Friday, February 9, 2007

With Bells on

With Bells On

Indian Creek Campground (Priest Lake) to McArthur Lake
an Idaho Centennial Trail section hike
June 29 - July 3rd, 2006

"It’s a sobering thought to realize that as you venture into the Selkirks, you’re entering ‘grizzly country.’ " ---Steven Stuebner, "Discover Idaho's Centennial Trail," page 113.

This was my first trip ever to the panhandle area of Idaho. Jerry and I departed Boise a little after 7 a.m. on Thursday morning for the all day drive north. I could write an entire volume on just the day's drive across the state of Idaho, with all of its new sights and scenery. From the town of Grangeville northward was all new territory for me. I followed Jerry's gray/blue Suburban throughout the day as we wound our way north along highway 95. In Moscow, Jerry took a short detour through the campus of Idaho University. He pointed over to some cows grazing in a field up on a hillside. They had some kind of curious circular ring, about 12 inches in diameter, stuck to their sides. Later when we stopped for lunch, he explained that they were *experimental* cows that had a viewing window installed in their sides so that the Agricultural students could observe the inner digestive workings of a cow. Talk about mooooving pictures! While we were stopped for fuel in Moscow, I saw my favorite kind of llivestock. A truck with a llong trailer pulled up in the gas llane next to mine. At first I didn't notice, but then I llooked over and saw that there was one llone llama inside the trailer. Its wooly coat and diminutive appearance made me think that it was an alpaca, a smaller member of the llama family. I mentioned it to Jerry and told him that we needed to take it along with us on our hike for its lluggage carrying abilities....

I found the lake country of northern Idaho to be very beautiful. Lake Pend o'Reille and Priest Lake are enormous bodies of water surrounded by mountains. We arrived on the east side of Priest Lake around 5 p.m. local time (Pacific time) about 11 hours after leaving Boise. The first part of our hike was a 4 mile section of blacktop road from Indian Creek to Hunt Creek. Jerry had previously completed the section of ICT from Upper Priest Falls, near the Canadian border, down to Indian Creek, so this was a continuation of that section for him. After traveling in vehicles all day, it felt good to be walking, and we covered the distance at a brisk pace. The road mostly stayed about 200 to 300 feet above the lake surface, following the general contour of the lake shore through thick forests which grew on the steep slopes. Below us we could see lakefront homes and boat docks, but only if we walked on the right hand side of the road and looked down the steep hillsides. If we walked on the left hand side, the houses were hidden to our view. With the walk completed in a little over an hour, our next task was to park a shuttle vehicle at the beginning point of our hike, then drive 80 miles one way to the other end of our hike at McArthur Lake. We stopped along the way at the city park in Priest River to cook dinner, and while there we saw a cow moose across the road. It was "dark thirty" by the time we drove through Sandpoint and north along highway 2 to McArthur Lake. We drove around on gravel roads in the dark, trying to locate the place where Forest Trail 453 would exit from the wilderness below White Mountain. We weren't really sure exactly where it was going to come out, so we parked the Saturn at a turnout off the road near the northwestern side of the lake. Then we returned over the 80 mile shuttle route in the Suburban, and parked at a place we had selected near the beginning of our hike into the Selkirks. This was a logging road which followed Hunt Creek. Jerry slept in the back of his Suburban, while I pitched my dome tent just on the other side of a locked gate, on a small Forest Service access road where we had parked.

FRIDAY, June 30th

After breakfast early Friday morning, we were ready to begin our cross-country trek. Today's destination was Hunt Lake. To reach the lake would require a climb of 3,000 vertical feet spread over a distance of about 9 miles, not all of which was on a trail. We first walked back down to the paved road from our campsite to the road where we had stopped walking yesterday, then went back up. Jerry spotted a young bull moose not far from where the "1/2" mile sign was spray painted on a large tree near the service road where the Suburban was parked. We hoisted our packs and began our hiking day in earnest.

In preparation for our hike through Grizzly territory, Jerry and I were carrying our bear pepper spray canisters. We also attached some bells to our gear. Jerry had a string of bells on a length of blue plastic fishing line which was attached to the back of his pack. I attached a bear bell with a velcro strap onto the food sack that I was carrying from a long strap suspended from my left shoulder. And each of us put a bear bell near the top of our hiking staffs, so that they jingled with nearly every step we took. In this fashion we proceeded down the trail for the entire 35 miles through the wilderness sounding like Jingle Bells. We would have sounded comical to the casual observer, but the wearing of bells or other noisemakers is a wise precaution when traveling through Grizzly country. Stories abound of hikers who have happened upon a Grizzly by surprise and been mauled or killed. We didn't want to be statistics. Bears (and other wildlife) find metallic sounds to be annoying and will move away, so we are told. I pondered aloud to Jerry whether *annoying* the grizzlies was really a wise thing to do? And furthermore, do we want to sound like a herd of delicious sheep while we are doing it?

We followed the logging road for about 7.5 miles. Once we had gained several hundred feet in elevation, we were able to see progressively better views of Priest Lake down below, and of Roothaan Mountain and Hunt Peak, above and to the east. The logging road came to an end in a large clearing. The trail continued on through a large boulder field. We followed the red spray painted arrows and red spots on the rocks as we climbed up, down, over, and around large granite slabs, chunks, blocks, and boulders. blocks. It reminded me of walking along a jetty that juts out into the ocean, except this one was much bigger and longer and climbed higher in elevation. This was an exhausting task which required about 2-3 hours to negotiate, until we had ascended another 700 feet to reach Hunt Lake, which was at 5813 feet elevation. Jerry had gone ahead of me, but was coming back to check on me as I neared the top of the climb. Just before we reached the lake, I took a very hard fall. Fortunately, I only got a small abrasion on my right palm and some small scrapes on my left knee. Three guys were already camped at the lower lake, but they had told us that there was another good spot next to the lake. Jerry was amused when I dove into the ice cold lake for the dual purpose of taking a shower and doing the laundry at the same time. I hung my shirt on a rock to dry, and I spread myself out on a large rock in the waning afternoon sunlight to warm up from my dip in the lake, before I started putting up my tarptent. One of the guys had told me they had brought elk steaks for dinner, which they were going to cook unless they caught some fish from the lake, which they did. There went our plans to minimize food smells from our campsite. Jerry hung our food bags from a nearby tree. We would try to be prudent even if our neighbors were not going to be. These younger guys camped at the lower lake were going to party that evening, but I was definitely not feeling like Mr. Socialite after our tough day of climbing. Early to bed and early to rise. I don't think they stayed up too late that night.


Our first hurdle of the day, and biggest hurdle of the entire hike, was to climb to the 6,500 foot saddle above Hunt Lake, which would lead us to the eastern side of the Selkirk range. Snow was still deep on the slopes of the mountain leading up to the saddle. To reach the saddle would require a combination of bush-whacking, rock-scrambling, and snow-walking. Jerry and I had studied the slope leading up to the saddle yesterday and planned where we wanted to cross the snow fields in order to minimize our exposure to the steep slope. We rose early Saturday morning and were on our way while the partiers from the previous night were still unmoving in their tents. Our progress was slow but steady through the tangle of trees and underbrush. We climbed at an angle that more or less ran straight toward the saddle. As we drew closer to the snowfields, we went up through a boulder field to gain elevation. We wanted to cross the steepest part of the snow at its narrowest point. Before we got to that part we chose to walk up through a snow field that was about 150 to 200 yards in length and about 4 to 5 feet deep. The snow was crunchy enough on top to get a foothold, but frozen fairly hard beneath. As we came within 200 vertical feet of the saddle, we came to the steep snow crossing. Jerry went first, taking care to plant his staff before each step and kick a step into the snow before moving the next foot forward. I followed in his footsteps, literally. He called back to me to be sure that I planted my staff firmly in the snow and that, if I started to slip, to be sure to hold onto the pole tightly. If one of us slipped here, we would have slid for many hundred yards down to the rocks below. As I neared the far side of the snow crossing, Jerry took a picture of me poised on top of the snow with the backdrop of mountains behind and Hunt Lake far below. He told me that the snow had melted and was eroded several feet beneath the edge where I was standing. I had to be extremely careful to plant my feet as I made my final steps towards the edge and stepped out across the gap onto the rocks on the other side. When I looked back, I could see what Jerry had been talking about. We were glad to have this snow crossing behind us. Although the slope was still very steep, we were climbing ever higher, getting closer to the saddle. Shortly after 9 a.m. local time, first Jerry, then I, struggled the last few steps up to the saddle and saw the spectacular view on the other side unfold before us. Jerry had been waving at someone below, and as I reached the top I could see that 2 men were climbing the snowfields on the eastern side of the pass to reach the saddle. They were Marvin and Les from Sandpoint. Both men were in their late 40's or early 50's and looked to be in good trim hiking shape. Marvin wore a bright red shirt and hiking shorts and carried a telescoping hiking pole. Les had on a green shirt and hiking shorts and carried a wooden hiking staff with a carved bear knob at the top, and he was also armed with a pistol in a belt holster. They had camped the night before at Fault Lake, which we were soon to pass, and were day hiking to reach the top of Hunt Peak. We rested for a while from our respective climbs and visited and shared information about the trail and about hiking in general. They had not heard about the ICT so we gave them the standard marketing schpiel. They then continued their climb up the ridge. Jerry joined them for a while, looking for a good camera view, while I rested and waited at the saddle. When he returned, we continued our journey. The ICT does not exist as an official trail between Hunt Lake and Fault Lake; it is marked on the topo map as a "bushwhack" but even that does not communicate the roughness of the experience. We found our own way down the eastern side, going through snow, rocks, and brush and crossing small creeks as we followed the contour lines down the mountain and tried to find the official trail, somewhere below Fault Lake. Stumbling along through the scree and boulders, we finally came to a ridge where we could look down on Fault Lake. It was very picturesque, a deep blue gem, surrounded by white slopes and with ice still at the edges and under the surface near the edge. It looked very cold. We crossed over Fault Creek near its origin point as it came out of the lake and finally picked up trail 59 on the other side. What a relief to finally be back on an established trail. The afternoon sun was hot as we began to descend, then storm clouds began to move in. Jerry requested that I find us some shade for a lunch break. I glanced up at the approaching clouds from the west and said that I just might be able to find him some shade soon! We stopped at a sparse bit of shade and sat down to eat a few bites. We watched the approaching clouds, and I wondered aloud if rain would arrive within the hour. I had no sooner spoken than a few drops of rain began to fall, and Jerry commented, "maybe not that long!" It sprinkled on us for a short while and then cleared off. The temporary cooling effect disappeared once the clouds had gone by and the sun came out again. It was now much more humid feeling. The trail began to descend and followed a ridge down through the trees. We knew were heading for the Pack River bridge far below. We could see the valley where the Pack River was located, and parts of the road upon which we would be walking later that afternoon far off in the distance. It was a descent of several miles and about 2500 feet elevation. We arrived at a creek crossing, tired and hot, and rested for about 20-30 minutes. We then walked another couple of miles, first going south to intersect the Pack River road, and then traveling north on Pack River Road toward the bridge and the river crossing. At the river, we filtered several liters of water and each cooked a meal. I was feeling very tired and drained. The climb to the saddle and descent from the saddle earlier that morning had really taken a lot of energy. We debated for a while about stopping or going on. Jerry had hoped that we would reach Pearson Creek for our second camp. It was another 6 miles from the point where we were stopped, and was about 1000 feet higher in elevation. Stopping sounded good to me, but I also knew that we were facing an extra long day tomorrow if we didn't reach Pearson Creek, and that whatever distance we gained today we wouldn't have to hike tomorrow. The combination of the hot meal and the rest had helped me to feel somewhat better, and we still had enough daylight that it felt like it would be a waste if we didn't continue on and rack up some more miles before the day was through. I said that I could go on, but I would have to go slow and steady on the climb. We made about another 4.5 miles up road 2605, Pearson Creek road, before Jerry called a halt in the late evening. He had found a side road that would provide some suitable ground for pitching our tents. It wasn't ideal, due to the tire tracks that we could see turning in from the side road. However, by pitching our tents up the hill and around the curve 100 feet off the main road, and by placing a stump in the middle of the road, we felt somewhat protected. At least I felt protected, since Jerry would be the first one to get hit by anyone trying to drive through our campsite! My tarptent fell over with me inside on my first attempt to get in, so I had to get out and make adjustments. The ground was very hard on this road, and I had to find a rock to pound my stakes in so they would hold the tent in place. By the time I got back in my tent and settled, I could hear Jerry's soft steady breathing coming from his tent. He was already asleep after our very tiring day.

SUNDAY, July 2nd

This was to be our most trying and most physically draining day of all. Both of the first two days had involved route finding over terrain that had no officially established footpath. We thought that route finding was behind us, but were to discover once again that not all ICT trails are what they are marked on the maps. We rose early and walked about 1.5 miles up the road to Pearson Creek. I was expecting something much bigger, but Pearson Creek was mostly a large pond on the left of the road and a steady flow coming from a culvert on the right hand side of the road. Jerry filtered several liters of water again. Here, I made a decision on water that would prove to be critical later in the day. We had been passing smaller creeks and springs on a regular basis during the past two days, and I decided that I would only fill 2 bottles at this particular stop. I didn't want to carry the extra 2 pounds of the third liter bottle during our strenuous climb that we faced up to Dodge Peak and then down and then back up to White Mountain. I figured that we would cross a water source somewhere up above and that we could refill there. Although this assumption was eventually proved to be true, it came much later in the day and after much more exertion than we had been anticipating, and caused some anxious moments for both Jerry and me. After an ascent up the western and northwestern side of Dodge Peak, we missed the turn going around to the east side of the peak. We started down a road and I started thinking we were heading in the wrong direction, to the north. We had dropped a couple hundred feet in elevation when I finally caught up to where Jerry had stopped. I asked him, "Does this feel like we're going the wrong way?" After studying the terrain and the maps for a few minutes, we decided that we had turned away from Dodge Peak and needed to backtrack. That was about a half mile detour. We found the correct road back where we had passed it, and continued the steep curving climb up to the backside of Dodge Peak. We rested near the top, then continued to climb. When Jerry reached the very top of Dodge Peak, he found the remains of the Forest Service lookout tower, and he also saw two moose. We had a fantastic view of the Selkirk Mountains and Chimney Rock off to the west. We could make out the saddle where we had crossed the divide. We also knew that we had missed our turn again, this time onto Forest Trail 453. Jerry found it a short ways back down the road, and we began to follow the narrow single track footpath through the forest. We made good progress for about a mile, then the day began to get difficult. It spiraled from difficult to tough, and then from tough to nearly impossible. Every time the path would come to a small hill, it would vanish. Then we would have to search for several minutes and pick it up on the other side of the hill. We found and lost the trail about a dozen times as we descended from Dodge Peak along the long ridge towards White Mountain. Finally, in the mid afternoon, we lost the trail altogether. The path that did descend took a turn that was away from the marked path on the topo maps and away to the north. We could see White Mountain ahead, and we could see a long ridge connecting to White Mountain to the south, and we could see McArthur Lake down in the valley to our east. The prospect of more bush-whacking was not very appealing, but the lack of a clear trail going in our desired direction left us with little choice. We spent a very long afternoon fighting our way through the tangle of trees, brush, rocks, and deadfall, as well as the steep angle of the mountain. I started running very low on water, and was now regretting not filling that third bottle. Jerry was getting very concerned about my water situation as well. As it turned out, our struggle to reach the other side of the long ridge and the slope of White Mountain brought us down into a ravine on the northwest side and to a small flowing creek. It was in the nick of time. I scooped handfuls of cold water over my head and on my face and neck as Jerry filtered several liters of the precious liquid into our bottles. Jerry told me, "Promise me that in the future you won't try to save weight by not carrying enough water!" I agreed with him, and left the creek with three very full one-liter bottles of filtered water. Although we were still faced with a tough climb and traverse of White Mountain, our outlook was now much brighter since we had refreshed ourselves at the creek and refilled our bottles. I noticed a marked difference in my energy level as we resumed climbing. We followed the contour of White Mountain around to the east and reached a point where we could see McArthur Lake below us. We were perplexed that we still had not crossed a clearly established path, as we felt that we should have done, according to both of our topo maps. It wasn't until AFTER we had finished the hike on Monday that we discovered the reason for the poor condition of the trail. Our experience on the ridge and on White Mountain was taking on the character of our previous hike along Johnson Creek. In the absence of a clearly defined trail leading us down from White Mountain, we decided there was nothing for it but to bail off the mountain in the general direction of McArthur Lake. We had followed the contour lines around the northern and eastern sides of the mountain, almost all the way to the summit, and had still not crossed the trail. I felt that if we walked long enough downhill we would eventually come out in the valley below. This was true, in a broader sense, but doing it with the daylight we had remaining this afternoon proved to be harder than it looked. There was no letup in the terrain or in the density of the forest undergrowth. The slope was steep, and the forest clutter was as thick and tangled as ever. We continued in a relentless descent, angling this way and that, until we were so deep into the forest below that we lost sight of our reference mountains on the other side of the valley. We could no longer see McArthur Lake, either, as a reference point. We just knew from the angle of the sun behind us to the west that we were proceeding in a generally eastward direction. At one point, the tangle of the forest and the angle of the slope got to be so intense that Jerry commented, "This has got to be the definition of insanity!" My misery at least had company in this endeavor. We struggled on through the rest of the afternoon and on into the early evening hours. The forest began to grow darker as the sun dropped below the summit of White Mountain, and still there was no end in sight. We found another small creek and filled our bottles again. I had already finished almost 2 bottles since our last water stop. Finally, I reached my limit. I kept thinking we would make it out that evening, even if we had to walk until 10 p.m. I was so tired that I finally told Jerry, "For the first time today, I am ready to quit! I have never dealt with forest like this before!" We were near another creek, so we knew we could refill our bottles in the morning. We were both too tired to cook anything, so Jerry found a place to hang the food bags after we ate a few snacks for our dinner. The slope did not lend itself to pitching a tent, so we basically made an open bivouac on the side of the mountain. I landscaped a small patch of ground near the edge of a drop off, and laid out my tarptent over my blue and silver poly tarp. I put my sleeping air mat and quilt inside, then crawled into the tarptent and draped the mosquito netting over my head and shoulders to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Jerry simply laid his mat on the ground, put on his rain coat and put the hood up, and curled up on the ground. He advised me to sleep with my bear spray close at hand. I had been sleeping with it close by for the last two nights, as I usually do in bear country. Here we were, sleeping on a hillside in Grizzly country. The night passed without incident.

MONDAY, July 3rd

What had seemed insurmountable at the end of the day yesterday worked itself out in the light of a new day. Through previous experiences I have learned where my personal limits of endurance are. Whereas on Saturday afternoon, I had been able to continue hiking after a meal and a rest break, last night I had known that I was at the end when I told Jerry I was ready to quit. We still had not found the trail and we were still somewhere up on the eastern slopes of White Mountain. Jerry suggested this morning that we drop down in the ravine to our right, where we could hear running water, then angle off to the left to follow the gentler slope of the ridge. I agreed, and after we filled our bottles and packed up, we continued our descent. We had only gone about 400 yards when Jerry suddenly called out that he had found the road! Once again, what had looked like a bad situation the night before had worked itself out following a night's rest and the dawn of a new day. That, and answered prayer for the LORD to guide our steps. The road he had found was an old logging road or old Forest Service road, and appeared to be in a fair to poor condition of maintenance. It was such a relief to back on a gravel road! We walked in a continuing descent for a couple of miles. At one point, Jerry held up his hand to stop me at a curve in the road. At first I thought that he had seen a bear. I thought of unholstering my bear spray canister, then he whispered "Moose!" He slowly got out his camera to take a picture. I slipped my hand over the bear bell on my staff to silence it, and eased my way forward to where he was. We could see a young bull moose on the trail about 50 yards ahead. At this point, the moose owned the trail and we waited to see what he wanted to do. He stared at us until first, Jerry, then I, took his picture. Then he meandered slowly away from us and disappeared into the forest. Jerry said for once he had gotten an actual picture of a moose instead of a "picture where a moose used to be 2 seconds before!" We walked on for another couple of miles and came to a set of gates. At the final gate, there were a number of "Keep Out" and "No Trespassing" signs posted on the westbound side (opposite our direction of travel). We had come out of the wilderness on a trail that was supposed to be approved for ICT hikers, yet it was gated and posted for no access on this end. This explained the lack of trail maintenance and general poor condition of the trail on the ridge above. We finally emerged from the woods into the farmland below and we began to see some houses. We walked about another 1 to 1.5 miles along road 4A until we came to the Saturn where we had parked it on the northern side of McArthur Lake. It was about 9 a.m. local time when we got there. Our hike over the Selkirks was completed!

We had to drive the 80+ mile shuttle route again to get back to Jerry's Suburban over at Priest Lake. On the way, we stopped for a hearty breakfast in Sandpoint. After recovering Jerry's vehicle, we then drove up to Indian Head campground near the northern end of Priest Lake. We paid a $4 apiece day use fee so that we could go to the beach and take a swim in the lake, to wash up from four grueling days of hiking. The water was clear and cold, though not nearly as cold as Redfish Lake. I was impressed with the lake and its surroundings, and have determined that this would be a good area for future camping with the family. I already know I will be back to complete the ICT leg from Priest Lake north to the Canadian border.

From the northern end of Priest Lake, it took us 12 hours to get home to Boise, with stops in Worley for lunch, Moscow for fuel, and White Bird Hill for dinner at Hoot's.

During our lunch, Jerry showed me some information that helped to explain the difficulties we had experienced up on Trail 453 on White Mountain. He had stopped at the Ranger Station in Priest River and shared with them our experiences in trying to follow Trail 453 and in coming down from White Mountain. They gave him a photo-copied information sheet for that section of trail that said 453 was "infrequently maintained," "lightly traveled," "overgrown," and in rating of Hiker Difficulty it received a "Most Difficult" rating. Jerry also told them about the "No Trespassing" and "Keep Out" signs that we had seen. The ranger told him that a private landowner had purchased a large tract of land adjoining the road from which we had exited the wilderness. This landowner had posted and gated the access points and would not grant the Forest Service access to their own trail! We had just happened to stumble blindly upon the trail and followed it down to where it exited onto Road 4A and in blissful ignorance did not know that it was posted "No Trespassing." Fortunately we came out very early on a Monday morning and no one in the houses we passed seemed to take notice of us. Stealth Hikers! The problem with this of course is that future ICT hikers will make the same mistakes that we made, unless the ICT route is changed. The ICT route is clearly marked on the official maps as following Trail 453. Steven Stuebner does mention in his book that Pack River Road can be used as an alternate route. Jerry and I agree with that statement and would recommend this alternate route.

While passing through Priest River, we also made a stop at a place called Huckleberry Delight. Jerry had been telling me about this place, and it sounded so good that I had to stop in to get some Huckleberry pancake syrup and Huckleberry jelly for Darla. Jerry got a Huckleberry Shake, which was the first purple milkshake I have ever seen. I arrived home at 3105 Eastgate Drive in Boise right before 1 a.m.

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