Mom, as a newborn, was found in a pile of rubbish by a Hong Kong street-sweeper. I learned of this news as a twenty-something army medic traveling by train back to my duty station in Germany. After learning of that news, we wondered about Mom’s background for many years. She’s definitely Asian but what else, we’d wonder. We understood that we had no idea what the situation was and I think she never felt ill-will coming up as she was and is loved.
Last December, my sister called asking me to check email. She forwarded a message that Mom received through her DNA contacts. Definitely intrigued, I read the message as soon as I got off the phone. The writer mentioned a man that lived in Hong Kong, Macau, and Shanghai; an Italian “creator.” (He would be my mother’s father.) I immediately thought there might be a chance to learn about BOTH of her parents but not the case here.
I replied for Mom but never heard back. I searched and found descendants of my grandfather and contacted one guy, Giulio, who looked like my eldest brother. He replied back with photos similar to ones I sent him. It was surreal. I could see myself in him. We video-messaged not long after. And that’s when the journey started.
It turns out Mom has fifteen brothers and sisters by her father but they were birthed by two different mothers—neither of which were my grandmother. Mom is the fourth of my grandfather’s children. A couple have passed on.
I’m still blown-away by that news.
A few months later, Mom asked me to go with her to Hong Kong in September. I can’t afford such a trip so she covered everything; she just wanted help getting around. Plus, she wanted to meet whoever would be there.
Mom and I talked many times between December and the trip and we both wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing as we’ve experienced a negative result in a previous family reunion a decade ago. We both agreed we wanted to make sure there were no ill-feelings for Mom’s adoption and that we wanted them to know we wanted and expected nothing beyond a little knowledge and fellowship.
This was my sixth or seventh trip but it’d been thirteen years since I was there last. So much has changed but there were some things still reminiscent of the Hong Kong I was introduced to back on my first trip in 1983.
Our hotel was closer to the busier part of Kowloon, next to Kowloon Park (and a few blocks from where we usually stay so almost twice as much per night).
We met Giulio and another one of Mom’s new siblings, Arnaldo, at his place. We chatted for a few hours before dinner, everyone getting to know each other and marveling at the similarities in our lives and mannerisms. Arnaldo, who, of course, speaks beautiful Italian, also speaks impeccable Cantonese. He made pasta and a Tuscan chicken dish. Wow. “We are Tuscan!”
Giulio and his twin brother, Dino (who we’ll meet in a bit), are rock stars in China. Literally. (They both speak eight or ten languages, beautifully.) After dinner and dropping off Mom, Giulio and I, walked around Kowloon for a few hours catching up. All along our walk, people whispered or outright stopped us to say hello to Giulio or snap a photo. Slightly surreal. We talked about music and life and what it was like growing up where we did. The Twins are a bit younger than me but we still had similar childhoods.
A couple of days later I told Mom I wanted to see the “old place,” where she used to live before moving to America, the first place I stayed, and, the place my grandparents (Mom’s adoptive parents) held onto until 2002, when it was left for Mom. She sold it a few years later but I remember staying there a few times. It was the Hong Kong I knew and I wanted to see it again. We rode the old trolley from Central to North Point.
I remember seeing a building in photos and in movies that I could swear was my where my grandparents lived but thought it must be some other building just like it. When we arrived at the old building and walked out back, I realized the photos I saw were the same building. It has a hashtag: #monstormansion. I saw people taking photos with the building as their background. I had a couple of models flake on me but had a fortuitous meeting with a young attractive lady who gave me a name I doubt is real but we’ll call her Chika anyway. Also surreal.
Anthony Bourdain went to Hong Kong last season so I wanted to see a spot he visited and I hadn’t: Tai O, a fishing village on the west side of Lantau Island.
It was a two-hour trip by bus. I didn’t encounter any Western people the whole day. I also didn’t stop to eat as I was on a mission: photograph everything.
I said hello to everyone (who probably thought I was a little crazy). I didn’t care. I tried to interact with as many people as I could. It seemed everyone had a dog which automatically made me love that little town. I talked to a fisherman who spoke of Hong Kong pre-1997. I could tell he longed for a Hong Kong we will never see again.
I have a love affair with one of Hong Kong’s oldest transport companies: Star Ferry. If you’re in a hurry to cross the harbor, the ferry is not your option. It is cheap, though. And oh so romantic.
Our second week started with a typhoon. I wasn’t going to stay in the hotel if I could help it. I went out three times to walk around the neighborhood surrounding the hotel. I’ve experience some strong wind but that was vicious.
As is always the case, Mom vows this will be her last trip. This admission came just a couple of days after the typhoon. I hope it isn’t but I vowed that I’d go back without her though admitted it would not be the same.
Mom invited the new relatives to have dinner with us and her best friend’s [Aunty Wong’s] family. This is when we met Dino, who flew in the night before. After dinner, we dropped off Mom and Arnaldo, and did another walk similar to the one Giulio and I took the week before. This was even more surreal because the “Twins” as they’re known locally were together now.
The Twins had a show that weekend and I asked if I could sit in on their rehearsal. I got to hear stuff they weren’t planning on playing live in a couple of days. They, along with their drummer, Dave (who owned the studio space), are amazing musicians.
After rehearsal, and a light dinner for them, we walked over to the TurboJet pier to obtain a ticket for me to meet them in Macau for their show the next night. That experience was so surreal and I can’t express what it felt like to be a part of their “entourage” and catch a small glimpse of a side of life not many get to see. (You can see the shit-eating grin I have in the shot of us before they went on stage.) So grateful.
There were a few after-parties they were invited to but they decided to skip all of them when I decided I didn’t need to sleep. We ended up at a friend’s bar where a few of their closest friends met up with us. It was nice to see them drop their guard. We managed to squeeze in the landmark that brought us together, a mural my grandfather created years before I was born but was still barely standing. It was an article I found about Giulio and Arnaldo’s fight to save the mural that led me to Giulio.
Mom may never find out who her mother is but we both agree it’s “cool” to have so many new people who we can call family. For me, I feel like I know more about me and why I do and enjoy the creative things I enjoy. Hopefully, we get to know them all much better and travel back to Hong Kong and, especially, Macau, where my Grandfather was a much-admired man. I’m looking forward to that.
I inherited a friend’s dog, Jean Grey, rediscovered fishing, learned a bunch, and stayed close to home this year, not leaving the Bay Area once. I did not shoot much as I was without a personal camera for much of the year until just recently. Played with video when I could and tested myself with lighting setups of old and some new ones I’ve been wanting to implement in the coming year. I saw repeat clients (LOVE YOU!!) and friends who I’m glad to be reacquainted with. And I’ll mention the fishing one more time. Crabbing, too.
I’ve been having trouble with the blog for some time: lost a bunch of posts trying to propagate the new host and just kinda gave up.
Kula’s body is slowing down but she’s ready, at my side, and tolerates Jean (wack-a-doodle!). The cancer on her face returned. More masses appeared elsewhere. . . . so we walk, spend nearly every waking hour together, generally maximize our time. As I write this, She and my mom are roughly the same age. Kona and I made this journey and I’ve vowed Kula’s time will be fuller and stress-free.
Rediscovery. Introspection. Mindfulness. Those words are still new to me but they’re always there, now.
Laurie Mueller came up with a tagline for me this past year:
Impeccable Imagery: Light and Emotion
It’s a huge thing to live up to but “I no scade!”
I look forward to more adventures in 2018 and beyond. Have a look at my favorite images from 2017: kenthwang.com/2017
I’d spent a few days with Jed and Amanda in and around Yellowstone by the time I saw the Wind River Range closeup. I had that week and the week before to acclimate to altitude by then. Still, I could feel the effects of the altitude and the low-density air with any moderate movement. Thinking of the week ahead (heavy pack, thirty miles through the wilderness, etc.), I couldn’t help but wonder if I would make the roundtrip . . .
I arrived a day early, on 3 July, at our planned starting point, along the Green River, outside of the “official” paid campsite that fronted the trailhead into the Wind River Range. I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of bugs: mosquitos, biting flies, horseflies, and any number of other bugs that wanted a piece of Kula (my Golden Retriever) and me. I didn’t have bug spray; never had an issue with mosquitos, really. I did try to fish but that was nearly impossible with so many things opting for space on any of my exposed appendages. It was insane! At any given time, Kula had at least a dozen mosquitos on her snout!
After I’d donned long-sleeves and jeans, in 80ºF+ heat, to protect against bites and after experiencing zero nibbles while fishing, I setup camp about a half-mile before the trailhead, just off the dirt road that paralleled the Green River up to where the road ended. I found a fire ring (made of rocks) that someone used recently so I decided to camp there. It had easy access to the river directly across the dirt road where, it turns out, I’d spend much of the day. There was fire wood in all directions and a family camping just over the rise behind us. I backed the truck up into the tree line and setup camp under a line of Ponderosas. I emptied out the truck as that was the best way for me see all that I brought with us and proceed to organize things into piles that I’d take and one that I’d leave locked up in the truck. Buzzing sounds were constant and nearly drove me to insanity several times.
4th of July morning, I woke early, started a fire and made coffee. The biting insects were still asleep so it wasn’t bad, at first; after coffee, and filtering water in the river, they became more active. I can still hear the sound of them buzzing around my ears, knowing full-well, they were buzzing around my entire body. By 10am, they were so bad that I had to head into civilization where I’d meet the boys later that evening; they were flying into SLC and driving up from there.
Pinedale is a small town of nearly 2000 residents. It’s in west central Wyoming, about thirty miles from the Wind River Range. It has one main road where you’ll find anything from horse saddles to gourmet burgers. Today, though, it was the 4th (which has always been one of my favorite holidays). It was about 10:30am, by the time I reached it, so I had ten hours to kill and a dog to keep cool.
The good thing about mountain rivers is that they’re usually always ice-cold from glacial runoff so I wasn’t too worried about Kula overheating. And there were a few access points to Pine Creek all around town. In Veterans Park, they were setting up for the 4th of July celebrations, starting later that afternoon and one of those access points was right in the park. Kula and I stayed there for a couple of hours, lounging on the grass by the river as sound checks happened and setup continued.
We spent the day all around Pinedale but stayed close to where I planned on meeting Jimmy and the boys. As I mentioned before, they were setting up for a celebration in Veterans Park. What I didn’t know was that there would be a potluck-style buffet line, free and open to the public. I garnered this info from the good people at the Great Outdoor Shop, who knew I was waiting on friends who would meet me there later that evening.
As it cooled off a bit by dinner time, I left Kula in the truck, which was in the shade, with all of the windows wide open and walked over to the park. I found about 500 people, a country band playing and families wrangling kids. I felt like an outsider and one town resident must’ve known as she turned around to me in line and introduced herself. I got a brief history of her time in Pinedale which made the time standing in the giant line pass a little faster.
I ate well. I sat for a bit, people-watching (as I tend to do in those situations), and listened to the beautiful lady with the beautiful voice singing songs I never heard before. It was a glimpse of small-town living. I liked it (not so much the music but the attitude).
Meeting the Boys
Jimmy, his two sons, McGuire and Addison, and McGuire’s best friend, Drake, showed up just after 8:30. I knew Jimmy’s boys but only met Drake for the first time that day. He blocked for McGuire during football season in high school. He’s about six foot and constantly with an upbeat attitude. Both of them are in their first year post-high school. Addison is 14.
We gathered up supplies: a few bottles of bug spray (99% DEET), fishing stuff and other miscellaneous things we’d need. Having significantly stocked up on all of those things, we went next door for one of those gourmet burgers I spoke of earlier. I ate something light as I’d had their gourmet burger for breakfast and then another burger at the 4th of July gathering. Afterwards, we drove down to the grocery (everything) store to pick up some food and earthworms (for fishing), arriving just in time to see the fireworks. It was one of the longest displays I’ve ever seen.
We made a few plans for the following day as Jimmy and the boys would stay at a rental cabin, overnight, located before the pavement turned to dirt, leading up to Green River Campground . . . and then I realized, as I continued on up the dirt road to my camp that I forgot to grab one of the bottles of bug spray we picked up a couple of hours before. I made a beeline for my tent, zipped open the outer rain fly and then the inner door as fast as I could, let Kula in, and then I jumped in quickly. Then began the task of squashing any critter that followed us in.
I set aside things I planned on bringing in but held off packing until the boys showed up as I knew there would be other stuff that I’d need to add to this pile. I needed to bring my three main lenses and camera body; together weighing 11lbs pounds.
I should mention, now, that the last time I wore the pack I used (a Kelty), it was on the Kalalau Trail on Kauai. I was in decent shape then and feel like I carried more for that twenty-two mile roundtrip than I planned to carry up Squaretop. That was seventeen years ago. Now, though, the waist strap buckle was broken, so I repaired that the day before the boys arrived. I never really thought of it as heavy but after nearly a decade and a half of technological advances, it was heavy compared to present day packs.
The boys showed up just after 10a the morning of the 5th and I made coffee and breakfast for everyone on the camp stove off my tailgate. Jimmy had a bag of dehydrated meals for me and McGuire went through the things I planned on bringing. Some things were nixed but the majority of my pile made it into my pack. I wasn’t going without my iPhone, I determined. It’s camera is too good not to have in a place like this. It had it’s own heavy-duty Ziploc and I only turned it on when there was a shot I wanted, or to watch something until I felt sleepy enough, at night.
After packing everything from my pile into the pack, I tried to lift it. Jesus. I think I’m stronger than the average 48yo but the weight on that initial pull was ridiculous. It felt nailed to the ground. The thought of not finishing crept back in.
The trailhead starts just beyond the last parking lot within Green River Lake Campground. We parked our two vehicles, took a quick shot of the boys with the packs on and proceeded. Camera draped over my left shoulder and a walking stick in my right.
Bears are a very real concern out there. Jimmy stopped at a family friend’s place on the way in, that morning, to pick up a .44 magnum revolver for our protection. There were six bullets loaded and that was all. Aside from that, Drake began, what, to me, was a comforting yelp/call to worn any large predators that we were coming through. He’d let out that call about every twenty or thirty minutes.
Jimmy and McGuire have done very similar trips to this location nearly every year for the past fifteen years but with the added benefit of having horses pack all of their gear in on some of those trips, carrying themselves, only day packs. McGuire led the way out and Jimmy stayed back with me as my pack was, easily, 80+ pounds (dry).
The route took us past two LONG blue-green lakes (Lower and Upper Green River Lakes) and over several river crossings. Squaretop Mountain looked small and unimposing in the distance when we started. Our elevation at the start was just over 8000’. We would climb another 1200’ in under a mile by the time we reached our final camping spot.
The plan was to make our way nearly fourteen miles to Granite Lake, which sits below Squaretop Mountain, in one day. It started to rain a bit on our way out so that when we got to what seemed like the halfway point, we all became chilled a bit, after a lengthy water break. We started a small fire under some Ponderosas that took the chill away.
The entire time, my companions knew I was having trouble with this “gorilla” on my back. My pack was so amazingly heavy that Jimmy and McGuire volunteered to carry some of my stuff—each grabbed a lens and Jimmy took the bag of food he gave me early. It was slight but noticeable. And I was a little embarrassed to have someone else carry things for me. I’ve always been of the mind that if you’re going to take it, you better be able to carry it.
I should mention, I found the perfect walking stick up in Glacier National Park, a few years ago, that had bug trails left on the wood, below the bark. I prettied it up, removed the bark, whittled the ends but left the bug trails. I’ve used it a few times on short hikes but never for any length of time. It’s the same walking stick Mary (a friend from the Bay) is holding in portraits of her on my website. It helped more than I imagined it would. I now understand why many trekkers carry two. I used it like a cross-country skier uses their poles when gliding; swinging it forward, planting it, and grabbing on like you’re using a handrail going up the stairs. Lifesaver!
By the time we reached Beaver Park I was so ready to stop so that when McGuire said he thought we should stop there, and get an early start in the a.m., I breathed a sigh of relief. From Beaver Park, it was straight up (or so it seemed) a crazy incline stretching more than a mile up to Granite Lake. I didn’t want to be the one to say something, and I know I didn’t have the strength for that last push, so thank you, McGuire.
Technically, we weren’t supposed to camp where we did—less than the required 100’ from a stream and definitely less than the 200’ from any trail. We knew we wouldn’t be encountering any rangers, much less, other people, so we took a chance. We did see a couple of men donning packs, leave the following morning, but that was it. I’m guessing we all didn’t want to trek any further.
It really was the ideal spot and beautiful beyond words or photos.
This was our first overnight together. There was a fire ring (so others had the same idea) but very little fire wood. I’ve spent enough time in the woods to know that the best firewood comes off a dead (standing) tree. Most everything on the ground was wet, as it’d been misting most of the afternoon walking in so I recommended breaking off the branches of dead trees nearby.
It was here that I discovered the camp stove I packed in, leaked fuel right where the fuel tank connects to the stove. It was unusable and just added weight at that point. McGuire packed in a stove as well as extra fuel. Having the extra fuel from my stove proved valuable as the rain continued.
I hung my food (as well as Kula’s more aromatic food) from the bridge, near us, a few feet above the water, where a bear (or raccoon) would have a tough time getting to it.
We let the fire die out, racked out early, and all slept well after a full-day walking with full packs.
Up to Granite Lake
The next morning, I was out of my tent first but waited for McGuire (for his stove, really; coffee) and the others who woke shortly after. We made coffee. Drake made one of the dehydrated desserts he’d bought. I believe it was Raspberry Chocolate Crumble. (I just remembered the taste.) Usually, coffee is my breakfast but I had to have a few bites of that.
We experienced small rises and undulations during the “march” in but nothing like going up grades greater than the 45º in many places going up to Granite Lake. First, though, we had to walk through the tall grass of the large meadow behind our Beaver Park camp. There were a few streams and a lot of deadfall (stands of trees which likely died after fires) we crossed, all the while, Drake would let out the bear call.
We stretched out, a bit, with me nearly always taking up the rear of our group. Kula would make her way to the front, check on things ahead, and return to check on me and my progress; always alert and always smelling.
Beyond the large grassy meadow, the route took us up a long zig-zagged route that required me to stop every few feet to catch my breath. Even with so little oxygen, I was able to register the beauty of what we were walking through. Jagged peaks all around, the sound of Green River, below and behind us, crazy-colored wild flowers, and the smells. And there goes Drake.
We heard stories. Everyone had a story about bear encountering humans. It’s the reason McGuire had a .44 Magnum strapped to his hip. The past week and half, I thought of all of the stories I heard; at night when it’s just Kula and me behind a couple of layers of thin nylon, you think about them a bit more.
Each footstep felt like an accomplishment. I’d always called it the “Everest Step” when something takes all that you have to step up. That’s what it felt like to me. Giant pack on my back and a walking stick bending on the pressure. Gasping for breath. With the kind of weight I was carrying, I could’ve easily fallen backwards and tumbled down.
We stopped half a dozen times going up. I would arrive just as Drake and Addison were ready to continue. Removing my pack felt like gravity changed for a few moments. I could run if I had to (or so I thought). I’d get a few gawps of water, let my respirations return to normal, don my pack and trudge a few more hundred yards.
And then there was that last rise, where the sky opened up behind the last stand of trees. The small, mile-long incline we just ascended felt more difficult than the dozen miles that we walked under the same load, the day before.
We heard or saw no one the entire way up. We were the only people to experience one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve seen. Coming down that last rise, the pines opened up as the trail brought us along the lake’s shoreline. It was crystal-clear. This time, Drake waited up for me. I took a tumble stepping over deadfall and onto an angled piece of granite, made extra slippery by the mist we walked up through (which would continue coming down for the rest of our trip).
Descending that last small rise, you could see the other end of the oblong lake, fronted on one side by Squaretop and the pile of boulders sloughed off of that side of the mountain. To our left, there was a marshy meadow, where the stream that fed Granite lake flowed in. We continued on to the right where there was a gradual sloped shoreline.
Again, we did not choose the “correct” campsite but it was ideal. We were closer to a body of water (compared to the day before) and right on the trail. There was a fire ring so I others thought the choice was also a no-brainer. I have fond memories of that place, still.
We setup camp and all of us (except Jimmy) took a lengthly nap; Jimmy’s didn’t last more than ten minutes.
I woke up hearing Jimmy and Addison down near the water. Opening my tent doors, I saw McGuire working on the fire. He noticed me and we talked about the much-needed naps we just woke from.
I consider myself a better than average fisherman. Jimmy kept telling me for the past six months that they always caught trout up in the Wind River Range. He said we’d have more trout than we’d need. I was a little skeptical.
I’ve been fly-fishing since 2005, when we lived in Seattle. I’ve caught large salmon and trout and even bass on the same fly rod I packed in with me on this trip. I had my fly-fishing vest, all of my flies, and even my net. Jimmy, on the other hand, bought a collapsable fishing rod back at the Great Outdoor Shop. He failed to mention the little lures that were key to catching the aforementioned trout of Granite Lake. He had a little box of lures, hemostats, and that collapsible fishing rod.
After coming out of that groggy, can’t feel your face, phase after a fitful nap, I grabbed my parka, stepped into my slippers, and walked down with my camera to where Jimmy was reeling in a fish, on the shoreline below us. He heard me fire off a few frames and pointed to the stringer in the water. He was ready to add number five to it. Beautiful fish, too. I’ve never seen a Brook trout in-person and they were beautiful (best tasting, as well).
I knew it would be tough to use my fly rod if trees were close by so Jimmy let me swing his rod for a bit. First cast, bam. Fish on. I caught another and handed the rod back to Jimmy, still dumbfounded by how easy it was. I watched that last fish take the lure about six or eight feet out. It was flash out of the darkness and grabbed the lure like a thief. Zip, the line went taught.
We decided anything beyond ten, total, we’d throw back. Ten was enough for the five of us. If we weren’t so hungry, I would’ve wanted to throw them all back as they were such a pretty fish. I think it was decided, but not by us or Jimmy, that he would be designated fisher. Sure, the rest of us caught one or two but Jimmy caught the majority. He was in the zone.
Dinner-time approached fast so there was a little tussle over cleaning the fish. No fisher-person likes to clean fish. It just has to be done. In Asian culture, we usually leave the head on when we cook it but that seemed to gross out my fellow adventurers. (A fishes’ cheek is like oysters on a chicken!)
I made rice on hot coals and we fried the trout in butter. There was more than enough, so Kula got a whole fish. I was lucky enough to get one of the Brook trout. It looks and tastes like salmon. Whoa. New favorite.
Drake, “do it,” I’d say. If Kula’s ears perked up or I heard a sound, I’d ask him to let out the bear call. It got to that point where I’d just look at him when we or Kula heard a sound.
Rain, Cooking, Drying
Along with the constant layer of DEET we applied every couple of hours, the constant buzzing, and the occasional bite from the one that got though (followed by the immediate slap), we dealt with constant precipitation. It rained heavily, for a short time, that first overnight at the lake, but otherwise it was a constant sprinkle; enough to soak things. The overnight shower got through Jimmy and Addison’s tent, soaking some of their bedding. My bedding got a little wet but easily remedied by tightening the straps on the rain-fly (I’d left them loose in my hurry to get a nap).
The sun came out for about thirty minutes our first morning on the Lake. But then it disappeared, never to be seen again for the reminder of our trip. I recall all of us looked up, frequently, to see if the sky would clear up. Once or twice we’d get our hopes up but then the sky would darken, again.
We woke that second morning of our trip with high hopes of beautiful skies, sun (to warm us and to dry our things), and for fishing on the other side of the lake, where McGuire (who brought a fly rod, as well) and I could easily swing a fly out in the open.
We ate dehydrated meals exclusively when it wasn’t the dinner meal. After eating one of those, McGuire set out by himself to the other side of the lake, where the boulders, sloughed-off by Squaretop, piled up on our opposite shore. They didn’t look big from our side until McGuire stood on top of one. From that, I could tell that it was further away than I thought.
The rest of us got our individual “areas of operation” squared-away, hung out what we needed to dry, and set out with our fishing gear to meet McGuire on the other side. He’d been over there an hour and a half before we showed up. So, it was demoralizing to me, the other fly-fisherman, that he hadn’t caught a thing in that time. Of course, Jimmy and Addison, both, caught fish within minutes of our arrival. I was snubbed as well after trying a half a dozen different types of flies.
We were there for no more than an hour when we noticed the darkened sky approaching from down the valley. We could tell that we had no more than twenty minutes before all of that ugliness would be upon us.
When the first large, cold, drops started to hit, we all jumped up, gathered our things, and made our way for the tree-line. It started dumping rain before we made it under the trees. We all huddled under a group of pines, to stay out of the rain. Just as we did, it started to hail, pea-sized balls of hail. The ground immediately started to look like the ground, up north, just as the snow starts to show patches of brown grass. There were lighting strikes close by to accompany that hail. It was surreal. The heaviest part of the storm passed almost as quickly as it showed up but it continued to piss down rain for the rest of the day.
Kula remained damp from the moment we woke up on trail-day one. Whenever we stopped, and when she couldn’t get real close to the fire, she curled up on the ground and shivered. This bothered me. I would tell her to come close to the fire, and she would, but either way, she still laid on damp earth.
I fed her more than normal and gave her leftover meals but I know that wasn’t enough to feed her metabolism. All of our metabolisms were screaming, there’s no doubt. Elevation. Chill. Anxiety. Increased workload because of all that. We were at Mother Nature’s mercy.
I wasn’t in much better shape. As most of the gear I’d need in a situation like this was in storage, I ended up bringing cotton shirts. I thought enough to bring my wool socks and I had enough for a clean change every day along with one extra. Cotton, as I’m sure you know, soaks up water—terrible when it’s raining and you’re chilled to the bone.
Well, we returned from our adventure on the other side of the lake where I realized I’d left out bedding and clothes to dry on a makeshift clothesline I placed before leaving. I had plenty of dry wool socks but my shoes were less than ideal: raggedy running shoes and a pair of slippers (flip flops). I had one dry shirt, left. I had a Gore-tex parka and plenty of hats, so all was not lost.
McGuire and I talked about what we were going to do with the trout for dinner that evening throughout the day. We had a good plan for that meal. McGuire and I cooked and Addison helped season the fish as we went. We had more than we could eat but I know everyone was hungry. Dry black beans I nursed throughout the day did not cook—even accounting for elevation. Weird. McGuire and I were hungry enough to try eating them but they just weren’t right. We each ate a dehydrated meal on top of the fish. I was worried about having enough fuel for the push to the summit of Squaretop in the morning. And I was more than a little worried about getting Kula up there. Period.
Sleep was a welcomed thing. I sleep so much better when the air’s a bit chilled.
I woke a couple of times during the evening. When it was time to get up, I woke up anxious. During the two nights on the lake you could hear the occasional large boulder tumbling down from Squaretop. It was the large ones that caused tremors in the earth that were most distressing. One woke me during the night. Although, I know they were too far away to cause us any direct damage, I was worried about a Tsunami if one of those large boulders hit the lake across from us. We were only four or five feet above the waterline.
There was a Mother’s Day, one year, back in Hawaii, when I was still working for City and County of Honolulu EMS that I remember very well. I was on duty at the time. I heard the call for medics to Sacred Falls, up near Punaluu. They had a mass casualty situation where a landslide killed six and injured thirty-three. I’d been to the park many times before that day so I had a pretty good visual of what happened. One of the District Supervisors, Mandy, told the story of what he saw, later, to a group of us, outside of one of the City’s ERs. Appendages missing, faces missing, people flattened . . .
By the time Kula and I rolled out of the tent (always the first up), I’d decided we would stay behind and try to dry things by the fire. We felled a dead tree the evening before so had plenty of semi-dry wood to burn. We would not make for the summit of Squaretop. It was decided.
Things didn’t work out that way. Jimmy has a way of reasoning that you just can’t argue with: you’ll kick yourself later if you don’t try, kind of thing. I had zero defense. We had to try.
We ate well, that morning. I knew the route up would be steeper than the route up to Granite Lake, and it would be a bit further. Jimmy was right. If I didn’t at least try, I would’ve kicked myself in the butt. So, we ate a little more than usual. I was more worried about Kula as we had no idea what kind of trail would lead us to the top. Did we have to climb? Would we need ropes and harnesses? We had none of that stuff but those were questions I was asking myself.
The plan was to pack light (water only) but I was not going without my camera gear. I borrowed Addison’s pack, which is much lighter than mine, and filled it with my camera and two additional lenses. I had enough water for Kula and me and stuffed the top of my pack with my parka.
We got a later start because they were waiting on me (remember, I wasn’t planning on going). Once we were on our way, we made our way around the lake, the same way we went to meet McGuire the day before when we encountered the lightning and hail. MaGuire remembered the way up, from multiple times before and that took us through the boulder field. Rain was a constant companion but not bad.
The only sane way to go up any steep grade is to zigzag your way up. I found myself taking up the rear, again, in the middle of a boulder field about as long as a football field, zigzaging my way across. There was deadfall all around, as well. Just a short way through all of that, feet began to feel solid earth. The grade got much steeper and, just as in previous days, lack of oxygen led to gasping for air and the inevitable “Everest Step” that would see me to the top.
About halfway up, Jimmy stopped under some pines and signaled to me to make it as far as he was and that the tree trunk he was sitting on had “my name on it.” Like previous times, when you can barely think beyond the primal senses, I still took note of the dangerous beauty all around. The grade was greater than 45º, here. Clouds obscured all but the closest of mountains, but you could see where we were camped out across the lake, a few hundred feet below. The rain wasn’t bad but it was enough to notice.
While we were stopped and I could think a little bit better, I pulled out my camera for some shots, all the while, Kula would come under the tree cover, give me a sniff with that excited look she gives me when she’s ready for anything, and trotted back onto the trail that led up to the others. She would go up, check the others, and trot back over to me to wait.
This amazing animal. My companion for the past eight years. I’m still in awe of her.
There was more steep grade ahead, at least another half a mile of “straight up” trudging before it leveled out slightly. At this point, we had to go around this cliff-lined spur, to the left. For me, being near any cliff with loose, overhanging, rocks is disconcerting. I wanted to move past this section as quickly as possible but walking on loose trails limits your speed. And don’t forget those crappy running shoes I was wearing.
We made a quick stop to drink from a spring flowing out from the cliff wall (a family tradition, I’m told) but I was too anxious to enjoy it. Moving beyond this, climbing over large boulders and deadfall, we found ourselves in the lower end of a giant bowl, rimmed on one side by the access points they’d used in previous years to summit Squaretop.
In previous years, Jimmy and them, came a full month earlier, when there was still snow on the ground and sheets of ice covered those access points. They used crampons and ice axes those years and we had none of that now. The snow was only visible in the most shadiest of sections in the bowl. But, even still, the snow was sparse.
We followed the stream that flowed down through the center of this bowl upward to a grassy plateau, just below a quarter mile long boulder field. There’s no way, I thought. Jimmy looked at me but I had to say it. “Kula and me are staying here,” I say out loud. No one could say anything. We all knew there’d be no way to safely navigate the boulder field and fifty feet of near-sheer cliff with Kula. I know she would’ve followed me anywhere and that’s exactly why I couldn’t take that chance.
We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. MaGuire and Jimmy discussed which route they’d take. I started to think about the cold creeping in after my heart rate returned to normal and thought about how long their up and down would take. I was about to get really cold, I thought.
As we watched them make their way across the boulder field, I had to tell Kula, several times, to stay. I could tell she didn’t like watching the rest of our pack continue on. I have to admit, I didn’t like it either but there was no way. No way.
From where were were standing, the hundred foot cliff looked sheer, straight up. The rain fell a tiny bit harder. Or was I getting colder and gathering more senses? In hindsight, I think it was a little bit of both.
I could see they were slowly climbing up what had to be high ledges, as they zigzagged up the cliff face. I thought of the walkie talkies a buddy and I always used out in the wild, up in Idaho. Best for “line-of-sight” communication, I wished we had them now.
It took about forty minutes for them to cross the boulder field and make their way up that cliff. I whistled up to them when McGuire crossed over what appeared to be the summit and I got a wave from Drake, twenty feet below. I turned to Kula and said out loud, “there they go, baby.”
I sat down, at first, Drake’s poncho draped over my exposed legs. The peanut butter sandwich was likely burned up and gone by then. All of the stuff to make another was right in front of me but my fingers were too cold and wet to move properly. I explored within 30m of our little “base camp,” eyeing the stream for any hint of gold but stopping short of reaching in to find out. Glacier water is numbingly cold! I did some pushups but I had little juice to do more than twenty. I know I had to keep moving or I’d hypothermic soon.
A few boulders fell between the time they left to now. McGuire loosened one on his way up the cliff that fell well away from the others but still made a sound, as it fell, that conveyed it’s size. Other boulders fell to my immediate right and left. They were far enough away not be of concern but the large boulder I was sitting on, I thought, got there somehow. I thought about Sacred Falls.
I cussed a bit. A few F-bombs. A few “Jerry MaGuire” air punches. Fine!! Shit! “What the [eff] am I doing here?!”
After an hour past, and they were long out of sight, I looked down at Kula, who was curled up into a ball between two large boulders, and said, “let’s go!” She was up and ready, instantly. I faced where the others crossed over, cupped my hands, and yelled, “I’m leaving!!”
I had a general idea how to get back but it was Kula who led the way, mostly. I followed the river down to where Jimmy and I circled around the cliff (the others went over the cliff). And then Kula took over. She was on high alert.
We passed the spring water stop and crashed through trees as we continued down. I forget to turn around, sometimes, as we make our way on a new trail, which is something I do so I remember how it’ll look on the way back. I don’t remember the trail between the spring water and reaching the top of the face fronting the lake. It was a least a few hundred meters but I lost the trail.
I feared walking up on a bear or some other predator. I worried about Kula but I could sense she worried enough for the both of us. I let out my version of a bear call, which sounds like a mix between a martial arts ki-ya and a military call (not sure what you’d call those sounds we made in my Army days: Hooah? Hoorah!?)
Kula took the best trails so I followed her. There was a point, during our ascent, where I remembered Drake helped pass Kula over this large swathe of deadfall. We got to the edge of that on this downward, return trip, and I didn’t recognize it. Kula wanted to go around it and I could not see a way through it for the both of us. Skirting this section, around to the right, still following Kula, I notice she brings us to a short cliff. I hopped down alright but then turn around and look up to see how Kula would navigate this section and she was gone. I whistle but don’t see her. I have a small heart attack but then notice she’s already standing behind me ready to continue down . . . whew, kid. “I freakin’ love you,” I whisper.
We finally make it down a different way, ever-mindful that we need to try to catch the trail between the large deadfall and boulder fields. We avoid both but I’m so chilled to the bone by the time we get to the marshy area on the edge of the lake, I can think of nothing else except warmth. Walking back through the marsh, feet soaking wet, I keep an eye out for firewood. A fire is all I could think of. That’s what got me back to camp.
There was a type of pine that lined the trails, where the lower branches were dry and brittle but thick enough to burn well. I had a bundle of that stuff under each arm by the time we arrived back at camp. I removed Addison’s pack, dried my camera gear, stowed it in the tent and made a fire. I was chilled to the core.
The wood I gathered up the trail from our campsite was so dry it went up immediately. I piled one whole bundles worth of wood and squatted near the edge of the fire, keeping my face out of the smoke. All I had on was a pair of slippers, shorts and my parka. Everything else was wet.
I sat in that position, hunched down over the fire, until I was almost too hot. Hunger and the change in our metabolism made it harder to warm up. When I finally got there, I crawled into the tent with Kula, wrapped myself tightly in my sleeping bag, and slept until I heard Drake’s call out across the lake. I thought about staying up but now that I knew they were alright (at least Drake was), I fell back asleep. Deep sleep.
I heard the boys sitting around the fire but I only had shorts on (everything else was wet), when I woke up. I called out to see if anyone had any extra clothes and McGuire did. Jimmy zipped open my tent and handed me McGuire’s favorite Led Zeppelin t-shirt. I put it on and covered myself with my parka, which was still damp, and took a seat on the opposite side of the fire. I squatted down close, like before, as I felt like I was running a fever (which happens when I’m a little dehydrated).
We told stories. They showed me the shots they got on the summit. We didn’t fish but rather ate as many of our leftover dehydrated meals we had left. I was a little jealous of them reaching the summit but it was great to see them back, in one piece, and in high spirits.
This is gonna be a bitch of a day, I thought to myself, waking on the day we were to hike out. It was Thursday but, like all of the other days for the past week, that meant nothing. Jimmy and the boys had to catch a flight out of Salt Lake City the next day but that’s about all Thursday meant to me . . . other than being the day we hike out of this deadly-beautiful place.
I was ready to leave but in some ways I’d be just as happy building a cabin and staying right there. But most of me was ready for a hot shower and some real food, though (maybe that burger we talked about the night before). Just having all of us make it back in one piece was all I could think of.
This is the tough part of the story to tell you but I need it off of my chest. I packed in a comforter that I always use for the inside of the tent. Kula and I slept with that thing for the past decade or so. Well, it was soaking wet after the day we saw hail and never really dried out in the interim. I meant to bury it but I walked away from camp, down the trail and wedged the folded comforter in the crook of a large tree. I felt terrible but reasoned that it was eight or ten pounds I couldn’t afford to carry. It could be that eight or ten pounds that would tip me backwards on the slope down to Beaver Park. We each only carried one remaining dehydrated meal for when we stopped on the way out so we didn’t have those to carry. My pack was a bit heavier than when we hiked in but made adjustments to the pack so that it fit me better. I would’ve noticed the weight of that comforter.
Leave no trace but I did.
We didn’t have to really climb up anything huge on the way out. There were the small rolling hills after walking down the steep grade going down to Beaver Park and then the small hill up to the parking lot, at the end of the trail. I knew that would be the last toughest push.
Walking down a steep hill with a hundred pounds on your back is tough. Let me rephrase: walking down a steep hill with a hundred pounds on your back just plain sucks! But you can’t think of that out there. One thing when hanging with Jimmy is his ever-positive attitude will rub off on you. Oh, to be sure, he’ll push you but it comes with so much positive energy. Constant encouragement. My freakin’ hero.
The walking stick was key on that long downhill section. I stumbled a lot, lost my fishing net (velcro-ed to the outside of my pack), had to readjust a broken hip belt constantly but that was about the extent of my gripes. I was wet and soon cold, if we stopped for long but it helped to block out all of the pain and discomfort by thinking of something else. I thought of Arizona quite a bit. Or I’d think ahead to the high school reunion I’d be attending in a couple of weeks.
We saw a few different parties, walking in the other direction: day hikers, a group of men heading up to the summit of Gannet Peak (where McGuire wants us to go next year), and a couple from up north who were Toyota Land Cruiser people like Jimmy and McGuire. When they started talking more in-depth with the last people, I continued walking. I knew they’d both pass me soon enough.
We stopped long-enough to make a hot meal and then one other time to filter water but other than that we trudged forward. And we made good time. The last couple of miles I’d let the others walk so far ahead that I was soon way back. I could see McGuire, every now and then, coming up to the crest of a hill ahead of me but then disappear just as quickly, going down the other side. I had a good tempo with my walking stick. I just had to make that last climb up to the parking lot. We needed to be in our cars before 4pm. I don’t recall what time it was when we finally departed camp but Kula an I stepped onto the parking lot at 1:38pm.
Jimmy had my truck started and the heater blowing by the time I arrived. All I had to do was drop my pack into the back of my truck, swig some water, and we were out of there!
Meeting Jim Lent
The .44 Magnum handgun we had with us came from Jim Lent. Jimmy was introduced to the Wind River Range (the chain of mountains we were in) by Jim sixteen years before when Jimmy’s family started making the trip an annual event. He was a wilderness badass, of sorts. He still is. At seventy-nine.
Jim has a cabin with his long-time girlfriend/wife(?) just before the dirt road leading into the Green River Lake Campground (where we just were). A short drive from the main road up a dirt drive passed all of Jim neighbors, we stop at a gate. Jim’s cabins are within a fenced-in yard easily sitting on two acres. He has a beautiful view behind his “living” cabin of the large valley and mountains to the north.
The day we met him was the day before his eightieth birthday. Jimmy knew I wanted a photograph of him so he mentioned it to Jim as soon as we met. When we walked in, Jim’s “wife” had just made popcorn, sprinkled with a little brewer’s yeast. The smell was beyond delicious. We were all starving! No one said a thing but that huge bowl of popcorn disappeared within a couple of minutes.
I asked Jim to step out on his back porch so I could take advantage of a little better light. I shot while he and Jimmy talked. No pressure. As soon as I was finished (and after Jim’s wife tugged my ear for a bit), I had to leave. I couldn’t wait for the boys. I was “hangry” and popcorn was not going to do it. I wasn’t cerebrating well. Jimmy was being polite but I needed real food (like the burger we mentioned the night before, when we were talking about what we’d like to eat when we got back) . . . I thanked Jim and his wife, told the boys I’ll see them in town, and I was out. Burger and chocolate shake in my belly a half an hour later.
It happened a month and a half ago. As I write this, I can only think of how good I felt the next day. Physically, I was sore all over but mentally, it hadn’t sunk in yet. But still, I remember that feeling of accomplishment. Of feeling in-shape. I haven’t felt in-shape since the day I arrived in Hawaii, twenty-five years ago.
The boys and I went our separate ways the next day. I found myself looking forward to seeing them not long after but knew I’d be down after my reunion. I wanted them to know how much the trip meant to me. They felt the same way. And it was great to see them.
As I said before, McGuire is talking about adding on another twelve or twenty miles, to the trip, next year. I’m ready for it. No matter how much anxiety I’ll have leading up to that, I know that we’ve seen some tough wilderness, already . . . how much worse could it get??
*Originally published in August of 2015, this was recovered after inadvertently erasing my database. I pre-dated(?) it so it shows up in my history correctly.