We drove out of Casper at 6:00 AM and into a gorgeous sunrise. The eastern sky began with an ever expanding band of magenta that finally covered about a third of the eastern sky. Then it lit the hills we were driving through near Kaycee, providing depth and substance to them. Finally, as we got further north, we could see it lighting up the eastern slopes of the Bighorns. That was the kind of experience we have every once in a long while. Those times make my soul expand and expand until it feels as if the entire scene is inside me as well as outside where I can see it.
We parked at the Hunter parking area at 8:30, got our gear on, and headed UP the trail. During the ten minutes between the time we parked and left, two women rode by on horseback with two German shepherds following. We saw them a mile of so ahead when we crested the first ridge. They were a mile away, riding the trail in the long meadow that heads west to the Cloud Peak Wilderness. They disappeared in a few minutes, and those were the only people we saw the entire day. We spent eight hours on the trail and saw no one else. Here's a view of the meadow we hiked from the trail to the east.
And here's a view of the intrepid hikers as they got ready to go through a gate at the top of a ridge just to the north of the meadow. Al set his camera on a fence post for a timer shot and ran over to pose with me. Note the wonderful view of the Bighorns in the background.
As we hiked west through Buffalo Park, I was surprised that the meadow near the creek was forested, but a hundred yards to the north, the valley was covered entirely by grass. That, of course, is what most prairie looks like, trees only near streams and grass everywhere else. Having my own geologist along, I felt I could ask questions of geologic importance.
I knew from the hiking guide to the Cloud Peak Wilderness that the area had been shaped by glaciers. The valley we were hiking in looked U-shaped to me, so I asked my resident expert if the valley was a glaciated valley. He said yes, and then I realized I should have known that because of all the scattered rocks half buried in the grass. Those were the leavings of a glacier that slowly retreated from the valley. And what a beautiful meadow it was. Here's a view of it with the Bighorns off in the distance. The grassy side of the meadow is on the north side of the meadow and valley.
And the next picture is a view, facing east, of the tree covered part of the valley on the south side of the valley. The trees closest to the camera, the ones turning gold, are aspen. We discovered several islands of dead and dying aspen which had provide shade for many evergreens which were taking the place of the aspen. One of the many cycles of nature we noticed and commented on that wonderful day.
But the most startling discovery that day was the realization that we were hiking through a thoroughly burned over and recovering forest. Al commented that we seemed to be hiking through a Christmas tree farm. All the trees were about five feet high, with a few pushing up to seven and some eight feet. Then we noticed that there were obviously fire charred lodgepole pine trunks sticking up in places in the middle of the Christmas tree farm. I checked the needles on the small pines and discovered they were in packets of two needles, so they were also lodgepole pine.
We checked with Lesley when we got back to Casper, and she said that back in July of 2003 she had to go up to Buffalo for that fire for BLM. Actually two fires because it flared up a second day and got everyone excited again. So we were witnessing a second natural cycle, the recovery of a forest from a devastating fire. I remembered as we hiked and discussed the burned woods that lodgepole pines need fire to release the seed from the pine cones and regenerate.
We marveled all day at what we were seeing. Here we were hiking through a national forest and Al was getting sunburned because all of the trees were so short. He whined about that, but he who wears a short-sleeved shirt like one would wear to the office deserves a bit of sunburn. I spend so much time outside that my arms are almost permanently tanned, so I had nothing to whine about.
We hiked up a very steep and very rocky trail to just over nine thousand feet and it was about time for lunch, so Al and I decided to head back down to the only spot we'd been to that had shade. The trail went through a few acres of woods that didn't burn, so we hiked back down to it and sat on a log. We were joined by a chipmunk who scampered after a crust from my peanut butter sandwich when I tossed it. I commented that we were in a national forest, but we had not heard a single bird singing. A few minutes after that comment, I heard a black-capped chickadee, but that was the only bird song all day.
Al was in a thoughtful mood as I took pictures of some flowers in that small stand of trees.
The best part of that day was spending time with Al, even with all the wonders of nature we discovered. It is a rare gift to a parent to spend time in a national forest with one of your kids. A kid who is now an adult. You don't have to be the parent, just a friend. And he doesn't have to be the child, just a friend.
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!
We'll do that again soon.