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, September 17, 2010

Rogue Travelers

      I have never been one to follow rules, or hell, even laws that don't make sense. Of course, when I say, “don't make sense,” I mean, they don't make sense to me. Suppose I never really cared if they seemed reasonable to others. Conceited? Egocentric? Arrogant? Probably, I mean, I did invent my own deity, but ultimately, who should I trust? Who should I obey? Should I have faith in organized religion, corporations, or government (institutions that have bred in incestuous fashion and pushed this entire planet to the brink of destruction)? Or, do I believe that as an educated and introspective free thinker, I am capable of making the decisions best suited for my life? I'll go with the latter. So, when I say this tale began with me waking up in my truck at a trailhead parking lot in Teton National Park (against the rules) after having put myself into a deep night’s sleep with assistance from a pop can turned makeshift pipe (also, against the rules!), you just have to trust that I knew what I was doing.

     This was the gist of a conversation echoing in my head as I shouldered my backpack and slipped into a dark and quiet forest, the trail barely visible in the early dawn. A haze of cloud cover slowed the impending daybreak even further. With senses alert for any motion or sound, my vision gradually adjusted to the dim setting and I set a quick pace moving silently through the trees. Textbook behavior for what not to do in grizzly country, but at the time I had no fear of bears, or anything else for that matter. The pop can had served its purpose once again before being left behind, and as such, I felt the diversity of life all around me, the connection between all things, the cosmic spider web of which I was a mere silken strand. I couldn’t help but imagine myself a Native American hunting for prey as it migrated to water for the ritualistic morning drink.

     Between my animalistic instincts, and the long blade on my hip, I knew myself to be the most dangerous creature in the area. Not only that, I was also invisible, a ghost to the eyes of man. Nobody could have spotted me unless I wanted them to. I felt strong, fast, invincible, and that predatory adrenaline rush lasted until I crept around a bend and came face to face with a mother moose and her two calves. Absolutely dwarfed, I instantly found myself feeling like a mortal human of squishy flesh and breakable bones once again. The big momma calmly raised her head from a breakfast of lush grass to assess my arrival while the two calves, each the size of a full grown deer, gathered around her haunches.

     At the same time I was presented with my moose dilemma, my wife was waking up on the east side of the Tetons to find a sow grizzly and two cubs foraging near her tent. With me having started at the western border of the park, our plan was to locate each other at Meeks Mountain Pass, somewhere near the middle of the mountain range around noon. While spotting a grizzly is always a thrill, I prefer to take my close encounter chances with moose. The mothers of both species are capable of killing any human they feel is a threat to their young, but every once in a great while, hunger also initiates a grizzly encounter; not exactly something to worry about with moose. Unless it has rabies, then watch out!

     These moose didn't have rabies. They did, however, have a fondness for the hard packed trail running through the lushly overgrown basin. My first attempts to herd the animals away by clapping my hands did little but spur the family further down the trail twenty feet at a time while the mother gradually grew more agitated. Rather than continue to press my luck, I opted to forge a path through the dense foliage up the hillside and around the moose family. I deliberately picked a course that kept me near at least one big tree the entire way. I like to believe I could use a thick trunk to play ring-around-the-rosie with a charging moose as long as I kept my wits together and didn’t trip over my feet. Frankly, I’d rather not test the theory. While taking the twenty minute detour, and scratching my forearms to pieces, I began to think about the time being wasted. Some competitive impulse insisted I arrive at our rendezvous point before my wife. Or maybe, I didn’t want to admit I had missed her while she had been away visiting family in Wyoming.

     I finally managed to push my way through the wall of greenery and back onto the path some fifty yards ahead of the moose. At the moment my feet touched the trail, something spooked the family and the three moose lumbered into action. Leading the charge, the big momma intersected my off-trail path, plowing through the brush like a tank. I shuddered to imagine myself still stuck in those prickly branches while I was overtaken and mowed down beneath a dozen heavy hooves. With her calves in tow, the moose was through the undergrowth in a fraction of the time it had taken me. I peered back down the trail trying to see what might have startled the moose, but the forest remained as silent as it had been before my delay. Something about the stillness in the air gave me a slight spook and I turned my attention back to the task at hand.

     My second encounter, no more than ten minutes later, brought me as close to the posterior of a moose as I ever need to be. Without warning, a large bull stepped out of the bushes, hung a hard left onto the trail right in front of me, and then proceeded to hog the path totally unaware of the human on its heels. As I slackened my pace to give the massive creature a little room, I couldn’t help notice the top of its skinny butt was at least my height and I stand over six feet tall. The big fella’s antlers had yet to expand into full paddles. Instead, they were just two rods poking straight out of its head like Frankenstein’s bolts. Also like Frankenstein, this moose was in no hurry, stopping every couple of steps to munch a random leaf in distant contemplation. Half bemused, half alarmed, I was once again forced to slow my journey to a crawl rather than overtake, and possibly startle the hairy brute.

     Eventually, I stopped altogether and waited for a few seconds as the hefty fella gained a little more ground. I then called out in as soothing voice as I have at my disposal, “hey buddy, right behind ya’. No need to stomp me, but I need to get by.” I had one hand already placed on my potential ring-around-the-rosie spruce tree and after calling out, my heart hammered in my chest as I waited for the animal’s response. Without flinching, the bull calmly stepped off the trail and into the tall, thick brush. Instead of the violent crashing of branches like I had heard from the moose family earlier, this time I was met with absolute silence.

     After a moment of confusion futilely listening for any clues to the big animal’s whereabouts, I crept to where the moose had disappeared into the bushes. Crouching down, I peered into the shadowed foliage and while I could see fine in the ever increasing light of day, there was no sign of the bull. As a curious animal, naturally less nervous than other deer species, I expected it to still be standing there half hidden in shadows, eager to investigate his pursuer. Mystified, I looked all around and kept my senses sharp thinking something would surely betray its location, but I never saw or heard the animal again. I’d experienced a bear pulling this kind of vanishing act before, but never a moose. Clearly, the magic in the natural world can never be fully understood by man.

     Just as the sun crested the western ridge, I reached the first fork in the trail and a hand painted sign confirming that I was indeed on the right path. The cloud cover was holding and I could stare straight into the diffused light struggling to break through. Good, because the sign indicated that my path was about to begin a steep and exposed switch backed ascent, culminating in a path of step like rock ledges running nearly straight up the cliff face; a brutal climb known as “The Devil’s Staircase.” The rocky scramble would take me above the valley greenery, above the talus slopes, and up the football field tall cliff face to my south until I reached the more level Alaska Basin Shelf. The sun behind clouds guaranteed a less arduous hike.

     Breaking all previous records, and bordering on the ridiculous, I had my third moose encounter of the morning as my path broke free of its forested confines at the base of the talus slope. This specimen was a young male, possibly on its own for the first season. Maybe two thirds the size of the previous bull, it still outweighed me by at least 500 pounds. The moose and I realized we were climbing the hillside parallel to each other at the same moment. We froze about fifty feet apart, our gazes slowly moving from each other, to the trail above us, and back again. The angle of the animal’s climbing route would surely have intersected the Staircase trail just ahead of where we stood. Our shifty stare down continued, both of us wondering who was going to make the first move and claim the lead position. I couldn’t afford any more delays, so I chose to reason with the creature.

     “Alright, I think I plan on moving faster than you, so what say I go first?”

     The animal’s ears shot straight up and it fixed me with an intense stare while leaning forward like a horse straining against a tether. I swallowed hard against the rising knot in my throat. Glancing around, I realized there was zero chance of me reaching the nearest tree if the moose charged. “Ok, ok,” I quickly amended, “you can go first if you like.”

     My offer seemed to pacify the big animal as its body language relaxed and the curious mannerisms returned. The moose must have decided it didn’t really care because it finally turned its attention to the closest shrub for a mouthful of leaves. I took that as my invitation to move along. Keeping one eye on the beast, and one eye on the trail, I scooted up into the exposed rocks where I hoped to be done with moose for a while.

     Climbing the “staircase”, I quickly realized there are things much worse than running a moose gauntlet and it assumes the nightmarish form of hard, sweaty work. Even without the sun bearing down on me, the climb took its toll. Pushing the pace to make up for time lost dallying with ungulates and never once stopping for water, my legs began to feel a little rubbery around the halfway mark. In a few places, the trail came dizzyingly close to a precipitous cliff and I leaned into the mountain side as I climbed just to be safe. The view began to open up as I neared the top of the Devil’s Staircase and I took a moment to take in the scale of my surroundings.

     Although I couldn’t yet see the Alaska Basin Shelf, I could see the steep southern ridge still topped with snow that would hem my path on that side. To the north, above and across the valley from which I first entered the park, were the plush, emerald walls of the northern slopes, complete with several picturesque waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet to the moose-ridden forest below. In the distance, I could make out the head of the distinct, and aptly named, Battleship Rock, which meant the three main peaks would soon be in view. The Tetons, although a relatively modest and narrow range, still offer some of the most epic mountain scenery the continental U.S. has to offer.

     On a map it is easy to point out a location and agree to meet someone. Of course, the area your fingertip covers might well turn out to be an expanse of land extending for at least a mile in every direction, so you have to be careful. Unless, of course, you use GPS like everyone does these days. My wife and I do not. Why? I don’t know. It seems like a good tool, but we’re stubborn. We’re of an old school mindset and if we’ve lived this long without it, just how necessary is it? Of course, as I stared at the immense and breathtaking landscape, I felt the first pangs of concern. It would be easy to miss a solitary hiker out here.

     I reached the top of the staircase fully expecting a sensation of relief but was instead met with a fork in the trail that did not exist on my topographical map of the area. My map showed one trail running east along the shelf, while the path before me split both east and south. What should have been a simple decision was compounded when I noticed a rock cairn on the southern trail. Now, my experience on the lesser used trails in the park, seem to suggest that trail maintenance, isn’t a top priority. So, when I saw that someone actually took the time to build a rock cairn, I assumed it had to mean something. Still, the southern trail seemed like it would quickly lead to the impassable cliffs, unless somewhere up ahead it branched east or west.

     Finally allowing myself a drink of water, I took a moment and decided to trust my instincts. According to my map, I needed to move east and there was a trail running in that direction, so that had to be my answer. Besides, I knew the trail would soon disappear beneath the gradually melting snowfields and I’d be forced to invent my own route anyways. Trails be damned, I knew where I was going.

     As it turned out, I hit snow much sooner than expected. No big deal except that I was hoping to find at least one set of boot prints from a previous hiker having navigated an acceptable route. No such luck. If I wasn’t the first to make this early season trek, then enough snow had melted since the last person that all traces of their passing had been erased. Oh well, I thought, somebody has to go first.

     At first I was able to plot a course based on the path of most exposed rock fields, but the dry patches quickly became smaller and smaller until I was walking across snow the majority of the time. Although the day had gradually warmed to a respectable 70 degrees, I was still managing to stay on top of the snow. Later in the day, as the fields heated, my boots would surely be punching through and I hoped to find both my wife and a dry place to camp before then.

     The gradual uphill slope of Alaska Basin Shelf combined with the snow, altitude, and the fact I was beginning to feel weak from having eaten nothing all morning, slowed my progress considerably. I may as well have been following a sluggish moose once again, but I couldn’t bring myself to move any faster. In my fatigued state, I could barely appreciate the awesome spectacle of the three main peaks of the Tetons as they thrust themselves into a full view dominating the northeastern skyline.

     Unlike certain mountain enthusiasts, I have never felt any desire to “conquer” peaks. Nor, would I consider the act of standing on a mountain top for a few minutes before having to retreat in the face of impending darkness or storm fronts any sort of subjugation of the natural world. In fact, I’ve never felt any sense of competition with Mother Nature at all. I also don’t feel the need to prove anything to myself, or anyone else for that matter. I know I could climb one of the monsters if I had to, but honestly, hardcore mountaineering doesn’t look like fun. While I have nothing but admiration for the David Roberts and Jon Krakauers (climbers and writers) of the alpine community, I have no desire to pit myself against the full might of gravity and nature’s fury. In fact, anytime I find myself looking down on the mountain goats and big horn sheep, I have climbed plenty high enough.

     Jamie and I try to balance our outdoor physical exertion with the comforts and treasures the wild world has to offer. There are no wild onions, mushrooms, or huckleberries to be found on the wind ravaged peaks of the world, no stunning animal encounters, and certainly no hot springs. There is however, a plethora of cold and misery. Like I said, admirable, impressive drama, but no thanks. Besides, I want to die in a knife fight with a grizzly, not wind up a popsicle, or splatter mark, on some ice covered, Waffle forsaken rock. I did mention that I had invented my own deity, yes?

     Although not life-threatening by any means, my own condition had begun to deteriorate as I marched even with the center of Meek Mountain. I was maybe a mile below the pass where I was supposed to meet my wife. I felt a bit feeble from the morning’s exertion compounded by having no food since the previous night and my boots had finally begun to sink into the snow far enough that I could feel my feet getting wet. Even worse, was realizing my gradual ascent was about to get steeper; I would need to work my way up the northern slope above the pass because a straight shot to the top would take me across a solid and ever deepening snowfield. Attempting to cross could quickly turn into a cold and soggy crawl. The northern slope, on the other hand, had received just enough sun to expose several rocky patches and even a few dry islands complete with their own gnarled stands of short, white pine trees. The higher ground would also afford me a better view of anyone finishing the traverse across Death Canyon Shelf.

     By the time I reached a point high enough to see the entire southeastern expanse, I dropped my pack on the first patch of dry rocks, pulled up a seat, and devoured a couple of granola bars. I topped off the dry snack with a liter of water and then began to study the landscape for any sign of approaching travelers. I didn’t have to wait long, before I saw a distant hiker emerge from a stand of trees to my south, almost exactly where Death Canyon Shelf comes around the base of Meek Mountain and connects to the Alaska Basin Shelf. Too far away to make the individual out, I was about to shout Jamie’s name, when other people appeared in a line following the leader. There were maybe a half dozen in all walking in single file down the snowfield I had deliberately avoided.

     I waited for them to close ground, before once again shouldering my pack and heading downhill to intersect the party. I wouldn’t normally feel at all inclined to communicate with strangers, but my curiosity and concern over my wife’s whereabouts prompted me into action. They turned out to be a pleasant enough group of experienced backpackers out for their first hike of the season. After finding out they had seen no trace of any other hikers, I watched them go before stepping into their packed trail of boot prints to continue my weary march. Their information had left me feeling a little anxious about Jamie, but according to the sun’s position, it was just nearing midday and they could have been well ahead of her the entire time.

     At the small grove of trees where I first noticed the other party, I passed another painted sign indicating that I was officially entering Death Canyon Shelf. I had beaten Jamie to the rendezvous point. I thought about pulling up a chair in the shady grove, but just in case something had happened to her, I didn’t want to waste time waiting for someone who wasn’t coming, or even worse, someone who needed my help. I kept walking despite the protests from my sore feet and growling stomach; the granola bars had done little to take the edge off my hunger.

     Roughly a quarter mile from the sign, I looked up to the top of a 100 yard incline in the trail to see a lone hiker emerge over the ridge. I could almost taste the sensation of relief. I knew it was Jamie from the way her body moved. Not wanting to walk uphill any further, especially knowing I’d just be turning around in a minute, I waited for her to notice my presence. A second later, she stopped in mid-stride and looked in my direction while shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand. Her other arm slowly rose into a reluctant wave that gradually grew more confident.

     “HELLOOOOO!” she finally shouted and began to hurry down the trail. We met with a long embrace, both of us finding it impossible to hide the pleasure of seeing each other after a week apart. What can I say? She is my wife, best friend, and one of the very few people to understand my afflictions with paranoia and madness. Without her calming presence, I am almost positive I would have long since succumbed to my antisocial, anthrophobic nature. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I am quite certain it wouldn’t be good.

     I tell Jamie about my morning, naturally exaggerating the ninja like efforts it took to slip through an entire army of hostile moose, and in turn, my wife recaps how she woke up to find the momma griz and her two babies nearby. At least a hundred yards away and downwind, the bear and her cubs never noticed her. Jamie was able to watch the family dig up roots and eat select leaves for almost an hour before they gradually ambled off. Both of us felt a little jealous of the other’s wildlife encounters.

     We retraced my path the short distance to the Death Canyon Shelf sign and there, in the small stand of trees, we decided to take a lengthy break and eat a lunch of dried salami, cheese, and crackers.. From the moment we sat down, Jamie and I were beset by large, fearless hoary marmots determined to make off with some bit of our food. They seemed particularly drawn to a Tupperware container full of Jamie’s barbeque meatballs that we set in a snow bank to keep chilled. I had to stand up and actually chase the big rodents off several times during our extended rest. We had heard from one of the park rangers that there were backcountry sites so overrun with the cheeky thieves, it was impossible to stay overnight without losing something to the cute, furry marauders.

     Finally rested, fed, and feeling human for the first time all morning, we decided to continue back tracking my route until we dropped below the main snowfields in order to locate a dry camp for the night. By then, the snow had warmed to the point that we would have been sinking up to our knees with every step, but with the previous passing party having carved out a packed trail, we established a quick pace. By the time we had dropped a mile or so, the tracks of the larger group had intersected and began to follow my earlier boot prints. It was also at this point we first noticed the stirring breeze and blackening clouds enveloping the southwestern sky.

     “Think that’s serious?” I asked.

     “I think it’s better to be safe than sorry. We need to find a spot and get our tent set up.”

     “Bah,” I said looking around at the uneven and snow covered country, “we still have time. Besides, there is no level or soft ground up here. Let’s keep dropping.”

     “Not sure that’s wise, but if that’s the plan, we better get moving. That sky is looking uglier by the second.” The wind was picking up as well and the temperature was dropping, but I still felt like we had a brief window to find an adequate campsite. If we were going to be stuck in our cramped tent, I at least wanted to find some soft, level ground for the night’s sleep.

     By the time we cleared the snowfields, rolling grey and black clouds covered the entire sky. Sporadic blasts of wind tore across the shelf, peppering our faces with stinging particles of dirt. Standing on a relatively flat, but still rocky stretch of mostly dry land, Jamie again voiced her concerns.

     “Any second now, we are going to get creamed. Are you ready to stop yet?” As if to punctuate her warning, a bold steak of white lighting lit up the sky in a brilliant flash. I surveyed the shelf below us and maybe a half-mile off, finally noticed a small stand of white pine right on the cliff edge overlooking Alaska Basin.

     “There,” I said indicating the distant location. “It looks flat, and I think we’ll have some protection from the wind in those trees.

     “We don’t have time,” Jamie insisted.

     “Not if we sit here arguing,” I countered. “Let’s move it!”

     Jamie muttered something unintelligible, but followed me as we increased our pace to a slow jog. By the time we arrived at the campsite, the first small raindrops were beginning to fall. We barely had a chance to peer over the cliff at the stunning view of Alaska Basin below before we were scrambling to get our tent erected, and our packs stashed inside a large black Hefty sack. I was standing at the entrance to our tent, struggling to remove my boots when the torrential downpour began. Standing behind me, waiting her turn, Jamie let out a string of cursing that would have impressed a crusty old sailor and shoved me through the door.

     “Hey!” I shouted as I managed to twist around in time to catch myself.

     “Move your ass!” she shouted. “I told you we didn’t have time.”

     Jamie barreled inside the tent a second later already wet from the cascading sheets of rain. Her grumbling continued until we had stripped out of our damp clothes and made sure the tent was secure. Our backpacking tent had seen and survived its share of high mountain storms and I knew we’d be fine, even if I had forced us to push our luck a little.

     “Look,” said Jamie, “I know you like to make up your own rules and everything, but that was too close. Another minute or two out there and everything would be soaked. Would have made for a freezing cold night.”

     She was right. Hell, we wouldn’t have even been able to sleep in our soggy gear; we would have had to retreat several miles across the shelf, down the Devil’s Staircase, through the moose infested forest, and back to our truck for dry shelter. Although I take no small amount of pleasure in flaunting man’s nonsensical rules, I do tend to respect the laws of the wilderness. Mother Nature doesn’t fool around and anyone taking her lightly is bound to be put in their place; which sometimes consists of a six-foot hole in the ground. As lighting raged across the sky and the deafening thunder echoed off the cliff walls, I made a mental note to be more careful in the future.

     “Alright, alright,” I finally agreed while having to speak up over the sound of wind buffeting our tent walls. “I’ll still wrestle a bear if given the chance, but I won’t take any more chances with the weather.”

     Jamie’s body language and tone of voice finally relaxed enough for her to smile. “How about you just stick to your usual animosity towards people and leave the animals alone?”

     “Fine,” I said while rolling my eyes in mock annoyance. “Ruin all of my fun why don’t ya’.”

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