By Nick Freeland
The final weekend in July, Luke Stacy, Craig Okraska and I left our homes in Lander, Wyoming to make the four-hour drive to the Green River Lakes trailhead on the river’s uppermost reaches. The trip had taken shape over the course of two evenings spent pouring over maps and sipping beers around Craig’s fire pit. We selected Green River Lakes as a doable three-day excursion that would provide the perfect combination of floatable water, great scenery, and exciting fishing. After a few stops in Pinedale for last-minute supplies (Cheez-Its, granola bars, whiskey, flies) we hit the trail in the mid-afternoon heat and headed upriver.
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As an archeologist by training, the Upper Green River in Wyoming is an undeniably special place for me: iridescent waters coming straight off the continental divide meander calmly through verdant meadows surrounded by arrow-straight fir trees. Over it all looms Square Top Mountain, a massive granite monolith that looks like it was picked up in Yosemite and dropped in Wyoming by mistake. It’s a striking backdrop for an area rich in human history.
The first people to set eyes on this country were far-traveling hunter-gatherers of the terminal Pleistocene (or last ice age) around 13,000 years ago. The river would have been raging then as the massive alpine glaciers capping the Winds rapidly melted, and the hills and plains of the basin would have been dotted with herds of Columbian mammoth munching fir tips, North American cheetah running down elk calves, and the occasional 2,000-pound short-faced bear ambling along the river in search of a carcass to scavenge. Later, the Wind River Shoshone used to travel from camps near present-day Riverton, Wyoming over the northern Winds and down into the headwaters of the Green River as part of their vast seasonal round. In 1825, William Ashley, the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and an early employer of Jim Bridger, navigated a large stretch of the Green in expedient “bull boats” made of raw bison hide stretched over willow frames. Using these proto-rafts, Ashley’s party floated and portaged their way as far as present-day Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border.
Between 1833 and 1840, the upper Green River in the vicinity of present-day Daniel Wyoming served as the site of six of the famous Rocky Mountain Rendezvous where trappers and Native Americans would gather to trade furs, information, and other goods.
In August 1842, upon reaching the Green River Basin via South Pass, soldier-explorer John Fremont painted a stunning but by no means exaggerated picture of the area: “The air at sunrise is clear and pure, and the morning extremely cold but beautiful. A lofty snow-peak of the mountain is glittering in the first rays of the sun, which has not yet reached us. The long mountain wall to the east, rising two thousand feet abruptly from the plain, behind which we see the peaks, is still dark.”
“Being on the river above Green River Lakes you have a sense of this immense thing rolling out in front of you. A continent’s worth of water. Other methods of travel take active effort and intention, often quite a bit of it. On the river, all you have to do to keep going is not stop yourself.”
Back in 2020, we set up camp on a flat finger ridge overlooking the river about a mile above the upper of the two Green River Lakes. After a short hike upstream, rafts inflated and fly rods in hand, we hopped in and let the mellow current move us along the snaking oxbows back toward camp.
We saw no one else fishing above the second lake. The helpful guy at the fly shop in Pinedale had said there were very few fish in this part of the river due to the thick glacial flour filling the water. We speculated that maybe he was just trying to protect his favorite honey hole, but soon realized the truth of his warning when very few rises materialized despite an active mayfly hatch. Fortunately, although not abundant, the fish weren’t completely absent either. Luke cast to the first rise we spotted and pulled in a nice rainbow, I cast to the second and landed a small, silvery brook trout.
I like to think about these fish - pioneers and evolutionary outliers, for better or worse. They had access to plentiful food above the lakes: in our time on that stretch of river we saw big mayfly and midge hatches, not to mention tanker stonefly nymphs crawling under the rocks. But there was obviously something about the upper part of the river that turned most fish back. I wondered if the pioneers’ gamble would pay off.
Soon enough we found ourselves rounding the last bend before camp. Leaving the rafts amongst the knee-high willows and sedges of the riverbank, we made our way up to camp swatting mosquitoes. As the fire crackled to life in the gloaming, Luke mused: “I just feel like I’m gonna look out onto that meadow and see a moose.” No sooner had he spoken than a small bull in velvet plodded his way into view, stopping occasionally to browse a clump of willows. He was soon joined by a more mature bull with fully developed paddles. We would cross paths with these two many more times over the course of the trip.
Being on the river above Green River Lakes you have a sense of this immense thing rolling out in front of you. A continent’s worth of water. All you would have to do is let yourself keep floating with the current and, a few rapids and portages aside, you’d eventually end up in the Pacific Ocean on the coast of Mexico. That freedom is impossible to ignore whenever I get in a boat on moving water. Other methods of travel take active effort and intention, often quite a bit of it. On the river, all you have to do to keep going is not stop yourself.
“The mosquitoes were held at bay by the smoke, the whiskey was out, and the trout, encrusted in a magnificent mixture of olive oil, seasoning, and Cheez-It crumbs, were soon sizzling in tin foil packets on the coals.”
The second day dawned bright and clear. We quickly packed up the rafts and headed upriver toward the narrower canyon and thicker timber at the base of Square Top. Our put-in was just below where the narrow river turned to deadfall-choked whitewater. We passed the morning and early afternoon casting to rising trout as we floated back to camp, hooking a handful of hard fighting rainbows on Adams patterns and other mayfly imitations. The fishing was perfect: surface action that more often than not required a challenging cast and mend across the current. But once you got the drift right the fish weren’t picky. We returned to camp in the mid-afternoon. After a short siesta in our tents, motivated by a passing thunderstorm but really (in my case anyway) a chance to briefly escape the mosquitoes, we were back on the water and headed for the upper lake. We crossed the lake in short order and fished the outlet in the fading evening light. Having caught only brook and rainbow trout to this point, we were surprised and excited when Luke landed a small lake trout. Shortly thereafter, I brought in a splake (a brook trout/lake trout hybrid). With these two fish in hand to supplement our dehydrated suppers, we packed up the rafts and made the trek back to camp, crossing paths with the two bulls and finding a cow moose with twin calves cropping willows about 30 feet from our tents. As the moose moved off, we settled in for a pleasant evening around the campfire. The mosquitoes were held at bay by the smoke, the whiskey was out, and the trout, encrusted in a magnificent mixture of olive oil, seasoning, and Cheez-It crumbs, were soon sizzling in tin foil packets on the coals.
We woke to cooler temperatures on the third and final morning of the trip. We took our time getting out of camp, then opted to hike past the upper lake to let it warm up, and put in on the river between the lakes. The fishing that morning was hit and miss, we landed some small brook trout and larger whitefish, but by the time we reached the most promising looking water, the bite had died down.
Later, drinking beers on the tailgate, we talked over the trip we’d just completed and future plans for future trips. I reflected on this place, its history, the spectacular landscape and amazing animals whose paths we were fortunate enough to cross. I felt immense gratitude to be able to spend time with friends in places like this. Several times I had felt a strange chill as I took in the view from our campsite or the raft, knowing the beautiful uncaring land hadn’t changed much since the Shoshone and fur trappers walked this valley. The oxbows of the river have shifted in the last couple centuries, but they would no doubt still recognize it.
“Trying to start a fire with damp kindling while being mobbed by mosquitoes, I think about cracking a cold beer on my back deck...but invariably, in the closing moments of the trip it all seems to be over far too soon. At this moment I’d gladly turn back for another three days, or three weeks behind the mountain wall."
In the final moments of the trip, paddling across the lower lake in a light breeze and the warm noon sun, the trailhead getting closer with every stroke, I felt a familiar melancholy. The end of another trip. It’s ironic that no matter how hard I work to stay present on these outings, I inevitably have moments when I long for the comforts of home. Trying to start a fire with damp kindling while being mobbed by mosquitoes, I think about cracking a cold beer on my back deck; or pulling on frozen socks, I can’t help but contemplate a hot shower. But invariably, in the closing moments of the trip it all seems to be over far too soon. At this moment I’d gladly turn back for another three days, or three weeks behind the mountain wall. It’s a good feeling though; I know it’ll keep me coming back for a long time.