Ferry Lake, Teton Wilderness
Breathe in. Step. Breathe out. Step. Repeat until I crawl my way to the top of the ridge. Sweat runs down my cheeks and between my breasts. I’m huffing at 9,000 feet altitude as I follow Jane into the Teton Wilderness. Our goal is Younts Peak, which, at 12,156 feet, is the highest peak in the Teton Wilderness.
Why Younts Peak?
Younts Peak is named for Harry Yount who is considered the father of park rangers. In 1880, he was hired as the one and only gamekeeper in Yellowstone National Park. He lived in the area of the confluence of Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. His job was basically impossible—to protect the wildlife in the Northern Range. At that time, poaching was common. Though he only served 14 months, the two reports he submitted have had a lasting impact on the Park Service:
“I do not think that any one man appointed by the honorable Secretary, and specifically designated as a gamekeeper, is what is needed or can prove effective for certain necessary purposes, but a small and reliable police force of men, employed when needed, during good behavior, and dischargeable for cause by the superintendent of the park, is what is really the most practicable way of seeing that the game is protected from wanton slaughter, the forests from careless use of fire, and the enforcement of all the other laws, rules, and regulations for the protection and improvement of the park.” **
This history has enthralled me since I first read about ‘Rocky Mountain Harry’. He is one man with whom I’d like to have a conversation. So of course I’ve wanted to see ‘his’ mountain.
History aside, Younts Peak is home to the headwaters of the longest undammed river in the Lower 48 states: the Yellowstone River. This mythic body of water runs through my life like a golden thread. It has carved through lava flows. It has created deep canyons that hold us in awe. It runs through Paradise Valley and flows out to the Missouri River and then to the Mississippi. I wanted to see the source of the Yellowstone. I wanted to dip my toe in it, to drink it in—literally and figuratively.
Jane picked me up about 5am and we headed south through Yellowstone National Park and into views of the Grand Tetons.
Since there were just two of us, we decide that a trail route is a better choice for our hike rather than the off-trail route Jane had originally planned. We park the car at Turpin Meadow, and by late morning we have shouldered our packs and are headed up the trail. We would hike nothing below 6900 feet elevation until returning in 6 days.
The afternoon is hot as we climb sometimes gently sometimes more steeply up the North Buffalo Trail. That evening we camp by a no-name puddle at about 8,000 feet. We are surrounded by lodgepole and fir, a few ducks float on the pond, and we have the place to ourselves. In fact, we’ve seen only 3 other hikers all day, heading back to civilization from their backpack trip.
Dinner and spot body clean done, we relax and enjoy the beauty, silence, warmth, and lack of mosquitoes.
Up early the next morning, we pack and continue up the trail. A few hours later, we come to Big Springs—a perfect spot for a sunny breakfast. Jane appreciates her coffee; I appreciate my tea. We listen to the roaring of the cascading spring—it gushes out of the side of a hill. It is thought that the water travels underground from Crater Lake, about a mile uphill.
We shoulder our packs and head out and up toward Crater Lake. This is a lovely lake, but the ground looks quite thermal. I have learned, through experience, that any lake with the name ‘Crater’ means uphill. As we sit at the lake, taking a quick lunch break, we look up. Way up. The trail climbs about 700 feet out of Crater Lake, switch-backing to the ridge top. Jane says she’ll meet me at the top and we part—Jane dancing up the trail, me plodding and trying to breathe.
The climb is worth the effort as the view that greets us is 360 degree beauty—high mountain meadows, rock outcroppings, blue sky.
A few more miles and we arrive at Ferry Lake, about 10,000 feet. We find the perfect campsite which is slightly protected from wind among rocks, and near enough to flowing water that we can easily fill our bottles and pots.
Four AM: I’m awake before the alarm beeps. ‘Good morning, Jane’. Is answered with a ‘Woohoo Good Morning!’
Headlamps lit, we move quickly up the trail as light slowly begins to creep its way across the landscape.
Fourteen mountain goats watch as we toil up the trail. I wish for their speed and sure-footedness. Our mountain comes into view and we stop for a snack break, looking at the time and considering our options. We decide to save a summit attempt for another trip and instead we head to the headwaters of the Yellowstone River–the South Fork headwaters.
One of two headwaters of the Yellowstone River-this is the South Fork.
A long day…. we return to camp, eat dinner, and have just finished when weather comes roaring in–high winds and rain. What luck in timing — a beautiful dry hike, and dry dinner. We fall asleep to the sound of rain on the tent fly.
Morning dawns chilly and overcast. We head down… and down… 8 miles down, to Pendergraft Meadow. We find a spot, set up camp, and listen to the nickering of horses nearby. Across the meadow is an outfitter’s camp. We visit that evening and enjoy their fire and stories. We are told that had we remained longer at Ferry Lake, we would have been snowed upon. As we return to our camp, Jane spots a strange rock–it has a metal plaque attached, which is a monument to Slim Pendergraft, an early game warden and guide.
Weather clears overnight, stars become sky diamonds in inky velvet, and the temperature drops. Heavy frost gives red leaves white outlines as we take our time eating oatmeal next morning, finding sunlit spots in which to stand and dry our tents.
Miles later after a side trip to see South Fork Buffalo Falls, we set camp in Terrace Meadows. The water is barely running but we get in a body-parts wash and have drinking water set for the night and next day.
The last few miles of the South Buffalo Trail take us through thick tall thimbleberry plants (enough berries remain to slow us down as we reach for them and wipe red juice on our shirts), and past miles of Absaroka Volcanics conglomerate rock–it is easy to imagine a super-heated flow of lava and ash rolling down the hillside collecting all debris in its path. Smoke fills the valleys behind us, seeming to chase us out of the wilderness.
While not successful in a strictly peak bagging sense, this trip, as always, provided time for reflection and reconnection. Distance and speed seems to mean less to me these days. Success is more about the experience and time in the wilderness with a good friend, and so… the trip was a rousing success. Wilderness fosters a gratefulness in me: thankfulness for the ability to go into these mountains, thankfulness for friends who are also willing, and most especially, thankfulness for the existence of the mountains themselves. In beauty we walk.
**Yount, Harry (1881), “Report of Gamekeeper”, Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress at the Commencement of the First Session of the Forty-Seventh Congress with the Reports of the Heads of Departments and Selections from Accompanying Documents, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, pp. 863–864