Green Lake and Gibson Ridge – July 10, 2015

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Just south of Green Lake, a pretty sub-alpine meadow beneath an eastern flank of Mount Axtell

The rainy season has come to summer, here in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  There are no perfectly clear days as the clouds build up with the thermal energy created by the sun’s shining brilliance.  It is best to get up early and conclude hiking before the thunder and lightening begin their atmospheric symphony.

Thus I rose early and began hiking just after half past six.  Draco and Leah, my two trusty German shepherds, were accompanying me on the day’s exploration.  The plan was to visit Green Lake, just outside of Crested Butte, Colorado.  I drove up to that town and parked at the trailhead right in town near the Nordic ski center.  The dogs knew what we were up to in general, if not the specifics, and they were animated once let out of the four-wheeled kennel, running amok from one scent post to another, both leaving their calling card in the same locations where other canines had done the same.  There exuberance was infectious and I was giddy putting on my pack.

The first couple of miles of trail to Green Lake passes through an easement on private property and the homeowners’ have stringent requirements regarding dogs on leashes, so although I abhor hiking with leashed dogs I restrained them for the time being.  This is not normal for our pack, but after the initial shock and disbelief – and with a bit of reminding from me – both dogs “heeled” well and minded the leash.

The Nordic center is located adjacent to what used to be the Big Mine.  Unlike many mines found in the mountains, this was not a hard rock mine but rather extracted coal from the depths.  It closed sometime in the mid-nineteen fifties and there are not many traces left from that era on the landscape.  Now, this area is dominated by large, ostentatious houses.  The trail is fairly well marked if you know what to look for, and we plodded up the small rise and gained a fine view of the town of Crested Butte and the surrounding mountains.

Up and up we climbed, sometimes along a single-track trail and other times along the homeowners’ association’s roads.  Mostly, this area is covered in lodgepole pine.  Being early July the grasses and all deciduous vegetation is the greenest of green.  Although there had been rain recently the trails were not too muddy and the hiking was without issue.  No slipping and sliding, although it was a bit squishy.  The clouds overhead suggested more rain, but instead were beginning to burn off with the application of sunshine.

I was relieved to have reached the boundary with the National Forest.  From this point onward all my hiking would be on the Gunnison National Forest and both the dogs and I were relieved to be let loose from the leashes.  To be sure, they don’t have free rein to wreak havoc within the forest and if they get too agitated with the chirping and squeaking rodents I will recall them to my side until they can calm down a bit.  Certainly, I do not let them chase after any type of big game, as this could result in the dogs being shot and me being fined.  Besides, I prefer that the denizens of the forest live in peace as I pass along the trail.

The trail more or less parallels Wildcat Creek and Draco and Leah were happy to splash about the shallow waters and drink their fill of the refreshing liquid.  Up and up we went.  This trail gains some elevation but in general I wouldn’t call it steep.  The forest didn’t allow for a view of the surrounding countryside but was in itself a rewarding experience.  There are many species of life that live here and they all play a role in maintaining the ecosystem, and the mind is edified by embracing the wisdom of the woods.

Coming into a small clearing, I was then greeted by the sight of Mount Axtell rising up to the heavens.  On this eastern face there is a large gouge taken out of the rock, made eons ago when glaciation formed much of the landscape we now see in the higher elevations.  I was excited to visit the lake but was distracted near my destination by a hillside of summer wildflowers.  I could not merely stroll by while these colorful plants demanded some of my astute concentration.  There, in particular, was a beautiful sight of a log surrounded by the orange and yellow blossoms of two species of paintbrush all set against the verdant hillside upon which the view was held.

The various asters and sunflowers brought cheer to my countenance as simultaneously the heaviest of the clouds began to part and dissipate as the day warmed.  The yellow sunflowers are a joy to behold.  I must also mention the scarlet gilia, those trumpet-shaped, red flowers that fill my soul with mirth upon spotting them.  Blue Mertensia grows in the wetter areas while the columbine grow abundantly everywhere I look.  So many others and I am once again in awe at the variety and diversity of life found in one, small patch of grass.

I hike the remaining quarter of a mile to the lake, the shimmering surface of which is nestled into the bowl below Mount Axtell’s east face.  Not surprisingly, the lake appears to have formed when the glacier retreated and left behind a terminal moraine that has checked the flow of water that has flowed down from the slopes above.

The shepherds are ecstatic, exploring as many nooks as possible as they race from one potential rodent’s location to another.  They plunge into the lake without hesitation and stand waist deep, lapping up the water to their satisfaction.  I step up the bank to watch the convivial excitement when I notice that there are trout swimming in the shallows.  Possibly a hybrid between cutthroat and rainbow trout, these would be called “cut-bow” and there is a good chance that they are laying in eggs in their redds.  I don’t want the dogs to disturb the fish, so I recall the shepherds to my side and point out other distractions where they can apply and satiate their canine curiosity.  While they investigate a chattering tree squirrel, I sit mesmerized on the bank of the lake and stare at the fish swimming by, going about their business.

To see so many fish up close is somewhat unusual, and I must have sat there for half an hour before I had had my fill of watching the aquatic specie’s buoyant activities.  Next, I climbed a small knoll to the south of the lake and found myself on top of a small meadow.  Cheerful verdure greeted me under the flank of rock that buttressed up to Mount Axtell.  I could now see the entirety of Green Lake below and proceeded to wander about in a mild stupor, such affect had the scenery upon my senses.

If there be a single word for the day it must be “green”.  The land has been swaddled by grass growing luxuriantly wherever enough soil has been laid to sustain the roots.  Thick enough to impede progress, this part of the Rocky Mountains is lush with vegetation and it is a good day to be alive – not just physically, although that is, of course, conducive to living, but in the mind; to be aware of your surroundings and the life-force that pervades throughout.

I retreated from the knoll upon which I had scrambled up to, pushing past the fallen logs and scrubby brush, and back down to the lake.  I stared at the cold-blooded vertebrates continuing with their aquatic meanderings, amazed that beings could live in this cold water environment.  To the north is another flank of rock that forms another edge to the bowl which Green Lake sits in.  It extends out to the east, a lateral moraine about a hundred feet above the lake.   I cannot resist climbing its slopes to gain a view of my surroundings.

From this perch I can see the mountains to the east, each peak rising up to the heavens.  I know the names of them all and have visited several, certainly a majority have felt my footsteps trod upon their rocky tops.  Many of those peaks are laccoliths, subterranean protrusions of magma that have cooled into lumps and are now exposed after all the overburden has been eroded off and carried towards the sea.  The amount of rock that has been carried away by the ceaseless action of the forces of erosion staggers the imagination and I must peer through the millions of years to comprehend the current topography.

The shepherds are oblivious to all this and as I let my mind wander while my physical body guides itself through the meadow they continue to romp and explore with an infectious delight.  I bring my senses back to the “now” and engage the dogs in a bit of exuberant play.  Mouths agape, ears flat, tails flagged, the shepherds run around in concentric circles with me as the center, playfully bowing to each other as well as myself.

After a spell, the game ceases and I go about the studious examination of the wildflowers that are crowning this eminence.  It is just after nine in the morning and we have experienced so much already.  We scramble down from this moraine and find the trail that leads to Gibson Ridge.  I could stop now, content with Green Lake, but must abide by my nearly insatiable curiosity to explore.  This ridge divides a portion of the Ohio Creek drainage from the East River, where I am currently agog at the colorful display of flowery joy.  More specifically, this ridge divides Wildcat Creek, my location, from Carbon Creek which flows to the south.

This trail ascends the north side of Gibson Ridge and thus passes through a thick coniferous forest.  I cross Wildcat Creek where another profusion of flowers grow, including a spectacular showing of Corydalis.  These plants are massive, growing some six feet tall with ample bundles of flowers.  Part of the Fumitory family, the flowers are similar to what might be found in the Pea family.  Mostly white or cream colored, each individual of the multitude has a spot of purple on it.  Here, the Mertensia, commonly called bluebells, also grow profusely and I am again amazed at the summer garden that I hike through.

Passing over the creek, I am soon fast against the north side and the hike is one, long passage through the interminable forest that is occasionally broken by a patch of talus where naught has been able to establish roots.  Cresting the ridge, the forest gives way to meadow and copse of aspen stud the grasses.  I am now on a perch that allows another distant view of the surrounding mountains and peaks so I climb up away from the trail and find a thicket of trees to sit under while I consume my lunch and also disperse the dog food I had brought.  The canines eat with gusto and I do the same, enjoying the variety of small snacks that I have brought.

A fine view on a fine day, there isn’t much else to do at the moment except watch the clouds sail by, wondering if they have enough energy to form thunderheads.  There isn’t much to do at the moment, but that is the point – to not do much, but rather sit and observe my surroundings.  The dogs are ready for a rest as well, and while I lean back against my pack they find slight depressions in the soil within which they wriggle around until comfortable.

If my belly isn’t exactly full, it is certainly content after I ingest my victuals.  I shut my eyes and let the conscious world fade from view for the next quarter of an hour.  I don’t fall asleep but succumb to a foggy haze that lets my brain rest while my body does the same.  After this short rest I am ready to venture forth, returning upon the trail which I had hiked up.  I mosey back, not in any particular hurry especially since the clouds don’t seem as if they are imminently about to discharge large voltages of electricity in my immediate vicinity.

I have seen what I came to see, and feeling spiritually content and physically invigorated, the return hike is a pleasant walk through the woods and meadows that I had passed earlier.  The day is so nice… warm, not wet… that I can’t resist one, last stop near the lake.  Here I sit under a tree, away from the trail, and stare out into the distances.  I am surrounded by flowers the colors of which span the visible spectrum.

I am now ready to return home, and the dogs and I hike back down off of our public lands and down the path that leads through the easement on the private land.  I am careful to leash the dogs so as not to get hassled by vigilant homeowners.  The shepherds are not amused by this situation, nor am I, but that is the reality of this hike so I keep them in “heel” where their leashes won’t tangle with my stride.  Soon, we are at the trailhead and I unleash the dogs so that they can hop up into their mobile kennel.  I crank up the engine and put the kennel into gear as we roll down the road, and after a short drive the day’s adventure is concluded.  A fine hike was had by us all, and I say a prayer of thanks to the Creator for allowing me this day in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

 

 

Beaver Ponds Bushwhack – October 16, 2015

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Beaver lodge on the largest of the Beaver Ponds

I had just completed my two week long road trip through some of the western states, getting home to Gunnison, Colorado, late on the night of the fourteenth.  Yesterday, I picked up the faithful canines from the kennel and they were filled with mirth and rejoicing upon seeing their human pack mate.

Naturally, Lady Dog had to stay home today while I took Draco and Leah out to explore and bushwhack the area around the Beaver Ponds.  These ponds are located at the east end of the Anthracite Range and there is an easily accessed trail that leads from a parking lot just off Ohio Creek.  However, my thought was to follow an alternate route to the ponds.

Instead of driving up to the ponds I stopped at the Pass Creek Trailhead and began walking up the Pass Creek Trail, which, if followed, would eventually lead to Swampy Pass.  I hiked on the trail for the first quarter mile or so, to the point where it crests a small ridge and The Castles become visible.  Here, the trail follows the route of an old railroad grade.  I turned right and followed the old grade away from the official trail, continuing through the thick aspen.  Most of these deciduous trees have already lost their leaves, but some still retained a handful or two as a fleeting reminder of the past summer.

This old grade was never actually used and is a fascinating remnant of the history of railroading in the Rocky Mountains.  Apparently, the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad ran out of money and never finished their line across the Rocky Mountains.

In places it is difficult to see where the grade had been hacked out of the hillside but it is generally easy to follow with a bit of diligence.  This old grade I followed until I reached the large gulch that drains the Beaver Ponds.  At that point, I was able to bushwhack through the forest and up to the largest of the Beaver Ponds.

In the pond is a large beaver lodge and at one end is a dam made by the aquatic rodents.  Rising from the opposite side of the pond is the Anthracite Range, towering nearly two thousand feet above my location.

There is a game trail that leads from the Beaver Ponds to the two, unnamed ponds that lie to the west.  I followed this trail through downed timber and into the meadow surrounding the first pond.  I then scrambled over a small ridge and descended to the second pond, a place that I have visited before.  Thus, I knew that a fine place to rest and have a quick lunch existed under a copse of conifer.

All is peaceful and quiet, excepting the occasional quacking from a family of ducks swimming across the pond.  Sitting with my back against a large Douglas fir, I could stare out at the ridge above and enjoy the day.  Draco and Leah ate the dog food I had brought and we all rested in the quietude of our mountain wilderness retreat.

After and hour or so of our repose near the pond, it was time to return to the trailhead.  Rather than retrace our steps back the way we came, we followed the small creek from the outlet of this pond.  From previous experiences in the are I know that the creek will cross the Pass Creek Trail and once I found the trail I could then walk back to the trailhead from which I had started.

The hike down was an easy stroll for the most part, although at times I had to hop over logs and other obstacles.  Generally, I was walking through a thick aspen forest, mostly bare of leaves.  I didn’t need to consult the map as to direction since I knew that sooner or later I would cross the trail.  A maintained trail may be a small trace through the wilderness, but compared to what I was walking through it would stick out – as long as I kept my eyes open I would see it.

And that is exactly what happened.  After a mile or so, I found the trail and followed it back to the trailhead.  Part of that hike followed additional sections of the old grade, and I stopped to take in the history of “what might have been”.  One last crest of the same small ridge from which I had early left this trail and, after stopping to stare at the magnificence of The Castles, I was leaving the wilderness and returning to the trailhead where my mechanical steed was waiting, inanimate.

All in all, it was a fine day of hiking an exploring.  I didn’t cover too many miles, but the quality of those miles that I did hike was high.  The extent of the aspen forest in this area is difficult to comprehend until you have walked through it.  Even now, in the Fall when most of the vegetation has withered and died prior to the oncoming Winter, it is evident that this forest is lush.  My two German shepherds were satiated and so was I, and I am once again thankful to be living in this valley where wildlands abound in every direction.

 

Western States Road Trip, Day 15, Jim Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming to Gunnison, Colorado – October 14, 2015

Squaretop Mountain seen from the north along the Green River

Squaretop Mountain seen from the north along the Green River

Thus rose the dawn, the last morning of a fortnight’s journey.  I had left my home in Gunnison, Colorado and driven out to California to visit friends and family before heading up to Yellowstone National Park.  There, I saw more friends before making my way to the Wind River Range, where I was now awakening amidst the soaring summits rising above my camp near the Green River.

When I mustered enough courage, I prepared my hot oatmeal and solitary cup of black coffee after retrieving my properly stored cache.  Those victuals I ate while earnestly staring at the enlarging spot of orange light striking the ridge line high above my head; no artificial light here, just whatever the natural world could afford.  Slowly wandering from camp to the perch I had found the prior evening, my endeavor was rewarded by the view of the canyon formed by the Green River upstream.  Shafts of light poured through the gaps created by the creeks flowing from the east and filled the forested valley with ethereal illumination.

I could do naught but scramble up a large boulder that had tumbled down from the ridge above some eons ago.  Here, I gathered up the solar radiation in the still morning, letting the warming beams chase away the chill.  Blessed again was I, as the blue sky announced another fine day for backpacking and exploring.   The small, lofty meadow was difficult to leave but the moment had arrived that heralded my imminent departure.  I wandered back through the maze of logs and snags to pack up camp and begin the hike back to the trailhead.

Some elk bugled in the distance and the day warmed to a degree that made my extra layers of clothing uncomfortable.  The layers had been barely enough to stave off the cold when I had arisen but were now stowed away with the remainder of camp.  Practice and familiarity led to a rapid packing of my gear.  I made a prayer of thanks to the Earth and the community of life that lives here as a way of blessing this campsite that had provided comfort and equanimity to this ragged soul.  Then, picking up my hiking staff, I wound down from my eminence through the gray boles and found the trail with which I had become familiar over these past three days.

The sun shone down as I hiked back along the Highline Trail, alternately through thick forest and open meadow.  With the oncoming Autumn the grasses have all cured from their summer greens to Fall yellows and the meadows were one, large swath of golden magnificence resplendent with the sweet smell of grassy vegetation.  Growing to my hips, the grass swished with my passing and crunched under each footfall.  With Squaretop Mountain on the southern horizon, silhouetted against the early sun, the scene was, to me, more dreamlike than reality, the pinnacle of Rocky Mountain scenery.

Upper Green River Lake’s still surface reflected the rock above, a mirror image of the conifer-lined shoreline.  Waterfowl abounded on the waters, their quiet passage marked only by the ever-widening V’s created in their wake.  I kept walking although my pace had slacked a bit as I was in no hurry to return to the fast-paced world of modern commerce and intrigue.  I had found a peacefulness, here in this mountain wilderness, on the slope of life, and my own emotional angle of repose was such that I was contentedly perched atop my troubles.  Each step, however, leading me physically back to civilization also tilted the proverbial slope so that eventually the angle would become too steep and I would tumble down from equaniminous repose to the heap of preoccupation below, a virtual slag pile of troubles and concerns.  No, I didn’t want this journey to end, especially this portion of it.

I cruised along at a steady pace, stopping here and there to take another look at the wild surroundings found throughout this realm.  I returned via the west side of the lower lake after crossing the bridge just above the lake’s inlet on the Green River.  I walked through the large meadow found there, breathing in the clean, crisp air.  I have always thought about the crispness found at altitude and have decided that the phenomena is due to the lack of humidity.  The west side of Lower Green River Lake is covered in a thick, coniferous forest and my drawing in breath also invigorated my being with the scented odor of pine and spruce.

I reached the trailhead sometime in the early afternoon, during the lunch hour.  My trusty automobile fired up without complaint and suddenly I was behind the wheel, piloting the machinery back down the bumpy dirt road to the state highway that runs up from Pinedale, Wyoming.  I could have spent another night out on the road, but I was ready to return home and to all the familiar comforts that that word implies.  Thus, I made haste on my journey south on U.S. 191 to Vernal, Utah, before taking U.S. 40 east into Colorado.  After driving down Colorado 64 and 139 to Loma, Colorado, I picked up U.S. 50 and followed that all the way to Gunnison, Colorado.  I made it home just before midnight after the long drive.

There wasn’t much to do, as I unpacked only that which I didn’t wish to remain in the car overnight.  Basically, that meant my camera and some small articles of perishable foodstuffs.  I checked the water and the heat and found that all systems were nominally functional before I stumbled to my bed and fell asleep. Thus, I had concluded my Western States Road Trip feeling content and happy to be in my own house after spending so much time scattered about the mountain provinces of the western United States.  A fine journey I had, with so much seen and so many people visited.  Tomorrow, I would get up and retrieve the canines from the kennel.  They were perhaps a bit more excited than normal at my arrival and a mob of wagging tails and furry exuberance greeted my personage.  Suddenly, all was right in their dog world and life returned to a state of relative normality.

Western States Road Trip, Day 14, Jim Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming – October 13, 2015

On the bank of Turquoise colored Green River, looking upstream at Tourist Creek to the left

On the bank of Turquoise colored Green River, looking upstream at Tourist Creek to the left

I woke up early as is my custom in general and especially when I am camping or backpacking.  The first hint that morning is near is often enough for me to rise and explore my immediate surroundings.  Songbirds singing out their songs are often the best alarm clock as they herald in the faint glow from the east.  Deep in the mountains, the dawn came on just as swiftly in the early hours as the dusk did in leaving in the previous evening.  The sun strikes the high ridges to the west though the valley where I am camped remains in shadow.  It is cold and frosty but my hot oatmeal breakfast and concomitant single cup of black coffee chase away the chill as I plot out my day.

I decide to hike up the Highline Trail some six or seven miles to Trail Creek Park.  I am giddy with barely pent up excitement as I strap on my backpack and slowly make my way through the lodgepole pine forest back to the trail and river below camp.  My chore before truly getting underway with the day’s exploration is to filter a gallon of water.  It is a tedious but necessary chore to avoid extreme intestinal distress.  Cold air and cold water create icy fingers and there is naught to do but suffer through it until the chore is finished.

The forest is thick along the river.  Down here by the bank, I can see through the gap in the forest canopy that is created by the river’s trace.  The granite reaches up thousands of feet above me.  Some of this granite has been pulverized by the glaciers that slowly but methodically grind up stone into powder.  That resulting powder adds a turquoise color to the waters of the Green River and the water tastes good.  I gather up my gear and return to the trail, directly under the granite monolith that is Squaretop Mountain.  Ever since I first saw this tower of granite, the name of which is perfectly descriptive, I have been fascinated by its eminence. It is something of a surreal dream to be waking up underneath its sheer cliffs.  I am happy enough to sing out loud as I begin the day’s hike in earnest now that I have adequate water.  The singing may seem a bit extravagant but does serve the practical purpose of alerting any bears of my presence.

Green River and the parallel trail traverse the large U-shaped valley that had been created millennia ago by the glacial activity that was more extensive during the previous ice ages.  It is challenging to see the peaks much less the valley walls as the forest continues to obscure the view.  What I lose in view I gain in pine-scented air and a diverse ecosystem, and walking through the forest gives me the impetus for introspection.  The trees are large and healthy, and alive with squirrels, small birds and their shepherds, the small predators that make the forest home.

Walking a couple of miles I come to a large clearing in the forest.  According to the map, this is Beaver Park.  I leave the trail and explore the fringes of the meadow.  In this large clearing in the forest, I can now see some of the peaks and various drainages that tumble down from the higher elevations.  This setting is amazing, the powder blue river flowing through golden-colored meadows within the deep green forest all under the gray rock.  The sky is remarkably clear with no clouds in sight and the cerulean dome above just adds to the salubrious nature of my situation.  In my dreams I might possibly conjure a more harmonious setting, but I don’t think I am that creative.

Beaver Park passes like a faint dream as I exit to the south and continue on my hike through the forest.  I heave out a sigh of contentedness as I return to the forest path and continue walking.  I cross Elbow and Pixley Creeks before crossing over Green River itself.  The water’s rushing creates a friendly roar to compete with the juncos’ and chickadees’ singing but otherwise it is mostly silent.  The squirrels sometimes chatter when I pass and sometimes not; regardless, they are abundant.

Another mile or two of hiking leads me past a large gap in the eastern wall that has been created by Tourist Creek and then into Three Forks Park.  I am very near the headwaters of the mighty Green River and the three forks each adds runoff to the main stem.  From the east flows Wells Creek while from the south flows the main fork of the Green River.  The trail follows the western fork, here named, somewhat obviously, Trail Creek.  A series of switchbacks leads up the western wall and well above the river’s U-shaped valley below.  Trail Creek is noisy, tumbling down over a series of cascades from its headwaters above. Occasionally, where the switchback coincides with the rim of the gulch, I can step out of the forest and see back across Green River and into the drainage that Wells Creeks flows from.  A wall of granite would make challenging any attempt to pass up that way.

I reach the top of the switchbacks and the trail crosses over Trail Creek.  This is the first major crossing without a bridge, but, now, in early Fall, the water level is low and I am able to hop from rock to rock without getting my feet wet.  A short distance later I arrive at the junction with the Clark Creek Trail and also the confluence with the creek of the same name.  I am tempted to continue and reach treeline, however I am at the extent of comfortable hiking and decide to find a warm meadow instead.  I take off my pack and set myself down to enjoy my lunch.  It is quiet except for the rushing water.  My mind wanders to the high points rimming my present location but my body stays here.  The day slips by slowly, and I mark time not by a watch but by the trace of the sun’s arc across the clear, blue sky.

Rested, I now begin my hike back the way I came.  As I descend the switchbacks, a doe mule deer pops out of the rift in the rock that carries Trail Creek and stands on the trail with her fawn.  I am just far enough away to create uncertainty in her mind as to whether or not I am a threat.  I freeze, but an errant gust of wind sends my scent to her and she bolts, fawn in tow, before I can raise my camera.

The upper Green River – a scenic juggernaut.  Walking back down the trail, my eyes are constantly lifted to the walls of rock on either side of me.  It seems so close until I look at the conifers for scale and realize that these walls are hundreds of feet tall, most likely topping out over one or even two thousand feet.  I am walking along a nice trail, a trace through the forest that is easy to follow.  The folks who came up here and gave names to these places before the trail system was in place must have been a hard breed.

I return to camp early enough so that I can cook supper without the darkness encroaching upon entirely.  Tom’s Stew is served once again, that delightful concoction of ramen noodles, canned corn and Vienna sausages.  I slurp it down, barely registering the two thousand calorie gut bomb.  I desire more, but it is enough and I pack up my gear and stow it just as the shadows engulf the valley.  There is still enough light for a brief exploration of my immediate area and climbing some fifty feet or so in elevation above my camp I am rewarded with a stunning view of the valley upstream.  I didn’t get a chance to see this the previous evening due to my late arrival, but I have found an opening in the forest that allows a view over the forest’s canopy and a full vista of the U-shape that is a classic sign of past glaciation.

I sit and stare but not for too long as the sun is hastily retreating beyond the western horizon and the stars are ready to claim the night.  I pick my way through the jumble of logs and fallen timber back to camp where I curl up in my sleeping bag after making sure that all my potential bear attractants are safely stored in my backpack.  That backpack is now swinging from a high snag, some twelve feet above ground and a few feet from any trunk.  Just as I am about to fall asleep, I hear a rustling in the woods above me.  Shining my light , I see a pair of reflecting eyes, something small – perhaps a member of the weasel family from the way it bounds off, but I couldn’t be sure.  Light off, the nighttime returns and I stare at the glow from the Milky Way vainly attempting to scrutinize the meaning of it all.  It is hopeless, and I reconcile myself to simply accepting the world as it is rather than find any meaning in it.  Night has fallen, and there isn’t even a hint of glow from the west when I pull myself into the tent and slip into unconsciousness, allowing my body and mind a chance at recuperation before the next day’s adventure.

Western States Road Trip, Day 13, Gardiner, Montana to Jim Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming – October 12, 2015

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake

A faint glow in the east heralds in a new day.  I am in Gardiner, Montana, the northern gateway town to Yellowstone National Park.  Emil, my host, has left early, long before dawn, to get himself into position for the day’s hunt.  Meanwhile, I lounge in bed, watching the eastern glow strengthen and illuminate the land below my perch.  I am blessed to awake here, overlooking a portion of the Northern Range of Yellowstone National Park.  I make breakfast using left-overs from the previous evening’s supper and a strong cup of black coffee and then return to the window through which I can view the crepuscular light.  One by one and in groups the stars begin to fade as the glow rises from the horizon to envelope them.  Soon, only the morning star, which is actually a planet although I am not sure which one, is ablaze with light and I know that the time has come for me to be on my way.

I have many hours to drive if I want to hike beyond the Green River Lakes and camp in the Jim Bridger Wilderness.  So, I leave Gardiner before sunrise for the long drive through the park to Jackson, Wyoming and beyond.  This is a comfortable spot and I hate to leave so early, but am committed to backpacking a couple of nights above the lakes.  The car is packed with the little gear I had brought inside.  This chore is made a bit more interesting because in this wildlife prone area I am alert for whatever may be standing just outside of the door of the house.  There are elk cow and calves about but none near me as I finish packing and take one last look around.   I start driving and, as a farewell to Gardiner, stop for a cup of coffee to help me stay alert.

Outside of Mammoth Hot Springs I see a bull elk on a small ridge above the road, bugling for his harem and chasing a half a dozen cow elk.  He is silhouetted against the morning’s sky, the clouds of which are at that moment lit a glowing red by the sun positioned just below the horizon.  It is as majestic sight as I could hope for but I am in no position to photograph the spectacle so I commit it to memory.  I continue to drive, passing over the High Bridge that crosses the Gardner River before climbing up past Lava Creek and Undine Falls.

A few miles later, at Blacktail Deer Ponds, there are a few cars stopped and about a quarter of a mile away is a purported grizzly bear investigating whatever it is that is piquing its interest.  I continue on my way after the bear has moved out of sight, happy to have at least this drive-by ursine sighting, and driving past Blacktail Deer Plateau I am reminded of the numerous wildlife activity that I have seen in this area.  I spy South Butte, a small knoll with a magnificent view of the surrounding area.  I stop briefly in the parking lot, just to relive some of the more specific, significant events I have seen that are the gestalt of the ecosystem.

Driving along, past more of the familiar sights from my time living in Yellowstone, I again stop.  This time its at Hellroaring Overlook, where the view of the vast, opposite hillside allows a stunning perch to watch wildlife from.   I continue past Tower Junction but instead of making the left turn to head out towards Lamar Valley I continue to the south, over Dunraven Pass and down to Canyon, Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake.  Near the summit of Dunraven Pass I stop to scan the eponymous range.  There is a certain sadness here as I note the swath of dead, beetle-killed white-bark pine.  Perhaps the forest will recover, but I worry that this is a nascent sign of climate change.  One more stop along the shore of Yellowstone Lake, an emerald lake of large proportions.  It is surrounded by mountains, like a gem in a setting.

There is so much to see and I make a couple of other short stops along the way but generally must be content to drive by.  I pass through the South Entrance and into Grand Tetons National Park.  I keep going, making it into Jackson, Wyoming where I stop and have lunch.  A couple more hours of driving and I am finally at the Green River Lakes Trailhead, where I park my car and hoist my pack up onto my shoulders.  The drive down has been one mile after another of stunning Rocky Mountain scenery, but now I get to experience it outside of my mechanized chariot.

For the third time in as many years, I am greeted with the fine sight of Squaretop Mountain looming over the upper Green River basin and the lower of the two large lakes found in this basin.  Into the granite wonderland I go, appreciative of the quietude and peacefulness found here.  I would like to hike to the far, southern side of Upper Green River Lake and find a place to pitch my tent there.

The hike begins with a short descent from the parking lot down to a bridge that crosses the Green River.  I begin walking along the eastern shore of Lower Green River Lake.  This side is mostly void of thick forest and what trees grow are sparsely set so that I have a continuous view of the granitic spires rising up to the horizon.  It is an amazing sight and my main problem is keeping an eye on my footfalls.  It is a minor miracle that I don’t stumble and cascade down the slope to the lake below.

I cross Clear Creek and am now at the inlet to the lower lake.  The Highline Trail, also known as Bridger-Teton National Forest Trail 94, continues on another mile to its junction with the Lakeside Trail.  The Green River is flowing nearby and I keep hiking through the lodgepole pine forest until I reach the Upper Green River Lake.  The view is similar, with Squaretop Mountain and other granite peaks rising above the lake.  There are some sedimentary layers, uplifted and isolated, I suppose, when the granite was pushed up from the depths below.

The Highline Trail skirts the eastern shore of this lake as well.  Here the trail is, for a small portion of its distance, up on a ledge and I do keep an eye on my feet as a misstep would have the most serious consequences.  Above the lake the trail continues as do I.  Through thick forest and across open meadow this mountain valley path takes me.  The Green River and the trail that parallels it are my guides and each step affords a new view of the majestic towers of granite found here, in the majestic Wind River Range of Wyoming.  The river above the upper lake is colored turquoise with the glacial silt that tints the waters and I laugh out loud and shout an epithet of joy to commemorate my current situation.  Hurrah! for the Rocky Mountains!

Darkness is coming down and I have yet to find a place to sleep.  Deep in the valley, along the river, the shadows come quickly.  Finally, near Squaretop Mountain itself, I find a fine location above the trail.  Its far enough away from the river and trail to guarantee privacy although I have yet to see another person after some six to seven miles of hiking.  Most likely I could have slept on the trail without being disturbed.  I stake out the tent and complete darkness encroaches on me as I cook dinner.  It has been a long day but the effort – the long drive, the hiking – has been worth it as I am in the shadow of some beautiful granite sculptures.   The bonus is that the sky has not a single cloud in it and the stars shine bright.  I don’t want to sleep just yet, despite my tired state, as the heavens above twinkle with the multifarious pinpoints of brilliant light.  I stare out at the firmament until my nodding head compels me to tuck myself into my cozy sleeping bag and after a prayer of thanks I am soon asleep.

Western States Road Trip, Day 12, Cache Creek, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming to Gardiner, Montana – October 11, 2015

Cache Creek, Yellowstone National Park, just below South Cache Creek

Cache Creek, Yellowstone National Park, just below South Cache Creek

I woke up in the early morning, well before dawn, out of a sound sleep.  I peeked my head outside to gaze at the stars only to see clouds sailing across the heavens, obscuring the firmament.  The wind was gusting, shaking the tent and occasionally I could hear a snag fall in the nearby forest.  It would start with a shriek and would follow with a loud crash.  Fortunately, I had chosen a location away from any overbearing snags and I wasn’t worried about dead fall.  I did, however, begin to worry about snow but in the darkness there wasn’t much that I could do about it so I just lay warm and snug in my sleeping bag contentedly ensconced in my tent.

Dawn inches closer and the sky is full of clouds as the winds continue their unrelenting gusts.  Finally, it is light enough out to see by and I donned my warm clothing to begin the chore of preparing my morning victuals.  The wind itself wasn’t as worrisome as the thought of a deep blanket of snow smothering all traces of the previous two days worth of mild weather.  The clouds were moving rapidly by the tall peaks and I decided that it would be prudent to pack up quickly and finish my trip.

The most challenging part of the morning was finding lee shelter from the gusts.  I couldn’t do much except hunker down behind a large log and this was only partly satisfactory.  High up in Cache Creek’s headwaters I could see precipitation being deposited.  Breakfast soon being finished, I packed up my gear and then returned to the tent were I began to disassemble that structure.  The challenging part was when all the stakes had been pulled and I was laying out the tent and fly to roll up in the strong wind.  I was worried but in the end rolling up the light-weight sheets of fabric wasn’t that difficult.

I check my surroundings for anything that might have been inadvertently left unpacked but my campsite is as clean as it could be.  The pack is weighty and I heft it up onto my shoulders as the gusts try to shift it around.  I am loathe to leave but regardless of wind or snow or whatever, my permit is up and I must return to the trailhead.  Ten miles of hiking will return me to my car.  I am not looking forward to being buffeted by the wind head-on for the next four hours but it begins to appear that it won’t snow or rain much at the lower elevations found along my return path.

The first order of business is to avoid the small group of three bison that have taken up grazing just above camp and in the proximate location of the trail.  So, I detour along the edge of the meadow and occasionally dart into the lodgepole pine forest so as to give the beasts enough space to continue their activity without disturbance.  I climb over logs and walk through the waist-high grasses before finding the clear path.  Once on the path I begin to walk downstream and soon I am in my easy, comfortable pace that carries me along.

The wind continues but the gusts are becoming less frequent and less powerful and within half an hour of hiking they are reduced to a mere breeze.  The clouds also begin to dissipate and soon the sun’s warmth has given its heat to the day.  I continue to walk down the trail that I had walked up a couple of days prior, taking note along the way of the state of the regenerating forest and the geology and topography of the area.

Out from behind a small grove of new lodgepole pines a bull bison scampers off down the trail, throwing up clouds of dust, tail arched up in alarm.  I look around, but it is obviously me that has caused him this consternation.  He runs past other bison that are grazing away without much concern about my presence.  He stops, looks at me and again bolts down the trail, out of sight.  I continue on my way, warily, until I meet him again.  He isn’t amused by my presence and makes his displeasure known by pawing the ground and aiming his tail straight up.  I believe that he is fed up with moving and has decided to stand his ground so I detour off the trail and navigate my way through a lodgepole pine forest thick with fallen snags and logs.  I keep my distance from the bull as he rotates to follow my progress, but he remains in place as I regain the trail some five or six hundred feet down from him.  I keep on hiking, making more space between the two of us, occasionally looking behind me to ensure that I’m not being followed; but he remains in place and the last sight I have of him is with his head down in the grass, grazing away.

I pass the South Fork of Cache Creek only to marvel at the size of the drainage as I did on my hike in.  Hiking along I being to smell the sulfuric smell that is common to the thermal activity found throughout the region.  On my map is Wahb Springs and in parenthesis is the word sulphur.  I walk over to take a look but don’t get too close.  The small and otherwise inconspicuous gully draining from above carries the moniker of Death Gulch and I am plenty happy to respect that appellation by keeping my distance.  The rotten-egg smell is produced by hydrogen sulphide gas and that gas can be lethal in small doses.

The clouds have now burnt off from much of the sky and the day has become another fine day for hiking.  I discover an elk skull complete with a set of five-point antlers that I had somehow not seen on my hike in.  I wonder what the story is behind that animal’s life and how he died, but there is no other sign nearby and the skull is bleached white with age.

The time and miles slip by with ease as I walk through the forests and meadows along the trail.  In the distance ahead I can see the ridges that denote the location of the Lamar River and I know that my trek is almost at a finish.  I continue to hike but also stop to examine whatever piques my interest.  It could be a specific tree or shrub or just the lay of the land in general.  Any item relating to the natural world is worthy of further inspection and the subsequent introspection that occurs within my mind.

I pass the junction with the Lamar River Trail and being the final three miles of hiking through the broad meadows of the upper end of the world-renown Lamar Valley.  Today, the buffalo are not herded up on the trail itself and my stroll is fairly uneventful sans the detours that made my inbound hike a bit uneasy.  I pass down a small gully and am upon the junction with the Specimen Ridge Trail.  Now, I only have a mile and a half to go and a sadness at having to leave clouds my countenance.  My car is in view and the noise from the road begins to encroach on my being.  I see Barronette Mountain up the valley of Soda Butte Creek and the vista is a grand spectacle of Rocky Mountain scenery.

One last push, over a gravely swale and past one, last herd of buffalo and I am upon the bridge that carries the trail over Soda Butte Creek.  A fine setting to finish my hike, I walk up the path to the parking lot and unlock my waiting transport.  It has been a fine day, and as I look around at the sky I think how very different it was this morning with the strong winds and dark clouds.  I say a small prayer of thanks for my safe delivery as well as to help ensure that my car will actually start now that I have loaded it up with my gear.

Start it does, and within fifteen minutes I have driven the equivalent distance that it took me four plus hours to hike.  There is naught else to do at the moment except to return to Gardiner and run a load of laundry and take a cleansing shower.  My friend Emil has graciously suggested that I spend another night at his abode and I am pleased to accept his offer.  The evening is spent regaling each other with stories and tales as we gobble up a spaghetti dinner.  It has been a fine day, and I am again blessed to be spending time in one of the finest locations within the Rocky Mountains.

Western States Road Trip, Day 11, Cache Creek, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming – October 10, 2015

The Thunderer seen from the east on Cache Creek

The Thunderer seen from the east on Cache Creek

The chill morning announced itself with the slow passage of the stars through the night’s sky that culminated with the gradual advancing of the dawn’s brightening light.  There is a slight frost on some of the grass.  I stay snug in my sleeping bag, peeping my head out the door to watch the sunrise, the sky’s incandescence growing ever more luminous.  It is cold in the shadow despite the sun striking the ridge above but I get up out of bed anyhow, for I have the entire day ahead of me to explore some of the upper reaches of Cache Creek, here in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park.

I gather my wits and cloak myself in heavy clothing before walking over to the bear box and retrieve my victuals from the sturdy metal container.  My lungs pour forth one breath after another that emerges from my body as so much steam.  There is a buffalo nearby, grazing placidly on the thick grasses that had grown abundantly throughout the just-past summer and his breath is also seen as a plume of white haze.  He seems to be alone, and pays me not attention, not bothering to so much as raise his head and look in my direction.  I begin to prepare my oatmeal and the one, precious allotted cup of coffee and once ready I savoir the hot food.  It steams when exposed to the chill and I don’t dally as I imbibe the heady, black fluid.

Conscious of bear safety and wanting to not teach bears, or any other critters, that humans are a source of food, I return everything that may be a possible attractant to a bear to the bear-box.  I bring forth my pack and food for the day, plus some water and the filter.  A final check is made that the tent is zipped up and I am off just before the sun finally crests the high ridge near Cache Mountain.

The first thing I do is follow some of the game trails up the second fork of Cache Creek. I climb higher than I did last evening and further study the breccia that this portion of the ridge seems to be comprised of.  The trails get a bit challenging to follow and I don’t find an easy route to the top of the dividing ridge between the drainage of the second fork and the main stem of Cache Creek.  So, I stop and look up the second fork and am amazed at the extent of the wildlands that are in this one, small drainage.  The vast expanse of dead lodgepole pine also testify to the ferociousness of forest fires.  But death often leads to new life and indeed the new forest is regenerating – slowly, but steadily as the pace of lodgepole pine growth dictates.

I decide to return to the trail and follow it up to the next campsite upstream.  The day is perfect, once again, for hiking and exploring.  The air temperature rises quickly once the sun’s rays pour their heat onto the grasses.  I hike through more open meadows separated by groves of conifer.  Cache Creek becomes slighter as I approach its headwaters.  Still wide but not nearly as much so as a few miles downstream.  There are very few bison but enough that I keep aware.  After nearly an hour of hiking I reach the third fork of Cache Creek.  Like the first two there are no maintained trails that course through the drainage but the adventurous could follow game trails throughout the various drainages.

Somewhere just below the Thunderer Cutoff Trail I heard about a half a dozen elk bugling up in the forest.  A couple of huge bear scats sat in the middle of the trail, but they where dry and crumbly and thus not indicating the immediate presence of ursine activity.  A fine day as I continue to hike along Cache Creek.  I come across the trail junction with its relatively short backdoor access to this upper portion of Cache Creek but there isn’t a soul in sight.  I feel at peace with the world and listen to the birds sing.  I soon come across one of the many backcountry patrol cabins that can be found throughout the park.  It is charming and I wish there was a way to stay there; I am envious of those who have the keys.

Above the cabin the trail begins to follow the fourth major branch of Cache Creek.  The trail will eventually cross a pass and drop down into the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River, but that is much further that I will go today.  The elevation increases but not that much and overall the trail feels relatively level.  The fire’s scarring can be seen over miles and miles, and while I am happy to see many new trees there are also many places where it appears that the trees are not regrowing.  Is that due to climate change, or just the vagaries of the life cycle of the coniferous forest?  I suppose that time will tell, but I do worry about the future of our planet and all of the life found throughout.

I reach the final designated campsite in the drainage.  It is a fine location and I hope that someday in the future I am able to spend some nights here.  I sit and gleefully consume the provisions that I brought along, simultaneously sitting on the bank of the unnamed creek that is noisily trickling by.  Warm sun above, cool shade near by, the recipe for a nap… and that is what I do, peacefully laying at repose as the world, quiet and unobtrusive, spins about on its axis. The time slips by and the sun arcs further that I would have supposed by the time I stand up from my prone state.  Time to get moving.

Not wishing to hike further up the drainage I instead climb the ridge directly above the campsite.  Over fallen trunks I go, through high, thick grass until I have plodded my way up some five hundred feet above the rocky creek beds below.  Here, I can stare out at Cache Creek’s lower portion while admiring the gouged ridges above.  I walk on the ridge and find a portion of petrified tree log.  The process that has allowed this to happen is fascinating and just adds to the magic that is Yellowstone National Park.

I have some miles to walk and now the sun is beginning to angle towards the western horizon. I walk down the nose of the ridge, finding another chunk of petrified wood, this one being a cross section of what appears to have been a stump.  I reach the Cache Creek Trail and retrace my steps back past the cabin and the cutoff trail.   On my way back to camp, I don’t hear the elk bugling, but as I walk by I relive the moment in my head and know that although I don’t see much there are critters up in the forest waiting for my passing.

I return to camp and follow the same procedures as the previous evening.  I make Tom’s Camp Stew and slurp up every last bite.  Unfortunately, we have further impacted the previously pristine waters of the Rocky Mountains by the introduction of amoebic pathogens and one of the more tedious camp chores is the filtering of water.  I find this task dull and therefore seldom write about it, but it should be noted that this task is vital to ensuring good health.

Again, I reach my tent on the cusp of darkness and climb into my sleeping bag.  I am pleased with this bag – light weight and a bit pricey but it keeps me warm.  I again lay half out of the tent, just like the previous night, and stare up at the twinkling stars naming constellations.  The Milky Way’s glow is a smeared streak across the sky and I can’t help but think of our place in the galaxy and what lies out in the farther reaches of the cosmos.  The stars continue to shimmer as a blaze of light shoots across a quadrant of the sky before burning out and returning the sky to its normal, dark state.  I begin to nod off but don’t really want to fall asleep.  Soon, I am compelled to retreat fully into the interior of the tent as a small group of coyotes howls nearby.  A final blessing before I am carried off to dreamland, and I say a prayer for the coyotes’ well being as my lids sag, content with the state of my being.