Surprise Lake, The Tetons
Word Smith: Surprise
When I was eleven years old, my Dad took my two brothers and me on a major hike in the Tetons. We were camping in the National Park and he felt that fishing for the day with the boys was a good way to spend the day. Mom, who had crushed her hip in a horseback riding accident a few years before, drove us to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead and watched as we trekked up the switchbacks toward the mountains. She and our sister, Nancy, who was 7, said they would walk a little bit and then meet us back at the trailhead after our hike and fishing trip.
Our two older sisters, Eleanor and Millie, were spending their first summer as campers in the Turquoise Trail in Thoreau, New Mexico. This was our family’s ritualistic summer camping trip, “to expose the family to the West,” and the glorious National Parks of our country. We dreaded the long station wagon bound drives from the Mid-Atlantic, but we loved the campsites, the sleeping bags, the campfires, and most of all the fishing.
Earlier in the week we had been told of some special lures we had to buy to “catch the big ones in the deep pools of String Lake.” We were fooled by the ruse of that fishing license vendor, only finding mud sucking carp in the lake. This time we were heading to Surprise Lake, which was surely still a prime trout spot. We had our bobbers and worms, bought by the dozen at another store. We started up the long climb with high hopes, a cold lunch, and rods in hand.
Dad had not fully broken in his hiking boots that summer and he soon developed blisters on his heels. The climb to the top was a rise of nearly 4,000 feet, so it was no easy walk. Dad did not complain much, but we could see he was in pain. We stopped for water every mile or so and rested our feet. The air was getting thin and it challenged our young lungs. At about 3 ½ miles into the hike we were at about 8,000 feet and Dad finally asked a woman, who was headed down, if she happened to have any Band-Aid’s. “Why YES, I do,” she said to our father’s relief. He unlaced and tore off his boots and socks, exposing his blistered and bloodied heels. He applied an ointment and secured the Band-Aid’s to protect his feet as he said to the woman, “Thank you so much. You are Florence Nightingale!” None of us boys knew who Flo Nightingale was, so the complement was lost on us.
We donned well-worn tennis shoes and carried our small sack lunches in a day pack. We drank water from the passing streams, as it was before we knew about the dangers of giardia. The trail was much longer than the two miles we typically ran with our Dad on the weekly Run for Your Life circuit through Towson, Maryland, so we were really challenged by the hike. Plus the altitude was sneaky and made us pant for breath a lot. As we crested the final ascent into a glacial cirque, we spotted the lake. There it was: Surprise Lake. And what a surprise it was! Mountains rose on three sides, creating a perfect bowl of snow-capped beauty. We scoped out the lake, seeing some fish in the clear water, even before we put our lines in. Our luck was remarkable.
Laurie caught the first one, a beautiful Cut Throat, about a foot long. Ned and Dad soon followed, as did I in due time. We walked around the circumference of the lake, which was huge in my memory bank, and caught another beauty with ‘good fight’ about every 10 minutes. We reached our limit in no time and went about the task of cleaning them for supper that night. We washed up for lunch and ate with pure man-sized satisfaction. We told and retold the stories of the “one that got away” while fishing in Canada and on the Chesapeake Bay. This time with our Dad was just what the great outdoors was supposed to be like.
By the time we finished our lunch I walked over to the edge of the path and to my surprise saw Nancy skipping up the trail. She smiled that the walk was “easy” and said that Mom was coming as well. The boys would not believe it. They climbed the whole way. Sure enough a few minutes later Mom came limping along to the lake’s edge. I was concerned for Mom’s hip and asked why they had made the hike. “I decided to do it, because I am 40 years old and it may be the last real hike I can do. Plus, I wanted to be with you.”
Mom swore to Dad and the boys that she had taken her time, not rushing or hurting herself, but we knew it was strenuous nonetheless and were amazed that they had made it. What a grand surprise that was for the Hoopers! We showed off our fishing bounty, finished stowing our lunch bags and headed back to the car.
Surprise & Amphitheater Lakes
In 2013, I was visiting my daughter, Eleanor Hooper, who lives in Jackson, Wyoming. She took me on some great bike rides and hikes over the 4th of July. A few days later I hiked up that same 4.5 mile trail to Surprise Lake. It was 48 years to the day, since our family had been to the Lake. The next week Eleanor showed her real girl power by running up that trail to Surprise Lake in her sneakers and extended the trip another 0.2 miles to Amphitheater Lake. Some comments by hikers on Trip Adviser called it the best trail in this part of the Tetons and not to miss it. What a fun return to this pristine and beautiful part of the Rocky Mountains.