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In the Teton Wilderness, where two oceans begin

September 27, 2017

It was deep snow, mule-eating bogholes and downright dangerous conditions that thwarted John Winter’s first 2017 attempt to ride into his outfitter camp at Two Ocean Pass.

The camp is located 22 miles from the Turpin Meadow trailhead along the famous plateau where North Two Ocean Creek makes a baffling break into two, sending Pacific and Atlantic creeks toward their namesake oceans. It’s usually reachable terrain by mid-June, once the sunshine in the high country has erased the last signs of winter atop Trail Creek Pass.

It was the first week of July when Winter led a string of mules to ready his outpost for a summer of guiding guests. But feet of snow had held on, a mule became stuck in the mud and Winter judged the hazard to be too high.

“We didn’t get to go,” Winter said hours into his first trip to the camp — a full six weeks later.

“This is the latest that we ever got in,” he said, “but I’m tickled to be here.”

Right now, in the early fall, it’s about as bustling as it gets in the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Teton Wilderness, a treasured high country that’s bounded by Yellowstone National Park, the Absaroka Range, Buffalo Valley and the Snake River. Elk hunting season in the wilderness, which kicked off a week ago, attracts big game hunters from around the world with their sights set on bagging a trophy bull as wall decor and freezer filler.

Summer can be packed, too, the result of fishermen drawn to fabled cutthroat trout runs out of Yellowstone Lake and up the Yellowstone River and its tributaries. Continental Divide Trail through-hikers and packrafters populate the 900-plus-square-mile wilderness during the narrow season the trails are dry. Then there are the “progressive campers,” guided adventurers who typically come in on horseback to eat good meals, relax and see the sights of a landscape that’s more remote than any other in the Lower 48.

Count Mike Leonard, a temporary tenant of the Winter camp, in that last category. A ninth-generation North Carolinian, he’d had a stubborn and ultimately successful lifelong ambition to see the Parting of the Waters. It started when he read about Atlantic and Pacific creeks’ mysterious split in a Yellowstone book his mom gave him when he was a grade schooler.

“That just caught my eye when I was 9 years old,” Leonard said. “It just took me 55 years to get here. That’s it.”

Leonard spoke in spades about his eagerness for the tranquility of a week away in the Teton Wilderness, even as rain drizzled onto a canvas roof at the end of a dreary day. An outdoors lover, he devotes part of his free time to ensuring it’s around for future generations as a board member for The Conservation Fund. But in the day to day, he’s a busy East Coast attorney.

“I work all the time in just miserable, corporate litigation,” Leonard said. “This is exactly the type of break I need.

“I thought about bringing a book,” he said, “but then I thought I’d rather sit there and stare at the mountains. I can stare at mountains for a long time.”

It was his first weeklong vacation in four years. Leonard’s daughter, Iris, and family friend Chloe Speiler accompanied him.

Considering their guests for the week numbered only three, Winter and his crew of seven did an astounding amount of work to set up camp. Before the packstring’s arrival the Two Ocean Pass Outfitting camp was empty and rather eerie-looking, dotted by stumps and snags on the fringe of a meadow along Atlantic Creek. After three hours of unloading 18 pack mules and horses, it was transformed into an authentic, charming and elaborate Western backcountry camp.

Winter wasn’t the only outfitter who had barely got into the Teton Wilderness this summer.

Paul Gilroy, who has returned to his outpost along the South Buffalo Fork for 37 straight years, held off on booking any trips until the first week of August.

“Too high rivers, too much snow,” Gilroy said. “It was a really old-fashioned winter.”

Bridger-Teton National Forest packer Chris Hart was one person who welcomed the unusually quiet season in the Thorofare. Hart saw no sign of mankind when he crested Trail Creek Pass on Father’s Day, with his horses postholing through 4 feet of snow.

“I was first tracks,” Hart said from a patrol cabin at Hawks Rest. “Usually this place is overrun by then.”

Hart spent the better part of July clearing trails and patrolling large swaths of the Teton Wilderness, traveling the Pacific Creek corridor all the way up the Yellowstone River. There was little in the way of company.

“I probably saw five people grand total in those three weeks,” Hart said. “It was so nice. So nice.”

Back at Two Ocean Pass, camp cook Ashlie Winter playfully poked fun at her father-in-law and boss, John Winter.

“John went to Hawaii once,” Ashlie Winter said, “and wore Wranglers, a long-sleeve shirt and a vest the whole time.”

The elder Winter wasn’t ashamed.

“Yep,” he said. “Sat in the shade the whole time, too.”

The 72-year-old Mormon cowboy packs plenty of character into his thin frame. He speaks with conviction and calls it like he sees it, with strong views about land managers, wolves and the federal government. Winter also harbors a deep affection for the Teton Wilderness, where his family has guided and outfitted since 1946.

“It’s really a special place, this Thorofare country,” Winter said. “Once people come here, they like to come back.”

Leonard nodded.

“There’s no question about that,” he said. “This is just stupendous.”