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Backpacker Magazine – October 2009

Rip & Go: Wood Lake - Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, MT

Cross the Stillwater Plateau to trout-rich ponds at the foot of Montana's second highest peak.

by: Lisa Densmore

Stillwater Plateau (Lisa Densmore)
Stillwater Plateau (Lisa Densmore)

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Key Skill: Off-Trail Navigation
Three-quarters of the Wood Lake hike is off-trail, but the topography, with visual cues to help keep you on course, offers good conditions for inexperienced navigators. Here's how to stay on route:

1) When the off-trail hiking starts at mile 3.1, orient the map so key landmarks match what's in front of you: West Fishtail Cirque on your left; Woodbine Lake straight ahead as you crest the plateau; Mt. Wood dead ahead as you pass the view of Woodbine Lake.

2) Adjust your compass to account for a declination of 14 degrees–the difference between magnetic north on your compass and true north on your map. Line up north on your compass with north on the map.

3) Note the direction you need to travel in relation to a landmark, and head cross-country, periodically checking your compass. The basics: Go southwest across Stillwater Plateau; when Woodbine Lake comes into view, veer due south; and when Mt. Wood crowns the end of the plateau, go south-southeast.

4) Got GPS, right? Set waypoints on the way in–at the end of the Stillwater Plateau Trail (4) and where the route bends south toward Mt. Wood (6). Then retrace them back to the trailhead on the way out.

See This: Golden-Mantled Squirrel
Look for these chubby-cheeked rodents while bushwacking down to Lake Wilderness. Few small mammals thrive in the cold Beartooth uplands, but these honey-colored ground-dwellers survive by scavenging whortleberries, seeds, and fungi to fatten up for winter. They look like oversize chipmunks; they often pause to check out hikers (and watch for errant gorp-droppings) before scurrying to the safety of shallow underground nests.

Camp Chat
In 2007, the last time the state released the results of its biannual angler survey, only 13 parties had cast flies into Lake Wilderness or Wood Lake, the two high-alpine tarns that are the centerpiece of this hike. Though the lakes are clear and cold, they do not have the food supply and spawning habitat necessary for a self-sustaining trout population, which is why the state stocks them annually. Lots of hungry fish and no anglers sounds pretty good, right? Discuss: Should state agencies stock bodies of water that would not naturally support fish for the pleasure of a few intrepid fishermen?

Locals Know A microburst is a violent downdraft, with hurricane-force winds, that hits the ground and radiates outward, toppling mature trees like matchsticks. As you peer down from the rim into the West Fishtail Drainage, the pines lie flattened in piles due to a microburst in late November 2007. "This wind event reached speeds well in excess of 100 mph," explains Jeff Guildehaus, Outdoor Recreation Planner for the Beartooth Ranger District. "West Fishtail Drainage was one of the most concentrated areas of destruction." Microbursts of this magnitude typically occur only during the winter–when the wind blows down the canyons and the jet stream is lower to the ground. "But if the wind ramps up and blows to the southwest in the Beartooths," says Gildehaus, "be on guard, and don't camp near deadfall."

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