September 11, 2016

By Shelli Johnson/

I just returned from one of my most memorable and meaningful experiences in my backyard, Wind River Country. I took my 18-year-old niece and Goddaughter from the Dallas, TX region, on her first backpacking adventure.

One of the reasons the adventure was so special and unforgettable is because it occurred in my backyard, Wind River Country. Add to that, I took Daylia backpacking on one of my all-time favorite trails, and to some of my favorite destinations.

I’m talking about the Upper Silas Canyon region. From the Christina Lake trailhead located just past Fiddlers Lake on the loop road above Lander, you can access trails that lead to Lower Silas Lake, Upper Silas Lake, Tomahawk Lake, Island Lake, Thumb Lake, and two more lakes that are nestled in steep cirques at the head of the canyon. (As a day trip, Jerry and the boys and I often head to Lower or Upper Silas lakes, or both, for great trout fishing. Last year we caught 18 trout in two hours at Upper Silas Lake. On one of my epic day hikes, where I traveled past no fewer than 12 lakes, including most of the aforementioned lakes, plus others, I casted a fly in about six lakes and caught trout on the first cast each time.) These trails into Silas Canyon are wonderful for families, young hikers, older generations of hikers, and especially for first-time “epic adventures.”

Posing with my Goddaughter at the start of our adventure. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,
Posing with my Goddaughter at the start of our adventure. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,

Which brings me back to the topic of this blog post…

Right before sun up, on July 14, I fetched my 18-year-old Goddaughter, Daylia, from my parents’ house. Our destination: Island Lake in Upper Silas Canyon.

This would be a trip of so many firsts for Daylia. It would be her first time backpacking. It would be her first time to sleep in a tent. It would be her first time to start a campfire. It would be her first time to climb a mountain. And as for me, it would be my first time to take my Goddaughter on an epic adventure. This was a big deal that we had talked about a lot in the past, and finally the dream was coming true.

Daylia, who is very fit, had mentioned a few days before the trip that she expected to carry her share of our load, and for her backpack to feel legit. It did. It weighed about 32 pounds.

It was a beautiful morning with the sun just up. The trees reflected perfectly in Fiddlers Lake as we started down the trail and into our adventure. As we headed up the trail, the birds chirped and sang, and the day’s new sun lit our way. Just another blissful morning in Wind River Country, I thought to myself.

After a mile and a half, we reached the signed junction, where the trail forks and you can go straight toward Gustav Lake, Christina Lake, Atlantic Lake and beyond, or veer right toward Upper Silas Canyon. Our sights were on Upper Silas Canyon.

After reaching Upper Silas Lake at about 3.5 miles, we took our packs off and enjoyed a 15-minute snack break on the shore. Upper Silas Lake has a big granite mountain at its upper end, and its water was as smooth and as clear as glass. Every now and then a fish jumped through its surface, and I did as I always do when this happens, briefly regretted that I didn’t pack my fly rod.

Re-fueled, we continued up the trail to Island Lake, which we reached in good time. We found a wonderful campsite, the same one Jerry and I and our sons have camped at before. Perfect, I thought to myself. I taught her how to set up our tent and we worked together to get our accommodations in place.

After establishing our camp, we ate some lunch, drank more water, and then set out, with our lighter packs, for Thumb Lake. As far as Daylia knew, we were going to establish camp at Island Lake, and then take a quick day hike to Thumb Lake, and that would be our itinerary for the first of our two days in the wilderness. That was correct, except I also had in store some additional options…

Daylia, hiking to Thumb Lake. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,
Daylia, hiking to Thumb Lake. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,

When Daylia and I reached Thumb Lake, we removed our packs and hunkered down to enjoy the views, and drink some more water and eat some dried mangoes. Wildflowers were everywhere, and we both remarked at the beauty of Thumb Lake and the surrounding granite mountains with snowfields.

The first time I ever saw Thumb Lake was 13.5 years ago when we rented llamas from Lander Llama Company. Our oldest son, Wolf, was 2.5 years old, and our youngest son at the time, Hayden, was just 6 months old. We took some good friends of ours with us, who were also our next door neighbors, the Thorens. On one day, Jerry and I packed our little sons up to see Thumb Lake. Its beauty struck me then, and although my visit to the lake with Daylia was probably my 12th or so, the beauty of Thumb Lake continues to strike awe in me every time. The backdrop of the lake is hard to describe, so hopefully you can see the beauty in my accompanying photos. There are tall granite walls and mountains all around.

Thumb Lake. This lake is not only beautiful, it’s also home to the coveted golden trout. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,

I told Daylia I’d love for us to explore the cirque up above and the lake that was most likely tucked in it, and possibly even attempt climbing Roaring Fork Mountain.

I pointed to the notch (what some people call Devil’s Bite, or the Cookie Bite) on Roaring Fork Mountain’s high ridge. Daylia has seen this bite from Roaring Fork Lake, and from our cabin, and she was impressed that it was just right there, so close to where we were. And yet not very close. In fact, from where we sat, I couldn’t see a route to the notch that I would be comfortable leading my Goddaughter on, especially on her very first wilderness trip. Briefly, as I sized up our options, I discovered some possible routes we could take from a second cirque up higher that, if we were lucky, might allow us to gain the ridgeline, and ultimately, the top of Roaring Fork Mountain. Jerry and I had climbed Roaring Fork mountain a few years back. We had accessed it from the saddle en route to the Stough Creek Lakes Basin. I have never forgotten what we saw from the mountain’s top – numerous lakes. If you’re willing to explore all over the top of Roaring Fork Mountain’s rolling and broad top, you can see many of the 30+ lakes that dot Stough Creek Basin, as well as the lakes featured on Daylia’s and my adventure in Silas Canyon, as well as the lakes of Atlantic Canyon.

A beautiful cirque and lake at the head of Upper Silas Canyon. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,
A beautiful cirque and lake at the head of Upper Silas Canyon. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,

The route I was considering with Daylia would be a first not only for her, but also for me, and I was intrigued. I love climbing mountains because I can’t wait to see what’s on the other side. Also, I love the views from up above.

“Let’s first go see the upper lakes,” I suggested, and we returned to our feet and headed up. We skirted the first upper lake (which is situated in the cirque below the notch of Roaring Fork) and then crossed a huge boulder field to a spring where we refilled our water bottles, before continuing up over some snow and more boulders to the most beautiful cirque and lake we’d see up close on this adventure. There was still a huge slab of ice. The shades of green and blue around the ice were breathtakingly beautiful.

I shared some skills about mountain climbing and hiking up steep, often loose, terrain with Daylia, and we started venturing up a route I predicted would get us to the top of the mountain top’s ridge. Daylia was a champion! We moved together and deliberately.

“Look how far we’ve come already,” remarked Daylia, as we were about halfway up the mountain.

Soon, we saw the end of our climb. “It’s right there,” said Daylia. “We have to make it now.” And make it we did. As we gained the ridge, we were speechless. Before us was a panoramic view filled with a range of tall granite mountains, including Wind River Peak, and Lizard Head in the distance. Below us were the main lakes of the Stough Creek Basin.

We quickly bundled up with our warmest layers, hats and mittens. We hugged and gave each other high 5’s, and snapped photos from different vantages, as well as some selfies of the two of us standing “victorious” on top of Daylia’s first mountain, and on top of our first mountain climbed together.

Summit selfie! (Photo by Shelli Johnson,
Summit selfie! (Photo by Shelli Johnson,

We stayed about 20 minutes before deciding we wanted to start down if for no other reason to get out of the cold and the wind. As we descended, we were both giddy about – and proud of – our accomplishment. “I don’t want to steal our thunder, but, as a world-class climber (Phil Powers, Wyoming’s only man to climb K2 without oxygen) once told me, the summit is only the halfway point. Most injuries happen while descending, so even though we’re excited and we summited, we need to pay even more attention going down.” Daylia, now a backpacker, and ‘Epic certified,’ understood and agreed.

We were back at our camp at Island Lake by 4 p.m. Island Lake is spectacularly beautiful. It is full of big fish, that at least in my family’s experience, are discriminatory and hard to catch, which of course makes them more fun to pursue. I could see some big trout rising in the lake from our camp. As I stood on my tired legs and watched the trout and took in the scenery, it occurred to me that we had been out exploring for almost 12 hours, in peak tourism season, and we hadn’t seen another human being! The reason it felt like we had this Wind River Country paradise all to ourselves is because, by all indications, we did have it to ourselves. This happens a lot and is just one more reason Wind River Country is so special. Its region is vast, and it remains a best kept secret. And while I hope this article helps promote tourism for the area, I hope it doesn’t too good of a job of it…

Next, I taught Daylia how to set up and start the camp stove, and she helps me make what we decide to call “Epic Island Lake Quesadillas,” which were tortillas fried in lots of butter, and filled with pepper jack cheese, spicy green chiles and tomatoes.

Epic s’mores – the perfect end to a perfect day. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,
Epic s’mores – the perfect end to a perfect day. (Photo by Shelli Johnson,

We enjoyed a lot of meaningful conversation, made s’mores that were also – you guessed it – Epic. We each roasted double marshmallows and added them to dark chocolate with almonds and graham crackers. We snarfed two Epic s’mores each. Watching the stars in a Wind River Country night sky is, in itself, a bucket list-worthy quest. We stayed up long enough to spy the Big Dipper and the North Star, before heading into the tent. My Fitbit indicated we had logged 14 miles and almost 400 flights of stairs. I told Daylia how epic she is, and told her the day was epic by anyone’s standards, but especially mine. It would be a day I would never forget.

When we got nestled into the compact, 2-person tent, Daylia remarked, “This is a little cozy compared to what I’m used to.” I had her right where I wanted her…very near to me. When I shared this tent with my oldest son, Wolf, last year on our mother-son rite of passage trip, he had said the same thing, as I made him snuggle into my right arm the way he had so many times over the years beginning when he was an infant. I didn’t make Daylia cuddle with me, but it sure felt wonderful to have my Goddaughter so near to me.

We said good night, and I told my Daylia that I loved her, and that I was so proud of her, and that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere with anyone else right now.

As we turned off our headlamps, I listened, and there was not a single sound. I think it was the most quiet night I’ve ever spent in a tent in the often-windy Wind Rivers.

I rose the next day at around 6 a.m., started a fire to keep the mosquitos at bay. I made coffee for myself while looking at perfect morning reflections of Island Lake. Daylia slept soundly in the tent. For two hours, I sat and reflected on how blessed I am, while hearing only the songs of birds. I thought of Jerry and the boys, and of my parents, who first inspired me to get outside in Wind River Country. I thought of Wolf, who was in the same wilderness somewhere on Day 4 of his 30-day NOLS course, and wondered if he was up early too. He’s the early bird in our family so I was pretty sure he was!

Daylia and I had a great hike out later in the morning, and right as we thought the adventure could not get any better, we spied a bullwinkle moose in the meadow after Upper Silas Lake, browsing on willows. It looked at us to make sure we weren’t a threat, and for some moments, we watched the moose, and he watched us.

This is just one of so many potential adventures one can enjoy in this land we call Wind River Country.

Shelli Johnson, owner of Epic Life,  is an entrepreneur, life and leadership coach, leadership development facilitator, keynote presenter, writer, adventurer and guide. She is married to Jerry, and is the mother of three sons, Wolf, 16, Hayden, 14, and Fin, 9. They live in Lander, WY, where they frequently hike in the foothills and mountains of the Wind River Range. #WindRiverCountry

Posted in Notes From the Field