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Fear and Loathing on the Yellowstone River Trail

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yellowstone river
On the Yellowstone River Trail you have to be ready for anything. Here, even the weather is trying to kill you. Photo Source:


The thought “Well that title’s a bit dramatic” probably crossed your mind. Just wait, it gets worse.

Backpacking the Yellowstone River trail ranks among one of the most terrifying and exhilarating backpacking experiences of my life.  It was my first time in Yellowstone, and I was about to realize what I’d signed up for.

yellowstone river
Backpack for scale. Would my pack become an artifact on the Yellowstone Valley like these antlers?

Before even setting out on a backcountry trail in Yellowstone, backpackers are required to attend a 20-minute orientation, or what I like to call “100 ways you can die in Yellowstone”.  You sit in a small room with anywhere from 10-30 other prey – er, backpackers – and watch an informational video. Set to 90s-era music, the inspirational voice instructs you to fear everything from the large predators (who want to eat either you or your food), the large herbivores (who might trample you if they think you’re a threat) to even inanimate objects such as the swift river currents (try not to swim) and wild weather conditions (it’s hot then it’s cold). Yes, in Yellowstone even the weather wants to kill you.

I left the orientation a lot more intimidated, but really none the wiser. How far did I need to stay away from a grizzly again? What about buffalo? (Turned out, that would come in handy later.) We gracefully packed up our equipment in the Mammoth Springs parking lot as the clouds brimmed with rain. I was too busy contemplating the approximate hunger level of Wyoming grizzly bear populations to notice a fellow tourist pull into the parking spot that occupied my spread of backpacking supplies.

We’re experienced Northwest backpackers from Seattle, so of course we pretty much broke every basic rule of backpacking in Yellowstone right off the bat.

Yellowstone River
The swift moving Yellowstone River after a sudden squall.

By the time we got to the Hellroaring Trailhead (the less popular Yellowstone River Trail access point) we only had about two hours of daylight left. The plan was to hike fast and find our campsite before dark. If the inspirational video had taught me anything, it was: “Don’t go hiking at dusk. That’s when the predators are most active.” Well, that wasn’t happening.

Five minutes into our trip, we broke out of the skeletal pines to catch a first view of the Yellowstone Valley. Spectacular, wild, vacant. I stumbled over rocks and roots as I my eyes soaked in the monumental plains. Countless tacky adjectives and metaphors fogged my tourist mind, right up until I noticed a great white sheet of rain approaching us at an alarming rate. We heard the wind howl through the canyon below as a squall tore across the valley, headed straight towards us. Be ready for any weather, we thought as we threw on our rain gear and headed down into the valley.

As the squall passed and the rain blew by, sun drenched the Yellowstone Valley with a spectacular strain of orange light. We hadn’t seen a soul since we’d given directions to two lost hikers. We could literally see for miles around; nothing but the distant shapes of buffalo and herd animals moving across the grassland. It was a bit unsettling for a Pacific Northwesterner that’s accustomed to being socked in by trees.

I’d never felt so intimate with the word “agoraphobic”.

yellowstone river
Alone in the wilderness on the Yellowstone River Trail.

I really was overcome by a feeling of isolation I’d never really felt before. With the “How to Die in Yellowstone” documentary still fresh in my head, I knew that if we screamed no one would hear us. Well, we’d hear each other screaming at least.

As I fantasized some morbid and dramatic premature end to our trip my partner–impervious to my fatalistic fantasies–stopped dead in his tracks. That worried me.

I looked up.

A great black orb, about as big as the average Seattle Subaru, lumbered towards us. Colorful language ensued. (Mostly verbs and adjectives.)

I’d seen pictures of buffalo before, but when you’re nearly face-to-face with one, you notice things a bit differently. The horns look sharper. The hooves can surely shatter bones. The dark oval eyes: malevolent. The stench smells like deceased hikers.

We backed away slowly, trying to remember the details. Were we supposed to make eye contact? Avoid it? Were we supposed to stay 15 meters away or 25?

As we stumbled backwards off the trail towards the sulfur stench of the Hellroaring River, the buffalo followed. It snorted as it walked down the trail. But to me it flared its nostrils as it stalked us into a corner. Smelling the blood. Trying to prevent any means of escape. Ready to attack. I was pretty sure we’d found the first carnivorous buffalo, but wouldn’t survive for the nature documentary.

But of course that wasn’t the case. The buffalo kept wandering down the trail. As he passed, he didn’t even give us an acknowledging glance. He lumbered away, snacking on tufts of grass here and there. He didn’t so much as flick his tail at us.

Finding camp in the open spaces of the Yellowstone River Trail.

We booked it after that, through the close-knit pine forest, down a narrow trail punctuated with buffalo patties. Every stump and shadow looked like a grizzly bear. As we made our way back into the grasslands, I wondered what monstrous creature I’d find on the other side of each knoll. We traded cautious glances with the deer and antelope as we made our way through the wild landscape. Bones and antlers punctuated the prairie like exotic plants, stained orange in the setting sun.

Finally, as the sun slipped behind the trees, we set up our tent on a plateau in the only small patch devoid of bones, antlers, and buffalo patties.

I could only imagine what the second day would offer on the Yellowstone River Trail.

Read Part Two


Summer Book Review – Almost There

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Almost_There_Cover_for_Kindle - Copy

Seattle Backpackers Magazine Summer Book Review

Stories and Musings along the Pacific Crest Trail
By G. William Jolley
231 pp. Amazon. $14.95.


summer bookWriting a book is difficult.  Writing a good book is herculean. In Almost There, G. William Jolley has written a good book.  The book is a memoir of a complicated life woven into the 500 miles trekked by the 70-year-old author on Washington State’s leg of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  If you have ever wondered what it would be like to take a long backpacking trip with your grandfather, this book will let you know.  Jolley is honest and unvarnished in his account of his life, his experiences on the trail, and his descriptions of a person still under construction.  At times, the narrative reflection is insightful and even wise.  At other times, the reader must become the careful observer and understand Jolley’s behavior in terms of the layered contradictions that contain a life.  The author berates a group of Boy Scouts he encounters for their use of cellphones, yet Jolley is thankful when his wife sends him one in a resupply package and then calls her in tears from the trail.

Reading this book we get to live the author’s life vicariously and in so doing get a better understanding of our own life and the lives of our elders.  We get to see the ghosts that visit Jolley in his quiet moments alone, their shadows cast by imperfect memories on the wall of the tent.  Jolley reflects over the ashes of a deceased comrade, “In the end, the weight of my friend is less than two pounds.”  The book is well written in short bite-size pieces, easy to digest, and perfect if you are looking for a good summer book.


Summer book reviews from Seattle Backpackers Magazine, find your next great trail read.

Obama Will Appear with Bear Grylls on Adventure Show

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A selfie taken with an American President is called a POTUS-elfie.  Source:
Obama Will Appear with Bear Grylls
Survival show host Bear Grylls taking a selfie with President Obama while filming an episode of his popular TV program in Alaska. Source:

As if leading the free world and surviving two elections was not enough, the White House announced this week that President Obama will appear with Bear Grylls on the wilderness survival show Running Wild With Bear Grylls.

According to NBC, Grylls will give Obama a crash course in survival skills during the President’s trip to Alaska this week. The filming will occur on Exit Glacier near Seward, Alaska. The episode will draw attention to environmental concerns over glacial melt and overall warming of the arctic region.

Obama Will Appear with Bear Grylls
President Obama talks about conservation on a trip to Alaska this week where he will film an episode on a survival show with adventurer Bear Grylls. Source:

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “I will not deny your suspicion that there may have been some suggestions put forward by the Bear Grylls team that were not approved by the Secret Service,” he said. “We have been able to work with the Secret Service to find a couple of interesting things for the president to do with Bear Grylls. It should be fun.”

Obama Will Appear with Bear Grylls
Grylls has a long adventure resume including a stint in the British elite SAS and an attempt to fly over Mount Everest with a Parajet paramotor. Source:

Grylls is well known for over-the-top survival techniques like hydrating using saltwater enemas. The survival show puts A-list celebrities in awkward positions out in the wild while Grylls offers pithy British commentary and empathetic support. The episode with Obama is expected to air later this year according to NBC.

Obama is not the only world leader that likes to show his wild side for the media. President Vladimir Putin of Russia is famous for posing shirtless while fishing or camera mugging hunting shots next to dead animals. With all the competition for resources between the U.S. and Russia in the arctic maybe Grylls could referee a global warming superpower summit at the North Pole. What do you say Bear, up for that adventure?

Obama Will Appear with Bear Grylls
Could outdoor enthusiast President Vladimir Putin of Russia survive on Running Wild with Bear Grylls? Source:

Must See Outdoor Films for 2015

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The Revenant Seattle Backpackers Magazine

Must See Outdoor Films for 2015

A Walk in the Woods’ (2015): Robert Redford, Nick Nolte

Robert Redford teams up with Nick Nolte to conquer the Appalachian Trail. Also featuring Nick Offerman as your friendly neighborhood REI employee.




The Revenant | Official Teaser Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX

Leonardo DiCaprio has some big shoes to fill in this Jeremiah Johnson-esque role. Let’s hope it does not disappoint.

Top 5 Chocolate Recipes for Backpacking

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The backcountry is the one place where having an unlimited amount of chocolate 24 hours a day is socially acceptable. For one, chocolate provides ample calories and fat. More importantly, though, that squished Snicker’s Bar in your pocket or frozen bag of chocolate chips in your pack’s brain is an essential morale booster to which the most inspiring words from Thoreau or Jack London cannot compare. So reward yourself after a hard (or easy!) day on the trail with one of my top five favorite chocolate recipes for backpacking.

Photo by Greg Walters

1. The Luke – One 16 oz Nalgene

The Luke is the instant fix for frozen boots in the morning, fading energy in the late afternoon, and grumbling stomachs watching water refuse to boil for dinner at night. Named after the mad scientist who created it on our NOLS backpacking trip in Alaska, Luke Cleary, The Luke fuels the body and warms the heart on a 3-day or 30 day trek.

2-3 tbsp hot chocolate mix

1 tbsp butter

¼ tsp cinnamon

1 ½ tbsp powdered milk

2 cup boiling water




2. Kitchen Sink Granola – Serves 2

At the end of a trip or ration cycle, this granola on steroids is perfect for getting your body the calories, fats and proteins it needs for the day, as well as for ridding your pack of portions of food that add weight, but are still too small to make a whole meal. Another NOLS concoction we originally called “granola mush,” this breakfast was a close second to cheesy biscuits.

2 tbsp butter

¼ cup peanut butter (or any other type of nut butter)

1/3 cup chocolate chips

1 ½ cup granola

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)


In a fry pan, melt butter, peanut butter and chocolate chips, and stir until smooth. Be sure to stir constantly so that the mixture doesn’t burn. Sprinkle in granola, cinnamon and vanilla. Continue stirring over the flame until fully incorporated and the granola is slightly toasted. Serve as is or cooled in yogurt.


3. Banana Boats – Serves 2

Banana Boats are a car camping favorite with the scents of childhood wafting out of the creases of the tin foil. I was first introduced to them in 4th grade at sleepaway camp and have yet to have a summer pass without digging into the better version of the classic s’more.

2 bananas

1 Hershey’s Bar, broken into the individual rectangles

15-20 mini marshmallows

tin foil


Peel one side the banana, leaving ¾ of it unpeeled. With a spoon, scoop out half of the inside of the bananas. Press half the Hershey Bar squares into the banana and top with the mini marshmallows. Fold the unpeeled side back over the chocolate-marshmallow mixture and wrap the entire banana in foil. Repeat with the other banana. Place both bananas on top of a griddle over the fire, or a pan over the stove, for 5-10 minutes or until marshmallows are golden brown.


4. Mexican Chocolate Ganache Apples – Makes 8 Apple Slices

Every backpacker knows Sriracha, Tabasco and any other hot sauce instantly elevates a dinner in the backcountry. Heck, they do in the frontcountry! So, why not add some spice to dessert, too? These apples are the perfect balance of sweet with a touch of heat for a night around the fire or tucked away in the tents.

1 tbsp butter

1/3 cup chocolate chips

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla (optional)

small pinch cayenne pepper

1 apple, cored and cut into slices


In a pot over a stove, melt together butter and chocolate chips until smooth. Stir in cinnamon, vanilla, and cayenne pepper. Dip apple slices in the chocolate mixture. You can eat them as is or, if you want them more like a candy apple, make them before dinner and let them set for an hour.


Photo by Mary



What would a list about chocolate in the backcountry be if GORP wasn’t included? GORP, or “good old raisins and peanuts,” is backpacker slang for trail mix. This version of GORP is my personal favorite, although there are a million variations out there. I normally use raw almonds and cashews.

1 part cashews

1 part almonds

1 part Pretzel M&Ms

1 part dried cherries

1 part banana chips



Tempting the Throne Room Book Review

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Tempting the Throne Room

At times witty and humorous through the storytelling, John Quillen’s Tempting the Throne Room also illustrates the tragedy that the great mountains of the world may bestow on the overambitious adventurer.

Tempting the Throne RoomQuillen becomes the central character on his journey to Broad Peak, a place far from civilization and the sister mountain to the notorious K2.  Only Everest is taller and more sought after than K2.  Broad Peak, as the reader learns, is also not to be taken for granted.  Not that it ever has been, only Quillen makes it clear that the mountain is no more forgiving than any other mammoth peak.  It is fraught with perils similar to its larger siblings, both in the bumpy journey to it as well as the difficult ascension of it.

Tempting the Throne Room is more than a story of climbing mountains, though this central theme is what draws its wide variety of characters together.  It is also as much a story about understanding far cultures and experiencing, along with Quillen, the surprising similarities and also stark differences that we must face and understand.  It is of brotherhood recognized and of a friend rescued.

Tempting the Throne RoomIt is at once a wonderful journey and a harrowing one. A journey of mountain climbing, its skilled denizens, its prolific professionals, and its intent intermediaries. At one point, Quillen talks of witnessing the physical manifestation of a guardian angel during great danger at high elevation. This was particularly riveting and I will not soon forget it.

If not somewhat more lighthearted, John Quillen’s writing style is similar to John Krakauer, the famed writer of such works as Into Thin Air and Into the Wild.  Quillen is skilled in the art of writing and this book should not be overlooked if you are an adventurer or, like me, enjoy reading adventure books.

The Golden Hike

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It is  Tuesday evening. Just after work. My husband stumbles upstairs and doesn’t look nearly as excited as he should be considering it is date night and we have a fun hike planned for the evening.

“Um… the babysitter cancelled.”

In the world of parenting, during an especially hard week, the news of a babysitter canceling can be quite the tragedy. And for us it was.  It seemed our golden sunset wasn’t going to be so golden tonight.

golden hike

I brushed a few meaningless tears aside and heading into the kitchen to start dinner. A dinner I hadn’t planned on making. Then Chris said, “Hold on. You don’t have to go so far as to start dinner. KIDS! Get your hiking shoes on; you are coming along and we leave in five minutes!”

That was how our golden hike began. Tired. Emotional. Frenzied. And towing along three no-so-excited kids who were much more interested in having a movie night with a babysitter than being dragged on some adventure with their parents.

We started up Mill B North trail in Big Cottonwood Canyon, legs complaining about the ascent. And the sun began to dip low in the sky, casting everything in that golden light all photographers treasure as though it were real gold.

It painted the sky a cobalt blue and maple-hillsides yellow and orange. And it painted our family new. Our rushing turned to peace. Our battling turned to unity. I felt my shoulders relax and my soul breath deep. That is when I paused to see my kids disappearing up the ridge, following their fearless leader of a dad. I snapped this photo before they disappeared completely.

We all make choices. Do we settle under the debris of life or adapt and overcome? Do we sit at home or go in hope of that golden light upon a mountainside?

I almost settled. I almost missed that sunset. But I am very glad I didn’t.

“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” ~ Michael Althsuler

Road Trip: Breadbasket

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Fields 2

I had a lot of ground to cover on this leg of my road trip. My frequent stops and slow crawls up mountain passes through the Rockies had put me behind schedule. The high plains of eastern Colorado allowed me to set the cruise control and put the miles behind me. However, as I crossed into Kansas, the clouds grew ominously dark. I picked up my iPhone and asked Siri when tornado season was in Kansas; her reply did not inspire much confidence.

Thanks Siri 2

The last time I was in Kansas, my wife and I witnessed a tornado coming out of the storm clouds and touching down a few miles from our car. We made all efforts to get away as quickly as possible, but the wind was so strong that our car actually slowed down. We were being pulled into the tornado! Miraculously, the wind suddenly died and we lost sight of the tornado in the rain. Seconds later, we emerged into the sunlight and bore witness to the most amazing sunset. The striking dichotomy of that moment still resonates as strongly with me as it did when I first experienced it.

Back in the present road trip across Kansas, my current situation grew sinister when I noticed my odometer – it was quickly approaching 66,666 miles. The wind picked up and the rain poured harder than I had ever seen in my life. Then the lightning came, striking the wind turbines that dotted the landscape all around the interstate I was traveling on. As the sun set, the skies began to grow dark, and with the lightning and rain showing no sign of letting up, I spotted a sign for a hotel not too far off the freeway in Ellsworth, Kansas. I was not going to try to camp in this storm. Thankfully, I saw no tornadoes and that night I dined on steak and sipped a beer while watching a rodeo on ESPN.

Fields 2

The next few days slipped one into the other as a blur of corn fields, wheat fields, and country music. As I drove through West Virginia and into Pennsylvania, I noticed that the people were a little more reserved, the countryside became more dramatic and I started hearing a lot more banjos on NPR. I was crossing the Appalachian basin and driving through the north tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Point Of Interest – Blue Ridge Mountains

The Blue Ridge Mountains get their name from the blue appearance of the mountains when viewed from a distance. The blue tint is attributed to isoprene, an organic chemical which is emitted by the mountains’ plentiful flora. The mountain range stretches from Georgia into Pennsylvania, spanning six states in all.

The Blue Mountain range is ripe with history, from old graveyards, civil war battlefields and regions settled well before the United States of America was born. The mountains also have an abundance of outdoor activities, from hiking and rock climbing to canoe trails, fishing, mountain biking and even skiing.

I am excited to be traveling through the Blue Ridge Mountains for many reasons. One because these are the first real mountains I have seen since leaving Colorado and the other is that this mountain range is very close to my new home. With over 2,000 miles behind me I am certainly looking forward to getting out of the car and settling into our new home in Maryland. I am almost there!

Stay tuned to Seattle Backpackers Magazine as I will be continuing to share my adventures, and offering suggestions for your own adventures, in this magical place.

Trail Personalities Part 2

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You know they’re out there. Here are three more trail personalities.

After countless hours on the trail a hiker begins to notice recurring trail personalities, different individuals with strikingly similar tendencies. My first three have already been revealed. Three more favorites today.


THE SPONGE: If there is one thing that a northwest hiker knows, it is how to dress on a rainy day. The sponge, however, missed this day in Seattle hiker’s training 101. On sunny days the sponge stays home. On rainy days he heads to the trail dressed entirely in cotton. The Sponge gives no thought to the weather forecast, or the fact that it’s been raining for 29 days straight. His attire is something a normal person would wear to a Mariner’s game, or to lay around the house on Saturday to watch college football. Rain gear, who needs it? He has a Metallica t-shirt and some holey jeans. Water-repellent pants and shoes, not a chance! He needs to be nimble and fast so he wears sweat pants and some light-weight mesh running shoes. Backpack, I don’t think so. All the sponge needs is a water bottle and a pocket full of gummy bears.

THE TRAIL STATUE: The Trail Statue is often encountered alongside the trail equidistant from the trailhead and the turnaround point. The Statue doesn’t have the physical endurance of an Olympian, but he does have enough motivation and self-confidence to start out on that difficult trail. From the onset The Statue’s motivation springs a leak and drips onto the trail like a broken fuel line. The Statue always makes it up the first steep part of the trail, the good ones make up the second hump, but by the third steep incline their tanks are empty. Sitting there in purgatory, The Statue isn’t ready to give up on the goal destination, but his body isn’t cooperating. The opposing forces of pride and fatigue freeze the statue like a hero that has stared into Medusa’s eyes.

THE TIME TRAVELER: It is common practice for most hikers to keep a mental odometer of their mileage as they work their way towards a final destination.  It is also common practice for hikers to conduct accuracy checks on this odometer as they approach their turn-around point or campsite.   These checks usually occur when the brain’s notification mechanism begins its steadily increasing pings of “we are really close…I mean really, really close.”   In almost all cases, the hiker resists the urge to pull out the map or read the hike description they’ve printed. Instead, the hiker chooses to direct inquiries at fellow hikers passing in the opposite direction.  What the out-bound hiker seldom realizes is that upon reaching the turn-around point, the home-bound hiker has become a Time Traveler.  The half-finished bag of Doritos in the car has fully captured the home-bound hikers focus; it’s short-circuited his mental clock and the two miles he’s covered from the turn-around point has only taken “five minutes.”  In almost all cases, the Time Traveler rounds out the good news with an emphatic “you’re almost there!”

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