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, November 16, 2010

A Walk in the Park

     “If the guy responsible for mileage measurements on this map were here right now, I'd toss his ass in the nearest geyser and leave his boiled body for the bears. The man is a goddamn liar!”
     I can tell my wife is in no mood to laugh, but she does anyway, dead blue eyes animating slightly. “Tell me how you really feel,” she says, wiping perspiration from her forehead with a yellow bandana.

     “No way that last stretch was one mile,” I continue. “How long did that take? 45 minutes, an hour? Ridiculous...” I trail off in mid-rant, wondering why I subject myself to such toil. My feet hurt, I reek of sweat, it's unseasonably warm for autumn, and I am tired of carrying this stupid backpack. My friends are smarter than me, I conclude. They have moved on, evolved with the rest of the human race to engage with nature from the safety of their televisions and those plastic, hand held thing-a-ma-jigs. Not me. Succumbing to some masochistic compulsion, I still retreat into primitive wilderness to be one with the mountains and rivers and all that crap. I am compelled to chase lions, bears, and wolves.  Most of the time, I don't regret it; now, unfortunately, is not one of those times.

     Of course, I am probably still on edge as a result of the grizzly bear attack earlier in the day. See, we had been finishing our lunch by a narrow stream in the middle of a grassy meadow, when I noticed movement in the natural “V” of a conjoined tree trunk directly across the water. My instinctual sense of alarm turned to near panic when I looked closer into the shadows of the twin trees merging and saw unmistakable tan fur on the sloping shoulders of some very large mammal, it’s head lost in darkness.

     With my wife asking, “What’s wrong?” I rose to a crouch and began crab-walking to my backpack. I knew if the beast charged, I'd never make it in time. A monstrous grizzly with predatory intentions (and one hiding behind a tree watching people eat lunch certainly fits the bill) could cover that kind of distance in a couple seconds. I'd be desperately yanking on the bear spray canister and screaming like a little girl as the great bear bowled me over. Still, I had to try. Just before reaching my pack, I heard my wife gasp in astonishment. Oh man, here it comes. We're doomed!

     “Dan look!”

     I did look, still expecting to see a blurry mass of claws and teeth barreling across the stream. The animal had stepped out from behind the thick tree trunk and turned its massive body sideways revealing the two-toned fur and massive head of Yellowstone’s most recognizable ungulate. Because of the distinct line near their waists and necks where the short chocolate brown hair turns shaggy and tan, I always thought they appeared to wearing a bearskin jacket. So, alright, it wasn't a grizzly, it was a bison... and it didn't so much attack us as it did just stand there and eat grass, but I attribute our survival to my well-honed wildlife whispering techniques. To the untrained eye, it may appear as if I am frozen in terror, but there is actually a subtle, calming dialogue taking place between me and whatever beast is staring me down.

     Seriously, having a living, breathing tank of rippling muscle and horn with a volatile disposition in such proximity is a tad unnerving. If the bison had considered us a threat, the shin-deep water would have done nothing to slow its charge. Thankfully, the big beast seemed about as curious of us as we were of it. So close we could see its black tongue, and hear the sound of grass tearing as it fed, we spent the next half hour studying our new companion.

     I never did figure out how we missed the one-and-a-half ton creature as it crept up on us in a mostly open field. Or, even worse, just failed to notice it standing right next to us for almost thirty minutes. As a wildlife spotting king with laser improved vision, I like to believe only the most cunning and stealthy of predators would stand a chance with the ol' sneak attack. Clearly, this particular bison was the ninja of its kind; it's the only reasonable explanation.

     Since the buffalo incident, it seems we have done nothing but climb a gradual ascent through an alternating mix of evergreen forest, golden grass meadows, and aspen groves where the leaves have already turned a brilliant orange, but still hold strong to their branches. Interspersed with the colorful scenery are rocky volcanic features. Geysers, mud pots, and bubbling fissures spew forth plumes of steam that, in the distance, resemble small campfires. Fluctuating with the breeze is the sulfurous, rotten egg odor of a bygone age. At times, I am almost convinced we could find a dinosaur somewhere in this prehistoric landscape. At the very least, my imagination insists a saber-toothed tiger somehow survived the last ice age and still stalks this active caldera.

     Fulfilling a longtime dream, Jamie and I are hiking from Old Faithful back to Bechler Ranger Station. What looked like perfect weather for a fall hike through the backcountry of Yellowstone, now feels unbearably hot. We are sweating profusely despite having shed layers to where only shorts and tank tops remain. At least a month removed from their peak swarms, we thank the mountain gods that the flies and mosquitoes are mostly dead this late in the year. Otherwise, we would be forced to decide between countless bites, or keeping ourselves fully clothed to truly suffer the heat. Things could always be worse, I decide. Where else does one get to experience heart-racing bison attacks followed by coma inducing baths in geothermic pools surrounded by breathtaking scenery?

     Granted, the soak will have to wait until tomorrow, but one of the perks of hiking inside a volcano is the inevitable existence of hot springs. As aficionados, hailing from the state with the most soak-able pools, Jamie and I have seen almost every type imaginable. That being said, it was researching the uniqueness of two particular hot springs in the southwest corner of the park that initially aroused our interest. While a good deal of the geothermic water in Yellowstone will roast you alive, there are select locations where the conditions are perfect. One must be careful though, animals, and even people, sometimes puncture through thin layers of rocky crust finding themselves submerged in boiling water or mud; there are casualties every year. It is best to stay on marked trails, or walk where you can see the path of others.

     Tonight, Jamie and I will camp about a mile from one such natural wonder and the morning soak will find us rinsing the ache from our bodies while simultaneously erasing every concern from our all too human minds. According to the rapidly setting sun, and the haphazardly measured map, tonight will consist of arriving at our reserved site just in time for a quick meal of dehydrated chili, followed by a spit bath in the cold mountain air, and finally, exhausted sleep in a down cocoon before nightfall. In my weary state, the plan sounds like a little slice of heaven.

     The evening goes as predicted. Jamie and I have backpacked since childhood and we tend to make the daily life and chores of extended trips operate like clockwork. From sheer practice, we can set up our tent blindfolded, and, at a moment's notice, break camp and disappear into the forest before anyone knows we were there. When not being made to look somewhat foolish by the craftiest of bison, my wife and I are typically on top of our game out in the mountains and we owe that to years of practice, trial and error and sheer, dumb luck. Like the wisdom imparted from shampoo bottles everywhere, it is in the act of repetition that we earn our rewards.

     With no medicinal aide more effective than exhaustion, Jamie and I fall into a deep, undisturbed sleep within minutes of our bodies hitting the inflatable mattresses. We don't even wake in the middle of the cold night for our usual bathroom dash. Possibly the most exposed minute one can spend is being half-naked in a dark forest while the frosty air, creaking trees, distant owls, and possibly imagined glowing eyes, close in on you while impatiently waiting for your body to finish its business. For a change, we get to save that brief moment of paranoid apprehension for another night. Fully rested before morning breaks, we are finishing a steaming mug of coffee and breaking camp at first light.

     As it turns out, our morning visit to the hot spring is accompanied with what we have come to expect as the best and worst aspects of backpacking. From the moment Jamie and I set boot to trail, one critical element in evaluating the success of a hike is how few people we encounter. Our trips are planned around particular locations and key times of the season when others aren't typically out. We like to be absolutely isolated, but experience has taught us that it is unrealistic, and probably a little selfish, to expect having a natural wonder like this all to ourselves.

     Like Old Faithful, Mr. Bubbles is a geyser. However, this geyser is perpetually spewing its boiling brew and it is found underwater. A river flows over the fissure from which Mr. Bubbles erupts and fills a chest-deep bowl with a fluctuating blend of hot and cold water. The resulting roiling pool can hold a dozen people. Standing near the edge of the crack where the heat is barely tolerable, you can stare down into the churning darkness while the earth rumbles at your feet.

     Swimming where magma is dangerously close to the surface is almost as unnerving as yesterday's bison, but nowhere near as unsettling as having as a long line of what could be our grandparents show up only minutes after slipping into the heavenly aquatic therapy. As their clothes come off, and the gravity-ravaged, liver-spotted reminders of our own mortality fill the hot spring, Jamie and I decide to move downstream in hopes of finding a more isolated location. Like I said, we keep to ourselves.

     On the hike into Mr. Bubbles, we took note of a boiling, brilliant blue pool cascading superheated water into the cold river just down from the popular destination. There weren't any visible soaks, but the sheer volume of hot water suggested certain possibilities. As we have come to expect and appreciate, our hermit like ways unveil a discovery that would have otherwise been missed.

     Just below the point where the massive flow of steaming water hits the stream, a large boulder splits the current into two channels. We quickly learn the flow closest to the bubbling azure pool is too hot to touch and the other channel is too cold to handle. However, we discover that sitting in the eddy, backs against the big rock, allows both streams to fill the natural bathtub with a perfect mixture of both. Without even trying we have found another Mr. Bubbles, only on a private scale. Despite our ever pressing timetable, we linger for a couple of hours while alternating between soaking and snacking. If nothing else, we succeed in extending our summer tans for at least another week.

     Clean, relaxed, and with muscles feeling more like putty than anything capable of moving a heavy sack of flesh and bone from one place to another, we are forced to re-shoulder our packs. We have a ways to walk before arriving at our next reserved site, and, like it has been since our trek started, the day is unusually warm; the typical briskness of autumn is being held at bay by these wolf days of summer. I'd say “dog,” but I don't want to offend the locals. Besides, dogs are watered down versions of wolves anyway. People hear the word evolution and assume it means that something gets better over time. Sadly, the process works two ways. Since I'm on both subjects, just take a look at the anti-wolf crowd and you'll see what I mean.

     As the day wears on, and the familiar fatigue sets in, we become less enthralled with our constantly changing scenery until we reach a point where not even real bears cause us much worry. The loud and sudden shaking of bushes right next to our trail does little but slow us momentarily. Dismissing the racket with a sideways glance, Jamie walks even closer to the sound. I stop long enough to bend down and peer ahead into the lengthening mid-day shadows. Instantly, I notice the silhouette of a large mammal just off the trail straight ahead; the fuzzy half-circles for ears on top of its head a dead give away. The animal freezes in place and stares back at me.

     “Bear, James!” I say. “For real this time.”

     I can tell from its shoulders and size that it isn't a grizzly. Still, our ursine friend is even closer than yesterday's bison and a startled black bear, especially a mother, can be a lethal threat. Despite my bold claims to the contrary, I really have no desire to wrestle a bear, and if this one is hiding a baby somewhere in the foliage, I can't see it. In a split second, Jamie is back at my side. She calmly unfastens the bear spray from my backpack, hands it to me, and says, “let's go.”

     Apparently, too tired to care if the bear is an actual concern, my wife returns to hiking like we are walking next to, and turning our back on, a fox squirrel. Interesting strategy, I think, as the frantic thrashing in the bushes commences once again. For a moment, I can't tell if the motion is coming at me or moving away so I release the safety valve on the pressurized canister. Jamie doesn't even break stride. There is something to be said for a state of weariness where dignity overrides caution. My wife would rather be eaten alive than break stride for this would be predator. No doubt mistaking her boldness for the confident strut of a superior beast, the black bear scampers uphill;the sound of breaking branches quickly fading as we trudge on.

     Not as late as yesterday, or the day before, we arrive at our reserved site before the sun has reached the western horizon. From our vantage point, we can see the snow-dotted peaks of the Tetons dominating the southern skyline. The customary structure from which we'll string up our edible provisions for the night has numerous claw marks dug deep in both side poles, all the way up to the crossbeam. More than one bear has made the daring climb and grab for someone's sack of goodies in this site. We'll have to make sure to throw our rope around the very center of the top pole so our own food bag will be out of reach from not only beneath, but also, either side. In the distance, we can can just make out the faint sound of turbulent water. Jamie and I share a broad grin; what we hear is no doubt the grand finale of this forty mile hike.

     Exploring the area around our camp as we set up our gear reveals a hot spring and shallow creek-side pool just down a steep and slick dirt trail. With eyes on a greater prize, I pause long enough to submerge one foot. The water is clear and hot, perfect for a morning soak in the cold air just seconds after rolling out of bed and sliding down the perilous path. Tonight, on the other hand, less than a half mile away, lies the real reason we decided to explore this southwest corner of Yellowstone. Impatiently dancing in place, I watch as Jamie hoists the bear sack out of reach.

     “C'mon, c'mon, c'mon...”

     My wife gives me “that” look from the corner of her eyes. “Yeah, I don't need any help here... just stand there and watch, okay?”

     I do my best to disarm her with a toothy smile. “Can do,” I say raising my right hand to my forehead in a crisp salute.

     Minutes later we are back on the dusty trail and climbing a suddenly steep, rocky ascent. At least our backpacks have been swapped out and left behind for a sack of swimsuits and towels. Energized at the prospect of witnessing something I have only seen in pictures, I barely feel the short climb, or the long hike proceeding it. Soon, we have reached the top of a narrow river gorge and can see the top of Dununda Falls as the ample flow of white water cascades over a sheer cliff, falling about eighty feet to the jagged rocks and shallow pool below.

     As stunning as the site is, Jamie and I are seeking a treasure that lies near the base of the falls, just downstream from the crashing water and heavy mist. Looking into the lush gorge of dark rock and rich, green moss, we notice the pool right away. We also realize the hard part is going to be getting there. After dropping the first ten feet, we stop and rehash the author of one hot spring book describing the pool from a distance as there was no way they were attempting the treacherous descent down the slick, muddy walls of basalt.

     “She may have been onto something.” my wife suggests.

     “No worries,” I advise. “You probably wouldn't feel anything falling from this height... it's once we get a bit lower that we'll probably survive all the compound fractures.”

     The descent is every bit as adrenaline pumping as advertised. Several times we are forced to snag a quick handhold of whatever branch, exposed root, or rock is available as our feet slip out from under us. One wrong step here means a much quicker route, no doubt taking out whoever might be below you once the slide started. Muddier than when we began, and both of us feeling white-knuckled and wide-eyed, we reach the boulder strewn floor of the gorge and the rock-walled pool visible from above.

     Standing in the brisk afternoon air and cool mist from the falls, we strip out of our clothes. At first glance, we can tell the pool hasn't been cleaned in a long time. We carry a long handled bristle brush when car camping for just such a purpose, but we have found that some people really don't mind sitting in slime. Already shivering from the cold, wet air, I dip one leg in the water. Dousing my enthusiasm like a bucket of glacial melt over smoldering coals, I withdraw my testing foot from the algae infused water.

     “It isn't that hot,” I say, “or clean, but this is where we saw those pictures of other people soaking.”

     The disappointment washing over Jamie's face nearly breaks my heart. The Dununda Falls hot springs are supposed to be the highlight of our trip. Unable to watch my wife suffer for any reason, I leave her and our gear behind and march straight into the swirling mist where the waterfall shatters on the uneven ground below. I noticed from our view at the lip of the gorge that the lukewarm pool was fed from a hot flow magically emerging from the boulders at the base of the waterfall, and as such, I haven't given up on the possibility of another pool hidden amongst the rocks.

     As the freezing wind envelopes my naked flesh, I flex my shoulders like a professional wrestler intimidating a foe and howl into the raging mist. I feel like a sailor standing on the deck in the middle of a wicked storm, but nothing will prevent me from making this finale night of our trip worthwhile. This is why I hike, this is why I explore the unknown and put myself through rigorous exercise; I am a modern day mountain man that doesn't know any other way. Hell, even if I did, noting would change. I'll throw myself into the fury of mother nature for the chance to experience something, anything, whatever, but I know it isn't found on any couch. Behind me, Jamie shouts something, but I cannot hear her; I am marching into the mouth of the falls.

     Just as the freezing water and wind becomes unbearable, I spot another steaming pool. This one is much smaller and shallower than the disappointing soak left behind, but it looks like just enough room for two. Without any idea of the pool's temperature, but desperately needing heat, I take a leap of faith and plunge belly first into the water. For a split second, my freezing skin feels as if I have slid into one of Yellowstone's boiling death traps. I nearly scramble to my feet in a mad panic, but a moment later, I realize it is a natural reaction; the water is actually perfectly hot. Without looking back, I shout for Jamie to join me. Fearless as ever, I am not surprised to find her hot on my heels.

     “Move over!” she shouts while plopping down into the steaming bliss beside me.

     From our steaming bath, we stare up at the edge of the falls where the water spills over and let our imaginations run free. I feel like a child watching “The Goonies” for the first time, imagining that my whole life will be spent looking for lost treasure, or solving mysteries. Maybe things didn't unfold exactly as I predicted, but I wouldn't change my lot in life for anything. No amount of money could bring me more joy, or comfort, than I feel at this moment. My wife feels it too. The nervous energy she absorbs while making her way through a daily city routine is completely gone. Her blue eyes are clear as any geothermal pool we have witnessed, her smile radiating more calm than the grazing bison we were blessed to encounter.

     Tomorrow will find us waking early for another soak before we shoulder the packs and once again trudge off, this time making our way back to “civilization”, traffic, and Monday morning jobs. Still, instances like this, in a landscape forgotten by time, it becomes easy to believe some moments could last forever. Easing back into the superheated flow, I close my eyes and smile as the last conscious thought melts from my mind. This is why you do this, Daniel... as if it were ever really a question.

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