By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor
A friend of mine recently said that I live a charmed life. The way he said it made the statement sound more like an accusation, though I suspect that was jealousy speaking. He made the comment not long after I had my first byline in Field & Stream. That wasn’t my first ‘big-time’ byline, but seeing my name in Field & Stream lent credibility to my career as a fishing writer.
I do live a charmed life, if I’m being completely honest. I get paid to fish, hunt, camp, and travel. I’m living the dream of every outdoorsy man who wishes he didn’t spend his life in a cubicle. What those guys – my friend included – don’t get is that behind the veneer of Instagram pictures and magazine articles is a life just as hectic, stressful, and annoying as theirs.
As I lay in the back of a Toyota 4-Runner trying to keep my insides from becoming my outsides, I half-wished my buddy could’ve been there to see just how “charmed” life was in that moment. Three days before I lay dying in the 4-Runner, I’d left on what should’ve been a leisurely backpacking trip. My buddies and I spent the better part of a year planning this trip, but things went south so spectacularly that we came home a day early.
The tragedy started late on a Wednesday night. I was with the usual crew of miscreants who are the cast in my fishing adventures. Mike, Bill, and Marty – Mike’s cousin – and I huddled around an empty fire pit, staring off a cliff at the valley which unrolled before us. The moonlight revealed scant details, but we could just make out the far edge of Big Dog Mountain, behind which lay our destination. It was just after midnight, chilly, and the crisp air did little to help us relax. The sharp edge to each breath – shorter now that we were more than 8,000 feet above sea level – excited rather than discouraged. After countless hours of planning, and countless more spent ignoring honey-do lists and general adult responsibility, we could literally taste the adventure we’d come chasing.
Like kids on Christmas morning, we turned from the cliff’s edge and started unpacking the trucks. The plan was to sleep on the cliff, get up with the sun, and start hiking shortly after first light. And, just like kids, we had to make camp as close to the edge of the cliff as was safely possible. Men may grow up, but rarely do we ever stop being children. Cast-in-point:
“Did you eat all the donuts?” Mike asked while I set up our tent by starlight.
“Does a bear shit in the woods?” I replied.
Dozens of bad jokes later, I lay on my thin sleeping pad, acutely aware of each and every rock’s exact location along my spine. All-night comfort my ass, I thought, thinking back to the review I’d read of this sleeping pad. I’d bought it specifically so I wouldn’t feel like I was sleeping on top of spilled Legos, but it seemed I’d been swindled yet again by savvy advertising.
And in case you’re wondering, spending $120 on a sleeping pad that wasn’t near as soft as the pile of feathers and angel tears I’d been promised wasn’t this trip’s great tragedy.
I didn’t sleep much, and was the first to wake to a weak sun and a sky dotted with clouds. Careful not to make noise, I opened Mike’s truck, rummaged around behind the driver’s seat, and pulled out a half-dozen nearly-frozen donuts. I was halfway through donut number three when Mike staggered out of the tent, looking surprised to be in the wilderness. He pointed at the donuts. “I thought you ate ‘em all?”
I shrugged. “I wanted one last good breakfast.”
Camp got packed up quicker than expected, and the sun hadn’t been up for more than half an hour before we started the trek. There wasn’t much of a trail for the first few miles, but we’d spent a year staring at topographic maps, Google Earth, and arguing about the best approach to get to a lake none of us had ever visited before.
We couldn’t have asked for better hiking weather. Blacksmith Lake was nine miles from the cliff where we’d slept. Balmy temps and a slight breeze kept the sweating and cursing to a minimum, even when I insisted on stopping five times in a span of fifteen minutes so I could set up some still photography and video shots.
“I’m working,” I had to remind everyone else. “I gotta make a living.”
Bill and Marty both chimed in with variations of, “You have a rough life.”
As I lay in the dirt, directing their movements through the forest, I replied, “Yeah, call me when you’re up for two nights editing photos and videos after doing this hike.”
We passed a handful of lakes and eventually found a faint trail that’d take us through the rest of East Basin, which we were currently in, and up to the base of Big Dog Mountain. From there, the trail lost regard for the frailty of men’s legs and lungs at high altitude and shot straight up, taking us more than 1,000 feet from the bottom of East Basin to the top of East Basin Pass.
I was the last to arrive on the pass, and everyone lay sprawled on their backs, gasping for air. From the top of East Basin Pass I could see north, all the way to Mt. Emmons and the southern end of the King’s Peak Basin. Between Mt. Emmons and myself, buried beneath a canopy of emerald leaves, was the dull roar of the Yellow River. Sunlight glinted off it in a few places where the trees broke, but for the most part if was only noticeable by the sound it made.
East Basin Pass was more than halfway to Blacksmith Lake, so we soldiered on, the cursing increasing exponentially with the distance. Finally, we arrived at the most profane moment of the entire excursion. Blacksmith Lake was due west of us, but no trail led to its banks. We had to pick a route based on topographic maps, an ancient GPS, and the actual terrain before us. A year obviously isn’t enough time to pick out a path from maps and Google Earth, and hell will freeze over before four men agree on the right way to walk in a straight line. Mike and Bill were certain their chosen path was the best, the only “straight shot” to the lake. Marty told Mike to go fornicate with a goat, someone said something about an ass-kicking so hard grandchildren would feel it, and in the interest of the only physical fight being between us and the hike, we split up. I went with Marty and Bill went with Mike.
Marty and I staggered into camp well after Bill and Mike arrived. I haven’t been in good shape since high school, and Marty wasn’t in his prime anymore, either. The only reason Bill and Mike beat us to the lake was due to them being in better shape – not the path they’d picked after we had to leave the trail. Regardless, the view of the lake was worth it all – accusations of fornication with goats notwithstanding.
As I set my pack aside, pitched the tent, and made dinner, however, I wondered if it was pretty enough to merit the hell that was the hike. Nine miles with 12,000 feet of elevation change isn’t for the faint of heart – literally. And we were camped at 11,000 feet above sea level. Even at a rest I had a hard time catching my breath.
Oh, how I wish I could tell you that being short of breath was the trip’s disaster. Alas, the journey only grew more perilous. I made note of my poor physical state as I wrote in my notebook around the campfire after dinner.
I have to go to the gym for like, a month, before I do these things, I wrote. I’m too fat for this shit. But it’s gorgeous. The lake is glass and the pines aren’t all dead from the pine beetle. The only trails are tracks of elk and deer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the first people here this year. This isn’t a place you stumble onto by accident – you have to know where you’re going to get here.
I have a notebook with me on every trip, because most every outing ends up being work-related. I make a living retelling the stories I live throughout the year, and if I didn’t come home from this trip with ideas for at least two columns about the adventure, I’d have wasted my time – and my money.
High above us is the craggy ridgeline of Big Dog Mountain, barren and lifeless. This feels like most other backpacking trips, all things considered. More work than it’s worth, but a necessary evil if you’re going to tell a story worth telling.
I went to bed that evening – a Thursday – to the sounds of wolves howling in the distance and the gentle whisper of wind through cold aspen leaves. Friday morning, I woke to a layer of frost on my tent. Mike and I bunked together, but he’d been up with the sun. I could hear him and Bill down by the lake, a hundred or so yards from camp. They’d been fishing since they could see. Normally, I’d be down there with them. Normally, though, I’m not waking up after a hellacious stroll through Utah’s high country with 30 pounds on my back. Marty was in similarly rough shape, so we ate a late breakfast and commiserated together about growing old and out of shape. I went back to sleep and Marty went to the lake.
Missing out on a morning of fishing, realizing I’m not as young as I was (and I’m still young, so this train of thought is disturbing), and waking up almost too sore to move would qualify as fiasco on any other trip. But on this one? Those discomforts were the highlights.
I woke up at lunch, and that’s when I made my first big mistake. I sat on a log in weak sunshine, an open box of chicken salad and crackers balancing on one knee. The chicken salad and crackers have been a mainstay on all backpacking trips for as long as I can remember, and it makes a fabulous lunch.
I must’ve been 11 the first time I had boxed chicken salad and crackers on a backpacking trip. My grandma Pat loved the things, and she’s the one who taught me how to backpack in the high country.
“Always have something light and easy for lunch,” grandma Pat said while we were stopped in the middle of a trail. “That way you don’t have to stop too long to eat.”
“But I wanna stop,” I complained, because I was 11 and that’s what 11-year-olds do best.
Grandma Pat shook her head. “Nope, that’s another rule of backpacking. You don’t get to rest unless I say so.”
That hardly seemed fair. “What if I’m backpacking one day and you’re not with me? When do I get to stop?” I tried to be sassy. But grandma Pat always had a smart comment for every smartass one I made.
“Then I taught you something right,” she said.
I chuckled as I thought back to my first trip with grandma Pat. She still backpacks to this day, at the age of 72. Just this past summer, in June of 2018, she spent five days with her dog and a friend in Utah’s San Rafael Swell. I’d told her about this trip to Blacksmith Lake, but when she asked about the elevation and the length of the walk, she just shook her head. “I’m too old for that. Go have fun.”
Just that once, it would’ve been a good thing not to listen to grandma Pat and eat something else. I didn’t notice anything wrong with the chicken salad as I ate it, but short of something blatantly obvious – like bloody, raw chicken – I don’t think I would’ve. I was tired and hungry enough that I’d have eaten anything.
I burned my trash, cleaned up around camp, and got ready for the trip’s main attraction. In spite of the protests from cramped calves and thighs, I grabbed my fly rod and headed down to the lake. I was still beat from the hike, but I’d come all this way to write about the fishing in that lake. I had to throw a cast or two if I wanted my writing to have any ring of legitimacy. I made it to the lake, grumbling that I’d rather be back in the tent sleeping, in a generally foul mood.
Then the food poisoning hit. Right about midafternoon on Friday, on the banks of Blacksmith Lake, at 11,000 feet and nine miles deep from a trailhead that lay at the end of a 20-something mile long dirt road, which was 30 miles from the nearest town.
In other words, I ended up on death’s doorstep while in the middle of absolutely nowhere. But fear not, my intrepid reader; if you’ve made if this far, you’re likely thinking that this is what turned the trip from bumpy to bad. Getting food poisoning miles from any sort of help has to be as bad as it gets, right?
Well, yes and no. Yes, the food poisoning was terrible, but it’s what happened after my bowels became impetuously inconvenient that’s truly disastrous. I ran back to camp, looking for the toilet paper, failing to find any, and answering nature’s call with nothing but dry sagebrush in arm’s reach.
I staggered back to my tent, found the toilet paper, and was just settling down to rest, in the hopes that this was a fluke accident, when my body decided everything inside of it needed to see Blacksmith Lake, too. As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, the temps dropped precipitously and I spent the hours trying not to hurl and begging for sunrise. The sun eventually rose. I couldn’t hold back the urge to empty my guts. With snow falling around our camp, I wiped the vomit from my beard and declared, “I’m not spending another night on this damn mountain.”
With that said, we packed up and hiked out. The snow got worse. In any other situation it would’ve been beautiful. Snow in the high country, especially in September, is a breathtaking sight. A light dusting of the stuff on pines and aspens still clothed in their late-summer greenery is nothing short of magical. Sadly, I wasn’t in a position to appreciate the beauty. Instead, I spent the majority of the hike in a position not conducive to hiking
By a miracle I made it up East Basin Pass – the climb up on that side of Big Dog Mountain was easier than the climb on the way in – and stopped to either die or find the will to keep going. At that moment, death sounded like a splendid idea.
Then I heard the unmistakable squawk of a sage hen. I looked up to see two of the birds standing right in the middle of the trail, heads cocked to one side as if they’d never before seen a human being in such terrible shape. With a start, I realized this was the exact spot where we’d seen sage hen during the hike in. My mind flashed back to that moment – seemingly a lifetime ago, one in which I was healthy and whole and relatively happy.
“Shoot it, we’ll have it for dinner,” I told Bill. We stared at the sage hen. It stared at us. Nothing moved.
“I’m not eating sage hen,” Bill protested.
“It tastes just like chicken,” I retorted. “Come on, shoot it! If you won’t, give me your gun.”
That got Bill ready to shoot. He popped off ten rounds from his little .22LR pistol, missing every single one. The sage hen strutted off, clucking in what sounded like a disapproving tone. I shook my head in agreement with the sage hen. “Here, let me shoot,” I said.
Bill refused. He emptied the rest of his magazine after the sage hen, missing every shot, and concluded that the bird was moving too fast to be hit with a handgun.
“It was twenty feet away and walking!” I razzed him as we climbed down the north side of East Basin Pass.
In a fit of irony, I laughed as I remembered telling Bill that the sage hen would taste just like chicken. That’s completely true, by the way. Those birds are some of the best eating I’ve ever had, and as I sat in the snow, a cold wind doing its best to whip me into submission, I couldn’t help but think that if Bill had shot the sage hen, I’d have eaten those instead of my chicken salad, and I wouldn’t be in this mess.
Mike showed up then, hauling me to my feet and practically pushing me all the way from the top of East Basin Pass to Lake Bonnie, a mile or so from the pass. We’d stopped there on the hike in for lunch and a bit of fishing, but this time we stopped only to refill water bottles and catch our breath. The wind was so ferocious that little Lake Bonnie – the size of maybe two football fields – had whitecaps crashing on its shore.
I sat on a large square boulder, my pack off for the moment while I rested. Almost everything was wet, but my Sitka rain jacket kept my torso dry. Most importantly, though, the jacket’s waterproof pockets kept the quickly-dwindling supply of toilet paper in usable condition.
The break stretched out longer than expected, and the extended time to sit on a flat surface made me feel almost . . . better? No, that was too strong a word. Less terrible than I’d felt a half-hour ago, definitely, but nowhere near approaching better. Buoyed by the thought that maybe I’d passed the worst of the food poisoning, I fished a package of cheddar and peanut butter crackers from my pack. These weren’t a grandma Pat-approved backpacking mainstay, but they fit her parameters for good backpacking food – light, full of carbs, and easy to eat while walking.
Reasoning that my body would do well with something in my stomach aside from acid and misery, I ate as many of the crackers as I could before we started hiking again. I even washed them down with a bit of freshly-filtered water, and for the next mile I felt like I was on top of the world. I could walk for five minutes without needing a break! I had the strength of a ten-year-old instead of a toddler! I was beating the food poisoning, consequences be damned!
The elation was short-lived. The mile after my brief encounter with hope, I dashed from the trail to the trees so many times I ran out of toilet paper completely, had to borrow some from Bill, used up all of his, and eventually had to resort to other means as I exhausted our once-impressive supply of one of backpacking’s most valuable assets.
Hiking in took us just under eight hours, with long breaks included. 10 hours after we’d left camp that morning, I found myself at the base of the cliff we’d slept on that first night. One last hurdle and I’d be . . . well, not home, but able to lay on something soft and die peacefully, instead of in a pile of unwashed pain in the middle of the mountains.
A faint trail – carved by mountain goats, most likely – traversed the cliff as it rose for a few hundred feet above me. Under normal circumstances, it’s a treacherous climb; loose shale, steep, muddy chutes, and nothing in the way of foliage to use to break a fall are the cliff’s defining features. In good health, I’d see the cliff as a challenge, as something in need of conquering, and I’d do so with a swagger, standing atop it with my beard blowing in the wind, surveying the wild kingdom I felt I owned after scrambling up a relatively small cliff.
In my present state, though, I saw the cliff as insurmountable. I’ll just die here, I thought. This is as good a place as any. The base of the cliff was pretty. Pinion pine, aspen, and cedar grew thick, and there was even a pile of what looked like horse bones next to the trail. I’m not the only poor animal to die here, I thought.
Then Bill showed up, grabbed my pack, and set off up the cliff. Armed now with only my trekking poles and a bruised ego at watching Bill haul two packs up the cliff with ease, I staggered up the rocky trail, each step a victory that cost me untold amounts of energy and willpower. I’m certain my beard turned from brown to gray in the time it took me to climb that damn cliff, and I collapsed in a soggy heap next to Bill’s 4-Runner convinced I’d not live to see another day. It was the longest, most exhausting hike of my life. Worse than an expedition in 2017 which saw me go 35 miles in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, the last of which were spent fighting altitude sickness.
That trip had a silver lining – as I descended, I got better and caught fish.
This trip? Sure, the food poisoning was a blight on the experience. Running out of toilet paper was a literal pain in the ass, and I left parts of me on that mountain I’ll never recover. The true tragedy, however, is that I went through the entire ordeal without catching a single fish.
Bill drove as quickly as he could down the bumpy road, but there’s only so much you can do on a trail designed for ATVs instead of trucks. Saturday evening – a full day before we’d expected to get back to civilization – we arrived in Duchesne, Utah, and I staggered into a Sinclair for a bottle of 7-Up. I sipped while Bill drove in silence the rest of the way home. Somewhere around Strawberry Reservoir I passed out. I woke when Bill pulled into my driveway, and as I settled in my own bed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I thought, a charmed life indeed.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Sporting Classics Daily, American Angler, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, Trout Magazine, and other national publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant, and on Facebook @SpencerDurrantOutdoors.