Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Silver Light of the Moon

The trail was barely visible beneath our mules feet as we rode through the thick darkness of starlight. We watched night steal the red from the canyon walls and repaint them in shades of black and white, as if we were riding in an old western movie. We were climbing out of Hop Valley late Saturday night after a day of riding through the narrows of LaVerkin Creek. A warm breeze changed the Day smells into night smells and hooves falling on rock echoed off the cliffs above us as we swayed in our saddles, without visual reference to help us maintain perfect balance.

Emerging from the canyon to the terraced table tops of Smith's Mesa, we could see a brilliant white blanket laying over the desert savannah far to our west. Our trail disappeared in the sage and scrub oak while our muted sense of direction caused us to wonder how we would find that one gate in the miles of barbed wire fence standing in our way. But the mules knew and we let them pick their own way across the landscape. Suddenly Molly stopped. Like an apparition, the gate came into dark focus just inches from her flaring nostrils.

The white blanket to our West seemed to be moving closer to us. Brilliant as a hard frost in the dead of winter, every tree, bush and towering sandstone rock sparkled with a cold, white luster. The view caused an inevitable sensory conflict with the pleasant warmth of the gentle draft. As we neared the trailhead, we stopped and turned with fascination to face the advancing silvery frost. A distinct line separated our blackness from this faux winter and it began to hasten until we were on the verge of being overtaken by its chill. Abruptly, we were in the light of day as the nearly full moon peaked its edge over the hill whose shadow had kept us in the dark. The world, still painted in shades of gray, was promptly in full view and our mounted silhouettes cut a sharp moon-shadow below our feet... And that physical anticipation of feeling winter's cold was warmly unfulfilled by the silver light of the moon.

Friday, September 3, 2010

WindRiver Wolves

She trotted along the boulder-strewn clearing, parallel to our trail which hugged the treeline above Upper Silver lake. With a hunter's instinct and canine curiosity, she monitored our progress as we coldly made our way back to camp. August's end in the WindRivers is a confusing time for the weather. Summer is showing her age and winter intrudes, fighting for turf and hoping for an early kill. It had just rained an icy-hail as we climbed out of the Washakie river, and the sun was throwing rainbows at the stiff wind that had us burrowed into our oilskin coats. Jim suddenly stopped. "Is that one of our dogs out in the clearing...?" Appearing out of some low brush, she turned to face us as we peered through the trees. Tall, gray, and fitted with a massive head, she stood in the open, staring for a moment. Knowing she had been seen, she casually loped over a rise and out of sight into a shallow ravine.

It is the talk of the town. A morning earlier, we sat in the only cafe-slash-saloon in Boulder, Wyoming, having our traditional last-chance breakfast before penetrating the wilderness. One table away, a lone, weathered cowboy sat nursing his breakfast. Hearing our meal-talk, he glanced over his coffee and peered wistfully through the brim of his trailwise hat, "The wolves have come back. They are up there. Damn shame too. We sure went to a lot of trouble getting rid of them the first time. Just last week, Buster Johnson's crew had a whole pack trailing them as they pushed their cows off the mountain just North of here."

We spent the next 7 days exploring and fishing. Winter advanced in the battle with summer for the first six of those days, one storm after the next. Summer struggled to melt the frozen darts that were thrown, but returned some clear skies and warmth on the day we came back out. Jim, Landon, Brother Mike and three of my kids racked up nearly 88 miles of saddle sore, much of it with heads bent into the wind, rain, and snow. It felt like we were traversing hallowed ground, and a distinct sense of the Divine pierced the biting air inside the peak-ringed basins of Middle Fork Lake and the Bonneville.

On day five, at first light, I stood shivering in my long-johns at the edge of Raid Lake, casting my Jake's spin-a-lure repeatedly while everyone else slept. Preston finally woke and came to be by Daddy's side. Suddenly, my ultra-light pole bent in half, nearly being yanked from my hands. I had spooled it up with that fancy Fire-Wire stuff that won't break no matter how hard you pull on it. The drag on my reel screamed for about three seconds while the power of a submersed giant pulsed all the way to my core--then SNAP!.. About 40 feet of line and lure gone. Preston and I just stood and stared at each other, mouths open, in total dis-belief. Nothing in my life's experience of catching fish in high altitude lakes prepared me for this--I didn't think fish could get that big all the way up here. I'm sure no one believed my story, until later that evening when Preston came back to camp with more fish than he could carry, and it was just ONE fish. "Dad, I think I snagged a rock, can you help me get it unstuck?" Just a minute kiddo, wait til I... OH MY GOODNESS, THAT'S NO ROCK! Hang on... reel it carefully...don't force it...easy there...wait wait, don't drag it out of the water yet, let me grab it...

10 pounds. She fed all eight of us that night, and made one little kid feel like King of the Day.

Each night, laying in that fitful sleep that only comes in a sleeping bag, while straining to hear the comforting sound of cowbell, and hoping that our livestock will be fine by morning, the wolves howl. Somewhere nearby, in the thick blackness, they watch our camp, and the dogs growl. The hair on the back of my neck raises. It is an emotional debate. My heart goes out to the stockmen whose livelihoods are threatened by wolves and I understand the naturalists' thrill of sharing the wilderness with them--it sure made our trip extra meaningful. After growing up on Jack London wolf stories, I feel awfully alive laying here in the dark with wolves circling our camp... and awfully glad for the cold magnum steel under my pillow.