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, December 31, 2010

What Doesn't Kill Ya'

     I was in a Boise pub recently having beers with a friend and letting him proofread one of my outdoor adventure articles. He began making subtle faces about halfway through the small stack of pages as if detecting some foul odor but not wanting to call attention to it. Smelling nothing besides the aroma of fried food, I began to suspect it was my writing.

     “You know,” he said, after finally setting the story down, “everything with you is pristine this and unimaginable that. Maybe three kids and a hellish job have me feeling jealous, but would it kill you to suffer from time to time? I mean, I shouldn’t feel envious of a man who spends his time squatting in the bushes, eating dehydrated crap.”

     Sifting through a plate of soggy nachos for a crunchy chip, I said, “Squatting in the bushes isn’t as bad as you make it sound. Besides, I’ve eaten backpacking meals better than this. When the piece is about soaking in hot springs, what am I supposed to do? Make it sound like torture?”

     “You forget. I’ve spent some time out there myself. I’m an Eagle Scout and it isn’t all sunsets and roasted marshmallows… or hot springs. Sometimes things go awry, or Mother Nature whomps your ass, or your woman makes you so mad you just want to strangle... someone. Sometimes, it gets flat out miserable and you know it.”

     As my verbose acquaintance launched into one outdoor recollection after another, most of them hilariously traumatizing at his expense, I began to see his point. Most of the wilderness lessons permanently imprinted on my brain originated from a time when presented with a tough situation; something I had never encountered, or was seemingly unprepared to deal with. My friend was right. It only seemed fair to give the unpleasant experiences equal attention.

     My part-time editor rattled on as a slow grin crawled across my face. I couldn’t help digging up a memory I had tried to bury. Thinking back on that weekend, our very first backpacking trip together, I am surprised the legend of Snakeduck and Nature Fox was ever born. My wife and I were new to each other in those days, and it’s a good thing, because with the exception of our fresh love, we had everything else working against us.

     For reasons no longer remembered, we chose to go backpacking in mid-July. In the Idaho mountains, the nights and mornings of peak summer are still cold, but much more tolerable than other times of year. It’s the heat of day that will get you. Well, the heat and other things. With our relationship in its infancy, Jamie and I had never really experienced the other reeking of sweat. It’s a reality couples must face at some point; we all stink sometimes.

     In fact, when the going gets hot and dirty, my signature odor is quite reminiscent of freshly chopped onions. I am almost proud of my funk’s insistence on being acknowledged; it is an undeniable presence, a veritable force of nature. Of course, at the time, I was trying to keep it to myself by keeping both arms pinned to my sides. Jamie, in her frank, talk-before-thinking manner of communicating, first brought her detection to my attention by announcing, “Something died near here. You smell that?”

     I played the question off by looking around as if I might actually see something, while desperately hoping she might really be sensing something other than me. However, as we continued hiking, I saw her testing the air with an occasional sniff and then cringing. I knew it was me. I had to come clean, or start lagging behind by a hundred feet. I couldn’t pretend that a dead animal was following us. Maybe she’d fall for the possibility of a Sasquatch; rumors suggest the big guy gives off a noticeably foul stench.

     “I think that smell is me,” I admitted sheepishly. “Must be burning off last night’s rum.”

     “I guess,” she said looking slightly embarrassed for having brought it up. “Oh well, it’s to be expected in this heat. I’m sweating too.”

     “I’ll jump in the lake as soon as we arrive,” I promised.

     Our forest trail was leading to Boulder Lake, outside of McCall, Idaho. This mountain destination had long been a spiritual refuge for me and it was the first time in years anyone had accompanied me for the trek. I remember feeling it was somehow appropriate to share this scenic setting with my newfound love. Little did I know, it would be my last hike to Boulder Lake.

     Jamie and I began suspecting there were problems before we even caught sight of the lakeshore. For starters, during a break two-thirds of the way up the trail, I realized I had left my stuff sack full of snacks in our truck. We had dehydrated dinners and enough instant oatmeal for a couple of days, but without the supplementing jerky, trail mix, dried fruit, and granola bars, we’d be operating on a caloric deficiency until we got back. No big deal, just part of the backpacker’s diet plan. However, it was also during this rest that we first noticed a rapidly swelling presence of mosquitoes.

     Not even the threat of grizzly bears will deter me as much as mosquitoes and my wife and I typically time trips so that we deal with as few peak swarms as possible. I’m not sure what we were thinking on that trip, but once we set foot into the tiny vampires’ lair there was no escape. Smelling blood right through our skin walls, the devils closed in, and the closer we got to the lake, the more the sky darkened in a cloud of bugs.

     Hastily scouting the familiar campsites of Boulder Lake, I realized we were going to be tent bound if we had any hope of keeping our sanity. The droning buzz was enough to set our nerves on the most precarious of edges, the mounting bites sheer torture. At the furthest tent site from the shoreline, Jamie tore into her backpack before a slow look of horror crossed her face.

     “Did you pack my tent?”

     “Uh, why would I pack your tent?” I questioned, while wind-milling my arms to keep the swarm at bay.

     “You wouldn't... and neither did I.”

     I remember the smile never leaving my face even as my heart sank and my brain freaked out. No tent? In this bug infested swamp? We’re doomed! Looking back on it, I choose to believe we were just too starry-eyed, too in love, to focus on certain trivial details, like packing life-saving equipment and food.

     In a measure tone of voice defying the shrieking alarms in my mind, I said, “There is a smaller lake above this one and I recall it having a rockier shoreline. Maybe the bugs won't be so bad.”

     In retrospect, the suggestion was really more wishful, or just asinine, thinking. Bug swarms at one lake amounts to bug swarms at the lake next door. For want of a better word… duh! Somewhere between stubbornness, and a misguided sense of bravery, we decided to forge on instead of retreat to our vehicle.

     The ascent over the ridge and then back down to the upper lake was a more strenuous hump than I remembered and if at all possible, the bug situation was even worse. A late start to our hike that morning, followed by pushing on for higher ground, now ensured we couldn't get back to the car, or even Boulder Lake, before nightfall. And, just to add icing on the cake, I discovered the feeble light on my headlamp to be in the death throes of battery power. We couldn’t have made a safe march in the dark even if our exhausted bodies had been up for it.

     Knowing we were stuck for the evening, and reeking like I was, I resigned myself to stripping naked, facing the swarm, and taking the ice cold plunge. Tossing my clothes aside as quickly as possible, I fled the mosquitoes for a nearby boulder overhanging the deep water. They won’t follow me out here, I thought, despite knowing I could stay in the frosty lake for all of five minutes before succumbing to the initial stages of hypothermia.

     I was right. Although I barely had time to notice, there were slightly fewer mosquitoes on the rocks than the shore. I called for Jamie to join me and dove in. Mother Nature’s second wave of attackers arrived as I emerged from the water gasping and stuttering in the suddenly much cooler air. Unlike mosquitoes, Idaho horseflies don’t take a moment to feel things out with their flimsy proboscis. These big suckers crash land and chomp hard without hesitation.

     By the time Jamie joined me on the boulder, I was doing what must have looked like some spastic, ecstatic dance routine full of flailing limbs and self-castigation. So determined to kill the horseflies, I was leaving bright red handprints all over my torso and legs. Jamie had realized the situation as well and ran past my perch like a woman on fire.

     “The flies!” she screamed before disappearing into the clear lake with a loud splash. “The freezing!” she shouted upon reemerging. “The mosquitoes!” she shrieked as she reached the shore. In knee-deep water, my future wife stumbled in three panic-stricken circles, unable to decide which torture she could more readily endure, the cold or the bugs. I might have had a hearty laugh at the sight were I not so involved in my own funky-chicken dance completely void of anything resembling dignity.

     Scrambling back into our clothes in a paranoid frenzy, Jamie and I reasoned the only way to deal with the combined might of both horsefly and mosquito was to build a triangle of three small campfires and hunker down in the middle. While she dug out the fire pits, I gathered pine boughs and wood that was wet enough to barely burn. With our sanity threatening to shatter beneath the relentless onslaught, we finally managed to get the fires lit. The green fuel engulfed us in white smoke and though we could barely breathe, the bugs retreated just beyond our protective triangle.

     My wife and I boiled water with a propane stove and ate a meal of dehydrated spaghetti, all in a race against time due to our meager supply of wood. After eating the tasteless, unfulfilling meal, we threw the rest of our wood supply on the fire and laid out our sleeping bags in the smoky bath. We felt like Warlocks in the protective circle of some chalk-drawn religious symbol while salivating demons gathered at the edge radiating pure animosity.

     Before the flames had even died, the insects renewed their attack. We were forced to crawl down inside our suffocating bags, seal up the entrances, and listen to the unbearable buzz of starving blood suckers just inches from our ears. Neither of us slept a wink for fear of falling asleep and accidently allowing the monsters access to our ripe, tasty flesh. Not only that, the numerous bites we had already sustained throbbed and itched throughout the long night.

      By the time the first light of day spilled over the ridge, Jamie and I were out of our bags and scrambling to get our gear packed. In record time, we had camp broken, boots laced, and were ready to flee the bug infested nightmare. So determined to get back to the truck, we ignored the trail running along the shoreline altogether and began a climb straight up to the ridge separating Boulder Lake from our position. The distance was sure to be shorter, but the steepness of the climb, combined with picking our way over loose stones, made for an exhausting ascent.

     Within a half-mile of the top, Jamie stopped and sank to one knee gasping for breath. The delay in motion allowed the bugs to pinpoint our location and swarm with renewed fury.

     “I… can’t… keep… this up,” she huffed while futilely trying to wave off the insects gathering before her face.

     I was tired too, exhausted even, but the mosquitoes were pushing me to a mental state I had rarely achieved. No matter how weary I felt, I wasn’t going to stop until my heart gave out, or we had reached shelter from the swarm. I remember thinking of a backpacking trip in the Boulder White Clouds with my Boy Scout troop where we had encountered a similar bug situation and were forced into 18 straight hours of marching… most of it steeply uphill. I saw grown men break down in tears on the side of the trail that day. A couple of the stouter lads, myself included, had to be loaded down with the gear of others as people’s bodies gave out on them.

     “Give me your backpack. I’ll carry it,” I offered. “We can’t stop now.” In the back of my mind, I knew I would find a way to carry her and her pack if I had to.

     My offer for assistance must have inspired Jamie because she rose to her feet with a look of steely resolve pushing past her misery. Wiping sweat into her hairline with the back of her hand, she led the charge to the ridgeline where we were mercifully greeted by a blast of wind that momentarily scattered the pursuing insects. While the bugs regrouped, we took a few breaths of fresh air, drank some water, and then made the four hour push down to our vehicle without stopping.

     Starving, exhausted, and itching from a hundred bug bites, we drove straight into McCall and pulled into the legendary Pancake House for a late breakfast. The coffee was glorious and the greasy meal was even better. Although Jamie and I never did return to Boulder Lake, that backpacking trip was the first of many throughout the Rocky Mountains. Sitting in the restaurant that morning, I think we subconsciously decided that if we could weather an experience that wretched without fighting, seriously panicking, or holding grudges, then Snakeduck and Nature Fox were destined for a life of outdoor adventure together… albeit, with a little more planning and double-checking of supplies.

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