Ascending the Forest Service road to the trailhead, I immediately noticed campgrounds were no longer filled to capacity with local and touring families, but instead with the signature walled tents that denoted hunting camps. As I prepared my gear at the trunk of my car below the trailhead I wondered if I should have brought hunter orange with me, especially as I saw two hikers throw on their bright orange vests before taking off on the same trail I intended to use. I rapidly decided that I would trust the hunters around me to be as sure of their shots as I am when in the field hunting big game. Naive perhaps, but reassurance enough for me.
I was treated to quintessential wilderness solitude on this post-Labor Day hike. As I worked two small off-trail drainages, intersecting the main trail only as necessary, I encountered a total of four people the entire day. Not bad considering that during the summer you often can't go ten minutes, and definitely not an hour, without meeting a group of people on this particular trail.
Following game trails up the first drainage of the day reminded me of the thrill of wilderness in autumn. Moving up-slope and upstream the forest around me was filled with the sound of moving bodies. With the sharp snap of breaking branches and shaken foliage came the pungent ole-factory sensation that told me those unseen animals in motion around were big game and most likely elk. Fresh scat confirmed this belief even though my eye never glimpsed them. Of course, my eyes were more for the waters I was following than elk this day, but I would've been remiss if I hadn't stopped on the edge of a large clearing and watched intently for movement before moving across the clearing to reach the crystalline waters near its center.
Aspen and cottonwood are rare in the woods where I found myself that day when compared to the abundant evergreen species of the Bighorn Mountains. But it was the vivid colors of the aspen and cottonwoods that drew my eye as I cast my fly upon cold wilderness waters. Fall had already laid its hand upon the landscape at ten thousand feet in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. Emerald leaves had cured to hues of gold, orange, and solitary reds, standing in wonderful foliar contrast to the dominant evergreens.
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