Jorden Lake: A Different Kind of Special

Jorden Lake is perched near the western terminus of the Beartooth High Lakes Trail, which you’d infer to be popular simply because the trail is named on the old USGS maps.

In July, I walked the High Lakes Trail west from Island Lake and saw only 9 people, 6 of which were day hikers near its eastern terminus.

In late August, I walked the High Lakes Trail and saw another 6 day hikers near Island Lake, and only 3 other parties of backpackers.

So it was not a great surprise to find out that we’d have one of the Beartooth’s most spectacular lakes all to ourselves when we arrived.

Jorden is a neat lake. Superb scenery, remoteness, and an outstanding cutthroat trout fishery means that it’s worth being a destination.

Jorden Lake outlet stream (Farley Creek), July 2010. LEICA M9, ZEISS BIOGON-C 35/2.8.

 

 

However, on my trip in late August, it was only a stopping point.

We arrived late in the evening to calm skies and rising trout, and I remember the evening well: a pleasant breeze, a bright moon, a small campfire, grilled trout, a mule doe, and crawling into a dry sleeping bag on a crisp, starry night.

Jorden Lake cutthroat, caught with a Tenkara Hane rod after dark, during a stonefly hatch on Farley Creek, August 2010. We grilled these trout over fire using the 1-oz Zia Titanium grill. PANASONIC TS-1.

 

 

 

We woke up to something different.

Hostile winds, enveloping fog, cold temperatures, and sleet.

Our morning fire was to be a functional one: for cooking a hot meal, and warming up extremely numb fingers.

Morning fire at Jorden Lake, August 2010. There’s a pretty blue lake behind the fog. LEICA M9, ZEISS BIOGON-C 35/2.8.

 

 

This day, too, was to be a special one, marking the beginning of our three-day, six-mile descent of the Farley Creek canyon in conditions that could be described as being on the wrong side of pleasant.

It was one of my most memorable, and rewarding, three day treks ever.

The photo above tells only the beginning of that story, and I like its composition for its simplicity. I can feel the magic warmth that fire gave to me, and boy oh boy, did I like it. That, and knowing that behind the fog, lies one of the most beautiful blue lakes in the Beartooth Range. I felt strange when I took this photo (self-portrait, from a tripod): like it was just me, and the fire, and a few scrappy trees, and then – nothingness. It’s a weird feeling, being engulfed in mountain fog this thick – me and the fire. The fire and me. Me and the fire… (I’ve felt this weird fog-feeling only a few times before. Once was when I was caught in a dreary rainstorm on the Valhalla Traverse en route to climb the Black Ice Couloir in the Tetons. I was bivied on a desperate ledge, soaking wet, and there was nothing but fog around me – just me, the bivy, and a lot of dangerous exposure, and no fire.)

I’ve passed Jorden lake a dozen times before, but this time, because it marked the beginning of something special, it’s forever cemented into my memory as one of my favorite spots. If you ever have the chance, go to Jorden Lake …

… and then take a dive down the Farley Creek canyon for an adventure into the unknown, but beautiful, bowels of the Beartooth Range.

Place

Lake Chain Packrafting

Slow paddling through mountain lake chains offers a unique type of solitude and an entirely different way of seeing “routes”.

In recent years, it’s become one of my favorite ways to travel through the mountains.

The Martin Lake Chain in the Beartooth Range is a case in point.

A traverse of this basin by foot, which is arguably one of, if not the most, scenic short trek in the Beartooth Range, takes only a day from what most people consider as the “top lake” (Rachel Lake, 9864′) to what most people consider as the bottom lake (Estelle Lake, 9182′), because it’s only 2.4 miles and is an easy enough day hike from a base camp at Martin or Wright Lake.

In fact, most people skip Estelle, and few go “up” to Rachel, so their day trek becomes less than a mile from the outlet of Martin to the inlet of Whitcomb, and they get to see four lakes in the chain (Martin-Wright-Spogen-Whitcomb).

Granted, the Rachel-to-Estelle chain is full of scenic awesomeness at every turn but it’s only a little piece of the pie, and can’t be appreciated fully in one day trip.

I knew that on my first Rachel-to-Estelle traverse in 2001, I had to come back and spend some time.

So in 2002, I came back and caught a fish in each lake, which required me to spend at least 10 minutes along each shoreline. I was done in a couple of hours.

So in 2003, I came back and spent 3 days camping in the chain at various locations, and knew that I was starting to appreciate its intimacy.

But it wasn’t until much later, while peering at the maps, that I realized that there might be stuff higher than Rachel and lower than Estelle that were worth visiting.

In fact, I went to the headwaters. The highest lake in the chain is actually Silver Tarn, at 10,846′, just SW of Grasshopper Glacier, and way, way off trail. I reached it via an ardurous off trail traverse that started in the Lake Fork of Rock Creek, and then climbed through dense brush, talus, and blowdowns to Black Canyon Lake. Six miles and seven hours after leaving the car, we bivied on a windy pass overlooking the lake.

After descending to and then paddling (via packraft) across the mile-long Black Canyon Lake (thus avoiding talus and cliffs), we reached the Grasshopper Moraine and more pain until we crested the hydrologic divide of the Beartooths just above Grasshopper Glacier wearing Kahtoolas and breathing a sigh of relief because we didn’t have to arrest with packraft paddles equipped with lashed picks of granite shards on the ends. We reached the crest at midday on Day 2 and enjoyed knowing that it was to be all downhill from here, with a view of Silver Tarn glistening below us.

A short descent down the glacier brought us to the tarn, where we bivied for the night on a big, sloping granite slab.

From here, we inflated our packrafts and kept them inflated for the rest of the trip (with a few notable exceptions), strapping them to our packs for the interim treks between the lakes that included a lot of talus hopping, scree sliding, blowdown limbo-ing, and bushwhacking.

We rafted from the inlet to outlet of every lake in the chain: Silver Tarn (10868′), Two Bits (10211′), Triskele (10190′), North Cloverleaf (10130′), West Cloverleaf (10110′), Rachel (9864′), Martin (9658′), Wright (9630′), Spogen (9583′), Whitcomb (9542′), Estelle (9182′), Granite (8630′), and lots of wide spots, and fast spots, in the wild outlet creek of Granite Lake down to its confluence with Highway 212.

The final route was only 25 miles (with five miles on trail at the beginning and less than a mile of “faint paths” en route), with immense – and I mean immense – on the ground routefinding challenges. I mean, how hard can it be, right? You’re just following a stream — all the way! If not for the faint trail sections here and there created by hardy fishermen, bear, and elk, we might still be trying to find our way out of there.

But that’s not the important or dramatic part.

The best part of this trek was using packrafts to navigate lakes along a natural route corridor. I think this is one of the most spectacular and gratifying means of wilderness travel style: you really do become one with the drainage.

From the ice fringed shores of Silver Tarn to the cliff-rimmed waters of Rachel Lake to our thunderstorm-trapped bivy on the island at Martin Lake to the waterfall at Spogen Lake to dramatic scenic beauty at Whitcomb Lake to the West Wall of Estelle Lake to the exciting paddle of Lake Creek as it fed into Granite Lake to the camp in a bay of Granite Lake that we were convinced had never been visited by man to the 3.5 mile paddle through Granite Lake and its outlet creek and lakes, to the almost-accidental-drop over waterfalls on Lake Creek to trout-infested waters deep in the low country to the hand over hand descent of waterfall chains near the end, to the horrified looks of tourists in a passing Eurovan as we emerged from trees onto Highway 212 with torn up packrafts, dried blood on our clothes, and shoes with half soles…

Packrafting the Beartooths can sort of be like that.

Cliffhanging: Bear Bagging Above the Treeline

On the Arctic 1000, we slept with our food. This gave me a little bit of trepidation, especially when our camp was usually surrounded by some combination of wolves, muskox, and grizzly bears.

I’m sure that’s what Andy will be doing as well during his traverse of the Brooks Range this year. Otherwise, sleeping with your food is generally considered to be a black market activity not to be shared on the Internet. Wilderness food storage considerations are receiving renewed interest in light of recent grizzly bear attacks at a campground that was less than eight miles from where the above photograph was taken. (The attacks appeared to be unrelated to food storage policies but have resulted in a dramatic increase in bear frenzy.)

Bear canisters are required in some areas but for most of us up here in the northern Rockies, we make do with trees, which are generally plentiful.

Above the treeline, folks consider all sorts of haberdashery in addition to bear canisters in the name of weight savings. Some of these strategies include:

  1. Stowing your food, and some heavy rocks in (or tying another stow sack filled with same to) a dry bag, attaching a retrieval cord, and tossing it into a lake. I’ve used this method with good success, but after observing a high altitude otter trying to thieve the contents on a trek a few years ago, I abandoned the idea because I couldn’t sleep well at night.
  2. My friend Peter Vacco, who’s the only guy I know who has walked the Continental Divide from Mexico to Point Hope, builts a little tripod with his trekking poles, hangs the food from it, and perches it a few dozen feet from his tent. It keeps short critters out, which is his goal, but offers no security against animals with legs longer than a few inches other than entertainment value when they start feasting. Peter never lost his food. Maybe a bigger tripod is the answer (collapsible 5 meter carbon poles?)
  3. Electric fences are all the rage with institutional groups and outfitters, but after watching a bear get zapped on the nose and then walk right through one to retrieve food, I’m not so sure. Plus, they’re extraordinarily heavy. Nine pounds is OK for a group, and less OK for me and a pal.
  4. Alan Dixon and I used Ursacks on a few trips in the Beartooths, including at our basecamp for an ice climb up Whitetail Peak. The problem there was less “bears” and more “goats”, which tend to eat everything in sight whether it looks or tastes like food – or not. Goats love Ursacks and they tore through one of mine one night using a combination of teeth, hooves, horns, and the persistent determination of a goat.

I’ve tried lots of other light methods, as well, including several layers of 12.5″ x 20″ O.P. Saks, which I might use if I were to sleep with my food…Three O.P.’s give me a bit of security on a longer walk, and when stashed inside a Blast Cuben Fiber stow bag, I don’t worry about rodents either, because they have a hard time chewing through the fibers.

However, I still sleep best when my food remains inaccessible to a bear (or goat), so I look for cliffs when I can.

The cliff should be at least 15 feet high, and ideally, vertical or overhanging. Your rope needs to have a little more beef than the thin cords used for hanging food in trees because it will suffer abrasion on sharp granite as you raise and lower the bag. My rope choice is AirCore Rope, which is tough enough.

Some more tips:

  • Scout the cliff from below so you know exactly where you want to hang. This is where a buddy (spotter) can really help.
  • If the rock is really sharp, or you have to use thin rope, set up a “top rope” with a carabiner or tiny pulley tossed weightless over the cliff with the main hang rope threaded through it, then hang your bag from below using the PCT Method as you normally would in a tree. This requires a 25+ foot tall cliff.

The only methods I can heartily recommend for food storage in the Northern Rockies are tree hanging and bear canisters. Any other methods may be a compromise in safety, land management agency policy, and personal comfort. Use your head, and don’t let a goat (or bear) get your food.

 

Gear

GoLite Shangri-La 6 & 8: Lightweight Crew Shelters That Meet Standards of Storm Protection, Simplicity, and Group Dynamics

We use GoLite Shangri-La 6’s and 8’s for our advanced (WT3) Wilderness Trekking School courses, and when I outfit Scout High Adventure Programs going into hostile environments.

There are three primary reasons.

  1. They are light enough. Between the shelters, poles, and a big set of robust stakes, shelter weight comes out to around a pound per person. On our Wilderness Trekking III courses (“Advanced Expedition Trekking”), nobody complains about the weight because all the participants are tough enough, and we have other challenges on those trips (bad weather, getting lost, staying warm, etc.) that are worth complaining about. On Scout High Adventure Treks, nobody complains about the shelter weight because the biggest, toughest kids usually carry the shelter and to complain about it would negate the servant leadership position they are trying to earn.
  2. They are tough enough. Having weathered high winds, heavy snows, and driving rain in all seasons and at all altitudes (in the CONUS, at least), none of us ever worry about whether or not the shelter is going to survive a storm. We used to pair these shelters with goofy weight-saving alternatives like titanium skewer stakes and carbon poles, or trekking poles for the support poles. But after breaking poles in storms and having stakes go flying, we ditched those things in favor of strong aluminum poles (we use the stock poles from GoLite), eight Easton Monster Pegs (8″) for the ridgelines, corners, and side mid-points, and 6″ aluminum V-stakes for the rest (4 additional sides, the doors, and the six side guylines. The result is that we no longer worry, and we can camp whereever we want, like Rough Lake (above).
  3. They are intimate enough. With a crew, relational intimacy is extremely important. Sure, you can separate everyone in different shelters, but when you do so, you lose opportunities for group communication, and for developing camaraderie. Group intimacy is probably the single most important thing that contributes to the success (which I define as the feeling of “Wow! What an amazing trek!”) of a group trek. A shelter big enough to house the whole group minimizes the formation of a cliques and coalitions, and is a lot more fun.

Boy Scout Patrol in a GoLite Shangri-La 8 during their 50-Miler across the Beartooth Plateau, July 2010. PANASONIC TS-1.

 

 

The problem with the GoLite Shangri-La 6/8 is that by the time most of us had the opportunity to really get to know the shelter, and its capabilities, GoLite discontinued it.

This is what happens when companies release products before their time and aren’t able to allow a product to mature in the marketplace because of the cash flow and economies of scale constraints caused by low sales volumes. Therma-Rest pads didn’t exactly revolutionize backcountry travel upon their introduction (their cost and reliability prevented mass market adoption for a few years), but thank goodness they stuck with it.

I think the GoLite Shangri-La 6 and 8 are the best institutional crew shelters made by anybody. Ever.

Now, we’re stuck with splitting crews into two or three big pyramids, which discombobulates group dynamics, results in decreased storm resistance (single pole pyramids are abysmal in heavy winter snows due to their high surface area:structure ratio) and forces us into carrying and having to keep track of, and care for, more gear. Simplicity has its virtues.

There are undoubtedly still a few tucked away in bargain basements, so grab them while you can – they’re gems.

Gear, Scouting

Lonesome Shelter

I have a lesser need to “feel” like I “need” to hike solo today than yesterday because the depth of my experience as a solo traveler will be known only to me: it is difficult (at best) to convey the magic of my experience to somebody who wasn’t there, and that creates a relational black hole that I’ve found to be spiritually cumbersome as I get older.

I know this because I’ve found it easy to write about my solo trips, or share photos from them, but I’ve found it hard to convey the depth of that experience to others. Moreover, I’m always a little bit dismayed by their reaction (or lack of) to my sharing (“Oh, that sounded like a nice trip.”) My response: “Huh. I guess you had to be there.”

In recent years, I have discovered the “A-Ha!” realization that I can deepen my wilderness experiences by sharing them with my wife, my son, my son’s friends, my friends, Scouts – simply by inviting them along – and more important – that I’m enjoying those experiences more than the ones I gain when I go alone. With others, we can share the experience long after the trek is done. I know now that relationships deepen through meaningful experiences, and that my life is richer from hiking with others than from anything I’ve done to feed my own narcissistic desires to “Hike My Own Hike”.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that writing, or photography, or campfire stories are not meaningful ways of conveying the mood of a trek, but c’mon. It’s just not the same as being there and sharing those experiences with someone else.

I don’t want to read about Colin Fletcher’s traverse of the Esplanade (even though he conveys his experience in a truly engaging manner) so much as hike it with a pal or two and see what it’s really like. I bet we’d not be saying, “Huh, I guess it was just like Fletcher said. Boo.”

The benefits of hiking solo have been articulated well in Philip Werner’s recent post about solo backpacking and I’m pretty convinced that Andrew Skurka’s romp around Alaska is going to change him forever and we’ll enjoy celebrating his journey with him in due time. However, especially as I get older, I find myself wanting to trek with others because the relationships that are cemented (especially during a Tough Walk) are worth a lot more to me than most of the benefits of independence that I enjoy by walking solo.

That doesn’t mean I still don’t like going solo – I do. But the focus has changed from going on a “trek for me without the baggage of others” (that sometimes self-serving philosophy of “Hike Your Own Hike”) to simply needing to quiet my soul a bit so I can think, and cleanse. I like that.

But the most memorable treks of my life, and far and away the most fun, have been those where I’ve been able to share the experience with others.

So the next time you plan a trek, consider sharing your ripstop room with a pal or two, and look forward to a lifetime of memories that will deepen your relationships. Wild Places offer wonderful opportunities to immerse your senses, but don’t fall into the trap where you think they exist only to serve yourself and your perceived needs for self-time, self-healing, self-awareness, self-esteem-building, or self-ishness. Relationships are more acutely developed and thus made richer in wilderness settings – and trekking with pals may be a lot cheaper than counseling and anti-depressants caused by pursuing a lifetime of loneliness in the mountains.

Muse