Part III: Water, Rock, Man

“Weather is one of the things that goes on without you, and after a certain amount of living it is bracing to contemplate the many items not dependent upon you for their existence.” Thomas McGuane, Weather

Where I live, we do not observe the changing Autumn leaves with melancholy, or wait out the cold, dark Winter, or burst with life at the coming of Spring. We have days short and reasonably cold, and then days long and unreasonably hot. But I know there are seasons up high, and my year turns around following the melting snow, and beating the first flakes of September, and seizing the moments between that new life and the long, silent sleep that follows. You can confirm an entire life in that breach.

And here I am, inside my tent, waiting out the rain. Wind River surprised me with the quantity of water I’d have to deal with, water in every facet of your day. Rivers to ford. Melting glaciers pouring water across and along the trail. Biblical plague-level mosquitoes. And light rain showers every evening as the clouds spun by mountains cooling at the end of the day.

Backpacking is full of ironies. I stop to rest in the shade during a long hike, worried that I won’t find a good place to camp before nightfall, and suddenly realize that there are no mosquitoes, there is a breeze across this small patch of flat ground, and I am sitting in a perfect spot to pitch my tent. And the instant my tent is up, the breeze stops and mosquitoes swarm. They are undeterred by pants and long-sleeves, requiring me to don my rain gear to eat. They cover my spoonful of food before it reaches my mouth, and blowing them off just sends one up my nose. I blink, and trap one squirming between my eyelids. Ironic.

Wind River mosquitoes do not care where you are. There are mosquitoes in mountain passes. There are mosquitoes in the morning, at noon, and at night. There is a smaller species that swarms the instant you stop moving, requiring you to pace back and forth to eat your dinner at the end of the day, when all you want to do is sit down and rest. And there is a larger, malevolent species which you will not see until you are zipped safely inside your tent. You will look out the mesh entrance, and they will have covered it and filled the tent foyer, waiting until you need to come out to pee. In Wind River, you will have the unanticipated opportunity to kill a mosquito with a snowball.

I hadn’t realized it from my reading or from studying the map, but there are two roaring rivers pouring into Island Lake, both of which you will have to ford. You cannot believe the quantity of water released by the melting snow up high. You see entire mountainsides covered in snow, and waterfalls at their bases pouring out millions of gallons of melt-water, without a hint of diminishing snow cover. As I came up to the first ford, there was a guy standing there, eyeing me suspiciously, which is a strange sensation when you feel so entirely immersed in original innocence and wonder. I greeted him, noticed that he was wearing a holstered Glock handgun, with the safety snap undone. I wanted to know why anyone would feel the need to carry a weapon in this place, but kept my mouth shut. I marveled at the irony.

You can make out the two rivers flowing into the tarn above Island Lake. Without a reference, it is hard to picture how big they are, but they are big–especially when you have to ford them.

We talked about where we were standing, about the mountains, and he was amazed that I was solo. “Aren’t you afraid?” I just said “no,” but didn’t ask of what. As I started to leave, he said “wait a minute, I want to show you something,” and pulled out his iPhone to show me pictures of his trip last year to Yosemite as we stood there, surrounded by mountains. Ironic.

To make it out and back home, I needed to leave my hidden campsite above Island Lake on Saturday, which would get me within a day’s hike of the trailhead that evening, my car, and the two hour drive to the airport at Jackson and my plane home. I woke up at sunrise, thought “there’s no rush today, I’ll sleep another hour,” but when I woke again I could hear light rain falling. It is not easy crawling out of a cozy tent into rain, so I lay there another 15 minutes. Unfortunately enough time for a wall of cold air to pass through my plateau and bring on a hard rain. Now I was suddenly in trouble.

Luckily I’d slept with my pack inside my tent (I was not worried about bears; this would never have worked in Glacier National Park), and was able to pack all my gear while covered. But once I started taking down the tent, my shelter itself would get soaked, and I didn’t want to try and sleep inside a wet tent that night. And so I waited, angry at myself for sleeping in, watching the time, setting a limit of 11 a.m. if I was going to get far enough to make it out the next day.

I think about a lot of things as I walk, but mostly I think “don’t mess up.” You feel so small and insignificant surrounded by mountains indifferent to your existence. You feel humbled by water that shapes rocks over spans of time incomprehensible to you. Backpacking solo is a very selfish enterprise, and it is a gift to be able to receive that kind of understanding. But during the time alone you understand how many people you carry along with you, and how some depend on you coming safely back. And so at 11 a.m. sharp, rain still pouring down, I angrily got out of my tent, broke it down–rain-soaked and heavy–and headed down the drainage, back onto the map, and down the trail out. Five minutes later, the rain stopped.

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