2016 Summer Journal

Backpacking to Avalanche Lake

Montana has long been a special place for my family and me. When I was a kid, we’d spend every summer here exploring the nearby trails and adventuring in the woods around my Grandparents’ house near West Yellowstone. As all of us kids have grown older it’s been more challenging to get everyone together in the summer, but for a couple of years in a row now we’ve all made it happen.

One of my goals for several years has been to get out on a backpacking trip with my brothers and dad We’ve joked that the trip must be cursed because after planning and packing for the trip several times, emergencies have come up and thwarted our plans. This year’s challenge string of Norovirus outbreaks in our house that took everyone down for a couple of days. Luckily, we were able to reschedule this year and we finally made it out on the trail together.

All packed up and ready to go. This is a perfect showcase of our "mandatory" dress code.

All packed up and ready to go. This is a perfect showcase of our “mandatory” dress code.

Our plan was camp at Avalanche Lake, about a 6 mile hike up the west fork of Beaver Creek in the Taylor-Hilgard Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness just outside of West Yellowstone, MT. Last summer Alyssa and I ran up to the lake and were blown away by the alpine setting. This area definitely strikes me as more “Colorado” than the Montana we’re used to and really showcases the kind of geologic diversity that Montana has to offer.

We left the car at the trailhead around noon, eager to get up to the lake and get some flies in the water so we could catch some trout for dinner. With everyone in various stages of recovery from being sick over the last few days, the trail proved to be a real challenge. 2,200′ of climbing over 6 miles in the sun hurts when you’re exhausted and dehydrated. Nevertheless, we all enjoyed the views and good conversation on the march up.

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The trail was pretty heavily eroded near some of the creek crossings. I bet this would be a wild sight during some of the big springtime rain storms!

The trail was pretty heavily eroded near some of the creek crossings. I bet this would be a wild sight during some of the big springtime rain storms!

It's hard not to stop and admire the views every few steps!

It’s hard not to stop and admire the views every few steps!

Taking a moment to splash some cool spring water on the face.

Taking a moment to splash some cool spring water on the face.

An impressive waterfall near the trail. Getting close to the lake now!

An impressive waterfall near the trail. Getting close to the lake now!

After a few hours on the trail, we made it up to the lake with plenty of daylight left to set up camp and find some fish before dinner. As we have grown to expect in this area, we were the only people up at the lake for the evening and had our pick of any of the sites around its shore. A quick walk around led us to a perfect campsite that gave us some distance from the lake’s edge and allowed us to set up a good triangle between our sleeping area, food prep, and food storage. It’s important to stay bear-aware up here!

Dad worked on getting the fishing equipment set up while we pitched tents and gathered firewood.

Dad worked on getting the fishing equipment set up while we pitched tents and gathered firewood.

Talking flies with Michael.

Talking flies with Michael.

Once we settled on a site, we all got to work making camp. Spencer and Michael found some level ground and pitched the tents while I started gathering firewood and Dad got to work setting up the fishing equipment. We had camp ready to go in no time and it was finally time to relax a bit. A quick dip in the lake and a change out of our sweaty clothes left us all feeling a lot better. Time to get some fish for dinner!

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It was immediately obvious that we’d catch our fill after I sent out my first cast and came back with a ~10″ Cutthroat Trout. I could see the fish working their way along the shoreline feeding. It was impressive to be able to watch them lock on target and make a move for the fly. Almost every cast resulted in another fish and pretty soon it turned into a game of just trying to keep the biggest fish and trade them out for littler guys.

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Fish on the line. Just trying to (gently) get him off and back into the water.

We all spread out around the lake and the luck was the same everywhere. Michael turned out to be the fishing MVP and brought in something like 20 fish in about an hour. When it was all said and done, we brought our haul back to camp. In total, we ended up keeping 10 fish between us which seemed like the perfect number for an appetizer before the pasta dinner we had planned.

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Before we started prepping camp for dinner, we filled up our Sierra cups with some whiskey and headed down to the shoreline to watch the sun set over the ridgeline above the basin. It’s hard to beat an alpine sunset after a big day outside!

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Back at camp we set about getting ready for dinner. I was tasked with getting the fire going right away so we had some good hot coals to pile up around the fish. The added bonus was that the smoke did wonders to drive away the mosquitoes that were coming at us in swarms. Spencer and Michael cleaned the fish while Dad and I got organized around camp.

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Soon the fish were in the fire cooking in butter, oil, and some seasoning. We sat around enjoying the evening and waiting patiently for the fish to be done as our bellies grumbled.

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Finally, the fish were out of the fire and ready to go. I’ve had a lot of trout over the years and I’ve got to say that this was some of the best. It doesn’t really get better than fresh fish cooked over an open fire! We followed the fish up with some pasta and chocolate and enjoyed the fire for a few more hours.

Before bedtime, we took one last walk to the shoreline to look at the moonlight on the peaks surrounding us. What an amazing sight!

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We woke up early the next morning to another beautiful day. The air was crisp so I got another fire going and we heated up some poptarts and coffee as we all slowly woke up and stretched out. The water on the lake was perfect glass. I couldn’t help, but sit out and admire the view a little while longer.

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With breakfast all done, camp cleaned up, and the fire completely out, it was time to finish packing our bags and head back on down the trail. The hike out was a lot easier than the way in and we spent the time already reminiscing about a perfect backpacking trip. The only thing that probably could have made it better was a little more time up in those mountains!

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  • Nick Smarto

    Will, those photos are stunning man! Nice to get a trip like that in with your pops. Good reminder that we should all be enjoying that time in life where our parents and ourselves are able to enjoy the same adventures! Props man! (Also, I like that fire placement, using that rock as a backstop, cool idea).