Some Places You Go, To Which You Can Never Return

Posted by Dutchman Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I was reading the blog of "The Dirt Road Bicycle Commuter" and his reference to the fleeting moments of summer, reminded me of a day back in late July of 1988. I remember the month and year easily, not only because of that day's experience, but because that was also the year of the Yellowstone fires, whose smoke we saw as we left the mountains.

My friend Tim and I were set to meet three of our friends from Minneapolis in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. That summer was very hot and dry, and we were happy to arrive on the Beartooth Plateau, as the temperature was cool there compared to the 100 plus temperatures of the drive across the plains states. We spent the night at the Island Lake U.S.F.S campground up on the plateau, waiting for Mark, Phyllis, and Theresa to arrive.

The following day, after dividing the food and gear so as to evenly distribute the weight, we hefted our backpacks and headed north along the shores of Island and Night Lakes. The main trail continues on to Beauty lake, but we followed the side trail up to Becker Lake and then over the rise to Albino Lake. We camped for the night, near the outlet.

Tim and my other three companions were in pretty good shape, so the day's hike wasn't all the difficult for them, but for me, with the beginnings of osteoarthritis in the right hip, lugging a 60 pound backpack was painful and tiring. We settled in for the night, hanging our food bag off a nearby cliff, as we were above timberline, and were mindful of any possible visit from a grizzly bear. After we had left the main trail we had the area to ourselves. The only other person we saw was a ranger passing through in the evening. He was on rounds looking for fishing and camping violations.

The next morning, we loaded up and headed off trail and over the pass to Golden and Jasper Lakes. As we were above timberline, we could basically go wherever we wanted, barring too difficult topography and the occasional talus slope or snow field. Of course, you needed to be able to read a topo map. We stopped at Golden Lake while I fished for a while. I could see large cutthroat trout cruising along the shoreline, but they could also see me from the crystal clear water. We decided to camp for the night near the stream between the two lakes.

Next we headed in a northwest direction, taking the easiest path through tundra meadows, skirting small lakes and crossing over numerous snow fields. There was heavy snowfall the previous winter, and even though it was late July, there was still plenty of snow at this elevation (10,500 ft). We stopped for lunch and our conversation turned to our location and what was ahead. We didn't want to end up in the top of a dead end canyon, or come across a slope that was too difficult to traverse. Tim pulled out his topo map and pointed to where he thought we were. I disagreed with his pronouncement, believing he was only off by about 4 miles. I believed that if we were to head in the same direction, we'd come to a headwall, down which we could not go. If we veered to the right, we should come to a talus slope that while steep, might be manageable. If we made it down, we'd be in the upper end of a long slender hanging valley. We opted for my direction, and after about a 1/2 mile our location was confirmed, when we looked down upon the valley, where a small stream meandered (my correct interpretation of our location, won me the "navigator" designation for many of our future canoe, ski, and backpack trips).

Getting down the talus slope was no easy task. One missed step, or dislodged boulder could mean a broken ankle or worse. Once we were down, I was ready to camp. But, Tim, never tiring on any trip we ever did (he is an animal) lived up to his reputation with "but why are we stopping so soon, we could go another few miles". We kept moving, I got my second wind, and mad, raced ahead of everyone. We headed south-southeast, following the stream down the valley and after a couple of miles, with disgust, I threw down my pack. We had arrived at a small lake at the end of the valley. I was exhausted, in pain and wanted to go no further.

We decided to lay over the next day. We were totally secluded, saw no footprints along the stream, and were pretty sure very few people ever came to this place. My other four companions decided to day hike up the canyon below us to a glacier that sat at the foot of the canyon headwall. I, still tired, decided to hang out by the lake and fish for trout. I caught nothing. I skirted the lake, looking for a way down to the outlet. It appeared that the stream left the lake through a cleft between two cliffs. I could see no access, and couldn't go around, as the stream disappeared into the valley below after going over a waterfall. I gave up, turning to look for a place where I could heed the call of nature. I stood next to a small stunted pine shrub next to the cliff face, and when done, noticed that there was a narrow ledge by the shrub, that looked like it might head down the cliff face to the stream below. I followed it and found myself in a small amphitheatre. There were cliffs on the left and right. About 50 yards ahead was the lake, and behind was the waterfall that dropped over another cliff to the canyon below. The only access to this spot was down the narrow ledge I had followed. I was knee deep in wildflowers of every description and color, and through this ran the swift water of the stream to which my attention immediately turned. You have most likely heard of "buck fever". I had the shakes of "trout fever", as the riffles and cascades of the stream were caused by the numerous backs, dorsal and tail fins of large trout. I could hardly move for fear of spooking them out of the stream and into the lake. The instant my fly hit the water there was a mad splashing dash by every trout in the vicinity, all intent on devouring it. Every cast for the next hour resulted in a landed and released trout of 16 to 20 inches. All the while I kept an eye on my surroundings, as the thought entered my head, that if there is a grizzly bear anywhere in the area, it seams like this is the place it would be. I couldn't believe my luck. I had all this to myself. Maybe nobody else even knew of this place. Maybe nobody else had ever been here. Most likely, no fisherman will believe this story.

When my arms tired, I sat on a boulder for a while and admired the setting. The sun was bright, the lake a high altitude dazzling blue. The air was full of pine scent. The only sound was that made by the riffles of the stream and the waterfall. Perfect. Natural. After a while I climbed back up the hidden ledge and hiked back to the tents. My friends returned with stories of the frozen lake at the foot of the glacier and the days hike. I said nothing. Things can be so perfect that you can't put words to them. It as if your words would release a little of the wonder from you mind, somehow diffusing the experience.

I've never told anybody how to get to that small hanging valley, though I've occasionally mentioned to friends that I know of the place. Most likely, using a U.S.G.S topo map, you could follow this narrative and find it. It doesn't matter. It's not like a secret that needs to be kept. Over the next two days, as we hiked back out to the trailhead, it occurred to me that I can never go back there. It has been more than 20 years and I haven't gone back. It might not be the same. The sun won't be shining or the wildflowers won't be blooming. The trout won't have moved out of the lake into the stream. They won't be as big or will have been fished out. Maybe other people will have trampled the place. It is a moment fixed in my mind's eye and a return might tarnish the memory.

1 Responses to Some Places You Go, To Which You Can Never Return

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Better not to return. Save the memory...


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I'm a middle aged divorced father living with my two sons. We like to canoe, bicycle, fish, camp, play baseball, and spend money when we want and where we want, without permission from anybody. HA!


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