I’d set myself a turnaround time of 7 p.m., half way between when I left camp to search for water at 5:30 and when I said I’d be back three hours later. In just a few minutes, I would reach that turnaround time. All the springs marked on the map that I’d walked past had been dry. We needed water.

Emilene Ostlind
Emilene Ostlind

This was the first night of a backpacking trip in the Red Desert with my mother. We’d carried as much water in our packs as we could manage when we left the pickup that morning, just over a gallon each. Now, after a hot day hiking through sand dunes, we were down to less than two quarts, not enough to get us through the night and another day of hiking.

I checked the map again. Ahead a group of antelope grazed a meadow. Maybe they came here for water, I thought. As I approached, they lifted their heads one by one, cocked their ears, and then trotted away, white butt hair flared.

I crossed the meadow. My dog bounded ahead and disappeared over a small embankment. When she leapt back up, her face and legs were streaming with water. I’d found it, right at 7 o’clock.

I quickly pulled the pump out of my pack and filled the water bottles from the greenish, sun-warmed pool of water. Now heavier with a few gallons of water inside, the pack weighed on my shoulders as I struck out for camp, two and a half miles back up the valley.

Table Mountain (click to enlarge)
Table Mountain (click to enlarge)

An hour later, I met Mom walking down the trail. She held up a full water bottle announcing she’d found a clear spring trickling straight out of a rock face very near our camp! She described cold water so pure it didn’t even need to be filtered. As we approached camp, four elk stood at the spring, sipping and cautiously watching us.

We reached the tent just before dark. Red beans and rice with summer sausage simmered on the camp stove while night settled in. We both relaxed into the quiet desert evening, and once our bellies were full, quickly fell asleep bundled into our sleeping bags side-by-side in the little tent.

My mother, age 61, loves wild, untrammeled, wide-open country, the colder and harsher and more starkly raw and unconventionally lovely the better. She came to Wyoming as a young woman after hearing the name Wind River Mountains and thinking they sounded beautiful. She has backpacked all over the Bighorns, and she goes on big, wild canoe trips in the Arctic. After all the backpacking and canoe adventures she’s taken me on over the years, this little hike into the Red Desert felt like a small gesture in return.

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

We’d come here to see a small section of a recently discovered mule deer migration corridor that stretches from Interstate 80 east of Rock Springs 150 miles to the mountains surrounding the Hoback River south of Jackson. Our camp was near where the mule deer cross the Continental Divide, snug against the shoulder of Steamboat Mountain. I’m interested in long-distance wildlife migration, and I wanted to see this part of the corridor and try to understand how the deer navigate such wide-open country, so different from the lush mountains where they raise their fawns.

In the morning Mom and I filled a stuff sack with water, lunch, and wind breakers and scrambled up Steamboat Mountain to explore it’s big, flat top. Steamboat is a major landmark in the western half of the Red Desert and from its crown we could see a full 360 degree vista including the Jack Morrow Hills, Wind Rivers, Oregon Buttes, Continental Peak, Red Lake Dunes, Jim Bridger power plant, North and South Table Mountains, Killpecker Sand Dunes, and Boar’s Tusk. We ducked out of the cold wind behind rocks to eat lunch, and referenced the map to learn the names of drainages and distant features. After lunch we wandered the elk paths and four-wheeler trails that crosshatched the mountain, and glissaded a snow bank.

Emilene and her dog Jolie at Steamboat (click to enlarge)
Emilene and her dog Jolie at Steamboat (click to enlarge)

In the late afternoon we picked up a well-traveled elk trail with layers of fresh prints in the dirt and followed it in a straight line for over a mile toward the spring near our camp. At the spring Mom set our cook pot under the pencil-thick stream of water to slowly fill so she could pour into the bottles. I climbed up above the spring until I found a sheltered pocket in the sand dunes with a big view north to the Winds and Oregon Buttes. Once we had our water, we moved our camp up to the high dunes for the night.

We’d considered following the migration corridor farther north, but were afraid to get too far from the little spring we’d found. The Red Desert doesn’t welcome backpacking or long-distance hikes, at least by humans. I still don’t know how the mule deer find enough water to make it through their long journey.

The next day Mom and I would hike out to our vehicle and work our way along the migration corridor driving gravel roads. Exploring this area by vehicle — especially one well-stocked with jugs of water — is more feasible than traveling on foot. Still, I was glad for our two nights out with just our boots and our packs, wandering a piece of Wyoming we hadn’t seen before. After all, we’d never have discovered the secret spring in the rocks if we hadn’t been out on foot.

Emilene Ostlind is communications coordinator for the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming and edits Western Confluence magazine, a publication of the UW Ruckelshaus Institute.

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Emilene Ostlind is communications coordinator for the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, and edits Western Confluence magazine, a publication of the UW Ruckelshaus...

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  1. Our adventures in the sagebrush steppe are flavored by the water we have to pursue, from stock tanks to melting the red dusted snow banks hidden in the lee of coulee. Others can have the sterile high alpine spaces. Thank you for the story.

  2. Don’t miss the buffalo jump memorialized by the art of Jackson’s hole artist Grant Hagen.

  3. That special magic of wild places or (as one of my other favorite writers, Barry Lopez, calls it), the “numinous nature of landscapes”…. hard to put into words. You always seem to capture a bit of that, both in your life and in your words. Thanks for all of that.

  4. Thank you for writing another beautiful piece about the magnificent Red Desert and those within and traveling through – including people (especially moms), elk, mule deer and white butted flared haired antelope. Keep journeying and writing, please!