High mountain lakes. Those three words serve as the physical embodiment of everything I regard as sanctuary. Hell, I go so far as to call them my idea of heaven; a veritable conduit to the divine. No matter how cagey I might become in the face of a world gone mad, I take great comfort knowing hundreds of alpine lakes are but a day's journey from my Boise home. There are well over 1,000 of these natural churches in the Gem State alone. I'm not exactly sure from where the fascination stems, but I suspect these quiet bodies of water simply represent a glorious destination at the end of what is often an exhausting and brutal hike. The calm shores an inviting place to unburden oneself, be reborn in icy waters, and truly appreciate a hot meal in splendid isolation. Honestly, I can't imagine anything better.
On the trail just ahead, my wife lifts her head and sniffs the air. “I can smell the lake. We’re almost there.” Over the years, I have learned to not question her sense of smell. There is a bloodhound somewhere in that family tree, I am almost certain. A firm, warm breeze from behind carries my well earned stench up the path towards my hiking partner. I see Jamie’s head twitch slightly as if trying to discourage a gnat from landing; her gifted nose is a blessing and a curse. Earlier in the day, she was tracking down huckleberry patches by their sweet fragrance alone, now she has a lumbering beast on her heels reeking of dead bear.
My wife quickens her pace and I am hard-pressed to keep up. We have been climbing straight up through the Sawtooth Mountains carrying full backpacks for nearly eight hours. Walking a rarely used trail running across the wasted remains of a forest torched by recent wildfire, I take note of our wounded surroundings. The dark green boughs of the few surviving pines stand out in stark contrast from their burnt cousins. About half of the charred trees are still standing, dead on their feet, waiting for a strong wind to finish the job. The blotchy portions of spruce trunks that escaped the direct flame are bleached gray from the sun. The forest here looks thin and sick, seemingly incapable of concealing or sustaining life. The ground is a dirt and ash combination held to the earth by a thin crust formed by the daily drying of morning dew. Our feet puncture the crunchy layer and send up miniscule clouds of chalky powder with each step.
We spot a chipmunk darting amongst patches of brilliant purple and white wildflowers growing from the gloomy soil. I like chipmunks; their furtive movements speak to a state of constant paranoia I understand all too well. The flowers and the rodent remind me of nature’s cycles. This area will recover. A few animals are still here, and more will return as the undergrowth and trees replenish. Fires are devastating in their fury, yet necessary for the rebirth and long-term health of any forest.
As I picture an image of the phoenix, a fiery bird from long dead mythologies, we round a bend in the trail and just ahead, in the bowl of sheer cliffs and steep talus slopes, is our shimmering destination. The surface sparkles like a sheet of diamonds in the sun. I feel like a dying man in the desert not wanting to get taken in by another mirage, but now even I can smell the cold, clear water beckoning us.
The trail leads to an empty campsite nestled amongst large granite boulders right at the lake's edge. We hear the shrill “eeps” from invisible pikas hidden amongst giant stones covering the southeastern slope. Because of their similar physical characteristics, I usually refer to them as “high altitude hamsters.” Almost subconsciously, Jamie and I deposit our backpacks on a flat rock and after a quick scan of the circular shoreline confirming our isolation, we undress and mentally prepare ourselves for the swim. Naked on a ledge about ten feet above the crystalline green water, my wife and I agree to jump simultaneously. After a couple of false starts designed to test each other's true intentions, we agree to hold hands and finally take the plunge.
As usual, submerging into an ice cold lake is like being tackled from out of nowhere by some salivating linebacker. The mind knows full well that something unpleasant has happened, but it takes the body several seconds to sort it all out. My legs fight the instinct to clench up before relaxing enough for the kicking motion to take over. I pull myself to the surface where I hear my wife gasping in shock. We race back to the shore and climb the rock face once again. The change is almost incomprehensible. In the span of a dozen seconds, I have transformed from a hot, stinky, and tired brute to a clean, wide-awake, shivering popsicle. The sensation is amazing. Adrenaline surges through us and we find ourselves grinning, laughing, and daring each other to jump again. We do. Several more times, but each submersion is slightly more painful than the one before until we can take no more.
Trembling in what is suddenly a cool, distant sun and even colder breeze, I take in our beautiful surroundings. A hundred yards before completing my long, slow gaze around the picturesque cirque, I realize we are not alone. Fishing from the top of boulders on the lake's north shoreline are two young men. They are far enough away I can't see them clearly, but they have no facial hair and are dressed as if they are about to bust into a volleyball game at someone's backyard barbeque. The youngsters are also trading glances with each other and sneaking peeks in our direction.
“That's just great,” I say and point them out. My wife lets out a little squeal and hops off the rock out of sight. I simply turn my backside in their direction and continue to let the sun gradually warm my body. No matter how deep we hike into the mountains, hoping to find our very own lake, there is always a chance of locating company instead. Oh well, it isn't like you can keep a treasure like the Sawtooth Mountains a secret. Besides, I bet we hear more from the pikas than we do these two guys.
After the refreshing swim, Jamie and I set up our campsite and then spend an hour above the southern shoreline climbing over, under, and amongst the gargantuan boulders. Some of the rocks are the size of small houses. The pikas, chastising our intrusion, appear and disappear like they are part of the world’s largest game of whack-a-mole. After I dislodge a football sized rock and nearly put an indentation in my wife’s skull, we decide to call off the evening’s bouldering and return to camp.
Less than thirty minutes later, my wife and I are resting our tired bodies and finishing a salty meal of dehydrated spaghetti, when one of the men we noticed earlier walks into our campsite. He looks even younger than I originally imagined and clearly not old enough to have legally purchased the half consumed bottle of rum he carries in one hand. I suspect a razor has never touched this kid’s face, and his skin bears the red pits of teenage acne. His approach clearly slows as Jamie and I greet him with uneven stares. Neither of us are outgoing towards strangers and in the hills that tendency is even more amplified. Like I said, we prefer to be alone.
“We weren’t sure if we would see anybody else this far in,” he says in a friendly tone.
“One can only hope,” I mutter.
“What’s that?” he asks shifting his weight nervously from one foot to the other as his eyeballs bounce between us. Part of me wants to unsheathe my hunting knife and ask him if he enjoyed the view of my naked wife earlier, not because I really care, but because I want to gauge his reaction. The youngster’s question hangs in the awkward air for a few seconds before he tries again.
“You two look like real backpackers. This is the first time my older brother and I have ever gone,” he says pointing back in the direction of their unseen campsite just beyond the northern shoreline. “He has some kind of migraine all the sudden and is trying to sleep it off... Would either of you like a drink?” he asks holding out the bottle of rum.
The young man is a little tipsy and I smile in spite of myself remembering one of my first backpacking trips with my older brother nearly 20 years ago. Neither of us had been old enough to legally drink either, but we still managed to get our hands on a 12 pack of Miller Genuine Draft. I humped that additional weight for many miles and over several ridges. Never again did I attempt something so foolish, but I remember the night we pulled it from the icy lake as it was the best mass-produced American lager in a can I ever tasted. Hunger and exhaustion can make bread and water seem like a king’s buffet; a cold beer something worthy of gods.
I am tempted to accept his offer, as rum is my favorite liquor, but I suspect doing so will mean our uninvited guest will stick around. My wife is a teacher of kids not much younger than our interloper, and bless her heart, is unable to ignore the young man’s nervous energy any longer. “Is your brother alright?’ she asks. “Do you two need anything?” The humane communication causes his face to flood with relief and he focuses his attention on my wife instead of me.
“Oh, he’ll be fine. Just needs a few minutes… I think.”
“Has he been drinking water? Dehydration causes headaches and other problems.”
“I think so, but I’ll make sure he drinks more when I get back.” He takes another pull from the bottle of rum, grimaces slightly, and then looks up at the bare, rocky ridges surrounding us on three sides. “Sure is quiet up here,” he says softly.
“Thus the attraction,” I say with one eyebrow slightly arched.
He tries a few more times to engage us in random chitchat, but quickly realizes our responses don't leave a lot of room for discussion. “Well”, he says after a particularly long and uncomfortable silence, “I better go check on my brother. We’re right over there if you get bored and want to stop by.”
We watch him stumble away and then exchange smiles. “Greenhorn,” I say with a small laugh.
“Everyone’s horns are green at some point,” my wife gently reminds me.
As if to add some punctuation to her last statement, the wind kicks up a blast strong enough to peel the top layer of dirty ash from the ground and send it airborne all around our campsite in a mini dust storm. The air feels instantly cooler. We both look to the west where just minutes ago, the sun was making its way into the natural V of the valley. Were it not for an exposed break in the otherwise constant ridge-line, the sunset would already be upon us. Through the gap, however, our view extends for miles, farther than either of us can see, gradually dropping away into an expanse of evergreen and lower summits. Only now, the nearly cloudless blue ceiling we have enjoyed for days has been replaced by a boiling black sea. The distant storm catches our attention just in time to watch the sun, the massive furnace powering our entire solar system, get eaten alive by the rising tide of darkness. One second it is there, a faint white ring desperately holding its ground behind the veil, and then it is gone.
The wind hits us again, stronger this time, peppering us with dirt and ash. “I don't remember anything like this in the forecast.” Jamie looks at me with wide-eyes. I shrug my shoulders, but she is right. We always check the extended forecasts before heading deep into the mountains and this entire week was supposed to be hot and clear. Of course, weather predictions mean very little to Idaho mountains. As if reading my mind, Jamie adds, “This beast is creaming the valley right now! Stanley must be getting pummeled. Think it will make it up here?”
The monstrous storm is still several miles below us and off to the west, so there is a chance we'll be spared. However, something about the building static in the air makes me think this writhing beast is going to slither all the way up this mountain and show us her fangs. “We better batten down the hatches before this breeze gets any stronger.”
“Breeze?” My wife shouts as she hop steps after her bandana as it is torn free from its tree branch clothesline and lurches across the ground. As she begins to round up our belongings and shove them in our backpacks, I quickly clean the kitchen area, dismantle and store the gear. What can be left outside is, the rest will have to cram into our two man tent. Two man is an exaggeration. Try more of a fabric coffin. Two of me wouldn't fit comfortably at all. Thankfully, Jamie is rather petite. Small, but fierce. Also, when a backpacking tent advertises its holding capacity, it certainly does not include your equipment as well. Instead, we have a couple of flaps hanging from the sides of the main body that can be stretched out like elephant ears and staked close to the ground. The flaps do an adequate job in most circumstances to help cover anything wedged right against the outside wall, but doing so makes entering and leaving the shelter a much more difficult proposition. Basically, once sealed inside and the gear is pulled in around you – plan on being there awhile.
The sky is getting dark by the time we have everything squared away. We are about to climb inside our tent when we notice a calming of the wind and flashes of lightning in the distance. Several of the thick, black clouds have raced out in front of the storm's main body, like massive tentacles reaching out to swallow the evening's first stars just as they appear. Dancing all through the churning black squid are streaks of white energy. The display is mesmerizing. Rather than watch lighting move vertically though the air and towards the ground, the light show races horizontally across the dense clouds. The lightning never ceases. Before one strike can burn itself out, another one has started. The electrical web highlights the boiling storm in a way that is both beautiful and terrifyingly revealing. Even if we wanted to, Jamie and I can’t deny the reality of what is headed our way. Almost hypnotized, we stand at the edge of our campsite and watch the monster approach.
It isn't for several minutes that I even notice the distant and constant rumble of thunder growing slowly louder. Like the lighting, it never stops. It is impossible to tell when one ionic collision begins and another ends. Not until the first pelting drops hit our faces do we peel our attention away from the raging tempest now at our doorstep. We both scramble to get in one last bathroom break and manage to slip inside our shelter just as the wind charges through our campsite with renewed fury and the first wall of menacing clouds reaches our elevation. “Here we go,” I say.
“Oh man,” Jamie begins, “what about the greenhorns?”
Since the weather grabbed my attention I haven't given the brothers a second thought. The young man mentioned it was their first backpacking trip. It might be their last trip as well, I think to myself. Short of a direct lightning strike, or a burnt out tree falling over and crushing their tent, there was little chance of any fatalities. However, the chances of a night spent in soggy, freezing misery suddenly seems pretty solid and can certainly dampen one's enthusiasm for future expeditions.
“Baptismal by fire,” I say. “Not much we can do but check on them in the morning.”
The storm unleashes its fury shortly after we seal ourselves inside the small, flimsy tent. Heavy droplets of rain and howling winds batter the fabric walls, a fraction of the moisture puncturing through the walls creating a faint mist inside the tent. Spattering mud and ash are already staining our shelter's lower half a dark grey. Although no words are spoken, I know we both wonder just how much of a pounding this tent will take before it's dripping from every seam and corner. We crawl inside our sleeping bags and lay flat on our back as close to each other as possible to minimize contact with the walls and ceiling.
It isn't long before the lightning and thunder are upon us as well. At first we can count to five between the strikes and the following clap, but within minutes the gap begins to narrow until it seems as if there is no delay at all; just an intense white web tearing across the sky, visible through our tent walls, revealing our wide eyes and nervous grins. There is an electric charge in the air unlike anything I have ever experienced. The fillings in my teeth begin to tingle. Thunder blasts off the surrounding cirque of granite cliffs like bombs going off in an amphitheater designed for optimum acoustics. The volume of each clap is nearly deafening and between the loudest roars is a constant rumble that seems to shake the entire mountain. Jamie grabs my hand, squeezing it intensely. I return the gesture, no doubt with greater pressure than intended.
The storm is relentless. I am actually starting to wonder if the lake might overflow its shoreline. I silently theorize we might be able to ride our Thermarests like little rafts to safety. Surely, trying to stay on top of a thin inflatable mattress during a flash-flood while barreling down a steep mountain full of boulders and trees is conceivable. One way or the other, I have a feeling we are going to get wet. I find myself wondering how the greenhorns are holding up. Hopefully, like us, they dropped a little extra money on quality gear.
The very next flash of lighting and immediate thunderclap is just slightly to our north. The storm is no longer directly above us but the two brother's campsite instead. I half expect to hear shouting, cries of alarm, something, but even if they were screaming at the top of their lungs, I doubt we could hear them over the raging weather. Like us, all they can do is ride out the storm. Hopefully, the kids don't do anything foolish like try to pack up and head down the mountain before the front has moved on and daylight has broken.
The predicted dampness seeping through the tent, eventually our sleeping bags and very bones, never takes place and somehow, Jamie and I manage to drift off into an uneasy sleep. Exhaustion has its rewards. While we slip in and out of consciousness, the storm reluctantly moves on until all that remains is a deep and distant rumble haunting our dreams.
At daybreak, I can feel the first bit of moisture seeping through the foot of my bag. We emerge from our warm pocket and step out into the damp, cold air and find ourselves in an almost unrecognizable muddy wasteland. Everything is drenched and covered with the soil and ash mixture. What were taught tent walls last night are now sagging under the extra weight. Even the bright patches of lush green grass from the day before have been replaced by what appears to be the limp heads of filthy mops; the lake itself serving as the world's largest bucket filled with dirty water. The scenic panoramic view of crisp colors and remarkable scenery doubled on the glassy surface from the day before has been replaced by shades of stale brown and ash gray.
Nearby, a few of the dead trees, still on their feet as of yesterday, fell during the night. The storm was so loud neither of us heard a thing. I shudder a little inside looking at the two blackened trunks standing within range of our tent. Not a pleasant way to wake up... assuming you wake up at all.
At my side, Jamie lets out a short laugh. “Look at this,” she says nodding her head towards the northern shore. The two brothers are walking the trail following the shoreline in the direction of our campsite. They are nearly jogging despite shouldering bulky exterior framed backpacks. The path bypasses our location by nearly a hundred feet, so my wife calls to them as they hurry past. “You guys alright?” The one who ventured into our campsite yesterday offers us a furtive glance and timid wave. His brother doesn’t even break stride. Both men are puffing steam in the crisp air. Within seconds they are around the bend, descending down the mountain and out of sight.
“At least they’re still alive,” I say with a chuckle.
From the direction of their camp, we notice a black wall of clouds inching over the ridge and the perpetual growling of thunder increases in volume. It looks like the dark monster in the sky might circle back for another pass. Jamie and I immediately begin to break camp and pack up the remaining gear. Everything is muddy, wet, and subsequently heavier than it should be, but we don’t care. At this point, time is more of a factor than weight. Within a half hour we have wolfed down some granola bars and have ourselves squared away. We’ll have a serious clean up job of equipment awaiting our arrival back home.
The only thing we find ruined by the storm is our digital camera. It fell out of its backpack pouch and landed on the ground at the edge of the tent’s side flaps right in the stream of draining water. Jamie had taken several pictures of the boiling storm just before we had retreated into our tent and now there was no evidence of the ferocious weather.
I am in the process of throwing my pack over my shoulder when the first stinging hailstone bounces off my forehead. Jamie looks at me and smiles. Behind her a crackling bolt of lightning streaks through the ominous clouds. “Maybe those greenhorns are smarter than we thought,” she says. “At least they knew to get up and out of here. They might actually stay ahead of the storm on their way down.”
“Bah,” I counter. “A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face.”
Jamie pats my cheek as she walks past. “And apparently, women and boys have the sense to get out of the rain. You coming?”
I take one last look at the object I have always considered holy, this high mountain lake. Never have I seen one in such a state of disrepair. Between last year's fire and last night's storm, the entire cirque is a dark and dirty disaster. Still, the front row view of nature's chaotic power has left me feeling energized, like I absorbed some portion of those close lightning strikes. I can still feel the thunder claps echoing in my heart. I am ready to walk all day in the wet weather. Rain be damned.
Like the forest, this lake's aesthetic beauty will return and the memory I choose to take away from here will be one of glorious green water under bright blue skies discovered at the end of long day eating dirt on the trail. That is the picture and sensation I will remember. Of course, the roar of thunder and the electric snapshots of my wife's frightened eyes will rattle around in my skull for some time as well. I am almost certain the greenhorns won't forget their first backpacking trip no matter how long they might live.
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 "
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011
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 "
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011