Essay by Brian Day
We’ve spent the last week exploring the Wind River Range around Pinedale, Wyoming. First, up near Forks Lakes, where we did some backcountry hiking, and most recently near Boulder Lake, where we finally got some good fishing and an unexpected wildfire.
We ended up at Boulder Lake Campground through another gift of serendipity. Months ago, when we were first planning our summer on the road, we posted a picture of the Falcon Guide to Hiking the Wind River Range on our Instagram page. One of the comments was from Marc and Morgan, who are full timers who basecamp in Pinedale during the summer. Last week, when we rolled into town fresh from the Gros Ventre Campground (300 sites!) in Grand Teton National Park, we sent them a message. A few minutes later we were sitting in their front yard getting the local beta on where to camp and hike around Pinedale.
They mentioned that they were headed to the Boulder Lake Campground the following afternoon, and it would be a much better spot for hiking and fishing than Soda Lake, which we were considering. We wrapped up some grocery shopping, filled the tanks with water and hit the road, down 191; 12 miles to the town of Boulder.
We can’t thank Marc and Morgan enough for their help and recommendations. The campground had a few open sites and we managed to snag a nice one near Boulder Creek, just a few hundred feet above where it empties into Boulder Lake. That was Thursday night. Friday morning I broke out the tenkara rod and went fishing. I got into a handful of trout including a nice rainbow that I got to hand and another that shook loose. Finally some good fishing!
Now, I think travelogue posts are pretty boring. First we did this, then we did that. Not my favorite. Stick with me for a minute. There’s a story coming.
Last night we laced up our boots and hiked out of the campground toward Blueberry Lake. The map showed about a two mile hike with 1200 feet or so of elevation gain. A stiff hump. Come to find out, most of that 1200 feet happens in one mile. Ugh.
The going was level at the beginning. Just outside the campground we passed a hooded sweatshirt that someone had lost on the trail. We set it on a bush at the side of the trail, hopeful that they would find it on the return trip.
About forty-five minutes into the hike we heard a horse squeal uphill from us and stopped to see if the trail was clear. Up ahead there was a young guy trying to manage a horse problem. “We’ve got a car crash up here,” he said.
As it turns out he was with his wife, scouting for the upcoming elk season. One of his horses decided she had enough of the steep trail and started acting up. The next thing you know one of the pack horses had slipped and was cut and the whole train was snarled up. When we caught up to them they were pulling the plug on the day and trying to get four horses turned around and safely back down the hill.
We didn’t mind a break and we waited off the side of the trail until they had things under control. I was sorry that they had to turn back. It was a shame to miss out on the day because an animal decided that it wasn’t happy. They hoped to try a different trail to the top of the ridge the following day, out of the Burnt Lake Campground.
Another 45 minutes of hiking took us to the top of the ridge and back down the other side to Blueberry Lake. The lake was beautiful, with a sandy shoreline and water temperatures that were perfect for swimming. Unfortunately, it was 5:30 and it had taken an hour and a half to hike up the mountain. We spent a few minutes at the lakeshore picking fresh blueberries and taking in the view before starting back toward camp.
Downhill was rough. A pounding, steep decent. Cristi had a pair of trekking poles that took a little pressure off her knees. I had Pedro on the leash and he was cooking downhill on four feet while I tired to keep up on two. On the way down I spotted a folding Buck knife on the ground and picked it up. The sweatshirt was still there where we had left it so we decided to take both down to the trailhead and put them at the registration box in hopes the owners would track them down on their way off the mountain.
We passed Marc and Morgan on our way back. They were headed out to fish Boulder Creek and invited us to stop by for a campfire later that evening. We were both hot and hungry. By the time we’d finished grilling a burger and frying sliced potatoes in the Fry-Bake we were done for the day. Off to bed.
The next morning was Saturday. We were up early to fish the river. We hiked up above the second bridge and fished a couple large pools that seemed sure to hold fish. It wasn’t until the third pool that we connected on my biggest fish of the trip–a nice brown. We were fishing for dinner, so it went into the pack, along with a couple smaller rainbows that we landed farther downstream. Around 11 we headed back toward camp, again passing Marc and Morgan, this time with their friend Mike, all headed upstream to fish a “secret spot” that maybe I’ll find out about sometime.
The next couple hours were spent on lunch, coffee and fly tying. Cristi took a nap and I cranked out a dozen flies to replace the ones I had been offering to the trees streamside. Around one, Cristi woke up, came outside and said, “does the sky look weird to you? It looks really YELLOW.”
There was smoke in the air, but we weren’t sure if it was from the perpetual campfire of our neighbors or something more ominous. A quick chat with one of our fellow campers confirmed that there was a forest fire brewing up. A few minutes later we could see a column of smoke rising into the air from the north and obscuring the sun.
We were downwind of the fire. It seemed like a good idea to get ready to move. Cristi and I packed up all the extraneous gear and put the truck and trailer in order. Then we walked downstream from our site to the mouth of the Boulder to check out the fire with our binoculars.
The fire was out of sight behind the hill, but heavy smoke was billowing up from behind the ridge that separates Boulder Lake from Burnt Lake. A stiff wind was driving it our way. It was a few miles off, but would be getting closer by the minute.
We hemmed. We hawed. I hated to leave if we didn’t have to. Cristi pointed out that the air quality was about to get pretty frickin’ bad… We had the truck and trailer at “Alert Five” status. Hook up and roll.
About that time, Marc, Morgan and Mike came back into camp and we had a quick conference. They were concerned about the fire and were likely pulling out. Once again they offered up some much appreciated advice about camping close to Pinedale. We went back to the trailer to hook up.
That’s when we saw the horses. Cristi said, “Isn’t that Dakota?” Dakota was the mare that had caused all the trouble for the couple we met yesterday on the mountain. Here they were back at Boulder Lake.
“Are you guys OK?” I asked. “Nope,” came the reply. “We started up the ridge at Burnt Lake and then we saw the fire and we decided it wasn’t safe to go back that way. Our truck and stock trailer are parked back there.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “I’m going to get these horses back to where we camped last night and fed and watered. Then I’ll see if I can get back to the truck and trailer.”
“Up at the dispersed camping?” I asked.
“OK. We’re hooking up,” I said. “We’ll swing by and see if we can’t get you over to your truck.”
Five minutes later we rolled out of the site and across the bridge toward the large horse campground near the boat ramp. The couple had the horses tied up and were pulling the last of the packs off. We turned the truck around and Michael climbed in.
I asked him if they had lost a hooded sweatshirt. And a Buck knife. Yes. Both. He rolled down the window and hollered to his wife, April. “They’re at the trailhead, if you want to go back!”
We took off down the gravel road. I was moving as quickly as I could, talking to Michael about elk hunting and the details of his upcoming hunt. We came into a curve a little bit hot and the truck got loose. I had a foot on the brake but the whole rig was sliding sideways toward the ditch. BAD. I came off the brake, turned the wheel toward the ditch, hit the brake again and held on. We came to rest halfway up the berm. Off camber. Casita in the ditch behind us.
Michael jumped out and ran around the truck to take a look. There’s some people you meet and you know right away they are squared away. Michael was one of them. He checked out the trailer, gave me the thumbs up and waved me forward out of the ditch. I didn’t bother to get out to look. No need.
Michael jumped back in. “No harm, no foul,” he said. “Gravel Life.”
We were back on the road, running in four-wheel-drive now and moving with a bit more caution and a bit less speed. At the top of the rise we got a better look at the fire. It had moved over the ridge and was running through the sagebrush toward a couple houses near Boulder Lake. They had a helicopter in the air bucketing water onto the fire. There was some kind of fixed-wing aircraft making runs. Michael had worked wildland fire and figured that the forest service would do everything they could to keep the fire from spreading into the timber at the head of the lake. “If it gets in there, they’ll never get it out.”
He was running On-X on his phone and had a cutover road that he wanted to try to take an hour off the trip over to Burnt Lake. We turned right on a good gravel road. Five minutes later we were at a fork. He handed me the phone to show me the map. I took the one to the left. Looked right to us.
The good gravel road turned into a two-track. Up ahead there was an F-250 coming our way. The driver waved us down and we stopped for a powow. Dead-end road he said. I told him we were trying to get to a stranded vehicle on Burnt. “If you took the other road you could get across the spillway,” he said. “On foot.”
So we were stuck. Not for the first time I was happy we had the Casita and not a bigger trailer. We pulled into a rocky turnoff, Y-turned back onto the two-track and headed back to the main road. A couple minutes later we saw flashing lights and waved down a LEO in an Explorer.
Michael talked with the officer for a while. When he came back to the truck he told us that the police were going to try to help him get back to his wife and take care of their horses. Maybe somebody could come in from town with a stock trailer. Maybe they would get back to their own rig.
He said thanks. We were happy to help. It was strange to leave him on the side of the road, even though we knew he was in good hands. It would have been better to have had a beer with him and his wife, with everybody safe, to talk over the day.
I don’t know if Michael was able to get to his truck. I hope they’re both OK.
We didn’t have anything more to do. Michael hopped into the squad and we rolled back into town. Tired. Grabbed a burger at Daves Last Stand. Delicious. Started toward Soda Lake. Stopped on the side of the road. Tired. Hot. Dirty. Frustrated. Maybe it was time for a hotel.
I write this from the Sundance Motel in Pinedale. A fine establishment with hot water and a king size bed.
That’s a full day.
The fire was called the Tannerite Fire. Apparently it was started by somebody popping off some Tannerite. If you don’t know what it is, it’s an over-the-counter explosive that’s set off by gunfire. Fun stuff to play with. But there’s a time and a place. There is a Red Flag fire warning on for the region. Should have saved the Tannerite for some other time.
Here’s a link to the fire updates from Pinedale Online.
Brian Day is an outdoor writer who’s work has been published in Paddling Magazine, The Boundary Waters Journal and Sea Kayaker. He posts weekly at his site: Kitchi-gami.com on topics ranging from outdoor gear to adventure travel. Brian and his wife Cristi spent last year on the road in their Casita trailer and are currently based in Savannah, GA.
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