Monday, July 15, 2013

Natural AC is a Wonder

The following are updates from Saturday and Sunday...wait 'til you hear about this morning...but that's in another post.  Meanwhile, I'm in Sheridan briefly as I am shifting from lower to upper Big Horn and the temp here is 90 while the temp up in the mountains where I was just 45 minutes ago...and will return to shortly...was about 65.  Lovely.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Woke up early this morning in the comfort and solitude of the Econolodge in Billings.  It was the first morning since Dad joined me on the 28th that I have woken up alone…and didn’t need to worry about snoring.  I languished in the comfort of modern comforts before rising around 7 for a second shower in twenty-four hours.  Imagine it!  Katie texted me at 6:30 that they were passing through Fargo and were running about ninety minutes behind.  I talked to her later in the day and it sounds like the bus ride was the adventure that it had shaped up to be when they set off yesterday.  After a few quick emails, breakfast from the hotel continental service and a review of my destination, I set off for the Bighorn National Forest. 

The drive took me back down I90 past the Little Bighorn Memorial, so I stopped off again to walk Last Stand Hill, which we had not done the day before when I visited with Mike and Katie.  It’s a remarkable site, in that it just begins to touch on the magnitude of the tragedy that was perpetrated on the native American peoples.  The site appears to be slowly becoming more of a recognition of its role as a victory for the native peoples’ within the overwhelming destruction of their lands and culture during the nineteenth century.  The grounds are dotted with the small stones for soldiers who were killed there, marked with the simple phrase, “____ fell here,” and a date.  The markers for the Cheyenne warriors who were killed include the phrase, “defending the Cheyenne way of life.”  It’s a powerful and simple acknowledgement of the state of mind of the native peoples who were engaged in violent conflict with the army and settlers of the west.  Somehow, because their societies were not constructed around the kinds of formalized, written, constitutional governments of the European intruders, we are agonizingly slow to recognize their fundamental right to the resources of this land.   A century and a half later it is hard to find a suitable path to compensation given that we have already seized, used, and deeply assimilated all the best lands and resources into our own culture. 

My goal was to find Circle Lake Campground, which I had read was a wonderful camping spot in the Bighorn National Forest.  I stopped in Ranchester hoping to get a map and some bear spray, and found a charming little welcome center and an outfitter, but both were closed at 10AM on a Saturday.  So…on to Buffalo, where I found the Wyoming Welcome Center to be very helpful, though lacking a map of the Big Horn National Forest that showed the campgrounds.  I was directed to a local outfitter and headed into town.

The Rocky Mountain Discount Outfitter is a plain rectangle of supplies sharing a building with the local Dollar Store.  When you walk in, the first thing you see is the long wall on your left which is covered in rifles.  Every kind of rifle; from little tiny pink rifles for cousin Suzie as well as a large utilitarian unit that looks like it comes from one of the Die Hard movies.  On the other side of a row of low shelves covered in ammunition and gun accessories is a display case with an equal number of handguns.  I walked gingerly through this display to find a smaller section in the back of the store with camping and hiking gear.  The other half of the store, which mirrored the gun section, contained gear for bow hunting and fishing. 

After finding some propane and determining that there was not an affordable attachment for a water bottle that I could put on my belt, I was directed to the maps and found a good map of the Big Horn and asked at the counter about fishing.  I decided to purchase a one day fishing license that is good on Sunday (tomorrow) and before finishing I approached the rack of bear sprays. 

I circled the rack for a while without much success in determining what made the most sense.  There were options ranging from a five dollar personal pepper spray canister about the size of a roll of pennies, to a fifty-five dollar canister advertising top notch bear protection in a can about the size of a can of tennis balls.  There was also a thirty-three dollar option that also indicated it was for bears and of which they had the largest quantity on display.  It didn’t seem like the right time to be cheap.  On the other hand, bear spray isn’t to be used until all other strategies have failed and bear has moved aggressively to within twenty or thirty feet of you.  They are likely to be moving fast.  At that point, does it really matter which bear spray I’ve got?  Will any of them really make a difference?  Aren’t I pretty much fucked at that point?  I gathered a seasoned looking employee to me and took him by the shoulder.  “What do you get when you spend more on bear spray?” I asked.  He walked me over to the rack and began discussing the various features that one could find described in the fine print on the packages.  I noted that he was not looking at or indicating any of the less expensive options.  “What would you take if you were out in the wilderness?” I asked.  “Well,” he says, “I guess I’d like to have the best spray I could.”  Seemed like good advice so I took the thirty-three dollar can (I don’t think I could have reasonably had the bigger one with me when hiking) and figured it was a kind of insurance policy.  Pay the piper and on my way.

I have a couple of spots on my arms that are red and swollen, could be from deer flies or maybe spider bites from sleeping in the Yurt or the cabin’s bunkhouse?  Anyway, I took an antihistamine and that seems to be helping.  As I drove up into the mountains out of Buffalo the elevation rose quickly and I reached the turn off for Circle Park Campground quicker than I had anticipated.  I drove back into the campground and there were a couple of open sites, but there was no lake and I was interested in being closer to water.  I drove back out to the road and continued on to the South Fork campsite, which is situated on the south fork of Clear Creek.  The creek floes into Tie Hack Reservoir and there were some lovely walk in sites within site and sound of the rapidly running creek.  I dropped my bag on the picnic table and spent a little time setting up camp, including the first use of my new one man tent.  It was easy to set up, so we’ll see how it works later tonight. 

After setting up, I reorganized the backpacks so that the smaller pack contained my camera, water bottle, swimsuit and towel.  With hiking poles (actually my ski poles, but they do good service as hiking poles) in hand, I followed the trail out of the East end of the campsite and headed for Tie Hack Reservoir, which Pat, the campground host, had confidently told me was about a mile and a half down stream.  The trail was easy to follow for a good long distance, wandering along near the creek and revealing some great deadfall that I planned to snag on my way back so that I had some smaller kindling and wood for the evening fire.  The trail mostly made itself known, though at times deadfall would cause detours that were largely minor.  Before long the reservoir came in sight, and at that point the industry of the local beaver population started to make the trail considerably less apparent.  In addition, as I reached the reservoir proper, I found that the terrain on both sides of the bay into which the creek emptied rose steeply away from the water.  On the far side, there was a cleared space below a steep rock face that had a path on it which was being used by two guys who were fishing from the bank.  A bit further up that shore the ground sloped more gently away up the hill to woods which I assumed bordered the Tie Hack campground area.  There were two guys on the water in a canoe, and they were fly fishing to apparently no real purpose.  On my side of the water the hillside was covered with large pines and outcropping of rocks.  The beavers had been very busy and I discovered a large beaver den not far down the shore.  There was also a steep ravine coming down to the water at about
that same point.  The bay appeared to open up to a larger section of the reservoir and I was curious if there was a developed spot where I might put my swimsuit on and go for a dip.  The going was difficult, and pretty soon I could see the larger section of the water with a dam off around the curving shore across the bay to the left.  In any event, there was nowhere to go, so I had some water, took a few pictures, and determined to begin the return journey. 

The terrain here is rocky with a decent layer of sandy soil.  The trees appear to be two types of pines, one with short needles and the other with longer needles.  The long needled trees only have needles in the upper reaches as they get older and taller.  I seem to remember these are white pines, the short needled trees look like scotch pine.  In any event, I took pictures and I’ll check later.  There also is a variety of aspen or birch but there are relatively few of these.  I saw a snake, a rabbit and one deer who saw me before I saw him, so I couldn’t get close enough to get a picture.  No bear.

For the return hike I endeavored to make my way up the hill above the lake, figuring that if I stayed high I could avoid the worst of the beaver construction zones, which were really quite maddening in their capacity to require detours and create traffic jams.  I also figured that if I went high enough, the ravine might be shallower and it would be easier to get back to the creek.  So I did just that and sure enough before long I found myself walking along the ravine as it became gentler and kinder.  I found a good spot to begin crossing the ravine and was about to shift my direction to more directly head for the creek when I realized that the rock formation in front of me appeared to be quite scalable and might afford a great view of the reservoir.  I am not by nature a daring person, I hate heights, and I am in horrible physical condition…so up I went. 

I had presumed that upon reaching the top I would find a gentle slope beyond that I could follow back to the creek.  Not so.  When I got to the top and peered over the edge I found that it was a straight drop down to the forest floor.  I suppose I was about fourty feet in the air.  It was plenty for me.  I took a few pictures as evidence but I could only see the bay in front of me, trees on the hillside at the opposite side of the ravine blocked the view of the larger reservoir so my fantasy of standing on the top of the world surveying my conquered domain was crushed.  Besides which, mostly I just crouched desperately holding on for dear life.  I was brave enough to take off my pack and have some water. 

Then back down the rocks and by following the high ground above the rocky peak I was soon above the creek and working my way down and back upstream to the campground.  The trail presented itself again, I snagged some deadfall for my evening fire, and am now comfortably back in camp about to start dinner.  While there are mosquitoes and deer flies here, they are sparse and not terribly aggressive.  Anyone from Minnesota would barely notice them. 

Time to eat, read and wait for dark to settle in for sleep.  If I can keep finding campsites by rapidly rushing streams I’ll never miss my white noise box.

Monday Morning
Sunday was a quiet day.  I didn’t sleep all that well Saturday night, so I was tired.  The first night in the tent is usually a time when I sleep more fitfully.  Also, the lightweight sleeping bag I have doesn’t seem to be working out very well.  It’s not very warm in the cold nights at high elevations, and it’s a bit binding as it tapers quite a bit.  I have a heavier bag that Katie had been using, so I used that last night to much better effect.  The campsite was full Saturday night and at one point when I was putting away some gear in the car an older couple from Minnesota drove into the campground and asked if there were spots open in the walk-in area where I was camping.  There weren’t but I offered them the option of using my site and they decided to take it.  Dick and Susan are from the cities and were on their way to Jackson, WY, for a week’s stay in a Teton Treehouse.  Sounds like a blast.  In any event, they were pleasant  companions and covered part of the camping fee.

I woke up early Sunday intending to hit the road right away to do some fishing.  By 6:30 I was headed back into Buffalo to get some worms and enjoy a few moments of cell phone connectivity…pause by the side of the road and reply to emails…then back into the Bighorns in search of fishing holes.  There is lots of water here, and I’m sure that if a person knew what they were doing they could catch some fish, but I was not particularly lucky.  I headed down the Crazy Woman Creek Canyon as I had been told that this was a popular spot for fishing.  The creek was never more than fifteen feet wide or so, but at one point there was a bit of a pool which I fished for a bit.  I caught a little trout on the first cast, but he was quite small and I released him.  That was the last bite I would have. 

While the fishing was sub-par, the canyon was extraordinary.  At first wide and meadowed, the terrain quickly narrows and the canyon walls close in over head little by little.  The one lane gravel road drops precipitously at times and I was wondering if my little Prius would have the juice to come back up the hill after I turned around.  The road runs for about five miles before it hits the edge of the national forest, at which point private lands with little shacks start to appear.  There are two one lane bridges in the descent.  About a mile in, people were camping in distributed campsites (no fire pit or table, just a place to park) and by about the second mile the road was hugging the creek because there wasn’t
anywhere else to put it.  The final mile of the forestry area is a canyon so steep and so narrow that it’s hard to believe they have a road there.  In the spring it must be underwater as the spring melt would fill the canyon.  Driving it in my Prius was a bit like arriving at a monster truck rally in a pink golf cart.  I felt out of place and had legitimate concerns about my ability to clear the rocks thrusting up through the gravel of the narrow road.  I stopped a few times to enjoy the creek and fished the one time, and when the national forest ended I turned around for the journey back to the top.  As I hit the steeper sections, the loose gravel under my wheels slipped and the cars warning light for lost traction kept appearing…a little gas and we continued to make headway, though a few times I had some lateral drift that was a bit unnerving.  About three and half miles from the top was a camping site that looked particularly appealing, so I am going to see if I might head back there for Monday night.  It’s above the worst of the steep and winding section, so the drive in and out is tight but not unreasonable.

After leaving the creek I could see from the map that there was a section of the southwest area of the forest that had a number of fishing spots, so I headed that way.  It didn’t take long.  The south end of the Bighorn is not that large and its easy to move from area to area.  I drove by Meadowlark Lake and fished from the shore for a bit, then ran up towards Tensleep creek hoping to have better luck.  I did find a nice section of pooled water that I fished for a time until an older campground host hiked out and harassed me about having parked in a campsite.  He was funny since rather than open up by saying that I can’t park in the campsite unless I’m staying in it, he said, “You need to pay $8 for the campsite,” and then started explaining how you paid the camping fee with the envelope and the pay box.  I just agreed with him and continued to chat about this and that as we walked back.  The whole area is covered by these blue (purple?) flowers, so I asked him what they were.  “I’m not a flower guy,” he says.  Hmmm…  I was ready to leave anyway.  The water was so clear that I could see the fish, or lack thereof.  There were a number of smaller fish, but nothing of any size appeared.

By now it was approaching lunch time so I decided to drive down the Tensleep Canyon and grab a sandwich in Tensleep.  The canyon was dramatic, with enormous cliffs climbing hundreds of feet on either side of the winding creek and while it was considerably wider than Crazy Woman Creek Canyon, it was also grandly statuesque in scale.  Tensleep turned out to be large enough to have a few bars and I had a burger at a bar while listening to two old rednecks move through a litany of racist musings.  Fox news was on the tv over the bar, and I was once again reminded of the article I had read that cited a survey of some sort which indicated that Fox news viewers were less informed than folks who don’t watch the news at all.  As they did not include me in their conversation, it didn’t seem the right time to offer alternative viewpoints.

I am struck by the way the people are creatures of their environments.  Live in a small town in Wyoming and watch Fox news, and it would be hard to believe anything other than what these two guys were espousing.  Send them to college and put NPR in their dorm rooms, and what appears on the other end is something entirely different.  It has nothing to do with how generous or tolerant they might be as individuals.  Either one of these guys might be incredibly tolerant and supportive of an offbeat relative or friend, but they live their lives in an environment that has, over time and for possibly good reason, developed a ethos which values the practice of constructing the rest of the world as other as a means to protect the immediate community.  I have had the privilege of living in a space that values other as a part of self.  Yet, I can see that my ethos struggles to respond in the face of organized evil such as sometimes plays itself out when a oppressive leader is abusing their neighbors or their own people.  These two guys would have no problem dealing with that situation…they would find the biggest gun and wipe the bad guy off the face of the earth.  There are bad guys.  Even though I believe that evil can be traced to some kind of illness or personal need (in a book I’m reading right now a wise man opines, “show me someone who needs to be noticed and I’ll show you trouble”) it also seems to me that there are times when evil needs to be met with force.

Anyway…at first I continued west out of Tensleep, thinking to head north and check out the north end of the Bighorns.  The terrain immediately turned into the beautiful, yet hostile and barren, environment that Dad and I had experienced earlier in the trip.  Realizing that I would be in this for fifty or sixty miles, and not really being in the mood, I turned around and drove back up the canyon.

At this point I was tired and ready for a nap.  I drove back to Meadowlark Lake and grabbed a lovely campsite overlooking the lake.  I had pretty much run out of steam, so I laid out the tarp and airbed and napped for a bit in the shade.  The bugs are more assertive here since the lake provides some still water for them to hatch in, but a bit of bug goop did the trick.  The rest of the day was spent lazily wandering around the lakeshore and nosing around in the woods looking for deadfall for the evening fire.  I though about fishing the lake later in the day, but there were a number of other folks wandering around with gear and no one was catching anything, so I let it go.  Besides, having had a full size lunch I wasn’t feeling very motivated to clean and prep fish fillets.

It had been overcast when I got up that morning, but it cleared off by noon and was beautiful all afternoon.  Around five, as I was starting to think about making some dinner, it clouded up again and then my preparations were interrupted by a couple of short rain showers.  Apparently when it rains at 8,000 feet, it also hails…or its common anyway since the odd host from earlier in the day had mentioned hail falling the week before.  Fortunately, I had the tent set up and my sleeping gear inside, so it was easy to throw the lid on the cooking gear and duck into the car to wait out the rain.  The rain did have the salutary effect of chasing away the various picnickers who had been wandering the area, leaving it to just a small group of young folks and myself.  The young’uns (it seems so weird to write that, but it is actually accurate as I am clearly about thirty years their senior) snagged a couple of sites out of site and a ways from me where I could sometimes hear them but couldn’t see them.  I was a little concerned that they were out for a party experience, as one of them opened a beer immediately upon exiting his truck and had a beer in hand every time he wandered by, but they were quiet neighbors and seemed to be doing just what I was doing, enjoying the forest.  After the rain passed it cleared off completely and it the sky was a brilliant blue as the sun set over the lake.  Lovely.

So, it’s mostly clear this morning, with a few clouds wandering by.  I slept late (a bit past seven!) and am sitting here drinking my coffee and enjoying a small fire from the remains of my deadfall scavenging last night.  I am tempted to drive up and scout out the north end of the Bighorn, but I also want to hike up toward the wilderness area below Cloud Peak and tonight I would like to stay in Crazy Women Creek Canyon in the spot I had scouted out yesterday.  So we’ll see.  It’s still early, so if I get my hike done before noon, I might do all three things.

No comments: