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, May 31, 2011

Rocky Canyon (Ode to a Hot Spring)

          With another smoke belching demon breathing down our heels, Nature Fox and I are forced to snowshoe to the very edge of the backcountry road. Hell’s storm troopers, hiding behind jumpsuits and tinted visors barely slow as their snowmobiles scream past, plastic heads swiveling to fix us with an unblinking Cyclops eye, their mechanical steeds leaving a violated forest to choke on burning oil and disregard. The very picture of a serene winter wonderland shattered like so much crystal. Probably causing some stressed wolverine to abandon a nearby den and condemn her pups to certain death. Just another piece of ugly collateral damage that nobody notices.

          Honoring an age old tradition of animosity between those who like to walk, silently appreciating nature’s inherent worth, and those who see wilderness as their own private racetrack, I counter their contempt with a look of pure malevolence. I don’t like you, I spit with my eyes. That’s right, I may be a tree-hugging greenie, but that doesn’t mean I’m a pacifist. I’d love to see one of you get off your lazy asses and say something. I’d stab you in the eye with my trekking pole before you could take one step.

          “Are you glaring at people again?” My wife’s voice interrupts my surly train of thought.

          “They aren’t people,” I explain. “Like Darth Vader, these bastards are more robot than flesh. I can be as hostile as I like.”

          “We’re a little outnumbered. You might want to keep that in mind.”

          “They’re a little outclassed,” I retort. “They might want to keep that in mind.”

          The bad news is that we have to deal with the chaotic intruders for a couple more miles. The good news is that we’ll be camping out here in this winter landscape while our fair weather friends will pack up their machines before nightfall and retreat to the safety of their homes. That, and at one point we will wade across an icy river bare-legged to reach our evening’s destination, a route no snowmobile can possibly undertake, and one I have yet to see any of their riders even attempt. Walkers are simply a tougher breed. Or, the line between stupidity and bravery could be finer than I like to believe. In any case, we should be alone at some point for one hot evening… even with the nightly temperatures guaranteed to drop below zero.

          We hear the building roar of more snowmobiles, only this time ahead of our position, and once again, we barely make it to the edge of the road before the procession of dark machines fly by. A quarter-mile behind the rest of the noise parade, and moving at half the speed, is a solitary snowmobiler dressed all in black. The slender cyborg slows even further and swings towards us at the last second before coming to a sudden halt.

          “Oh, here we go,” I whisper, one hand reaching for my pocket.

          While I’m trying to decide if I should attempt the clumsy removal of snowshoes for the pending confrontation, the dark rider removes their helmet to reveal an old lady with long silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. Despite her age, the woman is a natural beauty, possessing the kind of face that would seem marred with the application of make-up. Deep wrinkles and tan skin betray a life spent in the sun and wind.

          “I can’t even keep up on one these infernal contraptions,” she says breathing heavy plumes of steam and beaming at us with a rosy-cheeked smile. “Even my great grandniece is leaving me in the dust. Still, I can’t imagine not being out here. Does anything compare to all this beauty?”

          “How would you know?” I mutter just loud enough for Nature Fox to hear. The train of thought continues inside my head. How do you appreciate anything with your eyes focused on the trail while your ears and nose are choked with clamor and smoke?

          “What’s that?” she asks, the sweetness in her tone never wavering.

          “He said he’s jealous,” says Nature Fox, half-stepping in front of me. “You’ve probably covered ten times the distance we have… and in a fraction of the time.”

          “Well dearie, if I have learned anything in all my years, it’s that anything worth doing is worth taking your own sweet time. Speakin’ of which, it’s been a long time since I could hack snowshoeing. You walkin’ in to Rocky Canyon?”


          “Can you believe what that guy has done? I’ve never seen anything like it. Wish he had built those up when I was still young enough to attempt that crossing.”

          My wife nods her head in agreement. “They’re the best in all of Idaho. Now if we can just keep the jackholes out of there, we should be ok.”

          “Jackholes?” the woman asks, her smile broadening even further. “That’s a new one. But yeah, some folks be itchin’ to trash everything in sight. I’ll never understand it. Anyway, you two have a blast. I better catch up before they send someone back for me.”

          With that, the old lady throws her helmet on and fires up the high-pitched scream of her snowmobile. As she takes off down the road after her comrades, Jamie fixes me with a comically raised eyebrow.

          “Can you believe the nerve of that monster?” she laughs. “I thought for sure we were about to come to blows.”

          Even though I am chuckling right along with my wife on the inside, my response is a dead-pan, “I could have taken her. I’m not afraid to push an old woman down.”

          “C’mon tough guy. We’ve still got some ground to cover.”

          My wife is right. I do feel a stab of envy when we’re several hours into the backcountry, sweating our asses off and carrying heavy loads when all the sudden some damn machine goes racing by. It feels like losing a fight to someone possessing half the strength, size, skill, and sheer will. Of course, I prefer walking because I believe that is how one truly connects with the natural world, but there are times when I wouldn’t mind some of those hard-earned miles to fly by a bit faster. Nature Fox and I can afford the toys, but could never rectify their co-existence with our environmental philosophies. By the time I’m the old woman’s age, they better have invented a silent hover board that is powered by my perpetual sense of animosity, and the damn thing needs to navigate itself so I can float through the mountains paying attention to my surroundings and not the road ahead.

          Despite our excitement to reach Rocky Canyon, there is a building sensation of apprehension as we march ever closer. There will be a toll to pay in the price of agonizing pain before we’ll experience the unparalleled pleasure of our journey's end. An hour after saying goodbye to the old woman, we round a bend in the snow covered road and see the root source of our dread and enthusiasm. Just across the icy river from our position, the steamy Shangri-La of Idaho’s best public hot spring awaits our arrival.

          The super-heated flow originates a hundred feet above the riverbank, cascading down a steep mountainside from one hand built soak to the next until finally joining the cold river. There are seven pools altogether, each one capable of holding three to four people, and all were built by a single man with a heart of gold and some serious determination. Constructed with environmental aesthetics in mind, even from our close vantage point, it is hard to separate the mortared pools from the natural rocks of the drainage. Even as long-time hot spring aficionados who have seen some of the world’s most spectacular pools, Jamie and I are still taken back with each visit to Rocky Canyon. It took a couple of years to complete, and the scope of the project is almost unfathomable, especially when considering how hard it would have been for a solitary individual to lug the necessary concrete across the river during the runoff season.

          At the lowest flow of the season, the current won’t be a huge concern for us, but we still have to be mindful of our footing. If one of us goes down and a backpack is submerged, our night’s trip will be over. We’ll have no choice but to beat a hasty retreat to our truck and its heater before nightfall. Standing on the riverbank, steeling ourselves for the ford, we notice a tent on the opposite bank and a couple of people in the upper most pool. Looks like we might have company for the evening after all. Oh well, experience has taught me that the most hardcore backpackers and winter campers, tend to be good, quiet people. Let’s hope so.

          Moving quickly, Jamie and I set our packs on a frozen tree stump while we strip out of boots and socks. The icy bank is frigid on bare feet but nothing compared to what awaits us. After switching into our river sandals, we hike up our pant legs, re-shoulder our packs, and drape the heavy footwear around our necks. We leave the waist and chest straps on our backpacks unbuckled. If one of us does go down, we don’t want to wind up our backs in the torturous ice melt like a stuck turtle. Especially me. There’s no way in hell my petite wife could lift me and all my wet gear, even helping me to my feet would be difficult. Across the river, I see the two soakers giving us their full attention. I understand. Sometimes, it’s fun to watch others suffer.

          “You ready?” I ask my wife while dancing in place to keep warm.

          “No,” she replies interlocking an elbow with one of mine, “but I’m not getting any readier. Let’s do this.”

          Holding onto each other for balance, we step off the bank and into the shin deep flow of ice cold water. The discomfort turns positively hurtful before we have taken half a dozen steps. The trick is to move quickly without moving fast, an endeavor further complicated because we have to find secure footing with one sandal before the other leg can follow. There is also a temptation to lift your foot entirely out of the river with each step for a second of relief, but invariably either the act of pulling out, or putting back in, causes water to splash on the bottom of your backpack.

          We are almost a third of the way across before the first true wave of pain washes over us. Now, there are all different sorts of pain in life and I have experienced my share. From third degree burns, to biting my tongue in half, to being left stranded hunched over a ski lodge bar with broken ribs while nature Fox finished her day of snowboarding, I am right familiar with the concept. And truth be told, I’ve always had a rather masochistic relationship with pain; I kind of like it. Makes me feel alive. For some reason though, the acute ache of snowmelt on submerged skin is one even I struggle to tolerate for any length of time. By the halfway point, I am crushing my wife’s hand as if her fingers are a branch to bite on while having an appendage amputated.

          “Mother of God have mercy,” I hiss through gritting teeth. My lovely wife supplements my assessment with a string of f-bomb laced expletives capable of making the Devil uncomfortable.

          Only twenty feet away now, I can hear the pooling geothermal water at the opposite bank calling my name. The sulfur has never smelled sweeter. Meanwhile, the water is getting deeper, the current stronger. The freezing torture has climbed over my kneecaps and is halfway up Jamie’s thigh. We press the pace, causing both of us to slip, and for one breathless second it feels like we are going to jerk each other off our feet. We somehow recover at the last second, and with our very bones screaming in agony, plow through the final ten feet of river and plunge our feet into the first algae ridden puddle of hot water.

          It takes a moment for our brains to realize the torture is over, but in a manner of seconds we are able to quit clenching our fists and cursing the gods. Were it not for the merciful relief of the hot spring, our feet would have continued the unbearable ache for at least another minute. At the top off the rocky drainage, looking like boiled lobsters, the two soakers offer us a round of applause. Good. Anyone making that ford without rubber waders deserves some recognition. Nature Fox and I wave back at them and once our lower legs are thoroughly warm, begin scouring the narrow strip of river bank for a suitable tent site.

          The other couple had erected their camp on a patch of exposed boulders directly in the path of the billowing steam. Interesting decision. I mean, they do have a plastic tarp draped over their tent, but I can’t imagine the dampness not seeping through the seams and eventually getting everything wet. That, or when the temperature really drops, they’ll wake up to a layer of ice over their shelter so thick they might find themselves trapped in an igloo with no door. Not to mention that it would take a couple of king sized mattresses stacked together to not feel the lumpy rocks beneath their bed.

          Jamie and I move downstream from the vapor cloud and set up our tent on top of a crusty snow bank. We place our plastic tarp below the tent. Sure, the ground is freezing, but our Thermarest sleeping pads will keep the cold at bay, and at least we’ll have level ground. We have just finished establishing our site and are eating a quick snack when the other couple descends from the top pool wrapped in large beach towels. Their visible skin is bright red and letting off steam like they have become one with the geothermal water.

          Ready for our own soak, we pass the other couple on our way to the pools. The other man and I make momentary eye contact, two naturally guarded men of the wild assessing the other with a penetrating glance. I realize I know him and my hard look instantly softens. We had only chatted on one other occasion, but he is none other than the designer and builder of the stupefying luxury before us. He too must go out of his way to avoid crowds. The last time we spoke he was working like a beaver on meth to finish mortaring the last couple soaks, barely taking a moment for any chitchat.

          “Hey, we know you,” my wife interjects. “I can’t even tell you what an amazing thing you have done here. I mean the whole thing is just awesome!”

          “Top three public soaks in all Idaho,’ I add. “We didn’t expect to see anybody else doing an overnighter though.”

          “Neither did we,” says the red haired woman at his side. Her tone betrays a subtle disappointment and I don’t blame her. I am feeling it too. For some reason, I am hard pressed to consider a soaking experience a true success unless it was done in relative privacy. Obviously, if anybody has my blessing to share this location, it’s him. He has no reason to feel the same way about us, but our complimentary nature seems to have won him over.

          “Enjoy it while you can,” he says as his pleasant expression turns suddenly bitter. “The Forest Service is threatening to have the whole thing ripped out.”

          My wife and I stare at him stupidly for a second as if he just told us about the existence of man-eating river sharks. “What? Why?” Jamie finally sputters.

          “That doesn’t make any sense,” I say. It’s not like you snuck in these pools overnight. They watched you build it for a couple of years… and now they have a problem?”

          “I know,” he replies. “Wish they would have stopped me before I lugged thousands of pounds of concrete across the river… wasting a ton of my time and money if they blow her up.”

          “But why?” Jamie asks again. “Don’t they know the trash pit this place used to be? All those plastic tarps and broken bottles. Most people actually take care of Rocky Canyon these days and that’s totally because of what you have done.”

          “Each time it’s a different reason. They’re saying the tribes have a problem with it, that it was built without a permit, and that it’s an ‘attractant’… whatever that means.”

          “Well, of course, it’s an attractant, that’s why we’re here,” I say. “The Forest Service is run by crooks. Hell, all of Idaho is governed by crooks.”

          Sensing the beginning of a long tirade on the Gem State’s anti-environmental conservative leanings, my wife attempts to cuts me off with a question. “Don’t you work for the state of Idaho?”

          “Yes. Yes, I do. And the boss of my boss is the most evil, ignorant, wanna-be cowboy of the bunch. And the sad thing is that I would normally tell you the inefficiencies of government would delay or prevent them from ever actually doing anything but blabbing about this place, but when it comes to making ill-informed, destructive decisions, they tend to proceed full steam.”

          Galvanized over our little political cause out in the middle of the Idaho wilderness, the four of us rant and rave for a good half hour before parting ways, them heading to camp for dinner and us heading up the drainage to finally soak. Proving the old adage correct, we start at the highest, hottest pool and then move down testing three soaks before finding one of perfect temperature. In our rock-walled bath, Jamie and I lay back and let the hot water work its considerable magic on our tired naked bodies.

          Forgetting about the obnoxious snowmobiles, the brutal river ford, unexpected company, and potentially devastating news, I do my very best to think about not thinking at all. Normally impossible for my incessantly chattering brain, but in the blissful steam and super-heated geothermal pool, out-of-body experiences feel like the norm. Setting aside my usual cynicism, I become one with the mountainous landscape, and on some deep spiritual level I find the faith to believe all this too shall pass; our planet will one day shake off mankind’s sickness like a wet dog drying its fur and everything will revert to a balanced state. A new Eden where an evolved version of our species lives in harmony with the planet and understands our role in the cosmic spider web.

          My spiraling thoughts are reluctantly dragged back to reality by the distant whine of more snowmobiles. Across the river a party of three howls by, headlights flashing as dusk settles over the river valley. The sight of them reminds me that we have to walk back out tomorrow, no doubt dealing with an endless parade of the wailing smoke machines. I also find myself thinking about making the river crossing again. Unlike today, there will be no warm pool awaiting our frozen legs on the far side, making today’s pain seem almost trivial. Then again, there are some pleasures in life worth the torture, no matter how unbearable it might feel at the time. Sliding down deeper in our natural hot tub as the noise of the last snowmobilers fades, I smile at my wife. Is it too much to wish certain moments, certain places, and certain loves could last forever?

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