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Bull Lake Creek - The Return

By: Evan Stafford

High Water and The North Fork

Getting prepared in the moonlight at the reservoir: photo ES

KM, ES and Jared Seiler hiking up into the alpine through the SF Willow Creek drainage: photo Ian Garcia

“What in the hell am I doing up here? Maybe I should have just run the shuttle, stayed at home, run the Big South a coupla more times. Way, way, way too late to think about that now. Did we actually pay money to be dropped off this far from civilization? 20 miles of 4WD road behind us. Not to mention the four miles we just hiked up into the alpine with extremely heavy plastic backpacks.”

Ian Garcia making his way across our alpine traverse between passes: photo KM

Up there, 11,000 feet above sea level, things really started to come into perspective. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the dehydration, but I was barely, barely keeping it together. We were deep and there was no turning back. We had crossed a pass from South Willow Creek into North Willow Creek and now we were climbing around a high ridge in the Kirkland Peaks trying to find our way to a second pass which would lead us into the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek.

Ian shouldered his boat the entire hike. You can barely see me coming into the frame in the distance: photo KM

My backpack system was failing. I was tired and I could no longer control the side to side movement of the kayak on my shoulders. Forcing myself to keep moving, I would take thirty or forty steps, rest and try to keep going. The problem was that the last few times I stopped to rest, when I had tried to take the weight of the 90 lb. kayak off of my back and rest it on a rock, the boat had swayed and had taken me with it into a crumpled mess, splayed out across the tundra.

Kyle and I hydrating: photo Jared Seiler

As we approached the final climb, I fell again, cursing loudly and repeatedly. Jared was just behind me and I asked him for some help steadying my pack so that I could get it on securely and keep moving. Things were becoming desperate. Storm clouds rolled in over the ridge for a surprise attack. The rain started to drizzle in random drops. Another twenty yards and I needed help from Jared again. The rain was truly upon us now and after sweating all afternoon the shivers hit me like the cold wind on the trail of the buffalo. After hoisting my kayak onto my back and barely steadying myself, I reached down for my paddle. A gust of wind came howling like a werewolf under a red moon and I lost my balance, going down for the final time on the pass.

Jared in the storm: self portrait

On the verge of crying for my mom, I picked my head up and stared at the 200 feet of vertical climbing that remained between me and the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek. As I stood up, the hail hit. Little pebble sized ice chunks pelted my exposed skin. It stung but there was no turning back. And then came the lightning. Thunder roared across the wilderness moments after a strike on a nearby peak lit the afternoon sky. I ripped apart my backpack system, put my boat on my shoulder and carried up to the ridge using some of my last energy reserves. Unfortunately we still had a long way to go down before we could camp in the relative safety of the forest below, much less before we could escape the canyon.

I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Dropping into the North Fork drainage: photo ES

Crossing a lake on a tributary to the North Fork. We camped the first night above this lake after downclimbing, or more accurately falling down a disgustingly steep and narrow creek bed: photo KM

There were two lakes on this unamed tributary before it confluenced with the North Fork. Between each of them we descended near or in the creek bed through terrain that looked mostly like this... or worse: photo JS

Morning of our second day. Finally the North Fork: photo JS

The North Fork had four or five good drops on it and a couple of portages. This was one of the best. Jared stoked to be in his boat: photo IG

ES boofing. Jared named this one Desperado because we were so desperate to get into our boats after the heinous descent into the NF: photo IG

Scouting Hagen Dazen in the afternoon light. We were so excited to hit the main fork and the lakes section was so good with the extra water that we forgot to take any pictures. We were also beat the F down from the hike-in, which is why decided to save our Ice Cream for breakfast and camp directly above the big falls: photo IG

Got up in the morning, packed up our boats and Ian fired her off first in perfect form. The entrance is chaos and a pretty tough move as you can kind of see here: photo KM

Jared went next and was not as inspiring: photo IG

He did however pull a clutch roll in the entrance, tuck up and ride it out switch and pull a sweet/necessary handroll in the pool, impressive: photo ES

Cutch went next, surviving the lead-in and styling the falls: photo IG

KM fist pump after styling it upright: photo ES

The Forked Tongue Gorge was next and was stout with the higher flow. We ended up walking a good chunk of it so no pictures there either. This slide is right before the Jim Bridger portage and is a fast ride into a monster hole, So good! Ian entering: photo ES

Jared stomping through the first hole: photo ES

...and preparing to drop into the big hole: photo ES

After the sweet slide there is some intense boogie right up until the micro edddy above the JB portage. From there it is up around through chunky scree, back in for a short paddle to a pool and then back up and around a right bend to put back in for the Rocky Mountain Mank section: photo JS

The Rocky Mountain Mank section was classic with the extra water. Big mostly boat scoutable moves stacked up all the way to Bull Lake, which rests between the JB Gorge and Bull Lake Falls: photo KM

Below the class V sneak move and into a stout run-out before rounding a corner and catching the must make eddy above the falls: photo ES

KM about to be swallowed, typewritered and spit out: photo ES

Ian with his high action face on: photo ES

KM coming into the corner above Bull Lake Falls. Notice the big water feautures. Shit was high: photo ES

Feeling pretty insignificant. Beuatiful views, giant boulders, hell on the shoulders and back: photo IG

Looking out into the open canyon below the falls. Breathtaking. Still a long ways to get down: photo JS

At the base of the falls is the Sequel Section to the Rocky Mountain Mank. Intense read and run which was fantastic with the extra flow. Problem was my body would not do as my mind was trying to will it to do. I inhaled some water, had a sketchy roll and when I caught the next eddy had a minor meltdown. "I need to camp - NOW!" Cutch found a sweet camp and we savored the feeling of being below the major obstacles of the canyon and looking at a fairly easy morning with only one class V gorge and lots of flat water to the take-out: photo ES
Jared looking relieved to be in the meandering flats below the canyon visible in the distance. One more surprise gorge with a ten footer and some fun slides and a long reservoir paddle with a miracle backwind and we were on our way out of the wilderness and back to our homes: photo KM

Bull Lake Creek is an extremely special place. There is no other place in the Southern Rockies where you can feel so "out there." It is a lot, a lot of work but it is worth it for the true wilderness experience. When you are so deep that there is only one way out, downstream, and your consiousness is raised to another level, there is a feeling of focus, determination and harmony that can not be found in any other situation. It's a beautiful thang. Special thanks to Will and his son Britt for the shuttle and to the Shoshone Tribe for protecting Bull Lake Creek and keeping it the most pristine river in the Southern Rockies.