Backpacking in the Winds

A group of OWA vets return to the Wind River Range for a backpacking trip.

 

Groupl at Popo Agie Wilderness Boundary
The Group at the Popo Agie Wilderness Boundary

The seven of us met up in Lander, Wyoming on Sunday, Sept 22, 2019, for a backpacking trip into the Wind River Range. For many years, the town had served as the base of operations for a multitude of Outpost Wilderness Adventure trips in the area, so we all felt like we knew it well. It was the logical choice for our meet-up spot, and so that’s how we used it. At some point in the past, each of us had been involved with Outpost (or OWA). Now, some years later and as OWA veterans, this was our third return into the wild outdoors. The group consisted of David and Brian Barrow, Chris Brown, David Guillory, Barry Hunt, Patrick Cone, and David Appleton. The ages ranged from Brian’s early ’30s to Barrow and Appleton’s mid-’60s. Most everyone had ventured into the “Winds” previously, but none in the past 15 years. While some change had crept into the town, once we got on the trail the following day, it was nice to see that the backcountry was as wild and spectacular as ever.

We followed the Sheep Bridge Trail for some 3 miles to get us to the actual Sheep Bridge, where we set up a base camp for further exploration of the area. The bridge crosses the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River and provides a connection to the longer Middle Fork Trail. While OWA groups had camped in the Winds many times previously on more extended forays, none had ever ventured very far onto the Sheep Bridge Trail. And that meant that none of us had ever been on that actual trail. Interestingly, our trailhead for this trip was at Worthen Reservoir, the launch site for the first OWA trip into the Winds back in the ’80s.

After some last-minute organizing, shopping, and logistical mess, we arrived at the trailhead at around noon on Monday. The weather was clear and pleasant, and while there’d been recent snow up in the higher mountains, it seemed a bit dry. The Aspens were beginning to change, but as we left our cars and the outhouse behind, it appeared that Autumn had not yet arrived in earnest. Our last bit of somewhat current trail beta was a note at the trailhead sign warning of a menacing bear in the Sheep Bridge area. We were pleased to see that it was a couple of months old and didn’t let it, or some initial trail confusion, get in the way of a good time.

Getting onto the trail was the hardest and most complicated part of the trip for everyone. Once we actually began walking and lost sight of civilization, all of that was mostly forgotten, and we quickly re-assumed our roles as experienced backcountry people. As in our previous two veteran trips, it was nice that no one whined out loud when the going was tough, and that everyone knew what to pack and how to cook. There was no discussion about how to set up camp when we got to the campsite, and by mid-afternoon of that first day, our 4 tents were up. After that, we had time to cross the bridge and locate the old no-trace camping spot we’d used on so many previous trips. The top of that rocky outcrop afforded a great view to the west that included Wind River Peak. While gazing to the west, I found myself momentarily and mentally in 1988, looking back toward a peak I’d just climbed with a group.

There was a stack of unused bridge timbers near the campsite, and we made use of some of them to create a table of sorts. A big slab of rock provided separation from the trail, and an alcove in it made for a good campfire spot. The fire ring had obviously been used for years and protected the forest from the campfire while radiating the heat nicely out back out into the immediate seating and standing area. In the past, we’d always had some concern about bears. Typically, we pitched our tents away from cooking areas, which is good bear country technique. But none of our OWA groups had ever had an encounter with one in that area, and it wasn’t something that we worried much about. This time was no exception, and we took the trailhead note as only something of a gentle reminder as to a possibility. But, for whatever reason, after our first trail supper that evening, we hung our food, which was something that none of us had ever done in the Winds in the past. That night, after a filling supper of Chicken Quesadillas, food hanging, and rum-spiced campfire talk, we headed to our tents under star-filled skies, content in our preparations.

The first night in the tents was chilly, probably in the upper 20’s. We were all thankful to have warm sleeping bags, and getting up before daylight seemed out of the question. But before the sun could begin to work it’s warming magic, D Barrow and Chris did get up, built a campfire, and heated water for coffee. Once that was done, the rest of us managed to get up.

For our first full day in the Wind River backcountry, we opted to do a 6-mile roundtrip hike (with fishing along the way) up the Middle Fork trail, across the river, and then back to camp on the Stough Creek Trail. Just after the start of our hike, we were pleased to see the Popo Agie Wilderness Boundary and stopped to takes some photos.

A couple of lakes just off of the Stough Creek Trail (called the Twin Lakes) looked to be fishing possibilities on the map, so we made them something of a destination. Most of our group fished along the way with plenty of 4″ Brook Trout caught and released in the Middle Fork. We crossed the river at a gentle spot and soon began descending the less traveled Stough Creek Trail back toward camp. D Barrow stopped and fished a likely looking hole on Stough Creek and caught a larger Brookie, so there was increased positive anticipation as we continued on toward the lakes.

As we hiked on down the trail, I couldn’t help but remember that first trip into the Winds. On that excursion, a teenage member of our group inadvertently passed the rest of us at a stream crossing. We were on the same Stough Creek Trail (although on a more distant section), and he’d continued on past us alone for several miles before finally turning around and returning to the group.

The Twin Lakes turned out to be tough for fishing. Patrick did find a good spot on one, which was out of the wind and suitable for fly fishing. He caught a nice-sized Brookie, which once again invigorated the fishermen. But after several casts of spinners and flies, no others were caught, and the two-mile walk back to the campsite began in earnest.

Well before dark, we were all back at camp with a campfire burning, water boiling, and hors d’oeuvres being prepared. After eating and drinking our fill once again, we hung the food and then returned to the fire for a couple of hours of fire poking, smoke avoidance, and intriguing conversation before heading off to the tents.

The temperature the second night out was warmer and a bit more amenable to deep sleep. No one was quite as eager to get up the second morning, although coffee/tea drinking and breakfast were finished and cleaned up by 9:30. That day, Wednesday was set aside as a day for fishing and hiking along the Middle Fork. To that end, we split into three groups. The Barrow’s fly fished together while Barry and Guillory fished their way downstream and located a spectacular waterfall with several holes full of small Brookies. Patrick, Chris, and I headed down the trail on a hike toward the Middle Fork trailhead in Sink’s Canyon. Several miles down the trail, we found our own spectacular waterfall on the river and then opted to wander off the trail and bushwhack up onto a nearby small peak.

By late afternoon, the three of us walked back into camp, where we found the two Barrow’s reorganizing and putting away their fishing gear. We got one of Guillory’s Peak 1 stoves fired up and began boiling water in preparation for supper and for afternoon coffee. Within a few minutes, Barry and Guillory returned and recounted their experience downstream. Later that evening, we had another fine dinner and happy hour, followed by more campfire, especially interesting conversation facilitated by Patrick, and a sort of name/card game that was particularly challenging for some. Guillory and Patrick continued visiting around the campfire late into that night, but everyone else was in the tents and drifting off to sleep well before 10. The third night (Wednesday) was once again relatively warm and pleasant.

I was the first one out of the tents on Thursday morning and got a small fire going and the water boiling within a few minutes. The sky was once again clear, and everyone was up, and breakfast/hot drinks finished once again by 9:30. There was a bit of confusion early on as Patrick awoke, unable to locate his glasses. Chris came to the rescue and found them located below some brush near the tent, where they’d apparently been misplaced the night before. Once that was resolved, everyone prepared their fishing gear and daypacks for a day out on the trail.

For the third full day out, we chose to hike and fish together and opted to once again head to the Twin Lakes, although this time, to a different Twin Lakes. The fact that the names of our two lake destinations were the same was a pain. But what was of most concern to me was the fact that there were actually three lakes located at the second Twin Lakes, which did not make good sense. Anyway, the cluster of three were located about 3 miles up a trail toward the larger Shoshone Lake, and we could see on the map that they were at least 1000 feet higher than our campsite. The trail we took toward them forked off of the Middle Fork Trail not far into the Popo Agie Wilderness and we could see was obviously less traveled.

It quickly began going up, and within a short distance afforded some nice views. After a couple of hours of walking, we finally made it up to a trail junction and finally to the northside of the larger of the three lakes. After an extensive trail lunch, the Barrows, Barry, and Guillory headed off to fish. Surprisingly, the larger of the three lakes had a bunch of Lilly Pads, indicating that it was shallow. None of us had ever seen that before in the Winds—an indication of something going on with the climate, I suppose. All three lakes proved to be barren of fish. That, along with a stiff southerly wind, sent the group heading back to camp after only a couple of hours of fishing and exploration. Everyone was back at camp well before dark, and after the winds finally died down, we built a campfire, cooked supper, and settled in for one last night out in the wilds.

The sky was relatively clear when we headed into the tents, but we could feel some sort of change in the air. Around 4 am, D Barrow and I awoke to the sound of light drizzle falling on the tent. When we got up and went outside for personal hygiene reasons, we noted that the sky was a mix of clouds and stars, seeming to indicate that any moisture that was going to fall would be limited. But eventually, the drizzle turned to light rain, and by 7 am, it was all wet around the campsite. It never really rained hard enough to force us to stay in the tents. But the temperature began dropping in the early morning, and by 8 am, cold had joined forces with the wet to make it flat-out uncomfortable outside.

Nonetheless, Guillory, Patrick, and Chris got up, packed their things, and began walking back to the trailhead by 9 am. Me, Barry, and the Barrow’s followed suit within an hour. Before the four of us finished packing up our gear, the light rain changed over to light snow. Since the temperature was only around 32, I knew that if it continued, we were in for a wet snow—which was something we didn’t need.

The walkout was mostly uphill and somewhat rough. Thankfully, the ground was only moderately slippery, and no moisture was falling by the time we started walking. As we climbed up and back toward Worthen Reservoir, we began to see the remnants of light snow and sleet on the ground.

We were all back at the vehicles by the middle of the day. Once there, we found notes on each windshield warning us of a Grizzly Bear sighting in the area. Almost immediately, I began contemplating the impact the message would’ve had on us had we gotten it before going out on the trail. But since we hadn’t and because bears had not been much of a worry for us back in the ’90s, in this case, ignorance was bliss.

Our 5 days out in the Wind River backcountry, reminded us all once again of the power and magnificence that permeates the Wind River Range. We watched as the Aspens turned to gold, felt the Middle Fork tugging at our feet, and were captivated by Wind River Peak as it beckoned us toward it. It was five days of somewhat clean dishes, rocky trails, and star-filled skies. And above all else, it was good to see that some things never change.

We arrived back in Lander around noon and had a filling breakfast/lunch at the Oxbow Restaurant. We were able to check back into our hotel early that afternoon and then dried out our gear in the parking lot. After a little wandering around along Main Street, we met up at a local restaurant for pizza. Everyone was on the road toward their homes early the next morning. As is always the case after traveling into the backcountry, we were all re-energized and ready to take on the challenges that surely awaited.

Map
Where We Went

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.