Intro August 4th-14th, 2011
With our Indian guide following an ancient path, we steadily made our way up the eastern flanks of the mighty range that lay spread out before us. Finally, after many miles, we reached the point where we’d part ways with our guide. From here on, we’d be on our own. We made “arrangements” with the guide to rendezvous at the same spot, 8 days hence, to guide us back to the white man’s world.
Sounds kind of romantic doesn’t it? Well, truth be known, it wasn’t quite that romantic. Some might call it, “Poetic License” but a more realistic version might sound more like this:
Ramona’s (Mony, the licensed Indian outfitter) cousin, Cal (Certified 19/64 Native American) drove us up the Old Gannett Peak Hwy in the back of his Chevy pickup. After about 13 rough, dusty miles we reached the end of the line - the Cold Springs Trailhead. We unloaded our gear, told Cal we’d be coming out a week from Saturday for the ride back to Mony’s house and from there, back to civilization.
The statement that we’d be on our own however, was a statement of singular truth, no matter how you say it. From the second day of this journey til the next to last day, a full weeks time, we would not encounter another soul.
Our group was the same as the last three trips - Chris, my 25 year old son and his dog, Chewy, Mark our friend, former Eagle Scout, master knot tier and myself. Also along on this trip was my new techno aquisition, SPOT-the Global Positioning Tracker and preset message sender. Got it so our loved ones would know that we were OK and so that they could track our movements.
Our destination this year, took us back to a place we'd been to twice before, in 2004 and 2009 - Dry Creek/Horse Ridge area on the eastern side of the Wind River Range in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness. On our previous trips, we'd gone in a "back door" to avoid paying the Indian guide. This time we ponied up and went through the front door, which made for a very different experience in some ways.
Unlike previous trips, our plans did not include any climbing. This trip's goals were to explore a seldom visited corner of Upper Dry Creek, check out some routes for future trips and to spend alot of time flyfishing.
And so it begins Day 1-Thursday, August 4th ~ Fort Collins to Lander
Made it to Lander about 7 PM on Thursday the 4th of August. Had to show our AARP cards to the wench that owns the Pronghorn Motel, as we knew we would from past experience, to get our geezer certified, discounted rate. That done, we headed over to the Quick Stop for our Reservation Permits and beer. Cash only for the permits! Back to the motel to unload our stuff, a couple beers on the deck by the Popo Agie River then on to the Gannett Grill for dinner. With our alarms set for 5:30 AM, we turned in a tad early for our last night of “bed sleep” for a while.
Day 2-Friday, August 5th ~ Lander to Crowheart to Cold Springs to 1st nights camp in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness
After the industrial strength alarm at the motel woke us, we cleaned up and went across the parking lot to the Oxbow for breakfast. We were packed and on the road by 7:15, heading north to Mony’s house in Crowheart. Forty minutes later we were there, stopping at the Crowheart Store first, to ask where Mony’s house was. Chris asked me if I’d brought his headnet and any bug juice for him. “No” I replied, “figured you were taking care of your own stuff.” He grimaced and scored some juice but no headnet at the store. I had a feeling he was gonna miss that headnet and, so did he. After buying a ridiculous looking “Crowheart Store” ballcap, he and Mark mailed their postcards at the store and we were off to Mony's place.
They told us that her house was the green one, just north of the store. We drove the short distance, parked in the yard and knocked on the door. Ramona answered the door and invited us in. Her kids were eating cereal at the kitchen table. We squeezed into the kitchen, showed our permits to Ramona and met our driver, the aforementioned Cal. With all of us crammed into that little kitchen, while the kids ate their Coco Puffs, we did the deal - $250 apiece, cash or check, for the roundtrip ride to Cold Springs.
Once we got outside, I gave Cal my little cooler filled with beer and asked him if he could ice it and bring it to the trailhead when they picked us up. He said he would. Turned on Spots Tracker for the first time. Loaded our gear into the back of the pick-up while Cal grabbed a bench seat from some car of the past and set it in the back, behind the cab for Chris and Chewy. Mark sat up front with Cal while I squeezed into the club cab seats. Cal was a good guy, we talked about a good many things. From his time living in Denver to grizzly bears in the Winds. I gathered that he preferred the bears. He told us some funny stories about dealing with black bears that raided their hunting camps over on the Bob Lakes. According to Cal, cans of spray paint wrapped with bacon worked wonders on the bruins bad habits.
A few miles of pavement, thirteen miles of dirt, an hour and a half later and we were at the Cold Springs TH. Weather was picture perfect, blue skies, a few clouds and warm temps. Once we were ready to go, Cal walked us up to the start of the trail then bid us farewell. It was 10:30 AM.
Ready to go!!
After cruising through the forest we reached the edge of a large meadow. A 1/4 mile or so into the meadow and we reached the boundry of the Indian Reservation.
Out of the Res' and into the Fitzpatrick
Beyond the fence lay the 191,000 acre Fitzpatrick Wilderness.
First glimpse of our destination
We were pumped to finally be on our way. Shortly after that, we ran into three guys coming out. They reported the fishing to be good and the bugs to be bad. “Higher you go, the worse they are” they said. Not exactly what I wanted to hear.
Mark crossing the Moose Lake inlet
Once we reached the south end of a long meadow, we began the climb to the high point of this leg of the hike at 10,250 feet. Very mellow hike so far. At that high point, while taking our first pack-off break, we ran into another group of guys coming out. Five guys from Texas, very happy to hear that they were at the top of the hill. Told us they’d left 20 pounds of “stuff” near Native Lake to lighten their load. We were taken aback by that news and could only wonder why some people carry so much. These guys were not young and some appeared to be no where close to being in shape. They moved on, planning to camp near the fence for their next day pick-up.
We started down the big hill, knowing we were heading into familiar territory. At the bottom, we made for our old campsite near the bridge to take a break. The elk jaw from last trip two years ago was still there though it was laying on the ground in 2 pieces. A pack-off break with food was what we had in mind but it was looking like Mother Nature had other ideas. Dark clouds looming to the west seemed to be moving in our direction so instead of relaxing and eating, we found ourselves scrambling to get our rain gear on and hustling to get back on the trail. Didn't really get our break which wasn't good. The rain came and we trudged on, hoping to make camp near the Moose Lake outlet.
This section of the trail took on an undulating, up and down character that drained our energy quickly. After 5.5 miles, we started looking for a campsite. Found one overlooking the creek at about 6 miles and were glad to get the packs off and camp set up. Sent the first SPOT message-”We’re OK, having a great time.” Bugs weren’t too bad and the openess of the site allowed breezes to keep the bugs that were there, at bay, some of the time. Beef stroganoff for dinner, had a good, relaxing evening.
Day 3-Saturday, August 6th ~ We leave the main trail above Moose Lake, traveling into unknown territory over a little used path
Dump from the days of old
Second crossing, Dry Creek.
Oh the Joy!
Dry Creek Ridge over our camp
Waiting for coffee
Got off to a late start with our goal being the area between Norman and Rock Lakes, another five plus miles beyond. Took our packs off near the Moose Lake inlet and searched for a bit before we found evidence of a crossing point and a faint trail on the other side of the creek. Also, in our searching we found a large dump left by travelers of the past, before the term “Pack it in, Pack it out” came into vogue. Forgot to turn SPOT Tracker on.
Crossed the ankle deep stream and continued on a good trail for about 3/4 of a mile where the trail faded into the willows in the creek bottom. The map showed our trail staying on the west side of Dry Creek, but all evidence pointed to the east side and another crossing. We went with what looked right and crossed the creek, which was a little deeper and colder than the last crossing. Picked up faint traces of the trail again on the other side. Going was slow as we had to pick our way along the edge of the forest that skirted the willow lined creek bottom. When the forest became impassable with downed timber, we were left with trying to find the driest path through the increasingly boggy meadow. We were successful for a while until we tried cutting straight across the upper part of the meadow. We all emerged on the far side with bog muck in our boots.
A well used campsite made for a good break spot and after further consideration, our campsite for the night. We decided that it wasn’t practical to continue, given that it was getting late in the afternoon, we were still a mile and a half away and 500 verticle feet below the first lake. So, in spite of only making only 3 1/2 miles for the day, we cashed in our chips and set up camp. Looking back on it, it was a good decision, though it cost us a day.
Many little T-Storms hit us just after camp was set. Put the bugs down for a bit at least. Spent the evening relaxing by the fire, swatting mosquitoes and enjoying the views that camping on the edge of the meadow afforded. Looked for wildlife in the meadow as the sun faded and saw none. Nice alpenglow on Dry Creek Ridge above.
Day 4-Sunday, August 7th ~ Final push to our base camp between Rock and Norman Lakes
Upper Dry Creek
Turned SPOT Tracker on before the hike started. No surprise that the hike started with a fairly steep climb. Fortunately it didn’t last too long before giving way to our next stream crossing. Had a little trouble finding the ford, but once we found it, it was a piece of cake, though it was a few degrees colder than the last one. Followed a decent trail from there all the way to Norman Lake. Elevation was starting to be a factor with Norman being at 10,500 ft.
Chris and Mark moving along Norman Lake
Norman Lake is a large, beautiful alpine lake bounded by steep, rocky slopes on it’s SE side and not quite as steep, tree covered slopes on the NW side. Moved on along the NW shore of the lake, following the very faint trail until it was gone. Headed up the slope gradually from the lake hoping for a trail and found none. Left our packs on a large rock overlooking the lake and bushwacked upward, in the general direction of Rock Lake. Followed a draw up until we reached an open area just below the lake. From there, we began our search for a campsite which turned out to be harder than we figured.
View from camp of Rock Lake
After much searching, we settled on the only previously used spot that we found - a sheltered site, a short distance from the lake and it’s outlet. As we began our setup it became obvious that the bugs were horrific!!! Gnats by the million with a few hundred thousand skeeters and flies thrown in. Accidently sent Spot’s “Coming out Saturday” message. Oooops, blame it on the bugs!
Our only salvations from the bugs were the wind, the fire smoke and our tents. We used them all. After a light dinner of mac & cheese, we went over to the lake to try a little fishing. Frequent storms in the evening kept us hopping in and out of raingear.
Morning light on the lake and Horse Ridge
Day 5-Monday, August 8th ~ Moving slow - coffee and breakfast got us going for some fishing along the east side of Rock Lake
Chocolate Hazelnut Pirouettes with coffee and cheese and pepper omelet for breakfast, mmmmmm good stuff! Another beautiful start to the day with clear skies and temps in the low 40s. Plan for the day was to stretch our legs a little, without the backpacks, and try the fishing along the east side of our lake.
Cascades between Rock Lake and the upper lake with Chimney Rock right of center
While we caught a few, we were mostly thankful for the stiff breezes that kept the bugs away and the spectacular views of the cirque above us. Had SPOTs Tracker on all day. Sent the OK message at day’s end.
Rock Lake Butresses-Still quite a bit of snow!
Chewy the Wonder Dog
Back at camp in the afternoon our only refuge from the bugs was our tents. I was laying in my tent, reading, hearing a sound that wasn’t unlike a very light rain falling on the fly. Took me a few seconds to realize that it was no rain I was hearing, but the sound of a hundred thousand gnats and mosquitoes bouncing between the underside of the fly and netting of the tent. Not a good sound.
On a brighter note, we kept two fish for dinner. Baked them in the fire and served with rice. Great meal, very filling!
Chewy, Chris, Me & Mark-after a day of dealing with the bugs
Enjoyed the rest of our evening by a nice, smokey fire before turning in. The bad thing was, that while Mark and I could escape the bugs in our tents, Chris could not. Every time Chewy went into the tent, hundreds of gnats went in with him. Like Greek soldiers hiding in the Trojan Horse, the gnats hid in Chewy’s fur, only to reveal themselves once they were in the tent. Sadly, Chris had to spend his first hour of tent time killing the little bastards and he was growing tired of it.
Ghost Busters spirit in the fire?
More late storms hit us, including a major blow after we turned in. Figured it was a frontal passage and thankful for the shelter our site afforded. If we’d have been in a more exposed spot, our tents could have been trashed.
Day 6-Tuesday, August 9th ~ I fished early, before coffee and had some success. Chris spoke of wanting to leave early because the bugs were torturing Chewy (and him)
So, we changed our plans to accomodate Chris and Chewy. The change coupled with burning an extra day on the way in meant that some of our ambitious plans had to be scrapped. The hike to Indian Pass above Rock Lake, fishing the lakes above and north of Rock and attempting the “short-cut” trail between Rock and Cub Lake all fell by the wayside. More unfinished business in Dry Creek. Another time perhaps.
We did hike down to Norman Lake to try out the fishing which was disappointing. Kind of a nothing day otherwise. Highlight was having spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner and a little fire time. I had suggested to Chris earlier in the day to try removing the fly from the tent to take away the gnats hiding place. Also suggested opening both ends of the tent to clear the bug out of the tent. Chris did both things and it did help clear the bugs out.
Day 7-Wednesday, August 10th ~ Our day to move down lower in hopes of finding a respite from our tormenters
Another spectacular day greeted us when we rolled out of our tents.
Mark chillin' by the outlet
Moose Lake outlet
Got up a little earlier than was our custom and after a granola breakfat, were on the trail by 9. Progress was tedious down the untrailed slope to Norman Lake. Once there, we kicked in the afterburners, following the now familiar track to the main trail above Moose. Three creek crossings and five miles later, we reached the lower end of Moose Lake where we hoped to set up camp.
Found a nice spot, not far from the outlet and made camp. Bugs were there but not in the numbers that they were at Rock Lake. I was starving by the time we arrived and made myself a MEGA tuna on pita bread sandwich which quelled my hunger big time! Madcap fisherman Chris fished the outlet, catching a nice, fat cutthroat amongst the jumble of rocks there. A very tricky place to land one though Chris pulled it off, barely. Sent SPOTs “OK” message once again. Beef stroganoff for dinner again. I didn’t eat my share as my gut was still full of tuna. Good times by the fire once again.
Moose Lake Reflections
Day 8-Thursday, August 11th ~ Relaxation and fishing day part 2
First day I didn’t get up first. Slept in figuring, "hey, I'm on vacation." Lazed around camp having skittle wraps (burittos) for breakfast which were pretty good. I washed my clothes early and it turned out to be a perfect day for it-sunny and very windy.
We all went fishing on this day- Chris to the outlet, Mark to the eastern side and me to the west. Our plan was to surround em’. Kept in touch by two-way to exchange fishing info. Three trout for dinner was what we were shooting for and the radios also let us keep track of who had what.
Won't bore you with the fishing details, but it was a good day.
Baked Trout on a plank
Chris kept two fish and I one so we had what we needed for dinner. Once we got back to camp Chris put the fish in the creek to keep them cool and we went about our business. Washed hair, relaxed for a little while and eventually, got ready for dinner.
Baked the fish in foil with the usual spices and the unusual, BBQ sauce. Turned out excellent! Served on planks with mashed potatoes on the side.
Day 9-Friday, August 12th ~ Breaking camp, heading into the final night. Chose our old familiar spot by the confounded bridge which would leave us four miles from the trailhead.
Up a 7:30, temp hovering around 36°F with cloudless skies. Found the ground to be very hard and unforgiving. Broke Chris’ trowel trying to make my “cat hole.”
Packed up in no hurry as we only had to make three miles to our old campsite by the bridge.
Mosied out of camp and reached our next camp an hour and 50 minutes later. Just above Native Lake, we encountered the first people we’d seen since the previous Friday. They didn’t say much and seemed aloof about where they’d come from and where they were camped. Little Bobbers, we figured. Set up camp under the blistering 65 degree sun and then, after pumping all our water containers full, moved on to a rare treat-hot lunch. Ramen and Thai Kitchen noodles were the fare of the day. Kicked back in our tents to relax, reading or writing. Bugs not bad, at least not by Rock Lake standards but horse/deer flies could be bothersome if you sat still too long.
That Confounded Bridge
A little later on in the afternoon, we popped out of our tents to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine on another glorious day in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness. Chris decided he was going fishing down by the bridge and Mark and I went along for the ride. Though Dry Creek was still running high, we could see a debris line that was much higher, not far below the bridge itself. That would have been something to see for sure but foot travel at that time would have been nearly impossible. I can’t imagine being able to make it across the upper parts of the creek where we had crossed on the way in and out.
Chris fished from the bridge while we sat in a comfortable spot just upstream. At the bridge, the solid rock opens only enough to let the creek pass. That same rock provided us with great seating from which to watch Chris fish and to gaze at the scene before us. Don’t know how long we sat there but it was magical, almost as though time stood still. But, eventually the shadows lengthened and we knew it was time to go, time to make dinner, so reluctantly we walked back to camp. As the sun slid behind Horse Ridge, we ate our pasta primavera and sipped our Kool-Aid, knowing full well that this was our last night out.
It was a bittersweet evening sitting there by the fire after dinner. Part of us couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there, away from the bugs, away from the setting up and taking down and back to our wives/girlfriends/kids and back to all the finer things that civilization has to offer. But, by the same token, we also knew that it meant the end of our time together, the end of living life by the rhythms of the sun and moon and the end of only thinking about what’s right in front of you, here and now.
The night grew chilly, colder than any other night thus far, causing us to inch a little closer to the warmth of the fire as we sipped the last of our scotch. Knowing that we’d start the day with a 650 foot climb, we didn’t party too hardy.
Day 10-Saturday-August, 13th ~ The hike to the trailhead and the outside world and some sad news of a mountaineering accident on Gannett Peak
Alpenglow on Horseridge
Not wanting to be late for our ride, we were up and at em’ at 6, aiming for a 7 AM departure. Very cold, 32°F and dry as a "popcorn fart", not a hint of a cloud in the sky or of frost on the tents. Missed our scheduled departure time by an hour partly because I’d rolled up my tent and stuffed it in it’s sack without realizing my sunglasses were still in it! Took me a little while to fugure that one out. Happy to report they survived the stuffing.
Hays Park Cairn-getting close tp the TH
Nothing like starting the day with a stout climb. We figured at the outside it might take four hours to reach the TH but we hoped to make it in three. With wings on our feet and beer on our minds we made it in two hours and five minutes. Reached the trailhead at 10:20, nobody in sight.
Speck just left of center is the pickup truck
Chewy, thinking life's good
We dropped our packs and made ourselves as comfy as possible while we waited for our ride. I remember sitting there, in my dilapidated beach chair, waiting for Mony or Cal or whomever was driving and taking in the view. The TH sits at the edge of the forest, overlooking a large, open hillside with the plains beyond. As we sat there looking for a sign of the incoming truck, two antelope trotted across the grassy hillside while a golden eagle soared above. Quite a scene. At 10:30, in the far distance where the forest gave way to the open hillside, a glint of reflected sunshine flashed and drew our attention away from the wildlife. It was civilization coming in the form of a pickup truck and we were glad to see it.
Our driver was Tonya, Cal’s wife. After introductions, she told us that she was expecting two more people to join us. We were pleased to see Tonya pull my little red cooler from the cab and give it to us. It was full of beer on ice and life was good.
Tonya also told us that one of a group of climbers that she’d brought in on Monday had fallen on Gannett Peak and died. It was obvious that she was very upset about it, telling us that he was really a nice guy and that his son was part of the group. We were deeply affected by the news, feeling a common bond with the climbers who’d traveled the same path only a few days after we did. We’d seen and heard helicopters though we had no idea what was happening on the other side of Horse Ridge. A 59 year old man died while his grown son watched. There, but for the luck of the draw, the grace of god or whatever you choose to call it, go my son and I. It was a harsh reminder for us of how dangerous the backcountry can be. Tonya said that she’d brought the man’s family in on Thursday and that they’d hiked in to try to recover the body, which to that point, had not yet been retrieved. Very sad story. Ironically, I’d asked Cal on the way in if they’d ever had any major emergencies happen involving people they’d taken in. “Not really”, he said, “nothing but bumps and bruises.”
Last look over the Dry Creek Valley
The other two guys showed up and after loading their packs we were off. We all sat in the back, letting the other two ride in the cab with Tonya. It was a spectacular ride, sitting on that bench seat, watching the scenery go by. We were pumped to get out and get to our hotel in Lander!
Once we’d arrived back at Mony’s, we packed our gear into the 4Runner, said our goodbyes and headed south to Lander with Chris behind the wheel. It was getting to be about lunch time when we rode into town and Chris suggested we stop at a sub shop called the Bread Board which he been to before, so we did. Not only were the subs good, it was the shop’s 30th anniversary and every thing was 1/2 price! Took the subs to go, stopped at Mr D’s for supplies, checked into the Pronghorn and then had our lunch on the deck by the Popo Agie River. There’s nothing quite like that first meal after a week in the wilderness, unless,... maybe it’s that first beer.
Interesting scene looking across the river from the deck - "Over snow, water or land".
After lunch we showered, shaved, talked to loved ones and relaxed in our rooms. Thankfully, Chris hosed down Chewy after lunch before letting him in the room.
Saturday night in Lander
Mark came by our room at 6 and we walked over to the Gannett Grill for some dinner. It was a beautiful evening so we ate our grub on the patio. From there we moved into the bar portion of the building to have some more beers and play some pool.
The crowd seemed a little different than in previous years, younger and somewhat detached. We were expecting Merle to show up for a little pool, in his Tasmanian Devil T-shirt and cut-offs, as he did on our two previous visits, but he didn't make it. The cowboy and cleavage from two years ago were also missing in action and the place just didn’t have the same feel. Only one local came up to challange us on the table. Not long after, a wedding party staggered in, taking over part of the bar and adding to the bizarreness of the evening. Time to go we figured. Slammed a round of Irish Car-Bombs and made our exit.
Another epic trip into the Winds was at it's end. In some respects, it didn't turn out as we had hoped but we learned a lot. Maybe next time we'll head to a "gnat free zone" on the western side of the range. Something to shoot for.