July 19, 2016

By Shelli Johnson/YourEpicLife.com

Shawna Pickinpaugh, 52, of Lander, WY, is a mother, wife, artist, high school art teacher and a lover of Wyoming. She is a native of Wyoming, and has called Wind River Country home for almost 19 years. She also happens to be an avid angler. She’s been fishing for “at least 50 years,” and has caught hundreds and hundreds of trout in her lifetime.

Last year she won a raffle ticket prize for a local middle school fundraiser. Her prize was an “Epic Hike” with me. (My business, Epic Life, bundles life and leadership coaching with wellness and guided epic adventures. Taking people on epic day hikes is one of my favorite, and most popular, offerings.)

After I learned Shawna was the Epic Hike winner, we corresponded via email about what hike I would lead her on, and when. I wanted to find a hike that would challenge her physically, and that would be new for her. In one of her notes back to me, she asked if we could do some fishing during our hike.

After some consideration, I proposed Wind River Country’s Upper Silas Canyon area as our destination. Upper Silas Canyon is a long, glacial-carved canyon in the Wind River Mountain Range that is dotted with numerous lakes that just happen to be teeming with trout.

Shawna on her epic trip
Shawna on her epic trip

I love Upper Silas Canyon. It’s possible to hike to, and/or near 6-8 lakes in Upper Silas Canyon, and the scenery is stunning.

When the day arrived for our adventure, I picked Shawna up in town, and we started the 45-minute drive through Sinks Canyon and up the Switchbacks to the trailhead. I should mention, not many people like to hike with me because I prefer to leave town at dark thirty. I love being on the trail when the sun comes up. I admit it can be difficult to not hit the snooze button and instead start at a reasonable hour, but my philosophy is you can sleep in another day. Shawna was eager, and didn’t object.

Shawna, during sunrise, about a half mile into her Epic hike.
Shawna, during sunrise, about a half mile into her Epic hike.

Once at the trailhead, we started hiking with our headlamps on. During the first mile, we were rewarded for our early wake-up with a remarkable sunrise that appeared to light the pine trees around us on fire. (See photo)  The trail winds through a forest before reaching an intersection with the Christina Lake Trail at about one mile. To continue upper Silas Canyon, stay right and continue another 1.5 miles to a point where you’ll hear a creek. Watch for a big cairn here, which marks a fork in the trail. If Lower Silas Lake is your destination, continue straight and down toward the left to reach Lower Silas Lake.

To continue up Silas Canyon, which was our plan, opt to go right and cross Silas Creek. After crossing Silas Creek, you may go left to hike to Tomahawk Lake, which offers great fishing, or stay right to continue a little over a mile to reach Upper Silas Lake. We went for Upper Silas Lake, which is a beautiful lake that is set in a pine forest with a big granite mountain at one end of it. There’s terrific camping and fishing at this lake.

As we hiked up the trail, which parallels the lake’s shore, we could see fish. Lots of them. “It was hard walking by without pulling my fishing rod out and casting a few,” recalls Shawna.

We each ate a snack and hydrated before continuing another one-and-a-half miles to reach Island Lake. Island Lake is stunning, and worth a stop, even if it’s not your destination.

My husband and I and our three sons have camped twice at Island Lake. It’s a phenomenal destination in its own right, whether you’re on a day hike, fishing trip or backpacking or llama packing trip.

Shawna loved Island Lake, but, as I predicted, she still had fuel in her tank, and was curious about Thumb Lake, which is another mile and a half above Island Lake.

Shawna, trying her luck at Thumb Lake.
Shawna, trying her luck at Thumb Lake.

Before our hike, I had not mentioned to Shawna that there were golden trout in Thumb Lake. It never occurred to me, which is crazy because any Wind River Country angler who knows anything knows they want to catch the elusive and beautiful golden trout, which can be found only in select high altitude lakes. In fact, some people come to Wind River Country from all of the country with one goal in mind: To catch a golden trout.

At any rate, in passing, while hiking, I mentioned “There are actually golden trout in Thumb Lake.” I knew this firsthand because Jerry and I caught our first about a month earlier, and the experience was unforgettable.

“I have caught cutthroat, brookies, lake trout, browns, rainbows, and Yellowstone cutthroat,” explains Shawna. “I had never caught a golden trout before. When Shelli mentioned golden trout, my heart started racing, and I had great anticipation that at 51 years old, I would finally get to check this off my bucket list!”

Although Shawna is not a slow hiker, I did note that her hiking pace picked up considerably after I mentioned the prospects of catching a golden trout.

From Island Lake, we continued up another mile or so, off trail and above treeline to reach what would be our destination, Thumb Lake. We were both eager, but we stopped briefly above Island Lake to admire another small, unnamed lake. After that, we were rewarded yet again but this time not by a lake but by a moose. We surprised a moose that appeared to have an injured leg. We felt bad for it, and did our best to quietly back up and take a different route so as not to distress the animal. (At this point, I thought to myself, anything can happen and this day will be a Win. In just a couple of hours, we had experienced a remarkable sunrise, we had the trail pretty much to ourselves, a new friendship developing, the scenery around us was stunning scenery, and, we saw a moose.)

Soon, we spied Thumb Lake, one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in the Wind River Mountain Range. It is above treeline, and nestled under tall granite mountains.

Shawna, showing off her Golden, before releasing it back into the lake.
Shawna, showing off her Golden, before releasing it back into the lake.

From a short distance, we could see fish in the lake. Shawna, a much more experienced angler than I, suggested we sneak up slowly “because they can see us, too.” I tied a fly to my Simplifly fly rod, and she selected a lure for her fishing rod. We went to separate locations. and started fishing.

“I had a hit on my first cast, so that made my heart race, and I became very intent on what would happen next,” recalls Shawna.

What happened next was Shawna struck gold! In fact, she struck gold not one time, but three.

“I landed three small golden trout that morning, and had a number of good hits,” explains Shawna. “You could see the little guys chasing the lure, and it was fun watching them stay just out of reach of the hook. I typically bring a few fish home to eat, but I didn’t bring home any of the goldens. They need to stay where they are.”

For my part, I casted my line no fewer than 50 times, and caught not a single fish, golden or otherwise.

But I felt as if I had also struck gold just by witnessing, and being a part of Shawna’s experience.

Shelli and Shawna at the end of the hike.
Shelli and Shawna at the end of the hike.

“I have hoped for years that I would have the opportunity to catch a golden. That day, after catching one, I had a smile on my face from ear to ear,” recalls Shawna. “They are so beautiful, and I have such a great appreciation for them. Not too many people can say they have caught a golden.”

“It really was an Epic day,” she added.

NOTE: To fish Wind River Country’s waters, be sure to have a current fishing license or permit, and to be informed of the fishing regulations for the areas you plan to fish.

All photos by Shelli Johnson.

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