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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tracking The She Wolf

          My eyes crack open to a blinding light followed by ruthless, stabbing pains in both temples. Before passing out last night, I vaguely recall opening the bedroom curtains so the sunrise would serve as a natural alarm. The reasoning behind this decision is less substantial; a will o’ the wisp teasing me through the fog in some dark forest. I need more sleep. Why would I, nay, why would anyone do this to themselves? Through the open window comes an uplifting chorus of bird songs and I suppress an abrupt urge to grab the .44 Ruger Redhawk always within reach of my bed.

          Ignoring the screaming protests from both body and mine, I sit up and massage my shaved scalp with one hand. My throat stings, my tongue feels like sandpaper, and my mouth tastes as though I spent the night gargling tequila shots out of an ashtray. I experience a flashing vision of rotting teeth and bare breasts being flung around in a smoky night club; the smell of cheap beer, cigarettes, and defeat lingering in my nostrils. Last night my band rocked the dingiest bar in Nampa, Idaho. At the time, punishing ourselves with Red Bull infused cocktails seemed the most brutally efficient method to atone for our sins. I would refer to the bar’s clientele as more animal than man, but no animal has ever disgusted me enough to make such an unfair comparison. In any case, I’m glad Jamie had the good sense to stay home.

          Thinking about my wife, I suddenly realize I am in bed alone. Oh yeah! My memory seizes on our last conversation like a proud puppy fetching a stick. Jamie wasn’t about to sit around this weekend and wait for me to play the screaming rock star. She is out in the wilderness, on a solo backpacking trip, no doubt still buried in a cosy sleeping bag or just getting up to brew coffee in the brisk mountain air. That is why I left the curtains open; that is why I’m punishing myself. I agreed to meet her around noon at remote Grandjean campground located on the very edge of Idaho’s Sawtooth wilderness.

          Dragging myself into the shower, I wash up, brush my teeth, down four Ibuprofen, and drink nearly a half-gallon of water straight from the faucet. Afterwards, I throw on a pair of camouflage shorts, a ratty t-shirt, lace up my hiking shoes, stuff a few snacks in a daypack, and hop into my silver Toyota truck.

          An hour later, I’m eating a banana and racing along highway 55 next to the roaring Payette River. With spring runoff near its peak, the white-water is a continuous maelstrom of terrifying energy and noise. Recently, a woman drowned nearby when her husband and children shoved off into class V rapids without any rafting experience whatsoever. Only an annual handful of the most hardened and reckless kayakers even attempt to navigate this particular stretch of rapids. Needless to say, the family’s ride was over in minutes with the mom dead and the rest lucky to have survived.

          I experience a fleeting concern for my wife’s safety. Like our powerful rivers, the Idaho mountains can be unforgiving to those with poor preparation. However, Jamie is a skilled backpacker and this is not her first solo expedition. My anxiety is replaced by a prevailing sense of pride. While I have met many women who are more than capable, I only know a few who are truly comfortable alone in the high country. Jamie’s mom worries immensely, and our friends think she might be crazy, but my wife refuses to let irrational fears control her behaviour.

          Still, experience and education are no guarantees in the wild; potential obstacles are numerous and often times, life-threatening. Despite the inherent dangers of backcountry adventuring, the situations I worry about most are those involving other humans. Wild animals never prompt me to bring weapons into the mountains, but I cannot say similar things about the unpredictable nature of people. In that anthrophobic manner, Jamie and I are very much alike.

          The train of thought reminds me that in my packing haste, I left all of my weaponry at home. Without at least a substantial blade, I feel naked. It doesn’t help my situation, but I take comfort knowing my wife carries her hunting knife and a pearl-handled, antique .22 derringer. Although I am not convinced the tiny, archaic two-shot pistol will even fire, it could still be used to bluff her way out of a precarious encounter. As a young lady, my mother once stuck a .357 right in the faces of a couple drunken hunters who invited themselves into her camp with bad intentions. You just never know.

          Soon after, I turn and drive northeast on Highway 21 for another 70 minutes before finally reaching the Grandjean turnout. My headache is waning with each passing mile and the smell of fresh pine has me feeling almost human once again. The digital clock on my car stereo indicates I am over an hour early. Chances are my wife is still hiking. I drive through the sprawling campsite and find her Hyundai parked at the trailhead. The maroon hatchback is empty of backpacking gear. I look up at the towering, jagged peaks dominating the landscape. Sure enough, Jamie is out there somewhere.

          At the same time I make the decision to track her down, I realize my portable filtrating water bottle is still sitting next to the kitchen sink where I left it this morning. No weapons, no water… what is this, amateur hour? No more getting packed for outdoor activities when I have the functioning brain power of a zombie.

          In light of the situation, I opt to leave my daypack behind. Carrying nothing, I’ll be able to cover ground more quickly. The midday June sun has long since burned through the morning dew and the temperature is surprisingly hot for the time of year and elevation. I figure I can walk at least 8 miles in the increasing heat without water. That means a maximum of four miles in and four miles back out. After that, dehydration will set in quickly. I drink my fill of water from a pump at the trailhead, soak my t-shirt, and tie it around my head. Time to get walking.

          Less than a quarter-mile down a narrow trail hemmed in on both sides by walls of spruce trees, I spot the largest pile of carnivore scat I have ever seen in Idaho. The mound is packed with elk hair and is no more than a day old. I keep moving and find an abundance of sign. A pack of wolves containing some sizable members has been through here recently. Several of their tracks are clearly imbedded in the earth from when the ground was last damp. The larger ones have feet the size of my hands and I’m not a small guy. Their tracks are heading in both directions; the wolves are using this trail as a highway.

          I crouch and crab walk over the trail attempting to distinguish Jamie’s tracks from the ample boot prints of other hikers. It takes me a few minutes of scouring the packed dirt for evidence, but eventually I find a single, clear impression that is both her foot size and bears a recognizable tread pattern. Something about tracking living things always makes my blood run hot and brings a grin to my lips. Although mostly diluted, I like to believe the Cherokee blood flowing through my veins still has a powerful influence over my heart and mind.

          Hiking deeper into the forest, I find a spruce trunk bearing the recent claw marks of a black bear and shortly after, a half-buried pile of mountain lion scat. Even wild cats are tidy about their business. Never have I seen so much evidence of predator activity in such a confined location. The wolf sign, however, continues to dominate the trail. I cannot help but wonder if Jamie has seen any of these majestic and elusive animals streaking through the trees. Even the possibility leaves me feeling jealous.

            Thinking about lions, bears, and wolves (oh my!) causes a shiver of excitement to bolt down my spine. This is what I crave. This is what humans need. We need landscapes littered with carnivores like what existed in North America five hundred years ago. We need to spend time alone in the pitch black of moonless mountain nights where every cracking twig and rustling leaf is amplified tenfold. We need to feel the undeniable sensation of being watched while hiking remote ridges. We need to know there is something wild out there, something with teeth and claws, something with flashing eyes in the campfire light, and above all, we need to embrace those things as something vital in our lives.

            As usual, I get lost in my philosophies while walking. I think about fear and how it has motivated so many horribly short-sighted decisions throughout history, especially concerning mankind’s role within the natural world. I think about my own fear of other humans. I know full well that I would trust a pack of ravenous wolves over last night’s lecherous, addicted, and criminal bar crowd. Surely, if we allow real monsters to share the city streets with our children on a daily basis, we can also find a way to let wild animals exist in their own environment with as much peace as we can possibly ensure.

          A sudden fork in the trail brings my wandering mind back into focus. I have walked maybe two miles but my throat is already parched. The left path looks as though it will soon hit a series of cutbacks climbing a sun exposed mountainside, while the right one heads in the direction of more trees and what sounds like a distant stream. With no idea which path my wife might have chosen, and the trail bed now covered with small stones telling no tales of traffic, I close my eyes and open the rest of my senses to the wind, rocks, and delicate wildflowers all around. Within seconds, I feel the universe tugging at me. I am supposed to go right.

          No more than a hundred yards later, the trail runs straight into an icy stream still surging from the snow melt. From my vantage point, crossing the flow seems like a hazardous proposition. Jamie would know better than attempting to ford such madness, especially alone. So much for my natural instincts.

          I am about to turn back when I notice a solitary backpacker crouched on the bank downstream filling a water container. She is a petite young lady with long brownish-blond hair, exposed muscled arms, and a hunting knife strapped to her hip. For a moment, I am tempted to slip into the trees and wait for her to walk past before springing out in surprise. However, I don’t feel like getting shot or stabbed today. Instead, I sneak quietly within ten feet of her and wait for her to turn around. She does, but instead of the startled expression I am hoping for, I am greeted by a serene smile. She is dirty, and obviously tired, precisely how a backpacker should appear by trip’s end, but Jamie could not look any more at peace with her rugged surroundings.

          “I had a vision you would find me here,” my wife says with a sly smile as she steps into my embrace.

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