One of my most unforgettable short vacations was spent in the Uinta Mountains of Wasatch National Forest in Utah. In a state replete with spectacular scenery, the Uintas (named after one of the Ute Indian tribes of the region) are Utah's highest mountains, and the only range in the nation to run east-west. While camping in the region, my husband and I laughed and cried, were frightened, frozen and enchanted.
Unable, at first, to make up our minds where to go camping in the state, we asked around, receiving almost as many different answers as people have outdoor interests.
Finally, we decided on an area a fishing enthusiast had enjoyed. We didn't think to ask him when he had last camped in the area. Only much later did we also discover that no dyed-in-the-wool fisherman ever tells anyone where the good fishing is. Still, it was the second recommendation for this near-wilderness area, so that had influenced our decision positively.
"Cold up there? In August? No, don't worry about it. You'll be fine!" a next-door neighbor told us.
You learn many things as novice campers, especially in an unfamiliar state. One is - never pay any attention to another person's definition of cold, especially if the individual is more well-padded than you are. My sleeping bag, from a famous manufacturer, was guaranteed down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the salesman. I must admit he did not say what it was guaranteed to do, but my husband seemed to think the sleeping bag was supposed to keep me warm.
"Perfect," he said. "I'd never get her out camping in anything colder."
His generic sleeping bag was more heavy-duty than mine. Even so, we shivered most of that first night. We slept inside our tent on foam pads, fully clothed inside the bags (except for boots and jackets), with a blanket and old comforter on top of that, and our coats over our feet. We hardly dared move for fear of finding another, even colder spot somewhere.
"Whose idea was this?" I muttered at one point, giving one of my loud shudders for which I am famous within our circle of family and close friends.
"Oh, it isn't that cold," objected my husband.
But it wasn't my knees I heard knocking together. A little later, I heard a suspicious chuckle from his direction and grinned in spite of myself. The whole scenario was ridiculous.
August or not, night at 9,500' in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah is cold.
I reflected on the drive to this rather remote spot. The state road (#072) that begins 7 miles south of Mountainview, Wyoming and leads to China Lake is about l5 miles of gravel or dirt, with some stretches of it designated as "primitive" on maps. It is traversable by compact car if the vehicle does not ride low to the ground and if such a car has a cautious driver. Four-wheel-drive is a safer bet all around.
Eventually, of course, we did get comfortable enough to drift off to sleep, the kind of sound sleep that comes after fresh air, sunshine and a moderate amount of exercise. Next morning, we awakened to pitter-pattering on the roof.
My first thought was "Oh no! Rain!" yet my eyelids were being assaulted by bright sunlight. The noise was being made by squeaky, cheeky chipmunks letting us know it was time to get up and get with it.
"Do you hear them?" I asked my husband.
He nodded and said, "There must be a whole family out there."
I crawled from one cocoon into another to venture outside. Wide-awake now, I gasped in delight at our surroundings. The earliest rays of the sun smashed the black glass of the lake into a myriad golden sparkles. I sat combing the tangles out of my hair while listening to the soft singing of the wind in the pines. A small fish took a free fly across the lake and the miniature plop of his return into the water could have happened two feet away, so distinct was it.
After a brief hesitation, the chipmunks resumed their busyness and play. Grooming was something that did not seem to threaten them.
Our stomach grumbles disturbed the air, so before they got too loud, we prepared breakfast--oatmeal and mugs of hot chocolate. The chipmunks vanished until we started eating. Then they returned, wild and shy. They have few visitors in this spot, compared to the improved campgrounds at China Meadows.
The chipmunks finally let their curiosity overcome their fear. One bounced up on to my left foot, crossed the other foot and dived into the cereal dish. I remained perfectly still as he lapped up the buttery milk with a tiny pink tongue. He tidied his whiskers and his chest, then looked around for more enjoyment. Spotting the oatmeal-coated saucepan, he scampered over to that, pausing frequently to stir the air with his tail to make sure he wasn't headed for trouble.
A friend or relative arrived from the other side at about the same time. They bobbed in and out of the saucepan, sitting up to rotate an oatmeal flake in slender fingers as they daintily nibbled it. The remote possibility that they might carry illness or parasites harmful to humans never entered our thoughts. We were too enchanted to worry.
We decided to try our luck at fishing before the air warmed up. But after several hours, it became obvious there was no catch. I looked at my husband's discouraged expression and felt like crying. He had wanted so much to get away, to do a little, peaceful fishing and go back to work refreshed and proud of having accomplished something.
The previous winter in the Uintas had been dry as their winters go, not as much snowfall as expected. Unknown to us, this meant that the level of China Lake would be down, the rivers no more than streams, with only fingerling trout to tease at our bait.
Later, upon our return home, we were to mention this absolute paucity of tight lines.
"Yes, we didn't like it up there," said the fishing enthusiast's wife. "The water disappointed us."
How much would it have cost her to have spoken up earlier, when her husband was recommending the place? We will never know. Obviously, she did not dare correct his faulty memory in front of him, and did not care enough about us to contact me privately later on. Another lesson well-learned, but I resisted the impulse to commit mayhem.
We took down the tent and moved on. After more exploring on back roads, we found State Highway l50, and arriving late, camped that night along the Hayden Fork of the Bear River. Since it's at a slightly lower elevation (9,100'), we awoke a little less chilled the following morning, but still watched the sun steaming frost off the shrubbery along the river.
Yet no one could have prepared us for awakening at this second campsite. I couldn't believe the sounds we were hearing. My stomach tightened into a fistful of knots. Where on earth had we camped? The animal sounds were headed right for us. We were going to be caught in the middle of a stampede!
By now, my husband was wide-awake, too. "What the devil is that?" he demanded.
Hurriedly, I unzipped a window of the tent to look outside. Sheep! Domestic sheep.
Sheep? We were in a wilderness area. Weren't we? But sheep it was. I clutched my stomach, feeling foolish but glad.
A large flock was being moved through the meadow on the other side of a split rail fence next to us. The sharp barking of the black-and-white border collie carried clearly in the frozen air.
Then came the herder on horseback. "Whup, whup!" he called, then "Yo-o!"
His calls pierced the morning. A few minutes later, another helper arrived, pushed a bicycle out of sight into the bushes, then began tossing pebbles at the more rebellious sheep.
The baa-ing had crescendoed, but the dong-dong of the bellwether still eclipsed it all. Without realizing it, we had managed to camp on a sheep ranch inside Wasatch National Forest, which borders the Uintas. In fact, the line between the Forest and the wilderness is indistinguishable. And in the twilight, we had not seen the small roadside signs. Even so, what was a sheep ranch doing in a National Forest?
Later, we learned from the U.S. Forest Service that a few grazing permittees do run sheep and some cattle in this way. I'm glad we checked it out because no one else believed our story.
If it meant being frozen, frightened and enchanted all over again, if we could laugh and cry, we would do it again in a minute. Camping in the Uinta Mountains of Utah was an unforgettable experience.
© 1983 and 2006 Shirley Ann Parker