BY DAVID SUMNER
We took the trail slowly, through lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce and Doug fir, up over scree-covered knolls, plunging again into the dark of the trees. We rested often and sang “Stay on the Sunny Side” and “Country Sunday School.” He bribed us with beef jerky and hard candy, and an hour or so before dark we walked from the forest edge to see the surface of Swasey Lake reflecting the exposed moraine, pocked with the expanding circles of rising trout.
That morning, we left home in the predawn dark: I-80, state highway 40, north out of Duchesne through the Ute Ouray Reservation, and in mid-morning sun we bumped up the last rutted half-mile to Garfield Basin trailhead. We hoisted our packs, starting the six-mile trek. Excitement filled me, threatening to overflow onto the boot-worn trail. I had camped before, car camping with Mom, Dad and my brothers, but this was different. We were backpacking. We were walking six miles into what used to be the Uinta primitive area but was now – post 1964 – called wilderness. The music of that word: we were walking into the wilderness!
As a father now, I’m impressed with my dad. He took three of us, the oldest 12, the youngest eight, deep into the roadless forest with one two-man pup tent, hardware store aluminum-frame backpacks, and new sleeping bags for which he had traded dental work with a rep for an obscure outdoor company called North Face. No stove. No water filter. A Vietnam-era canteen on each of our hips, a couple of mess kits purchased at Allied – “if we don’t have it, you don’t need it” – four sets of knife-fork-spoon that cleverly fit together with slots and posts, some foil for cooking hoped-for trout over coals, and, thanks to the space program, some freeze-dried pork chops, chili mac and dried ice cream.
Getting yourself out into the woods is hard enough. Once you take kids, gear, headaches and worries multiply. Does everyone have a jacket? Are there enough fishing rods in the basement? How much can eight-year-old Mike carry for six miles? Bobby needs new shoes, but will this pair make it for the trip? Can we all fit in the one tent if it rains at night? What if I get hurt? Will Bobby and Dave have the sense and know-how needed to get help?
Dad carried most the gear on his 38-year-old shoulders, but Bobby and I carried some on our narrow backs, and Mike wore a daypack stuffed with his clothing. The three of us, all clad in Toughskins and t-shirts, carrying spinning rods in our right hands. My dad wore his outdoor uniform – a khaki Jones-style hunting cap with the back brim turned up, Stewart-plaid wool shirt, worn Levi 501s and lug-soled Danner work boots.
We had plastic ponchos for the afternoon thundershowers and a box full of spinners: bright orange and red and white striped Mepps, silver spoons, gold Panther Martins, a bottle of maraschino-dyed salmon eggs and a styrofoam cup of worms for backup.
As a boy, I could imagine nothing better. There was no amusement park, baseball game or airplane ride that could compete. Three days of angling and camping. As those days unfolded, we caught fish, ate surprisingly-good rehydrated pork chops and dried ice cream, relished the delicate flesh of the cutthroat and introduced brookies, hunkered under fir trees during the afternoon showers, slept under the stars and listened to my dad’s stories. I wandered through the dreamy days of sunlight and water and cloud and trout. I wondered. I marveled at creation.
As a boy, my father first hiked into the Uintas with his father. Cecil loaded their pre-war Nash with three wooden-framed, canvas backpacks and walked my 14-year-old Uncle Smith and my 10-year-old dad, Bob, into Naturalist Basin. In 1948 the old Mirror Lake Highway was dirt. It didn’t go all the way through to Evanston. They had to stop and roll rocks out of the way to get to the trailhead. But the Civilian Conservations Corps had built the Highline Trail 10 years earlier, and they followed it east, taking a left just before Rocky Sea Pass and hiking north into the shadow of Mt. Agassiz. They camped at Jordan Lake. They caught fish, dodged afternoon showers and cooked over the fire.
I imagine my grandfather, the thin, angular man who taught me to fish and who worked nights coupling trains for the Union Pacific: square-fingered grip on bamboo rod, elegant motion, extending line, caddis touching down on still surface. I can see the rise, the quick upward pull that sets the hook, the lips parted in determined excitement. With so many hours surrounded by loud machinery and pungent diesel exhaust, he must have been grateful to while away a few days fishing and hiking, surrounded by beauty, grace and wonder.
The Uinta is one of the few ranges in the lower 48 that runs east-west and is the highest to do so. It lies just south of the Wyoming border and stretches a hundred miles, crowned by 13,528-foot King’s Peak, named for Clarence King – 19th century explorer of the 40th parallel and first director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Here, you can wander above treeline, moving from drainage to drainage through rugged, scree-strewn passes: Gun Site, Anderson, Porcupine, Dead Horse, Rocky Sea. The high country is dotted with lakes and tarns filled with snow melt, with trout, with grayling. When you reach the high country, you see the structure of the range, the geological history of the lakes and drainages, the bald, rounded moraines, the work of the Provo, the Duchene, the Whiterocks and Ashley glaciers. As Powell floated past its eastern edge on his 1869 expedition, he wrote in his diary of the “high peaks thrust into the sky, and snow-fields glittering like lakes of molten silver.”
When I think back on my family’s relationship with the Uintas, I think about a line from Robinson Jeffers: “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet, there are left the mountains.” Four years after my initial trip to Swasey, I took my first trip into Naturalist Basin. My Uncle Smith was getting a divorce, and my dad wanted to help. It was 1980, but we were Mormon, and divorce had not yet come to our provincial community. My dad loved his brother, and he loved his niece and nephew, so he did the only thing he could think of: he took them into the Uinta Mountains. He took them to the same place he had visited for the first time with their father and our grandfather. “There are left the mountains.”
For this trip, he recruited Alan, a neighbor boy whose family owned horses. So the nine of us – me, my dad and two brothers, two cousins, the neighbor kid and two horses – all trekked into Jordan Lake. I was again overtaken by wonder. We had only two tents, so we would dodge the afternoon weather by stuffing our bedding into the dark green nylon shelters, but we slept out. I would awaken at dawn feeling warm in my bag, my cousins and brothers lying next to me. I could see the first rays of light hitting Spread Eagle Peak. Mosquitos buzzed, and I felt my face, counting bites. I could hear dad breaking wood and coaxing last night’s coals to life. When the yellow and orange flames grew, and the smell of bacon beckoned, we quickly dressed to warm ourselves by the fire.
Because the horses hauled in anything we wanted, we ate like kings – fried eggs, steaks, canned stew. We supplemented most meals with foil-wrapped fish placed on hot coals. The ancestors of these fish had been eaten by my father and grandfather, caught from the same lake, cooked in the same manner. In the shadow of Mt. Agassiz, I felt connected to the world and to this place as only a boy can. When young, the borders of your body seem more fluid, almost one with glacial valleys, alpine tarns and weather-worn passes, gateways to remote and ancient worlds.
In the shadow of Mt. Agassiz, I felt connected to the world and to this place as only a boy can. When young, the borders of your body seem more fluid, almost one with glacial valleys, alpine tarns and weather-worn passes, gateways to remote and ancient worlds.
My dad seemed a magician. He knew how to cook anything over a fire. Most meals came from a large cast-iron skillet, a blend of root vegetables and meat. On the last night he pulled out potatoes to bake, but we had already used all the foil for fish. No problem. He took us to a where the stream had exposed clay soil and showed us how to pack the spuds in mud and place them in the fire.
“Every fall when I was growing up,” he said, “all the neighbors would pile their leaves in the street and burn them. We cooked potatoes like this every year.”
When we pulled them from embers, the dried earthen shell cracked off, butter melting into the steaming white flesh. Manna.
As a boy, the thing I loved only second to wilderness was horses. And on this trip, we had horses. Comanche and Bar, both palominos. Comanche was 16-hands tall and strong. Bar had been a racehorse in Evanston before Alan’s dad bought him. He had a scar on his crooked nose where he had run into a gate, but he was still fast.
Alan, a year older than I, had been drafted for the trip as chief wrangler. He and I spent hours riding around the basin, racing bareback, shirtless and shoeless, out across the meadow south of the lake, one hand on the reins and the other gripping tightly, deep in the mane, bare heels prodding sweaty flank, spurring even more speed.
When you’re on a horse, wild animals register less fear. We would quietly approach cinnamon does with yearlings or spotted fawns. We would talk back to the jays, nutcrackers and ravens, answer the high whistles of pika and marmot and then race across the meadow to grab our rods for the evening rise.
In 2001, when my oldest son was eight, he, my dad and I were back in the Uintas, again treading the familiar trail to Swasey lakes. This time we had two pack-goats. They were strange, devil-eyed creatures with large horns and an inscrutable gaze. We rented them from a tall, thin farmer in Tooele. Each would carry up to 40 pounds, and the farmer said they would “just follow without much trouble.” These goats were trouble.
After three miles of pulling hard on lead ropes, horned heads angled back, splayed hooves pushing dirt, we crossed over the top of a bare moraine before dropping back into the valley. Just as we reached that exposed point, a thunderstorm fell upon us with all its violence. The fiends now followed willingly as we scurried down off the rubble-littered slope – lightning cracking, heavens opening – and sought shelter in the trees. The goats stood face-in to the largest trunk, shaking and refusing to move. We bivouacked for the night.
The next day, sun out, storm forgotten, goats more willing, we hiked the remainder of the way to the lake. As we emerged from the trees, a wave of recognition swept over me. The light on the bald hills, the slowly expanding ripples of fish rising on the mirrored surface, the clearing to the south where we had camped that bicentennial summer of my tenth year. We stepped across the stream where years earlier ravens had stolen the cleaned fish waiting in the cool water for suppertime. Did Penn see this place? Did he feel the connection? Will he bring a son or a daughter here?
We spent three lazy days fishing and napping, hiking to neighboring lakes. The cutthroat trout were spawning and clogged the stream leading up the drainage, their speckled backs and red sides waving in the current like mottled crimson-edged grass. You could catch them by hand if you cared to, but we plied the waters of the lake instead: my dad and I with five-weight fly rods, Penn with a simple spinning set up. If you attach a bubble to a spinning line, filling it halfway with water, it has heft, and you can really cast it. Tie on a tan caddis or a gaudy green-and-red Royal Wulff, and you’re set. Cast, retrieve, cast, retrieve, strike! Penn pulled in fish just as I had at that age, at that place. We fashioned tin-foil packets and dropped then onto yellow-orange coals. White flesh, salt and pepper; it was as if we could taste the lakes.
The last time I was in Naturalist Basin, my dad met me there. It was 2002. It had been 22 summers since those sun-gilded days of horse races and mud-baked potatoes. A week earlier, my friend Sean and I were dropped off at the Brown Duck trailhead. For six days, we rambled the high country, dead reckoning from one drainage to the next, scheduled to meet my dad in Naturalist Basin on Sunday, at the campsite on Jordan Lake he first visited in 1948, and I first visited in 1980. We would hike out together, and he would give us a ride home. He was also eager to spend some time – once again – in the shadow of Mt. Agassiz, in the mountains he loved.
As we descended Rocky Sea Pass, we caught our first glimpse of the basin. I could see the smaller Everyman Lake and the larger Jordan Lake. There was the meadow Alan and I had raced across. I flashed to the sensation of speed, leaning low over Bar’s neck, gripping mane as the rhythms of running and breathing pulsed under me.
As we got closer, I was straining to see my dad’s camp. Although fit, he’d been solo for two days and was in his sixties; I was eager to see him, to find him healthy.
As we came closer to the lake, there was the tree I had slept under with cousins and brothers; there was the stream mouth where I had caught so many trout. Finally, the yellow of my dad’s tent peeked through. But as we approached his camp, it was still. We unloaded our packs and set up our own tent, but still no dad. We waited. Finally, I saw him coming from the northeast, on the Shaler Lake trail. An Akubra hat had replaced his hunting cap, and he now wore shorts instead of the old Levis, but it was clearly him, fly rod in hand. Yet, as he approached, he seemed strangely dour, and as he entered camp he wiped away tears. Seeing my concerned visage, he laughed at his emotions.
“David,” he reminded me, “I came here with my father, and I brought you here. Mt. Aggazis, Spread Eagle Peak, Jordan, Everyman, the other lakes. This is the most beautiful place in the world.” A pause, another embarrassed laugh, emotion in his throat. “When it’s time,” he said, “bring my ashes here. Bring my ashes here.”
We ate fish that night—the ancestors of the ancestors of the fish I ate in 1980, the fish he ate in 1948. I burned my fingers as I pulled the packet from the fire. I slit the foil, the steam rose; I lifted the tail and with a fork separated the delicate flesh from the fine, translucent bones. I could taste the lakes; I could taste the glaciers.
BHA member David Thomas Sumner grew up outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, in the small town of Granite. He read Bring my Ashes Here as a tribute to his father, Robert Smith Sumner, at his memorial last April. David currently lives in McMinnville, Oregon, where he is professor of English and environmental studies at Linfield College. When he isn’t teaching, writing or playing guitar with his bluegrass band, he loves nothing more than to wander the wild places of the West with friends, family and a fly rod.