by Eric McDuffie
When I first hired the guide of J.R. Haecker Outdoors Wilderness Expeditions in March, 1993, he told me over the phone I would be traveling on a horse with a small group of other fly fishing anglers and seasoned pack guides 28 miles back into the Grand Teton Wilderness. He also called this true wild country, where most people never venture due to its ruggedness, danger, and isolation. This only made my heart beat faster. I felt the adrenaline build up inside, raring to go on my first true wilderness adventure. The Orvis Anglers’ Lab Outfitters fly shop owner in Richmond, Virginia told me that I would experience the most incredible dry fly fishing action I could ever imagine once I finally got to the Teton backcountry. So I booked the trip on that cold March morning, anticipating that Saturday morning in July when I would head out into a vast stretch of wilderness on my first backcountry trip. I could hardly wait.
I had never ridden a horse before. When the day arrived, I found myself on the outskirts of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at a horse ranch, getting ready to take a western-saddle horseback ride 28 miles into the high country. I felt excited to travel through the most remote portion of the 48 contiguous states—and also a bit nervous: only a couple weeks earlier I heard on the news that two park rangers had been mauled to death near their outpost, fittingly named “Grizzly.” I still had to go, despite my fear. Trail maps showed my path would pass through this bear-infested area.
The dew on the ankle-length grass made my boots wet as I stuck my foot into the stirrups of my Palomino partner. I slowly pulled myself up, swung my leg over, and found myself sitting in a saddle for the first time. The reigns rested loosely in my hands as I waited for the rest of my group to mount their horses.
Our horses formed a line, trotting along a narrow dirt path leading across the pasture toward the high expanse of mountainous peaks. I could easily see snow on the tops of those rocky outcrops even in mid-July. About an hour into the ride we climbed to the top of the first pass. I vividly recall looking way down into the bottom of the gorge and seeing the jade green water of the Gros Ventre River flowing across rocky terrain, churning into a frothy frenzy of white rapids. It was as if the whole world was moving: me, my horse, the river below, the gravel kicked up by the horses. Clouds of dust enveloped us and cottony-white clouds passed overhead. The narrow trail kept disappearing under me as we trotted toward Atlantic Creek. Later that night, upon reaching our basecamp, the lead ranch hand shared that a young man had fallen off his horse along that stretch of the steep narrow trail only a year prior, plunging to his death, several thousand feet down into the gorge. I guess the wildness of it all hit me right then, that night. I knew I was sitting in the most remote place I had ever been.
The first three hours of the trip took us about nine miles in. We finally stopped for a rest break at a shady spot along the trail. I got down off my horse and stretched my aching muscles. The inside of my knees were in pain like I had never experienced a pain before, the pain of riding in a Western saddle for the first time. I remember the smell of the trees as we ate our sandwiches and drank from canteens: pungent burnt wood, the scent of a singed forest due to a fire earlier in the spring. Fiery Red Indian Paintbrush punctuated the understory, clusters of wildflowers dotting the green grass. I was mesmerized by this dreamy landscape.
Remounting our horses, we continued our ride, encountering Atlantic Creek for the first time on our trek. We would meet this creek again later in the day, including fording our first stream about half way through the day; I could envision our base camp already set up along its bank three thousand feet higher up into the Grand Teton wilderness. First we must ford the creek. I was looking forward to riding through the water with my furry friend until I saw what we had to cross over: knee-deep fast-flowing water with a downed fir tree blocking our way. I had to hold on tight to the reigns, trusting my ride to instinctively speed up and lunge across the massive tree trunk. We made it! I felt a huge sense of accomplishment as we successfully forded the creek.
About five hours in, we emerged into a long, flowing, sunny expanse called Turpin Meadows. Copses of sagebrush perforated the tall grasses and sedges. Wildflowers displayed every color of the rainbow. Two-Ocean Plateau rose from the left side of the meadow, while Hawks Rest nestled within the jagged Teton Range on the right. I could see the Hawks Rest namesake, a cave cut into the face of the mountain. All around me in this warm sunny meadow a winding stream slowly meandered its way through the center. In the distance to my right I saw my first moose standing in the stream munching on its supper of aquatic macrophytes. He wore some of his vegetative dinner draped across his massive antlers.
We curled around the long winding meadow and stopped on its other side along the edge of the plateau. There a narrow strip of a waterfall hurled itself off the top and down the steep side of its craggy face, plunging into a round, clear pool of water not ten feet wide. We all crossed this low point in the fork of the pool, stopping on the other side, this creek representing an apex of the true continental divide. That small, circular pool of water flowed off in two directions at 180-degree angles. The left stream formed the headwaters of Pacific Creek moving westward to the Pacific Ocean. The right side, where I stood, formed the headwaters of Atlantic Creek, moving eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean. I stood there speechless: I knew I was one of only a few who would ever see this wild stretch of whitewater helping to fill our two massive ocean basins. The name of this place, Two-Ocean Pass, now made sense, and I felt awe as I easily stepped across these headwaters with my brown and white spotted friend.
Three hours later we all finally made it to basecamp, pitched along yet another portion of Atlantic Creek. The eight dusty hours of travel on the back of my furry friend was a blast; now I just had to get down. This proved very hard. Stiffness and soreness settled into all of my leg and back muscles and joints. When I finally got down, one of the ranch hands advised me to keep moving around and not sit down, so I decided to do what I came for: I pulled out waders from my duffle bag and put them on. I strung up my fly rod and tied on my favorite dry fly. The old Royal Wulff never let me down on my two favorite freestone streams back east in Virginia. Along the North Fork of the Mormons and Rapidan River, my beautiful friends, the Brookies, would always get outsmarted by the Big Bad Wulff floating naturally in those moving freestone currents.
I slowly entered the wild Atlantic Creek, feeling her coldness for the first time. She woke me up and made me feel alive with a rush of adrenaline. I love to fly fish small streams the best, getting to know them with true intimacy. Atlantic Creek averaged about 10 to 15 feet wide, plunge pools alternating with slow, meandering stretches. This suited my needs perfectly. I made my first cast upstream in the midst of a small stonefly hatch where a medium-sized flat rock lay exposed to the late afternoon sunglow. In the first cast, I got a violent strike! I set the hook and smiled from ear to ear as my fly rod bent double to the first fully colored golden Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout of the trip. His hard fight impressed me: two relentless runs across Atlantic Creek startling some of his kinfolk in the midst of their mating ritual. They were in his way as he stubbornly headed back towards Two-Ocean Pass. He could not escape my pull. He eventually gave up and swam back to me, gracefully defeated. As he laid himself over at my feet, I gently netted him. I marveled at his gorgeous and majestic coloring as I cradled him in the wet palms of my hands. He and I struggled for breath together, my heart racing and his gills flapping. Suddenly, our two hearts had merged into one primeval moment. Instinctively, after looking directly into his desperate, wild eyes, which looked back at me, I knew it was time for me to say goodbye. I placed him back into his clear watery world and coaxed him to get the dissolved oxygen back into his bloodstream. He took off from my outstretched hands to rejoin his kinfolk. At that moment we physically disconnected from each other, but deep inside, I feel permanently connected to him and this remote wilderness, across space and over two decades’ time.
I lost count of how many Yellowstone Cutthroats I locked eyes with before darkness fell. The water never tasted better that late afternoon of fly fishing on that remote stretch of Atlantic Creek. I know I will never again taste a more perfectly sweet handful of water as that flowing from the free-stone depths of her source.
I came to Grand Teton National Park to experience the wilderness, and I lived with it for one incredible week of my life. This memory will never leave me. I may never feel as eternally connected to any place in my life as I did that first day on Atlantic Creek, but each day on a river I feel a brush with that eternal feeling, gazing into the Ultimate through the eyes of the scaly, shimmering inhabitants of a watery world.
Bio: Eric McDuffie, a native of the Tar Heel State of North Carolina, is a PhD student in the Environmental Studies Department at Antioch University New England. Eric continues to honor his mother’s and grandparents’ wishes to complete his education in order to better serve children and the natural world. McDuffie earned an undergraduate degree in biology with a secondary science teaching certification at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, followed by a master of environmental management degree at Duke University’s Leadership Program within the Nicholas School of the Environment. He then worked for over a decade teaching middle and high school environmental science to over 2,000 students. He received several Environmental Educator of the Year honors from the state of North Carolina while becoming state certified as an Environmental Educator. His passion for fly fishing extends back 47 years. McDuffie’s dream now leads him to build a contemporary eco-contemplative fly fishing ethic and academy for children and their parents to begin creating their own fishing stories while bonding with the natural world. He hopes his dissertation will help to fulfill this mission for combining fly fishing and environmental education, while also honoring his grandfather, who taught him the sacred art of fly fishing beginning on his third birthday.