Iron Mine Lake
When Nature Demands Blood
I knew it was a bad idea going into the mountains in early July. But I ignored all the wisdom my father had tried to pass onto me from his backpacking adventures as a kid with his own father. The advice was pretty simple and logical. To avoid mosquito Armageddon, wait until the first week of August before venturing into the mountains. This is because high altitude temperatures stall the Spring thaw and the subsequent drying out of the terrain. Subsequently, this delays the lifecycle of mosquitoes in the mountains by about a month or two from the lower elevation equivalent. While it might seem safe in the heat of July at a lower elevation the vampire party is at its peak in the mountains. In the context of this advice a lower elevation would be somewhere around 4,000 feet while the mountains are anywhere between 7,000 to 10,000 feet.
I had an arrogantly different conclusion. My daily runs had become enjoyable in the summer heat and the spring onslaught of bugs had tapered off. Early July along the Wasatch Front showcases the greenery of Spring before it is dried out by the marathon of Summer heat. I thought it would be great to escape the valley for a cool mountain adventure while everything was still lush and wildfires hadn’t yet clogged the air. But for whatever reason the advice from my dad didn’t resurface and caution my plans.
I joined the fleeing holiday crowds on I-15 going East towards Park City. Climbing through canyons along the way I passed countless RVs and towed camping trailers. The summer vacation energy was strong. I think the kids call it a vibe these days. I felt energized by this rather than crowded because they were all headed for designated camp sites on easy dirt roads. My competition of mid sized off road vehicles had a much lighter presence on the highway. Passing through the last city of Kamas was the pinnacle of this vibe energy. People had stopped at gas stations and were stocking up on snacks. The parking lots of the local grocery store and summer burger joints were packed and everyone had a cheerful optimism for the upcoming vacation.
Proceeding into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Highway 150 I felt a bit daunted by the steep canyon walls on both sides. I had never ventured up into them and they seemed incredibly high to a point where I couldn’t see the tops from the windows of my 4Runner. The road to my destination went along the edge of the south canyon wall starting at Forest Road 037 with a quick transition to 414 all the way around Iron Mine Mountain. I noticed some strange noises and movement along the bumpy road. My tent mounted on my roof rack had become loose and was swaying left and right with every bit of rough terrain. One piece of advice from my father I had remembered was to always have a few tools on hand when going on any length of trip. Whipping out my appropriate tighteners I got the tent re-centered and tightened back down after some choice words. The fusion of a tubular basket style roof rack did not exactly work well enough with the tent that relied on t-channels slots. If I was ever going to find happiness in the future either the tent or the roof rack would have to be swapped out to avoid constantly loose mounting brackets.
Turning the corner to reveal Iron Mine Lake in all its green lush early summer glory was worth the drive itself. The weather was beautiful that day with a few puffy clouds. I couldn’t feel more lucky when I arrived with no one else around and my pick of campsites around the lake. Arriving at the North end of the lake I felt like the area was a bit low and marshy and decided to drive around to the South side. Luckily, the South end proved a bit higher and dryer with a great spot right next to the water with some grass. I realized this spot also had a better transit advantage, being at the end of the lake road, which proved helpful in avoiding explorers in UTVs blazing by my camp.
I was lulled into a false sense of safety with the heat of the early afternoon and a slight breeze suppressing most mosquitoes. I took the opportunity to take a short hike around the lake and surrounding area. It seemed that some of the Southern roads ended in restricted logging areas that hadn’t been used in some time. I found that rather amusing because in every location I’ve been at within the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest there has been some sort of active or inactive logging operation. I don’t assign any sort of morality to that but rather just see it as funny. There is certainly a degree of resource management being performed by the Forest Service and I would be interested in talking with a ranger at some point in the future about it.
I got really excited around dinner time since it was my first time with a fridge in the wilderness. Ice cold beverages, fruits, and even a compartment for frozen items. I’m totally a sucker for ice cream sandwiches and now consider them a staple on all summer camping trips. I admit this luxury is a bit much for some but I find a certain degree of comfort very reassuring and relaxing when out in the boonies.
After dinner was finished for both myself and my dear puppy things began to both get bad and also good. The breeze seemed to die down as the sun was setting and the midday heat started to fade. Both of these factors slowly revealed the true amount of mosquitoes hiding in the area. Donning a jacket to protect my arms and neck I realized I had forgotten any sort of bug spray. Like absolutely nothing. It was just me, any sort of protecting clothing, and my tent to protect me from the rising horde. My dog, who at first, loved running around chomping on the various flying insects. But as time progressed it became so bad he kind of just looked up at me and seemed to ask, why? Yet, as all this was rapidly progressing into insanity the terrain became painfully beautiful with the setting sun.
There is the famous introduction in the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities where he states it was the best of times and the worst of times. I felt this was a great description of my experience during the sunset at Iron Mine Lake. On one hand you have this beautiful alpine lake surrounded by lush green grass and trees with rolling hills that are each crested by the amber sunset. Yet access to this beauty comes with a dreadful price of vampiric flying death mosquitoes in legions upon legions. For me, the beauty was too great and I willingly paid the price until it became too much.
Without any bug spray I thought the next best thing would be campfire smoke so I quickly made a small fire. I stood directly in the smoke in the hopes of warding off the mosquitoes while I flew my drone around to take pictures. This act of lung self-sabotage was partially successful but eventually it became less effective as the count of mosquitoes became colossal. Pacing about the camp I refused to give up in the face of the beauty of Iron Mine Lake. Tying my hood as close as possible I whipped out my mirrorless camera to get a few images of the lake with the setting sun. I wouldn’t have thought something as simple as leveling my camera would take so long due to the amount of mosquitoes. Since I had no gloves I could barely use my hands for more than a few seconds before a dozen mosquitoes would hungrily land.
I reached my breaking point after about a half hour of trying to take images with my mirrorless camera. I could barely perform normal tasks outside the confines of my 4Runner or tent. I couldn’t imagine what an adventure it would be to use the restroom in such a dangerous environment. Heaven forbid if you were to take more than 20 seconds to finish with a huge amount of soft pasty flesh exposed to the ever present vampiric cloud. I most of all felt bad for my dog without the ability to swat away mosquitoes from the few exposed spots on his body.
With defeat in my mind I packed up camp to hopefully find higher ground with less mosquitoes to somehow salvage the trip. At site after site I stopped to grab an image of the sunset landscape but was faced with clouds of mosquitoes. I was hunted even on the high canyon edge where I thought a breeze would help settle things down. I could have just set up anywhere and we could have tucked away for the night in the tent but I felt absolutely defeated in my preparation and planning. Home was only an hour and a bit away so I headed back while trying to review what I could have done better.
In retrospect the best source of protection would have been some sort of bug shelter. It was a pain to climb up and down to the tent for periods of respite. I think a bug net attachment for my awning would have been invaluable. With it, I could have cooked, eaten, and relaxed inside with or without the need for bug spray. I could have even popped the drone outside and piloted from safety. Another solution it would have provided was a location to use the restroom without being attacked. Additionally, while I am skeptical on the effectiveness of bug spray with such high numbers of mosquitoes I am sure it would have helped in some degree. I hope to take all of these lessons and combine them with some patriarchal advice for more successful trips in the future.