Gros Ventre Wilderness

Why I hate Wildflowers: Backpacking the Gros Ventre Wilderness Aug. 2017

The black cone of a petal-less flower smacked me in the face, again.  I felt the sharp spikes of yet another little burr digging into my thigh, my pants seemingly velcro-ed tightly around my ankles.  The two men stopped short in front of me.  Our game trail had come to an abrupt dead-end.  We scanned the hillsides, searching for signs of any other way through the thick vegetation.  But we couldn’t make out any trails, human- or animal-created, because the damned flowers were so tall.


It was the seventh day of an eight-day backpacking trip through the remote Gros Ventre Wilderness area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It was August of 2017 and we had chosen this park because of the coming eclipse – we would be right under its path. Each day thus far had been difficult for me, no doubt about that.

I had struggled with plantar facilities for the two months preceding the trip which meant almost no training to prepare me for the grueling changes in elevation each day.  The altitude, which always gives me trouble, had given me more trouble than usual and I had been suffering from high-altitude bronchitis (which scared away every possible animal we could have seen).

But the beauty surrounding us was more than enough to help me forget my woes.  Wyoming is a land of extreme and rugged gorgeousness.  The granite-clad, rugged peaks of the Tetons combine sublimely with the red-hued sedimentary mountains and plateaus and green meadows surrounding them.  Water erupts from the land in springs the size of small rivers, causing waterfalls to spontaneously appear mid-way up otherwise dry mountain slopes.

The company was superb, too.  I was backpacking with two brothers I had previously met and bonded with on the John Muir Trail in 2015.  Dave and Steve have been backpacking together for 12 years and were kind enough to invite me on one of their annual trips.  The trip was designed around the complete solar eclipse we were lucky enough to experience.  In fact, we had watched the spectacle in awe from the shores of remote, hard-won Brewster Lake just a few days earlier.

Despite my coughing fits, a bout of diarrhea and the strenuousness of the trip, I had been completely thrilled, up to this point.


Today was not a good day.  Like most backpacking days, it started out quite nicely.  We had awoken at Turquoise Lake and had a quick, hot breakfast before packing up and heading out.  Turquoise Lake had been a scenic place to watch the sun set the night before, and it was just as lovely in the morning sun.

Turquoise Lake Wyoming
Not-so-turquiose Turquoise Lake before the rain started.

But almost as soon as we headed out for our second-to-last day on the trail, it started to pour.  We donned our rain gear and braced ourselves against the wind and driving rain as we headed up and over our next pass.  The rain came and went, came and went, frustrating us as we struggled to don and doff our wet rain jackets, never sure if we should just leave them on or take them off for good and suffer the wetness.

Rain is always a part of backpacking, but I’ll never embrace it.  I just suffer through it and try to smile anyways.

In relatively quick time, we made it to the start of the main feature for the next two days: a mainly trail-less traverse across miles and miles of wildflower-covered, steep mountainsides.  There were few trees here, mainly due to constant avalanche activity in the winter.  Instead the mountains were covered with glorious blankets of flowers of every kind imaginable.  We were hiking at the tail end of summer, so many of the prime flowers had begun to wither, often times leaving just a tall, thick stem and a cone.  There was still an impressive variety of blooming flowers on display, too.  Picking our way across hillsides of flowers sounded sublime.  Until we got into the thick of it.

These were Jurassic flowers that reached the height of my head!  At 5’6” tall, I’m not a short woman.  These flowers routinely smacked me in the face as we literally bushwhacked our way through them!

That was the first annoying thing – the face smacking.  Dave and Steve are both tall men.  They could see over the tops of the flowers.  But as they pushed and forced their way forward, I would inevitably get smacked in the face by the thick, heavy cones from the middle of the flowers.

Both Dave and Steve wore shorts – smart and perhaps not smart.  I wore pants.  The second annoying thing was the never ending supply of burrs that liked to stick to my pant legs.  Dave and Steve did not have the burr problem, per se.  They did, however, experience some extreme leg “exfoliation” from them!  My pant legs were so covered in burrs that the material folded and twisted over and stuck to itself, secured in place with nature’s velcro.

Wyoming Wildflowers
These two men are at least 6 ft tall! This is the only photo of the “bushwhacking” and this is before it got steep and terrible.

The first break we took, I spent 20 minutes picking burrs off my pants.  That was stupid as I picked up a whole new batch as soon as we started walking again.  From that point on, I left the burrs in place until we made camp, many hours later.

The third annoying thing was the lack of a trail.  Our guide book told us to simply contour along the mountain sides at about the 9,000 ft mark.  OK – easy enough, right? No.  Not easy.

If you didn’t walk on a game path (and sometimes even when you did) the angle of the hillside was so steep as to quickly make walking uncomfortable.  Your ankles are not meant to bend at an extreme angle for hours on end.  A game path was a tiny bit better, if we could find one that lasted more than a few hundred feet.  Once we lost a path, we tried to find another, headed both up and down the steep hillsides in search of something to help ease the level of difficulty.

On one such venture down to a possible path, another storm struck.  This one complete with lightning.  We took cover near a small stream and lonely section of trees, hoping the lighting didn’t decide to hit a tree we were sitting under.  Dave and Steve consulted a topo map, seeking a path either above or below us.  I filtered water and proceeded to pull burrs off my pants, well aware of the futility of my efforts.  I hoped the day would be over soon, but knew there were still hours of trudging through the flower jungle ahead of us.

We decided to go up to seek a possible trail subtly shown on the map.  Up, up, up we went.  Straight up with no path cut ahead of us and no way to check the uneven ground hiding beneath the flowers.  Stumbling was common and I was thankful for my trekking poles.

We found a trail! And it looked semi-legit.  A quarter mile or so later, it was gone.  Easy come, easy go.  We came to a stream that had carved out a decent little trough through the fields of flowers.  Without a trail, we had to push our way through tall brush to get to the bank and then pick our way across.  As I stepped from the edge of the creek  down to a large boulder, my foot slipped and down I went.  First I fell sideways onto a rock, then rolled slowly, almost gracefully, right into the water, my heavy pack dictated my descent into the stream.  As I lay momentarily stunned and embarrassed, I began to curse the day.

It was slow going, bushwhacking our way through mile after mile of tall flowers and burr-filled plants.  As the end of the day neared, I knew there were only a couple of options on the steep hillside for flat camping.  Our book made mention of them, but without trails or signs, they were hard to find.  Every tree-filled spot we came to got my hopes up.  Was this a camping spot amongst the trees?  We couldn’t seem to find the first camping area the book mentioned.

Another concern was that one brother wanted to stop the first chance we got, the other want to push ahead and make more miles.  I could have killed that brother (who shall remain nameless).  I argued that it was our second-to-last day so and it didn’t matter if the next day consisted of 5 miles or 8 miles.  Either way, tomorrow we would be back at the truck and headed to Jackson Hole for beers and dinner.  Today, however, was tiring and miserable and I wanted to be done NOW.  Not three miles from now.

We finally came upon a clearing in some trees.  Clearly this was a camping area!  A beautiful oasis from my point of view – it was perfect.  Sure, the ground was soaking wet from recent rains and there was no stream or other water source nearby.  But it was level, large and had gorgeous views.  I dropped my heavy pack on the ground and got ready to setup camp.  But then, shockingly, I was out-voted.  Both Dave and Steve agreed that the campsite sucked and that we needed to press on.  I was flabbergasted and nearly in tears, but respected our democratic process and hoisted my pack back onto my shoulders, resigning myself to another couple of miles of wildflower hell.

When we finally did find our true campsite, it was quite lovely. Underground springs welled up, creating streams out of nowhere.  I was thrilled to finally setup camp and relax around a fire.  It took over an hour, but I got all of the burrs off my pants (but had to do it all over again after venturing out to find a private bathroom spot across what I mistakenly thought was a burr-free meadow).

As I lay in my tent that night, slowly drifting off to sleep, I felt a moment of panic as I thought about another flower-filled day tomorrow.  At least it was our last….

We awoke with the sun and make breakfast on the trail for the last time.  I was saddened that our trip was ending, but thrilled that the wildflower forest would be behind us soon enough. A local Wyoming IPA was calling my name!  We had about five miles left to hike, so I prepared myself for the distinct possibility that all five miles would be miserable.

I was pleasantly surprised when we quickly picked up a real trail!  We were now close enough to the trailhead that day hikers were a more common occurrence and the trail was more distinct.  We ran into our first two hikers within minutes of leaving camp and they assured us the trail would not disappear on us anymore.  We felt compelled to warn them of what lie ahead for them.

Another blessing? The height of the wildflowers dropped drastically.  Suddenly, they were knee-high instead of head-high.  Suddenly, they were beautiful again.  The burs magically disappeared, too.  And the hikers were right – the trail was obvious and easy to follow all the way back to the trailhead and our truck.  It was a blissful, gorgeous final day with no clouds, no rain, no burrs and very few flowers.

Gros Ventres Wilderness
FINALLY! The flowers are back to normal height as we ended our last day.

I finished my 85-mile trek through Wyoming in late August of 2017.  I look back on almost all aspects of the trip fondly.  For me, backpacking struggles, trials and tribulations always seem less painful after the fact and the beauty I witness on the trail each moment of each day drowns out any small amount of negativity I felt at the time.

Not so for this trip – that particular day will always be horrible in my memories.  When I think back to that day of crazy traverses across, up and down the mountain sides, bushwhacking our way through a jungle of tall wildflowers over steep and uneven terrain, I don’t have any fond memories at all.  I never thought any human could dislike wildflowers.  But I do.  I don’t like any wildflowers that are over knee-high.  I don’t like them at all!

Even the tiniest of flowers can have the toughest roots. – Shannon Mullen

Stopping for a poo break in the Boundary Waters of MN

Everybody Poops: Digestion in the Outdoors

In my last post I discussed making your own backpacking food, so it makes logical sense to post about what to do with that food when it comes out!

If you are going to backpack, you’ll need to get over any squeamishness you may have about bodily functions.  They happen and they are hard to hide on the trail.  There are definite, clear-cut rules regarding how the process of elimination should be handled, and then there are personal choices.  I’ll try to cover both.

Peeing is pretty simple, especially if you are male.  There are things to consider, however, regardless of your genitalia.  You should never pee near a water source. Although specific park rules and regulations may vary somewhat, be sure you are at least 200 ft. (about 70 adult steps) away from any water source when you pee.  This protects the water and the organisms and animals that live in it.  Remember – you filter or treat water to drink and you don’t want people peeing in your drinking water!  So don’t pee in someone else’s.  By the way, the 200-foot rule also applies to poop (and bathing and washing dishes or clothes).


Women and peeing

There is much discussion as to how this is best handled.  Most women remove their packs, find something to hide behind, pop-a-squat and let loose.  Me? I rarely take my pack off because I want the extra challenge of doing the squat (and standing back up) with my heavy pack on. Or perhaps I’m just lazy.

Some brave women use a device designed to let a woman pee like a man.  That is: standing up and through the fly.  There are a surprising number of products on the market to make this happen, and women who use them debate as to which is better. I tried the pStyle, and it was not pretty.

I tried. But I failed to pee with this without embarrassing (hilarious) results!

 

Like the box recommended, I first tried it in the safety of my own home. Easy enough.  No problem.  I peed standing up and it all went into the toilet!  I was an expert after just one try …

… or so I thought.  On day 2 of my John Muir Trail trip, I was hiking with two male strangers quite a bit older than myself.  I had to pee really badly, but we kept meandering through open meadows with nowhere to hide.  So I finally used my pStyle.  I ducked behind a skinny tree for some semblance of privacy, unzipped my fly and attempted to replicate my one use of the device at home.

Things seemed to be going OK for about 4 seconds.  Pee was funneling down the pStyle like it was supposed to.  Suddenly, I felt that signature, unwelcome warmth down both legs.  Uh oh! I had only been getting some of my pee into the pStyle!  The rest was flowing down my legs.  Flowing.  Did I mention both legs?  My hiking pants were soaked.  My legs were wet.  I stopped, mid-stream, and resorted back to the tried-and-true squat to finish, no longer caring if my new friends saw me peeing.

Then I did what any self-respecting woman stuck in the wilderness with two strange men would do: I stepped out from behind my tree and announced that I had pissed all over myself.  Oddly enough, they seemed unfazed and we continued on our way. I washed my pants that night and ditched the pStyle in a trash can at Tuolumne Meadows.  I wasn’t going to carry that extra couple of ounces all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney!  I don’t blame the pStyle, and neither should you.  Practice, practice, practice.

My terrible sister catches a photo of me doing the deed.

Wiping is another issue women must decide on.  Some women do a little post-pee ‘twerking’ move to drip off as much as they can, and that’s it.  Others carry a pee rag.  Yes, a pee rag.  This is actually what I do.  Liteload makes these nifty 12″x12″ compressed towels that open up and expand with water. They’re disposable, but durable.  I wet one slightly to decompress it and use it throughout the day to lightly dab myself.  Some women hang their pee rag on their packs to let the UV rays kill the germs and keep it sanitized (which is a legit method but is just a little too “in your face” for me).  I just fold my pee rag in on itself after each use and keep it in my pocket.  I wash it at the end of each day.  On longer trips, I break open a new Liteload towel every few days.

 


Pooping, for both sexes, gets a tad more complicated.  You can’t hide the fact that you are going to poop. Go ahead and try, and good luck to you.  You know what’s up when you see a fellow backpacker wander off into the woods, alone, with a bag of “supplies”.  They are going to poop and everyone knows it.  So get over any worries about privacy real fast.  It ain’t gonna happen.

Pooping in the wilderness is a joy.  Haven’t done it?  Just wait – you’ll see.  The views are frequently incredible and the birds chirping while you squat and do the deed make it sublime.  In case you didn’t know (and why would you?), science says that squatting to poop creates a better, more nature angle in your colon, making elimination easier and more “complete” (Be sure to watch this Squatty Potty commercial for proof!).  Also, your entire digestive system is working like a champ because of all that walking and healthy food (assuming you made it yourself).

My husband is a meanie!

All poop must be buried and you’ll need a tool for digging the hole.  Some people use thick sticks, but what if none are available?  Instead of buying a special pooping shovel (called a “cat trowel” or “cat-hole trowel”), just buy a tent stake designed for snow camping.  They are super lightweight, incredibly cheap and take up very little space. Plus, they just work well.

 

Make sure you dig the hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep.  Make it deeper or wider as needed (only you know how big your hole needs to be).  Your waste should be truly buried when you are done.  In most places, your hole must also be big enough to accommodate your toilet paper, so keep that in mind when digging.

In some wilderness areas, TP must be packed out.  No burying it.  There are several reasons why, but it’s important enough that I pack out my TP on ALL trips, even if it isn’t required, because it’s just the right thing to do.  Where do you put your used TP? In a zip-lock bag.  And then put that bag into another bag.  Want to be super environmentally conscience? Wipe with what the good earth provides – leaves, sticks, stones.

What about biodegradable TP, you ask? In areas where TP must be packed out, that goes for biodegradable TP as well.  No exceptions.  Don’t be the selfish ass-hat who breaks the rules.  Despite all those participation trophies, you’re not special.

Make sure you have hand sanitizer and please – for the love of God, PLEASE – use it every time you go to the bathroom.  Most stomach illnesses on the trail are due to poor hygiene among hikers.  Gross.  Giardia sucks.  Don’t spread giardia.  Read my post on backpacking equipment for a nifty, homemade sanitizer hack.

In some heavily-protected areas, you have to pack your actual poop out, not just your TP!  These areas are rare and usually you are given a special WAG (waste and gel) bag to put your poop in.  Don’t think about this too much (it’s gross).  And it’s rare, so moving on …

Here’s another tip: don’t burn your used TP!  This happened to me once. A woman was running out of room in her zip-lock bag for TP, so she just started burning it on the group’s fire, without telling anyone first!  Don’t do that.  TP “embers” can also drift and start wildfires.

So there you have it! Everything you never wanted to know about pooping and peeing in the wilderness. Life skills, people. Life skills.

Next up: I’ll cover more Leave No Trace principles.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. – William Butler Yeats