This trip occurred during the summer of 2009 and I wrote up this story soon after. It's been dormant on my computer ever since. Here's to the most grueling wilderness paddling trip out there!
I was barely holding it together. With each step the stern of my kayak was hitting the ground, throwing me off balance, while large branches grabbed the bow, pitching me backward and threatening to leave me turtle-shelled on the ground. My kayak was listing to one side and needed adjustment but I was too tired to care. I’d had enough. We’d been moving since sunrise and it was getting late. The lake looked so close two hours ago. Then through the thick swarm of mosquitoes around my head I caught a glimpse of the water. It was so far away I wanted to scream. In the dwindling evening light it seemed like a mirage. Even if I made it out alive, this place was bound to destroy me first.
I was captivated the first time I’d heard about Bull Lake Creek, a relatively new wilderness class V trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I was born and raised in Wyoming, and from a very young age I’d listened to my Granddad tell stories about horse packing and fishing in the Wind Rivers. His stories had inspired me to quit playing baseball and soccer in junior high and take up climbing and backpacking instead. He was the forest supervisor of the Wind Rivers in the 1960s and the range had always been dear to his heart. His stories inspired numerous trips during my youth to backpack, climb, and fish in the Winds.
Stories of the incredible effort required to run Bull Lake Creek didn’t deter me. During college in the Pacific Northwest I’d hiked my kayak miles into the Olympic Peninsula to enjoy the pristine beauty such effort rewards. As a climber, I was used to long approaches and descents. I wasn’t scared of hard work or mosquitoes. The tales of Bull Lake Creek allured me – I needed to experience it.
I met Nate and Matt Klema guiding in the Grand Canyon. I did a trip with Nate, the youngest brother, when he was working as an assistant and in the process of earning his guide’s license. Young and affable, with a solid build and black hair I immediately liked him. He was always upbeat, had an easy laugh, and our conversations often turned to kayaking. I could see his eyes gleam with envy as I told him about my kayaking trip to Tibet the previous winter.
I guided a couple Grand Canyon trips with Matt Klema and he became a close friend. About 6 years younger than me he seemed very mature for his age. He’d worked in the Grand Canyon longer than I and was already a trip leader; he had a long–term girlfriend (many guides don’t), and had built his own adobe house on land he bought outside of Durango. Another good friend calls him the “Savant of the Grand Canyon” and it was true. He made his own straps and sandals; possessed encyclopedic knowledge of the Grand Canyon, and was an incredible guitar player. My first trip with him, which he led, we hiked more with our clients than any trip I had done. I liked his enthusiasm and resourcefulness. He had a proclivity for adventure but the experience to know when enough was enough. Thin and wiry, he was a former national champion Nordic ski racer and extremely strong. He also had a dry witty sense of humor, which I appreciated. I’d never kayaked with him but I knew he was perfect for Bull Lake Creek.
So there we were, in the late afternoon, rigging our kayak backpacks and staring at the first 11,000-foot pass in front of us. Bull Lake Creek is usually regarded to take 5 days, which includes 2 full days of hiking to travel the 20 miles to the river. Almost all the previous groups had started hiking early in the morning on the first day. We didn’t start until 5pm. To make matters worse we noticed air leaking out of two tires on the truck as we shouldered our heavy loads. The tires would be flat at the end of the trip, one more hurdle and challenge that added to the immensity of our undertaking. With nervous attempts at humor we tried to dispel the ominous feeling palpable in the evening air. We shouldered our kayaks and started walking.
The trail was not as obvious as we had hoped. Soon we had dropped our kayaks and were scouting the mosquito infested river bottom for any sign of the trail. The immensity of our undertaking gripped my mind and brought upon an overwhelming feeling of doubt and dread. I was too tired. We were unprepared. My confidence and enthusiasm, which had flowed with abundance in the comfort of the car or alongside the café table, had turned into apprehension and fear. We’d only just begun hiking and we were already lost. Dejected, our conversations were terse and our movements quick.
It wasn’t long before we decided the most likely looking path was one we had already crossed. We followed it and soon we were hiking up an obvious trail. The pressing worry of being lost changed into a meditation, one foot in front of the other, shifting the load between my shoulders and hips. We hiked hard, without many breaks. Our angst was only relieved by progress. We reached the top of the pass at dusk. It was all I could do to stay awake while we cooked dinner and watched the shadows of the setting sun spill over the prairie and flatlands.
The view at dawn was stunning. The Klema’s were puppy dog piled together and wrapped in the tarp to stay warm, they’d brought light sleeping bags and no pads. I snapped a couple photos and started the stove. Soon we were hiking over the pass. The kayaks didn’t feel as heavy and the doubts I’d felt the night before were disappearing with the rising sun. Once over the pass we spotted a few elk. As I looked to the right I almost fell over. There were elk everywhere, probably over 400 of them. They started moving once they saw us – running over the high alpine tundra like ants. I was euphoric. The Wind Rivers are remote and the wildlife is still wild, unlike the many animals in Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks, which don’t mind tourists milling about taking photos of them. Standing there I was enchanted. What a magical place! I thought of my Granddad who would have laughed to see me there, spooking a huge heard of elk with a kayak on my back.
We descended from the pass and into Paradise basin in ecstatic moods. The hike suddenly didn’t seem that bad after all. We would be paddling by the afternoon! The trail headed out of the alpine tundra and into the forest. Once into the forest we passed a beautiful alpine lake and a solo backpacker. He was incredulous, asking, “You’re going where? You’ve never done it before? Have you seen the river level?” Nothing we said could convince him we knew what we were doing. We tried to answer his questions but our answers didn’t sound reassuring or convincing to us or to him. We continued on, cracking jokes comparing the backpacker with a teacher we couldn’t please. Resorting to bravado and humor we attempted to regain our newly found confidence. For some reason our answers to the backpacker’s questions seemed unsettling.
Following the trail, we ended up on the wrong side of the next lake. As is usually the case when carrying a heavy load we confidently concluded we were further than we actually were. We were just about to start scouting a shortcut we’d heard about when we saw the solo backpacker again. With a tiny bit of scorn he informed us we had missed the main trail and ended up on the wrong side of Steamboat Lake – still an hour or two from Hatchet Lake and the final pass. He advised us to paddle across the lake. After flashing us a look that belied his belief we were heading to our deaths and he was going to be the last person to see us alive he had this piece of advice for us “Don’t have too much fun!” We jumped in our boats, thankful for the critical stroke of luck but annoyed that we had lost our way and burned valuable daylight.
We reached Hatchet Lake just as a thunderstorm was brewing. Scouting the possible shortcut in the rain proved unfruitful and burned even more time. Frustrated we shouldered our heavy burdens and continued up the now faint trail, thankful that the rain had been short lived. A swamp on the other side of the lake swallowed what remained of the trail. After dropping our kayaks many times to “scout” we finally resigned ourselves to walking towards the most likely looking pass. The mountains around us seemed to get bigger by the minute.
After a long slow walk back up to 11,000 feet we were treated to magnificent vistas and our first glimpse at the South Fork of Bull Lake Creek. The descent was intimidating but we mustered what little energy we had left and headed down. It was far worse than anything we had endured yet. The trail was steep and loose with multiple switchbacks and our ungainly loads threatened to pitch us forward at any moment. We kept moving out of sheer determination. Bashing our way through thick forest and ever thickening swarms of mosquitoes we finally reached the South Fork. Deadman Lake, our destination; had to be just around the corner. No such luck. Barely holding it together we headed for the river. Jumping in our boats brought the grandeur of our surroundings into focus. Surrounded by tall peaks we paddled meandering channels, which at times led back upstream before reaching Deadman Lake at dusk. Extremely tired, we pressed on, paddling across the lake as the peaks shed the last rays of sunlight and slipped into the soft light of the stars. The mood was subdued as we ate dinner in the dark and collapsed into our sleeping bags.
Although weary, we rose with the sun in the morning. After a quick breakfast we were finally on the water. Only there wasn’t enough water. Our bodies hurt and the boating wasn’t any easier than the hiking. The river was too shallow and we had to push ourselves along, sometimes getting out of our boats to drag them along the riverbed. The river gradient increased and soon we were shouldering our heavy loads and bashing once again through the thick forest. Back on the river was no better as we careened into rocks and pinned countless times. About midday we finally reached the confluence of the Middle Fork. The Middle Fork plunges into the South Fork in a spectacular waterfall. We ate some food and reveled in our surroundings until Matt reminded us of the work ahead, “All right, let’s keep moving.” The extra water was finally enough. We paddled happily through the first rapid only to start portaging again just below.
The next portage went relatively quickly and finally we were really paddling. Soon we were at the first big waterfall, which we launched over with abandon. Now this is what we came for! We ran a few miles of steep whitewater and suddenly we had reached the lakes section. Beautiful, clean ledge drops separated by small lakes left smiles on our faces. We pressed on until suddenly the world seemed to drop from beneath our feet. A quick scout and we knew exactly where we were, Hagan Dazan. This is the biggest rapid on the run. A dicey lead-in followed by a 50-foot slide into a big pool. We were too tired and sore to consider running Hagen Dazan. Our discussions immediately turned to seal launching into the slide. It looked fun but from our vantage point it looked like it might also throw you into the green water, delivering a big hit. Nate finally decided to test it. He flew into the main flow with only a couple of strokes, then tucked and was lost in the spray before rolling up at the bottom. I was next and it was thrilling. Tuck, wait, feel a soft hit as you hit the aerated water, then a larger one as you hit the green water down deep, then roll up. Yes! Matt flew off last. Now this is the way to travel!
We ate a quick lunch below Hagan Dazen, reveling in the magnificence of the place. Granite domes and walls rose from the river reminding me of the Sierra’s. I dreamed of climbing new lines on the steep walls, trying to pick out weaknesses as I munched my salami and cheese. Matt, who had the watch, once again reminded us of the work ahead. “Alright, let’s go.” It was now 2 pm and off we headed to the Forked Tongue Gorge.
The Forked Tongue Gorge is a truly incredible sight and seems to defy the laws of hydrology. The river enters the gorge and then splits in two about a hundred yards later, the right side dropping over a very large unrunnable waterfall while the left side heads into a maze of boulders with substantially less gradient and less water. Some of the best whitewater of the trip followed as we bombed down steep boulder gardens. We knew we needed to watch out for the last rapid, which drops into a hideous hole, so we were out of our boats frequently making sure we didn’t miss the last eddy. After about an hour we were there. We scouted it for a little while, debated possible lines and worst-case scenarios. Nate was eager to give it a try and I was on the fence. I’d been feeling really tired but suddenly I had a second wind.
Soon Matt was in his boat in the pool below and Nate was heading into the entrance. I was next, paddled right to miss a hole, then back left, using small holes to surf me over and avoid the bigger ones. It was a beautiful lead in to a large sloping ledge drop. I increased my speed, placed a stroke right at the lip to keep my bow up and after a little stern squirt I was through and in the pool below.
We were elated as we paddled over the final drop and made camp just below. We needed rest badly and finally we had some time to recover. Our first day on the water had been a great success. We moved efficiently, quickly, and safely. Bull Lake Creek was offering plenty of challenge but we were rising to it. We found a beautiful spot in the woods close to fishing holes near the end of the gorge. Matt built a big fire to keep the mosquitoes away and Nate and I set off to catch dinner. The trout were small but rose to anything and soon we had a mess of them. The backbreaking labor of the previous two days paid off in rich contentment as I stood in the river casting to hungry trout in a place only visited by a handful of people. The views were stunning as the sun set. Big granite walls and domes stretched far over our heads, turning soft warm shades of yellow and orange. We cooked trout over the coals of the fire, eating them with our hands. Soon the stars were out and we were in our sleeping bags, listening to the soft murmur of the river.
I heard the stove start at first light and I smiled. We were deep in the wilderness and working as a team, fully immersed in the rhythm of the trip. The stove was lit at daybreak, and camp was packed quickly. On the river we complemented each other, Nate with his young enthusiasm pushing Matt and I to run the bigger drops, Matt with his cool head and objective assessment of risk keeping his brother in check. We left camp following a rhythm that had been established from the beginning. Like punching a time clock, we were on the water before most people show up to work.
We savored the feeling of launching our fully loaded boats and heading downstream without dragging ourselves over gravel bars or getting pinned on rocks but it was short lived. A quick portage around a waterfall with a nasty cave warmed up the muscles for what laid downstream. Not long after we were looking at an amazing slide into a big hole following by steep boulder gardens. We followed each other over the lip, nothing like pure adrenaline at 8 in the morning to wake you up.
Soon the river gradient increased substantially and we were up on the rocks with our heavy burdens, trying to stay balanced as we traversed a large scree field. The Jim Bridger portage makes any of the portages on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone (known for difficult portages) look like child’s play and we were thankful for our early start and early morning shade.
Steep hard whitewater was our reward after the portage and soon we were at a pool above two plunging waterfalls. Another scout revealed no clear solution. It looked fun but close to the limit of our comfort level. The first drop threatened to submerge you and kill your momentum before plunging over a second, much bigger falls. We debated the risks but all of us were on the fence. I could see from the gleam in Nate’s eye that he wanted to run it. I’d seen that gleam in Nate’s eye before, the first time I’d paddled with him. At the put in to Vallecito Creek at high water I wondered why none of the other Durango boaters were around. My cautious words were met with, “You’re from the Northwest, and you’re used to high water.” The day was cloudy, rainy, the river was big and pushy, and there were just two of us.
Like the rest of us, Matt was taking his time assessing this rapid. Older and more experienced than his younger brother Matt shares the same enthusiasm but with more objectivity. This combined with years of experience paddling difficult whitewater meant that Matt hardly ever missed a move.
I looked long and hard and in the internal battle between enthusiasm and caution, enthusiasm won. Nate was first and disappeared quickly. With a flurry of paddle strokes I increased my hull speed then placed two solid strokes as I came over the lip, left and then right. It didn’t matter. I was pushed deep and into the right wall. Not where I wanted to be. I turned my bow left and managed two strokes before the next drop. Only now I was sideways and falling over the second falls with no speed. I landed and was flipped immediately. Underwater I waited for the thrashing but it never came, soon everything was calm and I was rolling up, catching the eddy just below. Whew! That was close. Nate hadn’t faired much better. Matt was unconvinced and wisely portaged. We regrouped and headed downstream, following each other closely through steep boulder gardens that poured directly into Bull Lake, the pristine lake the creek is named after.
We ate our lunch after paddling across the lake, enjoying the untouched beauty of Bull Lake, surrounded by granite walls and dense forests. The river plunges into the lake with substantial gradient and leaves the lake with even more. After lunch we shouldered the boats for a quick portage before scouting the “class V sneak.” This is a 6-foot slide near the shore that sneaks around a very large rapid and drops you into continuous class V whitewater and a must make eddy above a 400 foot cascade.
After walking past a very large pile of bear scat on the scout we were awakened from our lunch comas. Soon we were following each other closely, paddling over the slide and into the continuous whitewater below. With absolute concentration in every stroke we all made it into the eddy above Bull Lake Falls. It was back to work as we shouldered the boats for another big portage. Once back in the water we were bombing down rapids and making split second decisions, following each other closely as we blue angeled downstream. The river mellowed and the walls grew in height and grandeur. With the river demanding less of our attention I found my gaze drawn upward, staring at massive 1,000 to 2,000 foot granite walls reaching far over our heads. Waterfalls plunged from far above and I felt honored and humbled to be one of the few people to be able to experience such a place. We drifted through small rapids and around meandering channels relishing our surroundings.
The late afternoon light was oppressive as we reached another beautiful waterfall. Soon I was paddling over the lip. Matt and Nate quickly followed and we got out just below to make camp on a flat slab of granite right by the river. We pulled off our wet boating gear and then lounged in the sun, telling stories, cracking jokes, and soaking up rays. The apprehension that had plagued my thoughts at the beginning of the trip seemed like the distant past. The hours of labor and suffering now rewarded us with a heightened sense of the moment. My body felt nimble and strong. I marveled at the terrain we were surrounded in and enjoyed the comfortable company of Matt and Nate.
The sun started setting and while Matt built a fire using wood from a dead cedar tree near our camp, Nate and I started fishing. The rapids prevented any fishing away from our camp but we still managed to catch a number of small trout. Suddenly I pulled back into a strong fish. I yelled at Nate to help me as I played the only big trout of the trip. With Nate’s help I landed a beautiful 14-inch rainbow. I wished my Granddad could see us as we roasted the fat trout over the cedar coals. Intoxicated with the beauty of the world, I listened to the roar of the river as the stars shined overhead.
In the morning we savored our beautiful camp as we ate our breakfast and packed the boats. After a portage around a large sieve we entered another granite gorge. We made quick work of this gorge and reached big meandering river channels, scaring ducks and watching large limestone cliffs descend towards the river. Drifting down the meandering channels I often let my boat spin back upstream to look back at the impressive amount of granite that Bull Lake Creek cuts through. What an incredible canyon! The hard labor suddenly seemed like a very small price to pay to experience such a place.
The meandering channels ended as the limestone cliffs finally hit the river. A small waterfall and a few sliding rapids were all that remained between us and the final lake, a nine mile reservoir also named Bull Lake. We quickly ran the gorge and then changed out of our paddling clothes for the long 9-mile flat-water paddle out. We put our heads down and headed for the other side of the reservoir and my car.
In the middle of the lake I leaned back to stretch and looked straight up into a few towering cumulus clouds. When I was a small child I remember lying on the floor looking at my Granddad’s legs as he told me a story about riding a horse along a ridge top and nearly being struck by lightning. His legs had many scars from years spent hunting, fishing, and riding horses. As I lay on the floor I tried to imagine all the places that those legs had carried him, all the scrapes, bruises, and close calls, and all the wonderful stories that were behind them. I wanted legs like that. Lying on the back of my boat, swinging around staring at the building thunderheads far above, I chuckled to myself. After Bull Lake Creek my legs were scraped, bruised, and covered with mosquito bites. I was well on my way to having legs like my Granddad. He would have been proud.