Jim’s Grand Teton National Park Backpacking Trip

For quite a while now, I've been telling my brother Jim that he should write about some of the cool and fun stuff he does. And now that he has a laptop computer, he's started! He wrote this story and made it into a little book for our grandmother for Christmas. When Sherree and I read it, we were very excited at how good it is. So, I asked Jim if we could make it available here for everybody to read.

If you've ever met Jim before, you know he's a good storyteller. This is well worth taking the time to read!

The Story

It all starts with a plan, and when the plan is to be in the wilderness for several days every detail must be worked out. Randy and I had wanted to hike the mountains of Grand Teton National Park for some time, and finally we had our itinerary set. We would start the hike by 9:00 AM and hike 7 miles to an area just below Paintbrush Divide. The climb over the divide and down to another camping area would take most of the second day, and the 9-mile hike out on the third day would have us home and in the hot tub by dark. Of course we left plenty of time for sleeping in, fishing and short scenic jaunts off the beaten path.

I was in charge of food, and he was in charge of transportation and backcountry camping permits. I am always caught by surprise by the massive amounts of food that a person can consume while hiking. Of course the real trick is not to bring extra food because of the additional weight. Thanks to the gracious Birthday gifts of Grammy and Aunt Linda, Uncle Barry and family, I had the money to buy high quality, lightweight food for the trip--we would eat like kings. I filled two grocery sacks with granola bars, GORP, a block of cheddar, a beef stick, bagels and several other scrumptious items. The dinners would consist of Backpackers Pantry meals that I had lying around for nearly three years. When I worked as a guide for my internship, we ate those meals whenever we were on the trail, perfectly awful but lightweight and easy to prepare. The real delight was in the desert that came with the meals, apple cobbler namely.

Repackaging the food for such a trek is a time-consuming endeavor. Any extra material like cardboard boxes or extra portions only adds weight and bulk. I carefully rationed everything out into piles, one for each meal of each day, and one last pile for the mound of snacks. The last item to prepare was trail mix, known by outdoor enthusiasts as GORP. This time it would be a mixture of assorted nuts, M & Ms, raisins, banana chips and peanut butter chips. The immense amount of protein and fat in a handful of my concoction would keep us going for an hour or two at a time, and perhaps most importantly help us conserve our valuable toilet paper.

The morning of our adventure started with a quick 25-minute drive to the trailhead and a few pictures before we finally started hiking around 9:30 AM. The trail followed an icy cold glacial lake at the foot of the Teton Mountain Range called String Lake. On the far side of the Lake the trail began to rise sharply with steep switchbacks up to the vee where two mountains met. From this point on we continued climbing a more gradual rise, all the while enjoying the sounds of a mountain stream rushing down the rocks to our left. The periodic view of huge waterfalls made for some great vistas, and resting points.

After several more hours of climbing I heard a strange grunting sound. My first thought was of Randy 10 paces behind me. It could have been his labored breathing, or perhaps he was clearing his sinuses with a snot rocket. I could not have been more wrong, after two more steps I heard Randy say my name just loud enough to hear in a low discreet voice. I turned toward him to see a look of horror and awe in his eye. His extended arm and index finger redirected my attention to a huge bull moose not 5 feet from where I stood. I froze and looked the mammoth beast in the eye. Overtaken with terror my breathing stopped as I came to terms with the situation. A person's first reaction might be to turn and run, evacuate the area with all the speed and endurance of a child running from a bully; this would be a dire choice to make. Still frozen in place my brain began to work, "lower your head and walk backward away from the potential threat" it told me. I slowly backed down the slope, all the while watching the moose for even the slightest muscle twitch, a tell tale sign of his intentions. He watched me move down toward Randy, who had his bear spray out and ready by now. Bear spray is basically a giant can of mace, which somewhat resembles a fire extinguisher. When the bull lowered his huge rack and resumed grazing on the lush underbrush, I knew I was in the clear. Moose are famous for being slow and stubborn, not easily threatened by the infrequent passerby. It is said that the only sporting way to hunt them is to walk through the woods unarmed until you spot one, then go back to the truck to get your gun and when you return the moose will probably still be there.

We took a few pictures of the bull and his female companion 10 yards behind him before we continued on to our campsite. Our backcountry permit allowed us to camp anywhere within the designated zone. It was only around 2 PM when we reached the camping area, so after a leisurely lunch of beef stick, cheddar and thick crackers we set out to find our spot. We left our packs behind in search of the ideal site. Level ground, shelter from wind, a readily available water source, and a branch to hang our bear bag were the criteria. We found a beautiful level area on top of a knoll. There were three small shallow ponds near where we would pitch our tent. Luckily there was a lake 1/2 mile away to satisfy my ever-burning desire to fish. Before I went to catch breakfast I waded into one of the warm mucky ponds to clean up and relax while Randy napped on his Therm-a-rest. It didn't take long for visions of lively trout tugging at my rod to overtake my desire to relax.

I brought along a collapsible spinning rod that I had borrowed from a friend and several shiny spinners to trick the wary mountain trout into biting. I descended into the basin where the crystal clear lake was nestled with steep cliffs on the other side. After 20 or 30 casts with nothing more than a few followers I was discouraged and hiked back up to camp to tell Randy of my poor luck. By this time it was only around 4 PM, but we decided to cook dinner anyway. While we were cooking, we found a dozen or more ladybugs crawling about on the blades of grass. A true fisherman's mind always has one question looming over him.

"Do trout eat ladybugs?" I asked Randy in an unsure voice.

"You have to think like a fish, Jim," Randy said with a smirk, "eat one and see what you think."

I promptly plucked a ladybug from the ground and popped it into my mouth; it crunched like a kernel of popcorn when I bit into it.

"Not bad," I told him, "but it could use a little salt." We collected a few of the colorful bugs and put them into a zip lock bag for after dinner. I know you might be thinking we were saving them for a midnight snack but that is why we brought the GORP. No, these bugs would be sacrificed to the fishing gods. When dinner was finished cooking, we enjoyed hefty portions of the Chili-Mac. It was one of those perfectly awful Backpacker's Pantry meals which could only be consumed when you're so hungry you would eat just about anything. The funny thing about Chili-Mac is that even though it is sealed in a plastic pouch, everything in the meal kit tastes a bit like it. Even the lemon lime flavored drink mix had a hint of Chili-Mac spice to it.

After cleaning up and rehanging the bear bag it was time to fish some more. I hiked once more down the steep basin trail to the water's edge. I clipped the leader of a small salmon egg hook onto my swivel and baited the hook with four ladybugs. I cast it into the depths of the lake and waited. I mentioned earlier that a true fisherman is always thinking of new ways to catch fish, and as I waited for the familiar tap-tap of a fish I realized who taught me this skill. Many years ago when my Grammy and Pop-pop were visiting my boyhood home in Connecticut we had macaroni and cheese for lunch. Pop-pop raised the question, Would mac and cheese work to catch fish? He rationalized his inquiry aloud, "It looks kind of like a grub, and tackle shops sell cheese flavored bait." Even at a young age I knew he was on to something, we went to the lake after lunch and low and behold, the pumpkin seeds nibbled.

Tap-tap. My rod bowed sharply as I set the hook on the unsuspecting trout. It wasn't more than 12 inches but on my ultra light tackle I was in for a short but satisfying fight. I yelled to Randy, who had come down to the lake shortly after I started fishing. He came running over to see what I had hooked into. Once I landed the fish Randy brought a stick over and shoved it through his gill slit to use as a makeshift stringer. That was the only fish I caught that day, but I threw it into one of the small pools of water near our site to have for breakfast.

We went to bed soon after returning to camp, it was still light out but Randy's watch read 8 PM. Fifteen hours of slumber later we awoke refreshed and ready to pack up for another day's hike. We were on the trail around noon--you thought I was kidding when I said we planned for a leisurely trip didn't you! On this day we would hike two or three miles to the divide, climb its steep switchbacks and descend the other side to another camping spot. It was supposed to be the most difficult and scenic portion of the hike. We were both in great shape, but neither of us was ready for what lie ahead.

The second leg of our trip put us behind a man who looked ill prepared for hiking. He was in his mid fifties, wore black sweat pants and a heavy wool sweater. On his back was a crude backpack, much like the type that I had in junior high to carry books to and from school. His outdated equipment told nothing of his fitness or hiking ability though. Randy and I are fast hikers, but it took us the better part of 2 miles before we closed the 200-yard gap between us. Only when he stopped to rest did we finally catch him, and that was when I realized I had underestimated his toughness. He was sitting on a boulder atop a steep incline with a huge bottle of V-8 in his hand. It is unheard of to drink something as heavy as V-8 while exerting so much energy. This man not only drank it, but held the intolerable concoction down, smiling contently after each gulp. He told us he had done this hike many years ago in a heavy Russian accent. According to him we were almost to the bottom of the divide.

We left the man to his disgusting drink and trudged on. Soon after that we came to a snowfield several hundred feet wide. Snow in mid September, with its icy crust caused by thawing and re-freezing of the top layer, can be treacherous even on level ground. The steep slope and several thousand-foot drop made my heart beat faster than before. My mind raced with visions of falling. With no ice axe or trekking poles a self-arrest would be impossible. I would tumble or slide thousands of feet; first down the snow then down the loose rock below until finally my limp lifeless body lie and wait for a helicopter to make the trip to the morgue. I came to the conclusion that there would be no safe course of action if one of us were to fall. My extreme caution coupled with sheer luck led me safely to the other side of the snow and ice. This was the perfect place to stop and regain my composure, maybe snack on a ladybug or two.

Soon after the snowfield we found ourselves looking up the wall of the divide. A divide is where two mountains meet, usually it is extremely steep and in this case only slightly lower in elevation than the peaks on either side. Several colorful specks littered the steep switchbacks as the trail snaked up the wall of loose rock, other climbers. As we climbed higher, the views became overwhelming. I found myself stopping frequently, not to rest but to look around at the gorgeous scenery of huge mountains, deep blue lakes, and cliff bands that surrounded me. If I hadn't dropped my camera in the river several weeks before I would have snapped picture after picture. Moving up the wall of the divide was more labor intense than anything I had done before, with the exception of rock climbing. Rock climbing is a workout on your entire body with a no rests and very little room for error. At least here I could lean on the uphill side of the wall and rest, but sitting was out of the question because of the narrow trail and other hikers going down. During one of my rest breaks I noticed two middle-aged women coming quickly up the trail behind me. With the grace and speed of gazelles they bound past me on their way to the top. They were at a half-run pace, with arms and legs swinging in unison as they climbed faster than anyone I've ever seen. Few words were exchanged between us as they moved elegantly up the trail.

"The views alone are enough to make a person stop and rest" one woman said.

I agreed and offered them a few ladybugs, I don't think they were grossed out, just not hungry enough to want to stop. After another seven or eight switchbacks I had finally reached the table top between peaks. Stuck into the ground was a wooden trail marker which read, "Paintbrush Divide El. 10,700." Randy was waiting for me at this spot with his camera out, ready to document the occasion.

After a well-deserved rest and snack we continued on over the vast tabletop to the other side of the divide. This was where we could really make good time. The slope and terrain were similar to the other side, so we knew we could get down quickly, but we still had to be cautious of the loose rock. I descended the wall with intense determination and speed. It is a time like this that really makes me feel athletic. I bounded down the divide with long paces, at times it felt like I was floating down the trail. My sharp reflexes allowed me to jump over obstacles in the trail mid-stride, all the while my mind was focused on the ground 3 feet in front of me. It's not like going uphill where you can look around for a moment as you step, if you stop concentrating on the ground below you even for a second you could step on a loose rock, trip, or stub a toe just in the time it takes to lift your head. I only stopped twice on the way down to wait for Randy, both times I was moving so quickly that I actually skidded to a stop. After only one short hour of speed descending we had reached the basin, and the gorgeous Lake Solitude. There was a rocky outcropping, which extended into the lake only a short distance from the main trail, the perfect spot to rest.

We relaxed and ate some food after freeing our tired feet from the confines of our tightly laced boots. Our rest time was spent snacking on granola bars and GORP while we sat in awe of the mountains surrounding us. Everywhere I looked was another peak with rugged cliffs and steep inclines. The lake was cobalt blue and choppy from the stiff winds that caressed its surface. No fishing was done at this lake; I was just too tired, and knew we wouldn't stay long enough to make it worth my while. When we were sufficiently rested, we packed up our lunch trash, re-laced our boots and where off on a 3-mile hike down to our site. It was only about 3 PM by this point, and we had plenty of fuel left in our systems to finish the day with strong strides.

The hike to our campsite was much easier than expected, due to a well-trodden path and a steady downhill slope. My one major gripe about the trip came at this point. All of the lands in Grand Teton National Park have prohibited mountain biking (Bummer!), riding horses however is encouraged (Really big bummer!). There are few things in life as disgusting as stepping or jumping from a short rock drop only to land in a pile of poop. Its thick consistency clogged the tread of my boots and made the next few hundred yards of travel very slick. I realize that trails need to be shared by all users, but why can't equestrians carry a giant Pooper-Scooper on their saddle. It's not like those people even have to carry any of their equipment, and I'm sure the horse would be happy to stop and wait while their mess was cleaned up.

A short distance before reaching our camping area we crossed a rushing mountain stream. It rolled noisily over the contour of rocks and land, and down into a small pool below an indestructible bridge constructed from railroad ties. As I walked across the bridge, I found I could look strait down into the pool, without the veil of glare, which commonly covers water. I could see down 10 or 15 feet clearly, with its rocky bottom marked by large boulders and yes trout. The fisherman's instinct kicked in when I spotted one 14-16 inches in length, my heart raced and I thought, "If only I had a spear or bow and arrow to take him for dinner."

Randy, however was on my heels, and anxious to move on, here I raised the question that would set the pace for the rest of our trip.

"It's still early, lets just hike out the last seven or eight miles," I said, "we could be back to town in time to go to Bubba's for wings."

Randy's eyes brightened and he spoke one word before soldiering on at a remarkable pace, "Wings!"

At this point I had forgotten about the trout I had seen in the pool, we were in for a test of our endurance and determination. We talked about stopping to rest when we reached our camping site and agreed to make the final decision there, but I already knew what my vote would be, barring any major catastrophe. The prospect of slimy, spicy buffalo wings beats ladybugs any day. Twenty minutes later we stood over a great looking site just downslope from the trail. We didn't go down though. Hiking back up would waste our valuable wing seeking energy. We stood for 15 or 20 seconds before agreeing that it was too early to stop anyway, and it was only a little after 4 PM.

After a few more miles of great scenery and a rigorous pace the entertainment began. We had descended down into the woods where tourists tried their hand at our sport. It's not that I dislike tourists, but in most cases they have no idea what dangers and rewards lay waiting to be discovered in the woods. The first hikers we saw were an obese man with his short overweight wife, both in their forties. The woman carried their backpack, no doubt filled with makeup, a case of Snickers bars and possibly water. The man swayed as he walked down the trail with a large cigar hanging from his hand. With their heavy breathing and the lingering stench of cigar it's no surprise we didn't see any wildlife in the area.

We passed the couple as we approached a trail sign, which denoted the distance to salvation. It read, "Philips Lake Ferry- 4 mi., String Lake Parking Area- 6.5 mi."

The ferry takes people, namely tourists across Philips Lake to the trail we were hiking about 2.5 miles from the trailhead. A lot of people take the ferry rather than hike that extra distance on account of time and fitness constraints. We didn't have the luxury of shaving those miles off our trip because Randy's van was parked at String Lake.

As we hiked on we soon realized we needed to stop for water, the trail closely followed a shallow gravel bottom stream so water was easily accessible. Randy unpacked his PUR water filter while I gathered the 3 Nalgene water bottles we had with us. It is very important to carefully unpack a water pump, and even get it set up away from the water. The water pollution in these glorious mountains is always a concern, mostly because of all the horse poop that washes into the streams and lakes. The two rubber hoses, one to suck up the water and the other to spit it into your bottle, cannot touch one another. You need to also be careful not to let the clean hose (the one that puts water in the bottle) touch any contaminated water.

As we soaked our boots to cool our feet and pumped our bottles full of fresh cold water a group of horses came to the stream to drink. They pranced in small circles at the hand of their riders, then gently lapped at the water as it rushed by. For a second I thought about ignoring my dislike for horses on account of their majestic beauty, this thought was quickly dismissed when one pooped right there next to the stream. The greenish sludge oozed out in a show of total disregard for the preservation of resources. People teach their dogs where not to poop, are horses that much less intelligent, my theory is that the riders are the ones lacking intelligence.

"Where's your Pooper-Scooper?" I called out in a sarcastic tone.

"Don't worry Jim," Randy said in a low, for all to hear voice, "it will wash into the stream with the next rainstorm."

I guess we must have hurt the horses' feelings because they all turned and left at that point.

We finished our bottle-filling chore and continued on down the now leveling trail. Not far down the trail there were two ladies sitting on a rock eating Saltines. As we passed one asked, "Why do you have such big backpacks?"

"Uh, because we're backpacking." Randy told them.

"Jeez, looks like you could live out here for days with all that stuff" The other lady said. I don't think they were being sarcastic either, must be their first time out of the big city. The next question they fired at us was a little more reasonable.

"What are those things on your legs?" She pointed to Randy's black gaiters.

"They're gaiters, they keep the stones and dirt from getting into my boots" Randy responded.

I personally am not a fan of gaiters, they are hot and tend to chafe the sensitive skin on my calves. They are a nylon flap that wraps around the calf with a thin strap that goes under your heel. They work excellently to keep snow out of your boot, but I prefer to wear long pants that cover the top of my boots when deep snow isn't an issue. Randy wears shorts to hike, so the gaiters also serve the purpose of protecting him from scratches caused by underbrush. The worst part about gaiters is how they trap the heat around your leg and foot. They cause massive amounts of calf sweat and reduce the ventilation to your foot.

As we came within a couple miles of the ferry landing, the trail was mobbed with people sauntering up the trail. Most of them wore sneakers and had binoculars or cameras slung around their necks. They stopped to take pictures of the trail, surrounding trees and travel companions. Too bad most of these people could never make the hike up to Lake Solitude where the real picture taking awaits.

When we finally reached the landing we were exhausted, it was about 6:30 at this point and we had covered around 10 miles. The effect of the milage was enhanced by the fact that we were carrying such heavy packs. My feet were aflame and my legs were wobbling with each metered step. The sheer momentum of the heavy load strapped behind me was the only thing that motivated my sloppy step, two and a half more miles to go. We stopped to rest our weary bodies just past the ferry landing, then continued in a determined pace to reach the car and our wings before our bodies could give up on us. The last stretch of trail carried us along a ridgeline that overlooked String Lake just before it runs into Phelps Lake. We saw 5 Mule Deer and only one other hiker on this last stretch of trail. It was quite a relief to be away from the mecca of day hikers around the ferry landing.

When we finally reached the parking lot my feet were as sore as they have ever been. Walking across the asphalt lot only served to add insult to injury. Asphalt has no give whatsoever; each step jarred my blistered feet and made me wince. We reached the van without incident and I immediately dropped my pack and unlaced my boots. I then stripped my sweat logged T-shirt off and rode the whole way home with no shirt and the window wide open. If I had been offered to have a single wish granted at that time it would have been to have a clean dry T-shirt. Mom has been known to make mention of the importance of carrying clean underwear in the car, should you be in an accident, she never said anything about a dry shirt.

In total we hiked nearly 20 miles in those two days, seven the first and 13.5 the second. We were hell bent on getting our hot wings, and we did. Randy dropped me off at home to shower and change, then we met at Bubba's to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

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Speaking of giant equestrian pooper scoopers, you may want to check out these sites:

A very big horse makes for very big poop and very big poop calls for a very big scoop.


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