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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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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.

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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.

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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

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Wind Rivers: Epicenter of Rocky Mountain Archaeology

Rich Adams, former Wyoming State Archaeologist, is rocking the premises of Rocky Mountain Archaeology with his discoveries in the Wind River Mountains of high-rise villages.  In 2006, an ancient village was discovered at over 10,700 feet on the eastern slopes near Whiskey Mountain in Dubois.    This is only one of two high rise villages in North America consisting of forty seven 10×14 dwelling pads, many artifacts including soapstone bowls.

Lake Louise near Whiskey Mountain and Ring Lake

Lake Louise near Whiskey Mountain and Ring Lake

Since then Adams has uncovered over nine high-rise sites in the Winds, with only one or two of them on the western side of the Divide.  But with these sites being over 4000 years old, archaeologists are going to have to rethink their dates of when the Shoshones came here from the Great Basin region.

I spent a few weeks backpacking early August in the Winds (next blog will be on that when the photos arrive) and had the opportunity to hear Adams speak and see the amazing petroglyphs on Ring Lake Ranch.  The villages and the glyphs are Sheep Eater Shoshone relics.  On my second backpack on the west side up New Forks, I met a Bridger-Teton archaeologist who was looking for Indian remnants.  Apparently there is an intensive effort now to document whatever can be found before being destroyed by fires or by humans.

Sheep Eater Shoshones lived in the summers at high elevations around 11,000′.  There are plenty of fairly flat sites in the Wind Rivers at this elevation for making a camp.  And although today this would be above timberline with no trees, thousands of years ago the weather was wetter and treeline was higher.  So these villages would be in a nice sparse forest of White Bark Pine.

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They were into flying spirits

Sheep Eaters were there to hunt the Bighorn Sheep that range high up in summer, and come down lower in winter.  They followed the plant bloom and ate roots.  They could gather berries in August and pine nuts in the fall.  By late fall they’d venture down lower to a place like Ring Lake which has little snow throughout the winter and the sheep are nearby.  Their petroglyphs might reflect sacred burial areas, or vision quest sites.  They knew the Land and the landscape and let it dictate their wanderings.

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Panel with a bighorn sheep

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Lake Louise

The lichen was removed to better reveal these drawings

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Bird like feet

What do Americans find Sacred? Bighorn Sheep, the Winds and Selenium

The Light in High Places. Wow, this is a great book by Joe Hutto.  I love the Wind River Mountains so I took this book from the library with that in mind.  But I was surprised how beautiful and poetic Huttos’ prose is.  Although a trained biologist, Hutto is a fantastic writer who expresses his feelings in a rhythm that is natural to Wyoming and close to the pace of the high country of the Winds.

Hutto teams up with John Mionczynski (who has been studying the Bighorn Sheep of Whiskey Mountain since the 70’s) to understand more fully why our native Sheep are in so much trouble.  Starting sometime in and around 2001, he spends his summers living high up on Middle Mountain, in a tent, above timberline at 12,000′, alone.  He sets up rainfall catches, watches ewes, lambs and rams all day, encounters bears, wolverines and a lone black wolf.  He comes to know, summer by summer, each sheep by sight, is accepted by them as almost another herbivore who can mingle among them, and fully describes what its like to live in this rarified environment day by day.

The middle of the book digresses and describes Hutto coming to Wyoming in the 70’s.  He lived on Red Canyon Ranch and worked cattle before the Nature Conservancy bought it; rode and hiked all over the area around Lander and the southern Winds; and tells some wonderful tales of iconic cowboys he knew.

Strangely enough, Hutto and Mionczynski’s findings about Bighorn Sheep were not what I supposed. Although the sheep are vulnerable to domestic sheep diseases, the difficult and puzzling downhill plight of the bighorn sheep is not so simple as exposure to domestics.  The Whiskey Mountain sheep herd do not come in contact with domestic sheep yet their numbers are shakey.  Why?  Many ungulates need Selenium to stay healthy.  Ewes that have experienced selenium deficiencies as lambs will tend toward early mortality, contributing fewer lambs to the herd.  Young lambs require relatively high doses of Se to avoid a form of nutritional muscular dystrophy.  The lamb’s body mines the bones in search of Se when there are deficiencies, causing the lamb to become weak, crippled, have a weakened immune system, and predisposing it to pneumonia and other diseases, as well as predators.

So, what is suddenly causing this lack of Se in these high pristine environments?  Hutto’s answer, from their research, is acid rain.  The rainfall is so acid all summer long, between 3.8 to 4.2 (normal should be on the side of slightly acidic side of neutral which is 7.0), that this in turn changes the soil chemistry which changes the uptake in minerals and nutrients in the surrounding vegetation.  In Hutto’s words:

“The term acid rain is a simplistic epithet that in reality involves not merely a good dosing of nitric or sulfuric acid, but also a veritable witch’s brew of accompanying chemistry including the entire spectrum of heavy metals resulting from fossil fuel and other industrial emissions.  Each time a drop of water falls, these mountains are being doused with a chemistry that includes not only acid in the form of nitrate and sulfur compounds, but could include mercury and other toxic elements that can continue migrating up the food chain.  It is the snow, rain, and glacial meltwater from these mountains that feed the Wind River in its entirety, and the Wind River in turn fills the Boysen Reservoir…”

Are they the 'canaries in the coal mine'?

Supporting their theory was the fact that when a long term drought came to the Winds in the mid-2000’s, the herd became healthier and produced more healthy lambs.  Less acid rainwater, more normal levels of selenium in the surrounding vegetation.  Yet drought also produces less available water in these high places.  A vicious cycle.

This book is science and beautiful prose, but mostly it’s Hutto’s expression of his love for Wyoming, its wildness, and the sheep.  You will not be overwhelmed by facts and figures, but his easy personal style will draw you in.

“Because of the oil and gas boom, formerly protected areas are being opened to new roads and drilling.  Most disturbing perhaps in our immediate vicinity is the opening of formerly inaccessible areas of the Red Desert by the Bureau of Land Management to new drilling operations in spite of the objections and desperate cries of the concerned residents of Wyoming.  The Red Desert is not only the highest desert in North America but a great fragile expanse characterized by a multitude of unique geological, ecological, paleontological, historical, and prehistorical features.  The greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the Wind River Mountains, and the Red Desert are the richest and most environmentally diverse expanse of wilderness left in the lower forty-eight states–the jewel in the crown of American environmental conservation.  Any large-scale industrial development in this remaining wonder of the natural world that contains meager petroleum reserves can only beg the question, What in fact do Americans find sacred.”

Hutto and Mionczynski’s preliminary findings are a warning to all Americans and especially to those of us who live, play and work here.  We live here because of this incredible Land that we love and its wildlife.  Just in my area, politicians are pushing the BLM to open the entire Big Horn Basin to oil and gas drilling.  Right now, we have a healthy Sheep herd in the Absaroka-Beartooth Front. Here’s another reason to rethink this kind of avaricious planning.

More BLM thoughts and Jack Turner’s new book

I just love Jack Turner’s writing.  He hasn’t written much, but the stuff he does write is great.  His easy style of writing weaves a lot of good facts, ecological outrage, and story detail.  I’ve just finished his new book “Travels in the Greater Yellowstone”.  Each chapter explores a different area of the ecosystem, either with his wife Dana, or sometimes hiking with a friend.

Turner spurred some additional thoughts on my last entry regarding the Big Horn Basin BLM plans.  The commissioners in the surrounding counties got together and hired, with our tax dollars, a company to do an analysis of oil and gas in the basin; really paying them to turn out a document that would support what the commissioners want.  From the presentation the company gave at the commissioners meeting, they did a good job distorting facts to support massive development as a sound idea.  For instance, they had slides of pronghorn and deer around gas wells.

Now for a pertinent comment by Turner in his chapter on the Green River Lakes, where the Jonah and Pinedale gas fields have taken over the Pinedale area:

“What is the status of sage-grouse populations here?  As usual, none of the interested parties agree about the numbers–counting is political–but no one denies that this basin is one of the species’ remaining strongholds and that it is suffering plenty.  One study suggests that the 1,200 or so sage grouse that live around the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields will be gone in twenty years.  The government, worried sick that Endangered Species listing will radically curtail energy development, has called for a Sagebrush Grouse Summit.  Nor is it just the grouse that are a problem.  The mule deer population has already declined 46 percent in the area around the Pinedale Anticline field.  They are supposed to be protected in the winter by limits on drillings, but the limits are a farce.  The energy companies can request exemptions and the BLM grants damn near every one of their requests.”

Turner is my kind of guy.  He is no-nonsense blunt when it comes to the environment.  For those who are thinking in support of Plan C, the commissioners drilling dream, here’s another wonderful quote:

So…Wyoming has another energy boom–there have been many.  And when the boom collapses–all booms throughout history eventually go bust–the resources and traditions that could have sustained the state for centuries will be gone.  Who will want to vacation in a Superfund site?”

That is my bold and for good reason, because our commissioners have forgotten what we love about the Cody area and why people come to visit here. They also seem to have forgotten the amount of revenue that comes from tourists.

Big Horn Mountains looking from the Big Horn Basin

At one time, I was going to buy land in the Pinedale area.  This was before the boom.  I’d been coming there every summer since 1996.  I’d stay at the wonderful Wagon Wheel motel, a tiny place that’s been there forever.  The town was just one street with no good restaurants, but a great outdoor equipment store.  It was nice and sleepy and I loved it.  Jackson was an hour and a half away, through the Hoback Canyon, “a canyon that in any other part of the country would be a national park“.  Pinedale reminded me just a little of Jackson in 1972 when I first came to these parts.  I could live here, I said to myself.

But then things changed, almost overnight.  The next summer I arrived and there was an Americinn, charging $265/night vs. my little motel at $50/night, and all the hotels were booked.

“What is happening here?”  I asked.  The Jonah field, they said.  It was the beginning.  From what the townspeople told me, Bush/Cheney more than tripled the amount of lease permits allowed to be issued for drilling per year, pushing them through with little regulations, and nixed the required townhall meetings.  That was over seven years ago and back then the townspeople were complaining about the lights to me…”You can see those lights in the oil fields from up in the Wind Rivers”.  There’s been a lot of growth since then, so much so that ozone alerts occur regularly in the winter.  They have worse smog/ozone in that area than the whole of  Los Angeles.  Needless to say, I was no longer going to buy property there.  I began looking around Cody and the first thing I asked my realtor was about oil/gas development here.

“The oil fields are all old and pretty much maxed out”, he said.  What he nor I didn’t consider was new technology and the nation’s thirst for energy.

Last summer I drove, quickly, through Pinedale up from the south on my way back from a trip through Big Sandy in the Winds.  Miles of tacky housing fills the once open spaces, probably houses for the workers.  The growth in just the last seven years, or degradation of the environment depending upon how you look at it, is amazing.

“Seventy percent of the Wind River lakes that are more than 9,000 feet have low alkalinity levels, hence they are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of oil, gas, and coal-bed methane development upwind in the Green River Basin and Wyoming Range, which will disgorge a cocktail of toxic fumes into the air twenty-four hours a day for the next fifty to hundred years.  The Wind River Range and its three crown jewels of America’s wilderness system have the misfortune to be immediately downwind.  Air standards already are being violated with only 600 wells in operation–and with 10,000 more planned, pollution can only get worse.”

Our last wild places in the lower 48, where grizzlies can still roam, and pronghorn can still migrate, are being chopped up and compromised.  If this is not an outrage, then we are not awake.

Hear ye, Hear ye, Commissioners:

“When people ask what Wyoming should do with those billions of dollars in mineral royalties left over in the budget, I say: Invest them.  Future generations in this state are going to need more than billions to clean up their wasteland.”–Jack Turner

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