Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Excursion Article Series 02.18.09: Cross-country Skiing on Jackson Lake, or How to Fall on a Completely Flat Surface


Caption: AmberLynn follows a snowmobile trail, stab, squeak, sliiiiiiding across the Jackson Lake.

Excursion: Cross-country skiing
Where: Jackson Lake
When: When the lake is frozen, otherwise it’s called water skiing
Difficulty: Easy
Length: As far as you want to go

With sweat drops freezing to my forehead, I listened to the hypnotic sounds of my skis and poles: stab, squeak, sliiiiiide. Stab, squeak, sliiiiide. It was the only sound I could hear on the tranquil surface of Jackson Lake.


Caption: Gotta love winter.

Sadly it wasn’t the only sound I heard all day. Before we got started, my 16-month old Kael decided to pitch a fit about getting out of the car. Long and loud sounds those were. I think the ruckus was because we awoke him out of his warm car seat and immediately placed him in a smaller, colder version in a ski trailer we had borrowed from some friends for the occasion. He squirmed so much his gloves kept falling off. We almost called it quits before we even left the parking lot.


Caption: Bram had to pretend she was downhilling on the flat lake.

The only other sounds we heard were snowmobiles motoring past to find the next great ice-fishing hole. The noise wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t mind too much because of the pleasant side effect. Each snowmobile left behind it an imperfect, albeit serviceable track for my wife and I to follow across the flat expanses of the frozen lake. Where the options were to break trail on skinny skis through a foot of slightly crusty snow or follow a trail heaped up in the center forcing our skis a foot apart, we welcomed the snowmobile tracks.


Caption: That's my girls. Outdoors just the way I like them.

The noise from the toddler finally died into a resigned snore as we started onto the lake, leaving only stab, squeak, sliiiiiide to fill the silence. We started from Colter Bay, heading down what in the summer are rounded rock “beaches.” I’m convinced if all sand were as large as those rocks, coastlines wouldn’t attract nearly as much tourism.

The expansive field of the icy lake appealed to us greatly as a destination for several reasons: 1) Neither of us had cross-country skied for years, and flat sounded beautiful. 2) The views on Jackson Lake are world class. 3) We could make our own trail in any direction from the parking lot. 4) We could go as far as we wanted to go and never feel like we hadn’t made it to a destination.


Caption: Gorgeous. And the mountains aren't half bad either.

Though it was nice to have the trailer to pull Kael, I found it offered more problems than solutions for the circumstances. First, the belt tethering me to the trailer had give in it, but the poles between the belt and the trailer were rigid. So whenever I found good forward thrust on the skis, the cart would pull back a little bit on the somewhat elastic belt, it acting as a rubber band for the entire cart. The trailer would quickly overtake my pace and push me forward, making me lose my balance several times and clatter to the surface of the lake in a graceless heap. Also, the trailer all balanced on one axle, essentially using my body for the second. So when I went down, so did the boy. Amazingly, he never woke up.


Caption: Taking a break from getting beat up by the trailer to check out my mountains.

When I did stay upright, after the trailer caught up to me it would rebound back and forth off my back and stomach, stealing my momentum two or three times on each forward motion. Also, because the stance of the cart, it was almost always breaking two trails to keep moving forward. My wife was easily able to outdistance me most of the time.

Cross-country skiing is one of those sports that is cardiovascular training at its finest. I don’t think there are too many better workouts if you keep a steady pace. Because of that, it is wise to wear layers when skiing, even if it is a flat and open expanse you are skiing across. By the time we really got moving, I was really sweating in the 14-degree weather even though I had shed my hat and gloves and was down to just a light jacket mostly unzipped.

The snow on the mountains is incredible, and highlights portions of the range you might not normally notice. Wide open views of the Teton Range combined with boat-like freedom on foot make cross-country skiing on Jackson Lake a perfect winter activity. So get off those groomed roads for a change and give it a chance.


Caption: I love the shadows on this one and how it almost, but not quite entirely black and white.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Excursion Article Series 02.04.09: Make like a bear and hibernate in a snow cave this winter


I can't say that it was uber comfortable with the snow hardening to ice underneath my back, but it kept me warmish in the freezing temperatures. There's no place like snow cave.

Excursion: Sleeping (I mean shifting restlessly) in a snow cave
Where: Anywhere there is more than four feet of snow with a base
Equipment needed: Tarp, sleeping bag (or two), warm waterproof clothing, a sleeping pad, short- and long-handled shovels, tent for backup sleeping arrangements, and headlamp
Difficulty: Moderate

Like bears, all of us humans have to go to sleep during the winter. Unlike bears, we wake up a little more than a handful of times. Also contrasting bears, we generally don’t sleep outside during the winter.

This makes it much more interesting when we do. And I don’t know that I’d call it “sleeping.” Despite the nearly faultless snow cave I built, I found myself in a cold-to-wet-to-hot-to-uncomfortable cycle throughout the night. Any sleep I did get was under my radar, as it never felt like I had been asleep whenever I awoke during the night. The snow I left for insulation underneath the tarp became stiff ice due to my radiating body heat sometime during the night, making my snow cave a little less friendly.

Anyway, my Boy Scout troop set up camp near Coal Creek on the west side of Teton Pass to try our hand at building serviceable snow caves. Just a couple hundred yards up we found a suitable creek crossing. A wide trunk piled with a three-foot layer of snow made a perfect bridge to an ideal camping spot. The shallow, half-frozen Coal Creek wound its way down the hill past our site. Large flat expanses next to the East-facing hills of Taylor Mountain in our chosen site were perfect for tent camping just in case we had to use them due to poor snow conditions. Conversely, the site boasted hills sheltered from the sun where the snow could accumulate in peace.

So while boys set up tents, us leaders went and started checking the hillside conditions. We quickly came to the conclusion that the base was solid enough and deep enough to build our modest sleeping quarters. For safety’s sake, it is good to build a mound of snow about four feet across hours before you carve it out. This makes your base stronger, gives you more snow to work with and makes your roof more domelike, helping to keep moisture off your sleeping bag in the middle of the night.

Because of limited time, I dug straight down until I hit the frozen ground about four feet down. While doing so, I carved an entrance out behind me which also facilitated digging later on. I took a gamble by piling the majority of the snow I was extracting on top of where my cave would be. Though I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to let it settle, I felt conditions would be forgiving of the extra weight, making a better snow cave with a deeper base in the end.

Once we approved the conditions, a line of scouts fanned out across the hillside and set to digging, some of them begging for help when they saw our caves were coming along faster. The basic idea is to dig from as high as you dare down to the appropriate depth. This technique makes it so the snow bridge above you doesn’t have to support as much weight. If you go too high, collapse is imminent. Same if you are digging too low. In fact, three of our caves did collapse before we could use them, making all but me opt for tents.


Brenner had to jump about five times on my roof to bust one foot through the roof of my excellently crafted shelter. I thought this was kind of funny with just one of his feet sticking down through it.


Here Jason and Brenner play in the remains of my sleeping quarters. I let them have the fun of trashing my makeshift room for the night.

If you have trouble knowing how close to the top of the snow you are, have someone on top shine a light down to help determine thickness. If you can see the light easily, the top is probably a little too close. When the snow has settled and you’re confident in your snow cave, make a ventilation shaft or two so you don’t suffocate.

Even though I was the only one that used my cave, digging by headlamp was one of the highlights of the campout. Another highlight was the fire pit. When we dug it, it was maybe a foot deep. As we stood around the fire telling scary stories, we realized it was getting farther away from us even though we weren’t moving. Time we were done with the fire it had dug itself a four-foot well and still hadn’t reached the ground.


Yep, that's Jason in there and the firepit is up to his shoulder.

Though it was a fun and memorable experience, I think I’ll leave hibernation to the bears. It’s just a little tiring for my tastes.


Nate flies off a stump the morning after snow caves. We managed to get a few runs in on some beautifully powdery slopes. It was worth all the discomforts of snow caves and then some.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Excursion Article Series 01.17.09: Cache Creek backcountry skiing: How to photograph oneself skiing on a 10-second timer


Caption: Ever tried to take a picture of yourself skiing without a remote for your camera? Not easy. But I still managed to get this great pic.

Excursion: Backcountry skiing
Where: Cache Creek off Hagen Trail
Difficulty: Moderate to expert

All Jacksonites know that Snow King is not in fact the King of Snow. In fact, it often seems like the resort’s efforts to clone snow early in the year anger the snow clouds who go and haughtily dump their snow elsewhere. That’s why apart from a few runs of night skiing, locals mostly get their skiing elsewhere.

Fortunately, just about anywhere else in the valley will do. Just up Cache Creek on the same hill that hosts Snow King, people willing to hike for a few turns can and will find them. I don’t know whether it’s the proximity to traffic, town or what, but Snow King really does seem to be in a perpetual drought compared to the hills just outside of the town boundaries.

On Friday, even though it’s been pretty sunny for well over a week, I found eight inches of powder underneath just a mild layer of crust just off the Hagen Trail. Because of the crust, I was slightly less inclined to really explore the backcountry than I would have been otherwise.

About a mile up Cache Creek Road from the main parking lot, I took off on the satellite Hagen Trail which heads gradually up the north-facing hills. It’s a neat little trail that’s not as frequently used (especially by dogs) as the main trail. It’s nice to find respite from the incessant signs warning to “do your duty and pick up your dog doo-ty,” not to mention the sign left behind in little plastic baggies by inconsiderate hoards of dog owners. I’m sure they promise themselves to pick it up on their way back, but “Oops,” forget about it on the way down.

Anyway, when I had gone up the trail half a mile or so, I found my little Shangri-La. Just as I rounded a steep bend in the trail, the sun flared through gaps in the trees, illuminating swathes of untouched golden snow on a relatively treeless hillside.


Caption: Here's the hill I skied on prior to tracking it up. Yummy snow...

Mmmmmmmm, I thought.

The only good thing about the crust was that it made it really easy to kick steps off trail. Being a good Boy Scout, I came prepared. Snowshoes strapped to my back in case I really found deep snow, skis and ski boots, a tripod, one perfectly-sized mitten, one undersized glove, an extra coat, water and dangit! Forgot my beanie. Luckily the 20-degree weather felt equatorial after hauling myself and 50 pounds of gear all over the hills.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find anyone to help me enforce the buddy system that day, which is partly why I had chosen Cache Creek for my outing. There’s little to no avalanche danger, decent cell reception and it’s close to home and/or St. John’s in case anything does go wrong. Because of my lack of a buddy, I had to figure out a way to take pictures of myself skiing on a ten-second timer.

This is no easy feat. Scout’s honor.

What I wound up doing was setting up the tripod, hitting the shutter release and sidestepping uphill as fast as I could before the timer released. Scampering 20 feet up a hill through crusty powder on 207 skis in 8 seconds then flying down the hill to hit your 10-second mark at the perfect compositional point sounds about as easy as it is. Too many times the shutter would click just soon enough that I missed the shot but couldn’t stop myself before I reached the camera. So I had to halt, wearily ascend the hill to the camera and repeat. After a half dozen tries, I got frustrated and planted my skis in the snow and took a still shot. I knew that would work.

After that I was able to climb the rest of the hill to get to do one real run before I had to go home. If it weren’t for the chill sounds of “Aqueous Transmission” by Incubus playing on my MP3 player, I don’t know how far up the hill I would have made it. I passed several moose and deer beds on my way up the hill, so take care to watch for wildlife, and please give it space if you do have any encounters. They were there first; plus they’re bigger than you. It’s also always good to check avalanche conditions (http://www.jhavalanche.org/advisories.html) before you go, travel with a buddy, make sure people know where you’ve gone and if possible, have functional avalanche transceivers on hand.

Remember that 90 minutes of hiking for a glorious 90-second run is worth your while. Just don’t forget your beanie.


Caption: This is the picture I took when I wasn't sure any of the action shots were working like I wanted them to. Not bad, just not great.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 01.03.09: Snow kiting let's the kite fly you for a change


Caption: The wind was pretty squirrely, making for an interesting day kite skiing.

Excursion: Snow kiting
Where: Slide Lake
When: When the lake is well frozen
Difficulty: Varies with wind speed

Go fly a kite isn’t much of an insult anymore. Maybe that’s because nowadays you can let the kite fly you.

As one of the newest entries into the extreme sports arena, snow kiting, also known as kite skiing or kiteboarding, can be looked at as a cross between sailing and paragliding. Like sailing, you have full and surprisingly responsive control. Yet the kite steers with the simplicity of a paraglider: pull left to go left and right to go right. No two-man crew is necessary or even plausible for the one-man kites.

My family got a kite before most people even knew the sport existed. However, finding time to use it has been hard since we got it a couple years ago. When I took it out most recently, it was only the second time I was ever able to go. I remember the first time I used the kite thinking how easy it was. Conditions were perfect for learning. The wind was blowing at a steady pace, the lake had only a fine skein of snow drifting over the frozen surface and I had just been tutored about how to use the kite.

I left Slide Lake with no such feeling after my most recent outing. The wind was squirrely and gusty, 18 inches of heavy powder blanketed the lake and I have apparently forgotten how to find the magic “power zone” that generates the force necessary to haul a body back and forth across a frozen lake.

What I did find pretty consistently was the “pull-me-down-and-drag-me-through-the-powder-on-my-belly zone.” If you don’t believe in the power of unseen wind, all you have to do is strap yourself into the safety leash of one of these kites on a windy day and see for yourself how hard it can be to stay upright.

My oldest brother Jeff, an experienced paraglider pilot, knows wind well, so we let him give the kite the first run when we saw how iffy conditions were. Even with his experience with wind, mishaps can happen. During our first outing ever, he and our brother-in-law Shawn set up the kite. While Jeff was still unwinding the lines from the handlebar, Shawn released the kite to the mercy of the wind, unaware of how easily it would fly. Knowing it had temporary freedom, the kite took off at full speed. Before Jeff even realized the kite had been loosed, the handlebar had nailed him in the chin several times while unwinding the remainder of the line.


Caption: Letting the kite do the flying, it's relatively easy to zip across a frozen lake.

Reminding me of that painful experience, Jeff chided me to hold on tight until it was time. When his setup was mostly complete, he shouted down to me a final warning, something like, “Wait until I’m ready to let the kite go.” The wind drowned out the negative in the sentence and 50 yards away I heard something like, “I’m ready; let the kite go.” When I did, Jeff instantly began playing snowplow with his face and the wires of the out-of-control kite clipped my legs out from under me after performing a couple jerky swoops through the sky.

Realizing my mistake, all I could do was watch from my back as Jeff slid past me through the deep snow. Despite his frantic attempts to right my wrong, he found time to yell at me as the wind yanked him past me: “What were you thinking!?”

I didn’t find time to answer his question until after I secured the kite hundreds of feet away after Jeff finally had the control handle, safety leash and all jerked from his hands. After we sorted out the misunderstanding, Jeff was able to get a nice workout zig-zagging across the lake on his skis and flying the kite upwind to make it back to our starting area.

When riders get really good, they can get enough power behind their kites to actually get airborne, allowing the kite to actually fly them. When I took the controls, the only flying I did was from my feet straight to my stomach – not ideal. Luckily the powder cushioned my falls – I mean flights.

If it’s a sport you’re interested in, you can typically purchase a beginner kite and harness (the harness is basically just a way to enable power steering, thereby keeping things safer) for well under a $1,000. Just remember not to release the kite until you’re ready.


Caption: Don't let the pictures fool you, snow kiting is a taxing sport. Think water skiing where you control the (sail)boat at the same time as getting dragged behind it.

Excursion Article Series 12.20.08: Early-season sledding rocks, quite literally


Caption: My niece Sydnie picks up speed before crashing into a tree at the base of the hill.

Excursion: Early-season sledding
Where: Just off Moose-Wilson Road
Difficulty: Depends how fast you climb back up the hill for the next run

The thought bounced around my head like the rocks were bouncing off my knees: “Maybe it’s still too early to be sledding on this hill.”

After my knees sustained about the tenth blow through the plastic of my sled, I decided it was time to bail. It wasn’t just the rocks either. I noticed something about where I was headed that I had never noticed in all my years of stopping at the first overlook on Moose-Wilson Road: there’s running water right at the base of the hill. Either it appeared out of thin air or I looked past it through all the years, seeing the meadow beyond instead. After all, there’s always the possibility that it might contain wildlife – moose, bears and elk all frequent the area.

As can be imagined, it was a rather poor time to notice such a fact. My momentum had already picked up on the steep, baseless hill. So I chose the soft, dry, snow over the mucky, wet, freezing water below. I turned the sled sideways and rolled off gracelessly. My tumble uncovered more rocks and stopped me shy of the Houdini-water at the base of the hill that I’m convinced had appeared out of nowhere.


Caption: Sydnie giggles after running into the wiry batch of trees after her speediest run.

So I picked up my sled, rubbed the ice crystals out of my beard, flipped the snow out of my underwear and waited a moment for the powder that had gone down my neck to melt and come out the bottom of my shirt. When that was done, I readjusted my hat and climbed the hill with a slight limp to tell my two nieces waiting at the top of the hill that due to my crash-test-dummy routine and the aforementioned flowing water and rocky hill we’d probably have to find another hill to sled down.

“Next time I’ll let one of them do the testing,” I thought.

I knew exactly where to find the next hill. At the end of the plowed road from Moose toward Wilson, there is a small parking area where the road to Death Canyon trailhead is in the summer. If you park there, it’s a small matter to take a left into the forest instead of heading up the road and climb straight up a perfect sledding hill. Well, almost perfect.

The snow was quite a bit deeper on this hill despite the relative proximity to what I will now refer to as “Oops, Should-Have-Checked-Conditions-a-Bit-Before-Hurling-Myself-Down-the Hill,” or “Oops Hill” for short. Unfortunately, it was right when we got out of the car that my 15-month-old son decided it was too cold outside for his impeccable taste. The worst part is his vocabulary to tell me so consists of whimpers leading into infuriatingly whiny shouts. The good news? I had an excuse to let my nieces guinea pig this hill. So I sent Sydnie, the oldest of the two, to tromp up the hill and make the first run from halfway up.

It turned out to be less of a run and more of a slow canter petering out into a disappointing crawl. Gravity didn’t pull her tiny body enough to displace the 18 inches of fresh powder for more than a few feet. It took her several tries before she smoothed down a corridor that the sled could follow to the narrow, supple trees at the bottom.

With the more compact snow in place, Sydnie really flew down the hill, clobbering the narrow trees and winding up off her sled giggling and asking her sister Hallie to help her stand up. Meanwhile I laughed while holding my son and snapping pictures of the aftermath (see picture above).

When I finally got my turn, I decided that all the fresh snow would slow me down plenty if I went to the top of the hill and came down. I was sort of right, I guess. I did move pretty slowly on the top part, but then I met up with my nieces’ tracks and picked up plenty of speed. My collision with the trees, though painless for me, probably hurt the narrow trunks a heck of a lot more. But hey, they bounced back just fine. My knee will probably not recover so quickly.

I think next time I’ll wait until the snow has covered a little more of the shrubbery.


Caption: Kael complained about being outside most of the time we were there. But I still managed to get this cute picture of us. Check out those beautiful blue eyes.

Excursion Article Series 12.04.08: Christmas Tree Hunting is always a growing experience


Caption: Mom looks in the wrong direction for Christmas trees.

Excursion: Christmas treeing
Where: National Forest land – maps available when you pick up your permit
When: Probably before Christmas would be best
Why: To keep plastic pine needles in clearance boxes at Walmart where they belong

Religion is important to me. It plays a vital part in my life. But every year right around Thanksgiving I find myself especially happy to be a Christian. I personally think we celebrate Christmas in December because we all need a little sunshine in the otherwise often bleak winter weather.

What other holiday could get entire families out slogging around through mud and snow to play lumberjack for a day? And what’s more, everyone seems to enjoy the experience in the end.

Tradition has it in our family that we hunt down our defenseless trees sometime around Thanksgiving, as in “Thanks for this asymmetrical tree.” They’re all mismatched from one side to the other, so if you find yourself having problems saying “timber,” get over it. Just realize that you can easily face one side of a tree toward a wall, or if you have an especially barren tree, a corner. If it’s a bit of a Charlie Brown tree when you get it home, the cats could probably use a new scratching post.

The next thing to consider is height. No matter how well you gauge it when you’re outside, it comes into the house a different height. This is one of the few defense mechanisms the smaller, more perfect trees actually have. They stand there nonchalantly next to their gargantuan brothers pointing their more spindly limbs at taller trees. They know that as Americans we live by the mantra “Bigger is better.” Therefore we forget our ceilings aren’t as tall as say, the outdoors, for instance. If that ploy doesn’t work, they quick-change from friendly fir into spiky spruce to try to get you from hack-sawing through their little spine-ities. Can you blame them?

We all know how well these defenses actually work. So far I’ve found a tree every year that I’m willing to place in my living room. Sometimes this just means it’s getting dark, my wife’s toes are cold and “Hey, there’s a tree that will fit, maybe…” Even with an experienced eye, I find myself hacking off the fullest lower branches and/or the bits where the star ought to perch just so I don’t have to lay the tree sideways to keep it in the living room.

This year was different though. Amazingly enough, I remembered that trees are bigger than they look outside. So I went by the rule that unless I could reach my hand up and touch the top, it was too big. At 6 foot 5 inches tall, I can touch the ceiling in my apartment while standing flat footed. Even then I was looking at the scrawny tree we picked going, “Really? I’m sure we could go bigger.”

My family found our trees on Fall Creek Road near the summit of the sledding hill (article forthcoming when snow arrives.) I couldn’t find my hiking boots on the way out of my apartment, so I had to sub in my tractionless old basketball shoes last second. Right after I started up the hill carrying my 14-month-old son, I slipped on some thick sludge. Luckily, I caught every one of our combined 235 pounds on my funny bone. My son looked startled for a second, but was taking it fine until he could see I was hurting. Not to be left out of the pain party, he started screaming until grandma came to his rescue. For my part, I writhed in pain while the color drained from my face and the nausea flowed up. I reclined on a prickly blanket of pine needles until the pain subsided several minutes later. My brother made fun of me on his way by.

Grr.

Anyway, we all got trees; some of us even before dark, thus keeping up with our treeing tradition. Permits can be obtained for anywhere from $5 for a tree under 12 feet to $25 for a tree taller than 25 feet from the Jackson Ranger District at 25 Rosencrans Lane or the visitor center at 532 North Cache Street. The permit must be wrapped around the tree trunk when you take it down. Only one permit is allowed per person, but individuals may purchase up to four additional permits for friends and family members, provided they have the name of each additional person at the time of purchase.

Surprisingly, I think our scrawny tree may be our nicest ever … except for that lousy back side.


Caption: Eric points out that if you take the middle out of this 14-foot tree, you'd find a perfect monster of a Christmas tree.

Excursion Article Series 11.22.08: Two Ocean Lake: Mud + family = Oops, fell again!


Caption: My wife, son and mother-in-law cross the bridge on the trail around Two Ocean Lake. Due to warm weather and a little snow, the trail was made of nothing but mud or frozen mud in the shade. It was pretty entertaining watching everyone slip-slide around.

Excursion: Two Ocean Lake
Length: 5.3 miles
Distance: 3 hours
Difficulty: Easy when dry, moderate when muddy
Directions: Enter Grand Teton through Moran entrance, turn right on Pacific Creek and take the left onto dirt road. Follow to end and park in parking area.

Understated beauty.

That’s the best way I can think to describe Two Ocean Lake. Not every lake requires the knock-you-over-the-head-with-a-two-by-four beauty of the Tetons to make it an enjoyable place.

When I was in college I drove into Two Ocean Lake in the summer and took sunset and magic-hour pictures at Two Ocean Lake. The resulting photos weren’t something I was excited about as I took them, but they were passable. If I recall I had recently been into some more spectacularly beautiful areas like Lake Taminah and was still reeling from the experience.

When I went back to look at the pictures several months later, I was stunned at the quiet beauty in the well-lit grasses, hills and waters of Two Ocean Lake. I wound up using one of those pictures to grace the cover of a mock outdoors magazine I was making at the time for a design class. The light was gorgeous, the surroundings pristine and the mood and spatial arrangements perfect for a magazine cover. I don’t think I could have picked a much better photo for what I was doing either.

For that reason, I now refer to Two Ocean Lake as a shy stunner. You don’t have to work hard to get there; you can see the lake from the parking area. But if you hit it with the right light and mood it is something memorable, even if you don’t expect it to be. It’s much like starting a conversation with that socially incapable person you’ve “known” for years but never really talked to. You’ll walk away with a slightly altered perception that you wind up thinking and thinking about until you can’t wait to talk to the guy again.

Surprisingly, the Tetons do make occasional appearances as you hike around the north side of the lake. However, right now the exposed north side of the lake is privy to mud as the sun warms the chilled ground. Though hiking in mud is never the most enjoyable thing, it does provide some entertainment value.

My mother-in-law (bless her heart) was fun to watch dance on the trail when the footing got tricky. My 14-month son also managed to slog out at least a half mile of the trail on his own two feet. When things got slippery, we tried to pick him up, but he would rarely let us for long. He wanted to be down with the rest of us. Consequently, we did watch a face-plant or two as his tiny feet found potholes or slippery spots.

At one point he even tottered his way through the mud and right off the trail into a snowfield. With his bundled-up arms outstretched he made it halfway down the hill on the snow before his grandma caught up to him and brought him back to the path while we all laughed.

Two Ocean Lake is notorious bear country. In the spring, the park frequently closes the south side of the lake so the bears can have some nice lakeshore property all to themselves. That way tourists bearing food are less likely to be bear food. During our recent muddy expedition, we proved that bears had a tough time with the footing too. In several places we saw bear tracks, and often it was obvious the bear had slid, digging in its claws to regain traction. So even this late in the season, it’s good to keep an eye out for bears – they may be extra perturbed that they can’t walk on the trails without looking like Bambi on ice.

Despite the mud, the colors of winter look great on Two Ocean Lake. The yellow grass highlights the red willows nicely. And rounding out the mix is the silvery blue reflective slate of the lake. The smell of frozen earth and chilled evergreens livens things up as well.

If you’d like to avoid the mud altogether right now, a there-and-back run on the south shore will more than likely stay frozen in the shade of the forest. At this time of year the bears don’t seem to mind sharing their exclusive lakeshore property.


Caption: The rusts of winter look good on Two Ocean Lake. This was some of the most vibrant colors I've ever seen in the winter.

Excursion Article Series 11.08.08: Biking in Grand Teton during off season allows for certain...freedoms


Caption: I'm pretty sure we weren't supposed to have our bikes on the lake shore, but it sure was fun getting them there.

Excursion: Biking on the inner park road to Jenny Lake
Length: An hour or two unless your wife’s about to pop.
Directions: Park at the Taggart Lake trailhead, ignore the gate across the road and head into the park on your bike. Yeah, it’s sweet like that.

If anyone else saw me on the road they’d probably swear I was drunk. Don’t worry, though. I don’t drink.

That’s just how I ride when I’ve got the whole road to myself.


Caption: I love having the whole road to myself. Of course when that's the case, there's only one way to ride: right down the middle of the road. Those yellow lines make for a great guide to remain centered on the road. Woohoo!

Every year I am sad to see the park close the gates just past the Taggart Lake trailhead. But at least there’s one perk: being able to weave and slalom on a bike around the yellow lines on the inner park road. They close the road to cars on November 1, but any maniac still willing to brave the weather can take a non-motorized vehicle as far as they like on the road.

My own maniacal tendencies pulled my wife, who’s approximately three days from giving birth, and I out on a rainy day to experience the spontaneous lane shifts. There’s something explicitly joyful about ignoring all traffic laws and weaving across both lanes of traffic - double yellow line or not - just because you can. There is, however, the slight danger that authorized government vehicles will be using the road.

During our recent expedition on the park road to South Jenny Lake, only one park vehicle passed me and my wife. And where not many were willing to brave the cold and rain for a day in the park, we could hear the truck coming a mile away. We had ample time to cease and desist on our slalom routine and find the narrow bike lane. By the way, park employees, if any of you have a spare key to those gates that you wouldn’t mind giving up, I know of a talented local columnist that could come up with a few uses for one.

Ahem.

During this time of year, the weather can get a touch…uncooperative, if you will. When I was a Boy Scout, my Scoutmaster decided it would be a great idea to get our biking merit badge during November while the park road was closed to traffic. It was snowing lightly when we arrived for one of our rides, but our “be preparedness” insisted that we start out despite our shoddy clothing. We were ready for anything in our light jackets, Levis and baseball caps.

Honest.

Anyway, we set out from the parking lot and before long the snow started coming down harder. And faster. And thicker. It was all good, at least we could see the road.

That didn’t last long either.

Before we knew it, where the black strip of road had once cut a swatch through the early-season snow, nothing but a slightly flatter ribbon of snow remained. The snow drove so hard we could hardly open our eyes.

My jacket and purple Phoenix Suns cap I had won in a video arcade in Arizona suddenly seemed insufficient.

Our Scoutmaster sagely turned the troop around well short of our 20-mile goal (I think we’d gone about a mile) and we headed for the parking lot. Trouble was, that road was hard to see in the hurricane-like whiteout that now enveloped us. If it weren’t for the reflector poles lining the flat area of snow, we might just have wound up “scout-cicles” somewhere in the frozen waste. A search party would have found our troop somewhere on the sagebrush flats, huddled together close enough to be comradely without touching. After all, no self-respecting teenage boy is gonna be literally caught dead cuddling up to another one for warmth.

Back in the present, the worst we had to endure was a smattering of rain and some contractions. Not me. Never me. My pregnant wife. Obviously. Sympathy pains can only go so far.

We made it to Jenny Lake where we were treated to a great view of the snowstorm across the lake. It was beautiful, and the rain magnified the wonderful smells of sagebrush, pine and willows transitioning to winter. Even my wife, who came out in the rain with a pooch the size of a swollen basketball, agreed it was worth the effort.


Caption: AmberLynn was about a week from giving birth when we did this ride together. She is so glad she went even though she couldn't go too fast and it was raining on us.

Excursion Article Series 10.25.08: Heron Pond and Swan Lake Loop


Caption: My wife AmberLynn watches the sunset over Colter Bay on Jackson Lake on the trail to Heron Pond.

Excursion: Heron Pond and Swan Lake Loop
Length: About two hours
Distance: Three miles roundtrip
Difficulty: If my nine-month pregnant wife can do it, so can you (Easy)
Directions: Go to Colter Bay and park as close as possible to boat launch ramp. Trail starts near ramp.

Some spots are so ridiculously post-card perfect that even a highly creative individual such as me can’t think of a way to improve on them. The lily-strewn Heron Pond is one of those places.

A craggy reflection of the Tetons is often broken up by the many lily pads that dot the pond. Swimming at this time of year would be best left to the Polar Bear Club. However, if it were still swimming season and the lily pads were still in bloom, I wouldn’t recommend swimming in Heron Pond anyway, as perfect as it may seem.

This is for a couple reasons. First, it’s just plain creepy drifting through the slimy forest of underwater lily pad stems. Just trust me on that one.

Second, leeches abound in the stagnant water. Though gorgeous, the mucky and murky water is host to those nasty little critters which are just a little bit too friendly. When I was about eight and unaware of pesky pond pals, I went swimming in the muddy shallows of Jackson Lake. The water where I was swimming reminds me a lot of Heron Pond. I swam for maybe a hundred yards before I noticed a piece of muck stuck to my left hand that was tenacious enough to stay glued with each stroke. I vigorously swept my hand underwater to free myself from the pond scum.

When I raised my hand I was amazed to find it still clinging. So I got my right hand involved and flicked at the vicious slime. It moved, but it didn’t whiz off my hand like I expected. Instead, it kind of jiggled like Jello dropping out of a pineapple cake pan. After that it oozed at me indignantly and continued chowing on my hand.

That’s when I finally realized the muck was alive. Then I got aggressive – the kind of aggressive that only comes with the horror of realizing something you don’t understand is eating your tender eight-year-old body. I pinched the black goo – yes it did feel gross – and ripped it off my hand with some effort. The black was immediately replaced by red. My new “friend” left a leech-shaped red hole in my hand. All these years later I still have a raised scar to prove it.

Let me reiterate though: you can’t find many places on earth more ideal than Heron Pond. The sunsets are often spectacular, even after the lilies have disappeared for the season. I watched on my most recent trip as the reflective water morphed from blinding yellow to brilliant orange to searing pink to placid purple before fading to dull silver.

It was at dull silver when my nine-month-pregnant wife suggested we skedaddle for the car, skipping the Swan Lake portion of the loop. Though Swan Lake is also beautiful, it holds nowhere near the kind of appeal that looking west over Heron Pond has. Its draw can probably be guessed by its name. Elegant trumpeter swans and other large birds like pelicans and herons can often be found here. You’ll see many of the same birds hanging out at Heron Pond, if you could guess by its name.

The hills that can be seen from Swan Lake, though not as majestic or obvious as the Tetons, give just enough dimension to the lake to make it quietly eye-catching. The silvery blue lake is worth seeing, even though it might be forgotten next to the roaring beauty just over the hill.

I don’t know what the bird situation is like at this time of year, but I do know the people situation. We went this Saturday evening when it was an unseasonable 50 degrees outside. We parked in a deserted parking lot. We saw no one on the trail. We enjoyed the silence. This kind of solitude is not hard to find in the park at his time of year, so get it while you can.

Even the bears packing it on for winter left us alone.


Caption: In the Tetons, every sunset has the possibility of being spectacular. Colter Bay is a great place to watch them.

Excursion Article Series 10.11.08: Taggart and Bradley Lake loop makes good winter escape


Caption: This was taken on a snowshoe trip into Taggart several years ago. The water half frozen is stunning.

Excursion: Taggart and Bradley Lake Loop
Length: 2 to 3 hours
Distance: 5.1 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy
Directions: Head into Grand Teton National Park from south entrance. Drive to first major parking area on the left and follow well-established trail toward mountains.

This hike grew up with me. Either that or I grew up with it. All I know is that I used to be taller than it. Now it’s twice my height.

What I’m referring to is the forest around the Taggart Lake area. In 1985, the Beaver Creek fire swept through the forest east of Taggart Lake, creating an ideal climate for new growth. My artist father once did a painting of the fire that actually won him his first major art award in 1986, which he felt opened the floodgates for his career. So Taggart Lake has always meant a lot to our family.

As such, we have logged at least one hike into the lake per year for as long as I can remember. Back when I was taller than the forest, I remember cruising up the trail and lying in wait behind boulders and trees to “scare” my parents. I still question whether they were actually frightened when I jumped out from particularly good hiding spots and roared like a Lucky-Charm-fed lion. (Answer: no. With the benefit of hindsight I’m sure they were just humoring my tiny spastic self. They probably even knew where my hiding spots were before I ever leapt out of them.)

Anyway, I always found it hard to come up with good hiding spots in the area the fire swept through because I was taller than all the trees. Diminutive, tender saplings spread out around the trail with hints of the charred remnants underneath. Even at my own tender age I understood I would be sighted way too soon hiding behind such little trees.

Nowadays, very few people probably even realize they are walking right through a new-growth forest. Most of the trees in the fire-swept area near the lake now stand between 15 and 20 feet tall. And I thought I was doing well at 6 foot 5.

The last remnants of the fire are a few burnt logs that managed to keep their upright nature and stand as sentinels near the lake. What has never changed about this simple day hike is the amazing beauty at Taggart and Bradley.

My preferred method of travel is to head right at the first junction on the trail, which curves you up around the butte and across the creek. Following that up the hill, another junction awaits. The choices: Bradley or Taggart. I recommend heading first to Bradley Lake farther up the hill and circling back to Taggart and its young forest.

Bradley Lake often has waters so still you can see your reflection in them. Perhaps more important, you can see a good chunk of the Teton Range reflected. With fall creeping behind us quickly, both the air and the water have a crisp chill. In the air, the chill’s inviting. In the water, it’s a little much.

In fact, when I last did this hike, my wife and I made it a contest to see who could crunch through more icy mud puddles. If there’s any moisture on the trails, watch the downhill sections – they can be slippery. I found myself sliding down a couple blocks of ice disguised as muddy trails.

After Bradley, head back where you came from and then take the alternative route toward Taggart. Make sure and take a moment to look up Avalanche Canyon and check out Mt. Wister and the season’s last remnants of Shoshoko Falls coming out of Lake Taminah. The view is always worth a pause on this trail.

Reaching Taggart Lake, I recommend eating lunch on the narrow bridge that crosses the outlet at the southern end of the lake.

Though not as exciting as some hikes in the park, Taggart and Bradley are accessible throughout the winter and can be reached quickly and easily. And that alone makes it worth the winter trip.


Caption: Fresh snow on the lake and ice makes a winter wonderland worth playing in. I love Taggart in the winter.

Excursion Article Series 09.26.08: Delta Lake loop full of surprises.


Caption: I took this picture of me, believe it or not. I had to do this difficult 11-mile hike in four hours and still leave myself time to play. I set the camera on my high-tech tripod (also known as a small pile of rocks) and bounded over the rocks as fast as I could while counting to 10 with the timer in my head. This was the fourth of eight attempts. I was left pretty winded with a bleeding toe after all the scrambling and jumping. The reward of this picture was well worth it.

Excursion: Delta, Amphitheater and Surprise Lake loop
Length: Four hour death march to all day
Distance: About 11 miles
Difficulty: Expert
Directions: Take main trail from Lupine Meadows. Follow trail toward Amphitheater Lake. At the north end of the first switchback after Garnet Canyon Junction, follow faint steep trail down into trees and up to lake. (More directions below.)

If you don’t like a) route finding, b) boulder hopping, c) adventure, d) steep scree slopes e) mud or f) me, then you should probably opt out of this one right now. If you don’t like any of the things in a) thru e), then f) will be particularly bad off if you go.

I’ll go straight to e) before I come back to the rest. Delta Lake is fed by Teton Glacier and others that give off melt water throughout the summer. Of course, these permanent glaciers are fine sources of glacial silt – hence the name. Over the grinding course of their lives, these powerful glaciers happily reduce proud granite boulders into granite pebbles before taking even that minute dignity away from them and making a reluctant, silky sand out of them.

Then the melt water bears this grumbling sand downhill until it comes to a repository. As much of the granite silt that is able then jumps ship when the water slows and settles to the bottom in typical hard-headed granite fashion.

“If I can’t be a boulder, at least I can sit still,” the silt adamantly declares with a deep frown and folded arms. The finer silt that can’t lay down roots lends a brilliant turquoise color to the water in the lake.

With all the silt brethren united in strike at the western edge of Delta Lake, they create a perfect mud flat which opens itself to a new, unexpected indignity: my nasty bare feet slip-sliding across their collective heads. When viewed from above, this mud flat fans out in an arc from the lake’s source. It is easy to imagine a thousand-year stop-action movie of the deposit process.

All of this history is easily forgotten as I do my impression of a 14-year old gymnast rocketing off the line for a perfect pass. When I hit full speed, I gleefully slam both feet down and let the mud carry me as far as it wants. I paced it off afterward, and I was sliding as much as 35 feet. It brought new meaning to the word mudslide.

The setting couldn’t be more perfect. The Grand Teton herself cradles Delta Lake like a favorite child. The motherly mountain rises almost directly out of the lake, with Mt. Owen also standing watch. As much amphitheater as Amphitheater Lake has, it feels minute in comparison to the walls surrounding Delta Lake. The rough folds and dazzling colors of Teton Glacier are viewable from this proximity, and it seems it would be a short jaunt up the Grand from here – which I can assure is far from the truth.


Caption: A tribute to my Chacos, which take me everywhere I want to go.

The route to Delta Lake is sketchy. After leaving the main trail, the footpath becomes very faint, and is difficult to follow. Use common sense and a watchful eye to stay on the trail. A series of cairns leads over a boulder field sprinkled with wild raspberries that are miraculously still in season. After the boulder field, the trail resumes if you’re lucky enough to find it. Soon enough, the trail spits you out near a creek that seems to flow more underground than above. The roar of the creek is audible all the way up, even though half the time you can walk right up the creek bed without getting wet. Small half-underground waterfalls dot the final several hundred feet before the final rise reveals the paradise of Delta Lake.

Out of all the gorgeous backcountry lakes the Tetons have to offer, Delta may be my favorite. After sliding around, looking at animal tracks in the mud and wading in the lake, I reluctantly bid farewell to Delta Lake and headed up the steep southern scree slope separating me from Amphitheater and Surprise. After several stumbles and a lot of sliding rock on the slope that quickly gains more than 600 feet, I was for the first time in my life surprised to see Surprise Lake. I had been expecting to come out at Amphitheater first.

The fall foliage is stunning and the lakes even more so. Just take a chance and enjoy it, if you love a) thru e) like I do, then you'll thank f) for clueing you in.


Caption: This is a deceiving picture. Because of my tight time limit, I had little if any chance to relax at this, one of my favorite spots on earth. I was taking pictures and running to the next photo-op as fast as I could. Do this hike if you ever get the chance.

Excursion Article Series 09.13.08: Cache-Game bike race is easier with all your gears, just ask all the 40-year old women that beat me


Caption: My friend Grant heads up Cache Creek Road just before sundown. Pushing daylight's limits, we did most of the trail in the dark, making this the only usable photo I had.

Excursion: Cache-Game bike trail
Length: Two hours by day and four hours by night (not recommended)
Distance: About 10 miles one way
Difficulty: Intermediate
Directions: Go to the end of Cache Creek Road in east Jackson and bike down road past closed gate. Follow road nearly four miles before crossing Cache Creek and heading uphill to the south. Follow trail markers to parking area on far side. Game Creek Road feeds right onto bike path if you’d like to return to town that way.

Oops. Dropped it.

I picked my complimentary Power Bar up off the ground and took a bite after hardly brushing it off. I figured during the race I had already eaten so much dust it didn’t matter anymore. I took more time later brushing off the dusty Chacos I had worn.

Yes, I wore Chacos in a mountain bike race. I guess I was a hot topic of conversation among the hardcore racers wearing their stretchy pants and clip-in shoes.

Me, I just thought I was the only one relaxed enough to wear my normal wardrobe to a race.

I did all right at the start of the Cache Creek to Game Creek Mountain Bike Race back in July. Of course, the start of the course was flat, beginning at Mike Yokel Park and up Cache Creek Road. My high gears work just fine.

It’s the low ones that have a problem. My low gear on the front crank was out of commission due to lack of precious, enabling oil.
When we hit the four-mile uphill stretch, I watched an incessant parade of young, old, male and female pass me. None were exempt from “beating Mark up the hill” status. Stationed all along the trail, helpers kept telling me what a good job I was doing. After being passed (I’m nearly sure of this) by everyone else doing the race, I got fed up when a right cheery lass urged me on and told me how well I was doing. I pointed at my race number (168) and yelled, “No I’m not. See this number? That’s the same place I’m going to finish.”

I wish I hadn’t been so prophetic.

I think out of about 175 entrants, I only managed to beat the two women in the age 50 to 59 category (one of which I passed on the downhill) and the guy that had to change his tire mid-race.

Sweet, huh?

I take solace in the fact that I entered on a whim with my brother Jeff about three hours before the race actually began. It was my first mountain bike race, my seat went wacky on me and started angling up and my low gear was out. I think under the circumstances I should be proud of dusting (ahem) all three of those suckers.

To add insult to injury, I was like the only person that didn’t win a stinkin’ raffle prize. At least my brother shared the pizza he won.

On a less bitter note, I oiled my chain recently and tackled the trail again. It was a different trail entirely. With a functional low gear, a seat that was firmly in place and friends that weren’t worried about time, I enjoyed it much more. I even felt like a pacesetter. Gone were the four or five times I had to dismount to get to the top of a wussy incline. Gone was the burn of being a gear too high with a bicycle seat up my … you get the idea. I had fun the first time I went, but I enjoyed my second trip much more.

The only problem we had was being too lax. By the time we came out, we were in complete inky darkness. It’s an interesting feeling going downhill by feel, I assure you. None of us dressed warm enough for the crisp night air either.

During the race in July, my brother had passed someone, yelling, “On your right!” to make sure she knew he was there.

The woman responded, “Mountain lion on your right!”

He was so intent on placing better than 168th that he didn’t stop to see the rare mountain lion. But beware, the danger is there, and it was forefront in our mind the next month as we felt our way out and heard animals moving in the trees from time to time.

The six miles of downhill are beautiful: very few switchbacks on smooth singletrack with only a couple water crossings to slow you down. Just keep in mind they are faster and more fun by daylight.

Excursion Article Series 8.30.08: Hoback Shield rock climbing nearly kills me


Caption: My friend Tristan pauses to sort out a particularly difficult maneuver on Hook It, which Shane remodeled by incidentally pulling a 200-pound boulder down and sending it hurtling toward my head.

Excursion: Hoback Shield climbing wall
Length: Three hours to all day
Difficulty: Intermediate to expert
Directions: From Hoback Junction, drive 11 miles east on US highway 189/191. Park in small dirt pullout and follow trail on north side of road uphill to wall.

“Rock!” I heard from 50 feet above me.

As a belayer who has for a brief moment turned his attention to equipment, this is not a word you want to hear yelled in distress. I looked up in time to see what must have been a 200-pound boulder dislodge from the top of a “roof” and clobber my friend Shane Hogan. Since he was lead climbing, he dropped a good six feet before I felt his weight pluck me off the ground.

By this time, I had locked the rope in the belaying device, already in a full crab-style side sprint as far as the rope would allow to avoid my imminent demise. After the initial fall the boulder splintered with a thunderclap, spraying my shins with shrapnel. The boulder’s core smashed into the backpack containing the rest of our gear and continued on its merry way, tumbling down the hillside toward the highway.


Caption: My friend Shane tries to negotiate the wicked-hard Thousand Cranes. The few tiny handholds it does have have been polished to a fine sheen by thousands of climbers.

After the danger had passed, my immediate concern was for Shane’s wellbeing.

“You all right?” I asked the shaken, dangling climber.

To my surprise, he shrugged off his battle wounds with nothing but concern for me.

“I thought you were a goner,” he said while still hanging on his rope. “You ok?”

After I assured him I was fine, he checked the inevitable souvenirs the loose old rock had left him – scrapes, abrasions and tender spots. After perusing the damage, he resumed his climb to the top bolt – albeit a little slower than before.

He later told me the first thing to go through his head beside a swear word was: “My belayer’s head is going to be smashed. I just lost my belayer.”

I guess I’m just lucky the first thing to go through my head wasn’t a large slab of granite.
Oddly enough, this happened on the easiest climb on the entire wall. The climb, dubbed Hook It, is rated 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal System, which currently tops out at about 5.15, where 5.10 was once considered impossible.

The class of a climb is indicated by the first number. Anything in class five is a true-blue climb requiring ropes, belayers and other safety equipment or a head made of granite. Since the latter isn’t really an option, go prepared. Every one of the dozen or so routes at the Hoback Shield is rated at 5.7 or above. The second number indicates the difficulty of the climb within the class. The higher the number, the sicker the maneuvers a climber will have to pull off to make it to the top.

We chose Hook It after being abjectly humiliated by Thousand Cranes, a 5.10a route on the far end of the wall. The holds, which are few and far between, are all polished limestone – difficult to grip even if you can find them. Even I at 6 foot 5 could not find the next suitable handhold to lug myself up. Out of the six preplaced bolts on that climb, I think we managed to make it to the second before handing the victory to the wall.
We were eyeing Hook It to begin with, but when we arrived it was occupied by a sobbing 13-year-old girl who couldn’t come to grips with cresting the route’s namesake, a protruding overhang, or roof, which requires a creative mind and some wacky positions to scale.

We watched as the terrified girl and several other climbers took stabs at the roof. Each used handholds and footholds on the exact boulder that later collapsed on Shane. In fact, the holds on the boulder were so large and the route so well climbed that no danger would ever be inferred by looking at the situation. What happened was a sheer fluke of happenstance.

I’m just glad it happened to us and not the crying teenager.

Though rated at 5.7, Hook It may be more difficult now due to our little remodel of the outcropping.

“I know some of the big holds that were there on top are gone now,” Shane said. “So good luck.”


Caption: Debris from the rock that almost took my head off rests on my rented climbing shoes. I was only wearing my Chacos for comfort while I was belaying.

Excursion Article Series 08.16.08: Huckleberry picking is for the bears - and me


Caption: This is the shot of my son Kael that ran with the article. Look at that hand-eye coordination! Such poise and self-control for an 11-month-old child.

Excursion: Huckleberry picking
Length: You name it
Difficulty: Mild to back-breaking labor, depending on quantity harvested
Directions: Pick your favorite haunt. The woods on Signal Mountain are a decent place to start. Beyond that, huckleberry patch information is proprietary.

Don’t read another sentence. Just go.

You read that one didn’t you? You’re wasting precious time! Oh fine, take the paper and have your passenger read this to you on the way if you must. You just need to go now, before you miss the whole season.

Yep, the huckleberry season is on, but not for much longer. Come early September, all that is generally left of the crop is a few sun-whitened huckleberry corpses to show the crop ever came. Last year’s drought conditions and early season frost pretty well annihilated the entire population of the tart, succulent berries. The only ones I managed to snag all summer, despite extensive frantic searches in my favorite huckleberry hideaways, were high in South Fork Cascade Canyon right next to an enlivening melt-water stream. That made them even more of a delicacy.

This year, the conditions are just the opposite. We had a perfect, albeit late, transition from spring to summer, and 50 plus feet of snow in the mountains has raised the water table far above expectations while making dangerous climbing conditions (umm…see my Teewinot article from a few weeks back) and making farmers dance happy little jigs around their traditional straw hats.

I like to think of Huckleberry as Blueberry’s younger, sweeter and more attractive brother. Even though he is often overlooked as the tagalong at parties, if you get to know him the older brother will find himself dejected and alone with his “unvite.” Indeed, the resemblance is striking. If you shrink Blueberry down to about a tenth his size and paint him deep purple, you’re basically looking at Huckleberry.


Caption: Kael's slimy fingers go back to seek out the next target. Yum.

A word of caution: bears like huckleberries almost as much as I do. In fact, the first time I ever saw a bear was while I was out picking huckleberries. I was harvesting on Signal Mountain after a day on the lake when I was about eight years old. My bucket was woefully empty due to my tendency to eat rather than fill the bucket.

As I sat amidst the bushes in contented silence I saw cars lining up along the road. I soon found out why they were stopping.

“Dude,” a shaggy individual yelled with surfer swag, “Look at that kid up by the bear!”
It didn’t immediately dawn on me that I was “that kid” by the bear. I was in my own world, and surfer-dude, with his sunglasses and knotted blonde locks, wasn’t invited.

I turned to search out the kid by the bear, and found a young black bear no more than ten feet away chowing on the patch of huckleberries I had locked onto as my next target.
Jerk bear, eating my huckleberries.

“Run kid, run!” blondie yelled.

Little did he know I had just learned bear safety in elementary school.

“No,” I told him with the confidence that can only come with childhood innocence, “I know what I’m doing.”

I could practically hear his eyes roll behind the sunglasses.

My teacher had told me that running away from the bear only excites it – fast food, if you will. She had said bears are just afraid of us as we are of them and will only fight if we give them a reason to do so.

So I made like a tree (not a huckleberry bush) and stayed as still as possible while I watched the bear eat. Soon, he trundled his way uphill in search of another patch to ravage.

That was when I got to make use of the other bit of knowledge I had gained: bears don’t run well downhill. I do, though. I barreled down the hill when I thought the coast was clear and didn’t stop until I had found my family.

Bear safety aside, Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said if you’re picking berries, you need to stick to berries you know are edible. Also, if harvesting within the park boundaries, there is a limit of “one day’s personal consumption” to avoid thinning out food supply for the animals dependent on it.

I guess that means I can only pick a truckload.


Caption: Kael sits on a log and enjoys the company of his blanket and a great harvest of huckleberries. I love the sly look on his face. It's like he's getting away with something. In fact, he probably thought he was passing one by us while he harvested things from the ground. We don't usually let him eat things he finds on the forest floor.

Excursion Article Series 08.02.08: Grizzly Lake: Leeches Lurk in Lake Shallows


Caption: My wife AmberLynn strolls along Grizzly Lake's shoreline. The lake has the smoothest, deepest mud I think I've ever felt lining it's shallows. Take one step too far and you're mucking your way out, possibly without shoes. AmberLynn wants people to know she's pregnant in this picture - hence the small pooch.

Excursion: Grizzly Lake
Length: Half a day
Distance: 4.5 miles one way
Difficulty: Mild/moderate
Directions: Park across from Red Hills Campground on Gros Ventre Road and head up dirt road to southeast. Trail spurs off of road a little way in.

The first couple miles on the trail to Grizzly Lake are to me a three-dimensional representation of governmental bureaucracy. As the crow flies, this hike would be half as long.

The trail starts out as a road leading in the wrong direction. Then a small sign points you off the road onto a narrow trail. The trail at first heads vaguely in the right direction before it starts zig-zagging around private ranchlands (see where I’m going with this?) Soon you start following a creek uphill. Crossing the creek, you head to the steepest part of the hill and switchback up it to the top of a ridge. The trail then follows the ridgeline all the way down to the next creek bottom, where you rinse and repeat. The infuriatingly placed switchbacks ensure you get as many ups and downs as the rides at Teton County Fair.

In short, the trail has more loopholes than trying to get an American Embassy placed in a Communist nation.

At least the destination is gorgeous. It looks like something you might see in Yellowstone – the forest gives way to clay-like mud that craters into a small lake. The shoreline disappears at a steep and steady rate into the water. If the lake were somehow frozen and inverted, I imagine Jackson Hole would have its very own ice pyramid.

The lake actually might be classifiable as a large pond. Soft mud surrounds the lake and clogs its shallows. The first time I went to Grizzly, my friends and I scouted around the lake to find a place to jump into the water without having to wade through knee-deep water and hip-deep mud. We finally found a place on the north shore where gravel coated the first few feet of mud so we didn’t sink as far into the quicksand/mud. From there, you can make a dive for deeper waters. Leeches lurk in the lake’s shallows, so be on the lookout if you decide to swim.

The water is surprisingly warm and smooth, a wonderful swimming hole. The unique mud and warm water, coupled with the fact there is little to no fresh water streaming into the lake make me wonder if it is spring fed.

Despite the relative lack of a fresh supply of water, the fishing is obviously good at Grizzly Lake. Occasionally an unlucky hovering dragonfly gets Hoovered into the lake by a lucky fish.
Unfortunately, wildlife doesn’t seem as abundant as the name of the lake implies. I’ve been to Grizzly Lake three times and never seen one dang bear. The first time I went, I did watch a bull moose sprint through the underbrush – an impressive sight that makes you recognize the need for those spindly legs. The second time all I saw were some cows. The third time I got to watch several blue herons swoop around some highland marshes.

But mostly all you notice is the wickedly tenacious mosquitoes and horseflies. Even with healthy doses of quality bug spray, by the time we made it home my 10-month old son looked like he had a nasty bout of chicken pox. Between the bugs and the thought of the unbearable trail back, we decided to take a shorter route to return to the car. Suffice it to say that it involved an overgrown trail in the opposite direction that I was acquainted with from former trips. We also had to wade across the shallows of the Gros Ventre River – not a recommended route. After our river crossing, we still had the minor problem of being miles away from our car on a nearly deserted dirt road with legions of bugs harassing us while night fell. My wife wrapped our son up in blankets to keep him away from the mosquitoes and sent me off to fetch the car ASAP.

With my family’s safety and comfort in mind, I made quick friends with the family in the first truck that passed me on the road. They graciously gave me a ride back to my car after I explained the situation.

Amazing how easy it is to make friends around here.


Caption: On the way out from the lake, the light was gorgeous on these tall weeds. AmberLynn's still pregnant in this shot.

Excursion Article Series 07.27.08: Teewinot attempt a little hairy after huge winter snowfall


Caption: My friend Howard heads up the trail to Teewinot at the break of dawn. Little did he know the disappointment to be found on the snowfields far above.

Excursion: Teewinot summit hike/climb
Length: All day
Difficulty: Expert
Directions: Park at Lupine Meadows trailhead and head due west on trail from parking area.

Teewinot: 1. Dudes: 0.

The score is not what I hoped for after my first summit attempt of Teewinot. Each determined step I kicked into the vast mountain snowfields brought me one step closer to the top. My friends Howard McIntyre and Tristan Nelson trailed after me digging ice axes in with every plodding footstep. We figure the glacier was as steep as 60 degrees where we needed to ascend. At the bottom, a morass of pointy rocks followed immediately by a cliff and more mean granite awaited stray footsteps. Without a perfect self arrest, the possibility of death or serious injury after a slipup is alarmingly, painfully obvious. Crampons and ice axes are a must.

Even knowing we got more than 50 feet of snow this year, I wasn’t expecting this at the end of July. The snowfield began parallel to the Worshipper and the Idol, two monolithic granite structures about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, and didn’t stop until the peak’s cliffs left it nowhere to go. (Note: if you don’t feel summiting is necessary, the Worshipper and the Idol is a great destination for a day hike. Though steep, the hike up the lower portion of Teewinot is scenic, passing a waterfall and plentiful wildflowers.) Last year at around this same time, the vast sheets of ice we plodded up were nothing but scree slopes.
Of our little party, none had summited Teewinot before. Howard attempted it once last year, though he had a difficult time finding the route on his drought-year attempt. This is a common problem for first-timers on Teewinot. The route is not easy to read, even from a guidebook. Or maybe it was just our guidebook. The map it had of Teewinot looked like it was drawn while the “artist” was having oral surgery. It looked more like a jagged dog fang than the mountain on which I stood. The route’s description was no better. It basically said to veer right around the Worshipper and the Idol and head to the top.

Great.

From just underneath the peak, the cliff faces look basically unscalable. The crude line representing a route etched in on our non-representative map did little to illuminate our understanding. If anything, it only confused us more after the many verbal descriptions we had heard of the perfect route.

After more than an hour kicking stairs into the steepest part of the snowfield, we were all itching for some solid ground under our feet. I headed for what looked like a perfectly accessible slab of granite that fingered out into the snow. When we finally arrived, it proved unreachable. The steep stone had absorbed the summer sun, melting out a crevasse in the ice and making it effectively unreachable.

Just before reaching the slab, Howard lost his footing on the improvised steps and began to slide down the abrupt slope. He plunged his ice axe deep and managed to hang on. He was even smiling afterward. Tristan and I may have been more shaken than Howard. Visions of Howard tumbling/sliding into the unwelcoming boulders below made me slow my pace and kick harder to gain purchase after that.

Now more aware the snow beneath us could give way in the heat of day, Howard and I traversed to the other side of the snowfield and found our way onto some rocks. Traversing is no fun on steep, slippery slopes, but the solid ground felt good. I have to admit I was a little anxious to reach it.

Below, Tristan indicated the only way he wanted to head was down at this point. He felt like he was tired enough that after the two or three more hours we figured we’d need to summit, his strength and judgment would both be impaired, making the precipitous descent even more perilous.

Being the unofficial leader of the expedition, I told Tristan we wouldn’t push him either way. I let him make the decision, understanding that with only three of us, we really couldn’t split up. Even so, it was hard to say we were going down when my feet said up.

I don’t regret the decision to stay together. It was the safest thing to do. The only disappointment is that this was my first summit attempt that didn’t result in a nap on top of a mountain. Despite all our time and effort, the mountain won round one.

Round two will be another story.


Caption: My friends Tristan and Howard plod up the wicked-steep snowfields near the top of Teewinot.

Excursion Article Series 07-20-08: Black Canyon: Biking and Bails


Caption: My friend Howard spins his wheels through the still-spring meadows near the top of Teton Pass.

Excursion: Black Canyon Mountain Biking
Length: About 3 hours parking lot to parking lot
Difficulty: Moderate/Expert
Directions: Leave shuttle car at base of pass at the end of Trail Creek Road. Continue to top of pass and park at top. Bike up service road at southwest edge of parking area to reach trailhead at end of road.

My upper lip was the first thing to touch down. I remember that all too well. I guess you could say I was kissing the dirt – really hard, really fast and really involuntary.

Following the lip service I paid the single track in Black Canyon, my left hip, my camera bag and my left hand all touched down at roughly the same moment. They didn’t enjoy the newfound intimacy with the trail either.

Here’s the problem I had in Black Canyon: as the photographer for this article, I found myself racing ahead of my brother and two friends so I could have time to whip out my camera and get shots of them coming down the trail. The other problems I had worked even more against me: I had loose shocks and a two-and-a-half-hour time constraint. So when I was trying to put a little distance between me and the invitees to find some good places to shoot without slowing them down, I found myself in the above predicament.

It happened in the portion of the trail I’ll refer to as “the root staircase.” It’s basically a stair step of four to six inch drops off roots coming across the trail. It makes for some great riding. I got overconfident with the first lot of steps; I was having a blast. The last one was spaced a little farther apart than the others. I decided I could pick up a little speed and get a little drop off it.

Good idea?

Nope.

When my front tire touched down, my front loosey-goosey shock compressed hard enough to bottom out. Then the tire decided it didn’t feel like spinning anymore. It had a midlife crisis and temporarily abandoned its lifelong career as a wheel to become a nice fulcrum for the catapult that the rest of the bike became for my body.
So I joined the career-change party and began my brief tenure as a rag doll/crash test dummy. I’m not sure if my helmet ever touched down. I think it was up on my head thanking my lip for cushioning the blow while it laughed at me. At any rate I was glad I was wearing it, though it didn’t do anything for my bruised hip and lip, my damaged camera lens, the various scrapes and the Mickey-Mouse-shaped hole in my left hand.

At least I wasn’t alone in the bonking department. At one point I rounded a bend behind my brother to see a cloud of dust and my friend Howard’s airborne feet disappearing into the brush a ways off the trail. I immediately thought of those novelty t-shirts printed upside down that say, “If you can read this, please put me back on my bike.”

My brother also endoed once, but he had better luck. He collided with a tree before the ground could claim his face.

Despite the minor troubles, I wouldn’t trade our morning ride. It was magical. At the top of the pass, the balsamroot glowed in the soft morning light. This was made slightly less magical by the fact we were on the only uphill portion of the trail. We were glad for the cool air as we rode – er, walked by our bikes, up the steepest portions of the trail.

The forest service road at the top of the pass transitions into a trail right past the tower. There’s only about 1.6 miles of uphill before it goes down, down, down. That’s the beauty of starting from 8,500 feet. The trail tops out at about 9,300 feet, where you take what seems to be an illogical turn to the west to head down the east-facing canyon. A trail marker stands at the intersection to indicate the start of Black Canyon.

The upper switchbacks are sketchy, with some gravel and loose dirt on the corners in particular. Watch yourself as you start heading down. After the initial switchbacks you come across some smooth, sweet single track for a while. There are still switchbacks with some loose dirt. Watch for them and take things easy. The brush also has a tendency to grab at you and try pulling you off course, resulting in feet-in-the-air scenarios.

These are best avoided. Trust me on that one. Ride slowly.

The trail gets rough again near the bottom, home of the root staircase, logs across the trail and several creek crossings. The scenery is beautiful all the way down: panoramas at the top and intimate forest scenes lower down. But you’ll probably be too intent on the dirt right in front of you to notice.


Caption: Farther down the trail, Howard enters an aspen grove just before exiting it at high speed.

Excursion Article Series 07-05-08: Extreme Gros Ventre River Rafting


Caption: A kayaker plays in a hole near the launch area for the Gros Ventre River.


Gros Ventre River is one wild ride

Excursion: Gros Ventre River rafting

Length: About 2 hours

Difficulty: Expert

Distance: About 2.6 miles on river

Directions: Take Gros Ventre Road 2.2 miles to parking area by river. Leave shuttle at turnout. Continue on road until Taylor Ranch Road. Follow until just after bridge and launch from Slide Lake.


Helmets not optional.


That was the mental note I made as an eddied-out kayaker rapped his helmet and drilled me with his eyes. The kayaker’s thought crossed the whitewater loud and clear: “Idiots.”


And I felt like one too.


We rented a 12-foot self-bailer for the occasion, and the rental company was out of helmets, so we chose to risk it rather than throw out our plan to float the early-season high water of the Gros Ventre River.


What I didn’t know is just how dangerous the Gros Ventre is. It’s only floatable when the runoff really hits – late June and early July. Then it’s even dangerous for people that really know the river. The invitations on to our boat were selective; it was only three of us locals and our friend Jason Laughlin who guides for Dave Hansen Whitewater.


We put in at Slide Lake and Jason said he thought we should pray for safety.


What were we getting into?


We glanced at the fisherman we had displaced to launch, shrugged and listened to Jason pray for river smarts and safety.

With the “amen” came the butterflies. If a professional guide was worried enough to pray before we hit whitewater, I knew it was going to be one wild ride. While still on the lake, Jason briefed us to make sure we knew how to paddle. For this trip, “left side” meant “left side paddle forward, right side paddle back – and hard.” This ensured maximum maneuverability. He tested our execution and then we went onto the river.


We passed under the bridge and it didn’t take long to recognize the river’s nature. Not only does the whitewater come fast and frequent, but the whole river is littered with boulders, holes and half-submerged trees.


Not too far down, we saw a kayak pinned upside down against a flat boulder.


“I hope there’s not anyone in that,” our guide said. Followed by a less concerned, “I want to come back and get it later. It’s like a $1,000 kayak.”


The kayaks weren’t the only ones hitting boulders. We had several close calls ourselves, despite great paddling and steering. After scraping over several rocks into holes and bouncing off a couple more, we wound up pinned against a half-submerged stand of willows. The water billowed up behind us and suctioned the raft’s upriver side under.


“High side!” someone yelled – it might have even been me. At this point, I was already envisioning floating down the shallow river in my life jacket, feet pointed downriver for safety, flailing to avoid the labyrinthine obstacles. Luckily, or perhaps blessedly, after we jumped to the high side, the boat righted, we were unpinned and we continued on our way.

The whitewater was so constant that Jason had us under constant supervision.


“Right side!” he yelled. Two strokes later: “Left side!” One stroke: “Break!” Three seconds: “All ahead, go!”


The commands weaved us in and out of a maze of boulders, logs and snags. All of us knew how to read a river. For me it was a matter of waiting to hear the commands I was already expecting as we plowed through one wave after another.


We eddied out to scout out Hermit’s – the Big Kahuna of the Gros Ventre. The most passable route is to go right around a boulder and drop down a steep incline toward the left side of the river. Though it looked unnerving, we hit it perfectly – pure fun.


After the constant Class IV waves, the last leg is the only place to rest for long. Do not do this unless you go with an experienced guide who knows the Gros Ventre River. Period. The sheer technicality of the river could swallow a lot of boats, as indicated by the pinned kayak we saw. It is not as friendly as the Snake River. Also make sure you have a maneuverable self-bailer if you go.


“On the Snake you can get drunk and float in an inner tube,” Jason said, “but if you do that on the Gros Ventre, you’re signing your will.”


In fact, when we were past the worst of the less neighborly river, all Jason had to say was, “I’m glad I said that prayer.”


Caption: A kayaker braces herself to round a boulder in a tricky stretch of the Gros Ventre River.