Friday, February 9, 2007

You ARE the Weakest Link (G'Bye!)

You ARE the Weakest Link………..G’bye!
Idaho Centennial Trail
North Fork Lime Creek, May 17th-18th, 2004

This hike was different for me, in that it was considered a “work” hike. That is, it was arranged by Leo Hennessy, the official Non-Motorized Trails Co-ordinator for the Idaho State Dept. of Parks and Recreation. He gets paid by the State of Idaho to hike all the foot trails in Idaho (it’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it!) This particular hike was a small segment of the 1,200 mile Idaho Centennial Trail, which travels from the Nevada border all the way to the Canadian border. The portion we would be working on was a 13.6 mile segment from north of Grouse Butte, following the North Fork of Lime Creek past Sprout Mountain, crossing the Middle and South Forks of the Boise River, and ending at the Hunter Creek campground.

We began on Monday May 17th at the Parks & Rec offices. I had corresponded with Leo by e-mail before some months ago, and had spoken to him on the telephone, but today was my first time to actually meet him. Leo then introduced me to Chris and Nick. That’s all we ever got around to was their first names, and mine, but that worked just fine for the trip.

Chris told me to throw my stuff in the back of his Chevrolet Subdivision (it is actually a Suburban but I can’t help using Dave Barry’s phrase “Subdivision” in reference to these enormous aircraft carrier battle wagon urban assault vehicles). I walked around to the open back door and stopped dead in my tracks. There was a wolf inside the truck, staring at me. Not a real “wolf” wolf, I was to find out later. But this was “her” truck, I was a stranger, and we hadn’t been properly “introduced” yet. I took a couple of steps back and waited for Chris to come to the back of the truck with some gear. The “wolf” moved back at Chris’ command and allowed him to crawl inside so he could arrange the gear that I handed him.

Nick rode with Leo in a brand spankin’ new white state-owned Chevy 4 door 4WD pickup, which still had the new car smell inside the cab. I rode with Chris and we set off toward Interstate 84 and Mountain Home. Chris and I got acquainted as we rode along. I asked him what the dog’s name was and he said “Keba.” She was part Husky, part Alaskan Malamute, and two-thirds Wolf (I’m still trying to do the math on figuring out that geneaology). She was 14 years old and she went hiking everywhere with Chris. I thought: this will be a different hike, kind of cool actually, that we would be hiking with a dog, and part wolf at that.

We got off the freeway at Mountain Home, and Chris got his tank filled up courtesy of the State of Idaho. Not a bad thing when you drive a Subdivision, and gas is over $2 a gallon. This is kind of nice, having the state pay for your transportation to go hiking. We took Highway 20 north and east out of Mountain Home, and turned off on a dirt road called Castle Rock Road. This road, Leo had told us, was a portion of the Centennial Trail which used an existing dirt road, and he had already “signed” this portion of the trail. We could see the brown flexible posts and the small white reflective signs with the ICT logo on them. This was a taste of the work we would be doing tomorrow, Tuesday, on the trail we would be hiking.

We dropped off the state vehicle at the Hunter Creek campground, which would be the endpoint of our hike. We had to drive several miles of 4WD dirt road to get to the campground, and then several miles back to the asphalt, with Leo and Nick now riding with us in the Subdivision. We stopped in Featherville at a “mom and pop” café called Bob and Jenny’s Kitchen (or something like that). The menu actually had elk and buffalo steaks and burgers on it. I thought about ordering elk or buffalo, but settled for the 12 ounce steak special (the ordinary cow kind), which was awesome. A nice big meal the night before our big hike. We then got back in the Subdivision and found the turn-off for Grouse Butte road. It was a nicely graded dirt road, which would be passable for most cars, except it was a bit wash-boarded. Leo was working from distant memories and an incomplete map. We picked our way through a couple of intersections and a Y fork in the road to get to a one-lane winding road that climbed steeply toward a saddle below Grouse Butte.

The saddle was where we found our trailhead. There was a tremendous view to our north of snow-capped mountains which were just before the Sawtooth range. To our south, we could see the top of Grouse Butte, which we would climb tomorrow. Chris parked the Subdivision right in the middle of the intersection. This place was remote enough that we didn’t think there would be anyone else coming along to use the road.

We set up our tents and Chris built a small campfire. He would be sleeping in the back of his Subdivision with Keba. Nick heated water for hot chocolate and we sat in comfortable chairs as darkness came on. Keba laid on the ground about 15 feet away. She seemed to know that tomorrow would not be a day for resting. Smart wolf…er…. dog…..whatever…..

The forecast was for rain starting at midnight, and a 70% chance of rain for tomorrow. I awoke sometime in the night to the pit-pat of rain drops hitting my tent. Then I took a Benadryl and drifted off to sleep to the sound of rain.

The next thing I knew, it was light, it was raining harder, and one of my socks felt wet. The other guys were standing under the trees where I had pitched my tent. One of them said, “Good morning, Ron!” I opened the rain fly and was astonished to see that, instead of the rain I expected, it was snowing! Hard! There were big, fat, wet, slushy flakes falling. Chris called, “Put on your shell gear” and Nick asked me if I wanted some hot water. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t have anything to put in it, but gratefully accepted a cup of hot water to warm my hands with and warm up with a drink. I felt totally unprepared for the snow. Not to mention that I was the last one awake, and they were all ready to go hiking and they were waiting on me to get up and get ready. This feeling of being behind was to characterize my entire day.

If you have ever seen the TV game show “The Weakest Link” you will be familiar with the famous phrase “You ARE the Weakest Link…..G’bye!” Before the trip, I had shared with Darla that I was hoping that I could keep up with the other hikers. I’m not accustomed to being the weakest member of a hiking group, and I was under the impression that I would be hiking with some elite hikers. I told her I didn’t want to be considered as the “weakest link.” However, the realities of the day were about to teach me a lesson.

I frantically got dressed in my tent, suited up in my rain gear, and started folding the mat, sleeping bag, and tent. Everything was getting wetter by the minute, including my head and hands. Not a good way to start off a 13 mile hike in the cold. I didn’t want to hold things up because I knew the guys were ready to start and we had a long way to go. I wolfed down my Blimpie’s sandwich that I had left over from last night. Finally I was packed up. We threw our camping gear into the back of the Subdivision and prepared to set off. Leo said that he was going to “take it easy” and try to pace himself.

We started off climbing, with an 800 foot elevation gain ahead of us to get to near the top of Grouse Butte (elev. 7500+). The snow abated soon after we departed, leaving a light coating of slush all over everything. The trail, thankfully, was just mostly wet now. A light rain contined to fall. Misty clouds hung over the distant peaks to the west of the trail.

The group, including Keba, soon left me far behind. I was already aware that I am a slow climber, but trying to keep up with them soon left me with my heart pounding and my lungs gasping for air. I would have to slow my pace down and rest often, as I usually do when climbing at high elevations. Altitude affects different people differently, and this is the way it affects me. Already, the phrase “You ARE the weakest link…..G’bye” was echoing in my brain. These guys are going to get mad at me for holding them up, I thought. They wanted to keep a strong pace and finish the hike in about 7 hours. As I continued to climb the mile and a half towards the top, fleeting thoughts began, of calling off the hike, that I could offer to drive Chris’ truck back around to the Hunter Creek campground and meet them there. No, it wouldn’t do, it wouldn’t do! (a little Chronicles of Narnia there).

I shook off the momentary weakness and pushed on toward the top. Somewhere along the way, Nick came back down the trail to check on me. I told him I was sorry for holding them up, and he said, “That’s okay. We’ve got all day.”

When I joined the others at the top, they were beginning to work on putting up trail signs. They nailed ICT signs and arrows to both sides of an existing trail post. Then a nearby tree was selected to place an additional sign. Leo relieved me of carrying the plastic Tupperware box with the nails.

Now that our trail turned downhill for the remainder of the hike, I was better able to keep up with the group….at least for a while. We began to encounter some snow banks about two feet deep on the eastern side of Grouse Butte. Keba came alive when she saw the snow. She began running and jumping around and playing in the snow as if she were a puppy. She was in her element.
We soon came to another intersection and installed some more signs. Leo had brought a couple of small hand saws, which were amazingly sharp. Nick and I cut down some small trees and branches in the line-of-sight down the trail from the signpost above, so that Chris could tack up a sign on a live tree that would be visible from above. We continued on into thickening stands of aspen, and noted grafitti that had been carved into the aspens many years ago by some Spanish-speaking group of hikers. They had taken a lot of time to write “pages” of material on these tree trunks. The passage of time and growth of the tree had given a “raised letter” look to these letters. I remember the phrase “recuerdos de ruta” or “memories of the trail”on a couple of the trees.

I was keeping pace with the group now, and put on a burst of energy to stay with them for a mile or so. The burst, however, soon went bust….

I had suspected beforehand that I might be the weakest link in the chain; that I was going to be in the company of some very elite hikers. I was right. I soon began to fall behind as they pushed ahead at a very brisk pace.

As the cloudy sky began to clear and the rain gave way to intermittent sunshine, I began to warm up inside my rain gear. The wind had also abated now that the trail had turned south off the saddle and was descending into the canyon through which ran the N.F. of Lime Creek. My shell gear, especially the pull-over nylon pants, was beginning to be a nuisance. The shell pants kept sagging way down, no matter how much I cinched the side straps. It was as if I were wearing a pair of the baggy jeans that are so popular with my boys and their generation. I stopped and wrestled the pants off over my now-muddy and wet hiking boots. I stowed the pants and the wet jacket inside a plastic bag to keep the rest of my pack’s contents dry. Down off the ridge and descending through this canyon, it was warmer and now I could function comfortably in shorts and a T-shirt.

Up again, I soon came upon the other three guys ahead of me, who had stopped to do the same thing I had just been doing: removing their shell gear. I took the opportunity to sit on a log while they changed. It was a respite for me, but it was short-lived. Soon they were ready to push on, and just as quickly I was out-paced again.

This was to be the pattern for the remainder of the day. I would catch up to the group. The group would be resting waiting for me to catch up. I would arrive winded and breathless, and they would be already rested and ready to take off again. I would get a couple of minutes to catch my breath before they were on their feet and ready to move on down the trail. I would be able to keep up with them for a short while, then I would start falling behind……..”you ARE the weakest link! G’bye!” I knew they weren’t intentionally leaving me behind….this was just their natural pace. My natural pace is slower and I take more frequent rest stops, especially when going uphill.

Thus, I spent a good portion of Tuesday hiking through the wilderness by myself. It reminded me of the hike last summer in the Sawtooths when Daniel, Russell, and Dustin raced ahead of me to Grandjean because of the Canyon Creek fire in the distance. I spent about 8 miles of that 11 mile day by myself as well.

Our path continued through the winding canyon of the N.F. of Lime Creek for several miles. We had been told that we could expect between 5 to 7 crossings of Lime Creek, that could be from knee-deep to waist-deep. I had wondered, when I read this, if Leo was a short guy? Would what was considered waist-deep to him be only knee-deep to me? This turned out to be the case. Leo and Nick were in the mid five foot range, while Chris and I were both about 6 foot 3 inches. We made somewhere between 25 and 30 crossings during the day, counting the Middle and South Forks of Lime Creek and Hunter Creek. Leo said he lost count after 22 crossings. Most of the crossings were in the ankle to mid-calf depth for me, with only a couple that reached to my knees or a little above to nip the bottom edge of my hiking shorts. For the first few crossings, I tried to keep my boots and socks dry by rock-hopping or jumping over the creek where possible. As the hike progressed, and I fell further and further behind the group, and the crossings got wider, deeper, and more complicated, with fewer stepping stones or fallen logs, I just took to wading on through in my hiking boots. The water temperature was warmer than some of the icy creeks I have forded in the past, such as Trail Creek near Grandjean.
I was packing my river shoes, but it would have taken too long to stop, take off my boots and socks, put the river shoes on, wade across a few feet, then take off the river shoes, dry my feet, put the socks and shoes back on, stow the wet dripping shoes in my pack, put the pack back on, and continue walking. In fact this was the only way I was able to gain ground on the group ahead. While they were searching for dry places to cross, I just plunged on through and then squish-squish-squished all the water out of my boots as I went.

The sky was now blue and the sun was shining. The day was warming up. Every time we came to an intersection or a branch in the trail, we would install some of the small rectangular trail signs that said Idaho Centennial Trail, with additional arrow signs pointing the correct way. This being my first time on the trail, I found some of the intersections to be confusing. If I were thru-hiking the ICT, I would be grateful for these direction signs. I can’t imagine trying it without maps or directional signposts. A wrong turn could put a person MILES off course way out in the wilderness. The trail IS your lifeline. Some people like to “bushwhack” cross country with map, GPS and/or compass. I’m not there yet. I stick to the trail.

Our lunch break came fairly close to straight-up noon. By that, I mean that I looked up at the sun which was temporarily shining, and it was almost straight up in the sky. Somewhere near Fox Gulch, still to the northeast of Sprout Mountain, I caught up to the guys, who were sitting off to the side of the trail. We had stopped on a steep embankment about 200 feet above the creek. They had their shell gear laid out on the rocks around them to dry. Keba was lounging on the ground near Leo. She was taking the chance to snooze while the snoozing was good. That sounded good to me, but I knew that even in resting that I had to work fast. I spread my vapor-barrier sheet on the trail and started eating my lunch. It felt so good to stop for a break. I had been running behind the pack ever since I woke up this morning. We sat for a while and watched the clouds off to the southwest beginning to build up again. A couple of times we heard the faint rumble of thunder off in the distance. We knew that we would probably soon be wet again.

The curving section of the canyon acted as a wind tunnel. The breeze began feeling chilly again, so back went on the jackets. The rest stop wasn’t nearly as long as I had hoped it would be, but it helped. I put away an entire quart of Gatorade, which dropped my pack weight a pound or so. The packets of cheese nips, peanut butter crackers, and chocolate chip cookies had worked well as lunch material. I saw that Chris had a pack of tortillas and a small block of cheese, and I thought that sounded like a good idea for my next hike. For Keba, he carried a pack of hot dogs.

We hit the trail again. Leo hung back while Chris, Nick, and I headed down the trail. Fueled by lunch, I kept up with the pace for a few hundred yards as we were descending, but then I began to fall behind. I just couldn’t hold their pace. Leo soon came up behind and passed me by. Here we go again….

As we passed to the east of Sprout Mountain, the land began to subtly change. The canyon began to widen and the trees thinned out. About an hour after lunch, the sky got dark and it began to rain again. Everyone stopped ahead under a sheltering tree. They were putting their shell gear on. The rain got heavier, the thunder rumbled, lightning flashed, and then it began to hail. The small thermometer on Nick’s backpack strap dropped from the low 50’s down to 39 degrees. The group soon pulled away from me yet again. I stopped to rest under some trees just as the hail began in earnest. Fortunately, I was positioned under a good sheltering tree, which kept the brunt of the hail off of me. I assumed the men ahead of me were doing the same thing; surely they weren’t trying to keep hiking in this hail. The trail ahead began to climb and it was exposed. I wasn’t about to attempt to go on while marble-sized hail was coming down.

After about 15 minutes, the hail slackened, and I continued on. The trail was now covered in thousands of white ice marbles. It wasn’t until a half mile later or so that I caught up with the group again, who had been slowed by a series of beaver dams in the creek which had obscured the trail ahead. The guys were all looking worriedly at me.
Great… if I didn’t already feel like the “weakest link.” They asked me if I were beginning to feel hypothermic? I said that my hands were cold, but the rest of me felt fine as long as I kept moving. I have to admit that I was getting a little cold under my nylon windbreaker. The cold and wet day had exposed a big weakness in my gear selection for the hike. My shell gear, namely my jacket, according to Chris, was only water RESISTANT and not water PROOF. What I needed, all the guys were telling me, was a specialty jacket made of waterproof breathable material, such as Goretex, with a fleece liner. This would allow me to both stay dry from the rain, and to ventilate the water vapor from my hiking exertions out through the porous fabric.

I had improved my hiking clothes significantly from past hikes, when I just blindly went off into the wilderness wearing cotton-everything. Cotton is commonly known as “Death Cloth” in hiking circles. I had upgraded to polyester shirts which wick moisture from your body and dry quickly, nylon shorts which dry quickly after wading a creek. So the underlayers were good, but my gloves, hat, and jacket were not keeping me dry. Nor were my socks, which, along with my boots, were soaked from all the creek crossings we had made. I knew what hypothermia felt like, and I wasn’t there yet, but I knew that if I didn’t keep moving along that I was going to be there in about another hour or so. And all I wanted to do was stop moving and catch my breath.

All the guys looked worried that I was going to get it. Chris had probably shared with them my hypothermia story from the Seven Devils hike which I had told him about while we were on the drive up to Featherville. They said they would stop and build a fire for me if I started shivering. I was glad for their concern, but it served to motivate me as well. If these experienced, veteran hikers were worried about me getting hypothermia, I knew that I should be concerned as well. It served to “light the fire” of motivation in me from that point on in through the end of the hike. I had been the “weakest link” all day long….I wasn’t about to make these guys have to go into rescue mode and carry me out of the wilderness like a bundle of firewood. No, sir……

It was time to quit holding back. I had dry stuff in my pack, and it was time to get serious about the weather. My pack had been much heavier than I had planned for this hike. Because of the heavy snowfall this morning, I had panicked and threw an extra shirt in with the dry extra clothes I was carrying, and I had also packed my heavy coat in a plastic bag to keep it dry. See…..I did learn something from my previous cold-weather hike in the Seven Devils. I took off my wet nylon jacket and put on the long-sleeved flannel shirt. Leo loaned me his polar-fleece shirt over the long sleeve shirt, and then I put my coat on over all that. Leo also loaned me his polar-fleece gloves and a fleece skull cap (mine got soaked in my pack’s mesh pocket) to put on under my wet hiking hat.
As a further backup, I still had an emergency space blanket I could use, and I still had some chemical hand warmers, as well as soup and other food I could eat for fuel to burn.

Within a minute of putting all the warm gear on, I could feel myself beginning to warm up. Nick pulled out a Cliff Bar and gave it to me for some quick energy. I gratefully accepted it. I also drank from my water bottle to stay hydrated. The hail came on strong for a second time, but this time it was briefer than before.

We lost the trail for a bit at the beaver dams I mentioned above. The dams had widened the creek and made it a lot deeper in places. We couldn’t tell if the trail continued on the east side of the creek, or remained on the west side. Leo thought it stayed on the west side as the map suggested, and bush-whacked ahead to try to pick it up. Nick, Chris, and I (and Keba) thought it went across to the east side. Leo thought he had found the trail, so we bush-whacked also to catch up to him. Then we could see a clear path over on the OTHER side. Leo said, “oops.” Now we had to get across the much wider and deeper creek. In order to get across, we had to hop or balance over a series of smaller beaver dams to get to a particularly wide section just before the bank. There was a large fallen tree to walk over, but it required a balance beam act, which can be tricky when the log is wet and slick and you are carrying a heavy backpack. The other three guys crossed ahead of me (Keba did a combination of jumping and swimming).

This was the trickiest crossing that I had to do the entire day. I couldn’t just wade on through because the water was much deeper here and I couldn’t see or feel the bottom with my hiking pole. I got about halfway over the log then started to wobble. I thought for a second that I was going to tumble into the drink, which would not have helped my hypo-situation at all. One guy said ‘come ahead,’ one guy said ‘go back,’ and another said ‘do you need another hiking pole?’ I gathered my resolve, regained my balance and took the last few steps over the log. Then I grabbed Leo’s extended hiking pole and made the last jump over to the other bank. I’m glad that I made it across. The guys had been watching me like I was the “weakest link” and a tumble in the creek would not have been a good thing for my already bruised ego.

The group discussed the distance remaining before us. We were now within a mile of the Middle and South Fork crossings of Lime Creek. Leo and Chris were moving the fastest, so they came up with the plan to go on ahead of us and put the signs up at those crossings. Nick, meanwhile, would hang back with me. This seemed like a good idea, but Nick soon realized that he had the container for the nails in his pack. So he zipped on ahead for a while and caught up with the others, then dropped back to walk with me.

We finally came out of the long canyon of the N.F. of Lime Creek, and the land opened up into a wide valley which was full of beaver dams and scrubby brush. We had now passed through the transition zone from alpine forest back into high desert. The undergrowth changed to sagebrush. The trail now turned to the east for about a mile and a half. My progress was slow, but Nick stayed back with me. Another problem had surfaced for me. I was persistently short of breath, and it was not just from the high altitude and fast hiking, as I had been assuming all day long. I now realized that the cold winds of this morning had activated my dormant asthma. This is the reason I can’t really actively pursue walking in the winter time. Another “weakest link” moment for me in a day of moments…

Nick had hiked this portion of the ICT before, but it was many years ago and he was traveling from south-to-north then. He said everything looked different going the other way. I enjoyed talking with him as we walked. I told him where I worked, and he said that he was retired. He looked to me as if he had several more years of hiking left in him. Here’s a guy who’s retired, has two hearing aids, but who has a lot of years experience hiking. Leo had told me earlier in the day that he had one artifical hip. Chris was a few years younger than I am, and has been on the famous “Death Hike” in the Sawtooths. And his wolf-dog, Keba, had left me in the dust several times today. Remember, she was 14 years old…..14 years in dog years is 98 years old to you and me, folks. Talk about a humbling day….

We finally caught up to Leo and Chris, who were resting at the fence before the Middle Fork crossing. They had finished installing the signs, and were now debating whether to put on their water shoes for the crossing, or to just go for it in their boots. Chris finally decided “Aww…it’s only 2 crossings and then 2 more miles to the end after that!” With that he got up and just plunged right on through the creek, as I had been doing all day long. This was one of only two crossings that actually got over my knees. It was also much wider than all the other crossings that we had made.

In less than a half mile, we came to the South Fork crossing; it too was a knee-deep wade for me (almost waist deep to Leo and Nick). All we had to do now was follow the trail up Hunter Creek and we would be back to the parking lot at the Hunter Creek campground, where the state vehicle was parked and waiting for us. Leo said that he thought it was about another mile, but I could tell the further that we walked, and from looking at the map, that it was going to be longer than that. The single-track trail that we had been following all day long became a 4 wheel drive dirt road after we passed through an abandoned trailhead parking lot where there were some hitching posts and a corral for livestock. The road turned to the southeast and then to the east as it climbed gradually. We followed it for two miles before we finally reached the trailhead. My progress was very slow even on a relatively flat trail. I had told Nick that I was going to finish if I had to crawl the rest of the way. Keep 51% of your mind and body going, that’s the formula for successful backpacking.

Leo and Chris had been at the trailhead for about a half hour before us. Their wet gear was strewn all over the sides of the white state pickup. It had been a grueling day, but I was glad that I didn’t give up. We had come over 13 miles in 8 hours. It was sure nice to stop walking and take off my pack. I was very glad to open my ice chest and pull out a cold Gatorade and pass around a Sam’s cola to everyone. I was very tired, but it would be vehicle travel from now until we reached home some hours later. I’m grateful to Leo for putting this trip together and allowing me to go along.

…even if I was the weakest link….G’bye!

Ron Whittaker
May 30, 2004

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