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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

Return To Wind River

Updated: Mar 4

The overloaded pack creaks and groans in rhythm with the boots. One foot in front of the other. 12 miles behind us and just under two to go. Despite the training, I'm spent. Sitting for a minute we remove our packs, catch our breath and rehydrate before pushing on.

Making the final ascent, the lake comes into view. It's as beautiful as I remembered. The look on my son's face says it all. He gets it. Every mile was worth it.

Blake had been asking to go on a backpacking trip with me for years and this adventure was nearly 12 months in the planning, retracing a route traveled five years ago with a buddy. But this time would be a father-and-son trip with my youngest before he embarks on his final year of high school. In all we covered 45 up-and-down miles in four days, exploring Wyoming's rugged backcountry. Beyond the epic scenery and the fishing, this was a brief moment to remove life's distractions and spend time together, building memories and sharing in a mutual accomplishment.

I'm eager to drop the pack and ditch the boots, unbuckling and unlacing before we even come to a stop. A flat area with 360-degree views provides the perfect place to pitch the tent, unload gear and grab the fly rods. There's just enough daylight left to get some fishing in and we intend to make the most of it.

There's a spot I know a mile or so from camp and I'm anxious to see if it still produces.

We land a couple. Satisfied and thoroughly exhausted we stumble back for a quick dinner before sacking out for the night. As if on cue, the sun paints the mountains gold, then amber then burnt orange and finally pink before bidding goodnight in dramatic fashion to our first day.

Sore bodies make for restless sleep, but we're up with the warming sun. Finishing a hasty breakfast the fishing gear is gathered for the day's outing. Today we're exploring four miles of new contours and blue lines on the topo and the expectations are high.

The map shows the lake feeds out into a river system feeding another smaller lake and another and another. We head out, finding runs brimming with small waterfalls, bubbling riffles and deep pockets. It all looks fishy and it is.

We spread out, working different runs and holes with dry flies and small streamers, catching our fill of bright, hard-fighting cutties and bows. Each returned with a splashy farewell. After working down about four miles, we turn and fish our way back up. Despite the bright day and clear water we manage to land a few dozen fish.

As we near the top of the outlet the weather takes a mountain turn and for a short window we are pelted with heavy drops of sleety rain. Junior lets out a sharp holler and I can see he's into something a little more serious. Rushing over with the net I make the scoop and pull up one of the most beautiful cuththroat trout I have ever seen. Dark with brilliant red cheeks. He's beaming. I'm beside myself with excitement. Released back to his watery abode, we exchange high fives. I can't wipe the smile off my face.

If there was ever a sign to call it a day, that was it. With another adventure in the books too quickly, we head back for a simple meal and a game of cards.

Sunburned and satisfied we lay our plans for tomorrow's outing. Too tired to finish our game, we call it a draw and switch off the lantern.

It dawns clear and bright again. We take our morning coffee under a cloudless sky, fueling for the day. We have four miles into the basin and then four miles back.

Today's trek promises some of the most spectacular scenery and, if luck holds, a repeat of yesterday's fishing. The morning hike starts cool and comfortable and we make good time. Wildflowers line the path, painting the harsh landscape with cheerful yellows, reds, and, purples. A juxtaposition only nature could write with a straight face.

A deep pool right before a waterfall feeding a lower lake gives us our first glimpse at fish. They are large and actively feeding but very spooky. We work them for a long time, but never close the deal. It foreshadows the rest of the day.

We soak in the breathtaking scenery under a warm and completely blank sky and lick our wounds from being bested by the fish before turning back to retrace our route.

We take one detour on the way back opting to fish the base of a giant waterfall across the lake from our site, hoping at one last chance to change our outcome. But our fate has been sealed and we trudge back to camp tired, happy and completely fish-less for the day.

We take our time the next morning as we prepare to hike out, knowing we've budgeted two days for the travel if needed. After breakfast we slowly pack up and get back on the trail, retracing day one in reverse order. We have nearly 13 miles in front of us.

We're tired but making good time on the pack out so we decide to push all the way, covering the 13-mile trek in 6 hours. At the trailhead we offload the packs, celebrate the accomplishment, and reminisce on the last four days.

We manage to find a hotel with an available room and we relish the warm showers and fresh clothes before heading into town for pizza. I smile as Blake talks about his plans to return with his buddies and hit a few of the lakes that still remain on our list. I'm glad for the time together and even more so that his thirst for adventure has been primed.

Because of the early push out we now have the entire day to fish and explore our way back to Jackson. After a somewhat questionable hotel-breakfast we swing by the local fly shop to verify our plans and dig up any intel they are willing to offer.

We get some inside information on small water way up in the National Forest. We hit the road re-armed with small streamers, Yellow Sallies and grasshoppers and we find eager native cutthroat in every run.

After catching our fill, we're back on the road and wadered up for some bigger water where we find more fish willing to cooperate. It seems the curse has been broken.

We eventually make our way into town. It's busy and the adjustment is a bit jarring. After quick showers at the hotel we head downtown for burgers. The sun is starting to set, so we finish up and drive out to a pull-off to watch the day come to a close over the mighty Tetons.

Our flight is early. Boarding the plane the next morning, I can't believe how quickly a week can go. I stop, take one last picture, and relish the view. Looking over at Blake I catch a rare smile. And then I know, at that very moment, we are both planning our return to Wind River.

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