October wind slices through our grove, flinging campfire sparks into the blackness. Winter’s coming to these mountains. You can feel it in the contrast of sun-drenched afternoons and deep-freeze nights. We felt it in the cold wind earlier in the day, as Jennifer and I climbed the steep switchbacks toward Eagle Pass, in the middle of Wyoming’s Absaroka (Ab-soar-kuh) Range. We didn’t make it over the wind-whipped saddle, but as consolation we have this snug little grove, with a sweeping view north across 100 miles of mountains we’ve already hiked.
The valleys and passes have led us southward over remote, brawling country for 2 weeks now, through what is arguably the biggest, healthiest mountain wilderness in the Lower 48. From their beginnings near Livingston, Montana, the Absarokas wind southward for roughly 160 miles and encompass some 6 million acres. These mountains feel overwhelmingly huge as you hike through them, and their pine-ringed parklands and buttressed mountainsides are breathtakingly gorgeous. But the Absarokas are impressive for another reason: They’re so alive. You can see it, hear it, smell it, and feel it-in the morning moose encounter, the long-clawed grizzly prints in the muddy trail, the midnight elk wails, the musky smell of a buffalo wallow, and the stiff fur of a long-dead kill. Spend any time here and you know the Absarokas are different.
This wild thrill has been sinking in for the past 2 weeks, ever since a nervous van driver dropped us off in a blizzard at Box Canyon Guard Station along the Boulder River. That was late September, a month later than we should have started our 24-day thru-hike. Now, the temperatures drop near 0?F every night, and we break shoreline ice whenever we ford creeks.
Photo by Steve Howe
Jen’s doing well in such challenging conditions, especially considering that it’s only her second backpack trip. She rises early, starts the fire, and makes the coffee while I pack up our frozen camp. In the evenings, I gather wood and rig the bear bag; she cooks, I wash. There’s a deep satisfaction to the teamwork.
A hint of anxiety accompanies the journey, as well. We stick close and move carefully. Whistles dangle around our necks. The Absarokas are a remote, powerful land of steep, crumbly mountainsides, deep timber, and big rivers, with scavengers aplenty to mop up any mistakes. And winter lurks in the background, waiting to pounce. Each storm begs the question: Will we get dusted or buried?
But for now, this particular storm is clearing. The night is an unruly but grand one. The fire dances wildly in the clearing, and it looks like good weather across the pass.
Photo by Steve Howe
Our packs heavy after a resupply stop, we run late crossing the saddle beneath Eagle Peak. Gloomy skies gather rapidly as we drop through the spruce forest, descending headlong for a meadow campsite in the valley below. Two hundred feet ahead, a stump suddenly stands up.
“We got a bear,” I say needlessly, hearing Jen gasp.It’s a big male grizzly, with a coffee-
colored coat and a darker yoke rippling from shoulders to chest. The thick-furred statue sways from side to side. We help him figure us out, speaking much more calmly than we feel. Out here, this is not considered benign wildlife watching. It’s a sudden crisis, a negotiation for passage, a judgment, an audience with the bear gods.