Monday, May 30, 2005

Needle Creek Adventure

Day 1: The hike to Base Camp

Our main objective for Day 1, was to hike to the confluence of Needle & the S. Shoshone, set up our base camp & then go scout as much of Needle Cr as possible. We weren’t exactly sure what we'd find, but the idea of setting up a base camp at the top of the Box Canyon of the S. Shoshone, & then checking out not only Needle, but another promising tributary as well, had us all excited ... and nervous, as we would be heading deep into grizzly habitat in one of the most remote areas of Wyoming.

You can pick your own favorite hip hop reference .. "Best protect ya neck!" .. "It's a cold world, ya gotta pack ya own heat!" .. Either way, in lieu of a 'gat, bear spray is a good thing to have with you out here.


Not sure whether it was the late start, the elevation, mapping inaccuracies, poor fitness, or a combo of all of that, but it took us much longer to hike above the Box than anticipated. Todd was definitely struggling with his Gus & provisions for 3 days in the backcountry on top of messed-up ribs.

Pit stop to peer into the SF Box Canyon. Beautiful scenery up here.

Photo: TG/Range Life

Shane at the overlook.

Photo: TG/Range Life

So we ended up setting up camp at the first piece of nice flat ground we found upstream of the Box. We cooked up some Tasty Bites & then after dinner, hiked to the confluence of Needle & the S. Shoshone. The flow looked to be about optimal for that part of the creek, but we'd have to wait until the next day to get a feel for what lay upstream. The topos promised 4 miles of gradient over 250 fpm, increasing each mile to a maximum avg gradient of around 400 fpm. Our aerial scout appeared to reveal that the creek would be a maze of boulder gardens from start to finish. As we stood at the confluence, we were excited to see smooth round boulders instead of the sharp-mank we had dealt with at the exit of the Cabin Cr & Deer Cr gorges, further downstream in the S. Shoshone drainage. With dwindling daylight & the uneasiness of being surrounded by game & predators (we saw a huge heard of elk, tons of mt.lion scat, & a dead wolf beside the trail on our 2 mile hike to the confluence), we made the call to head back to camp & get some rest for an early start in the a.m.

Day 2: Let's walk some more!

After breakfast, we faced more boat-schlepping as we embarked on the 2-mi. hike to the confluence & then another 3-4 mi's along the creek. The topos showed Needle's bottom mile to be around 400 fpm, & the trail certainly reflected that as we switch-backed above the gorge walls & up the drainage. It should be noted that we were pretty surprised to find "gorge walls" on our hike, as our aerial scout did not lead us to believe that a proper gorge existed on Needle. Now we were getting excited again, even as our shoulders, backs & legs were in pain from all the carrying. At this point, we realized that taking the time to peak over the edge to scout for wood/eddies/shoreline/gnar would be wise. Somewhere during this process, Todd “Eagle Eye” Gillman spotted Griz #1. Luckily he (the bear, not Todd) was foraging for tasty bites on the opposite side of the gorge. We stopped our scouting for nearly a half-hour to watch big brown & take pictures. Next, we found a boxed-in section of the gorge with a very conitnous lead-in to a 20 foot waterfall…score! The interesting thing (other than the very continuous lead-in to the 20-footer) was that big brown was lurking literally on top of the gorge that we were scouting!

The waterfall.

Photo: TG/Range Life

The smokey.

Photo: TG/Range Life

The gorge downstream.

Photo: TG/Range Life

The lead-in to the waterfall.

Photo: TG/Range Life

More hiking ... more scouting ... & ultmately we decided that with daylight running out it, we should just try to make it to the top of the gorge, ditch our boats, take one more look into the steep section, & then return to camp beat-down & starving after a second straight day of walking with heavy plastic things strapped to our backs. On the way back to base camp, Eagle Eye somehow picks out another barely visible animate object far across the Needle Cr valley -- Griz #2. This guy was looking for tasty bites in the green grass of an apparent avalanche path. To date, neither Shane nor Todd had really even seen a grizzly in the wild. Then in the span of a couple hours, we saw two big bears -- cool, but kind of disconcerting at the same time.

Are you serious? Another grizzly? yeah, that's right ..

Photo: TG/Range Life

We still had to make it back to camp, cook, & then hike *back* up the same trail in the a.m. Once back at camp, backcountry chef E-Ross whipped up some tasty bites of his own for us to forage on. And then, just as we were climbing into our sleeping bags, Todd says "Holy S##t!" "What?", says Shane. "It's looking right at us!". A big black bear is standing on its two hind legs not 200 yards away from us on a gravel bar in the river. She hung around long enough to get a sniff of our tasty bites & a glimpse into our camp, & then as Shane stood up to see what was going on, she returned to all-fours & sprinted into the timber & up the scree slope. Those animals are freakin' fast, & I'd bet that they'd beat most cars off the line. I'd recommend NOT trying to outrun a bear. By the way, that was 3 bears in one 12-hour period of time ...

Beat-down, disappointed that we didn't get to paddle today, & freakin' stahvin' .. Shane holds up the dinner table while Evan prepares the tasty bites. Moments later we would see the third big bear of the day.

Photo: TG/Range Life

Day 3: Can we please go kayaking today?
We went to bed with a typical windy, Wyoming spring storm rolling through while visions of grizzly bears (not sugar plums) (what's a "sugar plum", anyway?) danced through our heads. And we woke to a chilly Seattle drizzle....not the most motivating weather. In spite of what Ma Nature was throwing at us, we awoke early, & hit the same trail for the fifth time, only this time, sans boats, which made the walk a breeze. A break in the clouds provided some amazing scenery & a little more skip in our step as we imagined the cloud cover & cool weather would be burning off by the time we were launching into Needle. Soon enough we were back up where the boats were stashed, & finally heading down to the river.

Trip photog wearing his Ansel Adams influence on his sleeve .. Beautiful scenery at the headwaters of Needle Cr during the brief break in the weather on Day 3.

Photo: TG/Range Life

Our mission now would be to navigate the first descent of Needle Cr to the confluence, then make it down to our base camp on the S. Shoshsone, where we'd need to break down & pack up our base camp. After all this, we still had to face the Box canyon of the S. Shoshone, all in one day totaling more than 10 miles....Here we go!

We made good time through the upper portion of Needle with many must-make eddies requiring more of a "drydock-your-boat-&-hug-a-rock" strategy than a traditional "catch-an-eddy" approach. A couple log &/or mank portages, & one sketchy broach (scary situation narrowly averted), & we eventually we found ourselves at the lead-in to the waterfall. A solid trio twisting class V rapids that have to be run in rapid succession puts you literally at the lip of a rolling 20-footer into a big boil that feeds an undercut river-left wall.

Boogie water & boulder gardens upstream of the gorge.

Photo: TG/Range Life

E-Rock probing the waterfall gorge. Stuck the line, of course.

Photo: TG/Range Life

After the waterfall, the character of the creek changed into more of a steep, boulder-strewn ramp, as opposed to the pool-drop style found higher up. We had to portage two MASSIVE avalanches that crossed the river & hadn't yet melted. One of these slides towered 20-30 feet in height & spanned probably 200 yards. We continued making good progress downstream throught the steep, fast, often blind stuff .. bashing our way through the smooth-mank (which is way better than sharp-mank or skank-mank, but is still mank after all) .. eventually reaching the confluence & enjoying the sweet feeling of 2,000 additional cfs of water to float on. A quick camp breakdown & the addition of several more layers to buffer against the cold winds of the spring sleet & snow storm we were now in, & then it was onward toward the Box. With basalt walls towering a thousand feet overhead, the beautiful box canyon was almost over too soon, but we were more than happy to let the stresses of the trip disappear on this cold-ass day & make our way down to the truck. One more hike across the floodplain & some barbwire fences & we found ourselves back where this adventure began...and "adventure" is definately the best word to describe this experience .... one that none of us will soon forget.

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