadow where a feeder trail merges with the Fremont Trail.

Bald Mountain Basin Wind Rivers

Baldy Lakes

Bald Mountain lakes

Another view of Bald Mountain lakes

I saw a black bear print in a muddy creek crossing on the way up here. Elk, wolves, deer, and a bull moose. Never seen so much wildlife in my Wind River visits over twenty years. After spending a few more days at Chain Lakes, every evening and early morning punctuated with wolf howls, I did an early morning hike out in the moonlight. Stopping for sunrise at Photographer’s Point (still smokey so the mountains looked like a Chinese silhouette painting), I realized in that windless moment why these mountains have such a poetic name. Fremont Creek roared deep below, pouring out from the Continental Divide’s numerous lakes. It sounded like a strong wind in the valley, yet the air was still. The Wind Rivers! I love this place like no other.

After my confusing experience with wolves and a plane, I headed to Jackson to the Wyoming Game and Fish where I spoke with Dan Thompson. I was concerned about poaching (even in the predator zone wolves cannot be killed aerially), or spotting (it is illegal to plane spot for game and trophy animals after July 31 in Wyoming). It turns out that Chain Lakes is barely in the Trophy zone and Thompson later emailed me that his pilot was flying ‘locating wolves to demonstrate recovery’. OK, I understand if it’s G&F doing legal flights, but what do you think about planes low flying 50 feet above the ground, circling in Wilderness during prime hiking season? It was incredibly emotionally disturbing, ruined my own ‘wilderness’ experience which I’d just hiked fifteen miles into the back country for, and seemed so intrusive for these wild animals. In twenty years of hiking and camping in wilderness designated areas, the only other time I’ve seen a plane was a search and rescue mission.

Topping my week off, I spent time in Dubois where I bought a fishing license for the reservation and drove up Dinwoody Creek to see some amazing petroglyphs. Here’s a taste.

DSC01764DSC01759

Dinwoody Canyon is beautiful and off-limits to non-tribal members as it is a sacred area. I’ve been to the top at Goat Flat via the Glacier trail, but it is illegal to hike into the valley. Interestingly, several years ago they found a buffalo jump on the high ridge pass at 11,000 feet and speculated that on occasion, when the buffalo ran there, native peoples would spend the winter at high altitude since they couldn’t carry that much meat to the lower elevations.

Dinwoody Canyon

Looking up Dinwoody Canyon towards Goat flat

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Climate Change in Action–A Glacial Event at Dinwoody Creek

On August 1st, 2013 a large chunk of underlying ice on Grasshopper Glacier in the Wind River Mountains broke loose and slide into Downs Creek, flooding the entire valley and stranding a family on a pile of boulders.   This is a main trail into the eastern side of Gannett peak, a favorite route for climbers.  The bridge over Downs Creek on the Glacier Trail was overflowing with water and debris, so much so that hikers had to cross the creek waist high there.  Luckily, this is a slow spot on the creek so crossing is safe.

Downstream at Dinwoody Creek, after the confluence of the two rivers, the flow was dangerous.  Usually low and crossable at this time of year (there is an alternate trail to the Ink Wells Lakes at this creek crossing), Dinwoody Creek was a roaring cauldron of milky green waters.

Image

The endless slog up the steep switchbacks

The Glacier Trail is not for the faint-hearted or under prepared physically.  The first ten miles, the trail rises 3,000′ with little potable water.  The old trail, taken out by an avalanche, is now a stock route; while the new trail uses a series of 29 switchbacks to ascend a seemingly vertical rise.  That’s the first day although I broke it up with a stay at Bomber meadows 3 miles up from the trailhead.

Image

At the pass looking down into Burro Flat. 11,000 feet

The trail ascends to an 11,000′ pass which has the illusion of constantly receding it’s so empty and vast.  A short descent after the pass finally takes the hiker to Dinwoody Lakes, a group of pristine lakes held within ice-carved rock and pine walls.  There was a large burn here not long ago and thousands of dead, mostly white-bark pines, stand stark amidst the new undergrowth.

Phillips Lake was heavily burned

Phillips Lake was heavily burned

But you aren’t there yet.

Continue on your journey up to another pass at Star Lake.  I think this lake might be barren as I never saw any fish feeding here.  A Forest Service crew was here for the summer doing trail blasting work.  Although camping was prohibited because of their work, the crew had taken off for the week and I camped at this lovely lake at over 10,000′.  The White Bark pines leading from Double Lake to Star are in good shape. The unfortunate fire that killed so many of these critical pines, whose seeds serve as bear food, probably slowed the beetle infestation on the west side of the fire.

Honeymoon lake on the descent into the valley

Honeymoon lake on the descent into the valley

From Star Lake you begin your 1000′ descent on tight rocky switchbacks into the Dinwoody Valley and Downs Valley area.  I never intended to go to Gannett–I’m not a peak bagger or climber–but I did want to go to the Ink Wells.  I didn’t quite make it there.  I’d already used up five days, and spent the next two days exploring Downs Creek valley and Dinwoody valley.  Then a large storm system blew in. With little food reserves to hunker down with, I made the decision to hike out.  Yet my short stay allowed me to witness the effects of the massive amounts of glacial silt that came pouring out of the icy peaks of the continental divide.

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Look at the forest floor. That is all glacial silt.

The 3 mile hike up Downs Creek had glacial silt on the entire forest floor, in places up to two feet deep.  Shrubs that were 3-4′ high had been covered completely with silt until the water had receded.  I was there on August 6th, seven days after the event took place.  By then the water had receded and was flowing furiously in the river channel.  But the silt was still wet, and in the evenings, after the warm days, the river rose higher.  In places I would step into ‘quicksand’, get stuck in the glacial mud above my knees.  When wet, the silt was like a sticky green mud.  Dry, like sand.

Dinwoody Creek.  Koda finds a drink.  The river ran so fast I had to keep him away.

Dinwoody Creek. Koda finds a drink. The river ran so fast I had to keep him away.

8,200 years ago, a lake larger than any in our modern world filled the area around present day Great Lakes and Canada.  Lake Agassiz was, at times, as large as the Black Sea.  When the Hudson Bay ice finally retreated as the climate warmed, Lake Agassiz broke through the dam, quite suddenly, draining completely down through the Mackenzie river drainage into the ocean.  It was a biblical event, probably killing everyone in its path,  rising sea levels up to 9 feet, and changing the world’s climate.

On August 6th 2013 I  stepped into the aftermath of a mini-melt, a micro-glacial event that demonstrated the power of melting water on an ecosystem and people.   Worth noting is that the bridge at Downs Fork, built by the CCC in the 30’s, stood firm until 2003 when Grasshopper Glacial had its first melt event and took the bridge out.  The bridge was rebuilt, but now only ten years later, a second event damaged that bridge again.  The stranded family was rescued by the forest service crew.  Amazingly, no one was injured or killed by the rushing waters.  Yet somewhere between my awe and investigative curiosity lay my real question:  As more of these events occur–bigger than this one–what will our world look like?

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Beginning–or ending?–the trailhead.   One way in and out

Summer backpack in the Winds

If things work out, I always try and spend some time backpacking in my favorite granitic peaks at the Continental Divide–The Wind Rivers or Bridger/Teton National Forest.  This year I wanted to fill in an area that I’d never been to:  the middle Winds through a trailhead called Scab Creek.

First off, if you’ve never been to these mountains, it turns out this is not the first trailhead you should seek out.  There are other access trails that head more quickly and directly into the alpine reaches of the Divide.  From the Scab creek trailhead, it’s approximately 18 miles to the alpine tundra.  Also, the Divide in this area is accessed through a series of wide drainages that had no easy connecting routes.

Middle Fork Lake…the Divide

Although both trailheads offer fairly direct entrance into the Middle Winds, I chose Scab Creek over Boulder Creek because I understood that Boulder Creek trail ran through a large burn area.  The summer has seen above average temperatures every day.  Scab creek would be more pleasant.

Scab creek is a dry trail for over 5 miles.  It’s also quit an uphill slough.  The first lake, Little Divide, is about 6 miles in.  I recommend that you stop there for the night, because after that you’ll be going another 5 miles to the next set of lakes.  Little Divide is a pleasant, though usually crowded lake with a few groups as it’s a stopover lake, not a destination. 

Firehole Lake

Dream Lake would seem to be the logical next lake on your second day, but I found it to be not a pleasing place to camp at all, so I hiked the extra 1.5 miles to Sandpoint Lake, a wonderful gem surrounded by conifers with several large beaches of sand.    From there I took a day hike to Middle Fork Lake, an east-west drainage with access to the Divide passes.  Because I was anxious to camp in alpine country, and I wanted to see North Fork and Europe Canyons, I packed over to Prue Lake, a beautiful alpine lake.

My entire 8 days in the Winds was marked by smoke from fires.  In fact, there was a fire just on the other side of the Divide on the reservation.  The basin around Pinedale was completely obscured by smoke.  One depressing note was the noted increase of dead Whitebark Pines since even two years ago.  I would approximate that 40-50% of all the ancient Whitebarks were dead or dying.

Dead ancient whitebark pines

There still are few grizzlies in the Wind Rivers.  I heard of a sighting over at Pole Creek this year, and last year there was reported a sow and cubs hanging around New Forks all summer.  Grizzlies mostly head over to the Green River area north, where they get into trouble with sheep and then are relocated.  The Wind Rivers, Bridger-Teton Wilderness is NOT in the Grizzly Bear Recovery zone.  I am not sure what the forest’s policy is, but it seems they look the other way as long as the bear is not making trouble.

Europe Canyon was the high point of my trip.

At Europe Canyon

An incredibly beautiful, yet remote high drainage with several lakes, I met some new friends from England and hiked with them all day.

Took a break for some blueberries

Eight days in the Scab creek entrance is barely enough to get you to the Divide and back.   I met a few groups that were doing shuttle hikes out of Elkhart Park through Pole Creek and out Scab.  If you do the middle winds and can swing two cars, I’d recommend that as your itinerary.  Otherwise, choose a route on the north or south end to enjoy more time in the high alpine country.  The best thing about the Middle Winds is the lack of people.  There were days when I saw no one.  A fellow camping at Europe Canyon told us we were the first people he’d seen in 7 days.  Although Little Divide can be crowded, there is plenty of solitude up the canyons in the high country, and for experienced backpackers, a lot of cross-country opportunities.

 

Koda takes a dip in glacial fed Middle Fork Lake

 

 

I Love the Winds!

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).

Photography Point on the trail to Island Lake. Continental Divide in the background

One of the hundreds of unnamed lakes. This one beautiful and inaccessible

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.

Island lake

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.

Hike into Titcomb Basin

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.

Campsite

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.

Indian Basin

Wow, breathtaking Indian Basin

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.

Lower Cook Lake

Upper Cook Lake

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.

Crossing Pole Creek

Lake on the Pole Creek trail. Hate carrying that backpack. See Koda's pack...

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.

Campsite at Marys lake

Mary's Lake

 

My friend above Elkhart Lake

All fun things must come to an end.  Here we are on the trail home.

Synchronicity: Coming to Wyoming, the final piece

Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated occurring together in a meaningful manner. To count as synchronicity, the events should be unlikely to occur together by chance. The concept of synchronicity was first described by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung in the 1920s. (Wikipedia)

“When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them—for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.” C.G. Jung

“I know I’m supposed to be here, just give me some time to figure out why.” The Secret Life of Bees

_______________________________

I continued my life working in California, putting the finishing touches on raising my teenage son.  I was used to this life, my friends, my home, my neighborhood.  I’d grown up and lived my entire life in California, and loved all of its varied environments, from the deserts of Southern California, to the Sierras, the coastal redwoods, the wild surf of the Northern California coast.  I’d grown up surfing and swimming in Southern California, and spent my entire adult life in parts of Northern California.

How I love the ocean that I grew up with

I’d planted thousands of trees and shrubs, grown many summers worth of vegetables, picked fruit, studied oaks, madrones and manzanitas, watched baby salamanders clamber out of quiet pools, rare Coho salmon fight their way up Redwood creek, guided school children through Muir woods and Muir beach, and helped with Spotted Owl studies.  All my life-long friends were in California.  I loved my family, my friends, and most of all I loved the land.

My garden in California. I love the land there

Yet strange coincidences started reaching out and tugging me more and more in the direction of Wyoming.

For instance, soon after the purchase, I had a job in California with a wife who was a doctor and the husband a geologist.  In this case I mostly dealt with the wife relative to the design elements.  One day husband Bill and I were talking about my cabin near Yellowstone.  I was telling him about how incredible the geological features were.

“Wait, I have something I want to give you.  Janet can’t stand that I collect these.  They clutter up the house, are big.  I have no where to keep them.”

He came back with a 24×36 bound book of geological maps.  The date was 1898, so this was an original series of maps put out by the U.S. Geological Survey.

“These are original maps of the Yellowstone area.  You’ll use them more than I will.”

Later, upon inspection, I saw that the quadrant of maps he had given me wasn’t Yellowstone at all, but Sunlight Basin and the Absarokas bordering Yellowstone and my valley.  Since my neighbor in Wyoming is the Park Geologist, I gave these prints to him.

Another client gave me a section of her father’s memoirs.  He was the chief engineer in Yellowstone in ’29-‘31.

My son was looking at colleges.  He applied to Pasadena art college, a small school in Southern California.  These small schools usually have an evening get-together for questions and PR.  This was done one evening at a alumni’s office in Oakland, an architect.  After listening to the presentation I was walking around for the coffee and dessert part, when my eye caught a scale model of a museum he designed.

“That looks like the Buffalo Bill museum in Cody”, I asked.  “The Plains Indian wing.”

“It is.  I designed it five years ago.”

One afternoon I was looking at possible storage units in Northern California where I still lived.  When I came out of the 2nd floor onto the balcony, I saw a Hertz moving van in the parking lot blocking my view.  The advertisement on the side said “Visit the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody”.  I have never seen one of these advertisements on a moving van since.

Then there were the persistent dreams.  In the winter in California, I’d have dreams of wolves and elk in the snow in Sunlight.  I dreamt quite accurately about the original owner whom I had known nothing about.  Dreams of native Americans, of new beginnings, of going to live in Wyoming; persistent, insistent dreams.

And then there were the healing forces.  After a series of deaths in my family and close friends over the course of two years, new sorrows seemed to echo old wounds.  I was spent, exhausted, and in pain emotionally.  I had been squeezing in two weeks here and there during the spring and summer, driving the 20 hours back and forth from California.  I decided to take some time off and spend September and most of October here.

Deep present loss can easily echo past losses.  I felt like I had a deep gash in my heart that had been there for a long time, even longer than these family deaths.  I came here and just ‘let the mountain work on me’.  I couldn’t do much but surrender to the Place.  Sometime in October, I had an amazing day.  I took a chair up to a high point on my property, a place with a view to the east of the entire Clark’s Fork plateau.  I sat.  After several hours, a new feeling arose, one that was recognizable yet unfamiliar at the same time.  I felt centered.  I felt my own center.  This Place itself was my center.  How could it be, but it was true, that I’d never felt this before?    I went back to California a different person.  I literally felt like someone had done heart surgery, sewing up a very old wound, healing a condition of sorrow and grief.  I was happy again.

Dawn in Yellowstone. A new day

There is something about Place, and I believe especially about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a very special Place on this Earth.  Maybe its that giant hotspot underneath us; maybe its because its one of the last places in our contiguous United States where wild is still wild, where large predators still rule the landscape and things are right; maybe its because it was the last and final stand of Native Americans and you can feel the pulse of their history as you walk around.  Whatever it is, its palpable.  The healing power of Yellowstone and my little valley is the Center of the Universe.

Coming to Wyoming part 1

How did you get to Wyoming?

Of course, I am asked that question regularly.  And, there is the short answer and the long answer, but both replies are more full of questions than answers.

Long ago, a few lifetimes in my personal history, I spent several weeks backpacking through the Tetons with two girlfriends.  We were hitchhiking through the West in a summer between high school and college.  After a fine time, with many adventures, we were ready to put out our thumbs and head back to California, when a driver who picked us up asked “Have you girls been to the Wind Rivers?”

“No, where’s that?”

“Just an hour east of here.  You must go.  I’ll drop you off and you can backpack there.”

The Winds, as aficionados and lovers like to fondly call them, have several put-ins on their western front, all at least 10 to 15 miles from the hiker’s main destination—the rugged base of the Continental Divide.  But after several days of being eaten by mosquitoes, (with thousands of lakes the Winds are notorious for their bugs) and never quite making it to the divide, we called it quits.  But you could see those tantalizing mountains in the background and I swore to myself that I’d come back someday.

Flash forward 27 years.  I’m a single mom newly divorced with a nine-year old.  Close friends are going to visit their son in Yellowstone who is a seasonal worker.  They have a nine-year old too and invite us along.  We fly into Salt Lake and drive the rest of the way.  After a week in the Park, I see my opportunity and jump on it.  They drive home with my son and I arrange to fly out of Jackson, rent a car, and put in at Big Sandy for a modest 5-day hike.

In those 27 years inbetween, I’d had some serious back injuries and was not even sure if I can backpack anymore, but this is my first time in years so I pick a fairly easy route.  The hike is about 5 miles to Big Sandy Lake, the shortest distance to the Winds from any trailhead.  It’s a well-traveled route, because its also the quickest way to the Cirque of the Towers, a massive granite glacial cirque treasured by climbers from all over the world.

Mission accomplished, I was able to complete the trip, and so began coming back every summer for a seven day backpack over the course of more than eight years.  During that time I usually hiked about 40-50 miles and eventually completed most of the Highline Trail, a glorious trail that traverses a north/south axis through the Bridger-Teton wilderness.

When my son was about 15, and I’d finished another solo trip to the Wind Rivers, I started to wonder why I was coming home so soon.  Couldn’t I find a summer rental in Pinedale or Lander?  I tried but it wasn’t so easy.  Wyoming isn’t Tahoe and summer rentals are not the norm in these small towns.  Jackson would be out of the question over-my-head expensive.  Rental hunting led to the idea of just buying a small 2nd home or piece of land.

One time while hiking in Wyoming, a fellow hiker asked if I’d been to the Beartooths.

“Where is that?”

“Charles Kuralt called the Beartooth Highway the most beautiful highway in America.  You’ve got to drive home that way.”

But it wasn’t on my way home, and I was always in a time constraint.  So the following summer I decided to hike, with a few friends, into the Beartooth Range instead of the Winds.

It was a rainy experience and crowded, although spectacular.  But I missed my Winds.  So I decided to take a short trek to the Winds from the Eastern side, the reservation side.  This required me to head home via Cody.  I’d been thinking about towns to live in.  Pinedale had been tops on my list.  Little did I know that Pinedale can be the coldest town in America at times.  I’m really not a great researcher of these things.  I was just going on my gut and on my love affair with the Wind Rivers.

But when I drove into Cody, I immediately knew this was a town I could live in.  I was attracted to it.  It felt like a real town.

In the winter of 2005 I contacted a realtor via the internet in the Cody area.  Since I really had only been to Cody one night, I arranged to fly into town in the February break, with my son, and have him show me areas around the town.  Then my son and I would snowmobile into Yellowstone for a vacation.

I had a vision in the back of my head of what I wanted.  Either a place to fix up, or land to build.  It needed to have trees but not be ‘in the trees’;  there must be a creek on or near the property; somewhat isolated but not too isolated.  I was figuring I’d live around town on the outskirts.

My realtor Al showed me the North Fork area, which is the North Fork of the Shoshone, the road that leads into the East entrance of Yellowstone.  Expensive lots and homes abound in this breathtakingly beautiful valley.  He showed me the South Fork of the Shoshone, a massive wide valley that dead ends into trails to the Thorofare of Yellowstone.  These areas all had lots and cabins, but what I didn’t account for was that way back when, when the government was giving out homesteads and people were settling here, the government took the timbered areas while the homesteaders built and farmed in the low, open, praire parts of the valley.  All these homes, excepting the giant ranches, were subdivided 20 and 40 acre lots of bare ground usually with a well.  A housing boom of retired Floridians and Californians who’d made money selling their own homes had changed the valley as well.  The houses were in general exposed to each other, sometimes even with little subdivisions of lesser acreage.  For a million dollars plus I might find something special, but I didn’t have that kind of money.  The image in my mind of what I wanted was just not available here.

“What you want comes up every ten years or so,” Al said.

Al took me to Clark, an unincorporated town on the far outskirts, situated at the base of the Clarks’ Fork canyon, the town was smack in a wind tunnel.  It had a strange displaced aura about it, a town without a town, with stories of transients, drug runners and government haters.

He drove us to the nearby town of Powell, a farming village that felt quite settled and sensible.  Powell was a nice town but not what I had in mind.  I left feeling quite discouraged.

That summer I took my son for the first time with me to the Winds.  The whole experience had changed from one summer to the next.  Cheney had pushed through drilling on public lands without the need for the same limits and waiting periods as previously.  Wyoming was a boom state.  There was not a hotel, motel nor campground space between Salt Lake and the Pinedale turnoff at Green River.  My son and I slept on the side of the road south of Big Piney after driving for 25 hours.  The Persius meteor shower was a brilliant consolation in the clear open desert sky.

Pinedale had transformed itself as well, with large hotels.  The Jonas field was fueling the economy.  Ticky-tacky houses were springing up everywhere.  “Thank God I didn’t buy here” I told myself.

We had a rainy but beautiful adventure in the Winds, and I was reminded how much I love Wyoming, and that I hadn’t heard a peep from Al.  He had never shown me even one house, just neighborhoods.  I called him when I returned.

“Everything that was in the book last February has sold” he said.  “Like I said, what you want comes up every ten years.”

That was August.  In September I got a call from Al.  “I have a house that fell through.  It will be re-listed in a few days and its’ gonna go quick.  I think it’s what your looking for.  There’s 40 acres, a creek, cottonwoods, and an old homestead on it, a new well and electricity.  You better come right away if you’re interested in seeing it.”

I booked a flight to Cody.  Being in a busy work season, I made arrangements to come into town on the 5pm Wednesday flight, and leave the next evening back to San Francisco.

What a disappointment the property was.  Yes, it had all the elements I asked for, but the ‘feeling’ just wasn’t right.  The land was broken, neglected, desolate and tired.

The house on the neglected land

The country around the other house

“Well, I’m here and got a few more hours till my flight.  Is there anything else you want to show me while I’m here.”

“There is one place, up in Sunlight Basin, but its not on the market.  The parents died and the kids now own it.  They’ve been squabbling for over a year as to whether they want to sell or not.  But I’ll be their listing agent if they do.”

“Show it to me in case they ever do.  Where is Sunlight?”

I’d been wanting to be within 20 minutes of town.  Sunlight was an hour northwest, over an 8500 ft. pass.  I was skeptical, but I was here so why not.

As soon as we turned off 120 highway onto Chief Joseph Scenic road, I was mesmerized, hooked.  From Dead Indian pass, you could see the entire country for millions of miles.  West to Yellowstone, northeast to Beartooth Plateau, below to the stunning Clark’s fork canyon 900’ deep, and across into the wide glacier valley of Sunlight.  I’d never seen a landscape more varied geologically, nor more breathtaking that this view.

We got to the cabin—a run-down summer cabin built in 1959.  Cluttered with too many old couches and chairs, a tacked down orange shag carpet brought out from Washington state by the owners when it no longer was in style in their main home, animal heads on the wall, 50’s linoleum that was coming apart, original windows that questionably opened, and the entire back area of the house was unfinished with open joists and studs.

First glance at what would become my cabin...too much furniture

Unfinished ceiling. Warped cheap paneling

the bulging paneling alongside the shower

I stood on the porch and looked east at a massive ridge jutting into the horizon.

“I could die here.” I said aloud.

“I’d buy it if I could,” said Al.

I asked Al what the comps were, and told him to offer just a bit more, and that was my final price.  I was nervous, I was firm, I’d never put myself out on a financial limb like this before, was I making a mistake….mostly I was just going by my heart.  I’d put it out there and see what they said.  The reality was…this house wasn’t on the market and the three children hadn’t decided if they were selling.  The reality was…I’d seen only two homes around Cody, both today.  The reality was…I hadn’t even done any homework about this place, its weather, anything. But I was already in love, and when you’re in love you usually act before you think.

Living and working in California, I slowly fixed my little cabin up to be livable anytime of the year.  I dreamed of coming here in the summer, watching the weather, and when it was good, going hiking in the Winds.  I thought about spending Christmases here in the snow with family.  Oh, but I’d have to winterize it as well as lots of other things.  That meant lots of work and all that cost money, money that I had only bit by bit, little by little.   So that’s how I fixed it up, little by little, over several years.

New T&G bluestain pine with my California crew

Never did I think about moving here permanently.  But once this place was mine, strange coincidences conspired, over and over, to point the way here.  For some reason, this place in Sunlight was calling me, suggesting it was the center of my universe, the place of peace for me.  Over time it became an irresistible urge.  My journey was just beginning.

I came to do a thing for a dog

Walking the Winds.  It’s what I dream of constantly.  It’s what brought me to Wyoming in the first place.

I’ve walked the Winds over 8 times and never can get enough.  In the last five years I haven’t been able to get there for one reason or another–health, foot problems, moving, work.  Last time I was there it poured every day for a week.

When my old dog died, I swore I’d take her ashes up to the Wind Rivers. She’d been my constant hiking companion there.  I’ve held onto them for the last two years, lamenting that I might not be able to fulfill that promise to her, dreaming of the day I’d go back.

This year I tested myself first in the Beartooths on a four day backpack.  The old injury in my foot seemed to have healed enough to brave the trek to the Winds.

So last week I packed up and chose a route I’d done partway before, up the Fremont trail from the Big Sandy entrance.  I’d planned to do a 7 day over to Dream Lake with Koda.  The weather looked incremental and unstable on Monday, but after that the report said ‘Sunny’.  I hiked to Dad’s lake, five miles in, on Sunday and made camp.

 

The hike into Dad's from the Fremont trail

 

The first mishap occurred that night.  My newest Thermarest, the latest greatest lightest model, had a pin hole in it.  The mattress was dead the next morning, essentially laying me bare on the cold ground.  The temperatures were hovering around freezing or less at night so this wasn’t good.  Since I’d only used the mattress 2 times before, I hadn’t brought a proper patch kit.  I tried duct tape, lots of other tapes, to no avail.  OK, I can live with sleeping direct on the ground.  I’d done it before.

By Monday the weather was certainly very unsettled, so I decided to stay at Dad’s Lake and day hike to Shadow Lake with Soona’s ashes.  The 10 mile round trip into a glacial valley was phenomenal.  Shadow Lake sits on the back side of the Cirque of the Towers, the primo climbing grounds for world class climbers.  The front side is crowded with hikers and climbers, but the back side is not.  I had the whole valley to myself.

The trail winds up to the Continental Divide, a cluster of above timber line granite peaks, then cuts off into a wide sub-alpine valley for 2 miles that dead ends below the Cirque.  Three lakes sit at its base.  As I walked up the valley, it became only more and more stunning.  A wide river flows easily through its floor.  Glacial carved towering mountains surround you on both sides.  The view from Shadow lake of the Cirque is phenomenal.

As I turned up the side trail to the valley, the threatening weather turned intense.  It started to snow, hard.  But the valley kept egging me on and I knew this was the perfect place for Soona.  Finally, the lake appeared through the trees.  The cloud cover was heavy but the snow had stopped for now.  I had a quick lunch, knowing that I better return to camp soon; scattered the dog’s ashes, and sat down for some prayers and chants.  Suddenly the sun appeared through a small parting of the clouds.  The entire sky was black except for right above me where the heat of the sun changed the mood.  It was a brief 10 minutes of sun, as if the heavens had opened to receive my prayers and Soona had acknowledged her final resting place as ‘Good’.  When I started back to camp, the clouds covered the sky again and snow came down.  It snowed the whole 5 miles back to camp.

At Dad’s lake, the weather seemed to turn, the sun came out, broken clouds scattered the sky, a beautiful sunset was beginning.  Koda jumped in the lake and then it began snowing again.  Despite toweling him off (with my backpacking towel!) and a good fire, he went to bed shivering.  That night was the first time I ever opened up an emergency blanket and used it–on a dog!

 

Dad's Lake. The Continental Divide looms in the background

 

That evening was going to be very cold.  I knew it.  It’d been snowing all day and clearing some in the evening.  Surely it would be around 20 degrees tonight.  I wanted a good fire.  The only dry wood was what I could find still hanging on the trees.  I picked around for dead branches and carried a load back to my camp.  As I sorted through the dry branches I found a giant, and I mean giant, dragonfly, the biggest I’d ever seen, clinging to one.  He had gotten cold and was still.  I moved the dragonfly to a nearby tree, pondering it for a time.  The mystery of his’ life strategy stuck me…how he survived by becoming still and asleep.   When it was cold, boom, he was in another state, helpless, at the mercy of his unique physiology.

By the next day, when the weather was supposed to clear, a cold north wind had come blazing in.  I hiked up to Washakie creek, but was loathe to do the 3 miles of a 10,500 foot pass to Dream Lake in the threatening weather and strong winds.  Washakie creek combines side by side with East Fork River in a wide and beautiful sub-alpine valley, a place where most of August would be uncampable due to mosquitos.  But the cold had killed off all the bugs and it was an incredible camping spot.  Tons of wood and good fishing.  Although my fishing pole had broken in half the day before, it still worked just fine.  I caught 3 fish in the span of 15 minutes, nice big brookies.

By the next morning, instead of the weather improving as predicted (I swear that being a weatherman is the only job where you can be wrong half the time and STILL keep your job), it was overcast and threatening to snow, with daytime temperatures hovering in the high 30’s.  Besides the bad weather, my Steripen water purifier (also fairly new) broke.  No clean water (except if I boiled it) was a real set-back.  So along with my sleeping pad, broken fishing pole, and bad weather, I decided this trip was just for Soona.  I made the hike out that day, getting nice and dehydrated without any water to drink.

The good news is that the foot I’d been nursing for a year survived nicely, and I met some incredible, inspirational people.  A couple who was celebrating the woman’s 60th birthday by doing the entire Highline trail (over 100 miles) in 14 days.  Another couple in their early seventies who’d been backpacking in the Winds for over 25 years.  And I camped next to a 60 year old man who, because his doctor had told him not to backpack alone any more, was making a last memorable trip to the Winds by staying there for a month.  He was taking pictures and keeping a good journal, “for my grandchildren”.   He had dehydrated his own food, would come in from one trailhead for a 10 day stretch, then hike out to replenish and come in from another trailhead.

“I’ve watched the mountains all August, go from wildflowers to fall snows.”  I bow down to all these inspirational souls who keep backpacking way into their later years.  Next year I’m going for 3 weeks, and do it like the Texan rancher.  But this year I’d come to do a thing for a dog.

last backpack in the Beartooths at 10

Heaven in Canada

Happy even in old age