6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hostages At Lynx Creek (Idaho Magazine - April 2010)

     We have been here before. A quick comparison of the lichen encrusted boulder to a picture in our digital camera confirms our suspicions. This is the rocky game trail descending to the Middle Fork of the Boise River, and on its banks, our destination - Lynx Creek hot spring. The last time we ventured down this path, my wife, Jamie, and I, experienced an unbelievable incident with a herd of mountain goats. We had stumbled upon the goats grazing near Lynx Creek and enjoyed a rare opportunity of observing them at close range.

     However, just minutes into our private viewing, unleashed huskies appeared on the other side of the river and charged the herd. The goats panicked and fled using the only escape route available - the trail upon which we were crouched. Before it was over, a stampede of goats washed over us and we survived a face to face and once-in-a-lifetime stare down with the monstrous herd leader. As I recall, it never blinked.

     The owners of the huskies arrived shortly after the goats vanished up the mountain. They waved and shouted and probably expected us to return the enthusiasm. What they got was reluctant acknowledgment from two people who would have liked to lecture them on keeping their dogs under control. A loud river separated us at the time, so any communication effort would have been us attempting to mime a mountain goat stampede. We opted to keep our dignity.

     I’d be lying if I said we returned to this remote drainage of the aptly named Sawtooths just for the hot spring. Neither of us has mentioned it, but I know we are both hoping to see the mountain goats somewhere in these jagged peaks.

     Jamie and I have barely begun picking our way down the trail when we hear a rustle in the trees below us and out pops what… but a couple of huskies. Again? Really? At least this time, they are close enough we don’t mistake them for charging wolves. Well, that and the red doggy saddle-bags are a dead give away. The huskies hesitate, sniffing the air cautiously, but their wagging tails betray their intentions. I like that quality in dogs; they tend to assume the best about people. We hold out our hands and call softly to them which serves as enough of a welcoming gesture. The dogs trot up to us, smell our fingers, and allow us to scratch their heads.

     Moments later, a third husky appears down the trail and behind it, what appears to be a hallucination, or some kind of wild mountain woman. I notice Jamie's eyebrows arch in surprise. Definitely not a hallucination, my wife sees her too.

     The lady is incredibly tan and lithe, covered with tattoos and piercings. With the exception of a walking stick, a small medicine bag tied to her belt, and a monstrous hunting knife in a sheath around her left calf, she is carrying no gear. She is also, I assume, not expecting company as her shirt is completely unbuttoned with the two sides tucked into her pants revealing a wide strip of flesh from neck to waist. The lady fastens a couple of buttons as she approaches. Her lean-muscled appearance defies the age in and around her eyes. I figure she has to be pushing 50. Obviously, she is an old school, Idaho kind of woman.

     “I love your doggies,” says my wife as her three pets swarm us poking at our hands with their warm muzzles.

     “Thank you,” she replies. “I wish you could meet them all. My one-year old, Tiny, ran off a few hours ago. One second he was with me on the trail, the next… gone. I didn’t even see which way he went. I’ve been looking all morning.”

     While Jamie expresses her sympathies, I can’t help but question the mystery woman’s lack of equipment. Her hardcore, unencumbered appearance has left me feeling like rookie mountain tourist with a forty pound pack full of gear and food. I begin to entertain the idea of ditching everything except my underwear and hunting knife for all future outdoor excursions when she mentions her backpack is safely stashed on the main trail.

     “I’m worried his harness might be caught on some underbrush… or maybe he saw a deer to chase…” As her voice trails off, Jamie and I exchange a knowing glance.

     “Were you down by the hot spring when Tiny disappeared?” my wife asks.

     The tough old lady shrugs. “I don’t know of any hot springs around here.”

     Like Jamie and I had done on our last trip, the woman picked the wrong side of a massive granite outcropping where the trail ends at a cliff’s edge and a sheer drop to the water below. The raging river has spent thousands of years carving a steep and narrow channel straight through the granite resulting in a narrow gorge of dropping waterfalls and churning whitewater. She had missed the trail that follows the drainage down the other side of the granite monolith all the way to the river.

     We tell her about the hot springs and mountain goats and theorize Tiny had heard or smelled the herd, went looking for them, or possibly chased them, and wound up getting lost. The woman accepts Jamie’s invitation to join us for another trek down the mountain.

     “Might as well,” she says, “that knucklehead could be anywhere by now.”

     Despite the uneven terrain, we make quick time. All three of us are eager to find the missing pet. We smell the hot spring and hear the river before we can see anything through the trees. Moving cautiously, to avoid any potential animal surprises, we creep into a small meadow at the river’s edge. This is the same place we found the goats grazing on our last trip. This time the area is deserted, no goats and no dog.

     I remove my backpack and begin to search for animal sign. Almost immediately, I find fresh goat tracks and wet droppings. The herd had been here this morning. I also notice a couple of muddy canine tracks. They are too small to be anything other than juvenile wolf, or mid-sized dog. It seems more and more likely Tiny found the mountain goat herd. I experience a wave of agitation at the thought of more unleashed dogs tormenting this family of goats. The mountain lions and wolf packs should serve as adversaries enough in this wilderness. Dogs that can’t stay with their owners should be kept on a leash.

     If Tiny had been here, he is long gone. The lady guesses he may have returned to their camp site from the night before. She hides her feelings behind a wall of rigid body language and terse replies, but I sense a worried desperation taking hold. I look up at the towering Sawtooth peaks all around us. Where does one start looking for lost pets out here? There are no answers on the mid-day breeze.

     She thanks us for our assistance and we jot down her phone number in case we find her dog. The woman whistles for her remaining huskies and begins to ascend the trail for who knows how many times that day. We watch her go, silently casting our wills against the cosmos that she finds Tiny.

     Jamie and I set up camp and eat a quick lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches. We spend the day exhausting ourselves in the sun, alternating between quick dips in the freezing river and leisurely soaks in the hot spring. We do our best to forget about the missing husky, about the problems of other people, and enjoy a perfect summer day in one of the most beautiful places either of us can imagine.

     After a dinner of meatballs and barbeque sauce, we climb into our small backpacking tent to avoid the mosquito hour. As the heat of the day relents, and before the cold mountain night sets in, the mosquitoes come out in force, hungry for blood. We are killing time playing cards and flicking mosquitoes off the mesh walls when Jamie suddenly cocks her ear to the wind.

     “Did you hear that?”

     “I used to sing in a rock band,” I remind her. “I can't hear anything.”

     “There it is again,” she says and grips my knee. “It almost sounds like a child crying... somewhere in the cliffs.” I listen intently for a few seconds, but all I hear is the nearby river. I can tell Jamie is a little freaked out, so I decide to change the subject.

     “How about a… back rub?” I ask while casting an amorous gaze over her bikini clad body and smiling mischievously.

     “Yeah right,” she says. “That's exactly when the ax wielding maniac shows up. I know my horror films. THERE, you had to hear it that time!” she exclaims pointing to the cliffs above us.

     I listen again and this time I hear it. She is right, it sounds like a distant and disturbed child, somehow human and yet not human at all. The sound is eerie to say the least. “Oh that,” I say, playing it off as casually as possible. “That's just a Central Idaho demon baby. Nothing to worry about. Quite common in these parts.”

     As we listen, the sound grows louder and spookier until I am finally compelled to check it out. Feeling slightly vulnerable wearing only the boxers I had spent the day swimming in, I grab my hunting knife.

     “Wait a second.” says my wife, “Either you’re going to walk off and never return, or, you’re going to come back and find me chopped to pieces.”

     I laugh, but can’t help notice a sense of unease in the cooling air. Surely, just my imagination in overdrive. I make it about twenty steps before I have slapped and killed the third biting mosquito. I retreat to the campsite.

     “I need some clothes.”

     “My hero,” says my wife and tosses my pants and shirt out the tent door.

     “I don’t see you out here.”

     Never one to back down, Jamie throws some clothes on over her blue bikini and joins me. Meanwhile, the cries in the rocks have become more frantic, more desperate. Jamie and I make our way into the rocks above our campsite trying to pin-point the sound. I am carrying my knife out in front of me, looking like a hitchhiker with a long and razor sharp thumb. In the fading light, we scan the shadows on the cliff above us and locate the source of the cries.

     It’s a yearling mountain goat perched on the top and very edge of the cliff braying his concern to the echoing gorge below. Is it stuck? Where’s the rest of the herd? Clearly, the little goat has been separated from its family. I am suddenly reminded of the lost husky. The appearance of the young goat lends more credence to our missing dog theory. Perhaps Tiny charged into the herd causing the goats to bolt in all directions. Maybe this little one was singled out and forced into running in the opposite direction of the rest of its family. Who knows. We are left with speculation.

     The goat notices us just after we see him. The worried cries stop instantly and the animal appears relieved to have company. It begins see-sawing its way down the cliff where there is nothing any human would consider a path. Even at its young age, the animal is surprisingly dexterous. However, despite the goat’s bounding energy, something about its gait seems off. I can’t be certain, but I think it might be limping.

     Jamie turns to me and insists we get back to camp. We both know there is nothing to be done and we certainly don’t want to confuse the youngster or cause it further alarm. We retreat, but as soon as we are out of sight, the cries begin again, even more fervently this time and getting louder. The yearling is following us. We duck into our tent hoping the goat won’t spot our camp hidden amongst a small stand of spruce trees.

     For the next hour, we are tortured by the tormented cries. The yearling never appears to notice our tent, but it hobbles by within a stone’s throw of our camp. We are reminded of last year’s goat stampede when a nanny, with her new born in tow, pushed right past us on the trail, so close we could have touched them both. The fact this lost yearling could very well be that same infant isn’t lost on us. I even go so far as to entertain the ridiculous notion that the goat recognizes us and knows we mean it no harm. Jamie and I are tempted to see if the frightened goat will come to us, to see if there is anything we can do. Surely, an ax wielding maniac is preferable to this drawn out suffering.

     I consider the prospects of raising a mountain goat on our quarter-acre lot in Boise. It probably wouldn’t appreciate the summer heat, and really, what would our three cats think? However, we realize interfering with wild animals isn’t part of nature’s intentions. On the other hand, I can’t help but think nature didn’t intend for people’s unleashed dogs to harass these goats either. I sit in silence and watch the tears roll down my wife’s cheeks. We are being held hostage, afraid to move or make a sound, by a fluffy, adorable animal.

     Finally, mercifully, the goat retreats back up the mountain, its desperate cries fading with the last remaining light. We ponder the events that may have lead to the goat’s current predicament. Again, we ask ourselves if there is anything we can do, but we already know the answer. That night my dreams are haunted by lonely cries on the wind while my body, nearly swallowed in shadow, lies paralyzed on a forest floor. Above, the black, indifferent universe and distant stars mock my concern.

     The next morning, there is no trace of the yearling, no distant cries, nothing. We tell each other stories about the baby goat finding its family during the night and how it’s currently being smothered by an overbearing and relieved mother. Perhaps we have become too attached to this family of goats. Perhaps the few thrilling seconds we spent amongst the herd, or the fact they chose to not harm us when they could have, has left us feeling somehow indebted to these animals.

      In reality, I am pretty sure something has found the baby goat by now. Nothing making that kind of racket will go unnoticed in the wilderness for long. I can only hope it really was the herd and not a mountain lion or wolf. I also realize my anger with Tiny is unfounded. Like it is with the baby goat, this is no place for a lost dog and he will be lucky to be found alive. Something as simple as a leash could have possibly prevented the plight of both animals. Nature is a harsh mistress and rightfully so. However, the lives of mountain goats, and even dogs, are difficult enough without further complications at the hands of humans.

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