Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Grand Tetons

The iconic image of a Grand Tetons vacation, at least its public face. Really the image could as easily be the thousand or so people packed in 350 campsites along the Gros Ventre (Big Belly) river, many of them in RV cocoons to make sure nature doesn't intrude too far: a sort of industrialized recreation. Last year we'd camped up the river in a National Forest campsite, quiet and pleasant, but a bit far from the fleshpots of the visitor center etcetera. This year we'd planned to spend most of the time in a backcountry canoe-in campsite, consequently resigned ourselves to mass camping for a couple of nights. It was endurable but not really what we'd driven eight hours for.

In the evening we walked the two hundred yards down to the river itself, where the moose and her child grazed on the willows. The blurry mess of this image is because light was low and my tripod safely home in the closet. I fished a bit but only small fish attempted to drown the big dry fly. The boys threw rocks to encourage the fish while a beaver fled the scene with alarmed tail-whacks on the water.

The vacation fell plop in the middle of what should have been the heaviest training weeks for my competitive swansong, ITU championships in Budapest. In the grotesquely early morning, face grey as the dawn, up and off again on the bike for ninety minutes, followed by forty minutes' worth of distance run. Sunrise on the Tetons was a fine distraction.

Time for the gear-fussing, loading the canoe with surprising quantities of food and variegated sorts of equipment. The put-in is at String lake, a couple of miles up against the current (in a lake ?) then a short portage. 'Portage' means unpack all the gear so recently packed, hump it up and over the ridge to the next lake, and.. pack it all again. Whee.

At least the scenery was gorgeous. As can be clearly seen here, where I used to have abs there is now a small comfortable puppy of fat. I suppose I'll have to drag it along with me wherever I go now that it's followed me home.

On the way up String lake, there was a young grizzly at the water's edge having a drink. We looked at each other and he faded back into the woods. This was about a mile from the portage, so we hoped nothing in our foodstuffs was smelling too irresistible. The swimming in Leigh lake was good.

The lake was perfectly calm, clear water turning black in the depths, as we cruised in to camp. The site was up a little hill deep in old-growth spruce, willow fringing a small stream delta of sand and rocks below. I hugged two of the big ancient trees, using for excuse the installation of a hammock.

Ian had just returned from a week-long Scout camp where he'd earned his canoe merit badge. He'd paddled bow in Ken's boat on the way in. I asked how it went, "it was very tiring, if I stopped paddling Ken would stop too" whereas sucker Dad just keeps paddling if his crew gets lazy. Hm takes notes.

Ian cruised the lake with his fly rod, but the fish were sparse and cautious in the clear cool water. From the edge of the stream delta, the water dropped straight down to twenty feet or more. It was the first time I've been able to dive off a beach.

We did get a couple of fish, a smattering of smaller brook trout and two big cutthroat, both around 20-21". Ian broke off one of these on the spinning rod, and I lost another on the fly rod, since some fool thought he could fish a big streamer on 5x tippet. The one landed came to a Peter Ross, an old Scottish loch fly pattern I tied thirty years ago in the sun room of the house in Newlands Avenue.

The next day we paddled to the north end of the lake for a change of scenery. This beach had huge prowling cutthroat, they'd come in and snoop through the shallows looking for a little something to eat, like an innocuous version of sharks.

There was a small cabin here, with a ranger lady and her daughter living in it for the summer. They came around the campsites each day to make sure there weren't any bear incidents or drunken campers. The day we paddled out, they came out as well - for a change from living in a log cabin in the woods, they were going backpacking. I thought I was a hardcore outdoor enthusiast.

C got a plump healthy cutthroat on the way back, the only small cutt we saw in the lake. Down in those black depths are shoals of aliens, giant lake trout mistakenly transplanted from northern lakes, which push the cutts down a link in the food chain.

That night another moose and her child tried to take a shortcut through camp, then decided against it and swam around us instead. I nearly had a heart attack, quietly washing the dishes in the dusk, when her large brown head came quizzically around the tree: thought it was the bear, come to see if we had left any of that delicious-smelling dinner sausage for him.

Ian went back to the inlet, where we'd caught most of our fish, to see if there was anything doing. A steep creek runs in a flume from the high country to vanish into the lake here. The winds blow hot from the far shore, then a gust down the ravine brings icy air.
They allow only two nights in the backcountry per permit, so we had to get out again. I abandoned my family in another industrial campsite, fenced about by RVs, while Ken and I headed in to the deepest backest country we could find via 4wd road, in between Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. H assured me they wouldn't spend any time in the campsite except for sleeping, straight to the Jackson Lake Lodge deck.

We found our way down to Lake of the Woods and camped on the east shore in clouds of mosquitoes. A couple of recent graduates of UW (Criminal Justice) were hanging out in their campsite, heavily armed. Ken discussed large handguns with them for a bit. We proceeded peaceably out on the water, where a few fat strong rainbows rose in the evening mists. Strange streams with no apparent drainage area came in from the dark woods, edged by flowers and pebbles.

Wait, mists ? that was smoke from the Boy Scout camp at the other end.. with a merry clangour of Grumman aluminum, they emerged from the smoke like a kind of apocalypse. So much for peace and quiet. In the morning they were up before dawn to regale us with the Scouting Symphony, full Grumman timpani. We left.

The road runs on from the dense woods, through ponderosa parks, into the small well-watered Winegar wilderness. At first we overshot it to come out to a view of Idaho farming country. It looked perfect, an ideal landscape of rolling hills interspersed with clumps of trees around the farmhouses, a sort of middle-earth Shire. That wasn't what we were after, at all, so u-turned back into the wild. Parked at Loon Lake for a lookaround, there they were, two loons happily nested on it. The sewage truck that had been tailing us came in, looped around the campsite, and left again. No idea at all what it was up to.

The Winegar wilderness is there for the bears: as that author notes "a wet, boggy, ponded, willow country, an excellent place to stash a body". We hiked in to the Falls river, bear spray on one hip, .44 magnum on the other (Ken that was, I was insufficiently armed). A pretty river in meanders with very little holding water, below that big sky. The fish were mostly small. Ken got the big one, a 12" brookie out of an undercut bank.

There was a whole passel of fish lined up along the current break, requiring a long exact cast and careful mending of the line to deceive them. After taking half-a-dozen, Ken had pity on me, and let me have the last two in the line. We bushwhacked back across the bear logs and bogs through the spookily quiet empty country.

I wasn't ready to stop fishing and prevailed upon Ken to stop at Grassy Lake, a reservoir drawn down for the fall, with an unattractive bathtub ring of greasy mud and rocks. Pitching out a big streamer quickly got a handsome colourful cutt of 16-17", then nothing.

The original plan was to wander back home camping at various spots on the way, but Ian had been out for over two weeks and wanted a bit of quality time with his Xb0x before school started. That seemed fair after all.

We spent one night in Thermopolis at a hotel with a side excursion to the hot springs. The hotel owner was an enthusiastic hunter, filled the place up with dead heads and antlers. He'd started catch-and-release elephant hunting - shoot the poor beast with a drugged dart, pose for photo, then let it go again. We recede from the real world at an accelerating rate.

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