When approached by relatives ofFinis Mitchell to paint Mt. Mitchell in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, I jumped at a chance. I know of no higher honor I can achieve as an artist than to be invited to pay homage and commemoreate Finis Mitchell, the Wind River Range's Man o' the Mountains. I'd be in the southern heart of the range. To me he is a saint and this is his church.
The Cirque of the Towers is one of the range's well-known landmark destinations, where thirteen steep peaks rise twelve thousand feet in a ring around Lonesome Lake, headwaters of the north fork of the Popo Agie River. It is more populated by climbers than anglers, but the area holds native cutthroat trout, and within a short hike live the full variety of introduced trout species - brook, brown, rainbow and california goldens, many of them very large fish. I'd been in for a few days on my earlier travels but late September weather had snowed out possibilities of longer times deep in the mountains. Painting has always gone well for me in the rugged ranges of Wyoming; I'm always eager for another visit.
In a country where God's creatures and creation were held in spiritual reverence, I would not need to inform about Finis Mitchell. He started the first horse-in fishing camp in the Wind Rivers and personally stocked 314 lakes by packing various and suitable breeds of trout on horseback in five-gallon milk cans up to high lakes that were blocked by steep cascades to migrating trout. Many of these lakes were incredibly rich and remain so today, with short seasons but a cornucopia of trout food. At one lake I saw four-inch leeches, inch-long freshwater shrimps, waterboatman, callibaetus, dragonflies, caddisflies of 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and some 1-1/2 inch motorboat caddis that would be better called Jetski Caddis. Following one you'd most likely see its path end with a washing machine sound as large trout swirled to take them..
Finis Mtchell was the Johnny Appleseed of trout in the Wind River Range. With no other prospects in the depression he set up a camp with borrowed horses and took people fishing, and to give them good results he created what is still some of the best trout fishing in the continental USA. With a lifetime in the wilderness, Finis was the first to ascend over 200 peaks and named many of the features and lakes in the area. He professed to the sanctity of all creatures and creation, and the priceless value of wild places and the quiet inner peace one can learn there. He lives on in his remarkeable guidebook, Wind River Trails. I read and reread it between planning in March and finally going in August.
I love his folksy manner: "follow the trail around the right side and no kidding, it goes right up aganst the granite wall above the rock slide."
And his grandfatherly wisdom:
"Too many of us follow endless trails. Unless a trail leads us somewhere and ends, it is but a circle."
And his inspirations:
"We don't stop hiking because we grow old, we grow old because we stop hiking". Finus was still backpacking in his nineties on crutches, according to the locals.
"We must strive to preserve this wilderness for innocent souls yet to follow in our footsteps: that they too, may enjoy a wilderness with all its bounties, and learn to preserve it for those who follow them."
I agree with Finus. Too many people don't get out and enjoy the natural real world, instead they live only in the made up world of concrete, commerce and computers. In a democracy, when the majority misses the deep soul experience of love for all things that Finus found in these mountains, we risk losing it forever through neglect. Nature is the real world, dwindling around us and in need of our tender care. A few days up in the mountains now and then is a medicinal necessity, and will be even moreso in the new century. With much of the west held in the public trust, we as the public need to keep vigilant in our care for our land.
Mt. Mitchell rises to 12,482 feet at the southern end of the Wind River's main attraction, the Cirque of the Towers. Beneath and between the thirteen peaks are snowfields and glaciers, melting to form Lonesome Lake and the headwaters of the Popo Agie (po-poje) flowing our through a meadow opening down to the south.
From maps it looked like I could find good views of Mt. Mitchell from Big Sandy Lake and on up the trail from there to Big Sandy Pass, but the striking sheer east face would only be seen from over the pass at Lonesome lake, as in the picture on the back of Finis' book.
I planned a hike up from where the Mitchell's camp was, up and over Big Sandy (also called Jackass) Pass. The distance was only ten miles but the altitude over ten thousand feet was a concern. Instead of some high altitude practice trips in the weeks before, I was in the Netherlands for my other job. I hadn't camped above 5,000 feet yet all year. I set my goals on the easy side, with a short evening hike on my arrival to a lake so close that everyone passes it by, then another short day to popular Big Sandy lake.
I slept on a small ridge above the lake until sun hit the tent and didn't fish until after breakfast. A vague nausea of altitude adjustment took away all ambition but a swirl like your leg in a bathtub just off from the shore below my camp drew me to rig up. On the first cast I was into it and it was leaving, before the line broke. At a nearby spot I hooked another that did a double end-over ender to shake loose, and soon caught a plump twelve-inch rainbow trout that was just a whapper in this lake. I already had my oatmeal and was moving camp so I let it go to grow up smarter like the others.
At Big Sandy Lake I found tents set in all the areas above the trail on the way in from both sides. The good view of Mt. Mitchell would be from the opposite shore, but a troop that I counted as eighteen was moving like a caterpillars's segments over and around the lake's perimeter towards there. I sat and rested and watched their steady progress and eventually they took a side trail.
I hiked around to what looked like the only area less populated than my Oakland neighborhood and set my tent in an almost flat and neary level space the size of my tent. It was nice over there tucked back in the pines, but through the trees I had a view across the lake framed by jagged Warbonnet on the left and Mt. Mitchell on the right. I watched the trout from the high rocks of my front porch and some were bigger than the tiny ones people fished for all around the lake.
After setting up camp and relaxing a bit, dodging a brief rain, I proceded around this lesser populated side of the lake, down to the outlet where a waterfall dropped to a small but deep lake nestled into the side of Scheistler Peak. Brook trout were waiting below the waterfall, willing to bite any fly I tried, at least once.
I kept two for breakfast, hung them in the cool evening breeze and read myself to sleep.
The early morning gave me perfect light to paint. I had to work quickly as the shadows were being overtaken by the sun climbing over the flank of Mt. Mitchell. I started a watercolor's first layers then hastily sketched in a small sketchbook in pencil, patient to let the watercolor dry. Between subsequent of the watercolor I colored in the pencil sketch, anything to kill a few minutes. Early dawn and late evening light are beautiful to paint but not if it doesn't dry. This morning there was no dew and the painting progressed while the view still held some of its morning glow of color.
The weather stayed sunny and clear with just a single cotton ball of cumulus cloud building up above while I enjoyed a bowl of oatmeal and cup of coffee, packed up camp and started around Big Sandy lake.
Although the hike from Big Sandy entrance to Lonesome Lake is only ten miles, those who backpack it in one day are in the minority. The first six miles to Big Sandy lake are easy, level and straight, but the next four up and over Big Sandy or Jackass Pass seem like a good days work to me. You climb high above Shaft Lake only to see the trail ahead of you descend back to lake level at the far end, only to climb right back up before the next lake. You skirt high enough above Arrowhead lake to see its perfectly symetrical namesake shape, then spy the pass ahead of you about two hundred feet lower. And here you see the trail drop down in front of you to just above Arrowhead lake before climbing steeply back up to the pass. You also see a cut to the side of the lake a hundred feet lower where the trail could have been made to save about a thousand feet of climbing. But if this were so, Lonesome lake would be even less lonesome, less a possibility for solitude and wilderness experience. Less suited to thinking about Finis Mitchell up here in the twenties and thirties, packing in guests and fish, caught in an August or more serious October snow, did he ever get blisters or stomach ache or dizzy in the thin air?
I took a shortcut across a snowbank following a straight and gradual incline to the pass.
Once you get there to the view of the Cirque of the Towers, it is worth it. Clouds were moving in but I shot some pictures before heading down to find a camp. To my left on an open ridge nestled in the cirque were three visible clusters of tents, I headed down beyond the lakes outlet a little ways beyond the quarter mile limit.
I could find no flat level ground, it was lumpy with rocks or off kilter but I set my tent up level enough to sleep on. It began to rain. I walked to the lake and watched cutthroat trout rise with dimples and rings on the waters surface amidst the small drops of drizzle, eating sardines from a can on pita bread. It rained on into the night with a steady tapping on the tent.
The weather in the cirque changes quickly and rain, sleet, snow or hail can turn on at any time. It seems to attract or perhaps generate its own weather pattern, with swirls of winds trapping storms for repeating encores. I was lucky that it was warm and only rained about half of the time I was there.
I slept very thoroughly and did not stir from the tent until the sun baked it warm. Clouds were already building, filtering the sunlight on the west side of the cirque, where Mt. Pingora shoots straight up three thousand feet from the lakeside. I sat on a smooth rock and started a painting and a pencil sketch, while the sound of people waking in their camps carried on the breeze from the bench of meadow to the west above the floor of the cirque.
The late afternoon sun would grace Mt. Mitchell in what I hoped would be its best light, so I went fishing for the midday in the Popo Agie river, working down the braided side currents and larger enjoined flows to look for suitable feeding spots for trout. There were frisky cutthroat trout in almost every holding lie. I was still a little queasy from the altitude, over 10,000 feet here so I let them go and ate hummus, tabouli and pita bread instead.
I napped in the midday shade until the sound of thunder woke me and hustled back to camp just before the rain began, but this time it soon stopped and all weather ceased to move for an hour - except ghosts of mists edging the thirteen peaks of the Cirque of the Towers. I shot a roll of film and tried painting Mt. Mitchell in the grey dampness. It was not a time for outdoor watercolor.
Morning was clear and I woke before the sun to catch it's dawning alpenglow. The scene was changing too fast to paint and the colors didn't come out in the direct photo, only a hint of it in the photo of the mountain's reflection. I took some notes on the colors and sketched in pencil, a view from a bit further back up the other side of the lake.
From what I have seen in the high parts of the Wind Rivers, the sunnier it is the quicker and more severely the thunderstorms build. I packed up camp, satisfied that I had enough sketches, photos, paintings and memory to complete the promised paintings of Mt. Mitchell. By the time I made it back over the pass to Big Sandy Lake, it was drizzling and lightning flashed above on Mt. Mitchell and the mountains ringing the cirque. I would have liked to have made the climb up Mt. Mitchell, on the gradual south side "a ten year old kid could walk up" according to Finis. I'll have to be better acclimated or perhaps in the company of a friend. It is something to look forward to.
I detoured to fish another group of lakes and found more good fishing. Four memorable teachers from Wisconsin, John, Jim, Mike, and Ron, had found the same lake on their way out from a longer trip, so I visited after dinner to share the rest of the bottle of whisky. I had only dashed it into coffee, with the hollow hole in my stomach that my lack of high altitude preparation incurred, and now on my way out had no need for it. We finished it and theirs too under their large green tarpaulin with a barcalounger of a smooth glacial granite slab to sit and recline on.
They had been fishing and had caught a few good ones. I saw a few good swirls getting closer and asked if they would mind if I tried their spot. A broadbacked fish took the fly on the second cast, and I was able to keep it out of the sticks and rocks to release the eighteen-incher..
From there it was an easy hike out and a long drive back. I detoured to take a look at the original Mitchell's Fishing Camp at Big Sandy Openings. The main lodge was warmed by ovens baking bread in the kitchen, but cook Mike Price still had time to show me around. He posed in front of the original cook cabin Finis had built for Emma, the only building there for a few years when they were just getting started and everyone slept in tents. The cabins today are spartan but comfortable looking, and reasonable in price at $45 for one bed for persons. The main lodge looked like a great place to spend an autumn evening, with two fireplaces and musical instruments. Horses and guides are available. I plan to make time to enjoy a few days there on my next visit to the Winds. Big Sandy Lodge information can be obtained by calling 307-382-6513.
Like always I was wistful at having to move on from such a place as I drove back the unpaved hour and then hit the smooth paved highways.
I'd planned to take two days with a stop in Nevada, but climbing outside Salt Lakea mysterious intermittant problem in my vehicle caused it to sputter and buck roughly anytime I let up on the gas when it was running hot on the uphills. Not wanting to risk a breakdown I stayed full throttle for a few hours and by Reno I found that it was fine if it didn't get hot, so I slowed it down to avoid a ticket, now that I was back in populated areas. I pulled into Oakland at six am, ready to sleep for two days. I dreamed I was still there in the Wind Rivers, fishing for Mr. Mitchell's fine fish, the weather calm and the orange light of dawn holding all day to paint at my leisure. A few weeks later I had the painting.
Photographs were taken with a medium format Fuji GS 645S Professional Camera, and are available in crisp 8" x 10" for $35 each. I have quite a few beyond what is displayed here.
Special thanks to Marc Wilson atZiba Color Lab in Berkeley for his care and attention in photo printing.