|Trails of the Wild Selkirks:
South of the Canadian Border
Nonfiction. 336 pages, 6"x9" with maps and photos.
$16.50 Item BKB236
Leave this afternoon or wait until morning? That was the big question facing me one day in mid-June 2003. Friends Jim and Sandii Mellen had offered to guide me into Fault Lake and introduce me to Idahos Selkirk Mountains. Its not like they really needed an introduction, but I had not hiked much in those mountains, spending most of my hiking hours for the past 20 years in Montanas Cabinets. So I was pretty excited about spending several days up close and personal with the Selkirks, with Jim and Sandii as my unofficial guides.
We were going to hike in together, but I thought I had too much writing to do because of the previous weeks hiking I had done around Lake Pend Oreille. I felt I should catch up on those trail entries before embarking upon a new set of trails. Jim and Sandii were not about to let my distractions deter them from heading to the lake, so we agreed I would meet them that evening or the following morning at the lake. From the dejected tone of my voice, they figured it would be the following morning.
By early afternoon, however, I had had my fill of sitting at the computer while the sun scooted from behind clouds periodically to taunt me with visions of alpine meadows full of spring wildflowers and ripples on the cold dark waters of Fault Lake. I decided leaving immediately for Idaho was the best course of action.
I grabbed my pack, made sure I had everything I would need (and then some) for four or five days, and out the door I went. Two hours later, having passed Edna and Bucks Tavern (alas, it burned down in Winter 2004), along the Upper Pack River and successfully, if not reluctantly, resisting the urge to drop in for some refreshment, I drove into the parking area at the Fault Lake trailhead and pulled up next to the Mellens white Subaru. The sun was already low in the sky despite the summer solstice. Plenty of time, I muttered under my breath. Six miles lay between the lake and me, and with a glance at the sun hovering just above the treetops, I wondered if I really did have enough time to make it before darkness settled upon the land.
The trail followed an old roadbed for the first several miles, making the hike much easier than I anticipated, except for when towering thickets of tag alder arched overhead and branches entwined to block out the sky. It was like entering a tunnel of translucent green. Still I stumbled on, shifting the heavy pack from side to side, mentally noting I would need to rearrange things to better balance the load.
As dusk slowly settled over the high basin into which I climbed, I couldnt help but pause and relish the beauty surrounding me. A fire in 1967 had burned hotly through here, and the young forest evolving from the ashes was still in its infancy. Head-high saplings of Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and whitebark pine dotted the ridges and slopes of the basin. Spring beauties and glacier lilies splashed white and yellow and hints of pink and lavender among the tussocks of beargrass carpeting the ground. Directly in front of me to the west rose the sheer walls of the Selkirk Crest. Cradled in a higher valley fractured by a gigantic crack in the granite shimmered Fault Lake. Jim and Sandii should be there, perhaps watching as I followed the meandering trail through the meadows.
They were indeed watching, but not for me. Jim was hoping to see a bear or moose in those meadows and said he did not spot me until I was negotiating the final steep pitch to the lip of the lake. He was perched on a granite boulder at the edge of a flat bench on the north side of the lake. Sandii was nearer their camp on that same bench overlooking the lake with Hunt Peak rising black into the purple twilight of the sky. We greeted each other warmly, and they both remarked they had not expected me until morning. Though that had been the plan in the back of my mind originally, I argued that it seemed silly to spend another night at home when all I had to do was drive two hours and hike three more to spend a night in the high country with friends. They couldnt argue with that.
The moon rose into the clear sky, about three quarters full. It passed above Pack River, then tethered itself to the dark outline of Hunt Peak by a string of glistening stars. Its reflection shimmered on the surface of the lake, casting a mesmerizing spell on the evening. I had erected my tent on a ledge just below Jim and Sandii, but I sat with them on cold rock while the night unfolded in the heavens above Fault Lake.
During the wee hours of the night, a bank of clouds rolled in and the wind picked up. The morning dawned dreary-looking but dry. A rocky pinnacle southeast of the lake lured me into a brief but invigorating hike. The climb got my heart to pumping, but the coarse granite made for great traction, and I loped from boulder to boulder pretending I was a mountain goat. My footing felt as sure as it must feel for one of those great monarchs of the crags, and I sprang up the slope to a wind-whipped point of rocks. In a deep basin to the south lay McCormick Lake, still embraced by icebergs floating on its slate gray waters. To the north Gunsight Mountain pierced the scuttling clouds and disappeared into a fog of ice crystals. What a fine day, I grinned, for exploring the high country. Oh yes, I could handle the task of wandering about these mountains for the next four or five months, exploring trails, spying on wildlife, feeling the sap of the wilderness flow through my veins.
Back at camp we ate breakfast, had a hot drink, then started out on the days excursion. A leisurely ascent up the slope north of the lake eventually took us to a pass from which we could see Hunt Lake on the west side. The gentler flank of the mountain climbed northward to Gunsight, but the route we took, the near vertical cliff overgrown with brush and gnarly trees, attained the top of a snow-covered ridge south of the pass. From here several spikes of granite jutted from the ridgeline all the way out to Hunt Peak. We went that way, though the wind tried to blow us off the east side into the abyss at the bottom of which churned the windy surface of Fault Lake.
Little did I realize that my real initiation to hiking in the American Selkirks was about to commence.
Jim and I, packs strapped to our backs, retraced our steps from the previous day toward the pass above Hunt Lake and kept going up. Gunsight is a formidable-looking mountain and is the highest along the south half of the Selkirk Crest, yet the ascent to its summit from Fault Lake is actually a piece of cake. We reached the flat, forested expanse of McCormick Ridge, which slides eastward from a boulder field tumbling off the flank of the mountain. Here we stopped and consulted the topographic map on Jims GPS unit. Invaluable in charting our progress through the trackless mountains, its maps were really of little use since the screen was hardly any bigger than a thumbnail. We eyed the countryside, studying the cliffs that fell away into the upper valleys of the West Branch of Pack River. We couldnt find a route, so we left our packs for a climb to the top.
The view was absolutely spectacular, but we were a little worried and unsure about following the broken ridgeline to the north. Returning to our packs, we studied McCormick Ridge stretching gently beneath the rising sun. It looked so easy, so flat. We decided to take it as far as we could, then drop down to Chimney Creek, cross the trail to Chimney Rock and climb back up toward Silver Dollar Peak.
McCormick Ridge indeed was flat. The pleasant walk along its game trails jostled my spirits to a new high for all of a half-mile. Then the earth fell away into a canyon that seemed miles below us, straight down. We wandered for a while until we found what appeared to be a safe way down, and over the edge we went. It was steep but not unusually difficult, and I was still feeling good about the world and where exactly we were in it at that moment, but our feet took us to more cliffs and the brush got thicker and taller. Rhododendron, alder, vine maple, skunkbrush, mountain ash, the thorny stems of gooseberries it was a veritable jungle we had stumbled into and there was no turning back. Believe me, I tried. The brush simply flung me farther down the dizzyingly steep slope. Now I was clinging for dear life to the very limbs and branches I was already coming to despise. And my pack, that unwieldy 50 pounds of gear swaying from my shoulders, scared me. My balance was all out of whack.
I made it and the breath I had been holding for several minutes exploded in a sigh of relief.
The relief was short-lived, however. We got across the West Branch and climbed over a low hill full of brush to the next stream, Chimney Creek. The hillside rising above it was steep but not so brushy. Huckleberry bushes, mostly, and downed logs greeted us for several hundred vertical feet, then suddenly there was a trail. Aha! The trail to Chimney Rock. Now, which way do we go? Since going down was inherently easier than going up even though we were faced with having to go up eventually we chose down.
Umm, second big mistake.
This time when we reached the ridgeline, still something like two and a half air miles from Beehive Lake and probably 112 miles over and around the high mountains in front of us, I knew I was done in. We wandered up the ridge looking for a way down. At one point Jim indicated a place that dropped off into the murky darkness engulfing the basin and suggested we could make it down that, maybe. I told Jim I was at the end of my endurance and I wasnt going down anything. At the next patch of snow we came to, since our water was virtually gone, I would have to make camp.
He acknowledged that with the waning daylight, it probably would be best to find a campsite. With any luck hed be able to raise Sandii on the portable radios they both carry when backpacking, so she wouldnt worry about us.
Up the ridge, we continued looking for a flat place to lay our sleeping bags and a patch of last years snow. At 7,100 feet, below a jumble of angular rocks that surely seemed to block any further progress, we found the spot. I was so overjoyed I could have sung America the Beautiful right then and there, but I was too tired to carry a tune.
We counted our lucky stars as the sun set in a blaze of color that bathed the Western sky and as the first faint twinkles of starlight flickered in the east. I sat down and could barely move while Jim explored our high-country bivouac. He later said that nearby was an easy way down into the next valley and a route that would then transport us across a wide-open expanse of rock, meadows and snow to the approach to Twin Peaks. That night, before succumbing to the satisfying, fatigue-induced sleep that hard hiking brings on, I vaguely wondered if he told me that just so I would sleep well without nightmares of rocks bruising my shins, brush clawing at my legs and tree limbs slapping me across the face.
That evening Jim was able to get Sandii on the radio and tell her of our plight. We had gone as far as we could, but would not make the lake before the next day. We thought noon, perhaps, but we thought wrong.
Jim escaped nearly being trampled by a mule deer during the night. Otherwise, our campsite had been perfect. The rocks in front of us indeed prevented further progress along the ridge, but Jim had not been lying about the way down into the headwaters of Thor Creek. Refreshed from the nights rest and some nourishment, it was easy trekking into the basin that swept up to a grassy meadow draped over a pass south of the twins. We rock-hopped and pranced our way to the bottom edge of that carpet of beargrass, to be rewarded with the music of fresh water and the most spectacular display of glacier lilies either of us had ever seen. The climb from there to the summit of the south twin was a walk in the park. We couldnt see Beehive Lake yet. It lay deep in a granite-lined pocket below the north twin. A broad saddle connected the two spires, and it looked easy enough to traverse.
It turned out to be not quite so easy. The ridgeline was comprised of broken, sharp rocks cloaked with dense, stunted subalpine fir growing thickly in every crevice. On the east, cliffs dropped sharply into a rocky bowl and on the west, the impenetrable tangle of trees and boulders tore at our naked legs. But finally, sometime well past noon, we reached the top of the north twin at an elevation of 7,607 feet according to a USGS marker set in stone at its summit. Below was the magnificent basin holding the sky blue waters of Beehive Lake. Farther east was the granite dome of The Beehive itself. The beauty of this place surpassed my wildest, most hopeful expectations. The fatigue, the bruises, the blood were all forgotten at the top of this part of the world.
With reluctance we finally began the arduous descent to the lake. I looked and would have sworn there was no way down, but Jim knew a route from a journey here 10 years before. He was right; there was a route, and we hiked across vast snowfields, over boulders and among flowery meadows lined with rushing streams full of snowmelt. A wilder place, I imagined, could not be found in the Selkirks anywhere.
My initiation in the American Selkirks was completed on the shoreline of Beehive Lake at the camp Sandii had set up the day before. We shared hot soup and crackers, granola and the experiences of having traveled cross-country through some of the most challenging terrain imaginable. Jim took a dip in the frigid waters of the lake. I settled for dipping my feet, though later, in the midst of a sweltering summer, I was happy to grasp opportunities for jumping into high mountain lakes. Jim put it this way, Think, Dennis, have you ever regretted plunging into a pristine wild mountain lake afterward?
I hope all those reading this book share in the thrills, the adventures and the simple satisfaction of exploring one of the great places on Earth the wild Selkirks.