CHAPTER 32a: Of Ground Squirrels, Mountains, Mama Moose and Brook Trout – Part 2
In the morning we rolled our sleeping bags, tied them to our backpacks, made a quick breakfast of peanut butter sandwiches and boiled coffee and started up the mountain. It was a long, hot trek. We were climbing a mountain while carrying fifty-pound backpacks through a forest of Subalpine Fir and Lodgepole Pine. No air moved through those densely packed branches, but the heat found its way in as we passed midday. We walked an established trail, but it was evident it was a seldom-used trail. Weeds and grass grew in the walkway when we emerged into the infrequent meadows, and small evergreens occasionally found their way into the soil of the trail as we walked through the forests. Long trek, uphill trek, hot trek, bo-o-oring trek.
Eventually we left the trees behind, except for small scrub, and a few scattered Subalpines in sheltered areas. We had reached the elevation where only the hardiest of plants grew. Another hour’s walk and the trail dipped back into the forest and wound along beside a quiet stream. Bob found a camping spot he’d used before, and we began to set up camp... and it began to rain, a steady drizzle that soon would have soaked everything we’d brought, except that I grabbed a poncho and spread it over our backpacks. We each took another one and went looking for our trees and a sapling. It didn’t take long to find one that would suit. We cut a small fir and lashed it to two larger trees at about four and a half feet above the ground. Later, when we laid the two ponchos across the line, we had about three feet of overhang. Two more saplings cut and sharpened, and pounded into the ground with the entrenching tool, and we had an overhang roof.
We spent much of the rest of the afternoon gathering firewood. I also found a couple of trees bacteria had reduced to “punk,” a pile of the indigestible lignin that remained after the bacteria were through. The top couple of inches were soaked, but below that all was dry. I had tinder.
We built a stone wall about six feet from the front of our tent, and laid the fire in front of that. There were enough rocks around that it wasn’t hard to find a dry one to strike matches on. The waxed Blue Tips worked perfectly, giving a strong hot flame to burn through what little moisture was in my tinder. It wasn’t long before we had a hot fire. More boiled coffee and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner, and we set up a fire watch in two-hour sets. Bob took the spare poncho and went on a firewood gather, piling wet pine branches and roots at the ends of our reflective stone firewall. Andy and I turned in. Bob took first watch. He settled himself, sitting cross-legged on his sleeping bag and lit a smoke. I turned over and went to sleep.
Some time before dawn I woke up. I pulled myself half out of the Army surplus mummy bag and sat up. I looked over at Bob, who had obviously fallen asleep soon after I had, and shook my head. It was cold, but the rain had stopped, and I looked through the trees between me and the fire. Although it had burned to coals, I didn’t think it would be hard to rebuild... trees? Between me and the fire? What trees... and why had one just moved?
The moose lowered her head and peered under the ponchos. I heard a gasp from Andy. Without moving I shushed him, and we waited until the cow moose ambled on through the path between our lean-to and the fire. There was no calf, which had been my greatest worry. She might have been much more aggressive had she been protecting a calf. Moose are not tolerant of anyone near their young. I got out of my mummy bag and began rebuilding the fire. Bob woke up, looked at his watch, said, “Huh!” and shucked out of the poncho. He slid into his sleeping bag and was snoring before I had the fire restarted.
I told Andy to go back to bed and finished rebuilding the fire. As it flared up, I lit a smoke and walked over to a clearing next to a small creek. The moon was out and I could see small trout in the creek. I went back and grabbed the poncho Bob had been using and took it over to the side of a meander that had an overhang. I laid down on the poncho and stuck my hand into the creek, gasping at the cold. But cold or not, I just let my cupped hand dangle under the overhang. I had a hunch... a good one as it turned out. Before long a fish swam into the curl of my fingers. I made no attempt to grab it. I simply kept my fingers curled and yanked my hand out of the water. A nine-inch Brookie appeared in the grass in front of me. I flipped it away from the creek’s edge and put my hand back in the water.
As the sky lightened, I fried a pair of bacon slices and laid four small Brookies coated with a mixture of flour, cornmeal salt and pepper between them. As soon as the Brookies were done, I laid them on white bread to absorb the excess grease, and dropped four more into the grease. For the next fifteen minutes, I fried Brook Trout in bacon grease while the coffee came to a boil. Once it had, I gave it two minutes and pulled the cups off the fire. Breakfast was a revelation. I’d never eaten Brook Trout before, and I didn’t know it was as sweet as if it had been sugared. It was a marvelous discovery to make.
We cleaned up, doused the fire, collected our fishing gear and headed for the nearest mountain lake. It was a two-mile hike, the last quarter mile across a rockfall that neither looked nor felt stable... and smelled of cat. We never saw one the three days we made the trek, but there had been one living there recently... and I worried about that.
When we got to the lake, there were more difficulties. There was not one inch of flat space all the way around it. We stood on ground that sloped upward behind us and downward to the water before us, and hoped not to trip and fall into the freezing water. Nonetheless we caught trout. There wasn’t a fish over fourteen inches, and each one weighed about a pound, but each day we walked back to camp with a dozen pounds of fish.
At the end of our adventure we would have killed for a vegetable, any vegetable. Well, mebbe not okra. Still, a steady diet of Brook Trout coated with cornmeal and fried in bacon grease had worn out its welcome. Bob had brought three baking potatoes, but there was no way to effectively temper the fire, so the skin was charcoaled while the center was still a tad crunchy. And bacon grease is a lousy substitute for sour cream or butter.
The trip back was faster, but walking downhill with fifty pounds on one’s back poses its own dangers. Aside from the top-heaviness issue, walking downhill produces blisters and shin splints. Andy and I were OK, but Bob habitually wore cowboy boots. When we got to the car his feet were in sad shape and he said his shins felt as if the flesh had been peeled off. We put him in the back seat and headed for Logan, eight hours away. When we got there (he refused to go to any local hospital in any place we passed through), I’d had enough. I drove straight to the hospital and handed him over to the ER staff. When I picked him up he was in serious trouble, but he would not stay at the hospital.
Classes began a week later, and Bob hobbled through the first two or three weeks... and not in cowboy boots. Oh, he wore boots... heavy, soft fabric boots with wool inserts and foam padding. He told me one day he was almost ashamed to wear the Stetson while he had those boots on. But one day he showed up in his cowboy boots, walking gingerly to be sure, but... Bob was back.
We talked about another trip, but I couldn’t see doing that and leaving my new bride alone for four days, and Bob was obviously uncomfortable with the idea. After much prodding, he finally admitted that he’d meant to have a pair of sneakers on our trip, but he’d forgotten them. He didn’t think he could face that walk back again, no matter what he wore. I never went back either.