Saturday, October 3, 2015

Going off trail in Big Sheep country

I used to do a lot of off trail hiking. In the Florida swamp, we often climbed trees to figure out where we were, since it was pancake flat and everything looked the same. In Alaska, we carried aerial photos to find our way in a place with no trails. (If you have ever navigated by aerial photo, you get it. It's not easy!) And as a wilderness ranger I went off trail all the time, following drainages and climbing over saddles to get to hidden lakes. I got pretty good at the off trail stuff.

But one thing I'm just not good at is getting through dense downfall. Some people, like J, are graceful at climbing over downed trees and navigating through snarled thickets. I trailed along in his wake on an exploratory adventure, feeling like an elephant crashing through the woods.

His idea of a good time is finding a long-gone ghost trail on an ancient map and trying to follow it. I had some misgivings, based on past adventures, but in the end I put pants in my day pack (because sometimes, you just have to wear them when the brush gets thick) and hoped for the best. We were heading up the South Fork of Big Sheep, where a trail once went into the basin. For the first two miles we could find the trail pretty well, but after that it vanished in a wet meadow. An elk bugled somewhere near us. There was nobody in sight.

I felt a little grumpy, always a sign I need food. After eating, my enthusiasm came back. We decided to climb to the top of the ridge and see if there was a way to descend to the Tenderfoot Trail. I've only been on Mount Nebo once, and if there is a wild heart to this wilderness, this place is it. Rarely traveled, it is a place of magic.


We negotiated the talus, finding game trails to take us to the top. I learned long ago: follow the deer trails. They pick the easiest way to go.


"Foot prints!" J said in disgust as we descended toward the Tenderfoot trail. Still, we didn't see anyone until our last hour of hiking. A hunter lay out in a meadow, napping in the sun. I'm not fond of the out of county assault that begins in the fall, but it was nice to see someone appreciating the warmth of the October sun like we were.

We came to the parking lot to find several pickups, hunters for sure. Yet we had only seen one person all day. You can spread out here. That's one reason I like it.

I don't go off trail alone that much anymore, not because I'm not capable, but because it's better with someone else to help unravel the puzzle. I was remembering all of my off trail adventures when I noticed J racing down the road to the car. "There's BEER in the car!" he said. I didn't care about the beer, but there were chips in the car! I picked up my pace. It had been a good day.

Do you hike off trail?

11 comments:

  1. Beautiful photos of a lovely place...sounds as if it was a lovely day in the backcountry together. Hoping for more sunny October days, here and where you are.

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    1. Me too, I hate it when it's nice during the week!

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  2. Haha! I totally get it. We were recently given an aerial photo as a guide to our assignment during a search and rescue mission. We were told to search a trail that appeared on the photo. Turns out the photo was taken who knows when and the trail no longer exists, it's been taken over by forest. Our entire mission was spent trying to find the trail so we could search it for the missing person.

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    1. Yes, the old aerial photos...Hmm, I think this might be that muskeg..or maybe not...We did a lot of compass work as well, a dying art.

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  3. I don't usually go off-trail (not on purpose anyway) But I'm with you, I love a good salty bag of kettle chips after a long hike. :)

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    1. Yes! It's the salt. In our desert hike last spring, I didn't even want chocolate! Which is unusual. I just wanted chips.

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  4. As a matter of fact a few years ago we hiked into McCully basin( a beautiful quiet little basin that you would love if you've never been there) and I off trailed it to the ridge line above the basin and looked down into Big Sheep. Awesome views from the top and I was so taken by it that the very next weekend we hiked into Big Sheep and stayed for a couple of days exploring the basin following a lot of game trails. Saw only one person the whole time, a women who was camped on a ridge line across from us all by herself. Never did talk with her, now I wish I would have, for all I know Mary it might have been you.....

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    1. McCully is great! Yes I have hiked through that Big Sheep basin as well but never camped there, so it was not me. I have camped on the other side, in the Bonny Lakes drainage,but not up there. I should though (not in hunting season though)

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  5. All of my early backpacking trips were off trail in Alaska. . I've never navigated by aerial photo, but compass and topo map. Travel was tedious, if we made it five miles in a day, that was a very good day for us.

    I went on a hike yesterday where I wished for pants instead of shorts. Now the fronts of my legs are crisscrossed with slash marks from climbing through alder.

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    1. You started off the right way then! I cringe when I see new backpackers using Gaia. I mean, whatever works, but everyone should know how to use a compass and a map. Batteries can die.

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  6. I love that J goes bushwhacking for fun. I can't stand bushwhacking. Long stretches of it make me grumpy as hell. I had a mountaineer friend in Juneau who I credit with teaching me the basics of navigating mountain terrain, but he used to drag me on some horrific Devil's Club immersions.

    I also dislike map navigation. I'm self taught but I've become adept enough at it. I had to do 1,500 miles across South Africa — occasionally off-trail, in a country where trails are mostly unofficial and road signs are a rarity — on map and compass navigation alone. I found it so limiting — much more difficult to travel at night or amid low cloud ceilings, always having to stop and re-orient, operating under constant uncertainty, so many wrong turns and second-guessing and backtracking. Not for me. I'm so pro-GPS that I've been known to carry two Garmin eTrex units just in case one breaks. On backcountry trips I usually have a map with me as well, because GPS works so much better within context of a larger map. And it tells me exactly where I am!

    Batteries can die ... but they can also be replaced. :)

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