Campfire Stories

"The scenery becomes hourly more interesting and grand, and the view here is truly magnificent; but, indeed, it needs something to repay the long prairie journey of a thousand miles"- John C. Fremont

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Wind river mountains memorial hike-  Don Johnson

July, 2018-

Dear Family and Friends,

They held one another in a tight embrace, a brother and his siter. Majestic mountains commanded quiet respect for the silent tears of shared grief. Pete and Becky had lost their beloved father less than a year ago. On a glaciated outcrop on Texas Pass, Becky recited her poem, "You Gave Me Fire"..."The fire in my feet, To walk and keep walking...". Pete found a loose puzzle-piece rock and tenderly placed ashes under it. They asked me to sing my morning devotional song, "Morning Has Broken". Becky reached for my hand and held a tight grip while Pete proclaimed that I had become their spiritual advisor. I voiced humble gratitude for their allowing me to participate in such an intamate moment. 
 His trail name was Floater. His employment was floating horses' teeth. He was captivated by the great outdoors and had hiked thousands of wilderness miles. I met him only once while hiking the Continental Divide Trail in 2006. Little did we know that our parting "good-bye" would be final. 
 My friend Tin Cup had organized this hike. We convened in Pinedale, Wyoming where the proprietor of the Rivera Lodge flipped pancakes on her creek-side grill for our last home-style meal deliciously enhanced by the cool morning air. Fourteen family members and friends gathered as we set out from the Green River Lakes Trailhead south of Yellowstone. Half that number hiked to our first camp; five of us completed the seventy mile trek through the spectacular snow-capped Wind River Mountains. 
 We woke to a mist shrouding the mountain tips and then were startled as the sun's penetration exposed the summit of Square-Top, making it appear as if the massive peak was floating on the clouds. The gentle valley trail transitioned to switchbacks for the climb to Summit Lake. As we left the forest we broke into the first of countless alpine meadows where a profusion of colors refreshed our souls. Flowers included the delicate lavender elephant ears. We crouched to focus on the tiny twin-eared petals, each with its diminutive curved trunk. Sitka Burnet dotted the natural gardens with their unmistakable fragrance. Bright yellow sunflowers shouted "Good Morning!" to the new day.
 That day and the days to follow saw a steady flow of through-hikers, those robust souls intent on hiking the entire 3,100 miles of the Continental Divide Trail. No Day from New Mexico was the first one we encountered and Justin Jupiter from New Zealand was the last. Not wanting to be alone for fear of bears, he had asked to join our camp at Bob Lake (appropriate since Floater's name was Bob). We encountered nearly as many trekkers from foreign lands as from the States. We learned later that Red Feather, accompanied by her husband Wind Walker, is a star Olympic athlete, and a humble one at that.

Here is what Wikipedia offers: "Clara Hughes is a Canadian cyclist and speed skater who had won multiple Olympic medals in both sports. She is involved with Right To Play, which is an athlete-driven international humanitarian organization that uses sports to encourage the development of youth in disadvantaged areas. After winning her gold medal in 2006, she donated $10,000 to Right to Play."
 We experienced early exhaustion. Most of the hike was above 10,000 feet and the body demands some acclimation. Successive days became much easier. As we exited the woods into a jumbled rock fall we spotted a rare find, a pine martin that quickly scampered toward the adjacent creek. One morning a bald eagle seemed to guide us a it glided from perch to perch. We heard the toy-like squeak of a pica and envied the marmots sunning on the rocks.
 Sometimes the landscape seemed surreal. Ancient glaciers have ground and polished the bedrock and it has been recent enough that little soil has developed. Stepping to a high point, a 360 degree panoramic sweep elicits a chuckle; the erratics ranging from small boulders to house-side blocks appear to have been strewn across the landscape as if a giant had tossed dice.
 Pete and Clark could not resist when they saw the fish jumping on Upper Jean Lake. Soon the fishing lines were swinging overhead, then followed the catch of small mountain trout. The rest of us struck up a conversation with passing through-hikers Speedy and Dream Walker, two young women from Germany who marveled at what they consider to be the most beautiful part of their trek. Afterward the icy waters of the outlet creek had to be forded, numbing our calves and feet.
 We encountered a Forest Service work crew of ten upgrading the trail. Allison and Alex explained that they worked eight days then were off six which gave them time to explore the region. We expressed our gratitude for all their hard work.
 Now, I have seen guitars on packs before so Beaver's load was no surprise, but croquet clubs? John and Catlin explained that they liked to take advantage of the sun drenched green meadows for a relaxing afternoon competition.
 The wind and rain attacked just as our tents were up and our meals ready to eat. We plunged for shelter and embraced the cozy dry comfort. Peeking out as the storm subsided, Tin Cup invited us to view a double rainbow arching overhead. Next morning we were able to dry our equipment as we parted company. Tin Cup and Clark took the direct route toward trail's end while Pete, Becky and I turned toward the Cirque of the Towers. Passing by Shadow Lake we saw a family with four small children toying with the frigid waters and were impressed that such small tykes had come so far into the back country.

 Lonesome Lake sprang into our view as we descended Texas Pass, monolithic Pingora Peak pointing its conical bulk skyward in the background. We passed a church group and the leader exclaimed how excited one of the boys was at having just caught his first fish. 
 A gentle riverside trail led to our exit. Now, closer to an access road, countless outdoor enthusiasts streamed by, climbers laden with ropes and hardware, horseback riders and day-hikers out for a stroll. 
 Pete's wife was there to meet us. His son Shaun sprinted to his dad and leaped into his arms. We all assembled pack at Pinedale. Several had to leave but some of us drove out to an overlook that evening to await the blood moon.
 Driving back home was a trip down memory lane. This was the fifth time I had gone through Yellowstone; the first time was on our honeymoon fifty years ago. As I reflected on the past and the present I thanked God for all His many blessings, faithfulness to vows, opportunities to experience His miraculous creation, the amazing revelation that we can know our Creator and life itself. The awareness was all the more acute as I had just learned of the passing of one of my dear students from my first years of teaching. May everyone discover the comfort and the blessings awaiting all who seek.


Don Johnson





 Finding Floater in The Winds-  Becky Clausen (aka Sprout), 42, Durango, CO

August 2018-



Floater was a mountain-man-thru-hiker-horse-whisperer kind of person. Buckskins and go-light gear and a handlebar mustache were all things he wore well.  Sure, it’s rare to find that assortment of characters all in one person, and they all emerged at different times.  But I know they’re all in there, ‘cause I’m one of two people in this world that can also proudly say that he’s my dad to boot.   


Floater rendezvoused and reenacted long before his journey through the Continental Divide in 2006.  I don’t know if he found his inspiration in following in the footsteps of those fur trappers before him, or in charting new territory as an early thru-hiker of the CDT.  But something larger than himself drove him to take on the challenge of that 3,100-mile trek from Mexico to Canada.   He got some practice by first thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (2000) and the Pacific Crest Trail (2003), but it was the Rocky Mountains that really called to him.   Or maybe it was the calls from his long-distance hiking buddies that egged him on.  If Tin Cup, Mountain House, and Just Mike were all doing it, then by God so was he.   


The four of them hiked through the New Mexico deserts and Colorado snowfields for months, long awaiting the crown jewel of the Wind River Range.   Mother Nature and a negligent campfire had other plans.  The wildfires that temporarily closed the Wind River Range for that week forced them to an alternate route, hiking along the highway a far distance off from the spectacular peaks.  Not that anything could ever get Floater down – after all, he had snickers and ramen and a rain parka that he called a tent.  And the comradery of kindred spirits, cultivated through long miles and boyish banter.  The comradery that carried them on through the entire length of the Continental Divide Trail.


Floater’s hiker friends still can’t believe that he’s gone.  How could the youngest and strongest hiker of the crew be the first to go?  But he met death as a companion in his life journey, rather than a feared stranger. I’m sure those that knew him best already had a sense of that.  Why else would they choose to celebrate his life on the tops of the Wind River mountains, with exhilaration rather than despair? 


Tin Cup insists there wasn’t a plan.  Ok.  But somehow the 9 of us all ended up in Pinedale, WY on the same date in the same cabin, ready to honor Floater with a memorial hike from Green River Lake to Big Sandy trailhead.  Me and my brother Pete, plus Floater’s best hiking buddies, tracing the steps that he would have loved to have taken. 


Finding him in the floating mountain that emerged above the Green River fog.


Catching a glimpse of him in the pine marten that scurried across the boulders.


Following him along the eagle’s path that soared out in front of our Elbow Lake campsite.


Smiling with him at the double rainbow over Bob’s Lake, after a crackling thunderstorm.


And feeling every ounce of his presence as my brother and I embraced at the sunrise summit of the Cirque.  Morning had broken, like the first morning; the sound of Don’s voice will stay with me always.  We knew that we made the right choice to take the long way home, over Texas Pass, putting in a few extra hard miles, just as our dad would have done.  I haven’t felt so close to my brother since we were kids.  We were given the time and the terrain to help us remember how close our family love is intertwined. 


Floater’s death brought this group together for 6 spectacular days in the Wind River Range. As we hiked, stories spontaneously unfolded of Floater’s favorite song to sing on the trail, the time he lit half his beard on fire, and him fighting that dubious ticket in Yellowstone.  As Clark reminded us on Hat Pass, our lives live on through the stories that we continue to tell.   And stories need context and time and trust that can come through experiencing wild places.   I never would have told the story of my dad being nicknamed the Proud Rooster when I was born if we hadn’t seen those male ducks strutting around their nest near Pole Creek.  It felt OK to cry there. 


As I transitioned back into the modern world of airports and cell phones, I texted Tin Cup:


Me: “Back at the Denver Airport – after one of the best weeks of my life.  Thank you for guiding us through the journey.”


Tin Cup: “Floating mountains, pine martin, eagle, mountain flowers, double rainbow…I could not lead you to these things, they found us just as we found them.  These are blessings, just as was my friendship with your father.  Love, Cup (only 1 person called me Cup.  I miss him)”


I miss you too, Dad.  And I will always know where to find you. 

 Where We Go-  Kaidi Raney, 49, Pinedale ,WY


Age of new, I found you

Sand and Water, Sun and Pebbles

Where we go to gather

Age of learning, I found you

Brush and Trees and Sticks and Stones

Where we go to gather

Age of celebration, I found you

Wildflowers and Majestic peaks

Where we go to gather

Age of nurturing, I found you

Rocks and Summits and Valleys and Meadows

Where we go to gather

Age of mourning, I found you

Rivers and Deserts and Sunsets and Sunrises

Where we go to gather

Age of healing I found you

Sand and Water, Sun and Pebbles

Brush and Trees and Sticks and Stones

Wildflowers and Majestic Peaks

Rocks and Summits and Valleys and Meadows

Rivers and Desert and Sunsets and Sunrises

Where we go to gather

Bears, Booze and Beautiful Scenery -  Arlaina G., 22, Pinedale ,WY


Growing up in Pinedale as a kid, we were always camping and doing outdoorsy stuff, but never hiked in the Winds. Even after getting married and moving back to WY it was still three years before some friends from Jackson invited us to go on a 3 day hike with them in the Wind Rivers. I was sick of hearing about people visiting from across the country or even the world just to hike the mountains in our back yard… and we never had.

So although we knew we were not in the best shape and didn’t really know what to expect we told our friends yes and started collecting the gear we would need for our adventure. The time came when we all piled in a car and drove to the Elkhart Park trailhead about 20 minutes outside of Pinedale, WY.


Turns out we were all out of shape, which made me feel better. A long centipede-like line of huffing and puffing people laughing and stopping every 45 min. to catch our breath, drink some water and wonder if we would ever make it to our destination.

The goal was Island Lake, which to us was a daunting 11 miles in. Along the way we gawked at the beautiful landscapes surrounding us. We knew Pinedale was beautiful, but when we were finally up that high in the mountains, with nothing surrounding us but dense nature, we felt small and empowered all in one.


Although the leader of our pack was pushing us on, most of us started getting fatigued about 7 miles in.

Feeling lame and like we were giving up, we succumbed to the beautiful view of Hobb’s lake and the promise of catching tons of fish. Setting up camp commenced somewhat like a game. A race to find the best spot. Proudly I showed off the perfect camp spot to my husband right before the guys went fishing and the girls popped open a bottle of scotch someone brought and proceeded to gossip.


Here I will tell one of my favorite, most horrifying and amusing things about going hiking with a large group of people. Your bathroom spot. Picking it is not quite the problem as there are many nice ones…making sure others do not stumble upon your spot especially when you are USING it is another matter. So we developed a system. One would scream BATHROOM! when walking that direction and everyone had to hang tight until that person came back for fear of an embarrassing encounter. There were none…thankfully.


Dinner is another favorite part of hiking with a large group of people, particularly a number of men who know how to fish. We picked fun at one of our friends who magically produced butter out of his supplies…who packs butter to go hiking?!? But soon we found out we worshipped the man because the perfect buttery curried fish dinner satisfied all. At night we sat around the fire, looked at the stars, laughed, had existential conversation and of course finished off the scotch.


So remember that perfect camp spot I found? Well it was right under this big bare tree that the group decided to hang all of the food in that night as protection from bears. Being as it was getting dark and my husband was calling me a baby as I was trying to convince him to set up our tent somewhere else, I bucked up and slept under the bear tree. Well I shouldn’t say slept. There wasn’t really any sleep. Every noise I heard plunged me further and further into anxiety as I swore I would be devoured that night. However I was not, so that was…ya know…good.


The next morning we woke up early and walked 2 miles to Seneca Lake, switchbacks and turning weather made for a rough hike and some wished they hadn’t drank so much scotch the night before. But Seneca Lake was beautiful and well worth the trip. Sunbathing on the large rocks and more fishing took place before we returned to camp and spent one more not-so-restful night in the woods. The next day we hiked back to the trail head.

No, we never made it to Island Lake. But the trip ended on a happy high note with all being tired and satisfied and craving a Brew Pub burger like nothing else.


We will be back Winds, you’ve already claimed your place in our hearts.

A lucky day!  - Laura K., 30, Pinedale , WY


The Green River Valley shared this double rainbow while we were rock climbing at Stonehenge.  A short rain shower put a damper on our climbing, but the sun came back out and quickly dried the rock.  We had just enough time to successfully send a few more routes before the sunset gave us another show.   (Fall 2016)  

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Supported in part by an award from the Wyoming State Historical Records Advisory Board, through funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), National Archives and Records Administration.