WIND RIVER MOUNTAINS
GRAND ADVENTURE - 2000
For the past several years, my friends and I who are members of the Hells Hole Mountain Men (a nonprofit group we formed), have conducted a three-day seminar known as the "School of the Mountain Man." While doing the school has been very rewarding and fun in its own right, it has required a huge effort and a lot of work. Some of the boys proposed after last year's school, that we take a year off and go on a "Grand Adventure." The idea was met favorably by most and so we went through a process of deciding what to do and where to go. Lengthy foot treks or horse trips were proposed along with canoe trips. In the end it was decided that we would conduct a 5~6 day canoe trip on the Green River lakes in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. This area is not only replete with breathtaking scenery, but also incredibly rich in Mountain Man history.
Throughout the year we continued to plan and prepare by making necessary gear or purchasing items such as water purifiers or personal flotation devices. Some members even got in some canoe time to refresh rusty skills. The dates decided on for the trip were 20-25 June, but as those dates approached those who had committed to go began to drop out for a variety of reasons. Finally on the morning of departure, only three intrepid "voyageurs," Rick Williams, Tom Ballsteadt and I headed north for the headwaters of the Green River.
Our first destination was the "Museum of the Mountain Man" in Pinedale. We wanted to say hello to a couple of old friends there and to see the recently completed additions to the museum, donated and arranged by fellow members of the American Mountain Men. I was very impressed and pleased by the work our friends have accomplished there. The AMM display cases and mannequins really add to the museum's collection. The museum was originally designed and constructed in such a way as to allow for easy expansion, and as I looked through this latest addition, I found myself daydreaming about the possibility of an AMM wing some day. They have certainly come a long way since the dedication I had attended back in July 1990.
Then it was off to the mountains for the adventure to begin. I had been to this area once before during filming of a History Channel documentary and so was familiar with the scenery we were headed to. The beauty of the Green River lakes is difficult to describe, and nothing short of standing on the shore and gazing in wonder can bring an adequate appreciation.
We arrived on those shores not long after midday and excitedly yet with due care packed and stowed our gear aboard the canoes. Rick and Tom doubled up in Rick's canoe while I did a solo in the canoe I had borrowed. My canoe was a 15' aluminum SmokeCraft. My weight and that of my gear hardly affected the canoe and it rode very lightly on the water. We cast off with shouts of excitement from the deserted shore. Turning southward we began to parallel the western shore of the lake. The forest along that side was dense with firs, which swept right down to the waters edge. The excitement in us rose by the minute and occasionally we let loose shouts of excitement and joy at being here unburdened by time and tasks.
During this beginning portion of the trip, we stayed somewhat near the shore and slowly became familiar with the handling of our crafts and the use of the paddles. The sound of the paddle in calm waters has a sort of musical charm and is soothing. We continued south enjoying the warm sun and the sights of cliffs rising from the lakes edges decorated with colorful lichens. Here and there small noisy rivulets tumbled into the lake.
As our minds and muscles grew more accustomed to the ways of paddling, we grew slightly more bold and picked up the pace and were soon putting distance behind us. A slight breeze quartering across the lake from behind us gradually became a gentle wind and brought small rollers and waves to the surface of the lake. As the wind grew, so did the size of the waves and we were kept alert to be sure the canoes stayed at the proper angle to the waves. I found during some particularly strong gusts that it was best to swing the bow around and point directly into the wind and let the canoe ride over the waves until the wind died down. In this manner we were buffeted along the lakeshore for a couple miles.
A glance at the other canoe showed some concern on the brows of its occupants. They were riding lower in the water than I and when they rode over some waves the water came alarmingly close to the gunwales. Nervous tension can be more tiring than physical effort, so we opted to head for shore in hopes the wind would die down.
While we waited for the wind to subside, we scouted further southward along the shoreline. The forest here was really primeval looking with mosses on the trees and rocks and lichens and ferns abounding. Eventually we came to a beautiful campsite in a clearing among the trees. We made note of the site and pushed on further. We had now reached the extreme south end of the lake and broke out of the trees onto a sandy beach, which formed the southern shoreline. The beach was composed of fine light red sand and formed a small dune that separates the lake from a large grassy meadow to its rear. One look into the meadow surprised us as two large moose were grazing several hundred yards away. We enjoyed watching them graze for a few minutes, then continued across the beach. Had it not have been for the steady wind, the beach may have made for a nice camp.
At the other end of the beach the land turned marshy and we determined that the river must enter the lake somewhere along here. We headed back in the direction of the canoes now, as the lengthening shadows turned our minds toward settling in for the evening. We arrived back at the boats and launched back into the choppy lake to bring them up to the good campsite mentioned earlier. The boats were drug up on shore and tied off and we quickly unloaded and moved back into the trees to set up camp.
The site had been used before and so a fire ring was already in place. Gathering firewood took some effort, but we soon had an ample supply and Rick and Tom set about striking up some flames. Good tinder was hard to find in this damp environment, but an old piece of sisal rope hanging from a tree was just the ticket. Soon a cheery blaze not only warmed our hands but our spirits as well. The evening was spent roasting meat on the fire, talking about the lives of the original trappers and enjoying some tunes from Rick's harmonica.
We arose to an absolutely incredible morning. The sun was rising over the jagged ridges to the east and the lake was perfectly still. Seeing such nice conditions made me anxious to get back out on the water. I had a breakfast of bacon and potato and we struck camp. I was so anxious that I jumped in my canoe and started out before my companions. Paddling this morning was a pleasure compared to yesterday. The reflection of Square Top Mountain in the still water was a magnificent sight. Square Top is a massive tower of granite that rises more than a thousand feet from the valley floor to our south. This whole valley reminded me of the famous Yosemite Valley in California, except this is in a pristine wilderness.
I glided across the lake and easily found the entrance to the rivers' mouth. The flow was swifter than I had hoped and I soon beached my canoe on a sand bar to wait for Rick and Tom. Once they arrived a few minutes later, we decided to tie the canoes together and line them up the river. One of us would keep the nose of the front canoe away from the bank while the others pulled. We called this "cordelling", as it was reminiscent of the methods used long ago to pull keelboats up the Missouri River. We got unavoidably wet doing this, as there were several wide streams to cross and some boggy areas along the river. The river here was much larger than I had expected, and it is crystal clear and beautiful. We cordelled for about 3/4 of a mile until the river became slow enough to once again paddle in. Rick and Tom boarded and paddled upstream towing my canoe, while I paralleled them on shore. Another half mile up and the river channel opened to reveal a large lake.
After entering the lake, Rick cut loose my canoe and sent it to the shore where I boarded. They headed across the lake to the Eastern Shore, while I once again scouted the western side. With no wind to fight the trip across the lake was a pleasure. I often stopped paddling and simply marveled at the incredible scenery and thought of how lucky I was to be there enjoying all of this.
Once again upon reaching the south edge of the lake there was a river channel entering. This time however the water was much slower and I proceeded up the river. Within a few short yards the stream branched and I took the right fork. Tom and Rick came in behind me and opted to stay in the main channel. Here the river wound all over a large grassy meadow, and if I stood up I could see Rick and Toms heads gliding through the grass off to the east a hundred or more yards away. I continued up this peaceful little waterway only having to stop once to pull the canoe over some rocks. After 3/4 of a mile of so I arrived back at the main stream. I couldn't see the other boys and there was no response to my whistles. I surmised that they had probably already passed this point, as there were two of them paddling. So, I headed upstream. After a couple hundred yards I pulled up to the bank to have a snack of Jerk and dried cranberries. I could see up the river quite some ways and didn't see the others, so I turned around and headed back down. Drifting with the current was nice, but I kept wondering if I was going the right way, What if they were further up the river than I thought? And now I was getting further away by the second. These thoughts continued to nag me as I drifted along. After a half mile I felt like if they were below me I surely would have seen them by now, so I turned around and again headed back up stream.
The stream here was just swift enough that it took a continuous effort paddling to make even slow progress, and all this effort was burning up a lot of energy. I keep a small linen bag tied over my belt wherever I go, and the bag is filled with jerk and raisins or cranberries or other dried fruits. I went to the bag often to keep the fuel level up.
Coming down a few minutes before I had passed over a partially submerged tree, but going back up there was no way around, so I had to drag the canoe onto the grassy bank and across a turn and put it back in. This effort left me quite winded, so I grabbed my gourd canteen and relaxed for a few minutes on the flower strewn back and soaked up the warm sunshine. Then it was back in the canoe and full speed ahead, Back up past where the other stream enters, past where I had stopped earlier, up further and further until it was just too swift to make any progress. I glided over to the left bank and hopped out and tied the canoe off to a tree and let it drift into a shallow eddy. Above here the river was quite swift, so I knew that the others had not passed above here in their canoe.
I hiked up river for a half mile or so through intermittent trees until I crossed a small rise in the trail and the land before me opened into a beautiful meadow. The original trappers called these areas "Parks" which is still in common usage, and indeed this one looked like a park with all the lush grasses and flowers and trees, along with the river winding its way through. I sat under a lone fir tree and marveled at the beauty and enjoyed the smell of the trees and flowers.I didn't want Rick and Tom to begin to get worried about my whereabouts, so I didn't linger long and soon arrived back at the canoe, untied it and pushed off once more downstream.
This time rather than drifting leisurely, I paddled well and made quick time back past places I had now grown more than familiar with. At some point I thought I heard distant hollering, and so responded with a series of loud whistles. Way off to my left westwardly across the meadow, a flock of Canadian Geese rose off the waters in alarm and I knew the boys must be over there. Sure enough, with a closer look I could see Rick and Tom walking Northward just inside the tree line. A shout and a wave got their attention and now we were all headed in the same direction.
We rendezvoused back where they had beached their canoe. Since the afternoon was growing old, we discussed campsite possibilities. I had passed some good ones upstream, but it was unanimous that no one wanted to fight the current again that day. Rick suggested a nearby site, which was again located on the southwest corner of the lake.
The evening's routine was followed again with unloading gear, gathering firewood, stringing up a line or two between trees to dry clothing on. Each member pitched in doing what was needed and soon we had a comfortable place for the evening. Before it got to dark we each prepared our beds, clearing areas and making things ready.
This evenings repast was to be a tasty black bean soup augmented by some spicy dried sausages Rick had brought. Tom's packs yielded quite a variety of goods such as pepper sauce, honey, black pepper, etc. We kidded him about being "Gourmet Tom" but certainly made use of and enjoyed his generosity throughout the trip.
On a short scout of a day or two it's easy to eat plain rations such as jerk and dried corn and fruits, but on this longer trip a few additional luxuries made camp life just a bit nicer than normal. The concoction was stirred up in a shiny new hand made tin kettle about to see its first flames.
While the soup was cooking, the three of us went out to the rivers edge and spread a blanket to enjoy the view and play a few hands of cards. The warm afternoon sun was a welcome change from the shade of the campsite. The warmth made us all drowsy and we soon lost interest in cards in favor of taking a nap.
Like mountain weather everywhere, however, the sun soon gave way to clouds and wind and we headed back to the fire. While the soup continued to cook, each of us roasted seasoned slabs of meat on a flat rock at the fire's edge. After a hard days paddling, those steaks seemed like some of the finest I that had ever eaten.
The tranquility of the lake in evening was so inviting that Rick and I took a cruise across to the other side. The lake was quite shallow on the East Side and there were many elk or moose tracks and droppings on the bottom. Ashore on the far side we found several lively springs bubbling out of the ground and running down to the lake. Rick discovered a number of wild onions, which he dug up and shared as we looked about.
The sun was setting on this longest day of the year, so we headed back across the lake to camp. One surprising observation was the lack of much sign of fish in the lake. We saw only one or two fish roll during the whole trip.
Arriving back at camp we learned that the soup was ready, and after starting in on a heaping pan full, I could hardly believe how delicious it tasted. We made quick work of the kettle and cleaned up camp and hung our bags up the trail a bit. The evening ended with some pleasant conversation around the fire before we headed to the bedrolls for some welcome rest.
The second morning dawned as calm and beautiful as the day before. We retrieved our packs from the trees and prepared a hearty breakfast. More bacon for me along with some oats and barley. A piece of Mexican chocolate and some raisins added to the oats helped make them more than just a bowl of mush. I had over estimated my proportions and had a double sized amount to eat. Not being one to waste much, I shoveled them in until the boiler was clean. I figured I'd soon need all the energy I could get because the days plan called for more upstream paddling along with a hike up the canyon.
After the bedrolls were dried from the mornings dew, all was again carefully loaded and tied into the canoes. Before we set out, we topped off our canteens, filtering the water from the deep and clear Green River. It almost seemed unnecessary to filter such seemingly pure water, but none of us wanted to ruin the rest of a great trip by chancing getting sick.
A little lack of communication had me part way across the glassy surface of the lake, intending to land on the other side, before I learned my companions were heading up the river. I came about and dug in to make up the distance. A slight head wind and entering the mouth of the river made for some strenuous paddling and made me thankful for the big breakfast. We followed the same route I had taken the day before, meandering through the meadow. With a little imagination you can imagine the beauty of the meadow on a sunny morning.
The bank was strewn with wildflowers and an occasional lone pine tree. Birds were singing everywhere and the water here was clear and calm, the banks of the river we were on being only a few yards wide. It was almost like a ride through an amusement park specializing in the wonders of nature.
Upon arriving at the main channel we crossed the river and tied up the canoes just under the bank so they couldn't be observed from the trail we knew had to be just up the hillside. I loaded a pack lightly with some food and a filter, checked the priming in my rifles lock and we headed up the canyon under the shadow of Square Top Mountain. We quickly found the trail and followed its course through enchanting meadows and shady groves. One thing we quickly noticed was the frequency of bear scat on the trail. Fortunately it was all quite old but it made us a little more watchful.
One of the many memorable sights along the trail was a young Bull Moose who nonchalantly grazed just across the meadow. He gave us a curious glance or two, then went about his business. A companion of his must have been resting in the timber nearby judging from the racket it raised when it scented us and crashed off through the dead fall.
Further up the trail we paused to watch a dozen different species of butterflies with all their various colors alight in the trail to lick some salt. The variety was amazing and reminded us of the incredible beauty of nature.
Our destination today was a meadow named "Beaver Park." We thought that a fitting place for a few trappers to check out. The trail was not as strenuous as some I've been on and we made good time. However, not having spent enough time in moccasins, we developed some hot spots and had to pause to cool our feet in the river.
Refreshed and refueled we were soon back on the trail and arrived at Beaver Park after crossing a couple of side streams. The park was large and lush with grasses. Not far up the canyon the Green River divides at "Three Forks Park," and climbs up into canyons where it is fed by still large snowfields.
Knowing we had a long walk back to the canoes and still had to locate a good campsite back down the lake, we didn't tarry to long. On the way back we amused ourselves by sighting in on a small buck and thinking aloud how some fresh venison would taste.
The canoes were a welcome sight, as the blister on my hand wasn't near as large as the two on my feet. Heading downstream was a particular joy this evening and we lazily drifted along while watching the numerous waterfowl swimming before us. Once we were back onto the lake, the fun was over as we had a steady head wind to fight. About three-quarters of the way back down the lake we located an excellent campsite on the Eastern Shore. On this side, the sun stayed with us for an hour longer than it had on the other shore the previous night, which made the camp seem all the more relaxing.
The evening was spent much as the past two had been, we ate a lot, prepared bed areas, and hung our packs from high limbs to discourage scavengers. That evening I read from a book about the fur trade history of the Jackson Hole area. It's all the more enjoyable to read and study history while sitting on the actual geography.