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

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.

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