In late July 1999, Todd Siefker and I decided to hike the Thorofare Trail, which passes through some of the most scenic, awe-inspiring, bear-infested, mosquito-ridden terrain in North America. The Thorofare got its name from its past. In the early nineteenth century, it served as a major transportation route for Native Americans and European-American fur trappers working the beaver streams of the Northern Rocky Mountains.
Thorofare Trail runs along much of the eastern edge of Yellowstone Lake – North America’s largest, highest, freshwater lake. At the southern end of the lake, the trail enters the Upper Yellowstone River Valley. Most people think the Yellowstone River begins in Yellowstone Lake. But the river’s headwaters are actually about 70 miles south of the lake in a barely accessible region of tundra and trees on the slopes of Younts Peak.
If you stay on Thorofare Trail for its entire 68-mile length, it’ll take you to the southern boundary of the national park, where Thorofare Creek, the far Upper Yellowstone’s largest tributary, pours into the main river from the east. In late July, the creek runs crystal clear, ice cold, and fast, darting over a bed of round red, brown, gray and white stones. If you want to get to the ultimate source of the Yellowstone, you’ll have to leave Yellowstone National Park and hike into the Teton Wilderness – an area about as far from a road as you can get in the Lower 48.
On the first day of our hike, Todd and I put in fourteen miles on the trail. I remember that first day well – it was hellish. I carried so much food and gear in my backpack that I could barely stand without my legs buckling. When we set out from the trailhead, my first steps felt impossibly heavy. I wondered whether my legs and back could bear the load. But as soon as I gained a little speed, my forward momentum somehow made the pack feel lighter.
Early in the hike, we decided to cross a small, boulder-strewn creek by walking across the thick trunk of a fallen tree. We thought crossing the creek atop the log would be quicker and less onerous than fording the stream; and neither one of us wanted to get our boots wet, dreading the idea of hiking all day with wet boots, wet socks, and eventually sore feet. The horizontal log, which was about two feet wide, stood at least six feet over the stream and directly above several large boulders.
Todd crossed the stream first. As soon as he reached the far bank, I started across. I didn’t have any difficulty taking my first steps atop the downed tree, but when I reached the midpoint above the boulders, my nerves completely gave out. I froze. At that moment, I doubted that I could take another step without falling headfirst into the creek. Because of the excessive weight of the backpack, I knew a tumble into the creek would either break my back, smash my skull, crack my sternum or break a bunch of ribs – or all of the above. I started shaking. My legs felt like rubber. But just when I thought I was going to go airborne, something primordial inside me took charge. I suddenly felt a surge of adrenaline and determination. I steadied myself long enough to take a firm step forward, then another, and another and within seconds I reached the far bank. Todd welcomed me to the other side with a noticeable sigh of relief.
We spent the next several hours hiking through a dense pine forest, with the blue waters of Yellowstone Lake occasionally visible through the trees to our right. In late afternoon we reached our campsite. There was enough sunlight left in the day for us to casually set up our tent, cook dinner, and take an exploratory stroll along the nearby lakeshore.
Not far from our tent on the north and east stood a forest of tall pines. To the west, maybe thirty feet away, lay the lake. To our south extended a long grassy meadow, flanked by pines on one side and the lake on the other. In the soft light of evening, our campsite and its environs looked idyllic. But when the sun went down, the place turned sinister. The darkness of the pine forest gradually crept toward us until it completely enveloped us. It was then that a low, steady humming sound emerged from the meadow to our south. The humming came closer and closer until it settled directly upon us. In the fading light, I could see mosquitoes covering the backs of my hands, blanketing my chest, arms, and legs, and swarming around my head. Not wanting to be eaten alive, I bolted for the safety of the tent. Todd immediately followed.
An hour later, a chill breeze coming off the lake gave us relief. The mosquitoes quit the field, seeking refuge under leaves and blades of grass. After the hum of insects dimmed to an infrequent buzz, Todd and I left the tent, built a big fire, sat down on a pair of logs, and starting talking about the day’s happenings. Both of us had a good laugh about my “oh shit” moment atop the log.
Todd eventually pulled out two cigars. We lit up, puffed on our smokes, and sat silently staring at the fire and the growing mound of flickering orange embers shearing off the burning logs. A little later, Todd whispered, “Hey Bert, check it out.” I lifted my head and saw Todd in the shadowy firelight, he was gesturing with his eyes for me to look to his left. I swung my head in that direction. There, sitting between Todd and I, only feet away, was a large brown hare staring at the fire. The moment I looked at it, it turned its head and looked at me. We both stared at each other, then it turned its eyes back to the fire. I did the same. As the minutes passed, I periodically glanced over at the hare. Sometimes it looked back at me. At other times, it just stared straight ahead at the fire. At one point Todd offered it a smoke. Surprisingly, the sound of Todd’s voice didn’t startle the hare – it just glanced over at Todd and then looked back at the fire. We both chuckled at the hare’s seeming indifference. For a short time, the hare shared the fire with us. Then it quietly got up, turned around, and hopped off into the dark woods. We never got its name.