July 16-23, 2016 – By Jason Hummel
The Wind River Range in Wyoming is among the tastiest backpacking recipes anywhere. Once arrived set the sun to bake. Follow trails to paths then leave trails behind. Along your hike combine 12 cups lake hoping, 10 dollops boulder scurrying and don’t forget the special ingredient – 2 cups mosquito corpses (actual amounts may vary). Garnish with high passes, sunsets and thunderstorm-fury. Let rest in evenings until stars and moon brighten heavenly skies. Best served with friends.
After a 16-hour drive from Tacoma, Washington I arrived at Elkhart Park, 30-minutes outside Pinedale, Wyoming. It was Saturday July 16th, and I was as hungry to explore as a rat on trash day.
Joining me was my brother Jessy whose mild-mannered, quiet competence, set with that steely determination to never rest, has always made our adventures special and action-packed. With him, the joys of mid-day naps are pipe dreams. He can also pack the kitchen sink and never tire. The final recruit was Jessy’s son, Calin. He’s a small kid for his age, but that will change before I blink, I’m sure. Next I see him, he’ll be taller than I am or at least better-looking, no doubt. To him, the best part of any backpacking adventure is fishing. It’s his calling. As a grown-up I picture him a professional guide piloting a sleek boat across glassy waters before sunrise, showing a client where giants feed.
Right then, the only giants we saw were feeding our dread. Our backpacks were huge. Sure, we could carry less, but the axiom ‘less is more’ hasn’t broken through our thick skulls. Hummel’s take pride in stubbornness. It’s a family trait. Plus, as far as any Wind River recipe goes, stubbornness is go-to condiment. Pack it along and be ready to sprinkle it over the “I just want to relax” and “I don’t need to go to the top.”
Furthermore, unlike any good recipe that’s passed down from your mother’s mother, a palatable Wind River recipe is less refined. They aren’t written down. We were just winging it, but lady luck must be a hiker too, because the brusk owner of The Outdoor Shop got right down to business with sharing a dozen perfect recipes.
Back outside, purchased maps were laid on the hood of my car. Since most of what the shop owner had said went in one ear and out the other, Jessy and I latched onto two names: Angel and Indian Passes. It was only a spark, but enough of one to light the burners and get blood to boiling.
In 2012 I visited the Wind Rivers and crossed the Bridger Wilderness over 15-days. The introduction to the region was wide-ranging, but missed the corners.
Ever since, the Wind Rivers is one of those places I tell everyone about, repeating to friends and strangers alike, “You really have to go to the Wind Rivers!”
Each person has agreed, but there’s a caveat to most conversations. At some point they shrug and lamely intone, “Oh, I will visit – someday.”
“SOMEDAY,” I’ve exclaimed! Internally I’ve self combusted because I’ve wanted to go on and add, ‘”That’s the worst-word-ever, up there with ‘sort of,’ ‘really’ or ‘actually’. For example, ‘You’re actually quite cute.’ Or, ‘You’re really a good skier.’ And, ‘Hey, I like you, sort of.’ Someday is complete rabble. Don’t use it, really. I’m actually quite serious. It will sort of be a big deal, someday.”‘
Just go! Preheat the oven to bake at 450. Put your dreams in and serve. It’s like pizza, burning the skin off the top of your mouth. Don’t let it cool off. That’s for ‘someday’ kinda people. You burn your hands, palate and smile with a mouthful of cheesy goodness.
Whenever I’m traveling with kids off-trail, I follow the ‘more is more’ axiom. I always have extra food and know if we happen upon terrain that is beyond his/her limit we have time to retreat, find a new way or change plans entirely. Every kid is different, but overall I’m surprised what a motivated youngster can manage with encouragement and a helpful hand.
Encouragement was in steady supply before we reached Photographer’s Point (4.5 miles). Once arrived, a rest was in order. From jutting rock ledges dozens of steel-blue lakes are revealed and from valleys to mountain-tops trees scatter among rolling, granite plains. Every green cranny is hard-won ground. To the north and south peaks scraped skies. To the east and west grasslands curled and crashed onto mountainous shores.
It’s a sight, no doubt, but merely cracking the door on what’s to come.
Over the first day and a half we kept to trail, camping at Mary’s Lake and on the following day continuing counter-clockwise along the 60+mile loop we’d plotted in Pinedale. When we turned toward Angel Pass in Bald Mountain Basin, we steered into Spider Lake. From there, the next 4 days would be off-trail.
That second night we camped on a spit of land that created one of the many arms of Spider Lake. From my claimed ‘spot’ I shouted to Jessy and Calin, “This is it!” But no confirmation was needed. In fact, Calin would’ve set his pack in a heap of boulders as long as there was fishing to be had.
Tents weren’t even set before Calin was perched atop boulders on the lakeshore armed with fishing pole and bait. All around thunder boomed and lightening cracked. This was merely a distraction. He hauled in fish after fish. Each one going from lake to pot to mouths in minutes. This is the Wind Rivers at their best and two necessary ingredients for our Wind River recipe. Storm: check. Fish: check.
Day three brought us up and over Angel Pass (11,598 feet) and midway through the day we descended through perfect light. It danced through popcorn clouds. The surrounding country was scoured and only patches of hardy grass held root between bedrock and boulders. Wind pulsed into lake waters and rippled across the surface in tendrils, spiraling outward before breaking against rocks.
Further down from the pass, I goofed up. I like to think of myself as a competent leader, especially off-trail. I spend much of my year traveling by map, but this shouldn’t dissuade you from thinking I’m infallible. It’s true, I like to think so, but let’s be frank, I’m a fuck-up. It’s happens. It happens quite a lot I’m told. But still I think of myself as competent. Let’s leave it at that and move on, okay.
To me and most people, a beautiful lake is difficult to ignore. Sure, we’re carrying those ridiculous packs where more is most certainly more, so why not hike extra? I must’ve thought so, because to save time (of which I had plenty), I lecherously decided that the beautiful view was more important than staring at maps. Any pretty view must lead the correct way, right? That’s trebles of trouble, not a foolproof method and there I go poking a stick into it again. I’ll never learn.
In short order I hiked us into a cliff that met with lakeshore. “Anyone up for a swim,” I queried. No one was, so alas, let’s redo what we already hiked. Popularity problems. They’re real. Good thing I have the maps still, and I’m a faster hiker. Jessy and Calin could grumble from behind.
Eventually I got it right. From another lakeshore, the perfect camp screamed at me. It’s my loss to ignore those flashes, so I rarely do. In moments, we wound our way down snow and across a stream to a meadow and flat granite slabs. “Here,” it screamed again and we wholeheartedly agreed (so persistent these pretty places), and toppled over onto packs.
Later on we discovered baby chicks in a tiny nest. Equally fascinating, but entirely non-corporeal, several boulders were balanced atop smaller boulders. I wondered if a time traveling superhero had traveled into the past and moved them? Seems like a waste of superhero energies, but who can know the ways of Boulder-man. I can imagine him acting like a boulder and quietly snickering at our head scratching.
We were now, on day four, entering the Alpine Lakes Basin. It’s a series of three lakes in the alpine, can you believe that? By God, for such a beautiful place what a sad state of affairs if the only name that could be scraped from the bottom of the barrel is The Alpine Lakes. It IS an alpine lake!
Alas, I digress.
For breakfast, lunch and dinner was boulders. Lots of boulders. Then more boulders. Then over the next hill was even more boulders. “Can you guess what else there was?”
“What’s my name?”
“Who’s your bitch?”
Fuck Boulder-man. He’s not funny anymore. He’s a dick.
Eventually you get over the fact that you can’t look up from your toes for fear of falling on your face. Don’t worry, you’ll fall on your face, but best to mitigate any head-bashing.
After hours of fun, we reached the middle of Middle Alpine Lake. There, boulders gave way to grass in a wind-protected cove. Packs again tumbled to ground and us atop them. Another day was done and it couldn’t have been finished in a prettier place. Warm winds pulsed and sent ripples shooting across the water. Above, the force of air hummed through peaks and swirled clouds. Back at our home for the night, the golden grass was soft and flat, perfect for a nap and a nap we had.
On the fifth morning I awoke to thunder and the patter of rain against tent walls. Taking up my camera and rain jacket, I set off. Thunder called rather than sent me into the corner of my shelter, scared. I wanted to stand on the highest point and roar from it. So, I set out to climbing to said point. At first I couldn’t find a way up slippery cliffs, but I didn’t give up. I grappled with wet rock to the top and stood embraced by sunrise and ferocious winds. This. Was. Rad.
Hours later, near monolithic boulders, a stream curled around and over a waterfall. Across a meadow it ran into a small lake. Back near the boulders on flat granite slabs, we made camp for the night, only feet from the stream. No storms came in that evening. No wind buffeted us. On my original menu for the Winds, a peaceful evening wasn’t on my ingredients list, but it should’ve been. It’s easy to forget the obvious.
Besides the plethora of people, Titcomb Basin deserves the notoriety. You can feel like you’re in a postcard. Craggy peaks rise in the distance, the line of them reflecting in lake waters. Snow encircles summits. In between flower fields bask in their pastures carved from granite oceans. Between 10,500 and 11,300 or so is the goldilocks zone. Not too high where little grows and not too low where trees suffocate lake shores.
That evening we swam and by the time we realized how cold it was, we spent hours shivering and slapping at mosquitoes. Nearby a newly risen hoard had hatched and clouds of them were on the hunt. The victims, us.
As sunset blossomed, I ran in an attempt to get a photograph. My attempts led to breathing in dozens of blood-suckers. An exact count was attempted but failed (although said pictures later showed what appeared to be dust on my sensor, but upon closer inspection showed hundreds of mosquitoes). Suffice it to say, my appetite for dinner was ruined. Not by bugs I ate, but by bugs that peppered my food. It’s one thing to have breathed them in, it’s entirely another to be consumed by choice.
The remedy: I looked at the horizon and nonchalantly stirred my gooey mac and cheese, make-believed I had pepper and had added it. None of which occurred, but a good lie is often those baldfaced ones.
Before we knew it, the final morning had passed and we were at Elkhart Park sitting on our packs next to my car. It seems the older I get, the more sad I become when adventures are at an end. Yet after high fives, ice cream in town, a swim at the fire river in Yellowstone, I was already living new adventures, and on the long car ride we enjoyed the final course of the Wind River feast. We sat back and reminisced, laughed about good times, joked about trying times, dreamt about future adventures and recalled those special moments, the ones that roared!
When I got home we told more friends and family, “You must go to the wind Rivers.”
Each shrugged and said, “I will, someday.” If and when they do (I won’t accept otherwise), they will encourage others with their very own Wind River’s recipe or keep it as a family secret.