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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Battle of the Parks - Part I: Yellowstone

     “Ok, you have to decide right now... before we get any further. Make a choice!”

     “I get to pick first?”

     “Yeah... I mean, it is your birthday trip.”

     “Fair enough. I choose this one.”

     My wife and I had just entered Yellowstone Park through the west gate and slipped into the slow, single lane of motorists when our competitive natures and propensity for small stakes gambling got the better of us. This behavior is something we were born into as initially reluctant allies. See, I am an Idaho boy, born and raised with the Sawtooths as my stomping grounds. Jamie, on the other hand, is a Wyoming girl and her heart lies within the mighty Wind River Range. She boasts about her mountains superior heights, while I hail the accessibility of my peaks and kinder weather. She brags of the rainbow-like painted hills, as I launch a salvo of glorious hot springs. I bring up the immenseness of Idaho's wilderness, second to none in the continental United States, and she counterpoints with, “size doesn't matter when you're scared of real bears.” Referring, of course, to the gem state's pathetic intolerance of grizzlies. Usually, as I back-peddle from the bear argument, Jamie finishes me off with two national parks of unimaginable splendor, all but a sliver of which reside within Wyoming. Twisting the knife even further is knowing that Idaho lays claim to a miniscule portion of one, and the other is within spitting distance of our eastern border. My final, feeble argument is that I can't stand all the park tourists, traffic, and noise. “That is why we backpack,” she typically concludes.

     We had already exchanged our usual points when she decided to up the ante and have us pick a national park in a pseudo-official bet. Our mission was to backpack some 100 miles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Jamie wanted to gamble on which park would bring us the greatest memories and most fulfilling adventure. Assuming we could agree on such a thing. For starters, we had to drop our preconceived notions and previous experiences at the door. The trip wasn't our first to these wonderlands of outdoor beauty. In fact, the two parks basically form a barrier between our childhood homes and we frequently drive through the area on family visits.

     “Ok, you got Yellowstone. I get the Tetons,” she said.

     Clueless as to what I was doing, I twisted one hand into some semblance of a gang sign and sneered at my wife. “Y.S. for life, baby!” My bad impersonation prompted the usual eye-roll from my wife.

     I first suspected something cosmic was on my side of the wager when, less than an hour into the park, the line of cars slowed to a creep and tourists lined the road with high-powered cameras. We spotted the reason two hundred yards across a grassy meadow at the very edge of the treeline. Just in time, we saw a huge sow grizzly with two fuzzy cubs in tow amble behind a small, solitary spruce, and then the giant animal vanished. Just like that. Gone. Like the massive bear had a trapdoor on the gently sloping hillside to an underground lair.

     “What the,” I began to say, “I mean, it's hiding behind a Christmas tree. How can we not see her?”

     My wife seized the opportunity with a smile. “Idahoans just don't get it. In Wyoming, we understand the magic of the great bear.”

     Similarly stumped, the rest of the drivers gradually picked up speed and once again focused on the road ahead. I looked back to where she disappeared thinking a different angle would reveal her hiding place, but the massive momma had given us the slip.

     I barely had time to rub in the fact that the grizzly sighting had clearly put Yellowstone out to an early lead, when we saw the next mother bear. This one less than a hundred feet away. She was trapped in a narrow strip of meadow between the nearly solid line of vehicles and raging river. Normally, a grizzly could manage the powerful current, but she too had a cub on her heels and there was no way a mother bear would take such a chance.

     The panicked grizzly charged through an opening in the dense willows where she had been trying to hide and right towards our truck. Even within the safe confines of our truck, I felt a primitive reaction, something imprinted on the very blueprint of man's DNA; I had to fight the urge to throw open the truck door and flee. Not sure where I would have gone, but the caveman inside my blood did not like being charged by grizzlies. With no gaps between cars on the crowded road, the mother bear was forced to veer off and run parallel to the river once again. Eventually, the mother and cub topped a rise on the riverbank and were lost from our sight.

     “That was intense,” Jamie says with a nervous grin.

     “In your face, Tetons!” I shouted raising both fists triumphantly.

     After the initial excitement, Jamie and I expressed our concerns for the trapped bear. We felt sorry for the animals constantly being hounded bu humans in this sometimes all too zoo-like environment. Still, five grizzlies in the first hour. My horse was off to one hell of a start in this race, nearly making up for the constant roadwork slowing traffic.

     By the time we reached the pull-off for Hell Roaring trailhead, I was more than ready to leave the masses behind and hit the trail. Well over 90 percent of the millions of annual visitors to Yellowstone never leave the pavement or boardwalks. The park is a vast, pristine wilderness; as close to what existed before the European invasion, and yet very few actually step out into it.

     Of course, you can't just backpack into Yellowstone thinking you will hike whatever trail you want and camp wherever you please. At least not legally. The backcountry permit process is tedious and regimented, but absolutely required. Rangers insist on knowing precisely what trails you plan to use and you must reserve specific campsites for each night. Reservations can only be made from a ranger station and a visit to the backcountry office requires a mandatory film on the perils of camping in bear country. No matter how many times you have seen it, no matter your backpacking experience, no matter how many bears you may have personally wrestled, they will still force you to watch their movie.

     To avoid potential bear clashes, one of the things you learn when obtaining your permit is how to properly store your food. In Yellowstone, you must hang your sack of edibles from a log lashed between two trees about twenty feet in the air. I guess they figure that while bears are adept at climbing trees, they aren't much for tightrope walking. In Yellowstone, every camp has one of these “bear poles” securely in place. In Teton, you are expected to place your food inside a nearly indestructible plastic container, with an equally tricky lid, and stash it somewhere on the ground.

     Now, thanks to the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his Memorial Parkway, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are, for all intents and purposes, connected. There is nothing stopping the bears from wandering the few miles from one park to the other. Why there is a totally different process for storing food with the same populous of bears is anyone's guess. I'd make a joke about the efficiencies of government, but I work for the government and know full well that anything so sadly true couldn't possibly be funny.

     Our destination for the first night was the very maw of legendary Black Canyon, a pocket in the Northwest corner of Yellowstone that biologists claim is home to the densest population of large predators in the lower 48. Mountain lions, wolves, and bears reign supreme and that reputation was matched by the carnage we saw on the trail from the very first mile. Despite the abundance of decomposed carcasses, by day's end, the electric buzz from the grizzlies had been replaced by weariness and a slight sting of disappointment. We had walked a clearly marked and well maintained trail gradually gaining elevation through a high desert landscape, but the vast scenery was completely void of large mammals. There were other hikers, of course, but humans didn't count. I wanted animals and all we saw were bones.

     “Where's all the beasties you promised?” asked my wife as we arrived at our first camp. “I didn't see fresh sign of anything.”

     “It has to be the cool spring. The summer heat hasn't driven the prey this high yet.”

     I hated to admit it, not because of our wager, but because I knew it meant the next several days would most likely bring more of the same. Except for a lucky sighting of some rogue traveler, without prey, we'd be lucky to see any predators at all. A wave of disillusionment washed over me along with the simultaneous sense of déjà vu. As a child, I had been let down by my expectations on our families first trip to Yellowstone.

     Living in Idaho, you can’t help but hear about the park. Everyone has been there for vacation and as an avid reader, I had learned even more. Still, all the information was being filtered through the eyes of an over-imaginative child. There was supposed to be vast herds of deer, elk, and antelope around every bend; moose and bison by the boatload, and more bears, wolves, and lions than one could possibly count. It was supposed to be a wildlife wonderland the likes of which I could barely comprehend. Instead, it wound up looking a lot like the places I had camped near home.

     With the exception of the Black Canyon's looming entrance just to our West, our first designated site could have been any other river canyon in the gem state. The camp was set at the edge of a sagebrush spotted clearing on a dusty knob of upthrust river bank twenty feet above the powerful Yellowstone River. This was to be our base camp for a couple nights while we made day hikes into the canyon and off trail.

     A handful of mosquitoes were the first night's only drama; the weather and scenery unbeatable. Despite the missing wildlife, Yellowstone was turning out every bit as grand as I had predicted. The Tetons would need to rise to the occasion if they wanted to win this contest. “Everything is perfect,” I said to Jamie as we rested on our air mattresses and boiled water for a dinner of dehydrated chicken and rice.

     “Tell that to our neighbors,” she replied sweetly and pointed upriver.

     Two hikers were standing in a meadow maybe a hundred yards to the east staring at a large piece of paper held between them and pointing in various directions. Losing the main trail was impossible, so we knew they were checking a map for the location of their actual camp. Jamie and I had noticed the sign for the only other site within miles on the hike in. I was tempted to point them in the right direction, not out of a sense of goodwill, but because I had just hiked all day to find some privacy.

     I suspect our unwelcoming vibes radiated across the clearing as the two of them wandered further east and out of sight. Not in the right direction of their campsite, but it worked for us. I assumed they would be fine, even if they had to make a guerrilla camp somewhere and risk a park ranger’s ire. Although, the Hell Roaring trailhead sign did have a picture of a missing hiker lost just the week before. Jamie and I had actually discussed the possibility of stumbling upon his half-eaten corpse.

     As it turned out we didn't need to worry ourselves with such morbid curiosities. Never once in three days did we see a flesh eater in Black Canyon. The legends were all a lie, or, based on the countless number of bones, we just had unfortunate timing this season. Obviously, it wasn't long ago that something in the area was eating its fair share of fresh meat.

     On our last off trail hike, I experienced a brief startle when I tried pulling myself up a steep hillside by reaching out to grab what looked like a thick, dead branch. I recoiled at the last second, nearly slipping, when I realized the branch was actually an elk antler still attached to a mostly decayed skull. Tangled up with the severed head was the impressive rack of a large deer. The two rotting skulls looked as if they had been wedged into a narrow pocket between two boulders and half covered with small logs and branches.

     “Jamie,” I hissed at my wife who was scrambling up the slope ahead of me. I had heard of bears burying their food for a later return, but I wasn't entirely convinced it was the work of an animal. Still, the ghastly blank eye sockets sent a shiver down my spine and the dense forest suddenly seemed quiet and dark.

     “What is it?” she asked, noticing the peculiar look on my face.

     “A couple of heads,” I replied.


     “Skulls, a couple of skulls crammed up in here. Still have some hair and hide on them.”

     “What kind of skulls?” she asked slowly.

     “Deer and elk; still have their antlers too.”

     A look of concern crossed her face, feeding my uneasiness. In our animal kingdom, only a bear was capable of anything like this, and if it wasn't a bear then it had to be a person. Would the park rangers be stashing skulls for some reason? Was someone illegally gathering antlers to smuggle out of the park? The paranoia got the better of me and I decided it didn't really matter how the skulls wound up there.

     “We should probably get out of here,” Jamie suggested, “before our heads wind up down there.”

     “Good idea.”

     By the third evening, I had given up on seeing a living, breathing animal when we spotted a distant mountain goat high on the basalt cliffs across the river and high above our trail. We pulled up a cool, comfortable chair on a sandy beach near the churning water and watched the magnificent animal make daring leaps down the sheer black walls. It wasn't exactly a bear, lion, or wolf, but impressive nonetheless. To tell the truth, my wife and I have a soft spot for those shaggy white pranksters with the devil's black horns.

     “That has to be a point for Yellowstone,” I said to Jamie with a smile. “That, and the perfect weather, lack of mosquitoes, and pimp trails.”

     “I'm not sure how official this scoring system of yours really is,” was her response.

     Despite the rugged and unique beauty of the river gorge, I had felt slightly cheated when we reached our deepest point on the trail and knew it was time to return. What was originally planned as a through-hike became and out-and-back when we realized there was some squabble over private property rights nears the trail's end. However, despite having to turn our backs on the Black Canyon, our Yellowstone trip wasn't over. We had another site reserved about halfway between the base camp and our truck.

     Our second camp was a scenic jewel set off the main path by a mile walk across a sagebrush littered valley floor. A massive elk skull with eight point rack placed on a large boulder announced our arrival. The site had an amphitheater feel, with stunning mountain views out in front of us and a cliff wall at our backs. Just below our campsite, a rocky beach diverted a small channel off the massive flow of river allowing us to take a naked plunge in the freezing water; our first bath in days.

     Shortly after our arrival, we were half-startled by a big horn sheep. The little lady appeared from behind a large pile of stones at the edge of our camp and then froze in place as she noticed us sitting twenty feet away. Trapped in the open, I could see her eyes darting nervously from side to side; almost like she was trying to wrap her mind around an escape plan that didn’t involve actually moving. Jamie tried to whisper something reassuring, but the sound of human voice caused the ewe to panic and she fled back into the rocks.

     “Very cool,” I said, expecting that was the last we would see of her. Instead, the petite big horn reappeared a few seconds later amongst the jagged slabs that had fallen from the cliff wall just above our campsite. With cocked head and curious eyes, the ewe watched us for at least fifteen minutes. We studied each other about as well as different species could before she finally moved on. Jamie and I agreed that our camp had officially been blessed.

     “I'm just gonna count our furry friend as a two-pointer,” I said while mimicking a jump-shot and extended follow through.

     “I'm gonna laugh when she comes back tonight and attacks you in your sleep.”

     Our laughter at the image of the blood-thirsty big horn was interrupted by the sound of other voices. As it was on the first night of the trip, our personal space was being invaded. A group of four older hikers appeared on the far side of the river, dropped their packs and talked excitedly amongst themselves. At least the sound of the river muffled their voices to the point of being barely audible, and their camp was nestled mostly out of site amongst a thick stand of trees. Our moods soured a bit at the prospect of company and no more skinny dipping.

     Jamie elbowed me in the ribs. “Do you wanna take a point off your score, or just give me one?”

     “Take a point,” I sighed. “You don't get to start counting until we see a Teton.”

     Before going to bed that night, Jamie and I explored a small shelf just above the first cliff and below where another rock wall started. It looked like narrow, fifty yard half-pipe dotted with stumpy trees and fallen boulders. Bones of several different species covered the area. It was easy to imagine a mountain lion, waiting here in invisible silence for a variety of prey to make its nightly trek to water. Obviously, several animals never made it out of the death tunnel. Like the rest of the predation sign we had encountered, the kills were old, but we still excused ourselves rather quickly.

     We slept late the following morning, dragging our heels because the day would find us back at our truck and amongst the masses. However, a return to our ride didn't mean it was time to go home. Our ace in the sleeve was one last night in the backcountry already planned; we just needed to drive a little to reach the next trailhead.

     When we finally broke camp and began walking across the flat desert landscape, the heat of the day was already upon us. We trudged on gradually getting sticky from sweat. About midway back to our rig, we topped a rise in the middle of a sloping grass meadow and found the trail blocked by a giant, solitary bison. Separated from the massive creature by only half a football field, Jamie and I looked for something to climb, or hide behind. All the boulders large enough to possibly protect us were on the far side of the grazing beast, and even without a heavy backpack, neither of us could have reached the closest tree. The bison eyed us warily as it grazed on lush grasses.

     “Ok,” I whispered in my wife's ear, “you go distract it while I slip by. You know, make moose antlers with thumbs in your ears… and stick your tongue out.”

     “You're in danger of not getting this one to count,” Jamie hissed. “How 'bout we backtrack to the river and work our way around?”

     “Fine,” I said in mock exasperation, “if we're gonna be babies about the whole thing...”

     “You're welcome to use the trail,” she said. “Go for it.”

     After a twenty minute detour, Jamie and I figured we had circled far enough to safely return to the trail. As we topped the gentle slope from riverbank back to meadow, we realized we were even closer to the behemoth than before. The boulders were also closer, but somehow, they didn't seem much bigger. The bison, on the other hand, appeared much larger than before; big enough to possibly get a person on top the rocks. I didn't want to test the theory by tap-dancing on a five foot rock while an enraged, one ton beast tried to hook its horns into my legs.

     Moving as nonchalantly as possible, Jamie and I angled back towards the trail and away from the prehistoric creature. The bison watched us go with about as much interest, or disinterest, as it had watched us arrive. From a safe distance, we turned and waved goodbye, not only to the buffalo, but also the fading basalt cliffs of Black Canyon.

      Back at the truck, we decided to find the nearest lodge in order to clean up in the bathroom. Based on a long running track of predictable behavior, I also suspected we would manage to locate a cheeseburger and beer along the way. There was also a chance we might talk ourselves out of the last hike and find someplace posh to crash. My wife and I almost always stay true to our plans, but occasionally, we do elect to spoil ourselves.

     As it turns out, I was right about the burgers, beers, and alternate plans discussion, but I couldn't have predicted the manner in which the person at the table closest to us would eat his sandwich. Frankly, and I hate to say this, but the man's natural appearance wasn't helping the situation... at all. His wide-open mouth was trapped in a nonstop, cud-chewing motion, while a stubby, pale tongue poked out at regular intervals. Behind thick glasses and bulbous nose, he looked like a plump, vacant-eyed, frog-cow monster from the very bowels of hell. I had to completely turn my chair around and mentally slip into a state of denial in order to keep my lunch down. Clearly, the demon was sent as a painful reminder from our spiritual, wilderness guide. Jamie and I finished our food, pounded our beers, and without a word, decided to get back on the trail as soon as possible.

     Although the final hike was less than five miles in, we found ourselves questioning our decision after realizing it was another desert march, even hotter than before. Just as we reached the campsite, the elevation had finally begun to rise and the landscape more forested. This time, not one, but a half-dozen stacked elk skulls guarded the entrance to the camp. Separating the meadow and tree line was a small, picturesque pond. Unlike the vast majority of Yellowstone backcountry sites, this one had a usable fire pit, which meant roasted hotdogs for dinner instead of boiling water for something dehydrated.

     The luxurious camp was also guaranteed to have zero neighbors as there wasn't another designated site for miles. No neighbors didn't mean no visitors though; the freshest sign of bear I found in all of Yellowstone was where we were supposed to erect our tent. A sizable pile of scat, no more than a day or two day old, sat right in the middle of the small, dirt clearing. Claw marks and dried trails of bleeding sap could be seen on the closest tree. I removed a chunk of the animal’s fur from the bark where it had most likely been scratching its backside.

     “Sleep tight,” I said to Jamie with a wink.

     Before bed that night, we reminisced around a small, warm blaze about our favorite parts of the trip. After hiking out, we had to return to Boise for the work week before driving back to tackle the widely ignored northern trails of Grand Teton National Park. More than anything, I wished we could just keep hiking, but we had to finance our adventures somehow.

     I awoke a first light on the last day of our Yellowstone trip to an insistent bladder. Heeding the call, I quietly slipped out of the tent so as to not disturb my sleeping wife. It didn't work. Jamie rolled over and looked at me, bleary, blue eyes about the only thing visible inside her sleeping bag.

     “Happy Birthday, lover.”

     “Oh yeah,” I said having completely forgotten. “Thank you.”

     I moved down the treeline away from camp, and while taking care of business, I noticed the bark on a nearby spruce begin to move. For a moment, it felt like a hallucinogenic flashback from days gone by. A second later, my vision separated the camouflaged animal from tree trunk. It was a great, gray owl, nearly two feet tall, perched eye-level to me on a broken limb. The giant raptor was facing the opposite direction, but had spun its head entirely around to exam the intruder in its forest. The bird’s pale face was circled by a distinct line where its feathers grew darker, almost like it was wearing a tightly cinched hooded sweatshirt.

     After relieving myself, I tried to get Jamie’s attention by making a beckoning hand gesture until she finally noticed. Before she could shout any questions, I held an index finger against my lips and again motioned for her to join me. Jamie stealthily extracted herself from the tent and creeped to my side. All our precautions were unnecessary as the big owl appeared totally unruffled by our presence.

     “Oh my!” Jamie whispered. “How amazing is that?”

     “It’s my owl,” I replied, “come to wish me happy birthday. I might bring him home.”

     After examining us with amber eyes for a few minutes, the bird’s attention was attracted by a scurrying movement out in the meadow. Ground squirrels were waking up and beginning to mill about the entrance to their lairs. The gray owl leaned forward until its momentum carried it off the branch. On motionless wings, the raptor floated low over the field, rose abruptly a few feet, and then, silent as a stone, dropped into the midst of a small sagebrush. The thin branches shook as a struggle ensued. Everything went silent for a moment before the owl rose into the air empty-handed. It must have just missed its intended target.

     The owl spent the morning with us, continuing to hunt all around our campsite. Despite its brilliant, awe-inspiring tactics, the bird of prey missed several times before finally landing in another bush and emerging victorious with a small rodent in its black talons. We cheered for the silent assassin as it devoured its catch from a nearby perch.

     “That might have been the icing on the cake,” I said later as we walked the last mile back to our truck.

     “Yeah, it was unbelievably cool,” Jamie admitted. “But wait until we see that herd of grizzlies in Teton.

     My eyebrows rose questioningly. “Herd?”

     “Sure,” she said. “What, you’ve never seen… oh wait, you’re from Idaho.”

     “Always the comedian,” I replied. “Better phone ahead and tell the Tetons to get their A game ready.”

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Front Man

Nearly a complete
Solar cycle
Since I felt the electric axe
Since stalking stages
In lecherous fashion
Since I was tossed
From the snake

Killing the evils
Of mankind
With sonic screams
Straddling perceptions
Between horn and halo
Walking tightropes above
Churning pits
While guilt applauds

Nights of ego fed glory
On the heels
Of crushing doubt
And self-defeat

Energy fused cocktails
Bountiful ashtrays
Back alley smoke circles
And sideways glances

Some days
Miss the carnival
Sometimes miss the freak
Making sense
In my reflection
Some moments miss
The drunken highs
And crowdless lows

The rest
Feels unimaginably real
To have escaped
Those searing rainbows
Sweat stung eyes
Fog machines
And painted backdrops

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Know the Enemy

Come to kill me
Wreak doubt
Flood fear
Wave upon wave
Of mental assassins
Nearly predictable now
With their tactics
And like the frothing
Greeting their arrival
I never stop
Never win and never die

Some wars last lifetimes
Some lives are born
For death
Bash blood and brain
With blunt stone
Axe head or boot heel
Splinter a parade
Of spines
Without impunity
Without regard

The chaos of this
Silent battle
But carbon seepage
From one combatant
To another

Monday, July 26, 2010

Morning Glory Thieves

We are one
With ghost herds
Migrating to water
At the first smell
Of light

Silent shadows
Stealing through
The labyrinth
Of plastic fortresses
Mechanical steeds
And armed
Drunken minotaurs

A queen and king
Hording silent spoils
Amongst their
Emerald pools
Of steam and lithium

Stretching seconds
Beyond forever
Freezing the sun
And laughing
In the clock face
Back into our wormhole
We vanish
With lavender dawn
Leaving only tracks
For the crowds
To envy

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Whose Voice is That

A portion of this
Celestial orbit
Draws me into a world
That seems further away
Out of touch
Flowers faded
Fragrance fainting
And I cannot remember
If the moving lips
Behind these
Wondering eyes
Were ever even heard

Did I once agree
To something
Do people expect
An answer
Are they waiting for me
To take action
Or worst of all

Is my freak showing

Does the lack of
Question marks imply
Rhetorical answers
Suggesting a
Subconscious possibility
Of a soul in flight

Or am I still fighting

Monday, July 19, 2010

Idaho Outlaws

          The large, white sign with bold, black letters leaves no room for creative interpretation; this road is closed. My wife and I exchange exasperated looks and a few choice expletives. This is the third time in the last thirteen hours we have been denied entrance into the back country of central Idaho. Unusually persistent spring rains have turned June’s annual runoff into a mess of seething torrents, overflown riverbanks, and washed out roads. Jamie and I knew the risks when we headed north from our Boise home, but decided the cool, wet weekend called for leisurely hot spring soaking, so we opted to push our luck.

          The first setback occurred shortly after turning off Highway 55 and onto a dirt road between Cascade and Donnelly. Our initial destination was Gold Fork Hot Spring, possibly the finest commercial geothermal soak in Idaho. Typically, we keep to the more isolated pools located on public lands throughout the gem state. On occasion, however, we will actually pay for a prime hot spring, especially if there is wet or cold weather keeping the masses at bay.

          Gold Fork is a picturesque series of a half-dozen large pools cascading down a gentle and rocky slope to a river of the same name flowing by about one hundred yards below the geothermal seep. The chain of soakers is fed from the top by a super-heated, generous flow that gradually cools to lukewarm by the time the water reaches the lowest pool. Gold Fork is surrounded by steep mountainsides covered by spruce trees, balancing the more modern facilities with a primitive, forest feel.

          Half-way down the dirt road leading into the hot spring, we rounded a corner and came face to face with Gold Fork River. What had always been a pleasant little flow, nearly laughable to call a river, now reminded us of something we had once seen while flying over Alaskan mountain ranges during the summer. Every valley floor between the towering peaks contained a surging river seemingly the size of the Amazon. However, instead of lazily snaking its way across some vast and level plain, these colossal white pythons radiated sheer churning violence. Raised in prime rafting country, I had seen the fury of white water countless times, but never coupled with such massive volume. The staggering sight left me staring out of my little airplane window mouth agape.

          The Gold Fork was no longer a river at all, but some kind of demonic water elemental that had finally broken free from the confining clutches of its bank to overrun the forest. Trees normally on dry earth rose from the muddy current in every direction like an army of soldiers slogging through the flow. Before I could make sense of the swamped landscape, I noticed a white Ford truck with headlights flashing as it screamed up behind our Toyota.

          “Look at this idiot,” I said to my wife. The Ford swung out from behind me a couple of times as if trying to pass, but there was no room on the narrow road to get around our large truck. Within seconds, I had enough of their tailgating and pulled over at a wider spot where the swollen river was lapping at the base of the slightly raised roadbed. Instead of racing around us like we expected, the Ford pulled alongside and the passenger window unrolled. The intense glare I had prepared quickly evaporated when I noticed the driver was a small, silver-haired woman gesticulating wildly with her hands; her voice a frantic, squirrel-like chatter.

          “You guys gotta get out of here right away!” she stammered. I own the hot springs and the road is washing away as we speak. Oh God, this is bad. I have to get everyone out before it’s too late!” The older woman didn’t wait for a response before her white truck peeled out and raced out of sight.

          “Okaaaay,” said Jamie. “I guess that pretty much rules out Gold Fork.”

          “Alarmist,” I suggested. “Maybe, we should pull off somewhere and wait for everyone to evacuate. Then we could have the whole thing to ourselves.”

          Jamie looked down at the river’s edge, mere inches from our truck’s front tire. “Or maybe, we shouldn’t push it. Look at the sky”

          She was right. Dark clouds were gathering in the already gray western sky. More rain was almost assured. “When did we move to Seattle?” I pondered aloud while conducting a three-point turn on the narrow road and coming to terms with the vile flavor of retreat.

          We passed one other car on the way out and waved them down to break the news. They were a couple about our own age, and after a brief conversation, we learned they too were hot spring aficionados. They had already been denied earlier in the day at public hot pools near the Warm Lake area totally swamped by runoff. The four of us rattled off a few options, but eventually agreed on the only nearby choice standing any chance of being accessible. When Jamie and I drove away, the couple was debating on whether to continue the quest, or find a hotel room.

          About 20 miles beyond the northern shores of massive Payette Lake is the recreational resort of Burgdorf. Originally established in 1870, Burgdorf resembles a ghost town more than anything. Several of the cabins have collapsed or been condemned due to old age and brutal winters, but the structures that remain standing have been reinforced, slightly refurbished, and made available for rent. There is no electricity, running water, or even bedding (bring your own), so the resort remains true to its rustic roots.

          The centerpiece of Burgdorf is a 50’ by 100’ pool full of clear, geothermal water that is loaded with natural, calming lithium. It is also a constant 4’ deep and 105 degrees, two factors which prevents most children from being able to soak comfortably; a luxury that isn’t lost on Jamie and me. We like our soaks to quietly sedate the body and mind.

          You can also watch elk and white-tailed deer gather in the vast meadows surrounding the area nearly every dusk and dawn. Of course, wolves follow the ungulates into the area, occasionally tearing something apart in front of the fascinated and horrified onlookers. I have even heard Burgdorf's manager tell stories of a 150 pound black alpha-male found curled up asleep on his cabin doorstep one brisk, fall morning.

          To get to our Plan B location, we must first continue north and drive through the bustling town of McCall. Unlike Burgdorf, McCall is a resort town at the peak of popularity. Opportunities for outdoor activities during any season abound in the ample rivers, lakes, and mountains surrounding this central Idaho region. While still nowhere near as high-end as world famous Sun Valley, McCall’s pricey new stores, extravagant homes, and ever wealthier populous reminds me more of that area with each passing visit.

          With our day slipping away, we hurried through the small town with barely a sideways glance. Once reaching the Western side of Payette Lake, we turned off Highway 55 to head north along Warren Wagon Road. With the sky still darkening overhead, we made it about two-thirds of the way around the large body of water when we ran into our second obstacle. Men and heavy machinery suddenly filled the roadway, completely blocking our path. Beyond the scurrying crew, dump trucks, and bulldozers, we could make out a section of road totally underwater.

          One of the men, dressed brightly in an orange construction vest, jogged over to our car. He removed his hat as he approached and wiped sweat from an ample, balding forehead. “Sorry folks, can’t let anyone through this way,” he said. “The lake is spilling over and further up a section was so undercut, it collapsed altogether.”

          More select swear words rattled around my head as the man headed back to his work crew. “Something, or someone, doesn’t want us soaking tonight.”

         “Seems like it,” Jamie agreed. “What now?”

           Before I could answer, the first big drops from the approaching storm hit our windshield. I also noticed hunger pangs and a powerful thirst for the first time of the evening. Maybe I just needed something to wash down the taste of a second setback.

          “Back to McCall to regroup, maybe get dinner, and let this storm do its thing.”

          Jamie shrugged her shoulders in an almost defeated gesture. “Whatever.”

          “We’ll figure something out,” I said while conducting another 180 degree turn and driving away from the construction site. Again, the bitter taste of defeat burned up my throat.

          Back in McCall, we stopped at the first restaurant we passed and settled into a private booth with burgers and beers while the storm gained in intensity. Like most afternoon thundershowers in Idaho, the rain was intense, but brief. By the time we finished our dinner and second pint, the western skies were beginning to clear and the downpour had become a trickle. However, despite the break in weather, we both knew the runoff would be raging for the next several hours, possibly most of the night.

            Rather than tempt fate and attempt another back road, we decided to hole up in Ponderosa State Park just outside of McCall for the evening. Technically, it is a day-use area and camping overnight is not allowed, but we’ve always subscribed to the theory that it is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. Besides, the color of our truck blends into forest settings almost perfectly, and we sleep in the covered bed, so we don’t have to set up a campsite. Finding us in the dark isn’t easy.

            Without any nightly hassle from the authorities, we awoke to a bright, blue dawn, and found an espresso shop back in town. The coffee was a little burnt, but strong enough, and from a wooden rack containing several tri-fold fliers, I picked up a tourist town maps with cartoon pictures of local attractions and nothing set to any kind of realistic scale. It did, however, reveal another road around the east side of Payette Lake. One we had never taken. We quickly decided to make one last attempt.

          Jamie and I felt a little foolish using the picture map as a guide, but we found the road with no trouble. It turned to dirt right away and began to descend into the thick forest surrounding the lake. Through the trees, we could see the glassy and calm water to our left getting closer and closer until we hit a level stretch of road just above the shoreline. It was also the moment the third barrier appeared.

          Staring at the Road Closed sign in front of us, I can't help thinking that we got our nightly wish, the weather had complied, but still, we find ourselves staring defeat square in the face. Strike three. Our last option just came crashing down.

          “Screw it,” Jamie says. “There's room to squeeze around the side there.”

          “And just pretend we didn't see the sign?”

          “See what?” she says, feigning ignorance.

          “You're funny. Why not? Worst that happens is they tell us to turn around.”

           Beyond the sign, the road is in surprisingly good shape. Water from yesterday's rain still seeps from the rocks walls lining the hillside to our right, collecting in tiny streams running parallel to the road, and no doubt seeping through a million tiny crevices. Thankfully the earth beneath our tires is so mixed with rock it manages to hold firm where a more dirt road would dissolve into impassable mud, or wash away altogether.

          We make it to the midpoint of Payette Lake before we suddenly come upon the rear end of a giant road-grater, beeping loudly as it backs straight towards us.

           There is no room to turn around so all I can do is throw the Toyota in reverse, focus on my mirrors, and slowly retreat back down the narrow road. I pound the top of the steering wheel with one fist. “Goddammit!”

          “Wait,” Jamie says, grabbing my arm. “He's pulling over... to let us through, I think.”

          Sure enough. The road-grater swerves into the hillside crushing the dense foliage and comes to a halt with just enough room for us to get by. An arm juts out the driver's window waving for us to drive around. Maybe our fortune is finally turning. Or maybe, he wants to ask us what the hell we're doing here. Only one way to find out.

          Jamie put on her biggest smile as we draw even with the cab of the massive machine. “Good morning,” she practically sings, basically daring someone to be rude to someone so cheerful. It works, or the stocky driver is in a good mood anyway.

           “Mornin',” he says with a two-finger salute. “Got here just in time. Just finished a pass over that stretch there, and...” he pauses while assessing our Toyota with a quick glance, “I think she can get through now.”

          “What about further up? Can we get all the way around?”

          The man scratches at a thin, blond beard with one hand. “Should be able to. If it still looks like it did a few hours ago. Not last night though. Nothing was getting through. You should have seen it. Hell, I had to get evacuated by boat and come back for my rig this morning.”

           The man is open, friendly, and quite willing to chat. He never questions our presence on the closed road, and we never bring it up. He offers a final, “Have fun!” before we slip past the road-grater and immediately drop the truck into four-wheel drive for the stretch he just “fixed”. Moving like snails, we are still bounced around the cabin as we slip through freshly overturned rocks and slippery mud.

          Once through the washout, our route around the lake once again becomes manageable. For long stretches, dark water lurks on both sides of the road, somehow reminding me of lurking crocodiles just waiting for their moment. It is easy to see where the floods came through in the last 24 hours, and with just a little more rain, our only path out would quickly submerge. Trying to not think about it too much, we drive on.

          Beyond the lake and halfway to Burgdorf, we come upon a section of paved road fully displaying the ferocity of last night's flood. We screech to a halt in front of a giant gaping gap where our lane is missing altogether. The road looks like some prehistoric great white shark of unimaginable size reared out of the churning water and took a bite from the bank, possibly snagging an entire car in its giant maw. We can see the layers of stacked asphalt and compacted dirt in the sloping side-view as it drops away towards the river.

          The gap is thirty feet across, but just enough of the road remains in the opposite lane for us to swing by. Assuming the road hasn't been so undercut that it collapses beneath the truck's weight. Jamie hops out and jogs across the damaged road, assessing the integrity as she goes. On the other side, she turns and gives me a “thumbs-up” signal, followed by what appears to be a “get your ass across in a big hurry” beckoning motion.

          I don't need to be told twice. Swinging so far to the left the front end of the truck begins to lean from the angle of the mountainside, I race across what remains of the ragged asphalt. The road holds and my wife jumps back in the truck. I give her a questioning look with raised eyebrows.

          “No worries,” she laughs. “We made it.”

          The half-missing road is the scariest moment of the trip, and after laboring through a few more mud patches in four-wheel drive, we arrive at Burgdorf. The ramshackle collection of cabins, sheds, and outhouses show no signs of activity; the parking lot is totally empty. Never have we seen the place so quiet and deserted. The only signs of life are countless ground squirrels darting from every building, bush, and rock. From somewhere, we hear the strangled caws of a raven. Not only does Burgdorf look like a ghost town, it also feels a little haunted.

           We park in the area closest to the pool and the eerie calm is immediately shattered by the sudden barking of two dogs. Around the corner of the main lodge, behind which lies the pool, trots a dusty, black Scottie, and a grey and white mottled mutt. The two canines run towards us without hesitation and we step out to scratch their heads as they dance between us.

           “Is the road already open?” asks a deep voice from behind us. Stepping out of the closest rental cabin is a black-bearded man dressed in Wrangler jeans and flannel shirt. He is holding a .22 caliber rifle mounted with a scope. Jamie and I look at each other, smiling nervously.

          “Not really...” I say.

          “Aaah, just out exploring then?”

          “Pretty much.”

          “Well, they evacuated us on Thursday and you're the first we've seen come back. I help run the place... and deal with our ground squirrel invasion,” he says holding up the rifle.

          “You guys need to turn loose a dozen bobcats,” Jamie offers.

          “We need something,” he agrees. “Anyway, you're welcome to the pool. The boss went to Warren to deliver much needed beers and smokes. He'd probably make you a deal on a cabin if he gets back. If he doesn't, I guess the swim is on the house. I got to get to work.”

          The man walks off towards the vast meadow, eyes locked on the distant and darting varmints. Jamie and are left alone, totally alone, in a beautiful historic setting, under perfect blue skies, and an amazing soak just awaiting our arrival. I see Jamie smiling broadly and I know what she is thinking. Sometimes, when you live like an outlaw, you get rewarded like one too. And today, we are living like outlaw kings.

          “To the pool!” my wife shouts.

          Maybe we will rent a cabin, I think as Jamie tosses me a towel. It wasn't in this trip's budget, but suddenly I feel like making our Burgdorf retreat last as long as possible. At least until they re-open the roads and our rustic little sanctuary is overrun with commotion. Or even better, more rain will fall, more roads will fail, and there will be no way for us to return to work on Monday. Sorry boss, stuck in Burgdorf! One can only hope.

Friday, July 16, 2010

God's Thumbnail

There is a sign
In the sky
Felt beyond
The calculated
Translation of
Predictable patterns

A warning
A blessing
A seismic shift
Reverberating through
The subconscious

Is this the apex
Of some beginning
Or the inaugurating
Cataclysmic climax
Will constellations clash
And drag our nights
Into a perpetual frontline
Will we bring the battle
Straight to the gates
Of Olympus
Or will the soothsayers
Finally be heard
Above all this war

The coy smile
Greeting the stars
For this solstice
Reveals no secrets
Never has
And forever will

Monday, July 12, 2010


Possessed by the
Devil’s red beard
He eases into dark
Virgin woods
Dematerializing in shadow
Losing himself
Amongst ivy laced
Canopy pillars
Spider ferns and
Emerald moss

A ghost in the mist
This forest has not
For hundreds of years

Here foot falls
Senses sharpen
Until sound
Overruns the nostrils
Scents are seen and
Heartbeats echo
Across canyons
Time and legend

Vox Humana
A dead tongue
Scattering life
Rattling leaves
And forever lost
On the glaring canines
Of this beastly

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Garden Angel

She is an absence
I imagine
All too vividly
Like acid eyes
Across boiling rock
Screaming the truth
Of this
Petrified condition

I was cold
Lifeless earth
Starving blind worms
She the shovel
Penetrating my silence
And exposing this
Albino belly
To sun

In that light
I gave myself away
To long fingers
Warm breath
Water and seed
As resuscitation took hold
And she is oxygen
Keeping lungs
From total collapse

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Moose Prints

From ice covered talus slopes
Somewhere above
Ledges of shaggy goat
And the rifle report
Of crashing big horns
We lose our path
Beneath slick white sheets

Two unnoticed ants
Scurrying across the
Indifferent and impossibly
Enormous granite teeth
Of some frozen monster
Now forgotten in time

This is everything
This thin air
The next forced step
Through burning lung
The bite of axe
Holding our elevation

Like life intended
When sabre-tooth still prowled
There are no second chances
No accepted apologies
We must find a way
Over the divide

Knowing miracles
Are where you look
We find the tracks
Of another prehistoric beast
The namesake
Of this climb
And basin beyond

Follow me they whisper
I know no trails
But I always make it
And we do too
Carried by faith
In our invisible guide