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

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

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

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

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, 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.”

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