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Travel Turkeys

Getting the boot from the Wyoming wilderness

November 24, 2002|Jay Weiner | Special to The Times

Boldly the intrepid adventurers (and their dog) strode off into the wild. Meek and chastened they returned. Mother Nature, 1. Rebecca and Jay, 0.

The end of the adventure really should have been Friday morning, when, a couple of miles from our campsite, my wife was knocked off her feet by the powerful current of what the map called a creek but, swollen by snowmelt, was really a river. Twisting awkwardly while trying to make sure that our dog, Calypso, wasn't drowning, Rebecca fell and lost her grip on her boots (she had taken them off to ford the creek), which the current swept away.

We quickly recovered one, which still had a sock tucked snugly inside it, and found the second sock snagged on a branch 50 feet downstream. But the other boot eluded us.

We spent close to three hours dredging the riverbed, floating sticks to gauge current patterns, losing feeling in various appendages in the frigid water and getting devoured by mosquitoes.

Early the previous evening, with visions of campfires and starry skies dancing in our heads, we pitched our tent a few miles from where the road became impassable to our beat-up Honda. We were hoping to spend 3 1/2 days hiking 30-odd miles in northern Wyoming's Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. There we were, marveling at the quality of our packing job, our love of the outdoors, the beauty surrounding us, when the winged bloodsuckers descended on us like a biblical plague.

We had bug spray, which slowed their onslaught. Rebecca built a fire, but even smoke didn't deter them. Our dinner plans quickly shifted from the leisurely kind (pasta) to the stuff-our-faces-and-take-cover variety (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). We gave up and, with nightfall at least an hour away, took our bug-spray-slathered sandwiches into the tent.

In the morning, we found that the mosquitoes hadn't been discouraged by our early retreat but were waiting for breakfast. We broke camp hurriedly in the mistaken belief that motion would keep them at bay. Coated in enough bug spray to cover a small hippo, we were afforded a respite, but sloshing around in the creek rinsed us clean. Our options were reduced to searching for the boot in the water with our feet burning from the cold or recovering on the shore and losing pints of blood. So we searched, got bitten, searched, got bitten, searched and got bitten.

Then the dog rolled in a deposit of poorly buried human feces that she had unearthed near the bank. That should have been the last straw, but Rebecca and I had been ignoring ill omens for three days and weren't about to let a stinky dog or a squadron of airborne vampires defeat us.

I had next to no vacation time at my job, and with many far-flung family commitments, we have little time to escape on our own. Here we were with a five-day Fourth of July weekend. It didn't matter that I had a raging sinus infection and a tubercular-sounding cough; that I had buckled the nail on my left big toe playing basketball in too-tight shoes the day before we left and was in pain; or that my wife had a vicious case of tendinitis in her right knee. We were going camping, come hell or high water. (We should, perhaps, have been less specific in our ultimatum.)

An uphill battle

We came close to giving up on the boot more than once, but our stubborn streaks won out. The creek had the last laugh, though. Rebecca, digging under a natural dam beneath which we thought the boot might have lodged, lost her footing on the slick rock, slammed her back against a log, twisted her good knee and ended up neck deep in the icy water. Not long after, we conceded the boot -- but not before Calypso had rediscovered the pile of excrement and I had been reduced to one giant welt.

Rather than acknowledge that we had been defeated completely, Rebecca decided to soldier on in her soaked running shoes. So, wet, bug-bitten and ill shod, we pushed on, climbing up past one lake, which involved another freezing ford, though with a less bullying current, and ultimately to a spot just before a second creek.

Apparently the author of our guidebook had done this route in late summer, because what was rated as barely a puddle jump was a torrid rush of a river that I would have hesitated to raft. Although the ford was narrow and there was a luscious (though probably bug-infested) campsite on the other side, we saw no way to get across. Rebecca's running shoes had no traction, and we doubted that Calypso could withstand the current. One misstep would have swept us onto some nasty rocks.

After some desperate speculation (maybe we could swing over the river on those tree branches; maybe we could build a little stone bridge; maybe we could levitate), we concluded that retreat was the better part of valor.

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