Friday, January 4, 2013

Elk Fork Campground - Part 1

On the fifty mile drive from Cody to the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park there are literally hundreds of turnoffs along the two lane highway.
Through Wapiti these turnoffs are primarily driveways and dirt roads that take you to large and mid-size private ranches, and which are surrounded by the Absaroka Mountain chain.
Beyond Wapiti the highway leads you into the Shoshone National Forest.
From that point all the way to the gates of the park are turnoffs - access points that lead to campgrounds, picnic areas, trails, dirt roads that wind through rocky canyons until they disappear into the mountains, river and mountain overlooks, private lodges, outfitters, and more.
LC and I had turned down one of these side roads a couple of months ago.  Following a sign that read Elk Fork Campground we were as curious as ever to learn what was down there.
We found a small campground, horse corrals, trail heads and the river.
Curiosity satisfied we headed back to the highway and then home, and told ourselves that we would explore the area further one day soon.
Sometimes "soon" comes.  Sometimes it never comes.
A few days ago we talked briefly about walking the trails at the Elk Fork.
As I looked at the sky through the kitchen window while sleepily making coffee, I saw that the temperature gauge read 12 degrees.
12 degrees is cold to be out in the mountains.  There would be a lot of snow...... 
Unsure, I walked outside in pajamas and Alaska-slippers, looked up at the sky and realized that it did not feel like it was only 12 degrees.
There was no wind.  The air was bone dry.  The sky was beautiful and so was the sun.
OK.........let's walk in the mountains..................
As shaky as both my Mountain Boy and I are, neither one of us could stomach the thought of a day long hike - in the mountains - in the winter.  Just too daunting.
We could stomach a small and bite sized adventure though, and decided on 90 minutes out and 90 minutes back. 
That was the plan.
As our sweet dog Jamie began to sense that adventure was afoot, she also began to wander around the house in increasing anticipation.  Follow daddy.  No....follow momma.  No.......follow daddy.  No.....momma.
She eagerly bounced back and forth between the two of us as we both got geared up for an outdoor winter walk.
I smiled at my sweet dog. 
Jamie with the bright eyes that were staring at me and silently pleading "please don't leave me....please don't leave me behind!"
While getting dressed I bent down and kissed my hairy mutt on top of her hairy head and then rubbed her ears,  just as I have done so many times over so many years.
We're not gonna leave you Baby.
Bottles of water for us and the dog, a water bowl for James, some food, extra clothing.
Guns, knives, extra ammo.
Layers of clothing top and bottom to wear.
At the end of December in Wyoming, even a small adventure takes some time and preparation...............
Elk Fork Campground is about 25 miles from downtown Cody.
It was so quiet there - so isolated - so rugged - that it could easily have been 125 miles from Cody.
A completely different world.
As I climbed out of the truck, I wandered for a few moments with Jamie as she eagerly smelled the frozen ground.
As I looked around me and listened to the silence, I was very glad that we had decided to walk on a freezing cold and heartbreakingly beautiful day.
Our truck is parked behind the red truck and white trailer above.
From our previous drive-by-exploration I knew that the trail heads (one leading up into the mountains and one leading down towards the river) were only a quarter of a mile away.
I smiled as we three would-be explorers passed by two horses eating in the corrals.
Surprisingly there were a couple of hardy men tent camping in the campground, and I had to believe these beautiful horses belonged to them.................
White horse intent on eating.
Brown horse intent on checking us out..............
LC and I really had no plan in our minds other than to simply walk and enjoy, so when we arrived at the trail head we both stopped for a few moments to look at the trail map.............
Both of us had expected a detailed topo map or at the very least (and more likely) one of those user friendly and easy-to-read tourist trail maps showing distances and loops and that began with a "You Are Here" sign.
It really wasn't a very helpful map, and after both of us glanced at it briefly the only real question was "should we go up (into the mountains) or go down (towards the river)?"
We would go up.
We set out, eager to explore and wondering just what this trail looked like and how demanding it would be................
After a short and steep climb the trail levelled off before more short and steep climbs, that seemed to come thick and fast as we trudged through the snow.
Jamie walked Point on the narrow trail (as she always does), I walked in the center and LC walked behind me.
For a long while neither of us spoke.
We walked in the shade of snow covered hills to our left, and with the river and then snow covered hills to our right, but we could also see the sunshine and endless mountains in front of us.
Determined to stay within the time frame we had set for ourselves my Mountain Boy and I both knew that we would not make it to the mountains in the far distance.
That was alright.  On a freezing cold and incredibly outstandingly beautiful day, we were just content to be where we were.  In beautiful, peaceful and isolated.
Our sweet and old dog continued to walk point - leading the way, sniffing every bush and log along the side of the trail, and single mindedly focused on moving forward...............
Still early in our walk.
A look back the way we had come...............
Eventually we began to move away from the ridge we had been following, headed slightly inland and continued on the same trail..................
It did not take me long to realize that I loved this trail.
It contained a whole lot of ups and downs, moved away from the ridge line and then picked up the ridge line again.
A comfortable and comforting series of ups and downs and challenging walking that brought.....peace.
Momentary peace..
The effort was familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time.
The snow that covered the trail was inches deep and rutted out from horses that had come this way not long before us, making the walking challenging.
We wore Yak Trax and it was strange to wear them again.
I had not worn Yaks since we were in Juneau, and for some reason when we left Alaska I never imagined that I would ever wear them again.
Familiar.  Unfamiliar.
It felt good to be out there.
Jamie - and us - walking out of the tree line and into the sunshine.............
And the ridge line trail finally beginning to open up to the sun..................
My Mountain Boy and I stopped frequently to look out over the mountain views that were both in front and behind us.
Aside from one deer (across and on the opposite side of the river) we had not seen any wild life.
What we DID see though were tracks in the snow.
Tracks everywhere.
Elk.  Mule deer.  Big horn sheep.  Rabbits.  Birds.  And lots of wolf tracks.
Footprints everywhere you looked.
To our left on first flat and then increasingly hilly land.
On the trail we were walking
On the flat land to our right that quickly dropped down to the river.
On the surface of what was mostly a frozen river.
And tracks everywhere on the opposite side of the river below us.
Evidence wherever we looked that this valley was absolutely filled with wild life.............
The frozen river snaking its' way between two sets of hills.
The ridge we had been walking for an hour was hundreds of feet above the river, and as we continued our snowy and frozen walk (and with growing recognition that we needed to think about heading back soon if we were going to stay on our self-imposed schedule) I had expected that we would simply do an out-and-back.
That was what we had planned on doing.
But every time we stopped on the trail and I looked back at LC I could tell that he was intrigued by the animal prints he saw down by the river.
I asked him if he wanted to head down that way.
We had seen trails on the opposite side of the river, and could just as easily walk those back to the truck.
My Mountain Boy smiled and nodded. 
Bushwhacking down to the river from where we were was impossible - too steep, too snowy, too slippery, too treacherous.
We would keep walking on trail and watch for an easier route down to the river..............
There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you. . . In spring,
summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other;
only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches
when you can savor belonging to yourself.
Ruth Stout

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