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, December 31, 2010

What Doesn't Kill Ya'

     I was in a Boise pub recently having beers with a friend and letting him proofread one of my outdoor adventure articles. He began making subtle faces about halfway through the small stack of pages as if detecting some foul odor but not wanting to call attention to it. Smelling nothing besides the aroma of fried food, I began to suspect it was my writing.

     “You know,” he said, after finally setting the story down, “everything with you is pristine this and unimaginable that. Maybe three kids and a hellish job have me feeling jealous, but would it kill you to suffer from time to time? I mean, I shouldn’t feel envious of a man who spends his time squatting in the bushes, eating dehydrated crap.”

     Sifting through a plate of soggy nachos for a crunchy chip, I said, “Squatting in the bushes isn’t as bad as you make it sound. Besides, I’ve eaten backpacking meals better than this. When the piece is about soaking in hot springs, what am I supposed to do? Make it sound like torture?”

     “You forget. I’ve spent some time out there myself. I’m an Eagle Scout and it isn’t all sunsets and roasted marshmallows… or hot springs. Sometimes things go awry, or Mother Nature whomps your ass, or your woman makes you so mad you just want to strangle... someone. Sometimes, it gets flat out miserable and you know it.”

     As my verbose acquaintance launched into one outdoor recollection after another, most of them hilariously traumatizing at his expense, I began to see his point. Most of the wilderness lessons permanently imprinted on my brain originated from a time when presented with a tough situation; something I had never encountered, or was seemingly unprepared to deal with. My friend was right. It only seemed fair to give the unpleasant experiences equal attention.

     My part-time editor rattled on as a slow grin crawled across my face. I couldn’t help digging up a memory I had tried to bury. Thinking back on that weekend, our very first backpacking trip together, I am surprised the legend of Snakeduck and Nature Fox was ever born. My wife and I were new to each other in those days, and it’s a good thing, because with the exception of our fresh love, we had everything else working against us.

     For reasons no longer remembered, we chose to go backpacking in mid-July. In the Idaho mountains, the nights and mornings of peak summer are still cold, but much more tolerable than other times of year. It’s the heat of day that will get you. Well, the heat and other things. With our relationship in its infancy, Jamie and I had never really experienced the other reeking of sweat. It’s a reality couples must face at some point; we all stink sometimes.

     In fact, when the going gets hot and dirty, my signature odor is quite reminiscent of freshly chopped onions. I am almost proud of my funk’s insistence on being acknowledged; it is an undeniable presence, a veritable force of nature. Of course, at the time, I was trying to keep it to myself by keeping both arms pinned to my sides. Jamie, in her frank, talk-before-thinking manner of communicating, first brought her detection to my attention by announcing, “Something died near here. You smell that?”

     I played the question off by looking around as if I might actually see something, while desperately hoping she might really be sensing something other than me. However, as we continued hiking, I saw her testing the air with an occasional sniff and then cringing. I knew it was me. I had to come clean, or start lagging behind by a hundred feet. I couldn’t pretend that a dead animal was following us. Maybe she’d fall for the possibility of a Sasquatch; rumors suggest the big guy gives off a noticeably foul stench.

     “I think that smell is me,” I admitted sheepishly. “Must be burning off last night’s rum.”

     “I guess,” she said looking slightly embarrassed for having brought it up. “Oh well, it’s to be expected in this heat. I’m sweating too.”

     “I’ll jump in the lake as soon as we arrive,” I promised.

     Our forest trail was leading to Boulder Lake, outside of McCall, Idaho. This mountain destination had long been a spiritual refuge for me and it was the first time in years anyone had accompanied me for the trek. I remember feeling it was somehow appropriate to share this scenic setting with my newfound love. Little did I know, it would be my last hike to Boulder Lake.

     Jamie and I began suspecting there were problems before we even caught sight of the lakeshore. For starters, during a break two-thirds of the way up the trail, I realized I had left my stuff sack full of snacks in our truck. We had dehydrated dinners and enough instant oatmeal for a couple of days, but without the supplementing jerky, trail mix, dried fruit, and granola bars, we’d be operating on a caloric deficiency until we got back. No big deal, just part of the backpacker’s diet plan. However, it was also during this rest that we first noticed a rapidly swelling presence of mosquitoes.

     Not even the threat of grizzly bears will deter me as much as mosquitoes and my wife and I typically time trips so that we deal with as few peak swarms as possible. I’m not sure what we were thinking on that trip, but once we set foot into the tiny vampires’ lair there was no escape. Smelling blood right through our skin walls, the devils closed in, and the closer we got to the lake, the more the sky darkened in a cloud of bugs.

     Hastily scouting the familiar campsites of Boulder Lake, I realized we were going to be tent bound if we had any hope of keeping our sanity. The droning buzz was enough to set our nerves on the most precarious of edges, the mounting bites sheer torture. At the furthest tent site from the shoreline, Jamie tore into her backpack before a slow look of horror crossed her face.

     “Did you pack my tent?”

     “Uh, why would I pack your tent?” I questioned, while wind-milling my arms to keep the swarm at bay.

     “You wouldn't... and neither did I.”

     I remember the smile never leaving my face even as my heart sank and my brain freaked out. No tent? In this bug infested swamp? We’re doomed! Looking back on it, I choose to believe we were just too starry-eyed, too in love, to focus on certain trivial details, like packing life-saving equipment and food.

     In a measure tone of voice defying the shrieking alarms in my mind, I said, “There is a smaller lake above this one and I recall it having a rockier shoreline. Maybe the bugs won't be so bad.”

     In retrospect, the suggestion was really more wishful, or just asinine, thinking. Bug swarms at one lake amounts to bug swarms at the lake next door. For want of a better word… duh! Somewhere between stubbornness, and a misguided sense of bravery, we decided to forge on instead of retreat to our vehicle.

     The ascent over the ridge and then back down to the upper lake was a more strenuous hump than I remembered and if at all possible, the bug situation was even worse. A late start to our hike that morning, followed by pushing on for higher ground, now ensured we couldn't get back to the car, or even Boulder Lake, before nightfall. And, just to add icing on the cake, I discovered the feeble light on my headlamp to be in the death throes of battery power. We couldn’t have made a safe march in the dark even if our exhausted bodies had been up for it.

     Knowing we were stuck for the evening, and reeking like I was, I resigned myself to stripping naked, facing the swarm, and taking the ice cold plunge. Tossing my clothes aside as quickly as possible, I fled the mosquitoes for a nearby boulder overhanging the deep water. They won’t follow me out here, I thought, despite knowing I could stay in the frosty lake for all of five minutes before succumbing to the initial stages of hypothermia.

     I was right. Although I barely had time to notice, there were slightly fewer mosquitoes on the rocks than the shore. I called for Jamie to join me and dove in. Mother Nature’s second wave of attackers arrived as I emerged from the water gasping and stuttering in the suddenly much cooler air. Unlike mosquitoes, Idaho horseflies don’t take a moment to feel things out with their flimsy proboscis. These big suckers crash land and chomp hard without hesitation.

     By the time Jamie joined me on the boulder, I was doing what must have looked like some spastic, ecstatic dance routine full of flailing limbs and self-castigation. So determined to kill the horseflies, I was leaving bright red handprints all over my torso and legs. Jamie had realized the situation as well and ran past my perch like a woman on fire.

     “The flies!” she screamed before disappearing into the clear lake with a loud splash. “The freezing!” she shouted upon reemerging. “The mosquitoes!” she shrieked as she reached the shore. In knee-deep water, my future wife stumbled in three panic-stricken circles, unable to decide which torture she could more readily endure, the cold or the bugs. I might have had a hearty laugh at the sight were I not so involved in my own funky-chicken dance completely void of anything resembling dignity.

     Scrambling back into our clothes in a paranoid frenzy, Jamie and I reasoned the only way to deal with the combined might of both horsefly and mosquito was to build a triangle of three small campfires and hunker down in the middle. While she dug out the fire pits, I gathered pine boughs and wood that was wet enough to barely burn. With our sanity threatening to shatter beneath the relentless onslaught, we finally managed to get the fires lit. The green fuel engulfed us in white smoke and though we could barely breathe, the bugs retreated just beyond our protective triangle.

     My wife and I boiled water with a propane stove and ate a meal of dehydrated spaghetti, all in a race against time due to our meager supply of wood. After eating the tasteless, unfulfilling meal, we threw the rest of our wood supply on the fire and laid out our sleeping bags in the smoky bath. We felt like Warlocks in the protective circle of some chalk-drawn religious symbol while salivating demons gathered at the edge radiating pure animosity.

     Before the flames had even died, the insects renewed their attack. We were forced to crawl down inside our suffocating bags, seal up the entrances, and listen to the unbearable buzz of starving blood suckers just inches from our ears. Neither of us slept a wink for fear of falling asleep and accidently allowing the monsters access to our ripe, tasty flesh. Not only that, the numerous bites we had already sustained throbbed and itched throughout the long night.

      By the time the first light of day spilled over the ridge, Jamie and I were out of our bags and scrambling to get our gear packed. In record time, we had camp broken, boots laced, and were ready to flee the bug infested nightmare. So determined to get back to the truck, we ignored the trail running along the shoreline altogether and began a climb straight up to the ridge separating Boulder Lake from our position. The distance was sure to be shorter, but the steepness of the climb, combined with picking our way over loose stones, made for an exhausting ascent.

     Within a half-mile of the top, Jamie stopped and sank to one knee gasping for breath. The delay in motion allowed the bugs to pinpoint our location and swarm with renewed fury.

     “I… can’t… keep… this up,” she huffed while futilely trying to wave off the insects gathering before her face.

     I was tired too, exhausted even, but the mosquitoes were pushing me to a mental state I had rarely achieved. No matter how weary I felt, I wasn’t going to stop until my heart gave out, or we had reached shelter from the swarm. I remember thinking of a backpacking trip in the Boulder White Clouds with my Boy Scout troop where we had encountered a similar bug situation and were forced into 18 straight hours of marching… most of it steeply uphill. I saw grown men break down in tears on the side of the trail that day. A couple of the stouter lads, myself included, had to be loaded down with the gear of others as people’s bodies gave out on them.

     “Give me your backpack. I’ll carry it,” I offered. “We can’t stop now.” In the back of my mind, I knew I would find a way to carry her and her pack if I had to.

     My offer for assistance must have inspired Jamie because she rose to her feet with a look of steely resolve pushing past her misery. Wiping sweat into her hairline with the back of her hand, she led the charge to the ridgeline where we were mercifully greeted by a blast of wind that momentarily scattered the pursuing insects. While the bugs regrouped, we took a few breaths of fresh air, drank some water, and then made the four hour push down to our vehicle without stopping.

     Starving, exhausted, and itching from a hundred bug bites, we drove straight into McCall and pulled into the legendary Pancake House for a late breakfast. The coffee was glorious and the greasy meal was even better. Although Jamie and I never did return to Boulder Lake, that backpacking trip was the first of many throughout the Rocky Mountains. Sitting in the restaurant that morning, I think we subconsciously decided that if we could weather an experience that wretched without fighting, seriously panicking, or holding grudges, then Snakeduck and Nature Fox were destined for a life of outdoor adventure together… albeit, with a little more planning and double-checking of supplies.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Somewhere in a timeline
Bare feet dance
Over a grave
In which
I am not sure
My body yet lies

Of whether
I am bones turned dust
Freshly planted
Or awaiting my turn
The performance
Is without insolence
Dancers celebrating all
With equal aplomb
And indifference

They are spring rain
And winter starvation
Last rites
And birthing ward
Harvest and seed
Sunset ceremonies
Tied to the wheel
Of forever’s
Fresh breaking dawn

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Standing at the gates
Of my greatest decade
I am set
To accept these gifts
This hairy eye
Savage heart
And feather quill

Ready to rid myself
Of all things
Willing to step away
From synchronized
And terrorized biospheres
Into a forest
Beyond the trees
Outside imagination
Or paralyzing fear

This life is ripe
For breaking
The dawn

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Once Every Several Lifetimes

Midnight rendezvous
With a blood red
Shape shifting mistress
Floating behind
Dark clouds
Over frozen landscapes

A tiny miracle
Of time and space
Ancient provoker
Of prophecies
Good tidings and
Heart popping blades

A vision
Tantalizing the imagination
Somehow eclipsed
By your day breaking
Impossibly ripe form
Rinsed of shadow
And beaming light
Like the heavens reborn

Monday, December 20, 2010

Legacy Denied

The red bearded
Viking king
Of our childhood
Has been robbed
Of bloody axe
And booming voice

A life of
Keeping love
At the end of arms
Leaving him weaponless
For the final years
Of a war within

Once a barbarian
We would have followed
To silent
Certain death
Now a statue
More hollow
Than the longboat
His heirs
Long since set aflame
And turned adrift
In the unknown

Friday, December 17, 2010

In One Ear

Forever drawn
To a psychedelic saltlick
Slate eraser

Too much to witness
Absorb or understand
Contradicting tides
Sweeping whimsy
Out to sea

Watery tombstones
Marking what can’t
Be exhumed
When nobody recalls
The gravesite
Why they were killed
Or who’s ideology
Was buried

The easy way out
I suppose
But what exactly
Have you solved
With all your
Paying attention
And taking sides

Monday, December 13, 2010


Not long for a life
Never intended to live
Like cultists
We await
Our reincarnate
Into ethereal embodiment
Of collective destiny

Distant sirens
The weeping wolves
Howling willows
Like chords intertwined
And dependent
On the other

Invisible connections
These diamond cables
On a twelve string guitar
Hammering out
A delicate symphony
Once conducted
In far away

The last song
Is the final falling tree
With nobody around
To witness

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Phantom Limbs

It could be distant
Christmas lights
In the whiteout
Of fog and snow
Or the rumnog concoction
Burrowing fuzzy tendrils
Through this pickled brain
But I find myself
On the verge
Of wistful recollections

Dare I say
Even nostalgia

Stained memories
Of lost lovers and friends
For the first time and
Having never looked back
Surprised to see them
Burning so clear

Forgotten gift exchanges
My right hand mates
And boastful toasts
Unwrapping before
My very eyes
While amounting to
A ghostly sensation
I have zero use for
It doesn't change a thing

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wile E.

Slinking out of
An old mythology
There is a new agent
Of chaos
Amongst the flowerbeds
And manicured lawns
Of this tucked away
Retirement home

A trickster figure
Slipping nooses
While weathering
The tranquilizer darts
Of excessive authority

No longer
Do squirrels or quail
Linger on the lawn
Like they own something

The cold golden stare
And fixed grin
A necessary reminder
That life hasn’t turned
Completely inside out
Upside down
And all too easy

Veterans living here
Know better than anyone
That ecosystems
Lacking the dance of death
Are just wars
Waiting to happen
So they greet
This toothy marauder
With a salute
And reserved smile
All their own

Monday, December 6, 2010

Where I Stand

A decade gone by
With such little drama
Have to wonder
If golden handcuffs
Have me anesthetized
To the biting teeth
Once responsible
For my three legged escapes

The highs
No longer lift
And the lows
Feel no different
Than an internal teeter-totter
Rusted in balance

Was my life
Already forfeited
Somewhere amongst
The early upheavals

Is this the gradual numbing
Of purgatory
Or some kind of hell
Trapped in bland acceptance

These vanilla tented glasses
And regulated temperatures
Are some kind of reward
I am too simple
To recognize
Without the heart stammer
Flashing sirens
And novelty sized checks

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

You are Getting Sleepy

We are without voices
Warm lips flowing
Silent testimony
A history barely begun
Stretching to nowhere
Burning pages
Instead of reading books
Like we are already
Held fast in the winter
Of nuclear fall-out
As if we
Stumbled over a truth
We couldn't afford

Or maybe
A collective conscious
Already understands
And it is those of us
Still talking
Who are dense
And unable
To absorb these
Bathroom stall philosophies
This midnight stroke
The simple truth
Of terminal affliction

The whispers
Just an annoyance
A useless reminder
Of what might have been

A Genuine Peach

For a dozen years now
She has accepted my
Swinging mood
And violent outbursts
With good humor
All the while
Digging in claws
And refusing to let my anger
Dislodge her commitment

Ears pinned back
Eyes clouded in heartache
She forces her way
On to my lap
Over and over again
Never fleeing
The rough handling
Or my desire to stew alone

Hurt me if you must
She tells me
I will keep coming back
Until you accept
This uncompromising love

I saved her life once
And she will never forget
Just as I
Won’t be able to forgive
All those moments
I may have caused
Her to doubt
I’ll be desperate to live over
Once she is
Finally and forever taken
From my shaking hands

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Halls of History

Descending through millennia
In the big ditch
Geological gallery
A million years
Bypassed with every
Endless switchback
The compacted algae and
Trilobites now glorious
Monuments to extinct oceans
Towering limestone tombs
Radiating the treasured
Coral reefs of pink
And gold

Deeper still
The sage and unbreakable
Metamorphic basement
Once silent witnesses
To limp lungs emerging
From the primordial ooze
Now onlookers to
Our insignificant struggle
And breathless awe
No doubt
Mildly amused
By our toys and attempts
To encapsulate their wisdom
In a three by five
Two dimensional
Post card

Sunday, November 28, 2010


As I have grown older
More cynical
And possibly undecided
These days
Are harder to find
Of genuine change
Prospects for hope
To unfurl a flag
I no longer understand

Except our history
Both researched
Real and undeniable
Teaches me
That even good ideas
Are dropped on the fingers
Of criminals
To be bent
And broken in a manner
Benefiting handfuls
Until our texts
Are plagued
By page after page
Of ludicrous endeavors

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Vox Humana

It is a language
I fail to grasp
All horsepower and
Zero steering
Tearing across reason
Or rhyme
While crackling speakers
Create a chaos
All their own
And dust devils cast
A wary eye

Where does the lesson
Drip from this
Sensual pole dance
Is there something
Behind all the
Heavy breathing
Or is it all
Just masturbation
Once the dollar bills

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Walk in the Park

     “If the guy responsible for mileage measurements on this map were here right now, I'd toss his ass in the nearest geyser and leave his boiled body for the bears. The man is a goddamn liar!”
     I can tell my wife is in no mood to laugh, but she does anyway, dead blue eyes animating slightly. “Tell me how you really feel,” she says, wiping perspiration from her forehead with a yellow bandana.

     “No way that last stretch was one mile,” I continue. “How long did that take? 45 minutes, an hour? Ridiculous...” I trail off in mid-rant, wondering why I subject myself to such toil. My feet hurt, I reek of sweat, it's unseasonably warm for autumn, and I am tired of carrying this stupid backpack. My friends are smarter than me, I conclude. They have moved on, evolved with the rest of the human race to engage with nature from the safety of their televisions and those plastic, hand held thing-a-ma-jigs. Not me. Succumbing to some masochistic compulsion, I still retreat into primitive wilderness to be one with the mountains and rivers and all that crap. I am compelled to chase lions, bears, and wolves.  Most of the time, I don't regret it; now, unfortunately, is not one of those times.

     Of course, I am probably still on edge as a result of the grizzly bear attack earlier in the day. See, we had been finishing our lunch by a narrow stream in the middle of a grassy meadow, when I noticed movement in the natural “V” of a conjoined tree trunk directly across the water. My instinctual sense of alarm turned to near panic when I looked closer into the shadows of the twin trees merging and saw unmistakable tan fur on the sloping shoulders of some very large mammal, it’s head lost in darkness.

     With my wife asking, “What’s wrong?” I rose to a crouch and began crab-walking to my backpack. I knew if the beast charged, I'd never make it in time. A monstrous grizzly with predatory intentions (and one hiding behind a tree watching people eat lunch certainly fits the bill) could cover that kind of distance in a couple seconds. I'd be desperately yanking on the bear spray canister and screaming like a little girl as the great bear bowled me over. Still, I had to try. Just before reaching my pack, I heard my wife gasp in astonishment. Oh man, here it comes. We're doomed!

     “Dan look!”

     I did look, still expecting to see a blurry mass of claws and teeth barreling across the stream. The animal had stepped out from behind the thick tree trunk and turned its massive body sideways revealing the two-toned fur and massive head of Yellowstone’s most recognizable ungulate. Because of the distinct line near their waists and necks where the short chocolate brown hair turns shaggy and tan, I always thought they appeared to wearing a bearskin jacket. So, alright, it wasn't a grizzly, it was a bison... and it didn't so much attack us as it did just stand there and eat grass, but I attribute our survival to my well-honed wildlife whispering techniques. To the untrained eye, it may appear as if I am frozen in terror, but there is actually a subtle, calming dialogue taking place between me and whatever beast is staring me down.

     Seriously, having a living, breathing tank of rippling muscle and horn with a volatile disposition in such proximity is a tad unnerving. If the bison had considered us a threat, the shin-deep water would have done nothing to slow its charge. Thankfully, the big beast seemed about as curious of us as we were of it. So close we could see its black tongue, and hear the sound of grass tearing as it fed, we spent the next half hour studying our new companion.

     I never did figure out how we missed the one-and-a-half ton creature as it crept up on us in a mostly open field. Or, even worse, just failed to notice it standing right next to us for almost thirty minutes. As a wildlife spotting king with laser improved vision, I like to believe only the most cunning and stealthy of predators would stand a chance with the ol' sneak attack. Clearly, this particular bison was the ninja of its kind; it's the only reasonable explanation.

     Since the buffalo incident, it seems we have done nothing but climb a gradual ascent through an alternating mix of evergreen forest, golden grass meadows, and aspen groves where the leaves have already turned a brilliant orange, but still hold strong to their branches. Interspersed with the colorful scenery are rocky volcanic features. Geysers, mud pots, and bubbling fissures spew forth plumes of steam that, in the distance, resemble small campfires. Fluctuating with the breeze is the sulfurous, rotten egg odor of a bygone age. At times, I am almost convinced we could find a dinosaur somewhere in this prehistoric landscape. At the very least, my imagination insists a saber-toothed tiger somehow survived the last ice age and still stalks this active caldera.

     Fulfilling a longtime dream, Jamie and I are hiking from Old Faithful back to Bechler Ranger Station. What looked like perfect weather for a fall hike through the backcountry of Yellowstone, now feels unbearably hot. We are sweating profusely despite having shed layers to where only shorts and tank tops remain. At least a month removed from their peak swarms, we thank the mountain gods that the flies and mosquitoes are mostly dead this late in the year. Otherwise, we would be forced to decide between countless bites, or keeping ourselves fully clothed to truly suffer the heat. Things could always be worse, I decide. Where else does one get to experience heart-racing bison attacks followed by coma inducing baths in geothermic pools surrounded by breathtaking scenery?

     Granted, the soak will have to wait until tomorrow, but one of the perks of hiking inside a volcano is the inevitable existence of hot springs. As aficionados, hailing from the state with the most soak-able pools, Jamie and I have seen almost every type imaginable. That being said, it was researching the uniqueness of two particular hot springs in the southwest corner of the park that initially aroused our interest. While a good deal of the geothermic water in Yellowstone will roast you alive, there are select locations where the conditions are perfect. One must be careful though, animals, and even people, sometimes puncture through thin layers of rocky crust finding themselves submerged in boiling water or mud; there are casualties every year. It is best to stay on marked trails, or walk where you can see the path of others.

     Tonight, Jamie and I will camp about a mile from one such natural wonder and the morning soak will find us rinsing the ache from our bodies while simultaneously erasing every concern from our all too human minds. According to the rapidly setting sun, and the haphazardly measured map, tonight will consist of arriving at our reserved site just in time for a quick meal of dehydrated chili, followed by a spit bath in the cold mountain air, and finally, exhausted sleep in a down cocoon before nightfall. In my weary state, the plan sounds like a little slice of heaven.

     The evening goes as predicted. Jamie and I have backpacked since childhood and we tend to make the daily life and chores of extended trips operate like clockwork. From sheer practice, we can set up our tent blindfolded, and, at a moment's notice, break camp and disappear into the forest before anyone knows we were there. When not being made to look somewhat foolish by the craftiest of bison, my wife and I are typically on top of our game out in the mountains and we owe that to years of practice, trial and error and sheer, dumb luck. Like the wisdom imparted from shampoo bottles everywhere, it is in the act of repetition that we earn our rewards.

     With no medicinal aide more effective than exhaustion, Jamie and I fall into a deep, undisturbed sleep within minutes of our bodies hitting the inflatable mattresses. We don't even wake in the middle of the cold night for our usual bathroom dash. Possibly the most exposed minute one can spend is being half-naked in a dark forest while the frosty air, creaking trees, distant owls, and possibly imagined glowing eyes, close in on you while impatiently waiting for your body to finish its business. For a change, we get to save that brief moment of paranoid apprehension for another night. Fully rested before morning breaks, we are finishing a steaming mug of coffee and breaking camp at first light.

     As it turns out, our morning visit to the hot spring is accompanied with what we have come to expect as the best and worst aspects of backpacking. From the moment Jamie and I set boot to trail, one critical element in evaluating the success of a hike is how few people we encounter. Our trips are planned around particular locations and key times of the season when others aren't typically out. We like to be absolutely isolated, but experience has taught us that it is unrealistic, and probably a little selfish, to expect having a natural wonder like this all to ourselves.

     Like Old Faithful, Mr. Bubbles is a geyser. However, this geyser is perpetually spewing its boiling brew and it is found underwater. A river flows over the fissure from which Mr. Bubbles erupts and fills a chest-deep bowl with a fluctuating blend of hot and cold water. The resulting roiling pool can hold a dozen people. Standing near the edge of the crack where the heat is barely tolerable, you can stare down into the churning darkness while the earth rumbles at your feet.

     Swimming where magma is dangerously close to the surface is almost as unnerving as yesterday's bison, but nowhere near as unsettling as having as a long line of what could be our grandparents show up only minutes after slipping into the heavenly aquatic therapy. As their clothes come off, and the gravity-ravaged, liver-spotted reminders of our own mortality fill the hot spring, Jamie and I decide to move downstream in hopes of finding a more isolated location. Like I said, we keep to ourselves.

     On the hike into Mr. Bubbles, we took note of a boiling, brilliant blue pool cascading superheated water into the cold river just down from the popular destination. There weren't any visible soaks, but the sheer volume of hot water suggested certain possibilities. As we have come to expect and appreciate, our hermit like ways unveil a discovery that would have otherwise been missed.

     Just below the point where the massive flow of steaming water hits the stream, a large boulder splits the current into two channels. We quickly learn the flow closest to the bubbling azure pool is too hot to touch and the other channel is too cold to handle. However, we discover that sitting in the eddy, backs against the big rock, allows both streams to fill the natural bathtub with a perfect mixture of both. Without even trying we have found another Mr. Bubbles, only on a private scale. Despite our ever pressing timetable, we linger for a couple of hours while alternating between soaking and snacking. If nothing else, we succeed in extending our summer tans for at least another week.

     Clean, relaxed, and with muscles feeling more like putty than anything capable of moving a heavy sack of flesh and bone from one place to another, we are forced to re-shoulder our packs. We have a ways to walk before arriving at our next reserved site, and, like it has been since our trek started, the day is unusually warm; the typical briskness of autumn is being held at bay by these wolf days of summer. I'd say “dog,” but I don't want to offend the locals. Besides, dogs are watered down versions of wolves anyway. People hear the word evolution and assume it means that something gets better over time. Sadly, the process works two ways. Since I'm on both subjects, just take a look at the anti-wolf crowd and you'll see what I mean.

     As the day wears on, and the familiar fatigue sets in, we become less enthralled with our constantly changing scenery until we reach a point where not even real bears cause us much worry. The loud and sudden shaking of bushes right next to our trail does little but slow us momentarily. Dismissing the racket with a sideways glance, Jamie walks even closer to the sound. I stop long enough to bend down and peer ahead into the lengthening mid-day shadows. Instantly, I notice the silhouette of a large mammal just off the trail straight ahead; the fuzzy half-circles for ears on top of its head a dead give away. The animal freezes in place and stares back at me.

     “Bear, James!” I say. “For real this time.”

     I can tell from its shoulders and size that it isn't a grizzly. Still, our ursine friend is even closer than yesterday's bison and a startled black bear, especially a mother, can be a lethal threat. Despite my bold claims to the contrary, I really have no desire to wrestle a bear, and if this one is hiding a baby somewhere in the foliage, I can't see it. In a split second, Jamie is back at my side. She calmly unfastens the bear spray from my backpack, hands it to me, and says, “let's go.”

     Apparently, too tired to care if the bear is an actual concern, my wife returns to hiking like we are walking next to, and turning our back on, a fox squirrel. Interesting strategy, I think, as the frantic thrashing in the bushes commences once again. For a moment, I can't tell if the motion is coming at me or moving away so I release the safety valve on the pressurized canister. Jamie doesn't even break stride. There is something to be said for a state of weariness where dignity overrides caution. My wife would rather be eaten alive than break stride for this would be predator. No doubt mistaking her boldness for the confident strut of a superior beast, the black bear scampers uphill;the sound of breaking branches quickly fading as we trudge on.

     Not as late as yesterday, or the day before, we arrive at our reserved site before the sun has reached the western horizon. From our vantage point, we can see the snow-dotted peaks of the Tetons dominating the southern skyline. The customary structure from which we'll string up our edible provisions for the night has numerous claw marks dug deep in both side poles, all the way up to the crossbeam. More than one bear has made the daring climb and grab for someone's sack of goodies in this site. We'll have to make sure to throw our rope around the very center of the top pole so our own food bag will be out of reach from not only beneath, but also, either side. In the distance, we can can just make out the faint sound of turbulent water. Jamie and I share a broad grin; what we hear is no doubt the grand finale of this forty mile hike.

     Exploring the area around our camp as we set up our gear reveals a hot spring and shallow creek-side pool just down a steep and slick dirt trail. With eyes on a greater prize, I pause long enough to submerge one foot. The water is clear and hot, perfect for a morning soak in the cold air just seconds after rolling out of bed and sliding down the perilous path. Tonight, on the other hand, less than a half mile away, lies the real reason we decided to explore this southwest corner of Yellowstone. Impatiently dancing in place, I watch as Jamie hoists the bear sack out of reach.

     “C'mon, c'mon, c'mon...”

     My wife gives me “that” look from the corner of her eyes. “Yeah, I don't need any help here... just stand there and watch, okay?”

     I do my best to disarm her with a toothy smile. “Can do,” I say raising my right hand to my forehead in a crisp salute.

     Minutes later we are back on the dusty trail and climbing a suddenly steep, rocky ascent. At least our backpacks have been swapped out and left behind for a sack of swimsuits and towels. Energized at the prospect of witnessing something I have only seen in pictures, I barely feel the short climb, or the long hike proceeding it. Soon, we have reached the top of a narrow river gorge and can see the top of Dununda Falls as the ample flow of white water cascades over a sheer cliff, falling about eighty feet to the jagged rocks and shallow pool below.

     As stunning as the site is, Jamie and I are seeking a treasure that lies near the base of the falls, just downstream from the crashing water and heavy mist. Looking into the lush gorge of dark rock and rich, green moss, we notice the pool right away. We also realize the hard part is going to be getting there. After dropping the first ten feet, we stop and rehash the author of one hot spring book describing the pool from a distance as there was no way they were attempting the treacherous descent down the slick, muddy walls of basalt.

     “She may have been onto something.” my wife suggests.

     “No worries,” I advise. “You probably wouldn't feel anything falling from this height... it's once we get a bit lower that we'll probably survive all the compound fractures.”

     The descent is every bit as adrenaline pumping as advertised. Several times we are forced to snag a quick handhold of whatever branch, exposed root, or rock is available as our feet slip out from under us. One wrong step here means a much quicker route, no doubt taking out whoever might be below you once the slide started. Muddier than when we began, and both of us feeling white-knuckled and wide-eyed, we reach the boulder strewn floor of the gorge and the rock-walled pool visible from above.

     Standing in the brisk afternoon air and cool mist from the falls, we strip out of our clothes. At first glance, we can tell the pool hasn't been cleaned in a long time. We carry a long handled bristle brush when car camping for just such a purpose, but we have found that some people really don't mind sitting in slime. Already shivering from the cold, wet air, I dip one leg in the water. Dousing my enthusiasm like a bucket of glacial melt over smoldering coals, I withdraw my testing foot from the algae infused water.

     “It isn't that hot,” I say, “or clean, but this is where we saw those pictures of other people soaking.”

     The disappointment washing over Jamie's face nearly breaks my heart. The Dununda Falls hot springs are supposed to be the highlight of our trip. Unable to watch my wife suffer for any reason, I leave her and our gear behind and march straight into the swirling mist where the waterfall shatters on the uneven ground below. I noticed from our view at the lip of the gorge that the lukewarm pool was fed from a hot flow magically emerging from the boulders at the base of the waterfall, and as such, I haven't given up on the possibility of another pool hidden amongst the rocks.

     As the freezing wind envelopes my naked flesh, I flex my shoulders like a professional wrestler intimidating a foe and howl into the raging mist. I feel like a sailor standing on the deck in the middle of a wicked storm, but nothing will prevent me from making this finale night of our trip worthwhile. This is why I hike, this is why I explore the unknown and put myself through rigorous exercise; I am a modern day mountain man that doesn't know any other way. Hell, even if I did, noting would change. I'll throw myself into the fury of mother nature for the chance to experience something, anything, whatever, but I know it isn't found on any couch. Behind me, Jamie shouts something, but I cannot hear her; I am marching into the mouth of the falls.

     Just as the freezing water and wind becomes unbearable, I spot another steaming pool. This one is much smaller and shallower than the disappointing soak left behind, but it looks like just enough room for two. Without any idea of the pool's temperature, but desperately needing heat, I take a leap of faith and plunge belly first into the water. For a split second, my freezing skin feels as if I have slid into one of Yellowstone's boiling death traps. I nearly scramble to my feet in a mad panic, but a moment later, I realize it is a natural reaction; the water is actually perfectly hot. Without looking back, I shout for Jamie to join me. Fearless as ever, I am not surprised to find her hot on my heels.

     “Move over!” she shouts while plopping down into the steaming bliss beside me.

     From our steaming bath, we stare up at the edge of the falls where the water spills over and let our imaginations run free. I feel like a child watching “The Goonies” for the first time, imagining that my whole life will be spent looking for lost treasure, or solving mysteries. Maybe things didn't unfold exactly as I predicted, but I wouldn't change my lot in life for anything. No amount of money could bring me more joy, or comfort, than I feel at this moment. My wife feels it too. The nervous energy she absorbs while making her way through a daily city routine is completely gone. Her blue eyes are clear as any geothermal pool we have witnessed, her smile radiating more calm than the grazing bison we were blessed to encounter.

     Tomorrow will find us waking early for another soak before we shoulder the packs and once again trudge off, this time making our way back to “civilization”, traffic, and Monday morning jobs. Still, instances like this, in a landscape forgotten by time, it becomes easy to believe some moments could last forever. Easing back into the superheated flow, I close my eyes and smile as the last conscious thought melts from my mind. This is why you do this, Daniel... as if it were ever really a question.

Monday, November 15, 2010

CSI Owyhee

Unlike the rest
Of these predator and
Scavenger ravaged carcasses
Scattered across this slot canyon
Your body was left
To decompose in peace
Skeleton still connected
Dignity intact

Between the two rocks
Where I first thought you laid
Your wounded or weary head
For the last time
I find the horns
And bottom jaw
Wedged so tight
That even in death
Your skull cannot be freed

There would have been
No escape
From this improbable and
Unexpected trap

Did you snap your neck
In a blind panic
Or without complaint
Resign yourself
To slow starvation

How did you keep
The lions and coyotes
From sniffing out a meal
How did the eagles
And turkey vultures
Not notice
Your corpse below
Bloating in the desert

Or does an unwritten law
Of the wild
Demand a sense of respect
Amongst natural enemies
When a luckless sister
With no hope
Can be spared
Some final insult
In the face of such an
Unusual demise

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Like Jesus in a Tortilla

Be it inborn
Book read
Or the end result
Of an intrepid dance
With lady mushroom
In the outer realms
This raptor vision
Has stripped all pretense
Excuse and sexy lace
From our production

No longer stomach
What I see
Touch where I listen
Taste this unholy funk

The actors
Exit stage left
And deconstruct
This one dimensional
For the first time
Proving to me
The existence of a
Real human face

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Blood, White, & You

An age of enlightenment
Escaped us again
Shoved into the cellar
With our dignity
And seeping heart

The bloated albino
Eager as ever
To blame
Abuse and remove
Every color
In the rainbow
Shake off the robe
Light up the crucifix
Thicken the callous
Of a collective soul

Our mother
Drips from deep gashes
While black tongues
Hiss of Jesus
And collateral acceptance
Psalm sellers
Cradling children
In a stranglehold
Of crosshairs
And averted eyes
As a hundred years
Of unwatchable sedatives
Slip down our throat
Inside a greasy wad
Called freedom

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Removing Tumors

Without warning
Or explanation
This sickness seeps
From my nightmares
Staining converging clouds
And kicking up hurricanes
In decomposing eyes

A disease
That will one day find
These hands
Wrapped around the neck
Of another
Or my hunting knife
Buried to the hilt
In a gurgling throat
And at times
Like this
With blood screaming
Through my temples
It begins to feel like
The only cure

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mountain Comics

With the mule trains
Leather dusters
Firearm arsenal
And strung up
Before their stronghold
A headless carcass
Spread eagle
And gutted like Jesus

The grim unshaven faces
Towering gods
Before silver beer cans
Tossed aside
With a weekday job
Or nagging wife
For mountain time
With the boys

This is serious business

The hunters mount up
Vanish into low
White clouds at first light
While their quarry
Steps out of
Ponderosa shadows
To saunter
Through camp
Giving me
Every reason to laugh
At the best laid plans
Of man

Halloween Peace Accord

Even at a backwoods
Hillbilly watering hole
It is a night
For witchcraft and
Gremlins in disguise
A fountain of
Black Velvet
Bad karaoke
Chasing stolen smokes
And mingling with enemies
Mismatched camouflage
Nascar racers
Cowboy hats and the
Talking bush
Willing to set aside
Daily politics
And basic manner
In which we each conduct
Our business and
Personal presentations
For once
Not focusing on what
Keeps us at odds
But instead
Wallowing in the obscenity
We all have in common

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Eyes of a Predator

I feel the heartache
And desperation
In every documentary
Each snapshot
And trophy kill
The look
Too honest to
Not beg
A question
Of quiet accusation
From which
There is nowhere
To hide

This is not my place
There is no time
For this life
I am living

Belong amongst
Those glossy
Glassy stares
Protecting ones who
Cannot see
The impending storm
And what that
Might mean
For my future
When the inevitable
Witch hunt once again
Rolls through America

Friday, October 22, 2010

God's Dogs

     Two spastic bloodhounds follow Ted around his drafty cabin as he gathers cold weather gear, firearms, and hollow-point ammunition from various closets. The nearly grown canines playfully paw at one another as they stumble around the stocky man's feet. As usual, Molly and Bosco assume they’ve already been invited and it's only a matter of time before the “mount-up” command is issued. Ted shakes his head, rolls his eyes, and smiles faintly as he gently kicks his way through their heavy, writhing bodies.

     “I already said you ain't comin'. Not this time. Too dangerous for you youngsters. Maybe if you weren’t all feet and ears, I could use you out there.”

     Encouraged by any word from their owner, the bloodhounds renew their efforts to get his attention. Ted finally has to trick the dogs into thinking they are departing by way of the backyard gate. As he opens the rear door of his cabin, the hounds burst through, leading the charge, only to have Ted promptly shut and lock the door behind them. The last thing he sees is Molly and Bosco manically licking each other's faces as if to reward themselves for a job well done. Ted can't bear to peek through the window and watch their expressions change as the tragic reality sets in; they are being left behind.

     He was serious when he said the mission was too dangerous. Not only dangerous, but also illegal. Ted smiled grimly, momentarily considering the consequences of his plan before repeating the mantra he’d recently adopted – When the government is unable, or unwilling to act, the free citizens of this state shall rise up and represent the will of its people.

     Although the small town of Timberline consists mostly of outcasts and loners, the few people Ted had spoken with agreed on the problem and the solution. The Feds pushed their agenda on an unwilling populous and now stand idly by while the livelihood and culture of their community is being threatened. For far too long now, pencil-pushers in Washington had made decisions over geographical areas they had never even visited.

     Most of the words rattling around Ted's mind were first articulated by a young, blond haired, blue-eyed rancher by the name of Erik, who spoke openly on behalf of his wealthy father. Erik had rounded up half the town in a door to door campaign and arranged a monthly meeting to discuss recent killings, missing pets, and their collective failure to find big game. He also spoke of guerrilla tactics that would openly defy federal law and be nearly impossible to pin on any one perpetrator. “We have the advantage,” Erik always said. “This is our land and we know it better than anyone.”

     One of the key strategies, according to the young rancher, is to act as a purely isolated agent. The less anybody knows, the harder it is to question and ultimately convict the transgressors. Despite Erik's insistence on silence, some of Ted's friends already whispered of their own successful ventures and he had felt the sharp bite of jealousy. He too wanted to be part of the solution, part of a political cause bigger than himself.

     Quietly slipping out the front door with arms full of equipment, Ted sniffs the crisp morning air. Still six weeks away, it already smells like winter. The night’s remaining stars sparkle faintly in the purplish light of impending dawn. A thick white blanket of fresh powder covers the town. The first real snowstorm of the year blew through overnight and the forecast now called for clear and cold skies. As he tosses his gear in the backseat and hangs his .223 on the gun rack, Ted hears a couple of protest whimpers from the fenced backyard. Ignoring his bloodhounds, Ted checks the hitch to ensure the small flatbed trailer carrying his battered ATV is securely attached.

     Sipping coffee from a thermos as he drives the snow covered streets of Timberline, Ted’s carves the first deep tracks in twenty inches of virgin powder. On the edge of town, he drives past the ranch of the town’s oldest inhabitant. Jeremiah Winston had run the small cattle operation for the last sixty years and had even been friends with Ted’s Grandfather. As usual, the old rancher is already up and checking on his herd of Black Angus, except this time Ted is greeted by a sight he never thought to witness. Jeremiah, a man born and raised in a horse saddle, is out on his property plowing through the snow on an ATV very similar to the one on Ted’s trailer.

     “No good, soulless fashion trend,” Ted had heard the rancher say about other Timberline residents replacing their long time living steeds with four-wheel drive machines. Before hurting his back in a recent woodcutting accident, Jeremiah led countless mounted big game expeditions as an amateur outfitter and was one of the town’s most successful hunters. Ted shakes his head thinking the old man must have finally given up on horse riding altogether. The younger man taps his horn in neighborly fashion before driving beyond the borders of the small town. A couple miles later, he turns onto a steep side road slowly climbing into the high mountain meadows overlooking Timberline’s broad river valley.

     To his surprise, Ted finds another truck parked at the trailhead. Completely buried beneath the snow, the vehicle has obviously been there since before the storm. He is tempted to clear off the windshield to see if he recognizes the rig, but then decides if it was his truck, Ted wouldn’t want anyone touching it. Still, the presence of another vehicle complicates his plans to some degree. He will have to stay alert for any sign of the truck owner.

     Ted enjoys the warmth from the truck’s heater while finishing his coffee. To his east, the sun threatens to crest the tree-lined ridge. Stepping out into the mountain air, Ted is struck with an unusual sense of stillness radiating from the heavily frosted pine trees. Without dogs, or a human companion, the silence is almost unnerving. Stealing sideways glances into the shadowy surroundings, he fires up the ATV engine, backs it off the trailer, and mounts his .223 to a rack just above the headlights. As usual, the deafening engine of the four-wheel drive and acrid smell of burning oil provides him with the comforting sensation of one man dominating the cold and inhospitable wilderness. In these woods, he was king of the forest.

     Donning his winter gloves and sheepskin hat, Ted kicks the ATV into gear and begins his trek into the snowy backcountry. The cold air stings his cheeks as he picks up speed and the trees begin to fly past. Less than a half hour into his jarring drive, Ted notices two dark figures on the trail ahead wearing large backpacks and snowshoes trudging towards him. He feels a sudden, desperate sense of panic, before reminding himself that he hasn’t done anything wrong. In fact, Ted had listened when Erik recommended they buy and display elk tags when conducting missions, so nobody would guess their true intentions.

     Ted attempts to drive past them without a look, but the smaller figure steps into his path, waving him down with a good-natured smile. It is a young woman with blond hair spilling out from beneath a grey stocking hat. Next to her stands a much taller, broad-shouldered man with a shaggy red beard. While the lady’s expression is one of open friendliness, the man’s dark eyes, barely visible between a black fleece cap and the substantial facial hair, are more guarded. Ted pulls his ATV next to them and shuts off the engine.

     “Never had much use for snowshoes,” Ted begins. “Looks like hard work.”

     “More like good exercise,” the lady says, blue eyes flashing brightly. She is young and pretty and Ted finds himself immediately attracted to her presence. He can’t help but smile in return.

     “Figured we’d be the only ones out and about, especially this early,” says the red bearded man, speaking in a deep, almost monotone voice. Ted notices the man isn’t making eye contact with him, but rather appears to be scrutinizing his ATV and equipment. “I thought there weren’t any elk left. How you gonna find something that doesn’t exist?”

     Ted’s eyes narrow suspiciously; something about the big guy’s body language and manner of speaking left him uneasy. “Yeah,” he says, “well people always say I’m a little stubborn. Surely there has to be at least one left somewhere.”

     Ted catches a slight roll of the eyes from the younger man, before the woman subtly steps between the two men. “There are plenty of elk left,” she says. “We just saw a decent sized herd less than an hour ago.”

      The woman’s message is immediately met by skepticism from somewhere in Ted’s mind. He pictures Erik’s incredulous and mocking reaction to the girl’s assertion. Finally understanding the kind of people standing before him, Ted nearly laughs in their faces. “Really?” he scoffs. “You sure they weren’t deer?”

     The young man seems to swell up and this time his eyes lock directly on Ted; his voice slipping past tight lips in a steely hiss. “I think we know the difference, buddy. In fact, if anyone knows how things work out here, it’s us.”

     Before Ted can issue a retort, he notices the long holstered barrel sticking out below the man’s winter coat. Ted is convinced he is talking to a couple of big city “enviros”, but had never seen one carrying a large handgun or bristle with such aggression. Maybe these were some of the federal biologists Erik had warned them about. Again, the young woman tries to diffuse the tension by placing one hand her companion’s arm and speaking calmly to Ted.

     “Look,’ she says, “if you follow our tracks for about one mile back in, you will see prints and fresh poop where the herd crossed this trail. There really are plenty of them left. In fact, the entire ecosystem around here is healthier than it has been in probably a hundred years.”

     “You won’t see them though,” the red bearded man interrupts and stabs a gloved finger at Ted’s ATV. “They heard you before we did, and we heard you a loooong way back.”

     The young lady nods her head in agreement. “Maybe if you leave that thing here and walk in following our tracks, you can still find them. They don’t act like domesticated cows, not anymore; the hunters need to adapt. Embrace old school methods.”

     Suddenly feeling as though he is being lectured by a couple of kids, Ted restarts his ATV with a loud roar. “Thanks,” he shouts to be heard over the engine, “but I’ve been hunting since you two were in kindergarten and I don’t need your help. Nobody around here needs your help!”

     Before either of the strangers can respond, Ted peels out in the snow and guns the machine around them. He feels the nervous energy of the encounter flooding his veins. Imagine if those know-it-all hippies understood what he was really up to. He hears Erik’s voice reassuring him from some distant place; these tourists have no idea what they are talking about. Ted suddenly finds himself angry that anyone would have the audacity to speak to him as if they understood his home country any better.

     Ted is still stewing over the encounter when he drives across a wide swath of animal tracks intersecting the snow covered trail. Bringing the ATV to a lurching stop, Ted steps off to examine the animal prints. His face floods with heat as he realizes the tracks clearly belong to a sizable herd of elk, just like the two strangers insisted. Ted scratches his salt and pepper grizzled chin trying to make sense of the evidence. For a moment, he is tempted to follow the elk tracks as well. He has the required tag and needs a freezer full of meat, but one herd does not make for a sustainable population and his mission, his obligation to the greater good, holds his focus elsewhere.

     Ted re-starts the ATV and continues down the trail, still driving over the snowshoe tracks left earlier that morning. Another couple of miles and he too would have to leave his machine behind and trudge a short ways through the snow in order to check on something he had left hidden a couple weeks ago. Although now frozen and certainly less ripe than it had been, Ted was positive the bucket of lard and trout guts had attracted something. At the very least, he was hoping for more tracks to follow. Ted could feel the excitement beginning to burn hot in his chest. Soon, he too would have a little something to whisper in Erik’s ear.

     So blanketed by deep powder, Ted nearly misses the giant slab of granite marking his intended side path. During the spring and summer, a small lake-fed stream flows beneath the massive, rectangular rock with crystal clear water. It was up this very drainage that Ted had found the muddy tracks nearly a month ago and his idea had begun to take shape. Two weeks later, he had returned with his rancid bucket of bait and now that a couple more weeks had passed, it was time to see if his plan had come to fruition. Ted steps off his ATV, slings the .223 over one shoulder and walks past the boulder into the shadowy tree line.

     Almost immediately, Ted finds himself wishing he had brought better footwear. His old waterproof logging boots reach the bottom of his knee-caps, but still, every other step in the loose powder, brings a tiny amount of icy wetness dripping down his shins. By the time he is within a hundred yards of the bucket, he can feel the first chills setting into his socked feet. Squatting low, Ted peers into the forest ahead while making sure to stay hidden amongst the trees. There is no evidence of life, no sound, no motion, nothing. That might be a good sign, Ted decides, and creeps ever closer to his baited trap.

     Ted’s disappointment is palpable as he approaches the white, five-gallon bucket and sees no sign of disturbance. The lard and fish entrails are frozen into a solid mass, but nothing appears to have approached the bucket, not even to investigate the fetid scent. At least with the undisturbed snow, Ted is certain no predators have been in the area since the storm. Maybe the wind never pushed the scent in their direction, or maybe, they could detect the secret ingredient that would have left them writhing and dying on the spot.

     Ted stands there for nearly five minutes, not knowing what to do and feeling somewhat foolish, until the numbing cold in his feet reminds him that he is poorly prepared to be wading through deep powder. Again, he is tempted to return to his ATV and follow the elk tracks, but knows a pair of snowshoes is needed to prolong his quest. The thought instantly reminds him of the two strangers and his eyes squint down hard. No. He isn’t envious of those people for any reason. What he needs to do is to give his trap a little more time, and while he’s at it, start thinking of a couple more ideas. Next time, I’ll hit the enemy on multiple fronts, he quickly decides.

     With the exception of his numb toes, the meager rays of the early November sun finally begin to warm Ted’s body as he backtracks to the parked ATV. By the time he reaches a small break in the trees overlooking the main trail, and his barely visible four-wheeler parked in the distance, a thin sheen of sweat has spread from his warm torso out to his appendages. Ted stops and is in the process of unslinging the .223 from his shoulder in order to shed his heavy, camouflaged coat when he spots the black creature.

     Dark as any moonless night, and still as carved ebony, the shaggy beast is crouched low in the snow less than fifty yards away. Frozen in its tracks and unaware of Ted’s presence, the massive wolf stares intently into a nearby stand of trees. In an instant, he understands how their full winter coats lead people into misjudging their actual size. Rumors of two hundred pound monsters prowling the nearby forests of Timberline were common despite the largest one ever killed in their region weighing just over half that amount. Still, Erik encouraged the use of hysteria as a means to attract support to his cause and even liked to play up a known lie about the wild canines being attracted to the sounds of human babies; an assertion that always made Ted laugh, especially when others nodded their heads in steadfast agreement.

     Unable to believe his luck, and fighting to calm his racing heart, Ted maneuvers the butt of the rifle slowly to his shoulder and then gradually works the scope up over his right eye. Through the amplified tunnel, the monstrous black wolf is even more intimidating. Raised hackles on the monster’s neck give it the broad sloping shouldered look of a small grizzly and its eyes are the icy dark slits of a remorseless void. The sharp tips of ivory fangs protruding past sneering lips stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the black beast. Ted is staring at a perfectly evolved killing machine, and looking down his rifle scope at the object of his mission.

     Ted tries to look beyond the creature to see what poor animal the wolf is stalking. He imagines an elk hidden in the stand of spruce and can’t help but smile broadly at the scene’s potential. Ted pictures himself telling Erik how he dropped the wolf with his first shot, and then with a second round, took down the elk as it burst from its hiding place. Even if he can’t bring the elk down, he will at least save the animal from a much crueler fate at the hands of this invasive species. In either case, his tale will be long be remembered in private circles around Timberline.

     Unable to spot any prey amongst the trees, Ted exhales calmly and places the scope’s crosshairs on the center of the wolf’s thick torso, just behind the front shoulder blade. The pine scent in the air and distant bird calls become unusually vivid, nearly tangible in the form of a taste on his tongue as the life-long hunting instincts take hold. Ted’s touches the trigger ever so lightly and begins to squeeze when a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye causes him to release the building pressure on his fingertip.

     A white blur, nearly undistinguishable from its wintery surrounding, appears from the stand of trees and charges the black wolf. It is a second wolf, much smaller than the big male and it pounces on the larger canine in one stunningly athletic leap. A cloud of powder erupts into the air, sun rays sparkling of the individual frozen crystals like diamonds and the two animals are momentarily lost from sight. Ted car hear their low, guttural growls as the thrashing escalates. When they emerge from the snow, Ted realizes the two animals are licking at each other while still trying to use their necks and shoulders for superior positioning; the ferocious sounds of their combat, just a frightening play fight.

     In a heart seizing instant, Ted is staring at Molly and Bosco, just two big dogs wrestling in the snow like he had witnessed just hours ago. Except, it isn’t just his bloodhounds he sees in the fighting wolves. As a lover of dogs since childhood, Ted recognizes a bit of every canine he has ever owned radiating from the presence of the two wild animals. At the same moment, he also understands that no dog, not even one possessing the best traits of every living breed, could ever compare to one of these wolves. Somewhere along the way, dogs had lost a substantial bit of that wild magic, the unimaginable majesty right before his very eyes.

     At the top of the chain, and with the entire forest as their playground, the two canines appear unburdened by a visible care in the world. Every description of these terrifying animals that he has ever heard suddenly so overblown, so exaggerated, and yet unbelievably understated and shortchanged. These aren’t evil monsters, prowling the dark woods with glowing red eyes, looking for innocent prey to shred. Instead, they are the epitome of beauty, grace, and power manifested into a living, breathing form the likes of which he has never known; they are works of art.

     As he watches with the once rigid barrel of his rifle drooping ever lower, the black wolf does a feint charge and then whirls on its heels kicking up a fresh wave of powder. Moving impossibly fast, the dark creature charges into the trees and out of Ted’s sight. The white wolf immediately goes to give chase, but then, after appearing to remember something, turns around and stares directly at the spot where Ted is half-hidden behind a thin tree; her eyes focused on his. She gives him a long, penetrating look before spinning back around and following her black mate into the forest.

     Ted stands in place, rifle at his side, too stunned to move. The white wolf must have known he was there the whole time. Ted realizes his whole body is shaking. He pictures the disappointed look on Erik’s face, the incredulous looks of the entire group closing in on him before the image is washed away and replaced with the two wolves playing in the snow. Again, he thinks about Bosco and Molly and suddenly wishes he was already home. He can’t wait to scratch their sloppy ears and watch them trip all over themselves. Besides, nobody needs to know what he had just seen. Nobody would hear of his failure to act. His lips break into a smile. For a failure he feels pretty good. Ignoring the icy chill in his feet, he turns around to retrace his footsteps back up the drainage. He has a bucket to collect before going home to his dogs.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Secret Service

In need of relocation
Isolation or insulation
From the barrage unfolding
Beneath my fingertips
Frothing at the mouth
I am unfit
For a place amongst
This herd
I am contagious
With the full intent
To spread my disease
Or otherwise

As a son
Of the mother and
Like my brothers
Of the fang
And claw
I need to be
Put down
And forgotten
In an unmarked grave
For the shortsighted
Greater good

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Do You Hear What I hear

A war shifted borders
Lost focus
Volume and with it
Our coverage and
Sympathy for
Either side

Children are still
Being slaughtered
By children
Being ordered
By fathers
Hiding one hand
While preaching destiny
Sanctity and sanity
Lie within
Invisible boundaries
And labeled beliefs

Mothers and daughters
Let go their sons
Brothers and
Inherent disposition
To play along
Or have the voices
Forcing their voice
Deemed institutionable

A landscape more drugged
Than ever in history
The waking nightmare

These war zones
Somehow silent
To those not only
Letting it happen
But actively funding

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tangled Horns

Another distant headline
Another totem slain
Pictures revealing
Snow covered peaks
Above cloud filled valleys
Miles removed
From any trail
Or legitimate business
Of man and yet
For behaving
How it should
It is sentenced
By badges
For the eternal blindfold

The only
Conservation solution
Ever attempted
No matter the species
Or situation
The appointees
Just more sociopaths
In a long line
Of wardens
Lawyers and judges
Laying waste
To the rights
And freedoms
Of the natural world

Friday, October 15, 2010

In Case You Missed It

Sleeping through
The last decade
I never realized our
Orwellian future
Had already covered us
In its thick
Comfortable folds

That far off nightmare
Now just a weekday soap
With satellites watching
Our every move
Others for rent
So anybody can participate
In the espionage

Personal computers
Just an unblinking
And all talking eye
Infiltrating our homes
Collecting data
And selling it
To the darkest corners
Of the virtual universe

A picture of my street
My truck
In my driveway and
Living room window beyond
Taken by who
Or what exactly

There is no longer
Anything to be done
And nowhere left to hide
For those of us
Who choose
Not to be exposed

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ahead of Ourselves

Looking deeper into infinity
Stargazers pretend to understand
Cosmic dances between
Moons and suns
How worlds are formed
If tides once existed
A possibility
Of better earths
To infect and subjugate
Which life can live where
What secrets
The dark matter hides
And maybe if I weren't
So grounded
I wouldn't insist
On a little perspective

We can't comprehend
The mysteries
And basic construction
Of our own universe
Just mild suspicions
Of a greater connection
Like mushrooms unveiling
A fourth dimension
Or the power of
Flesh born magnetism
with each pebble's wave

Can't imagine what any
Deaf mute quadriplegic
Without a nose
Thinks they know
From a couple of mirrors
And lenses
Separated so precisely
They can trick
The otherwise sane
Into believing
What they see
Through the looking glass
Is any kind of reality

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Inside the Box

Cut off from
The outside world
Except for what messages
Fit through
These tiny holes of perception
These direct lines
Of muddled communication
A thought here
A front there
Sarcasm gone awry
And sexy portraits
From select angles
Of everyone pretending
To be greater than the sum
Of their parts
Or playing another role

Another endless
Faceless audience
Adding to the hushed roar
Of overwhelmed
And disconnected synapses
Slowly deteriorating
From the lack
Of human touch

Thursday, September 30, 2010

My Nightmare

I am haunted
By reoccurring visions
Of myself as an apparition
Of my own demise
Forever hiking
Endless mountain trails
Illogically connected
Pieced together
From a multitude of memories
In search of my
Lost love

In this premonition
I am promised
To remain
A campsite ahead
Or one ridge behind
Both of us
Perpetually pursuing
The other

We might stand a chance
Of meeting again
If one of us would
Just stop

But the sensation
That I need to find her
That I need to help
That I need her
To help me
Spurs me onward
Headlong into oblivion
Into the everlasting sunset
Of my purgatory

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Devil's Hand Basket

As always
The world is breaking
My heart
And I still can’t figure out
Why I care

Without offspring
I have no fear
Of my fallout
Having to deal
With our fallout
And I never appreciated
Our steadfast disregard
Of all things decent
Our self-righteous
Self-serving inability
To recognize our role
In this cosmic performance

Treating war
Like a soap-opera
Social horror
Like a sitcom
Environmental concerns
A laughable commercial
Peddling inconvenient
Arriving much too late

On global suicide
And all we can do
Is wink at the camera
Wave off the blindfold
And stare down
The firing squad
With one last cigarette

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Measuring Decibels

It is so faint
An insidious presence
Barely felt at all
But make no mistake
It is there
Always there

To discover its absence
I have
Trekked countless miles
Over icy peaks and
Into dark woods
Mad hermits deem haunted
And still
It is there
The distant hum
The undertone
The whine
Chirp and buzz
Without a role
In this ecosystem

The numbing assault
Of our collective
Fuel injected

A life force
Only recently summoned
Now ensnaring
The planet
In its record skipping
While audiences everywhere
Remain deaf
To the sonic tsunami
In its wake

Always the Last Place You Look

Spent a week
Traipsing across
America’s wonderland
Of geysers
Boiling mud and
Nearly imaginable dinosaurs
Inside a colossal cauldron
Still steaming from
The last eruption

Searching for my
Method of communion
With all manner of
Sharp toothed beasties
And their game

Finally found
The wild kingdom
Eluding me on the trail
In a family restaurant
On the park’s perimeter
The entire
Rocky Mountain arc
Safely stuffed
Matted or framed
Sterile and forever
Frozen in striking poses
Staged to somehow
Lessen the humility
Of being placed on
Permanent display
For this plague of apathetic

In truth
I felt more in touch
With those
Replacement marbles
Than the gawkers
They beheld

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Inside Us All

Digging through
My own archives
Of rage
And desperation
I unearth an understanding
Of ancient curses
Buried and beholden
Until bubbling forth
In the bloodlines
Of another age

Some legacies
Refuse to rest
Inside their tombs
Some monsters
Must be defeated
By the sons of
Every generation

A sickness flowing
Just beneath
Our consciousness
Our collective skin
For any kind of excuse
To unleash

Friday, September 17, 2010

Rogue Travelers

      I have never been one to follow rules, or hell, even laws that don't make sense. Of course, when I say, “don't make sense,” I mean, they don't make sense to me. Suppose I never really cared if they seemed reasonable to others. Conceited? Egocentric? Arrogant? Probably, I mean, I did invent my own deity, but ultimately, who should I trust? Who should I obey? Should I have faith in organized religion, corporations, or government (institutions that have bred in incestuous fashion and pushed this entire planet to the brink of destruction)? Or, do I believe that as an educated and introspective free thinker, I am capable of making the decisions best suited for my life? I'll go with the latter. So, when I say this tale began with me waking up in my truck at a trailhead parking lot in Teton National Park (against the rules) after having put myself into a deep night’s sleep with assistance from a pop can turned makeshift pipe (also, against the rules!), you just have to trust that I knew what I was doing.

     This was the gist of a conversation echoing in my head as I shouldered my backpack and slipped into a dark and quiet forest, the trail barely visible in the early dawn. A haze of cloud cover slowed the impending daybreak even further. With senses alert for any motion or sound, my vision gradually adjusted to the dim setting and I set a quick pace moving silently through the trees. Textbook behavior for what not to do in grizzly country, but at the time I had no fear of bears, or anything else for that matter. The pop can had served its purpose once again before being left behind, and as such, I felt the diversity of life all around me, the connection between all things, the cosmic spider web of which I was a mere silken strand. I couldn’t help but imagine myself a Native American hunting for prey as it migrated to water for the ritualistic morning drink.

     Between my animalistic instincts, and the long blade on my hip, I knew myself to be the most dangerous creature in the area. Not only that, I was also invisible, a ghost to the eyes of man. Nobody could have spotted me unless I wanted them to. I felt strong, fast, invincible, and that predatory adrenaline rush lasted until I crept around a bend and came face to face with a mother moose and her two calves. Absolutely dwarfed, I instantly found myself feeling like a mortal human of squishy flesh and breakable bones once again. The big momma calmly raised her head from a breakfast of lush grass to assess my arrival while the two calves, each the size of a full grown deer, gathered around her haunches.

     At the same time I was presented with my moose dilemma, my wife was waking up on the east side of the Tetons to find a sow grizzly and two cubs foraging near her tent. With me having started at the western border of the park, our plan was to locate each other at Meeks Mountain Pass, somewhere near the middle of the mountain range around noon. While spotting a grizzly is always a thrill, I prefer to take my close encounter chances with moose. The mothers of both species are capable of killing any human they feel is a threat to their young, but every once in a great while, hunger also initiates a grizzly encounter; not exactly something to worry about with moose. Unless it has rabies, then watch out!

     These moose didn't have rabies. They did, however, have a fondness for the hard packed trail running through the lushly overgrown basin. My first attempts to herd the animals away by clapping my hands did little but spur the family further down the trail twenty feet at a time while the mother gradually grew more agitated. Rather than continue to press my luck, I opted to forge a path through the dense foliage up the hillside and around the moose family. I deliberately picked a course that kept me near at least one big tree the entire way. I like to believe I could use a thick trunk to play ring-around-the-rosie with a charging moose as long as I kept my wits together and didn’t trip over my feet. Frankly, I’d rather not test the theory. While taking the twenty minute detour, and scratching my forearms to pieces, I began to think about the time being wasted. Some competitive impulse insisted I arrive at our rendezvous point before my wife. Or maybe, I didn’t want to admit I had missed her while she had been away visiting family in Wyoming.

     I finally managed to push my way through the wall of greenery and back onto the path some fifty yards ahead of the moose. At the moment my feet touched the trail, something spooked the family and the three moose lumbered into action. Leading the charge, the big momma intersected my off-trail path, plowing through the brush like a tank. I shuddered to imagine myself still stuck in those prickly branches while I was overtaken and mowed down beneath a dozen heavy hooves. With her calves in tow, the moose was through the undergrowth in a fraction of the time it had taken me. I peered back down the trail trying to see what might have startled the moose, but the forest remained as silent as it had been before my delay. Something about the stillness in the air gave me a slight spook and I turned my attention back to the task at hand.

     My second encounter, no more than ten minutes later, brought me as close to the posterior of a moose as I ever need to be. Without warning, a large bull stepped out of the bushes, hung a hard left onto the trail right in front of me, and then proceeded to hog the path totally unaware of the human on its heels. As I slackened my pace to give the massive creature a little room, I couldn’t help notice the top of its skinny butt was at least my height and I stand over six feet tall. The big fella’s antlers had yet to expand into full paddles. Instead, they were just two rods poking straight out of its head like Frankenstein’s bolts. Also like Frankenstein, this moose was in no hurry, stopping every couple of steps to munch a random leaf in distant contemplation. Half bemused, half alarmed, I was once again forced to slow my journey to a crawl rather than overtake, and possibly startle the hairy brute.

     Eventually, I stopped altogether and waited for a few seconds as the hefty fella gained a little more ground. I then called out in as soothing voice as I have at my disposal, “hey buddy, right behind ya’. No need to stomp me, but I need to get by.” I had one hand already placed on my potential ring-around-the-rosie spruce tree and after calling out, my heart hammered in my chest as I waited for the animal’s response. Without flinching, the bull calmly stepped off the trail and into the tall, thick brush. Instead of the violent crashing of branches like I had heard from the moose family earlier, this time I was met with absolute silence.

     After a moment of confusion futilely listening for any clues to the big animal’s whereabouts, I crept to where the moose had disappeared into the bushes. Crouching down, I peered into the shadowed foliage and while I could see fine in the ever increasing light of day, there was no sign of the bull. As a curious animal, naturally less nervous than other deer species, I expected it to still be standing there half hidden in shadows, eager to investigate his pursuer. Mystified, I looked all around and kept my senses sharp thinking something would surely betray its location, but I never saw or heard the animal again. I’d experienced a bear pulling this kind of vanishing act before, but never a moose. Clearly, the magic in the natural world can never be fully understood by man.

     Just as the sun crested the western ridge, I reached the first fork in the trail and a hand painted sign confirming that I was indeed on the right path. The cloud cover was holding and I could stare straight into the diffused light struggling to break through. Good, because the sign indicated that my path was about to begin a steep and exposed switch backed ascent, culminating in a path of step like rock ledges running nearly straight up the cliff face; a brutal climb known as “The Devil’s Staircase.” The rocky scramble would take me above the valley greenery, above the talus slopes, and up the football field tall cliff face to my south until I reached the more level Alaska Basin Shelf. The sun behind clouds guaranteed a less arduous hike.

     Breaking all previous records, and bordering on the ridiculous, I had my third moose encounter of the morning as my path broke free of its forested confines at the base of the talus slope. This specimen was a young male, possibly on its own for the first season. Maybe two thirds the size of the previous bull, it still outweighed me by at least 500 pounds. The moose and I realized we were climbing the hillside parallel to each other at the same moment. We froze about fifty feet apart, our gazes slowly moving from each other, to the trail above us, and back again. The angle of the animal’s climbing route would surely have intersected the Staircase trail just ahead of where we stood. Our shifty stare down continued, both of us wondering who was going to make the first move and claim the lead position. I couldn’t afford any more delays, so I chose to reason with the creature.

     “Alright, I think I plan on moving faster than you, so what say I go first?”

     The animal’s ears shot straight up and it fixed me with an intense stare while leaning forward like a horse straining against a tether. I swallowed hard against the rising knot in my throat. Glancing around, I realized there was zero chance of me reaching the nearest tree if the moose charged. “Ok, ok,” I quickly amended, “you can go first if you like.”

     My offer seemed to pacify the big animal as its body language relaxed and the curious mannerisms returned. The moose must have decided it didn’t really care because it finally turned its attention to the closest shrub for a mouthful of leaves. I took that as my invitation to move along. Keeping one eye on the beast, and one eye on the trail, I scooted up into the exposed rocks where I hoped to be done with moose for a while.

     Climbing the “staircase”, I quickly realized there are things much worse than running a moose gauntlet and it assumes the nightmarish form of hard, sweaty work. Even without the sun bearing down on me, the climb took its toll. Pushing the pace to make up for time lost dallying with ungulates and never once stopping for water, my legs began to feel a little rubbery around the halfway mark. In a few places, the trail came dizzyingly close to a precipitous cliff and I leaned into the mountain side as I climbed just to be safe. The view began to open up as I neared the top of the Devil’s Staircase and I took a moment to take in the scale of my surroundings.

     Although I couldn’t yet see the Alaska Basin Shelf, I could see the steep southern ridge still topped with snow that would hem my path on that side. To the north, above and across the valley from which I first entered the park, were the plush, emerald walls of the northern slopes, complete with several picturesque waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet to the moose-ridden forest below. In the distance, I could make out the head of the distinct, and aptly named, Battleship Rock, which meant the three main peaks would soon be in view. The Tetons, although a relatively modest and narrow range, still offer some of the most epic mountain scenery the continental U.S. has to offer.

     On a map it is easy to point out a location and agree to meet someone. Of course, the area your fingertip covers might well turn out to be an expanse of land extending for at least a mile in every direction, so you have to be careful. Unless, of course, you use GPS like everyone does these days. My wife and I do not. Why? I don’t know. It seems like a good tool, but we’re stubborn. We’re of an old school mindset and if we’ve lived this long without it, just how necessary is it? Of course, as I stared at the immense and breathtaking landscape, I felt the first pangs of concern. It would be easy to miss a solitary hiker out here.

     I reached the top of the staircase fully expecting a sensation of relief but was instead met with a fork in the trail that did not exist on my topographical map of the area. My map showed one trail running east along the shelf, while the path before me split both east and south. What should have been a simple decision was compounded when I noticed a rock cairn on the southern trail. Now, my experience on the lesser used trails in the park, seem to suggest that trail maintenance, isn’t a top priority. So, when I saw that someone actually took the time to build a rock cairn, I assumed it had to mean something. Still, the southern trail seemed like it would quickly lead to the impassable cliffs, unless somewhere up ahead it branched east or west.

     Finally allowing myself a drink of water, I took a moment and decided to trust my instincts. According to my map, I needed to move east and there was a trail running in that direction, so that had to be my answer. Besides, I knew the trail would soon disappear beneath the gradually melting snowfields and I’d be forced to invent my own route anyways. Trails be damned, I knew where I was going.

     As it turned out, I hit snow much sooner than expected. No big deal except that I was hoping to find at least one set of boot prints from a previous hiker having navigated an acceptable route. No such luck. If I wasn’t the first to make this early season trek, then enough snow had melted since the last person that all traces of their passing had been erased. Oh well, I thought, somebody has to go first.

     At first I was able to plot a course based on the path of most exposed rock fields, but the dry patches quickly became smaller and smaller until I was walking across snow the majority of the time. Although the day had gradually warmed to a respectable 70 degrees, I was still managing to stay on top of the snow. Later in the day, as the fields heated, my boots would surely be punching through and I hoped to find both my wife and a dry place to camp before then.

     The gradual uphill slope of Alaska Basin Shelf combined with the snow, altitude, and the fact I was beginning to feel weak from having eaten nothing all morning, slowed my progress considerably. I may as well have been following a sluggish moose once again, but I couldn’t bring myself to move any faster. In my fatigued state, I could barely appreciate the awesome spectacle of the three main peaks of the Tetons as they thrust themselves into a full view dominating the northeastern skyline.

     Unlike certain mountain enthusiasts, I have never felt any desire to “conquer” peaks. Nor, would I consider the act of standing on a mountain top for a few minutes before having to retreat in the face of impending darkness or storm fronts any sort of subjugation of the natural world. In fact, I’ve never felt any sense of competition with Mother Nature at all. I also don’t feel the need to prove anything to myself, or anyone else for that matter. I know I could climb one of the monsters if I had to, but honestly, hardcore mountaineering doesn’t look like fun. While I have nothing but admiration for the David Roberts and Jon Krakauers (climbers and writers) of the alpine community, I have no desire to pit myself against the full might of gravity and nature’s fury. In fact, anytime I find myself looking down on the mountain goats and big horn sheep, I have climbed plenty high enough.

     Jamie and I try to balance our outdoor physical exertion with the comforts and treasures the wild world has to offer. There are no wild onions, mushrooms, or huckleberries to be found on the wind ravaged peaks of the world, no stunning animal encounters, and certainly no hot springs. There is however, a plethora of cold and misery. Like I said, admirable, impressive drama, but no thanks. Besides, I want to die in a knife fight with a grizzly, not wind up a popsicle, or splatter mark, on some ice covered, Waffle forsaken rock. I did mention that I had invented my own deity, yes?

     Although not life-threatening by any means, my own condition had begun to deteriorate as I marched even with the center of Meek Mountain. I was maybe a mile below the pass where I was supposed to meet my wife. I felt a bit feeble from the morning’s exertion compounded by having no food since the previous night and my boots had finally begun to sink into the snow far enough that I could feel my feet getting wet. Even worse, was realizing my gradual ascent was about to get steeper; I would need to work my way up the northern slope above the pass because a straight shot to the top would take me across a solid and ever deepening snowfield. Attempting to cross could quickly turn into a cold and soggy crawl. The northern slope, on the other hand, had received just enough sun to expose several rocky patches and even a few dry islands complete with their own gnarled stands of short, white pine trees. The higher ground would also afford me a better view of anyone finishing the traverse across Death Canyon Shelf.

     By the time I reached a point high enough to see the entire southeastern expanse, I dropped my pack on the first patch of dry rocks, pulled up a seat, and devoured a couple of granola bars. I topped off the dry snack with a liter of water and then began to study the landscape for any sign of approaching travelers. I didn’t have to wait long, before I saw a distant hiker emerge from a stand of trees to my south, almost exactly where Death Canyon Shelf comes around the base of Meek Mountain and connects to the Alaska Basin Shelf. Too far away to make the individual out, I was about to shout Jamie’s name, when other people appeared in a line following the leader. There were maybe a half dozen in all walking in single file down the snowfield I had deliberately avoided.

     I waited for them to close ground, before once again shouldering my pack and heading downhill to intersect the party. I wouldn’t normally feel at all inclined to communicate with strangers, but my curiosity and concern over my wife’s whereabouts prompted me into action. They turned out to be a pleasant enough group of experienced backpackers out for their first hike of the season. After finding out they had seen no trace of any other hikers, I watched them go before stepping into their packed trail of boot prints to continue my weary march. Their information had left me feeling a little anxious about Jamie, but according to the sun’s position, it was just nearing midday and they could have been well ahead of her the entire time.

     At the small grove of trees where I first noticed the other party, I passed another painted sign indicating that I was officially entering Death Canyon Shelf. I had beaten Jamie to the rendezvous point. I thought about pulling up a chair in the shady grove, but just in case something had happened to her, I didn’t want to waste time waiting for someone who wasn’t coming, or even worse, someone who needed my help. I kept walking despite the protests from my sore feet and growling stomach; the granola bars had done little to take the edge off my hunger.

     Roughly a quarter mile from the sign, I looked up to the top of a 100 yard incline in the trail to see a lone hiker emerge over the ridge. I could almost taste the sensation of relief. I knew it was Jamie from the way her body moved. Not wanting to walk uphill any further, especially knowing I’d just be turning around in a minute, I waited for her to notice my presence. A second later, she stopped in mid-stride and looked in my direction while shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand. Her other arm slowly rose into a reluctant wave that gradually grew more confident.

     “HELLOOOOO!” she finally shouted and began to hurry down the trail. We met with a long embrace, both of us finding it impossible to hide the pleasure of seeing each other after a week apart. What can I say? She is my wife, best friend, and one of the very few people to understand my afflictions with paranoia and madness. Without her calming presence, I am almost positive I would have long since succumbed to my antisocial, anthrophobic nature. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I am quite certain it wouldn’t be good.

     I tell Jamie about my morning, naturally exaggerating the ninja like efforts it took to slip through an entire army of hostile moose, and in turn, my wife recaps how she woke up to find the momma griz and her two babies nearby. At least a hundred yards away and downwind, the bear and her cubs never noticed her. Jamie was able to watch the family dig up roots and eat select leaves for almost an hour before they gradually ambled off. Both of us felt a little jealous of the other’s wildlife encounters.

     We retraced my path the short distance to the Death Canyon Shelf sign and there, in the small stand of trees, we decided to take a lengthy break and eat a lunch of dried salami, cheese, and crackers.. From the moment we sat down, Jamie and I were beset by large, fearless hoary marmots determined to make off with some bit of our food. They seemed particularly drawn to a Tupperware container full of Jamie’s barbeque meatballs that we set in a snow bank to keep chilled. I had to stand up and actually chase the big rodents off several times during our extended rest. We had heard from one of the park rangers that there were backcountry sites so overrun with the cheeky thieves, it was impossible to stay overnight without losing something to the cute, furry marauders.

     Finally rested, fed, and feeling human for the first time all morning, we decided to continue back tracking my route until we dropped below the main snowfields in order to locate a dry camp for the night. By then, the snow had warmed to the point that we would have been sinking up to our knees with every step, but with the previous passing party having carved out a packed trail, we established a quick pace. By the time we had dropped a mile or so, the tracks of the larger group had intersected and began to follow my earlier boot prints. It was also at this point we first noticed the stirring breeze and blackening clouds enveloping the southwestern sky.

     “Think that’s serious?” I asked.

     “I think it’s better to be safe than sorry. We need to find a spot and get our tent set up.”

     “Bah,” I said looking around at the uneven and snow covered country, “we still have time. Besides, there is no level or soft ground up here. Let’s keep dropping.”

     “Not sure that’s wise, but if that’s the plan, we better get moving. That sky is looking uglier by the second.” The wind was picking up as well and the temperature was dropping, but I still felt like we had a brief window to find an adequate campsite. If we were going to be stuck in our cramped tent, I at least wanted to find some soft, level ground for the night’s sleep.

     By the time we cleared the snowfields, rolling grey and black clouds covered the entire sky. Sporadic blasts of wind tore across the shelf, peppering our faces with stinging particles of dirt. Standing on a relatively flat, but still rocky stretch of mostly dry land, Jamie again voiced her concerns.

     “Any second now, we are going to get creamed. Are you ready to stop yet?” As if to punctuate her warning, a bold steak of white lighting lit up the sky in a brilliant flash. I surveyed the shelf below us and maybe a half-mile off, finally noticed a small stand of white pine right on the cliff edge overlooking Alaska Basin.

     “There,” I said indicating the distant location. “It looks flat, and I think we’ll have some protection from the wind in those trees.

     “We don’t have time,” Jamie insisted.

     “Not if we sit here arguing,” I countered. “Let’s move it!”

     Jamie muttered something unintelligible, but followed me as we increased our pace to a slow jog. By the time we arrived at the campsite, the first small raindrops were beginning to fall. We barely had a chance to peer over the cliff at the stunning view of Alaska Basin below before we were scrambling to get our tent erected, and our packs stashed inside a large black Hefty sack. I was standing at the entrance to our tent, struggling to remove my boots when the torrential downpour began. Standing behind me, waiting her turn, Jamie let out a string of cursing that would have impressed a crusty old sailor and shoved me through the door.

     “Hey!” I shouted as I managed to twist around in time to catch myself.

     “Move your ass!” she shouted. “I told you we didn’t have time.”

     Jamie barreled inside the tent a second later already wet from the cascading sheets of rain. Her grumbling continued until we had stripped out of our damp clothes and made sure the tent was secure. Our backpacking tent had seen and survived its share of high mountain storms and I knew we’d be fine, even if I had forced us to push our luck a little.

     “Look,” said Jamie, “I know you like to make up your own rules and everything, but that was too close. Another minute or two out there and everything would be soaked. Would have made for a freezing cold night.”

     She was right. Hell, we wouldn’t have even been able to sleep in our soggy gear; we would have had to retreat several miles across the shelf, down the Devil’s Staircase, through the moose infested forest, and back to our truck for dry shelter. Although I take no small amount of pleasure in flaunting man’s nonsensical rules, I do tend to respect the laws of the wilderness. Mother Nature doesn’t fool around and anyone taking her lightly is bound to be put in their place; which sometimes consists of a six-foot hole in the ground. As lighting raged across the sky and the deafening thunder echoed off the cliff walls, I made a mental note to be more careful in the future.

     “Alright, alright,” I finally agreed while having to speak up over the sound of wind buffeting our tent walls. “I’ll still wrestle a bear if given the chance, but I won’t take any more chances with the weather.”

     Jamie’s body language and tone of voice finally relaxed enough for her to smile. “How about you just stick to your usual animosity towards people and leave the animals alone?”

     “Fine,” I said while rolling my eyes in mock annoyance. “Ruin all of my fun why don’t ya’.”