6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

As It Were

What is always
The last cigarette
While keeping the sun
At bay and
Blessing an unholy fog
With time to spill forth
And lay down
Its great gray blanket

The entire planet
Swallowed in simple
Swirling mist

Imagines how easy
It could be
In black and white
Where endless stimulus
Thoughts and questions
Are absorbed
By the landscape

Where one finds
Some way
To be comfortable
With how temporary
Permanent and cyclical
Everything becomes
And no reminders
Of how quickly
We all
Become invisible

Wolf Wars

Hard to accept
This sleeping
Mountain valley
As a battleground
Until you hear
The midnight
Raucous mourning
Of outlaw packs
Howling bloody defiance
Towards the overhead
Cruel and callous fingers
Stabbing their position
On saliva stained maps

Fugitives forever
On the run from hollow
Indolent cowards
Polishing toxic bait
Steel traps
And silver bullets
From the luxury
Of feathered lairs
And four-wheel drive
For another season
Of state sponsored lies
Denying science
Common sense
And any chance for
Redefining humanity

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Invisible Price

American heroes
Hidden from view
Shuffle the halls
Of this home
And countless others
Like living dead
On instinctual patrol

Spent ammunition
From wars nobody won
Shells of shiny soldiers
Once rolled off
Proud assembly lines
Only to be shipped off
And stripped of their stars
Stripes and souls
In some frosty
Forgotten desert
Once on the lips
Of patriots everywhere

Where are they now
The delirious fans
And fireworks
So eager to watch
The spilling of red
White and blue
Over our enemies

Are they
Piecing together
Paraplegic puzzles
In the activity room
Or sharing
A Saint Bernard
With those who lost
All human connection

Did they drop the sword
Or just move on
To spearheading the next
Red alert
Without gaging
The shunned reality
Of their last parade

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Glacier Griz

     “Bear!” I shout while jamming my index finger into the windshield hard enough to hurt.

     Crossing the road just ahead of our truck is an enormous specimen with rich chocolate fur; a male black bear in the absolute prime of its life. Due to his size, I nearly mistook it for its larger cousin. In fact, this bear is as large as a sow grizzly we recently encountered in Yellowstone. Somewhere between the thin, ratty look of spring and the comically rotund appearance bears assume near hibernation time, this brute is lean and mean.

     In a few quick strides, the creature is across the road and into the rain-forest like foliage framing our drive through the southeast portion of Glacier National Park. I stop our Toyota even with where the bear just vanished and we see him ambling down a concealed, overgrown trail. The imposing animal slowly swings his massive head around to look back at us, his dark eyes betraying an indifferent assessment of our presence. This bear has clearly seen its share of tourists gawking at it from within the safe confines of their vehicles.

     My wife and I, on the other hand, are nearing our trailhead about to embark on a thirty mile backpacking trek though his territory. And, while this bear is formidable enough, it’s Glacier’s healthy population of grizzlies that will keep us on our toes during the day and sleeping lightly at night. Jamie and I exchange a knowing glance before returning our attention to the bear. Somehow managing to look bored with our brief interaction, the hairy beast turns his back to us and steps off the trail instantly disappearing in the dense greenery.

     “Better hope he doesn’t pay you a visit,” says a voice laced with concern from the backseat of our big truck. Jamie’s mom has accompanied us on our vacation to Glacier and after dropping us off at the trail head, will pick us up four days later on the other side. She worries incessantly about her daughter every time we backpack in grizzly country, which means, she gets to worry a lot. For some reason, if there aren't animals around that can readily devour me, I just don't consider myself “in the wild.” I do my best to convince Joan that I am a professional bear wrestler and mountain lion tamer, but she doesn't buy it.

     “We’ll be fine, Mom,” Jamie says, “You know the odds of a violent encounter are slim to none. Hell, if we do see one it will probably be barely visible through our binoculars.”

     “Maybe,” she counters, “but nobody thinks they’ll be a statistic until they are one.”

     A few minutes and a couple goodbyes later we are on the trail. Like the road, our path is hemmed in by a variety of lush flowers, weeds, ferns, stinging nettle, and best of all, huckleberry bushes bearing rich, purple berries. We also realize the climate is much more humid than what we are used to. Our Boise home is basically a concrete, plastic, and steel barrier between the northern mountains and southern deserts. As such, we receive a meager amount of rain fall despite living in the “City of Trees.” The air is dry and our summers are hot. Glacier, on the other hand, is relatively cool and muggy, at least until you hit the windier and more alpine climate found near the summits of the park's peaks.

     Every state in the union has a saying about the weather, suggesting that if you don't like it all you have to do is wait five minutes. We say it in Idaho all the time, but the old adage might actually apply to Glacier National Park. Intense rain, sleet, hail, and snow pound the area on a frequent basis and these storms can erupt at any time. Even during the peak backpacking months of July and August, hikers must be prepared. Jamie and I have our waterproof gear safely tucked away. For now, the big Montana sky is a deep blue ocean hanging overhead while the relentless sun cooks my shaved scalp.

     “I'd settle for a breeze,” I say while fanning myself with my bandana.

     “Just be glad most of the mosquitoes have died off, or we'd be jogging through this sauna.”

     “Should we stop at some point and gather huckles?”

     “When we get closer to our first campsite,” Jamie answers. “Can you imagine how they'll taste with the dinner?”

     Like most backpackers, we eat a lot of dehydrated meals, but on the first night of any trek, we spoil ourselves with something that only needs to last in an unrefrigerated environment for a couple hours. Tonight's dish is Jamie's gourmet, barbequed meatballs; a fifty-fifty blend of organic beef and sausage livened up with ample amounts of chopped leaks. As the sweaty, jungle-like march wears on, I start to imagine I can smell the feast inside my backpack.

     Our first campsite, Park Creek, is only seven miles into the wilderness, but considering the late start and swampy conditions, we are happy for the short trek and even happier to find the site deserted. Glacier is different than most national parks with an emphasis on backpacking in the sense that they lump different backcountry parties together in a close area containing multiple tent sites. Hikers want solitude and that is what most parks deliver, but Glacier believes in keeping people together for safety and convenience. And speaking of convenient, every site has a pit toilet, an accommodation rarely found this deep in the wild.

     Park Creek is vacant because it isn't amongst the glory hikes so relentlessly pursued by the fervent backpacking sect. It wasn't our first choice either and we had arrived at the backcountry office to obtain the required permit over an hour early only to find a line already formed. Worse had been knowing that several of these stations existed throughout the park, so there were people ahead of us in other lines as well.

     Not to be caught with her pants down, my wife mapped out several hikes before our turn at the computer. All the hikes from the legendary Garden Wall and Dawson Pass were booked. We had to settle for a two day slog through the rainforest before a brutally steep ascent would ultimately lead to the epic mountain views unique to this glorious landscape scarred by unimaginable ice-sheets. Only a handful of the glaciers still remain; the namesake of the park nearly extinct.

     As a pair of natural recluses, the unoccupied site serves as ample reward for our sweaty march. Following proper bear protocol, we defy the temptation to pick a site before the possible arrival of other hikers, and head straight for the food prep area. After securing our edibles in a sack and raising them up the bear pole, Jamie and I walk past the camp's outhouse and settled for the most removed of the three tent areas. The sleeping spots, the pit toilet, and the food prep area are all connected by a series of hard-packed dirt trails. As a child, I'd already have invented an elaborate game of tag utilizing the mazelike paths through the chest high undergrowth nearly hiding Park Creek from the main trail.

     Our day's hike had paralleled the babbling creek and after squaring our tent and gear away, we take advantage of the crystal clear water by stripping naked and rolling around in the shallow flow until our bodies are clean and refreshingly chilled. The warm sun, cool stream, and bug free afternoon leads to a long, pleasurable, dalliance; our bare bodies soaking up the rays and rich forest fragrance. After a final rinse, we reluctantly apply a clean layer of clothes.

     “Did you feel like we were being watched,” Jamie suddenly asks while wrapping a towel around her hair. I pretend to glance nervously about and then chuckle.

     “You know, now that you mention it,” I say.

     “Seriously,” she continues, “I swear there was something.”

     “I must have been concentrating on other things... and now I'm starving.”

     After swinging by our tent to drop off our dirty and wet clothes, we head to the food prep area. There is a small bundle of wood in the fire pit, but having just bathed, we decide to forgo any smoky campfires for the evening. I lower the sack of food from the bear pole and pull out a zip-lock bag of trail mix while Jamie lights the gas stove and dumps the wad of pre-cooked meatballs into a small pot. Instantly, the smell of sizzling meat and barbeque sauce infiltrates our senses and we barely wait for them to warm before falling on a plateful like two salivating dogs.

     Twilight descends over the valley as we put the finishing touches on cleaning the kitchen area and once again raising our food sack to the recommended fifteen feet. We stop at the pit toilet on the way back to our tent and each stands guard while the other takes care of business. Tired from the walk, and full from our meal, neither of us experiences any trouble falling into a deep sleep.

     What feels like seconds later, I startle awake and sit bolt upright with the cold hand of dread squeezing my heart. Something is wrong, but my foggy brain is still trying to collect itself. It is the pitch black night of a new moon and I see nothing outside the mesh walls of our backpacking tent save the dark outlines of the closest walls of bushes. What woke me up? It wasn’t a nightmare, or I’d have some vague recollection of the dream. Jamie’s calm, measured breathing is an immediate relief and I am about to lay back down when I hear the sound, no doubt the same noise that first woke me up, a sound that raises every hair on the back of my neck and causes my heart to leap into my throat. It is the forced, guttural exhale of a very large animal.

     “What was that?”

     Jamie’s hissing whisper causes me to flinch involuntarily. Obviously, my wife has joined me on full-alert. Before I can answer, we hear the loud blast of breath again. The animal is sending out a deliberate vocalization as if to announce its presence, concern, or possibly, its agitation. I appreciate Jamie asking a question and making it seem as if there is some other possibility (a rabid moose, perhaps?), but it is a sound we both recognize from a lifetime of research and a general fascination with Rocky Mountain wildlife.

     I once inadvertently agitated a mother black bear while attending a Boy Scout Camp in the Frank Church: River of No Return Wilderness. While fleeing for my life, and leaving the slower boys in the dust, I remember being captivated by the almost human infant like cry it gurgled before charging. The animal in our camp sounds nothing like that vivid recollection. Somewhere near the food prep area, maybe sixty feet from our tent as the crow flies, but more like a hundred following the trails through camp, the breathing intensifies.

     “Take a guess. Shhhh.”

     We both listen intently, simultaneously noting that other than the ragged breath sporadically piercing the calm, the dark forest is deathly silent. Moving quietly, I reach into the tent pocket near my feet, grab our can of bear spray, and remove the safety cap. Our camp has been invaded by none other than the king of the forest and sum root of all backpacker’s worse fears. Resting my thumb on the trigger, I do my best to peer beyond the stretched mosquito netting in the direction of our visiting grizzly.

     I am certain the animal has already smelled us, but with the undergrowth so tall and thick, the bear can't see our tent. A surge of excitement laced terror races across my entire being and I can't tell if the smile creeping across my face is genuine or pathological. I've always wanted that up-close and personal experience with a grizzly, but I never imagined myself trapped in a tent on a moonless night while one came a knockin'.

     As we listen, the grizzly begins to move, its irregular exhales gradually getting louder. With no audible disturbance of vegetation, the big bear has to be using the man-made trails to saunter through camp, surely following its nose to some culinary destination. We had followed all the rules though; there was nothing in our tents besides a couple bellies full of meatballs. From what I've read of bear’s keen sense of smell, there is a chance the grizzly can smell the food inside us, especially all slathered in barbeque sauce. I remember thinking the night's dinner was Jamie's idea when my wife whispers in my ear, her face so close and invisible in the pitch black that I nearly jump out of my skin and let loose the bear spray.

     “It sounds like it's moving around behind us.”

     “No way,” I finally say when my heart quits seizing, “It's using the trails in front of us.”

     “I don't know how it isn't making noise in the bushes, but it's behind us,” Jamie insists while gripping my thigh with her hand.


     The breathing becomes closer and closer until I am certain it is standing at the final branch in the trail, one path leading to the second tent area, the other right to our front door. Meanwhile, Jamie is thinking the bear is equally close, but somewhere behind us; somehow silently slithering through the jungle environment like a snake. For a few tense moments, the grizzly seems to stand in place, possibly deciding its course of action, until finally, the next blasted breath is fainter than the one before. Mercifully, the great bear gradually moves on until he no longer smells us, or is too far out of range for us to hear its huffing.

     Too stunned to process what had just happened, Jamie and I say very little. We both slowly lay back down, still trying to make out any potentially alarming noises from the departing grizzly. Doubting I will sleep anytime soon, I decide to keep the bear spray in one hand. Showing her true Wyoming nature, I hear Jamie's breathing slowly slip into the familiar pattern of sleep. While my wife treats the grizzly encounter like a soothing hot spring soak, my blood is still flowing hot enough that I have to hang my upper body out of the sleeping bag to stay cool .

     It isn't long before I too find my eyelids getting heavy from trying to keep them open. I'm not even certain what I hope to see in this moonless night, except maybe the faint light of dawn. Without a watch, I have no idea of the time. I am about to put an end to my guard duty when the sound I have been dreading punctuates the silence once again. Our grizzly is coming back. Not good. Up until now, I had assumed that once the bear had reached a point that it could verify humans were still in the area, it had decided to be on its way. Now I wasn't sure what to think.

     “Dan, it's back.”

     “I know,” I whisper, “because I didn't fall asleep.”

     This time the bear sounds like it is on the path leading from the main trail right to all three tent sites, ours being the deepest spot in. Straightaway, the breathing again becomes louder and at a more rapid pace than before. From the sound, I estimate the grizzly has already passed the entrance to the first tent area.

     “Jamie, I have to talk to the bear.”

     I feel her uncertainty hang in the air between us. The sensation is emanating from me as well, but I see no other choice. On cue, the blasted exhale slices through the dark and silent forest, closer than we have heard before. The bear has reached the second site. Now or never...

     “ALRIGHT BEAR,” I bark in the deepest, manliest voice I can summon, “THAT IS FAR ENOUGH. WE'RE NOT YOU DINNER TONIGHT. TIME TO BE ON YOUR WAY.”

     Jamie backs me up with a meager “hey bear” that sounds like she is talking all cute to one of our cats back home. I stare at her in the dark with one eyebrow raised in an incredulous, “is that all you got” expression. We're trying to deter the bear, woman! We're not trying to convince it that we're weak hairless apes all wrapped up in a fabric tortilla!

     The grizzly, now maybe twenty feet from our front door, lets out one final whoof that ends much more abruptly than the others and then the forest slips back into thick silence. I focus my efforts on hearing any sound at all, any clue as if to whether or not the bear is leaving, sitting quietly, or creeping even closer.

     Although we never hear another sound from the bear, the rest of night’s sleep is a fitful one. Even Jamie tosses and turns never quite slipping back into a deep slumber. In the back of our minds, we keep expecting to hear the distinct huff of a disturbed grizzly blasting through the dark.

     At first light, I quietly extract myself from the tent and stand to my full height trying to survey our campsite. Seeing nothing, I creep down the trail towards the other tent sites, carefully examining the ground for any sign of our intruder. I find a few distinct scratches in the hard-packed dirt, that may or may not have been the result of grizzly claws, but after a thorough search of the entire camp, I find no other evidence.

     Maybe Jamie was right and the bear was moving around behind us, but I still don’t see how that would be possible without us hearing it; the undergrowth is just too thick for several hundred pounds of animal to slip through quietly. Maybe there is more to the great bear’s magic than I can comprehend. In any case, Jamie and I don’t even bother with breakfast. Glancing over our shoulders the entire time, we retrieve our sack of food, break down our tent, stuff our backpacks, and hit the trail, eager to leave the scene behind us.

     Despite the early start we make poor time. Almost immediately, we notice the trail is lined with healthy berry plants. First, we find ample huckleberry bushes spotted with fruit so big, they resemble plump blueberries. We gorge ourselves as we walk, stopping every fifty feet or so to harvest more. Next we find thimbleberries, then wild strawberries, and finally succulent pink raspberries to round out our sweet and natural breakfast. I even go so far as to cram huckleberries inside the cavernous pits of the thimbleberry creating a sinful treat that leaves us both drooling.

     Several times throughout the morning, as we descend on yet another fragrant patch of wild fruit, I find myself searching the nearby forest and shadows for any sign of bear activity. If any animal loves wild berries more than us, it’s bears. However, with the exception of a few piles of scat, I find no evidence of recent activity. For once, I am not overly disappointed about that fact; I guess last night’s encounter has momentarily satisfied my bear cravings.

     The day’s eight mile hike winds up taking over five hours. Our berry picking pace is easily the slowest we have ever moved and my back aches from the constant bending over beneath the weight of my pack. I am also grumpy from having to push through the steamy and ever-thickening vegetation. By the time we have reached our second campsite, I am wishing more than anything that I had brought a couple machetes along. The hostile side of my personality wants nothing more than to decapitate plants until I can no longer lift my arms. No wonder people seek out the higher trails.

     Upper Park Creek is very similar to Park Creek, not only in name but also appearance. Both are set down amongst the ferns and broad-leafed plants with the creek nearby. Both have three tent sites, a pit toilet, and a food prep area, which we locate first. On sawed stumps placed around the fire pit sit cups, utensils and pots, clean from the look of it, but still not what you want to see when entering a camp. Cooking gear should never be left unattended in the food area. Obviously, at least one of the sites is taken. Or, the previous occupants were drug off by grizzlies right after washing and neatly stacking their dishes. You never know.

     “Maybe I’m still a little frazzled about last night, but not cool,” Jamie says while surveying the food prep area. “Might as well hang up an invite sign.”

     “Let’s ditch our sack and snag a spot before we have to meet these clowns,” I suggest.

     Looking around, I notice their green tent blending into the background, half hidden by the logs and bushes framing the site, no more than fifty feet away. I hold one index finger against my lips. With exaggerated and clownish movements we silently creep to the bear pole while trying not to laugh at each other. We emit a few squeaky snickers, but manage to raise our sack of food. Like the night before, we then search out the most removed tent site and quickly square away our camp. Also like the night before, we feel compelled by the sticky, smelly film covering our bodies to find a spot in the creek worthy of a quick dip.

     After a few plunges, I am standing shin deep in the water and shivering when it’s my turn to experience the sensation of being watched. The feeling is acute and I slowly inspect our surroundings. I find nothing out of place, but it does little to quiet the perception.

     “Do you feel like we’re being watched now?” I ask.

     Jamie splashes water at me, her taut naked body shimmering in the sun. “Funny,” she says, before noticing the look on my face. “Why, do you?” she asks while subconsciously raising her arms to shield her torso.

     “I’m sure it’s nothing… or, possibly a grizzly that has been following us all day. Maybe our visitor last night was what you felt yesterday down by the creek.”

     Jamie begins to glance about in nervous fashion before catching herself with a quivering laugh. “Shut up, you’re freaking me the hell out. If anything, the neighbors are spying on us.”

     “Only if they want to get stabbed,” I say loud enough for any would be voyeurs to hear.

      After our bath, we change into clean and comfortable clothes and spend the remainder of the day lounging about camp reading, writing, hand-rolling smokes, gathering huckleberries for dinner, and taking note of the various birds flitting through the trees. From time to time, we hear faint murmurs from the other occupied site, but we make no effort to meet or even see the neighbors. We even wait for them to finish using the food prep area before we make our way over for dinner. The usually tolerable dehydrated sweet and sour pork actually becomes a treat after adding ample huckleberries to the hot mush.

     As the evening shadows begin to lengthen, Jamie and I hang our bear bag and walk back to our tent area. I find myself feeling a bit anxious at the thought of another night in grizzly country. What if the bear really had followed us? Nah, surely just my imagination. Besides, now that we had another couple camped nearby, our odds of being the ones eaten were half what they were yesterday.

     For the second night in a row, I sleep poorly. I cannot get the sound of the grizzly’s breathing out of my head. Every time I feel myself drifting off, I hear that noise echoing through my memory and my eyes snap open half expecting to see two glowing red orbs peering down at me from just beyond the flimsy mesh wall. Jamie feels it too and we toss and turn until we hear the chirping birds greeting another crisp mountain dawn. Rather than fight it any longer, we decide to get up, tear down camp, and hit the trail.

     Just above and beyond our second camp, the trail begins an abrupt climb and almost immediately we rise out of the dense vegetation and into a more sparsely covered, almost alpine scene. For the first time in a couple of days, we can actually see the forest floor. The trail continues to steepen as we climb until the trees become scarce as well. On the exposed mountainside, the conditions are less muggy, but without any natural shade we are soon breathing hard and dripping sweat. Without a creek to follow, and no streams until we cross the divide, Jamie and I also have to conserve our water.

     In less than five miles, we climb over 3,000 feet, until exhausted and parched, we collapse at the top for lunch and a panoramic, scenic view of Glacier’s jagged turquoise and pink peaks sitting atop long, steep talus slopes. An abundance of hematite and chlorite are responsible for the almost surreal green and pinkish hues of Montana’s mountains. Made from these local materials, even the roads of the Big Sky state have a light purple hue. From our vantage point, we can see the trail we climbed descending for miles back down to the forest floor from which we started the day. I follow the long snaking path with my eyes for as far as I can, a small part of me trying to confirm that we are not being followed by some determined grizzly.

     After lunch, we hike another eight miles, but due to the steepness of the descent, Jamie and I jog half the distance. We find numerous clear streams to refill our portable water filtering plastic bottles, and even enjoy an afternoon break in the cooling mist of a beautiful waterfall. We are dog-tired by the time we reach our final camp on the shoreline of Upper Medicine Lake. At the base of a massive and steep picturesque cirque surrounding ninety percent of the glassy water, the lake is easily one of the most beautiful sights I have ever beheld.

     Marring the scene, however, are a couple of dome tents already established in the site affording the best views. Again, the occupants are nowhere to be seen, but Jamie and I creep past anyway and settle for the next best location. Per our ritual, the tent is barely erected before we wrap towels around our naked bodies and head for the beach. We search the shores for any sign of an audience and notice a man fly fishing on the far side of the lake. Too far away to see anything, unless he pulls out a pair of binoculars, Jamie and I drop our towels and plunge into the cold water.

     As I reemerge from my dive, I again feel the overpowering sensation of being watched. Standing up in the waist deep water, I again survey our surroundings and instantly notice movement from the occupied camp. An older woman is standing on the shore, making furtive and beckoning motions in the direction of the dome tents. Another woman and a grey haired man appear at her side, all three of them blatantly staring in our direction.

     “We’re definitely being watched this time,” I grumble to Jamie whose eyes widen instantly in alarm.

     Without trying to conceal my gestures, I point them out to my wife who proceeds to dip down in the water and crabwalk to shore. The nearby spectators continue to gawk as we make our way back to shore. Feeling annoyed and a little violated, I offer them a long look at my fully extended middle fingers. One of the women glances away for a split second before returning her shameless gaze.

     “What the hell? Do I need to stab some old folks, or what? I might expect this from teenagers, but c’mon…?”

     Their complete lack of discretion has me steamed. I mean, I can understand secretly spying on skinny dippers, or maybe stealing a couple glances in their direction, but I’ve never seen people stare is such an obvious and oblivious manner.

     “Well, I guess that was a quick bath. How rude,” Jamie says while hiding behind me and her towel.

     “Totally,” I say. “What’s this world come to when you can’t even trust old people to show a little respect. There might be another late night visitor coming through camp tonight, well, at least their camp, and I can guarantee it will be less civil than a grizzly bear.”

     Jamie laughs. “No killing anyone , not this trip.”

     “Are you sure? I think I can make it look like a bear attack.”

     “Well, you can scare them and if nature decides that a heart attack is in their imminent future, so be it.”

     I rub my hands together gleefully and take a last glance at the three onlookers. “That’s right, chumps,” I hiss. “There’s something far scarier than grizzlies prowling these mountains. Sleep tight.”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Mantis

I find him on the floor
Of a dank and smoky
Main street bar
Both of us
Out of place
In this toxic landscape
How we got here

Him for the first time
Me for the last

We study each other
With tilted heads
Both of us monsters
In our own right
But unlike my segmented friend
I understand this place
Having once trapped myself
In a similar mine
And know full well
Of the slow
Punishing death
Inside these walls

I sense his desperation
The anxiety and fear
No different
Than the other animals
Inside this glass cage
But because
He didn’t ask to be here
And I am now simply
A tourist of these holes
I gather the praying creature
In two hands
Take it outside
And release it
In a cement planter
Full of flowers
And a fighting chance

All that any of us
Can ask for

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Distress Signals

I was so wrapped up
In wonder
Studying the sound
Of rain
Slithering through leaves

Clouds capable of
Holding my attention
With one grinning skull
After another

Like looks
From the man
Salvaging smokes
From ashtrays
To understand the


But somewhere
A comfortable job
An endless bottle
Of rum
And the lasso
Of a rodeo queen
I slipped into
A cozy nightmare
Between the daydream

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Call of the Gypsy

Bearded gnome
Roman and a Spartan

Burlesque girls with
Dragon tattoos
Snaking slender bodies

A ten foot man
A marching band
The freaks are out
In daylight

Smoke rings and
Mushroom wings
Ale consumed
By the flagon

How intoxicating
The human rhythm
Once behind our
Feathered masks
And seeing nobody
For who they are
But what we all
Could be

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Peripheral Damage

Stone faced
The soldiers fall
Before an onslaught
Of screaming teeth
Until whispered screams
Become unbearable
And I turn my back
On the massacre

What else can I do
When we need
Another parking lot
To justify billions of
Black blood sucking ticks

There is no time
Space or papers served
For generations of
Fox squirrel
Raven and praying mantis
No thought to
Each little alveoi
Of our master lung
Or even a remembrance
Of lovers
Who once dallied
Beneath emerald canopies

 As it becomes
With every other life
No longer convenient
Stripped of able limb
And dignity
The voiceless evicted
Flee the only home
They have ever known

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Great Bear

Never saw your face
Never looked
Into those haunted
Brown eyes
Never had a chance
To know you
But I felt your presence
On that moonless night
Loom larger
Than the dying glaciers
Of Montana’s garden wall

Through forced breaths
At the very edge
Of relentless shadow
I heard your questions
Concerns and agitation
With my kind
Stirring sleepless imagination

The very thought
Of salivating
Bone crushing fang
And three inch claws
At my fabric door
An insistence of reverence
And utmost humility
In this godless age

Precious few are we
Who enter
The forest of kings
And emerge
From towering pillars
With his petrifying blessing
To continue our quest
For any kind of answer

Friday, August 6, 2010

Battle of the Parks - Part II: Teton

     “This doesn’t bode well for your Tetons,” I said, clearly annoyed as my wife tracked down and smashed the last mosquito inside our truck. Hell, even before the bugs appeared, our tempers were running short. It was already dark out and the drive across southern Idaho had taken longer than anticipated. Grassy Lake Road, just east of Ashton, was perfect for bypassing tollbooths and sneaking into the park, but it certainly wasn’t the shortcut we remembered. After having finally passed a sign announcing our arrival to the western border of Grand Teton, we realized a bathroom break was long overdue. As we had stepped out into the warm mountain air, Jamie and I were instantly pelted by flying insects. At first, we had just abruptly appeared in their flight path, but a split second later the bloodsuckers understood a meal was afoot. My wife and I were both bitten before we darted back inside the cab and brought a dozen of the monsters with us.
     “We’re gonna hike in this?” she asked.

     “We’ll see what it’s like tomorrow,” I grumbled. “Either way, you’re starting out with a negative score.”

     Jamie and I had just started the second half of a 100 mile backpacking trek through northern portions of Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Due to the necessity of gainful employment, our adventure had to be broken into two long weekends sandwiched around a three day work week back in Boise. To keep things interesting, Jamie and I made a wager on which half of the trip would shine brightest in our memories. I chose Yellowstone and it had delivered five glorious days of great weather, scenic landscapes, memorable wildlife encounters, and possibly the greatest gift of all – almost zero biting insects.

     We never identified what the victor of our bet would win, but then again, we rarely did. Our competitive nature wasn't tied to the possibility of material gain, but rather stemmed from a natural rivalry between residents of neighboring western states. In any case, our Yellowstone trip had started with a couple of thrilling grizzly sightings, while the Tetons decided to initiate us with mosquito swarms; I was out to an early lead.

     Tired from the six-hour drive, we took the first single lot campsite available and parked the truck on a mostly level piece of ground. As we sat inside the cab and ate ham sandwiches, countless mosquitoes landed on the windshield and probed the glass with their flimsy proboscis. Afterwards, we bolted for the covered bed of our rig and crawled inside our sleeping bags. Despite being anxious for another wilderness quest, we fell asleep almost instantly and slept soundly until the late morning sun began cooking us inside the stuffy shell.

     A short drive later we had arrived at the Jenny Lake backcountry office to secure our reservations and pick up a thick plastic canister with locking lid. The “bear box” is required for proper food storage while backpacking in Teton; if you don't own one, you have to rent. As usual, the process took ten times longer than necessary with me getting more frustrated by the minute. It is little wonder so many people bypass the reservation process and just take their chances on getting caught. My wife dealt with the tedious ritual while I stalked the office in small circles. Jamie tells me that I literally growl at people from time to time. I tell her they are lucky I don’t bite.

     In the northern portion of Teton, there are no designated backcountry sites. You are expected to camp a couple hundred feet from the trail, but the leave-no-trace intention is that people do not stay in the same locations. The rangers want a general idea of your nightly destination, but all you can do is guesstimate how far you might walk each day. The older ranger handling our reservation sternly warned us to expect snowfields when he hit 8,500 feet. Jamie and I expected this and already had ice axes strapped to our packs. We were actually looking forward to the high elevation; Jamie and I would much rather tackle snow than deal with bugs.

     And deal with bugs we did. From the moment we set foot on the trail until we took a rest for lunch, we practically jogged across the wet, lush terrain west of Jackson Lake. Stopping even for a quick drink gave the mosquitoes a chance to pinpoint our location. The only exception was a brief conversation with a backcountry ranger making his way out of the park. He was carrying a small chainsaw in one hand, and a long-handled shovel in the other. The three of us orchestrated a full-bodied, dance- in-place routine designed to discourage the vampiric insects from landing while the ranger asked about our route. When we told him of the intended loop over Moose Divide and into Moose Basin, he smiled broadly.

     “My favorite part of the whole park,” he said. “I doubt you see another soul.”

     “Perfect,” Jamie and I replied in unison.

     After saying goodbye and turning to walk away, the ranger called back to us. “Oh hey! Just so you know, I've seen about a bear a day for the last week. They're up in there.” Jamie and I smiled at the news and waved to him once again before running down the path to escape the gathering cloud of insects. With the miniature devils hot on our heels, we made surprisingly good time. Our pace interrupted only once as we swapped our boots for sandals, and conducted an icy, thigh-deep stream ford that left us gritting our teeth in agony.

     The ranger wasn’t kidding about the presence of bears. Numerous clawed prints and huge mounds of scat dotted the trail. Always curious as to what the local ursine population has been feeding on, I tried to give the first few piles a cursory examination. The mosquitoes, however, made such curiosities impossible. When we finally stopped for lunch, we had to quickly erect our tent, and seal ourselves off from the outside world.

     “This is ridiculous,” I said between bites of peanut butter sandwich.

     “We should get above those bastards… sometime tomorrow,’ said Jamie with a slight grimace.

     After lunch and nearly an hour rest, we did an equally hard push lasting the bulk of the afternoon, but found ourselves exhausted before we could climb above the bug line. We had covered some ground, but the pace had worn us out sooner than expected. Again, we set up our tent as fast as possible. Thick as the bugs were, we knew they would get even worse after the imminent sunset. A breeze would have helped, but up to that point, our hike had been a forced march through dead air.

     Sweaty and beginning to smell ripe, we stripped down to our river shoes, and then, from the safety of our tent, made a mad dash to a powerful stream running parallel to our trail. On our second plunge into the icy flow, the current ripped the left sandal from my foot and sent it bobbing downstream. I shouted a few select expletives as my footwear floated out of sight, but had no time to mourn before the mosquitoes chased our clean and naked bodies back to camp. Knowing the already painful stream fords would take me even longer, all I could do was hope they wouldn’t be too numerous, powerful, or wide.

     After a dinner of barbeque meatballs, Jamie and I decided to knock off early. Our plan was to beat the mosquitoes awake and have camp broke before they found us. It almost worked. The die-hard bloodsuckers were already searching for an entrance into our tent as we awoke, but at least the chilly dawn kept the less determined hordes away. Wasting no time, Jamie and I tore down the tent, stuffed our packs, and again hit the trail walking as fast as our legs allowed.

     A few miles from our first camp, the path leveled out and emptied into a narrow stretch of mountain meadow filled with brilliant purple and gold wildflowers. The trail also ran straight into the stream, but instead of the single current we were used to, here the flow split into multiple channels gradually finding whatever route they could across the more level landscape.

     Because of my footwear situation, Jamie and I wasted a half-hour trying to find a route across the braided stream that didn’t involve changing boots. Log balancing and rock-hopping took us most of the way before we realized there was no choice but to wade the last wide channel. To make up for the missing sandal, I tied a small, all-purpose backpacking towel around the middle of my foot. The first step into the freezing current nearly ripped the thin cloth from my foot. Just in time, I pointed my toes upstream so the current shoved my make-shift shoe around my ankle. I was forced to limp across with everything below my knees screaming from the cold, while sharp rocks dug into the soft arch of my foot.

     “The Tetons lose a point for that,” I said through clenched teeth once I finally reached dry land.

     “Hey,” Jamie replied, “you don’t get to penalize my park because you lost a shoe.”

     I dropped my pack on a rock and sat on a log straddling the trail to put my boots back on. I could just make out the path ahead of us as it began to climb steeply up the side of a rocky draw. There was no trampled grass, no distinguishable footprints, just a faint impression running through the dirt and rocks. My wife used to build trail for the Idaho Forest Service and I could feel her reading my mind.

     “Have you noticed anything about our path?” I asked.

     “Yeah, it doesn't get much traffic... or maintenance. I haven't seen a blaze since yesterday, and I haven't seen a cairn at all.”

     A blaze is a small scar about eye-level on a tree, carved into the trunk with a chainsaw. The removed section of outer bark never heals, leaving a noticeably man-made signal. A cairn is simply a trailside pile of rocks obviously stacked by human hands. Both serve as a clear indication you aren’t just following a game trail.

     “I haven't seen one in a while, but back a ways someone with a chainsaw had been removing logs. At least at some point. I haven't seen any fresh cuts…,” I finished.

     Jamie looked up from a topographic map in her hands to the surrounding ridgeline. “Oh, I’m pretty sure we’re on the right path. I'm more wondering when we're going get above these damn bugs. They've found us again!”

     As if to grant her wish, our trail turned instantly into a steep and dusty ascent, completely void of shade trees. Just as the sun began to burn through our clothes, a thin veil of gray clouds settled across the sky bringing with it the immeasurable satisfaction of a cool breeze. On tired legs we climbed until the mountain foliage began to thin out and ragged peaks jutting out above vast fields of snow appeared in the distance.

     We stopped for a long rest around midday, borderline ecstatic to be free from the constant buzz of mosquitoes. For the first time in over twenty four hours, we didn't feel the pressure to keep moving or seek shelter. We could breathe deep and take in the emerging scenery. In the distance, we could see our goal for the day. From our lunch location, Moose Divide, framed on both sides by matching cliff walls, did resemble a giant set of moose paddles. It also seemed a long ways off and it was already well after noon.

     As we caught our breath and ate lunch, we noticed three bull elk on the opposite hillside watching us intently. The three stud bachelors were already sporting impressive racks. I waved to them in good-natured fashion, but the elk took it as a sign of aggression and bolted, moving with surprising speed up the steep mountain face.

     “If we could run like that, we’d be across Moose Divide,” said Jamie.

     “If we could run like that this trip would already be over,” I added.

     After lunch we continued our climb. I began to notice the thin air as our climate began to change from forest to alpine. Deep breaths only seemed to fill my lungs to about half-capacity. Pockets of slow-growing, gnarled white pine trees replaced the dense stands of spruce, and the first snow began to appear. Small, dirty islands at first, but soon the white patches began to connect and grew into actual fields. The already faint trail would disappear under the snow and eventually reappear on the other side. Eventually the steep path began to cut back on itself so often, and the snowfields became so vast, we lost the trail altogether.

     We could see our distant destination, but from our vantage point, the treacherously steep, ice covered bowl directly below the divide was a problem. Even with ice axes, Jamie and I knew we couldn’t risk such an approach. However, rather than continue the crisscross pattern of mountainside climbing, Jamie and I decided to hoof it straight to the top and then work our way across the rocky, sun-exposed ridge to Moose Divide.

     Without the trail, our progress slowed considerably. The parts of the mountainside that weren’t covered with snow were a slick combination of stone and mud. Our boots were soaked and filthy in minutes and we found ourselves using our ice axes in the mud more than the snow. The slippery slope combined with the high elevation left us stopping to catch our breath every fifty yards.

     “I’m starting to miss those Yellowstone trails,” I gasped at one point. “I don’t remember working like this. I’d dock a point from your score, but I’m not sure you even have one yet.”

     “What about the three elk we just saw down there?”

     “Yeah,” I smiled, “that’s one, but didn’t you lose a point for all the bugs? At best, you’re still at zero.”

     “You never said we could subtract points. No fair.”

     The hike became more strenuous as we approached the massive divide. No longer sure our approach was going to see us safely across, we began to search the landscape for any sign that someone may have passed this way recently. The ranger indicated that he’d been up in here, but we had seen no evidence of his passing. It was then we began to pay attention to a single set of moose prints headed towards the divide. We had already crossed over the tracks a half-dozen times, but it finally occurred to us that if the big animal knew a way over, then it had to be a path we could follow as well. It wasn’t like a moose was going to scale something we couldn’t.

     The prints led us safely across a series of giant cliff steps and up through rocky chutes in the sheer walls that would have otherwise required ropes and harnesses. The big animal’s route also brought us to miniature version of Glacier National Park’s weeping wall where we were able to top off our water bottles and drink our fill of crystal clear water seeping straight from the rocky face.

     As we rested for a final push to the top of the divide, I couldn’t help but address a building suspicion. “We haven’t seen a sign since yesterday,” I began. “How sure are we that this is the right divide?”

     We checked our topographic map for the thousandth time, lining up landmarks with our compass and comparing elevation marks.

     “I am certain it is the right one,” Jamie said. “However, with all the snow up here, we won’t be guaranteed to find the descending trail. We might be on this cross-country path until sometime later tomorrow.”

     “Well, the day is getting on. We'll need to start thinking about camp soon.”

     "Ok, from here to the top we don't stop.”

     For the next hour, we continued to plow uphill through the warming snow, the whole time placing faith in our invisible guide. With exhausted legs, burning lungs, and soaked boots, we finally reached the windy summit of the pass. In the middle of the rock and mud island, we found a handmade sign for Moose Divide. Subconsciously, I think we were both relieved to discover the only evidence of human activity, and simultaneous confirmation of our route, since losing the trail.

     The panoramic view from atop the pass was spectacular, especially when, just after we finally caught our breath, the thin sheet of clouds finally disintegrated and the landscape lit up in the violet light of a mountainous sunset. To the south, we could see the peaks of both the Central and Grand Tetons. In the foreground, lay a series of lower ridges and mountainsides dropping all the way to a rolling basin full of grassy meadows and stream carved channels. Behind us and far below was the forested valley floor from which we had ascended. It almost seemed impossible that we had come so far in one day.

     While poking around the top, Jamie found the trail and we were able to follow it for nearly a hundred feet before it was once again buried by snow. With just a portion of the path running flat across the top of the divide, we couldn't be certain which way to go; which side of the towering, “moose rack” to descend. The map seemed to indicate the trail ran down the opposite side logic would dictate.

     “It's shorter that way,” I said pointing north. “I say we descend on that side.”

     Jamie shook her head and raised one eyebrow. “I don't know, maybe the cliffs on that side are too continuous, too steep. If there's no way to slip through, then we'll have to retreat all the way back to this point.”

     “Yeah,” I agreed, “But the same could be said for this other side. Either way, if we choose wrong, we get to come back... or, we push our luck.”

     “Then we try to follow the trail as close as possible and work our way down and northeast.”

     “Down is good. We need to drop below the snowline and get camp squared away. My feet are soaked and I am officially ravenous.”

     It didn't matter that my feet were wet as we continued to walk across one bank of snow after another, occasionally finding a channel of rocks lasting maybe fifty yards at a time. We never saw the trail again that night, but we did manage to just clear the snow and finally make camp amongst a small stand of white pine clinging to a flat cliff ledge. Our site overlooked the entire expanse of moose basin. After dealing with the tent, we laid out on our air mattresses in the open air to absorb the very last of the day's warmth. With no bugs to worry about and a delightful breeze, Jamie and I ate crackers, sausage, and cheese, while basking in the vast, picturesque, and primitive landscape.

     “Funny how one moment can change your whole perspective,” I said while breathing in the rich fragrance of white pine. “I think your Tetons finally decided to compete.”

     Jamie winked at me and smiled impishly. “The Tetons, much like me, are an enigma, a veritable paradox if you will. You might not always notice, but you'll never forget.”

     For once, I was the one rolling my eyes. “The thin air is getting to your brain.”

     “You better hope not, or we might not make it out of here. We need to locate our trail first thing tomorrow.”

     The next morning found Jamie studying the map intently while we enjoyed instant oatmeal and strong coffee from our portable French press. Throughout breakfast, she continued to scrutinize our surroundings and make concerned faces. Reluctant to leave our breathtaking view, we lingered throughout the morning, even going so far as to brew another mug full of Guatemala's finest. Fully aware of my tired body's protests, we finally broke camp, repacked our packs and stood on the cliff edge of our campsite surveying the basin below.

     “We didn't go north far enough after reaching the divide. We need to be over there,” she said pointing in the opposite direction I was about to recommend.

     “But the way out is totally the other way,” I said, looking at my wife with some doubt. Usually, her sense of direction is better than mine. She is the navigator while I am the muscle, that’s just how our relationship worked out.

     “Eventually, but our trail drops down to the stream we need to reach and it does that back that way. I’m certain.”

     “That way takes us uphill and back into the snowfields. My boots aren't even dry yet. Look, we've been off the trail for a long time. We don't need it. The trail wraps around that way; let's go head it off and save ourselves some time.”

     “What if there is a reason the trail is back there? What if your way is nothing but cliffs and no way to drop down? “

    “What if YOUR way is in the WRONG direction,” I said not phrasing it as a question.

     We went back and forth for some time before I finally accepted the plan. I still wasn’t convinced, but I wasn’t that worried. Hell, it was her park at risk of losing our wager, and besides, if I wound up carrying her misguided and exhausted ass out of the Tetons, Jamie would get to hear about it for the rest of her Wyoming-born life.

     Back uphill and into the snowfields we trudged, only this time on the other side of Moose Divide. Within minutes my feet were drenched once again and I had begun to sweat from the effort. Jamie figured if we could see the headwaters, we could follow a draw down to the small flat through which the stream ran. Doing so would allow us to follow the channel down and ultimately find the path as it descended from the mountainside. According to the map, the trail and stream ran parallel for much of the route back to the park boundary.

     After a similar struggle to the previous day's ascent, our eventual journey back down confirmed we were both right. We could have crossed the trail going the way I originally suggested, but it would have required some dicey downhill on both snow and loose talus. Jamie was correct in that her plan worked... eventually. We pushed our way further north than we need to by a couple of miles, but near the headwaters we found small, but gorgeous waterfall flowing from beneath a large bank of snow that sat like a dollop of whipped cream atop a fifty foot cliff.

     Jamie let out a little “whoop” of joy when we finally spotted a clear trail dropping down from the steep southern hillside to join our march along the stream bank. Free from the cross country careful choosing of steps over uneven ground, we were finally able to set a decent pace once again. Below us we could see the sea of dense pine treetops and although we had solved one dilemma by finding the path, we were about to drop back down into mosquito valley. We decided to kill time and stop for lunch. While eating what felt like our hundredth sandwich in the last two weeks, a distant moose momentarily appeared at the edge of the tree line before slipping back into dark shadows. We offered the big animal some heartfelt gratitude, just in case it happened to be the one that led us safely over the divide.

     After the small meal, we continued dropping down out of the alpine climate and back into the forest. As soon as we were amongst the trees once again, we could hear the roar of a massive waterfall. Our map indicated their presence, but because the falls were nameless, we really hadn’t expected much. Instead, we were stunned to find an epic cliff with multiple churning flows cascading over the high, granite walls. Even after having just rested, Jamie and I still spent the better part of an hour playing in the cool, refreshing mist and climbing slick boulders for better views of the multiple falls.

     “How do like my Tetons now?” Jamie shouted over the noise with a Cheshire Cat grin dominating her face.

     “This is exactly what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!” I called back while raising my arms to the sky and closing my eyes to the luxurious sensation. All of my aches, my tired legs, bug bites and worries had totally evaporated with the appearance of the natural wonder. Charged with energy, I felt like taking on the world once more.

     Still buzzed from the waterfall spectacle, Jamie and I took off down the trail with renewed vigor. Despite being damp from the spray, our packs felt immensely lighter. We had just noticed the first few mosquitoes hovering in the air around our heads when one of my lifelong forest ghosts made an appearance. It was an animal I never thought I would see, an animal somewhat akin to el chupacabre in the sense that I was never fully convinced it even existed.

     “Pine Marten, Dan! Pine Marten!”

     Jamie stopped in her tracks nearly causing me to run her over. She pointed to a tree right next to the trail and I saw what appeared to be a common fox squirrel scampering up the trunk in a red blur. Just above our heads, the animal froze with its front paws and face draped over a thin branch while its feet rested on another limb below revealing it’s stretched out and fuzzy, white belly. It resembled a human stuck in mid pull-up resting its chin on the bar. The little creature was a pine marten alright; it’s triangular face looking like a cross between a cat and fox. The adorable animal studied us intently, beady black eyes revealing an internal struggle between curiosity and terror. One second, the marten appeared on the verge of bolting up the tree, the next, it almost looked as if it might climb down to us for a closer look. Our uneasy standoff lasted a good five minutes before Jamie managed a quick photograph and we moved off with beaming smiles while the Pine Marten stood there forever frozen in our memories.

     Maybe a mile beyond the rare encounter we were once again beset by the most common of forest creatures, the bane of our trip, the perpetual and incessant presence of buzzing mosquitoes. With the sun setting and our bodies tired from the two day slog over Moose Divide, we decided to call it quits and found a campsite amongst the spruce trees and fallen boulders between trail and mountainside. Our last night in the Tetons. The next night would find us back home having wrapped up one hundred miles of backpacking in two of America’s most stunning national parks.

     As I watched Jamie prep the evening’s kitchen area for another culinary delight of dehydrated, salty whatever, I was reminded of our wager. With the exception of spotting any predators in Black Canyon, the Yellowstone trip had been a dream; the easy hiking, the near-perfect weather, the vivid recollections of big horn sheep and great grey owl. Grand Teton National Park, on the other hand, had been problematic from the very beginning. From the mosquitos and lost trails, to my missing sandal, stream fords, and 24 hours of uncertainty trudging through vast and steep snowfields with soggy feet. Although never in any real danger, the Tetons had found ways to challenge us and we still had a day of hiking left. I couldn’t help thinking any physically fit person with the nerve to sleep amongst bears, wolves, and mountain lions could have handled our Yellowstone trip.

     “Look,” said Jamie interrupting my thoughts and pointing to the western sky. The faint pink light of sunset was being eaten alive by dark, ominous clouds spilling over the ridgeline. A powerful wind whipped through our camp shaking the tent walls.

     “We better get the rainfly attached pronto,’ I said.

     “I supposed I lose a point for that too,” Jamie pouted.

     “Au Contraire,” I said, smiling at the approaching storm. “If anything, your Tetons just sealed their victory.”