The autumn weather is hard to predict in the Wind Rivers-unless you listen to the elk and coyotes.
They know what’s coming.
The Season Of Chance
After the first dusting of snow, the Wind Rivers empty out fast. I meet people staggering under heavy packs, boots wet and squeaking. They look at me curiously-all I have is a fanny pack.
Fall is chancy in Wyoming, especially at 10,000 feet. Septembers past, I’ve enjoyed late-summer calm and also suffered nights at 3°F. So I packed with care. Still, as a backcountry hydrologist, sampling and writing about mountain streams, I’ve learned to get by with the minimum to make way for the weight of science. A good ultralight bag, a pad and a bivouac bag, and food and clothing essentials bring the whole load to 18 pounds.
At Dad’s Lake, I strike west under clouds to the outlet and follow game trails down the knuckles of granite, looking for a way to the river below. Each attempt ends in a puzzle of deadfall and bog, so I follow the country’s grain toward Francis Lake.
With a big pack, this would be bad, but now it’s something like fun. I exit a gorge to surprise a big coyote digging under a stump, winter coat ruffling. He stares-a yellow burn-then dashes into the woods.
I hear the river through ragged firs and emerge to walk upstream. The sun, seeking a low arc, strikes under clouds with a hazy golden light. High snowfields are no longer melting, so the water is low and clear. Brook trout gather in the tributaries, starting their brief spawn. In October, streams begin to freeze, and the ice holds until April or May. Where the canyon walls loom and the river roars white, I find a level spot.
The tiny stove yields steaming soup. Watching clouds build, I write until dark and then roll out the bivy sack. I’ve spent long, painful nights up here, but this isn’t one. I wake up, warm, as a front gusts in: small dry flakes in slow waves. This isn’t a shutdown storm, big and wet, when moist southerly air runs head-on into arctic chill. The snowflakes tick and brush, sending me back to sleep.
I rise to brilliant sky. The straw-colored meadow is patched with white. By the time I pack up, droplets sing from the trees. In no time, I’m brushing through willows, their leaves, dark burgundy and brown, sticking to my wet boots.
I stretch the tape, wade a cold current, and take notes, interspersed with warm-up jogs in the sun. By noon, the snow’s gone, except in the woods where it dusts the scarlet fireweed.
Long meadows of glacial outwash constrict to rocky scrambles, then open again as the river meanders through frost-cured grass. On a streaked rock, a brood of ducklings basks, gathering strength for their first long flight, then plops into the gleaming flow and lines out for the bank.
Where the woods close in, I hear a bugle. A bull elk stands at the rocky ford, the tines of his antlers burnished white, and restates his challenge. At his back, cows and calves flee up a broken draw. One cow lingers to drink, and the bull shakes his beard. She trails the band into the ragged shadow as he turns his gaze on me. He bugles once more, the shrill peal echoing, and follows.
Gone. And yet, in the telling, always there.
-By C. L. Rawlins uPhoto by Layne Kennedy