Fat Camp 2013: The serendipity tour, part 1
It should by now be little secret that I am not the simplest backpacking partner available. For two reasons. My outdoor activity du l’annee has since adolescence been a centrally defining aspect of my personhood, and my still young mind finds it hard to cope with malleability in such matters. More significantly, it finds it hard to give control of such important things to others.
I’m getting better.
Last year I was sad to leave the crew so early. This winter we started plotting, put in for and got a permit, and last week started on a 7 day, ~100 mile route from Lamar to the Heart Lake trailhead in Yellowstone. [Link is what we ended up doing, not what was planned.]
The me of not too many years ago would have found this trip hard to take. We had longish days that took a long time. We had short days. We cut two days short. We took plenty of breaks. We never, ever got out of camp less than 90 minutes after waking up. A younger me, more directly tied to definitives, squeaked at least a little on every occasion, but was drowned out by friendship and contemplation in the midst of a huge landscape.
It was one of the best trips ever, and my worry the last 48 hours over being able to do it justice is not helped but frustration at inadequate photos. But the show must go on; the impossibility of language doesn’t prevent too many people from going out to lunch.
Saturday Danni, Amber and I left the Flathead early. We had a pleasant lunch in Ennis, arrived at Old Faithful a bit before Meghan, and figured we might as well get the permit process started. 7 minutes later we were walking out of the office, with no warnings; not even a request to watch the bear video. Expeditious and unexpected. We retreated to the observation deck at the Inn and got drinks. Meghan showed up, and the tone was soon set. Not one day would pass in the next nine when I wasn’t in danger of splitting at the ears from laughing.
I will admit that my more exacting self seized the opportunity that first night, camping at Canyon after setting the car shuttle, and claimed Meghan as a bunk mate because I reckoned she’d more closely share my pathological efficiency in camp.
Late July means the tail end of the bison rut, and poor human renditions of their inimitable mating call became a running joke as we hiked past a few herds in the lower Lamar. Another running joke, which I could never in my mercy bring myself to capture on film, was Meghan’s almost hyperbolic fear of lightening. Just short of the Cache Creek cabin we sheltered up under the largest lodgepoles we could find as the daily thunderheads introduced themselves with hail and rain. That first day was 18 trail miles, not the simplest means to shake out the kinks and get things running smoothly. The food pole at that evening’s camp had one tree with the clearest and most recent bear claw marks I’ve ever seen going 20 feet up. We made sure to hang the food low enough and out of reach. According to Meghan, I fell asleep almost instantly, in a very conversationally inhibiting fashion.
Day two was a shorty, six miles, but those miles gained 2500 feet to a broad pass a hair over 10k, before dropping down into a camp sheltered in a small groove inside Hoodoo Basin. During the dark months of winter planning I’d been able to unearth a few internet accounts and a truly asinine Tim Cahill essay, information scant enough to suggest that the trail in would be little used. Setting the pace for the trip, we became used to following cairns, posts, and the big orange diamond trail markers through meadows where the tread vanished.
Approaching the pass a little before noon we saw human figures against the horizon. We had been already excited that the thunderstorms had held off, and already felt remote enough that other people where a blessing rather than a curse. The people turned out to be Dan Eakin, state archeologist for Wyoming, and his wife Julie. The Nez Perce, during their flight from the US Army in 1877, crossed Yellowstone and sought to evade the wagon-tied troops by taking a high route through the mountains. Philetus Norris became Yellowstone’s second superintendent that spring, and besides writing what is according to Eakin some of the worst poetry in the English language traveled extensively within the park. Significantly for the historian, he wrote voluminously about what he saw, including the scattered remains of a Nez Perce camp on the meadow leading in to what came to be called Hoodoo Basin. [Page 270 of this book.] Eakin and his wife, accompanied by a tree ring scientist from Bozeman, were up for eight days studying the signs and remains of the Nez Perce, and hoped we wouldn’t mind sharing the camp we had reserved before them. They promised to be good company that evening, so we thought little of the request. It was when we made it down to camp and saw the numerous stock panniers stuffed with food and gear that we realized the request was both earnest, demanded by procedure, and absurd. They couldn’t move but a fraction of their gear, and there was plenty of room for everyone.
That afternoon Amber, Meghan and I hiked up to Hoodoo Peak. The winds defended, the clouds glowed, and the views layed out for 50+ miles in every direction.
The third day was the make or break crux of our trip, as we were scheduled for a site down on the upper Lamar which was 8 miles as the crow flies, but 25 by trail. We had debated the merits of dropping to the creek and meeting up with an old trail 1/3 of the way in to the day, or staying high in the meadows above 9000 feet and hoping the final drop was neither too steep nor too covered in deadfall. I had an intuition the high route would be good, given the megafauna endemic to the area, and a glance from up on Hoodoo seemed to confirm that. We woke up early, somewhat guiltily causing our researcher friends to do the same, as they insisted on making up bagel sandwiches, and sending us on our way with cookies and elk jerky.
What followed was, in a summer already sickening rife with superlatives, one of the best days of hiking I’ve ever had. We made slow but steady miles through gorgeous meadows, solid elk trails, and occasional, modest deadfall. Big views passed slowly, as big clouds rolled past quickly. We spent at least 90 minutes in two sessions waiting out thunder and hailstorms. Two basins were set under the southern flanks of Saddle Mountain, fine dishes for hikers easing into the thick of an ambulatory vomitorium. The first was broad and lush, spiced with fleabane and deep spring hidden in the grass. The second was equally broad at first glance, but hid acrid gullies of volcanic conglomerate with tricky footing. Halfway through Meghan and I went down, a quicker route with steeper going, while Danni and Amber went up to more straightforward terrain. We two crested the ridge 10 minutes ahead and saw a massive, dark dot 700 meters down the ridge, eating flowers in the meadow. Hump and swaggering gait quickly revealed the largest griz I’ve ever seen.
Meghan was beside herself, having kittens as the phrase goes, and I will eternally regret not videoing the awe-stricken “It’s sooo biig!” she was reduced to for at least a minute. In deference to new friendship and chivalric discretion, I waited until later to make the obligatory that’s-what-she-said comment. Thankfully our second hailstorm got us down in the creek bottom under a tree, and gave Mr. Grizz time to wander off.
Coincidence is never merely coincidence, and the day was saving the best for last. I was still concerned about the final steep descent to the Lamar, and was tempted to do some more gully-intensive sidehilling to wrap around to the other side of our creek, where we could see a deadfall-free route. Gut instinct won out, and we headed down the meadows with an eye east for that bear. When we rousted a herd of ~100 elk and they headed our way, I knew we were on to something. That something is pictured above, a massive elk trail threading the sharp spine of a decaying ridge and dropping in steep but orderly switchbacks (!) to the meadows at creek level. A ford of the Lamar, 150 yards of gravel walking and a quick step through the willows and I stepped into the meadow and saw the trail marker and food pole. Our lascivious route had culminated in a perfect drop and a direct route right to camp.
I was happy, and not just for myself and the A I’d self-award for navigation. Amber had a knee problem which was flaring badly, and Danni was feeling under the weather. We got food hung, tents and tarp set up, and a fire going right as a short but intense evening shower rolled through. Our camp was set just back under some ancient pines at the end of a long sage meadow, with big views and our next days route running down it. Tomorrow was a 27 mile day, longest of the trip, and while we had passed the technical crux, the ambiguities were far from past.