Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mega-Update, Part 1: In Which Krista's Legs Fall Off

A shocked bull trout (the picture doesn't even begin to capture what these guys really look like):

Morning from our camping spot on Shipisland Lake, in the Bighorn Crags:

Smiling on the most intense hike of my life:

The meadow below Hurricane Pass, in the Tetons:

Mr. Moose munching willows in the Tetons:

From our campsite on Death Canyon Shelf, looking down into Death Canyon:

From our first campsite in Cascade Canyon, looking up into the Tetons:

Heading toward Death Canyon:

Bison grazing by the Park entrance:

I know. I haven't written in forever. But it's a blustery, snowy Sunday morning and I dragged myself out of bed and here I am with a mug of Bengal Spice tea and a plate of cold toast crumbs to explain all I've been doing in the past month and a half.

First--let's see, this was back in late August, early September--I finished up my last-ever visitor use survey hitch, with Matt Boyer instead of Claudia this time, and we hiked A LOT. During our first week out, we did a couple day hikes to Sawtooth Lake (which looks vastly different than it did in July--no more snow except on the high peaks, crystal clear turquoise water, fish jumpin') and Lookout Peak (at over 10,000 feet, with 360-degree views of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the Sawtooth Mountains and the WhiteCloud Peaks). This was when the ass-kicking began... and didn't let up until now. Somehow, Matt Boyer's legs are only a couple inches longer than mine, but I've come to believe that they're made out of stainless steel (or maybe lightweight aluminum), his lungs are iron, and his feet are feathers. The kid is super fast and super in shape. He put me to shame.
After our first week out, we re-couped at Moyer for a couple days, then went on an overnighter to the Bighorn Crags. We got to the trailhead at noon on Thursday morning; hiked 12 grueling miles deep into the jagged, rocky expanse (up and down, up and down, the whole time); set up camp on the beautiful shores of Shipisland Lake (with no one else for miles and miles); slept soundly; woke up at 7 am, packed up camp, and promptly hiked the 12 miles back out again. I literally thought I was going to die. Twenty-four miles in twenty-four miles, more than 8,000 foot elevation gain, and Matt Boyer cruisin' along like it was the Boston Marathon! But the scenery, and especially the rocks, were spectacular and I'm glad we did it instead of sitting at the trailhead campground after out survey.
Following the survey hitch was a fisheries hitch, which was beyond awesome. A group of six (five SCAers and one Forest Service guy) spent each day splashing around streams and creeks in our hipwaders with a generator-powered fish-shocking backpack and a bunch of nets. The person with the shocker would go ahead and send an electric current through the water, temporarily stunning the trout out of their hiding places. As soon as we'd see one float to the surface, we'd rush in and try to scoop him up with our long-handled nets before he recovered and darted away. It got a little crazy when we'd hit a nice deep pool with a lot of overhangs--or a narrow, deeply grown-over spot where we couldn't see nor fit--but it was tons of fun. We'd collect all the fish in a bucket of water, and after finishing the stretch of stream, we'd identify and measure each one, plus measure the PH and temperature of the stream, GPS coordinates, depth, width, etc. The main purpose was to determine the populations of endangered bull trout to prevent the streams from being grazed or developed in the future. We got a good number of bull trout, TONS of rainbows of every size, lots of native cutthroat trout, and a few invasive brookies. When we nabbed a brook trout, we got to gut it and save it for dinner later instead of throwing it back lke the others, because apparently brook trout are invasive here and out-compete the native species.
Our fisheries hitch fell smack dab in the middle of Labor Day weekend, so we finally ended up getting the four days off in a row that we'd been promised all summer, and my fisheries crew (me, Kasey, Sander, Matt Boyer and Matt Zimmermann) all went to Grand Teton National Park for a backpacking trip. We spent the first night camped in the front country, and it was a zoo! The Tetons abut Yellowstone, are just as grand, and are much less crowded (supposedly), but the frontcountry was still packed bumper-to-bumper with obnoxious RVers (towing their SUVs) who stopped to gawk and take pictures of every squirrel crossing the road. They could never even get out of their cars and still claim to have been to the National Park. Ugh.
But we had a good first night anyway, watched the sun set over the mountains to the west while listening to coyotes howl at the full moon, which rose simultaneously over the plains on the east. We also saw a herd of wild bison grazing by the side of the road as we drove into the park. It was a beautiful night and we were only at about 6,000 feet, so we slept out in the open under the stars, our sleeping bags circling the sagebrush campfire.
The next morning we ditched the crowds, secured our backcountry permits (the backcountry was miraculously empty compared to the frontcountry, maybe because most of the young people who usually get out there were back in college for the fall), and hiked past the waterfalls in Cascade Canyon to our first backcountry site. There's a three mile stretch in the south fork of the canyon designated for camping, and we were the only group with a permit to camp there--so basically, we chose the best spot and had the whole place to ourselves. It was fantastic. We were on a flat, brushy ledge above the rushing creek, in a lush green bowl surrounded by 12,000+ foot snowy peaks on all sides that turned rosy-gray in the sunset. Lacy networks of waterfalls cascaded down the mountainsides high above us, a porcupine waddled right through our campsite as we were all sitting there, and there was bear sign everywhere. It was perfect grizzly country, but (thankfully, perhaps) we secured our food well and didn't see a one. We did, however, see a big bull moose grazing the willows in the creek!
The next morning (Sunday), we packed up camp and headed west toward Hurricane Pass and Alaska Basin. The hike started out pleasantly, with sunlight filtering through the green pines and the creek flowing all sparkly gold alongside the trail. After a couple miles, we began to climb out of the lush valley and up toward the pass, higher and higher. After the first hard climb we emerged in a beautiful alpine meadow laced with a network of narrow streams. The meadows rose into sheer rock ledges, and the trail hugged the side of these ledges. It was insanely windy, we were going insanely high (nearly 12,000 feet), and I thought for sure that my heavy pack was going to knock me off balance and I'd blow away.
Eventually, we got to the top of the aptly-named Hurrican Pass, all wind-swept rocks and ominous gray skies, and continued straight on across a high plateau where, against all odds, little sunflowers were growing, struggling against the unceasing wind. We decended a little ways and had a delicous lunch (roasted red pepper hummus and artisan bread and cheese!) on the shores of a little pond sitting in the middle of a huge, gorgeous meadow. Even though it was September, the snow must've just melted in the meadow, and it was like springtime there. THe mayflies were out like mad, and all the flowers that bloomed at lower elevations in June--the red-orange paintbrush and purple lupine and yellow balsamroot--were just flowering up there, like the weretrying to spread as much color as they could in the short alpine growing season. It was beautiful. Spring in September.
That day, we hiked about 10 miles with our packs, decending out of the Alaska Basin, across a rocky field, then back up again, up the lip of Death Canyon, where we camped on its shelf (at nearly 11,000 feet--it was cold!!) that night. THe last day, Monday, we hiked down into th canyon and back out to the car--15 miles (should've been 12, but Kasey, Sander and I took an accidental detour).
Needless to say, my legs were jelly. And then I did three more days of fisheries and flew across the country for the wedding of the century, which I'll elaborate on in Part II of this mega-update, maybe later today.

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