Who needs Iceland when you land on the golden trout mother lode?
By Jeff Day
If I knew anything about Iceland, it would, no doubt, look like this mountain. Massive granite boulders. Snow on the edge of everything, even though we are far enough into summer that it is almost fall. If I’d ever been to Iceland, and this were it, it would be perfect.
Instead, I’m in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains with my son, Nate. We are 18 miles from the trailhead, and 10,800 feet above sea level. It has been a three-day hike against thin air and steep terrain. Maybe four. I lose track. And none of it has been easy.
On day one I’m sick as a dog. No more than half an hour along the trail, my chest hurts. I am throwing up. I have no strength, and am majoring in dizziness and nausea. I lie down and hope never to get up. If I remember hangovers correctly, they hurt less. If I understand heart attacks correctly, I am far too stubborn to believe this is one. My pulse is rapid but steady, and I don’t think you throw up when you’re having a heart attack. (Neither of which, I find out later, means that you’re not having a heart attack.)
Diagnosis: Altitude sickness. At this point we are 9,200 feet above sea level. The air is much thinner here than on my porch (430 feet) and I am feeling the effects. Nate has made the diagnosis by checking the web on his cell phone. Incapacitated, damn near 90 percent up a mountain, in the wilderness . . . and we still have internet. Great.
Nate’s prognosis: Things will be fine as soon as I get below 8,000 feet, a theory we will test back in town. We’ll acclimate overnight at the hotel, (7,100 feet) and then we’ll hit the trail again the following day.
On real day one I’m acclimated and back on the trail. A large black animal lumbers toward us, and I am trying to remember what to do when you meet a grizzly. (Do not run. Do not scream. Do not make eye contact. Identify yourself as human by talking in a low, calm voice.) “Hello, bear,” I say, adding my name and appropriate details, but it is all a terrible mistake. It is not a grizzly. It isn’t a black bear, cinnamon bear, or glacier bear. It is a steer, exercising its constitutional grazing rights on federal land. The West is a strange place.
We are working our way up to Trapper Lake. The trail is largely sand, worn deep by ages of packhorses passing through these mountains. Once at the lake, we unpack fishing gear. We have both brought two rods, in case one breaks, something that has happened to both of us in the backcountry. The rest of our fishing gear is minimal. A reel and line, a box of flies, forceps, and a bunch of leaders. We will wade in sneakers: waders weigh too much, and in the past, I have ruined two pair of hiking boots by wading in them.
We’ve made camp on a sandy beach. The fish are rising all across the lake, and hit anything we cast. They are cutthroat, which we don’t have back East, but like most fish I’ve met in the mountains, they are hungry and gullible. I can do nothing wrong. But eventually, I tire of catching fish. Nate, who will never tire of catching fish, fishes until dark and then makes a campfire.
On day two we head for Borum Lake. We come to a valley where wildflowers bloom shoulder to shoulder. I have said this before about other places I have been, and I say it again. This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. There are more flowers than we can name and more colors than we can count. But God charges for the beauty he supplies. If I remember correctly, the meadow is followed by what is the worst stretch of trail I have ever hiked. We hit our first patches of snow. The trail becomes entirely boulders. We camp in a space surrounded by them just across the trail from Borum. The cutthroat are rising, and once again they hit anything we offer. I settle on hoppers. There aren’t any for miles, but they are easy to see in the dim light, and fish gobble them. I watch the mountains across the lake turn red in the setting sun.
Day three arrives. This is probably the day I fall into the stream. We plan to camp at Summit Lake, which sits in a rolling meadow at the top of the mountain. We are eating lunch near the lake as a solid fireplug of a woman comes up the trail. She has close-cropped, iron-gray hair, and moves with the gait of a steam engine. Five or six people follow her; she is clearly their guide. Without stopping, she tells us (somewhat superiorly) that they’ll camp at Summit Lake. Somewhere, way back behind, she says, is a guy who can’t keep up, because he has the flu.
In most circles, this is considered bad form. You never leave the weakest guy behind, in case he decides to die or something. But Flu Guy, as he becomes known, has survived, and comes along a half hour later. He limps to the lake, sits down, and looks across at the Iron Gray Lady. Having long since decided against camping at the lake, where the fishing, and now the company, are somewhat questionable, we move on.
The trail takes us along a narrow ledge high above a stream. It is not the stream I will fall into. Other streams have been narrow, and the fish in them have been dinks. This stream is wide, and runs heavy. No doubt it holds tons of trout, in part because of its structure, and in part because no one has ever been able to climb down the cliff to fish it. And we’re not about to try—we will do all our fishing in glacial lakes. The lakes, scattered throughout the length of the Wind Rivers, were once barren but now are full of fish, some of them descendants of stockings made nearly 100 years ago. While they are not true natives, they act like it.
After the ledge, it’s a hot and brutal hike to our campsite at an unnamed lake, which turns out to be the only fishless lake for miles. Drenched with sweat, we strip down to our underwear and sit in the lake. We are about to find out what guys talk about while sitting in a lake in their underwear, when we hear a voice behind us. It has no pack, no map or compass, no food, and is carrying an empty water bottle.
“I have the flu,” it says.