High School Field Ecology: The Backcountry
Welcome to a very special edition of the High School Field Ecology 2011 blog, brought to you not by just two members of la familia, but four real live--yes we survived the backcountry trip-students! In accordance with the increased number of authors, this particular blog entry will cover not just part of the backcountry trip, not just the entire trip, but the whole trip and our return to civilization, assuming Jackson, Wyoming counts as civilization.
Part the First: The Odyssey
On Saturday, eight of us woke up, said goodbye to Kelly and to our other eight family members, and set out for some of the most beautiful and rugged scenery this side of the Continental Divide. We drove across Antelope Flats, sleep still in our eyes, toward Grand Teton National Park, eager to start what was for many of us our first backcountry trip. We were all mildly shaken when we realized that we would be hiking up Death Canyon, but we were assured repeatedly by our instructors that the name would spell no disaster for us. We were unconvinced.
As we put on our bulging frame packs for the first time, there was a moment when we all just looked at each other, a moment of collective disbelief: were we really about to walk more than 20 miles, for 5 days, with these behemoths strapped to our backs? The answer, an emphatic “Oh yea.”
After the first day we were feeling it in our butts. We hiked 1.7 miles to an overlook where we could see all of Phelps Lake. The views were amazing, but to our right we could see what lay ahead. We quickly began ascending Death Canyon, massive stone monoliths on both sides, rushing melt water flowing past us. The climb was hard, but the views made it all worth it. After a couple more miles and about a 1,500 foot gain in elevation, we reached the floor of the hanging valley, setting up camp next to a massive glacial erratic. That night, we enjoyed our first meal out in the wild—delicious rice noodles in peanut sauce—and we enjoyed our first view of wildlife: a moose and her calf walked right into camp, and we did a little marmot spotting before dinner. Little did we know that marmot would do some investigating of its own that night...
We awoke after a chilly night to a rather peculiar scene. Chris’s hat had been devoured, and Isaac’s shoes seemed a little worse for wear. As it turned out, that mischievous marmot had decided to make a meal of whatever we left outside the tent. We remembered one valuable lesson for all our future campsites: keep your shoes away from marmots.
The second day, we woke up to the smell of hot cocoa & warm granola, and to an air of general excitement. We set out for our second day’s excursion, when we would be climbing 1,500 feet in just 3 miles, half the horizontal distance of the first day. We readied our packs, our minds, and our glutes for the coming climb.
After a long day of climbing, and a surprise visit by Aaron Nydam, we arrived at a 9,600 foot high scree field. After our first experience traversing snow—hardly our most elegant as we slipped and slid across—we reached our second day’s campsite at Fox Creek Pass. We had to employ a few snowballs to keep marmots from getting to our dinner, but other than that we encountered no problems. As we tucked into our sleeping bags, the altitude meant that nothing could keep the sun from shining well into the night.
Our third day, we prepared for one of our hardest days yet. We were to head around the Spearhead, a large monument made of sheer stone, down toward Marion. For the first part of the day, we bathed in the July sun as we skied and slid down massive snowfields towards Marion Lake, a frozen circle of light blue surrounded by cliffs and snow. However, as we looked on the first of the two ridges we had to ascend, it became evident that our trip could not continue as planned. The ridge was massive, steep, and snowy, and it would be impossible for us to meet our goal for the day. Thankfully, our fearless leaders had prepared for contingencies.
As we lunched on any combination of humus, sausage, American cheese, peanut butter, nutella, and pita bread we wished, Chris, Steph, and Alonso presented our plan B. Instead of heading to Moose Creek, we turned left and headed down Granite Canyon—actually made of gneiss—toward the group site. On the way, we wetted our boots in a fast moving snowmelt. Though not the intended route, the 8 miles we walked that day were among the most incredible and most beautiful we had seen so far. That night, we had a meal fit for our day; a wonderful concoction known as “Trail Spagh.” This particular pasta dish included macaroni, Alfredo sauce, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and plenty of love from our master chef, Steph Lewis. Magnifique.
Our final day, we continued down Granite Canyon to a Teton Science Schools van, stocked with chocolate chip cookies, waiting for us in the parking lot. We met this moment with mixed emotions, we were happy to be heading to showers and beds, but we were sad to be leaving the trail. We took off our packs for the last time, and headed off into the sunset.
Part the Second: The Nostos
Though we had been told where we would be sleeping our first night back, none of us really were prepared for the splendor of Teton Science Schools’ Jackson Campus. Sleek, modern buildings, a beautiful campus, and most importantly, showers greeted us as we moved in for the night. After an afternoon of cleaning, both gear and ourselves, we enjoyed a hot dinner of Chinese Food, and spent the rest of the evening running around the playground, just like all normal, well adjusted 17 year olds, and enjoying a celebratory round of vanilla ice cream. We went to our dorms, and for the first time in four days, we slept on mattresses.
As we awoke the next day, we were happy to have beds and bathrooms, yet there was an un-missable air of disquietude pervading the atmosphere. Yes, we were happy, but there was just something missing. We all knew what we lacked; we missed the rest of our family. Still, we decided to hold out for just a little longer until we were reunited at last.
We drove out to the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve by Phelps Lake, where we enjoyed a lovely stroll out to the lake. We spread out around the eastern bank, and in total solitude we wrote letters to ourselves to be opened in the future. After some time for reflection, we reconvened, and explored the Laurence S. Rockefeller Resource Center, a modern library and exhibit hall that presented the area in all its beauty using sound rooms, video displays, and bookcases full of books. We soaked in everything the center had to offer, and a few of us might have napped for just a little bit in those comfy library chairs. On our return to the Jackson Campus, we were once again greeted by that air of discomfort, of missing friends. However, little did we know that soon that would all change.
“Oh my gosh they’re here!” cried out Steph as she ran towards a line of teens dressed in some pretty crazy get ups. We all ran toward our oddly dressed companions, and for the first time in four days, the family was back together. We told stories, shared laughs, and most importantly, enjoyed the presences of one another. As we dined on Domino’s pizza and vanilla ice cream in a Jackson playground, we all knew that, no matter what happened, we would always be a family.
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