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Getting Lost in the Wind River Mountains

By: Randy Tucker

In most states, there is a little check box near the top of hunting and fishing applications. The question reads something like this, “Would you like to donate one dollar to search and rescue?” Simple, effective, and most of us check the box without a second thought.

The search and rescue division of your local sheriff’s department, game and fish, or other state or county agency is largely a volunteer organization, but when it's needed it can be a lifesaving institution.

In Wyoming, and across the vastness of the American West, the federal government is the largest land owner in each state. It surprises many that rugged, largely unpopulated Wyoming and California, with a population of 40,000,000 people, have approximately the same proportion of federal land, with both hovering near 50 percent.

Federal land is our land. It’s not a Woody Guthrie tune, sung by Pete Seeger, but the concept is the same. Thanks to actions begun by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago, we and our children will always be able to walk the ridges, fish the streams, and hunt the valleys of our uniquely American forests.

Politicians in Wyoming cry for federal lands to come under state control, but with the fickle nature of economics and the “easy way out” justifications of state legislatures, it is too tempting to just sell that newly acquired state land. As people say in the case of suicide, “It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Wyoming is roughly divided in the middle when it comes to federal land ownership. The eastern tier of the state is primarily private land with a few state parks, a national monument, and a few national historical sites, but that’s about it. Everywhere else its posted, “No Hunting, Fishing, Trespassing….”

The western half of the state includes Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Parks, and eight magnificent national forests. The Bridger-Teton spans an incredible 3.4 million acres of Rocky Mountain Wilderness, but it is the Shoshone National Forest, just 35 miles from my home, where most of my adventures on federal land have taken place.

My late friend Jim Nethercott grew up in Jackson, Wyoming. “Old Jackson Hole” - the real Jackson, not the present facsimile of corporate tourism. Jim and his father George, along with his brothers, hunted elk, moose, and deer while fishing the abundant rivers and lakes in the shadow of the Grand Tetons.

His love of the outdoors stretched to his son Todd, one of my basketball players. Jim and I were friends from the moment we met. He was a captain in the Fremont County Sheriff’s department, and his 6-4 son Todd found his place as a high-post on my Shoshoni High School basketball team.

Todd graduated, joined Naval ROTC at the University of Wyoming, and eventually took command of the USS Texas, a nuclear submarine operating out of Pearl Harbor. Todd is a captain in the US Navy today.

As a senior, Todd, Jim, and I decided to a do a little elk hunting on historic South Pass, on a portion of the Shoshone National Forest.

We set up camp at Fiddlers Lake, the bottom of a string of sub-alpine and alpine lakes stretching up above 10,300 to island lake at the top of the chain.

In a howling Wyoming wind (there rarely is any other kind), we parked the trailer, leveled it, made camp, and planned for our hunt on opening day the next morning.

It was a temperate October afternoon, with maybe three hours of daylight remaining when I left camp to scout the area for the next morning’s hunt.

Jim started working on the evening meal, and Todd had some engineering coursework to finish.

The area is filled with small streams that eventually reach the Popo Agie River that flows into the Sweetwater on the plains east of the mountains. We were on the Atlantic drainage, so every drop of water theoretically reaches New Orleans and the Caribbean. That turned out to be an important geographic fact a few hours later.

The hills, ridges, and streams all look the same. During daylight, I always use the sun as a compass point. As I worked west of our camp a few hundred yards, the unique smell of elk permeated a flat section of forest on the top of a small swale. Another dozen steps, and I spotted a young, forked horn bull with a few cows and calves.

As I backed away, trying not to spook them, a fast-moving front came in from the northwest. The sun disappeared behind the dark, low hanging clouds. It began to snow heavily. My compass had disappeared behind the clouds; suddenly all the cardinal points I took so calmly were gone.

I don’t get lost easily; it’s something my dad engrained in me long ago. “When you’ve been someplace once, that’s all you need, you should be able to find your way in and out every time,” were the words of my late father, a man raised in the Arkansas backwoods.

For the first and only time so far in my life, I felt lost. I wasn’t in any danger; I had matches, a few Snickers bars in my backpack, plenty of clothes, and it wasn’t even that cold, but that slight edge of the fear of the unknown crawled up my back.

Instead of marching off blindly, I remembered the wisdom of older hunters from my youth. “Sit down, gather yourself, and think about your situation.”

That’s what I did.

I ate a Snickers, watched the storm blow through, and took in the lay of the land. All streams flow towards the east, or southeast on this side of the mountain, I thought. I walked to the nearest one and started hiking downstream. I knew the Sinks Canyon/South Pass Road bisected the area, and I’d eventually find it. Darkness began to fall as I walked along a stream, steadily losing altitude.

Just as darkness consumed the twilight, I spotted a wooden bridge on a road ahead. Once on the gravel road, I began walking uphill, back towards the camp. A truck came up on me from behind and stopped to see if I was OK. I explained my predicament, and with a good laugh, the guys inside told me to hop in the back. A few minutes later I was back with Jim and Todd.

The next morning after our first stalk, we followed my footsteps from the night before outside camp. I’d only been a couple of hundred yards south of the trailer when the storm hit. Instead of a three minute walk, I covered about nine miles before I found the truck.

My search and rescue was my own, but sometimes you’re not that lucky.  Always fund your local crews. You might be the one needing it someday.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

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