When I step outside the tent this morning I find it stiff with frost.
At the fire-ring the benches are white with it, too. The wet willows across the river sparkle in the early grey dawn. I hear sandhills calling and ravens croaking and the distant honking of geese.
The sky is very clear and the air smells so wonderful I try to drink in great draughts of it.
My concern this morning is to dry my soggy boots and socks. All my clothes from yesterday are still damp. I rig up a makeshift laundry-line between two trees, and I wait for the first rays of the sun to emerge.
I find the most advantageous place to drape each item. I ponder what I'd do if it rained for a week straight. I have always been lucky enough to have my rainy and sunny days mixed up. I am scolded quite loudly by two red squirrels and I swear one of them is deliberately dropping things on me! The woodpecker is here again this morning as well.
I get the fire started and place my boots close. I sit on the still-frosty bench and write but I keep looking up at this beautiful river rolling by. I think of Lone Eagle Woman hiking up the snowy glaciers of Younts Peak, the source of this mighty river. I think of all the tributary streams that we have crossed, all of which pour their hearts into this river. I think of all the animals that drink from it, splash across it, die in it. This river makes one of the largest, coldest and deepest lakes in the world and then travels on past steaming thermal areas and into wide green valleys, full of elk and bison. And it drops suddenly over cliffs in two spectacular waterfalls and carves its way through great golden cliffs of rhyolite. And it flows past Tower Falls and Junction Butte and out of the Park past the ranches and farms of Paradise Valley and on and on until it meets the Missouri. This same river that I see flowing past me, now.
The sun frees herself from the shadow of the mountain and begins to work her magic on my wet clothes. There is movement in camp as the others begin to get up. Laurie and Lonnie join me and remark upon the frost. We talk quietly about work and home and children and laugh about silly things we did yesterday. Soon everyone is up and we have our breakfast. I think we have all become fond of our campsite here at Three Mile Bend and would have been happy to stay longer. I will have to come back someday and hike to Bridger Lake and Hawk's Rest.
We remark on how the river has receded since we arrived two days ago. The spot where we pumped water the first night is now high and dry, four feet from the water's edge. What was a thin running channel is now a shallow pool, rapidly evaporating. Rivers are not meant to be the same day after day.
We break camp, pack up and head out a little after noon. We have a short walk today, some 6 miles to our next camp beneath Colter Peak. It should be quite leisurely. Through the high willows we trudge, then out to the meadow. Lonnie leaves us here; he has decided to stick around to do a bit more fishing.
For a while we follow a clear set of wolf tracks in the trail, made less than 12 hours ago. At least one member of the Delta Pack came mighty close to us last night! We also see bear prints and pass a few scat piles.
We reach the beautiful Mountain Creek pretty fast and as usual I enjoy crossing it. We take a break on the far side before we put our boots back on and I attempt to deal with a new blister on my little toe. While we are stopped, we hear horse sounds behind us. Here comes Action Jackson! He's on his regular trail-maintenance patrol and stops to chat. We share our snacks with him. He says he passed Lonnie a while back and gave him what fishing tips he had.
He says he's headed to Cabin Creek where he will stay overnight and return home tomorrow. Jake and Pete pump him for a bit more information about what they might find on Colter Peak. They are jazzed at what he tells them. He waves goodbye and rides on. Jake and Pete are psyched so they tell us they will meet us at camp. They shoulder their packs and disappear.
The day turns warm but we are blessed with a steady breeze and have our most pleasantly bug-free hike yet. We pass Turret Mountain, which I think ought to be called "Many-Turrets Mountain". I admire its strange shapes and harsh rocky beauty. For a little while Tim gets far ahead of Laurie and me. When we finally catch up to him in a meadow he tells us he was examining fresh bear scat and suddenly found himself alone. We three hike together after that!
The views on this leg of our journey are just spectacular and I enjoy this walk most of all. I see a bald eagle soaring overhead, and watch him bank and follow the river out of sight.
Even sooner than I expect we arrive at our campsite, the lovely Colter Meadows. The site is below the trail in a wide meadow, criss-crossed by numerous little rivulets coming from a spring on a hillside east of the trail. We had been told there was no water source in camp; that we would have to hike up to use the spring but we find plenty of usable water. What we don't find are paths! This site has not been used this year and appears to be little-used in any year.
We see the boys' tent already up so we head down, following the grass bent by their feet. They have thoughtfully made a bridge of logs over one of the little streams. We see their packs hung from the bear pole so we figure they are high on Colter Peak by now. The three of us drop our packs beside a tree and flop onto the long grass, unused to the luxury of getting to camp so early. We pull out our sleeping pads and lie back in the warm sun. I elevate my feet against the trunk and drift off to sleep.
A little while later I get up to explore. I follow one of the rivulets as it threads its way through the meadow. It's about a foot across and maybe a foot and a half deep, with clear water gurgling within. In one exquisite section tall firs grow beside it on both sides, very close together. It's a perfectly Elvish-looking spot; the thick branches make a dark and cool canopy over the trickling stream as it curves its way through.
The close-growing trees taper off and the stream continues through the open meadow and then curves to the right, following the low ground between two hills out of sight. I hop across and climb the low hill. I have a great view of the whole campsite and the rugged rocky spurs of Colter Peak beyond. I see Laurie in the open with her binoculars, scanning the mountain for a glimpse of her boys. I admire how she remains so calm and agreeable while all her dear ones are happily risking their lives in this wild country.
Turning back I see movement in the next meadow. For a minute I think it's a coyote. But then I see there are two sandhill cranes, walking together, heads down, pecking at morsels. I watch until they disappear behind the trees.
I take a refreshing dip in the stream and get as clean as I can manage. It feels deliriously good. Then Laurie and I gather wood. Walking from the tent area to the cooking area involves avoiding three separate mushy spots. It takes a while before I find the best route. There is an amazing amount of downed and dry wood here. We make a great big pile.
As the delightful day wears on we lose the wind and the bugs get bad. Tim and I set up our tent and talk about the feast we'll have this evening, pasta with meat sauce and mushrooms! He says he will also make his famous garlic fry-bread, enough for everyone. Then Tim pumps water while I grab the cooking gear and head over to start the fire. Shortly after this Lonnie arrives and says he had some fairly decent fishing and met Ranger Jackson.
Lonnie and I scan the hillsides and see elk. They are high on a green hill, moving in and out of tree cover. Bull elk. They move fairly fast at one point and we hope for a glimpse of whatever is after them. They move down and across the hill, heading south. And then suddenly Jake and Pete arrive. They are hot and sweaty and very, very hungry. Their adventure was strenuous and ultimately disappointing since they found no sign of a Medicine Wheel on either of the two spurs they explored. But they did see elk. In fact, we figure they probably spooked the ones we saw.
We have a great deal of fun at our campfire tonight. There is a tub of chicken soup that Laurie stops eating because she thinks it tastes funny. Lonnie tries it and agrees. But when Jake tosses it into the fire we KNOW it's bad! I share a tub of pineapple chunks I've been saving and the pasta Tim makes is positively scrumptious. We have plenty left over to offer both Pete and Jake and they wolf it down. Their appetites make clean-up so easy!
Tim gets the fry-bread going and makes us each a piece or two. Then Jake remembers the Swisher-Sweets. Only my love of my fellow Loons allows me to tolerate such stinky smoke and we pose for photos. I have yet to see those shots and something tells me it won't look quite as funny as it was at the time. We sing songs and tell stories and generally carouse the night away.
There are bright stars again tonight. We talk of the long hike ahead of us tomorrow. We discuss and agree that we will walk the full distance back to the Lake. This means we should attempt an early start. We gather our things and hang up the packs and make our final journey over the criss-crossing streams to the tents.
I stop to enjoy the astonishing dome of stars overhead and to sing my prayer to Elbereth. The ground is so soft here and the grass so thick, I sleep soundly the whole night through.
Today I saw: chipmunks, ducks, elk, geese, red squirrels, 1 bald eagle, 2 horses, 2 sandhill cranes, and 6 Loons