June 23, 2003

Great Basin National Park - Wheeler Peak

An early September snow storm dusted the
Wheeler cirque on the 1993 camping trip with
Doug and Tom. I sure got my money's worth out
of the 1979 Toyota Hi-Lux 4x4, as primitive as it
was back then. It was one of the big reasons I
decided on my 2018 Tacoma 4x4. 
Before the Great Basin National Park (GBNP) came into existence in 1986 it was simply known as another National Forrest with a privately owned and operated cave complex named after the miner who discovered it, Absalom Lehman, in the mid-1880s. The park lies within the Snake Mountain Range just east of Ely, NV as it runs along the Nevada-Utah border. The U.S. Congress' creation of the national park brought the caves into the federal fold. While I am thankful the park is protected, it is also true that such status creates a higher level of interest. Thankfully, its remoteness minimizes some of the throngs.
Evan and Brian, circa 2000, posing in front of Mount Wheeler, Nevada's
second highest peak at 13,062 feet. Note the permanent glacial field
tucked up in the amphitheater-like cirque.
I first visited Lehman Caves when I was in college. My memory is a little fuzzy; I thought there were four of us on that first trip but I can only recall the names of Doug Tueller and Kevin McGoohan. I was not a fisherman at that time.  We college boys simply wanted to escape city life and appreciate the grandeur of Wheeler Peak (13,062 feet) and the accompanying Snake Mountain Range. We camped in the Upper Lehman Creek campground (around 7,800 feet), and hiked the Lehman Creek trail to the Wheeler Peak campground (9,950 feet). It was a rigorous hike with Tueller in the lead; an eight-mile round trip with 2,150 feet up and then back down. Of course, we toured the Lehman Caves which was under private ownership and operation at that time.  It was an awesome mountain to visit. 

I returned another time with McGoohan during a spring break, and the highlight of the trip was the hour-long tour we received in the caverns, as we were the first and only visitors of the new season. Still another time I recall driving up the morning after attending UNLV graduation parties in 1978 with a fraternity brother (who’s name escapes me). I recall still another solo-trip after I began fly fishing. Although I didn't fish the alpine lakes (the native Bonneville cutthroat trout are thriving in the creeks of GBNP - click embedded link to see cool video), I did catch a few nice rainbow trout from Baker Creek. I am always interested in another trip to Wheeler, but usually before or after the crowds, and likely mid-week.
The trail to Stella Lake just below Wheeler Peak.
I estimate I have visited Wheeler seven or eight times over the past thirty years. It has a unique beauty all its own. It is the second highest peak in Nevada (Boundary Peak on the Nevada side of the White Mountains being the highest at 13,143 feet).  It is attractive to climbers and spelunkers alike, and its glacial cirque is breathtaking. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the most photographed and recognizable peak in the whole state of Nevada.
Evan resting at the Stella Lake sign, 10,385 feet elevation, while
Brian examines the shallow lake.
Another attraction of Wheeler is its bristlecone pines. Bristlecones live over millennia, not centuries. The Wheeler Peak grove has kept its grip on life for two to three thousand years, with some trees living even longer. In fact, one of the oldest living bristlecone pines (named Prometheus, the 2nd or 3rd oldest?) was discovered in the Snake Mountain Range; it was cut in half – killed – in order to determine its age which was estimated at 4,900 years. The park has several groves of bristlecone pine, but the Wheeler Peak grove is unusual in that it grows on a glacial moraine consisting of quartzite boulders. Most groves grow on limestone or dolomite. The northeastern exposure of the Wheeler Peak grove is also unusual as most other groves have a generally southern or western exposure.

The Lehman Caves are a big attraction as well. The caves in Wheeler are one of the best places to see rare shield formations. Over 300 shields are known to exist in Lehman Caves, more than any other cave. The cave is profusely decorated; stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, flowstone, popcorn, and other formations cover almost every surface of the cave. They say that caves can tell us about the history of the earth. Information about past surface climates are preserved in the layers of cave formations, and much can be learned about natural history from the "treasures" in old pack rat middens (i.e., dunghill or refuse heaps). Thus the cave can tell us a lot about past climate changes and their effects on plant and animal communities. Water, geologic forces, and climatic changes combined to form Lehman Caves over a period of millions of years.
Doug / Tom, Lower Lehman, Sep.1993
The Snake Range has numerous creeks flowing into the Snake Valley along the state border (Strawberry, Lehman, Baker, Snake, and Big Wash). Although I’ve only fished Baker, on various occasions Doug, Tom, Brian and I have fished nearby Silver Creek Reservoir that flows from Mount Moriah to the north (the northern portion of the Snake Mountain Range). Wildlife also abounds with mule dear and rocky mountain bighorn in the mountains, and pronghorn antelope in the valley. I recall a trip with Brian and Evan wherein we had a buck in velvet eating in our campground, and later we spotted two pronghorn antelopes with a fawn just outside Baker, NV.

The private land just outside the park contains lots of cabins. One of my favorite memories driving up the Lehman Creek road into the park is the “art” hung on fences as you drive through the private areas. These people really have a sense of humor.
A proud Tom on the trail to the Bristlecone grove and
the ice field below Wheeler Peak, September 1993
Doug leading Tom and I down the Wheeler
Bristlecone Grove Trail, with the Snake Valley in
the distance, September 1993
Note the columns above with stalactites and stalagmites, and
flowstone shields to the right. Pictures do not do accurately portray
these awesome structures.
Lehman Caves, June 2003, with Brian and friends Jeremy and Delano.
Five mule deer bucks near Strawberry Creek, Sep. 1993
(Doug and Tom were asleep in the truck cab).
Two pronghorn antelope with a fawn in Snake Valley outside Baker, NV
Above is a 3-D topographic map of the Great Basin National Park.
It is just off state highway 6 which branches off US Highway 95 to
the west. It is about an hour drive east of Ely, NV. Lehman Caves at
the Visitor Center is the area’s biggest attraction, but trails, creeks,
and lakes abound, as does plentiful wildlife. The park is well worth
the visit.

June 15, 2003

Cave Lake State Park - Ely, NV

Tom, me, and Doug - Cave Lake boat dock June 2000

My brother Neal is responsible for cultivating my interest as an outdoorsman.  I suspect the seeds were planted as a boy growing up in Hooksett, New Hampshire, but someone needed to water them.  In my early teens he took me on my first fishing trip to Kingston Canyon south of Austin, Nevada. He gave me a cheep, ultra-light spinning rod, lures, and a canvas creel and set me loose after just a few minutes of instruction.  Neal was never long on patience, and he never really offered to teach me the art of fly fishing.  In college I bought several books on fly fishing, and after years of dreaming about it I finally taught myself.

After graduating from college in 1978, I badgered Neal into a Utah fishing trip.  I was still very much a beginner, and I wanted him to share his knowledge of both the sport and the places nearby where he plied that sport.  I think Neal finally decided that my graduation was as good an excuse as any, so we set off for Beaver, Utah with thoughts of fishing the high mountain lakes in Fish Lake National Forest.  Upon arriving in Beaver we unfortunately learned that the Utah season did not begin until June 1, so we could not fish. Neal suggested heading west on Highway 21 to Cave Lake near Ely, Nevada.  That fortuitous decision turned out to be brilliant.

In those early days, we killed everything we caught. Catch and release had not really been discussed much at that time. The objective was to come home with the ice chest as full as we could get it. Cave Lake filled that bill splendidly.
Very young FisherDad playing a rainbow
on my first hand-made rod - May 1978
In 1978, Cave Lake was under-utilized.  Although just twenty minutes outside the town of Ely, it was not well known down south, or at least the southern population of potential fisherman was not what it is today.  Although they stocked the lake with rainbow trout, Neal was aware that there were holdover populations of brown trout that were reproducing in the feeder creek.  We must have timed our visit just right as the lake was well stocked.  Even as a novice who fished dry flies exclusively,  I caught many stocked rainbows.  However, the real excitement was catching the brown trout, or "brownies", on dry flies.  In one instance I recall standing on the boat dock watching this large (large to me at that time was anything over thirteen inches) brown sucking mayflies from the surface.  I was fishing with my newly constructed seven-and-one-half foot fly rod, a rod of my own creation.  I quickly cast a dry fly into the path of the cruising brown.  I watched as he leisurely approached, opened his pink mouth, and sucked in the fly.  What an awesome experience for a twenty-one year old novice fisherman.  That was an addicting event.  Neal also caught several good size brown trout, and one of the pictures we took with Neal’s creel, rod, and bib arranged around the trout was composed so well that I drew the picture in pen and ink in 1981.

Neal's thirteen-inch brown trout - May 1978
Arranged on Neal’s equipment - subject of FisherDad pen and ink drawing
Pen & Ink by FisherDad - September 1981
I returned to Cave Lake for a solo visit in the fall of 1980, but only caught two browns.  I did get a strike from a brown on a dry fly, and that trout could have gone twenty inches and three pounds easily.  I thought I had set the hook, but as the brown leaped clear of the water it pulled out.  Disappointed, I retrieved my line and examined the hook.  I felt like an idiot when I discovered that the hook point was bent (probably from a sloppy back cast bouncing off a rock), and that it never set into the trout’s jaw, but rather had been pulled straight as I attempted to set the hook.  That was a difficult lesson to learn at age twenty-four.

Cave Lake boat dock
My next visit was with Doug and Tom in 2000; a maiden voyage for my new Dodge Quad Cab.  We camped in Cave Lake, but visited Silver Creek near Great Basin National Park and Illipah Reservoir on the way to Eureka, Nevada, as well as a long jaunt up to the Ruby Marshes.  Although Cave Lake served more as a base camp on that trip, it became known as “Skunk Camp" due to a visit from a nocturnal skunk on the second night.  Tom had become ill in the middle of the night and vomited just a few feet from the tent, which is not adequate distance to safeguard the camp from pesky scavengers.  Sure enough, before we even re-entered the tent along came an ambling skunk which consumed Tom’s remnants right before our eyes.  Tom was a good sport about it, and it was interesting to watch the skunk; thank goodness he never left a calling card.

The most recent visit to Cave Lake was in 2003 with Brian and two of his buddies.  That was more of a camping trip than a real fishing trip, as all three had to be assisted constantly with tying knots and unraveling “bird nests”.  Still, it was a fun trip for the boys and included the obligatory Great Basin National Park side trip.  Splitting time between the three of them was fine, but it would have been better had I spent more time just with Brian.

Neal with a trio of brown trout - May 1978

Eleven dead Cave Lake trout, including three nice browns - May 1978
Toyota 4x4 at Success Summit, Schell Creek Range - 1979
Looking north into Duck Creek, Success Summit - 1979

"Skunk Camp" with Doug and Tom, June 2000

Brian and friends heading towards Cave Lake - June 2003

Brian, Jeremy, and Delano feeding chipmunks peanuts near camp
(at least they were not skunks)