Cloud Peak Wilderness, Wyoming
30-August 1, 2006
For years I confused the Cloud Peaks Wilderness in the Bighorn Mts of Wyoming with the Cloud Peaks in the Never Summer Wilderness in Colorado. It was only until I got serious about visiting what up until then I assumed was one place that I discovered the difference. I visited the Cloud Peaks in 2004, and two years later, I finally blocked out time to visit the Cloud Peak Wilderness just west of Buffalo Wyoming. Thus it was one bright sunny morning in the waning days of a hot July in 2006 I cruised north on Interstate 25 with Frank and Makenzie, our two pointers, in the backseat. The drive to the Cloud Peak Wilderness from Cheyenne was considerable: close to 5 hours. I managed to get interested in a book on tape read by an Englishmen who had the unendingly annoying habit of reading the story barely above a whisper at a breathtaking clip, then shouting the lines that any character was actually quoted as saying in a loud drawl. I constantly fiddled with the volume of the car stereo to get just the right volume. The dogs snoozed the entire time. Once we hit the winding mountain road west of Buffalo, however, both dogs stood at attention and waited to be let loose into the wilds. Makenzie panted incessantly over my shoulder and I reminded myself to check and see what kind of funk was lodged in her back teeth to maker her breath reek in this above-average manner. Clouds had blotted out the former blue shade of the sky, but no moisture came down, so I was content. We found the Circle Park TH without trouble, full with 17 cars. It was around 2:45 when I packed my gear and we set off up the trail through the dense lodgepole pine forest.
The first thing that caught my attention was the general dryness of the area. I donít know if this is typical Bighorn July weather, but everything had a tired, faded look, as if it were really September and almost time for frost. Nothing bloomed, almost everything wilted or looked yellow, and the soil on the trail puffed up at each step like flour and hung in the still air like a haze. The trail lead steadily uphill and was easy to follow. I kept a rhythm involving my steps and walking stick: 3 steps to 1 walking stick click on flat terrain, 2 to 1 on the uphill stretches. Makenzie trotted up the hill with ease, apparently oblivious to the 5 pounds of dogfood she carried in her red sidepacks. Frank trotted along with her, both of them vying for the pole position on the next interesting smell. I encountered an elderly couple coming down the trail, and stepped off to let them pass. They were friendly, and said a few complimentary words about the dogs. Further on, I heard some loud talking up ahead, so I stopped and waited off the trail. Presently, 5 horsemen came along. I talked to them as they approached so as not to startle the horses, and the man commented that at least it wasnít hot today. I agreed, even though sweat was starting to soak through on my chest. Only someone going downhill, and even better someone on a horse, would make a comment like that. In less than an hour, we made it to the rocky shore of the placid Shard Lake. At the trail junction, I noted two backpackers coming the way of Willow Lake, and nobody coming the way of Trigger Lake. Since I hadnít made up my mind which direction on this loop I wanted to take, I chose to the left towards Trigger Lake. We walked along the lakeshore with the dogs taking keen interest in the water. When Makenzie tried to lean down to take a drink, her saddlepacks tossed her into the deep water. She swam to shore and hauled herself out, dripping. Luckily, I had forseen just this event and had packed the dogfood in sealed plastic bags. I didnít encounter anyone else for quite some time, and I began to feel deliciously alone on the trail. It wound through the splendidly monotonous lodgepole pine forest, generally heading downhill. I actually began to fret at how much elevation I was losing on this route, and consulted my map a couple of times to make sure I was actually going the right way. I began to hit my stride in this stretch, and the walking was a soothing feeling that I was only dimly aware of as I got lost in daydreams. The dogs scampered ahead of me, often out of sight. Occasionally when I began to think it had been a long time since Iíd seen them, Iíd whistle once and hear theyíd come tearing up the trail. I like my dogs. I think they like me. At least they do when I have food for them, of that Iím certain. When Iím scolding them for eating fresh horse shit, maybe not so much. There was, by the way, a fair amount of horseshit on the trail. Why is it that dogs love to eat shit so much, anyway? I have no inclination to try it, letís be clear, but it must have some redeeming quality that makes it preferable to their other options, including dry kibbles specially formulated for dogs. It makes one curious, doesnít it? Does horseshit hide some hidden bouquet of gourmet flavor? Do dogs learn that deer shit is even better than, say, moose shit? And cat shitÖthat apparently is so tasty as to be eaten weeks after the event, or even when frozen. My dogs eat it all (except, interestingly, other dogsí shit), and I am disgusted. But what can one do? I guess just avoid having them lick you and try not to think about it. I was awakened from my reverie of daydreams by a fork in the trail, the one Iíd been watching for on some subconscious level. I took the right fork, properly, and began to be carried back uphill. I passed a small lake that was draining through what appeared to be a broken dam of concrete and steel. As the trail took us higher I began to note that almost everywhere lay granite boulders. The entire landscape was a giant rockfield with interspersed patches of lodgepole pine. I reflected on the effects of glaciation, and that I was far enough north to be in the territory of the really big glaciers that hung around for a few thousand years after the last ice age. Their handiwork was impressive. I considered that I was walking on the remains of a once massive mountain, now broken and scattered, itís destroyer now vanished. I stopped for a rest and a snack on the ridge of what I might call a fin of boulders. The clouds still darkened the sky, but seemed harmless. I imagined Makenzie was tired from hauling the pack, but when I unbuckled it and let it drop to the ground her first order of business was to find a suitable rock and present it to me for a game of fetch, her favorite past time. I ignored her persistence and digested a granola bar followed by warm water. Further up the trail I encountered raspberry canes, loaded with mostly unripe fruit. Still, a few were bright red, and I helped myself to this unexpected delight. I threw a few unripe berries to Frank and Makenzie who seemed to enjoy them thoroughly even if they were a bit sour. After all, they had only horseshit to compare them to so far on this trip and Iíd think they have got to be better than that. A man and his teenage son passed me going downhill, and I was a little surprised to see anyone. I had gotten used to the idea that I was all alone on this trail. A little further on and I came upon a group of 4 men, all anglers, sprawled in the trail at the junction with the Trigger Lake spur trail. I said hello to them, they to me. They asked where I was going and I said vaguely, "I donít know exactly, just headiní," which probably sounded snobish, but was the truth. I was a roving man, with no plan. I decided at that instant to go check out Trigger Lake, so I turned south. The short trail led downhill into a pine-lined bowl with a small lake at the center. Many dead trees stood about the lake. I instantly didnít get a good feel for the place, but it was 5:00 and about time to make camp. I decided to maybe find a place to camp. I followed the shoreline and then took off uphill on a faint trail. I found a wide flat spot that had a giant fire ring in it, and then went uphill a little further into the woods. I set my pack down and pulled Makenzieís pack off her back. Immediately I was hungry, so I pulled out my stove and cookset and walked down to a little promontory over the lake and cooked myself a Ramen noodle delight, followed by a few squares from my Hersheyís bar. There is almost nothing in this world that compares to the joy of eating a Hersheyís bar while backpacking. If youíre a backpacker and have never hauled along a Hersheyís almond bar, you flat out havenít lived yet. I pulled out my book and the dog food and while Frank ate, more out of jealousy that Makenzie might eat the food before he did, I read THE STRANGER, by Albert Camus. I only got through the first few pages when it occurred to me I ought to set up the tent in case it did decide to rain. I walked back uphill to the selected spot and pulled my tent free of the straps that lashed it to my green frame pack. I stepped over to the area I had decided upon and carefully guaged the slope and angle for optimum placement. I didnít like what I saw so I went uphill 10 feet or so. This area was flatter but, whatís this white paper? It didnít take long for me to recognize that some rat-ass bastard had used this perfect tent spot as his latrine, and hadnít even gone so far as to place a stone over the top of it. There it was, a pile of shit and paper, right there. Only humans use paper, so far as Iím aware. I noted another pile with paper 10 feet further up. So, I would guess this may be obvious to most people, but apparently some folks just arenít getting it, so here it is: Leaving your toilet paper in the woods is just gross. Toilet paper does not biodegrade in a day, or a week, a month or even a year. That stuff sticks around, to spend the next election cycle plastered to the leaves of the unfortunate plant on which it was thrown. Itís disgusting, itís disturbing, itís polluting and I hope whomever left his shit and toilet paper right there on the ground chokes on a chicken bone tonight. Of your options, packing it out is the purest, burning it: also not so bad, burying it deep in the ground is OK as long as itís really deep, but leaving it out in the open, or hiding it (this is just stupid) under a couple of twigs or a rock is inconsiderate on a level I canít even comprehend. Itís almost malicious. I have a hard time deciding whether such perpetrators are mean-spirited jackasses or awesomely moronic, because those are the only two options Iíve come up with. I cannot reconcile the typical backpacker who goes out of his way to enjoy the beauty of nature with the obviously crass disregard for such beauty by someone who wipes and leaves it. If you didnít bring a bag with you, bury it. If you didnít bring a shovel with you, use a rock to dig. If you leave it out in the open then youíre fair game for whatever hideously foul things (and Iím thinking feces related) Karma may bestow on you. There are lots of rules that go along with wilderness travel, and Iím willing to bend on just about any of them a little bit, but not this one. Take care of your crap in the woods.
After a multitide of violent thoughts shimmered through my head, I decided that I had to move. I packed my things back up and shouldered my pack. Since it had been about 30 minutes since Iíd eaten, my energy level was back up, and I decided to just go on down the trail. This I did at around 6:00.
The sun came out shortly after I rejoined the main loop, casting molten golden slants of amber sunlight through the pines. A deep blue sky cleared overhead. A bull moose stood munching water reeds at Her Lake about 200 meters from the trail. I saw it briefly, then tried to get a little closer by cutting through the trees. I had the dogs stay by the trail, but when I got to the waterís edge, the moose had gone. We arrived at Old Crow Lake around 7:00, and three moose were eating in the shallow water of the lake. One of them, a large cow, was only 20 feet from shore. I tried to quietly sneak towards her through the trees with my camera drawn, but just as if in a movie, my boot snapped a twig and sent the moose churning through the water to the other side. I felt unhappy for having disturbed it, and decided to keep my distance if I should see one again.
I scouted out the north side of the lake and found numerous flat areas covered by a canopy of large pines and spruces. I will not belabor the frustration I experienced at once again being confronted with multiple piles of white toilet paper scattered about the area, either in the open or peering out from a small branch or rock. I situated myself as far away as I could from the offending piles and scouted around to make sure I was "in the clear" before unpacking my stuff. My first order of business was to go to the water and filter some for drinking. The dogs and I walked along a well-worn trail to the inlet where I sat on a broad flat rock and filtered. The lake was buffered from the trees on three sides by tall sedges growing in just an inch of water. The south bank was stony and trees grew right up the edge. In the evening light, the water rippled with rising trout. The area appeared to be completely without other humans. Back at camp, I pitched the tent and threw my gear inside. After I brushed my teeth, I hung my food between two large pines and then returned to the water with my camera to photograph the pink clouds gathering overhead. To my surprise, a moose was back in the water some distance away, casually plunging her head into the water for 20-30 seconds at a time then rising up chewing long leafy matter. I crouched low near the grass at the edge of the pines and watched her for 20 minutes or so, thankful that there were very few mosquitoes about. After the clouds faded to dark blue, I returned to the tent and went straight to sleep.
My alarm went off the following morning at 4:00. Pretty ambitious, and as it turned out, too much to ask. My body simply said no, and I fell back asleep until around 5:45, when a faint gray light woke me up, or was it Makenzie standing over me breathing horrible dog breath into my dreams? I dressed quickly and grabbed some food from the hanging cache before heading out up the trail I had seen before that presumably lead uphill towards treeline and a nice shot of Bighorn Peak. I followed the trail as it wound through the lodgepole forest, but with difficulty, and before long I lost it completely and set off straight west. This plunged us into a rockfield that took a long time to cross. By the time we got to a spot where I could even see Bighorn Peak, sunrise had come and gone, replaced by the flat white light of morning. I picked a likely direction and came out at Lame Deer Lake with little trouble. This lake, also, was devoid of people at the moment. I noted with some surprise a well-established path on the edge of the woods. A beaten flat with a fire ring confirmed that people had camped here. Horseshoe prints dotted the dry loose soil, and in what was appearing to be a trend, piles of paper-crowned shit dotted the woods further back. I wondered if it was a regional thing, not packing out toilet paper. The lake itself was beautiful, and the view of Bighorn and Dalton Peaks was fantastic. I was lucky to have a nice clear morning. The dogs and I walked through the trees, following the faint trail, to the outflow, which was another large rockfield with water gurgling somewhere far beneath. Frank was out ahead, but Makenzie ran past him in her zeal to be first and knocked him off the rock and down in between two massive boulders and out of sight. I heard scratching claws on rock as he went down. In four quick steps I was over him, and luckily he was only down about 3 feet. I slid one leg down between the rocks and then leaned down and pulled him up. I firmly told Makenzie not to do that again. She wagged her tail, and obviously had no idea what I was saying. In retrospect, I have no idea why I said anything at all. I guess part of me suspects that dogs secretly understand human speech very well and are just playing dumb about it beacause itís to their advantage. Perhaps because of that faint possibility, I often find myself giving cogent, logical explanations or detailed instructions to my wagging companions. This may indicate that serious delusional behavior is in my future. We reached the far side of the outflow rock field and entered into the trees on faint path that we quickly lost. No matter, hiking through the trees was infinitely preferable to hiking through the rockfield, so I simply walked west, ducking under low branches and trying to keep track of the dogs in the thick woods. I believe they keep better track of me than I of them. On the west side of the lake, I took a brief turn at fishing, but grew bored in almost no time as I itched to explore the lakes further up and didnít give it my full effort. We crossed a couple of inlets to the lake, then struck out uphill through the trees and into an area with massive amounts of downed timber. Very few trees remained standing, and it seems that there was a fire here a long time ago. The travel was exceedingly slow as there was no apparent trail, and any direction one cared to walk was barred by a thousand large logs. I headed directly for the next patch of living trees, hoping to recapture the easy walking, and we did. I took a break by a nameless lake in the Chill Lakes complex, and photographed the splendor of the walls below Bighorn Peak. We were now within the canyon formed by the glacier, and on both sides the walls were steep, rugged and tall. Glacier cirques sure are dramatic, if not a pain to travel in. I had a Clif bar and drank a lot of water, aware that I had not had a drop since we left camp almost 2 hours before. In the shade and the pleasant grass by the lake, Frank curled up and napped. Makenzie entreated me to throw a rock for her to chase, which I did a few times. I donít quite understand why Makenzie prefers rocks to sticks. A stick seems to be easier to carry, to hold a scent better, and easier to find. Iíve tried to make the switch a few times by getting her interested in stick when she presents me with a rock, then throwing the stick into the woods. Sheís interested in the stick, all right, and goes to get it, just as soon as she grabs her rock in her mouth. She used to accidentally swallow small rocks with alarming frequency, then vomit them up along with a wad of grass. This went on for some time without any apparent recognition of cause and effect on her part. She must have caught on at some point though because that hasnít happened in over a year now.
We moved on from this lake through the trees to the next lake up the canyon, a wide lake that barred easy passage up the canyon. From the eastern shore, I could see that further travel would be very tough because from there on, everything was rockfield. Perhaps foolishly, I decided to try to reach the unnamed lake at the base of Bighorn Peak. To get there, we retreated back into the woods and went west around the south side of the lake. Then it just got silly hard. The next mile took over an hour as we picked our way across a frozen avalanche of giant boulders. It was hard enough for me with my stiff-soled boots and long legs. The dogs had a very rough time of it. Sometimes we had to backtrack 20 feet or more to find a way across. More than once I had to ferry both dogs across a crevice that I could cross with ease, but they could not. With boots on it is very easy to use a quarter sized point of rock as a footstep, but dogs canít do that. Before long I was picking our route with them in mind, searching for broad, flat boulders that lay close together. For once, both dogs stayed behind me. Uphill we went to a point above the small lake where we then had to cross a field of Krumholtz fir to get close enough to look down in its depression to see it. There it was, the most barren lake Iíve ever seen. Nothing but rock, water and sky. It was intimidating, and although I reveled in the austere beauty of it, I nevertheless desired to get away from this rock hell and back into the trees. We turned around, and I regretted coming up this far when I looked back over the acres of rocks we now had to cross to get back down. I tried not to think of it, and picked a route as best I could for the dogs. We did stop at a patch of trees about 15 feet tall and have a break. Frank curled up and napped. Makenzie brought me fetching rocks but I ignored her while I snacked and made some notes. The sun was still shining brightly, and the sky was brilliant blue. Below, the valley carved by the glacier was a wasteland of rock pocked with stands of short fir. Slowly, we moved on down, and of course eventually we made it back to the lake and the large trees anchored in smooth solid soil. From there the going was quick back down to Lame Deer Lake where we had another break and relaxed in the shade. A stiff breeze rippled the lake water, and I threw out thoughts of fly fishing in such a stiff wind. Determined to avoid rockfields at all costs, I tried to follow the trail that led from the lake to the east, hoping it would lead to Old Crow Lake. Examining the map, I could not believe it would lead anywhere else. My ability to follow the cairns of this trail lasted all of 100 meters before I was left scratching me head and looking around. Finally, I simply set off in a likely direction and hoped for the best. The best turned out to be another miserable rockfield, only with this saving grace: raspberries by the millions. We made very slow progress as I gorged on the delicious fruit, tossing some to the dogs now and again. Frank especially kept interest. To Makenzie, I believe they were less desirable than tossed rocks. As luck would have it, I found a cairn in my aimless grazing, and then spotted another. I followed them over a route that in no way could be called a trail and made pretty quick progress. Often, I had to look hard to see them, but the cairns were fairly regular across the rockfield (and obviously well-camouflaged). The rockfield gave way to another burned area with lots of downed trees, and then back into the woods. I began to suspect I was close to Old Crow Lake. I lost the "trail" several times, but seemed to regain it after 30-50 feet, and thus made it back to camp by around 1:00.
I lunched on granola with powdered milk, then fell into my tent and snoozed. Unfortunately the timing was poor, since at around 2:00 the sun hit the tent and began to cook us all inside. I opened all the doors, not caring if flies and mosquitoes entered in, and tore off my shirt and socks but it was still too hot. I dressed again and got out of the tent. I decided to go for a short walk up the trail to get a better idea of where it lead. Thus I spent the next two hours walking up and down the route, doubling back and looking for cairns, placing cairns where I felt they were desperately needed, then finding there were always potential wrong turns to make. In the end, I picked a great spot to photograph sunrise on Bighorn Peak, and memorized carefully all the turns I had to take in the 15-minute walk back to camp.
I puttered around at camp, made Ramen noodles with tuna, filtered water, examined the map. I had not drank near enough water over the course of the day, and my head throbbed mightily, limiting my actions to small, low-exertion options. Generally, I was pretty bored. Clouds built up and a gray light descended on the woods, giving them an uninviting and foreboding feel. Down at the water, moose were at it again, eating the leaves and seeming not to mind we were around. Often while at camp I would here them walk past behind a screen of trees not more than 20 yards away. When I filtered water I was in plain sight to them, but they seemed to pay me no attention. When I stood at the inlet and fly-fished, I did not stare too directly at the moose watching me quietly from the willows only 30 feet away. She never moved, and after I fished for 20 minutes without catching anything, I walked back to camp and watched her out of the corner of my eye as I left. I enjoyed having them around. There are few animals in North America more pleasant to watch than moose. Plus I figured the moose wouldnít hang around long if a bear came lumbering by. Or maybe they might. After all I canít see a black bear taking on a full-grown moose.
I was very tired, and got into the sack at around 7:00. I finished reading The Stranger, and determined it was not a very enjoyable book. I was dimly aware that the author was trying to convey some profound concept, but in my near-sunstroked state, I just wasnít getting it. I finally fell asleep sometime around 9:00, but slept fitfully as my salt-covered body seemed to stick to everything. Either I was hot and sweaty under the sleeping bag, or chilled when I was out of it. Makenzie spent half the night standing in the tent watching me, as if I would jump up at any minute and say, "Címon Makenzie, itís 1AM so letís go for a walk in the pitch-black forest!" I had bad dreams. Generally, it was a very crappy night. At 5AM when my alarm went off, I was relieved that the sun would come soon and I could get out of the tent. Some people find it distasteful, or even a sacrilege, to wear a watch while backpacking, as if it is bringing too much modern technology into what should be largely a primitive and removed experience. Some of these very same people carry GPS units, but I wonít delve into that irony there. The watch alarm is the only way I can ever get up in time to witness the most beautiful 10 minutes of the day, so I keep one with me on every trip. Besides, it always seems to me that the folks who donít wear watches in the woods are always asking me what time it is. So why not just wear one? I dressed quickly and the dogs were aquiver with anticipation. I unzipped the tent and they, as Frank had by this time caught on that there was action to be had, spilled out of the tent like wriggling worms and scattered into the woods to pee, crap, sniff, scratch their crotch and do all those things dogs like to do in the morning. In the grey twilight of pre-dawn I laced my boots and slipped on my sweatshirt. I examined the sky and could not ascertain if there were clouds or not. It was dark enough that I should have been able to see stars, but at 5AM it should not be that dark. I walked down the water to see more of the sky, and then I saw on the eastern horizon a slip of yellow sky that offset all the rest and confirmed that all I was looking at was an unbroken conglomerate of low, wet clouds. Having no desire to hike over the dubious route to the sunrise location I had staked out the night before only to watch it under cloud cover, I walked back to the tent and laid down on my sleeping bag for a nap. Surprisingly, I slept better fully clothed than I had all night, perhaps because I didnít sweat as much not being under the sleeping bag. I awoke again at quarter to 8, refreshed. The sky did not seem to have changed at all. I determined then and there to hike back to the car and drive to another location in the Bighorns where I could do some additional exploring. I quickly ate granola and powdered milk for breakfast, then packed camp and set off down the trail by 8:30.
I came upon 2 young hikers in bright red slickers on the trail. One of them asked why Makenzie had to carry all the weight and I said it was because she was the strong one. Itís true. The day before, as a quick experiment, I put the pack on Frank to see what heíd do. He didnít move at all. He wouldnít walk with it. He just stood there, looking pathetic. So, thatís his effective strategy for getting out of wearing sidepacks. Further along the trail I came to the branch off to Willow Lake. I debated going to see Willow Lake for a few seconds, but continued on the main route that ran rapidly downhill. Within an hour of leaving Old Crow Lake, I was at Shard Lake. I took a break and drank some water, adjusted my socks and ate half a Snickers bar. Four men fished from the rocks on the far bank quietly under the ashen sky. I dislike fishing under cloudy skies because you can almost never see into the water, even with polarizer sunglasses. I much prefer to watch the fish as they inspect my fly so I can know how much of a dud they recognize it for. Plus, some days itís nice to at least confirm that there fish in the water when it seems like there arenít any. Back on the trail, I headed downhill while a nice old man was coming uphill. He commented about Makenzieís packs and I told him she was a big help. He commented on how pretty she was. If she can understand human speech, sheís got to be getting a pretty big head by now from all these compliments. The last group of folks I saw consisted of 4 backpackers adjusting their gear on the side of the trail, I passed them by with a few greetings and then made my way uneventfully to my parked car. On the way I passed the trailhead sign that said something like, "The Forest Service is maintaining the wildness of this area by constructing very few trails, bridges, etc." Well, thank you Forest Service! I am so indebted to you forÖdoingÖnothingÖ(??) This is the double negative approach to getting things done: Weíve succeeded in our goal to do nothing. Things havenít changed since we took over and we feel thatís money well-spent. I want that job where lack of tangible results means success. "Címon guys, didnít the Forest Service do a bang-up job when they did nothing at all last year? Thatís one government agency that does what it says! Results, baby!" I actually enjoyed the lack of Ďtrails, bridges, etc.í but I find it hilarious that the Forest Service touts this as an accomplishment. They didnít do anything! How can you take credit for doing nothing? Itís like accepting congratulations because it rained today. This is classic Bush-Administration spin on land management activity: take no action at all, but make it sound good. Hilarious.
I left the parking lot
with just 3 cars in it around 10:40. It began raining at that point, and
for once I had made it to the car in time. The rain and unending gray skies
made my decision for me: I simply pointed the car south and drove back