Unredeemed Wildness

“In God's wildness lies the hope of the world - the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” 

John Muir


 We rode slowly through the 1988 burn area near the continental divide as a cold rain fell. Many of the blackened trees still stand, like sentinels guarding the next generation. Though the fires raged here over thirty years ago, the young trees are barely taller than the withers of my horse; a testament to the short growing season and the resilience of nature. Given a chance, nature finds a way to restore itself. Perhaps that is why we seek it when we need personal restoration - it whispers in the face of sometimes catastrophic loss, "all is not lost, let's begin again". Wilderness engenders hope, the balm of humanity. 

 At the trailhead, I traded three hundred seventy-five horses for one. My new conveyance had a single seat and a lot less cargo space. Four hooves replaced four wheel drive. My top speed dropped to three miles an hour, which was fast enough as we climbed the first rise of the narrow trail, hugging a cliff. I kept my boots light in the stirrups in case my horse stumbled and decided to take a shortcut to the bottom of the canyon. 

Turpin Meadows Trailhead

I trained for a few months prior to my trip, taking horseback lessons aboard beautiful Appaloosa show horses who responded to the lightest touch of a heel. In contrast, our mounts for this trip, which took us twenty miles into the back-country of the Bridger -Teton National Forest, were built like linebackers, and required a heavier hand. If riding my training horses were likened to driving a fully loaded Lexus, these trail hardened horses were the equivalent of driving an old Willy's jeep with manual steering and transmission. No frills, no flash, but extremely capable.   

After a couple of hours on the trail the chatter that accompanies a new adventure dies down, and one's perspective shifts. Your world is framed by horse ears. Creaking saddle leather, the click of metal shoes on stone, and occasional snorts from the pack string replace electronic alerts from phones. Your gaze lifts and broadens, adjusting to the scroll of wilderness unrolling before you. Fatigued eyes that daily spend hours looking at screens an arm's length away begin to adjust to horizons miles distant, on sabbatical from the virtual world.

This was a pilgrimage to the Thorofare, one of the Meccas of trout conservation, located in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The catalyst for this trip and the beginning of my education about the 90% decline in Yellowstone Cutthroat trout arrived a decade ago in the form of a phone call from Dave Sweet, of Wyoming Trout Unlimited. Dave is one of the foremost conservationists rallying others to the cause to reverse the decline of these native fish. The introduction of non-native Lake Trout into Yellowstone Lake is responsible for the precipitous drop in their population. These large game fish are voracious predators, and literally were eating the cutthroats to the edge of extirpation. 

Dave invited me up to see the restoration efforts, and do some fishing. I had planned for years to go, but something always intervened, and I delayed the trip year after year. Then in November, my father died. The realization that there was a limit to how many "next years" were allotted to me came into sharp focus. I booked the trip for late June.

Accompanying me on this trip were a father-son team from Wyoming and a retired educator from Washington State. After a long day on the trail and a good meal, we retired to our tents. The feeder creek that ran along our campsite sang us to sleep, as the belled horses nickered and munched grass on the mountainside our camp shouldered up against.  

In early summer, mature Yellowstone Cutthroat make their spawning runs into the tributaries of Yellowstone Lake. During the rest of the year, they live in the deep water of the lake, inaccessible to most avian and mammalian predators These spawning runs drive the food chain in the Yellowstone region in the same way salmon runs do in the pacific northwest. Some studies show 16 species of birds and 4 species of mammals depend on the cutthroat as a food source. We fished Atlantic Creek, one of those tributaries, under the watchful gaze of Hawk's Rest, a prominent mountain landmark. Riding a few miles from camp each day to reach the creek, we tied the horses in a copse of trees. Hiking a quarter mile through the meadow past grizzly tracks quickened our pulse and sharpened our eyes. We gave dense willow thickets a wide berth - no sense in tempting fate. Our first day fishing here was rewarded with a few large trout in spawning colors brought to hand. The run was underway. 

Shotgun, My Trusty Steed



Atlantic Creek, with Hawk's Rest In The Background

Yellowstone Cutthroat

 The creek was beautiful and clear, but dropping quickly according to our outfitter. He worried that the next week's group may not find sufficient water without moving farther downstream. Even in paradise the "tax of forethought" can intrude, as Wendell Berry wrote. But for this week, the creek was in perfect shape.  

 The next several days fell into a comfortable rhythm. Rising early to fresh cowboy coffee on the wood stove, we attended chores as breakfast was being prepared. We rekindled the campfire to burn any leftovers, a requirement when camping in bear country. Following breakfast, lunches were assembled and put into saddlebags. Fishing gear was gathered and packed onto the mules, horses were saddled, and we hit the trail to the meadow.

Those on this trip recognized the importance of these fish and the calamity they faced. Fortunately the trout are making a comeback. Just seeing a couple dozen fining in a deep pool made the trip worth it. Catching a few was an embarrassment of riches.  

 Sight fishing streamers down and across to pods of migrating cutthroats proved to be the most effective method. Some in our party couldn't help tossing a dry fly or two, just to see if trout were looking up, but they weren't interested. We took turns in the productive pools, a luxurious and friendly way to fish. Solitude has its place, but the camaraderie of sharing water has the added advantage of relaxing on the bank while your partner tries his luck. It encourages you to take in the vastness and beauty of your surroundings, something I forget to do sometimes when I am focused on my fishing.

The week went far too quickly, and soon we found ourselves breaking camp and back on the 20 mile return trail to Turpin Meadows. This time we felt like old hands, as the new had been worn off us. I tried to force my eyes to gorge on as much of the scenery as I could, hoping to store it away for rainy days. I thought about my dad those hours in the saddle. He never visited this part of the world, but he sparked my interest in the outdoors, and allowed it to be fanned into flame. Without that spark, I would never have started on the journey that led me here. 

Seeing the young trees growing in the shadow of the burn and the cutthroats returning to their ancient spawning waters in spite of all that happened to their kind brought a reassurance to me; a healing of wounds. Tragedies of the moment are never the end of the story, only a chapter, as long as we continue to write.     



Kevin Wall said…
You have a great gift of writing that makes it enjoyable to read. I like your selection of words. Awesome trip.

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