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5/21/2020
Publisher’s Note: As referenced in the May-June 2020 print issue of On Wisconsin Outdoors, the Ellis column Memorial Day-Trading it all… directs the reader to this website for stories of Americans in battle during World War II and Vietnam.  Posted in the April 30 Ellis Blogs on this website Tanks in a Mine Field is the eye witness story of 709th Tank Battalion gunner John “Mike” Kunnen during the bloody battle of t...
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Dancing In The Wind River Range

A mountain hike far from home

John Luthens

To dance on a journey in Wisconsin one need only point a nose to the given wind direction, shoulder a pack and head down a trail. Chances are you’ll find what you’re after. Wisconsin is that good.

I submit that to come remotely close to topping the wild beauty of our state you’ll need to dance an awfully long way. Such was my courtship with 100,000 acres of rugged mountain country in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming and a venture into the wilderness of the Popo Agie, translated from the native tongue of the Shoshone Indians, meaning, “beginning of the waters.”

I was at 9,000 feet of elevation and climbing when the grasses and aspen trees gave way to pine trees and boulders. Wildflowers grew in bright clusters along the slope and a scented wind came down from above. The only sounds were the crunching of rim-rock gravel and the rasping of my lungs as I struggled to take oxygen into my lowland Wisconsin lungs.

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The author on an 11,000-foot summit above his camp in the Wind River Range.

On the surface, a five-mile hike may not seem daunting, but the steadily increasing elevation and 70 pounds on my back made me fight for every step. Finally, above 10,000 feet, I set down my packs along the rocky cliffs of Upper Silas Lake, a glacial outwash fed from the peaks above through a plunging series of waterfalls.

Snow slid in glacial snake patterns along sheltered draws. The mountain wind constantly changed directions through the branches of lodge-pole pines and a sharp aroma of sap and needles filled the air. The trees were ram-rod straight with branches swinging high above. Native Americans used the pines to build shelters. I used their shade to shield my tent from the sun blasting off the boulders.

Mornings brought clouds of mosquitoes and biting gnats. I sailed a fly line along the waters below as the sun first lit the highest peaks. Bands of light plodded down the mountain to disperse the swarms of insects. Swirls of brook trout ringed the shoreline as the fish sipped their breakfast.

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A mountain brook trout from the shores of Upper Silas Lake.

Time ran slower as I boulder-climbed 11,000 feet of mountain that loomed above my camp. Snow stretched for hundreds of yards, and I iced down water bottles. For the first time in my life I went sledding in late summer in nothing but a T-shirt and shorts.

Tracking an elk back into the range, I stumbled across an unnamed glacial bowl that was fed by nothing but snowmelt. I fished and caught rainbow and brook trout by the score, feeling certain they had never before seen a man-made fly.

The last night found me on a high ledge above the waters, watching the fading glow of orange over the western peaks. It turned to red and then to dark purple as meteors dashed across the sky and reflected in the water below. The Milky Way spanned like a rhinestone belt from peak to peak.

I talked aloud and laughed at life, trivial stuff in any other setting. But beneath the dancing stars of the Wind River Range with the mountains listening in eternal silence, it approached the finest poetry ever spoken.

John Luthens is a freelance writer, traveling the back roads of Wisconsin and scribbling his adventures. His column, “Fencerows,” appears frequently on the On Wisconsin Outdoors website.