Going upriver to Colter’s Hell

Going upriver to Colter’s Hell

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Activities Activities: Hiking
Seasons Season: Summer

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In the summer of 1806 the Corp of Discovery (Lewis & Clark expedition) was speeding downstream on the Missouri River. They had been gone for over 2 years and the whole party was anxious to get home to their families and friends, to their bounty and certain fame. All except John Colter (a true dirtbag). After the party had overcome all of the most difficult obstacles, 5 weeks before pulling into St. Louis, John Colter asked for and was granted leave of his duties. He promptly headed back upriver to what is now the northwest corner of Wyoming. A few years later Colter sent back reports of an area where steam rose from the ground and the mud boiled. Colter's reports were discounted as the raving of a mad man. Those who referred to his reports at all spoke of the place as Colter's Hell. Today we know this area as Yellowstone. Colter had stumbled into a gash in the earth or caldera that was 28 by 47 miles.

What drew Colter back to this area from certain fame and fortune in the security of “home?” People that work and live in the park speak of a feeling that keeps pulling them back, that won't let them go. I feel like I understand what turned Colter around almost 2 centuries ago. I grew up in the 60’s and 70s in Arizona with a father who thought that life was all about backpacking under a big sky during the day and staring at a "shovel full of stars" at night. The Grand Canyon was our Holy Grail.
In early 1981 I was at a low point. I found myself living in the Bible Belt, bored with college, one of my best friends had died prematurely over the previous Christmas and the most beautiful woman on the planet had just dumped me. I was able to use the situation to escape the gravity of the Bible Belt and headed back out West where I grew up. I got a housekeeping job in Yellowstone Park and that was all the ticket I needed. I grabbed all the backpacking gear I had spent my high school years accumulating, a bag of Grateful Dead tapes and my long-haired ass was on the trail to freedom. I spent 2 summers in Yellowstone hiking as many miles as I could pack into long days and short nights. I spent the winters diving into bottomless rocky mountain powder.

Life was perfect for a 23 year old then on September 14th 1984 I got a call that my father had been in a bad car wreck. 60 days later he died. I was an only child and I had a handicapped mother to take care of. I got serious about life, went back to college, got married, became a CPA, and in a few short years was working for the largest CPA firm in the world and had a wonderful son. I had achieved “success” by all of the popular measurements, but it seemed like my backpacking days were over. I had turned into someone I didn’t recognize and wasn’t sure I liked. And then my wife asked for a divorce.

Fast forward to the summer 2000. I had reconnected with the aforementioned “most beautiful woman on the planet.” Our first date was a 2-day backpack and within a year we were married. And at last, I was able to let myself be “drawn back” to Yellowstone. Our honeymoon was an 8- day backcountry trip starting with a 1 ½ day canoe trip on Yellowstone Lake (second only in size at that elevation to Lake Titicaca) to propel us into the remote southeast corner of the Park, the Thoroughfare region. After stashing the canoe and an illegal food resupply hang, we hoisted our packs for a 13-mile hike into that night's camp, the beginning of our 50-mile loop. Our trails took us over Two Oceans Plateau, around Lake Mariposa and back up through picturesque upper Yellowstone river valley, before leading us out past mountain ranges that included the Trident, the Turret and finally--Colter's Peak. We had truly gone up river.

Due to the remoteness of this area of Yellowstone, the wildlife is prolific. Along with the ever-present ground squirrels and small birds, we watched elk, black bear, weasel, sand hill cane, bald eagle, wolves, moose, deer, cut throat trout, leaches and of course--grizzly. From small creekside patches of intense wildflowers to broad, deep vistas, the Thoroughfare is a world class wilderness. It was especially nice to see the park's revitalization from the much-needed fires of 1988.
In the Yellowstone wilderness, you're always just one step away from the edge. It's the 5-foot swells that blow up on the lake from what seconds before was glass-smooth water … the thunder that regularly growls in the background ... and fresh grizz tracks on the trail--headed your way.

We sat for lunch one day watching a storm crash down over the previous night's camp-site. After congratulating ourselves for breaking camp early and getting on the trail ahead of that storm, we turned around and walked into a 10-minute pelting with marble-sized hail--in a burn area with no cover.

Later that day, at our third and biggest Upper Yellowstone river crossing, we discovered that the 6 hours of rain the night before had made the marked crossing impassable. Upriver, we found an alternate. After crossing, we began to make our way in the rain back to the trail, about a 1/2 mile downstream, on the other side of a maze of fallen trees from the 1988 burn. We were recounting our adventures to date, the most recent of which was Jo's Teva blowing out in mid river crossing, and I remarked that really, nothing bad had happened … when I slipped off a log and deeply lacerated my leg to the bone on a broken-off branch. We still had 5 more miles of hiking back to our canoe and food resupply for our 1 ½ day canoe trip out. … and we weren't expecting to encounter a grizz who decided to use the middle of our trail to store an elk carcass! We were at the end of a 50-miler, hungry, out of food, and our resupply was less than 2 hours away. We had no choice but to make as much racket from afar and scare the grizz off the carcass, Seeing that griz run up a 75% grade was something I’ll never forget. We used the excitement of the event to blast past the carcass to our canoe and resupply. Our later report to the rangers closed that trail behind us for the rest of the season.

And we were happy to make a report to the ranger, even if he was on a large, white motorized boat, heading out of the wilderness for a long break. My wife spotted the boat & ran down to the shore to wave a red bandana until they noticed her. I limped out to give the grizzly report & heard a bullhorn request to take the bandana off my injured leg so the medic on board could examine it through binoculars. Without further delay, we were instructed to “come aboard.” They threw us (and our canoe) on their boat and took us back to the Lake hospital, where the doc on duty—bored with months of patients with elevation sickness—was practically giddy with excitement when he saw the puncture wound. “GREAT!” he exclaimed, his eyes sparkling with anticipation, “I get to do a delayed closure!” He cut away enough flesh to open up the wound and then sent me to the showers with some gauze and the instructions to scrub my open wound down to the bone. I thought, “What would John Colter do?” I scrubbed as directed.

That was 11 years ago and I haven’t been back to Yellowstone since. But getting back to Yellowstone with my new bride reminded me of who I really was and it reminded me of the freedom the wilderness provides. It's hard to imagine how big Yellowstone is. It's bigger than the three smallest states in the U.S. Our 50-mile loop covered less than 5% of the +1,000 miles of hiking trail, and much of the park's area is not even crossed by trails. There are only about 300 miles of paved road in the park. To drive through Yellowstone, and imagine that you have experienced more than the tiniest fragment of it, is delusional. The real magic of Yellowstone, starts about a few miles down the trail. That's where you start to step off the edge a little. Go prepared for an adventure and you'll have one.
Today I live in Northern California, own a house and run my own business and we are able to squeeze in at least 200 trail miles of High Sierra thin air annually. A few years ago we had planned on hiking about 2/3rds of the 222 mile John Muir Trail. Two weeks before our departure date Jo came home from work and announced that she had been laid-off. And then she said, “Now we can hike the WHOLE John Muir Trail.” And we did. The truth is that she has the true freedom ethic.
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