CDT 2021: Day 106, between North Fork Lake and Valley Lake to Seneca Lake

One tribe y'all

Sunrise over North Fork Lake

The number of people living on our planet in 2021 is estimated to be 7.888 billion and is rapidly approaching 8 billion people. Yet with that many people in the world, a Columbia University professor of statistics says the average American knows only 600 people.

These numbers suggest it's not really a small world (after all). The possibility of meeting someone you already know at a random location far from home is highly unlikely.

Or so it would seem. When it comes to hiking, that assumption doesn't work. Many times I have run into someone I know in an unexpected spot on a trail. I've also seen this happen to many of my friends.

DateTuesday, July 27, 2021
WeatherPartly cloudy/smoke with temperatures from the mid-40s to mid-70s
Trail ConditionsRocky ups and downs, with a couple of steep climbs and a steep descent
Today's Miles17.2
Trip Miles1519.9

There's probably a reasonable explanation for this. Long-distance hikers are a tight-knit bunch. There aren't many of us, and we tend to congregate on the same trails. The more we hike, the more hikers we meet. Each new trail increases the chance of seeing someone we've known from a previous hike.

I didn't know anyone when I started hiking the AT. When I first met hikers on the PCT whom I knew on the AT, I was a little surprised. By the time I started hiking the CDT, it was happening more frequently. Even now, I still can't get over how many friends I've unexpectedly run into.

I've started to think thru-hikers are in a tribe that circles from one trail to another. If I keep hiking, maybe I'll eventually know all the other hikers.

Approaching North Fork Lake in Wind River Range

The day started in an ordinary fashion, with Top O' leaving a few minutes before me. We were both out of camp a little earlier than usual. I was hiking shortly after 6 a.m.

North Fork Lake was only about a mile from our campsite. This was where Top O' discovered yesterday the area was unappealing for a place to camp because it was thick with mosquitoes.

Paddles and Sprout ended up not going far after they passed our tents last night. They stopped before getting to the lake. I passed them this morning and said hello while they finished packing.

Crossing North Fork Boulder Creek

Several small streams flowed into North Fork Lake. The trail crossed most of them as it went around the north end of the lake. One stream to cross was wider and had many boulders in it. I spent a few minutes trying to find a route I thought I could rock hop across without getting my feet wet. The rocks were widely scattered, making it difficult to find ones spaced close enough to get all the way across.

I was only half successful in staying dry when I crossed. I slipped on a rock, but only one foot got wet. This was no big deal except for a slight insult to my pride. It didn't matter if my feet were wet because my shoes could dry quickly.

Sprout and Paddles walk by

Sprout and Paddles caught up and passed me before the trail had made a full bend around the lake.

Past where the trail dipped from our campsite to the lake, it began a steady climb. The next three miles would go up 1,000 feet to the top of Hat Pass, which was bigger than any climb we made yesterday.

August Lake

The route was lovely, and except for where rocks were strewn on the footpath, it was not difficult. It went past a couple more lakes and a few small ponds.

The first lake was called August Lake. The water was glassy smooth, which reflected a mirror image of the surrounding landscape. That included North Fork Peak, standing 11,175 feet tall and about 1.6 miles away.

The Fremont Trail in Wind River Range

With cool morning air and a mostly-smooth trail, I cruised along and enjoyed this section of the trail. It didn't hold spectacular views like those I passed earlier in the Winds, but it offered its own understated beauty. The land was haphazardly arranged with water, rocks, patches of grass, and clusters of pine and spruce trees.

The morning was a slow build-up to when the scenery would later become notably more stunning. The only thing I wished was different was the sky. A brown haze from the forest fires on the Montana/Idaho border still added a dirty cast to the scenery.

Climbing to Hat Pass

By 8:15 a.m. I was beginning the final approach to Hat Pass, which was the top of the three-mile climb. The trail was no longer smooth. Rocks were everywhere.

I'm unsure how the pass got its name, but it seems likely it was inspired by some explorer or cowboy who lost a hat to the wind while coming up this way.

Top O' was sitting at the top when I arrived. He told me Paddles and Sprout had just left.

We discovered cell service was available here, which was unexpected. We were still far from civilization. The signal wasn't strong, however, and the connection failed when I tried to call my wife Kim. I hadn't talked to her in several days and now would have to wait until tomorrow when I got to Pinedale.

A view seen while coming down from Hat Pass

The trail on the other side of the pass was smooth as it made a long and gradual descent. The top of Hat Pass was 10,800 feet above sea level. This was high enough that the low grasses and clusters of small trees made this section feel like being above the treeline.

A small stream flowing across Fremont Trail

Some of the surrounding mountains stood higher than the treeline. Like the mountains in the Cirque of the Towers, many of these were capped in solid granite. There was no place for vegetation to gain a foothold to grow.

The trail dropped 600 feet before making another climb. I was now heading to a pass next to Mount Baldy.

While walking on this five-mile stretch between passes, I met two men who were hiking with their sons. We happened to strike up a conversation, and as often is the case, one of us asked, "Where are you from?"

When they told me they were from Shipshewana, I did a double-take. "Wait a minute!" I said. "I met someone from Shipshewana while hiking in Colorado!"

I remembered meeting some hikers north of Tennessee Pass who told me they were from the same town. This seemed like an astonishing coincidence, but then one of the dads said something even more surprising.

"Oh yeah," he said, "that was my cousin."

It figured they were related. I used to live about 20 miles from that town in Indiana and knew it was tiny. Fewer than 850 people lived there. More people were hiking this trail than lived in Shipshewana.

I still have to wonder what the chances are of meeting hikers from the same small town who are also members of the same family in spots that are hundreds of miles apart. I'm not sure a mathematician could put a number on that.

A sign points in the direction of Cook Lakes

I reached the junction of Bell Lakes Trail at 11:25 a.m. Looking ahead, I could see the terrain would soon make some changes. There were many more mountains ahead. These were more angular and eroded. They looked as if the granite had been recklessly chiseled.

A stream near Mount Baldy Pass

The trail made three short but steep ascents and descents in a row as it approached the slope of Mount Baldy. I met a southbound backpacker on the second climb who told me Top O' was at a stream at the bottom of the next descent.

By the time I got there at 12:30 p.m., Top O' was gone. I must have just missed him.

I decided to not try to catch up to him. With a large boulder to sit on and a pleasant flow of clear water, this looked like an ideal spot to stay for lunch. I relaxed there for nearly an hour and watched a chipmunk as it tried to figure out how to get my lunch.

When I was about ready to leave, two men arrived with fishing poles. They told me they were brothers and were hoping to catch some trout. They wouldn't be able to do that if it weren't for a man named Finis Mitchell.

Mitchell worked for a railroad in Rock Springs until he was laid off during the Great Depression. He knew all about the Wind River Range because he lived on a ranch here as a child, so he moved his family to Big Sandy Opening and started a fishing camp.

The problem Mitchell found was that no fish swam in most of the streams in the Winds. Cascades and waterfalls posed too many obstacles for them to swim upstream. To grow his business, he began using mules to haul hatchery fingerlings in five-gallon milk jugs up to mountain lakes.

When the Wyoming Game and Fish Department learned of what he was doing, officials offered to supply him with fish. It's been estimated that Mitchell's stocking efforts resulted in 2.5 million fish being added to 314 area lakes.

Mitchell was eventually hired back on at the railroad and ended his fishing business. The state continues to stock the streams and lakes today, however. The Winds are now considered one of the finest regions in the Rocky Mountains for brook, golden, brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout.

A view of Angel Peak

After crossing Baldy Pass, the trail made another long descent. This one was a 900-foot drop in just under three miles.

To my right, there was no way to miss seeing a spectacular mountain. It looked like the crest of a giant wave of granite thrusting upward into the sky. This was Angel Peak, standing 12,402 feet above sea level with a 722-foot prominence.

I was now entering Bald Mountain Basin, another region of many lakes surrounded by towering, craggy mountains.

A view of Tommy Lake

Since yesterday when we left the Cirque of the Towers Alternate, Top O' and I have followed the CDT on the Fremont Trail. That trail ended at the bottom of the descent and the CDT began following the Highline Trail.

The Fremont Trail was named for John C. Frémont (or Fremont), who had an illustrious and often controversial career as a military officer, explorer, and politician. He traveled through the Winds as part of a surveying expedition during the summer of 1842. His team was guided by Kit Carson in a search for what eventually became the route of the Oregon Trail.

At the junction where I picked up the Highline Trail to continue north, I could have turned left to follow it west. It would have taken me to the Pole Creek Trail and then to the trailhead at Elkhart Park. Top O' and I opted instead to continue north and follow the Seneca Lake Trail to the trailhead.

The CDT, now also the Highline Trail, began another climb after the trail junction. I passed more lakes. The first was Peter Lake, which was followed by Tommy Lake. There was also a Don Lake nearby.

I wondered if Finis Mitchell had named these for family members. Except for a son-in-law, none of the names appeared in his obituary, but it was a reasonable thought. Mitchell named many of the mountains and lakes in the Winds.

Mitchell Peak is named after him. It stands in the Cirque of the Towers next to Jackass Pass. It was given that name while he was still alive, which required the U.S. Geological Survey to lift a ban on naming landforms after living humans. It is a fitting tribute to a man who cared deeply about this region and devoted much of his life to it.

Crossing Lester Pass

I stopped for water just before reaching the top of Lester Pass. By the time I got to the top, the time was 5:15 p.m.

The descent from there was initially steep, then gradually became less so. The views were outstanding, with jagged peaks rising all around. The sky was becoming cloudier, however, and the temperature was dropping.

Signs show the trail junction of the Highline and Seneca Lake trails

After another 1.6 miles from Lester Pass, I arrived where the CDT intersected with the Seneca Lake Trail. I knew this was where I needed to turn to go to the Elkhart Park trailhead. Just to be sure I didn't miss it, Top O' had drawn another arrow on the ground.

Little Seneca Lake

The trail went around the north end of Little Seneca Lake before turning southwest. This route was a farther distance to Pinedale but will be shorter when we leave town and return to the trail because we have already hiked four miles farther north on the CDT.

Another option for us would have been to take the Pole Creek Trail to the trailhead and return by way of the Seneca Lake Trail. That would mean skipping those four miles of the CDT.

We decided against that, even though we've taken other routes that trimmed miles. In those cases, we were trying to avoid blowdowns or burnt areas, or we were following a designated alternate route. Taking a shortcut here felt too much like cheating. Besides, we would have also missed some beautiful scenery.

Seneca Lake

The weather didn't remain cold and overcast for long. The clouds broke up a little by the time I reached Seneca Lake, and they allowed some sunlight to return.

The time was now past 6:30 p.m. I presumed Top O' would be looking for a place to camp or already found one by now. Where that would be, however, I had no idea. There was no place to pitch a tent next to the lake. I saw nothing but jagged rocks and boulders wherever I looked.

A reminder written in the dirt to get water

Then I discovered Top O' had written "Get water" in the dirt. I knew he was telling me a campsite was ahead and this was the best place to get water before I arrived there.

The trail passes the lake on a narrow ledge

There was still no place to camp that I could see after I collected my water. I wondered how much farther I would have to go.

The trail followed a narrow ledge almost at level with the lake, then began to climb. I didn't have to go much farther before finding Top O' at the top of a small bluff that overlooked the lake.

A Tarptent Aeon Li tent is pitched on a bluff above Seneca Lake

The campsite was one of the nicest ones we've had on the trail. The lake and mountains made a lovely backdrop. Better still, the exposed space allowed a breeze to blow over the bluff and keep away mosquitoes.

Two women were camped nearby, but they weren't close enough to talk to them.

A light rain began to fall at 10:15 p.m. The trail had been dusty today, and I hoped the rain would make it less dusty tomorrow. The rain stopped 15 minutes later, then returned at 1:40 a.m., and this time it was a little heavier.

I still smile when I think about the random and unlikely meeting I had today with those hikers from Indiana, and especially how one of them was the cousin of a hiker I met in Colorado.

That chance encounter also made me wonder how many interactions like that we fail to make. How many times were we just feet away from someone we knew but just missed? And what about those people we don't know? If we took a moment to talk, would we discover some kind of crazy link between us?

There seem to be many different ways people are connected, whether we recognize them or not. You've probably heard of six degrees of separation, the theory that everyone in the world is connected by fewer than six intermediaries.

The game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is an offshoot of that. If you've ever played it, you know some of the links between him and another randomly-selected person can be obscure.

The truth is, you don't have to get too far flung to find connections between hikers. I'm beginning to think the number of links between us is smaller than six. And each of us is joined together by a powerful unifier: the trails we hike.

I'm glad to be a part of this tribe.

One love, one blood, one people
One heart, one beat, we equal
Connected like the internet
United that's how we do
Let's break walls, so we see through
Let love and peace lead you
We could overcome the complication cause we need to
Help each other, make these changes
Brother, sister, rearrange this
The way I'm thinking that we can change this bad condition
Wait, use your mind and not your greed
Let's connect and then proceed
This is something I believe
We are one, we're all just people

One tribe y'all (oh-oh)
One tribe y'all (oh-oh)
One tribe y'all (woah-oh)
We are one people (oh-oh)
Let's catch amnesia, forget about all that evil (woah-oh)
Forget about all that evil, that evil that they feed ya (oh-oh)
Let's catch amnesia, forget about all that evil (woah-oh)
That evil that they feed ya (oh-oh)
Remember that we're one people (woah-oh)
We are one people (oh-oh)
One, one (one people)
One, one (one people)
One, one (one people)

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