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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Yosemite Disenchantment

          This is hilarious. I’m gonna die. A few feet in front of me, I can just make out the faint silhouette of my wife on her mountain bike as she floats across a sea of darkness. The faint white glow of her headlamp creates a barely visible nimbus around her head giving me something to focus on in the moonless night. If I don’t keep the front wheel of my bike all but rubbing the back wheel of hers, I will veer off the narrow bike path and into one of the countless rocks or exposed tree roots lining both sides. With no helmet or pads, the crash is certain to hurt.

          For some reason, possibly the buzz from two chalices of dank IPA, the revelation regarding my mortality strikes me as more humorous than concerning. I can’t stop smiling. Or, maybe it’s because the dark forest feels like an actual wilderness for the first time all day. This is our inaugural trip to Yosemite and we’ve had to redefine certain expectations of a National Park. The only animals we’ve seen are people, tons and tons of people, and this is the first time either of us has experienced gridlock in the mountains.

          I suspect the average Californian doesn’t blink an eye at the chaotic zoo that is this basin, but for a native Idahoan and Wyomingite, the traffic and crowds are all but unbearable. No strangers to other parks, we’ve seen Yellowstone and Glacier at their worst, but Yosemite is on a whole different level. At the last second, I let Jamie talk me into cramming bikes in the truck along with the rest of our camping and backpacking gear, and I’m thankful I did. Were they not at our disposal, I might have already killed someone. This is one Snakeduck that does not do well in traffic.

          As we made our way into the heart of Yosemite, we were met with a wall of cars and progress slowed to a near standstill. With our vehicle inching along, and my intolerance already through the roof, I managed to pull over and just barely fit our truck on the shoulder of the one way loop and left her there. We stopped back by a few times throughout the day only to find the traffic even worse. All we could see through shimmering waves of stinking emissions was an endless line of faces fixing us with death stares for having the foresight to bring bikes.

          Several hours later, we are making our way back to the truck from the backpacker’s communal campground, and hoping to finally move our truck to an actual parking spot for the night. Naturally, to kill time after spending the afternoon biking around the hot basin, we endured the jostling lines of a saloon to drown our deserved thirst with local microbrews. During our stay amongst the herd having to share a table with strangers, we met an old timer who had worked for the park when they still conducted the nightly fire fall ritual.

          Back in the day, a massive bonfire would be lit on top of Glacier Point, and as night settled over the valley, park employees would topple the blazing mass of embers off the cliff for a visually mesmerizing 1,500 foot waterfall of fire. Over the years, as the granite walls turned black from accumulating ash, the ritual was finally discontinued. I’m glad they did away with the whole thing, but listening to the guy’s excited recollections, I wish we could have seen the flaming spectacle just once.

          Somehow pushing through the dark without crashing, we finally bike clear of the forest trail and onto a main road. In the last couple of hours the traffic has gone from insane to almost non-existent. The day trippers have gone home and most of the overnighters are back at their respective campsites. When we finally reach our truck, the road is all but deserted for the first time all day. We stash our bikes in the covered bed and make the short drive to the general parking area closest to the backpacker’s campground.

          As we pull in, Jamie and I notice a young couple standing outside a Subaru hatchback just a few empty spots down from us. Parked on the far side of them is a law enforcement vehicle and a cop is questioning the two individuals. I’m tempted to find another parking space, but in addition to leaving our vehicle behind, we also need to utilize the nearby steel lockers so we don’t wind up with a nocturnal visitor breaking into our rig. Yosemite’s black bears have a reputation as being the cleverest thieves of any ursine population in the world, but they certainly aren’t above a smash and grab job.

          As I jump out of our truck to round up perishables from the backseat to stash in one of the communal bear boxes, I can overhear the conversation between the cop and the twenty-something man and woman. They too have backpacking gear in their car and considering their ratty clothes and unkempt hair, they resemble our kind of folk.

          “This is bad, this is bad,” I hear the dark-haired woman repeating.

          “Do either of you have a marijuana medicinal card?” the cop asks before lowering his voice to an inaudible level and speaking into his walkie-talkie.

          The young couple exchange nervous glances, before the man finally answers. “No sir, they don’t have those where we’re from.”

          The cop looks them up and down like one might a leper. “I’ve never met you people before so I’m calling for backup to watch you while I conduct my search. Before I examine your vehicle, tell me where it is and how much I can expect to find.”

          Having stopped in my tracks to witness the exchange, the officer fixes me with a disapproving stare. I return the look with as much vehemence as I feel I can get away with. “Just go about your business, sir,” he says to me.

          The cop is short and scrawny and obviously using a fake deep voice to project some kind of authority. In any other situation, he would intimidate absolutely nobody. “And why don’t you mind your own business, Napoleon,” I think to myself while turning my attention to the cooler in my backseat.

          As I gather up what little food is inside, I continue my eavesdropping. I have worked with too many cops and had too many friends physically abused or had evidence planted on them to have much faith in law enforcement. I am secretly wishing the couple the best of luck, but I know full well they’re screwed. They can thank their lucky stars we aren’t in Wyoming or Idaho, or being screwed would be a colossal understatement. Despite the fact that doctors in neighboring states prescribe the plant as medicine, where we’re from, marijuana is classified no differently than crack cocaine. Frankly, it’s almost as pathetic as our rancher, hunter, and politician crybaby attitude towards wolves and grizzlies. Then again, it’s to be expected when barely literate hicks run the joint.

          The cop’s backup, a big ol’ bubba with a walrus mustache, arrives shortly after and takes over the watching of the perps while his diminutive partner begins rummaging through their hatchback. Having witnessed enough, Jamie says, “Let’s get our shit squared away and get out of here before something makes me sick.”

          “Good call,’ I say as we once again remove our bikes from the crowded truck bed and ride over to the row of heavy steel boxes with our small sack of edibles. Unlike gym lockers, these bear boxes cannot be locked or reserved. Anyone, at any time, could open one and help themselves to whatever’s inside. Being naturally paranoid of my fellow man, I’d have an issue using the communal storage if we were stashing anything more than a couple pieces of fruit and a box of crackers. I just don’t like the idea of someone stealing from me when there is no chance I’ll be able to catch them in the act.

          Following another harrowing, and possibly hair-brained, bike ride through the dark, we arrive back at the backpacker’s campground. My beer buzz, dampened by witnessing the cops harass the young couple, is now all but completely gone and in its place I feel a headache slowly building. There are a limited number of actual campsites, but in a situation where there are far more hikers than camps, the entire area is littered with tents. As people who tend to get up early in order to beat the heat of the day, the site is already quiet. Jamie and I slink through the maze of colorful fabric pushing our bikes. Despite having a good idea of where we erected our tent, it still takes us almost five minutes to locate our portable home in the pitch black. Ten minutes after that we both slip off into an alcohol aided slumber.

          Seemingly seconds after closing our eyes, the first light of morning drags us back to the land of consciousness and pain. I can’t decide which is worse, my headache, the shriveled state of my dehydrated tongue, or the sporadic waves of nausea. What was in that brew? One of our best friends back home is a brewer for the best microbrewery in Boise, so we’re not strangers to powerful beer, but Jamie and I suddenly feel like drinking rookies. The last thing either of us feels like doing is hitting a trail that will take us from the basin of Yosemite all the way to the granite dome peaks, but we spent over fifteen hours in our truck with the solitary intention of doing just that. We probably deserve the punishment, so we force ourselves out of bed, break camp, and bike back to our truck.

          By the time we arrive, our condition has considerably worsened. Feeling as though we could vomit at any second, and with our headaches refusing to wane, my wife and I drive to a vacant day-use picnic area and park in the shade. After unloading and re-arranging our gear, we climb into the covered shell for a nap. We’re not going anywhere until we can sleep off at least some of this hangover. The hike will have to wait, but the necessity of more sleep means our climb won’t start during the cool morning hours like we initially planned.

          Three hours later we are no longer sleepy, but little has changed in the nausea and headache department. From the air-conditioned cab, we try to ignore the fiery orb climbing higher into the sky causing the shade to slowly disappear. It’s really just the natural angle of the sun as it marches across the sky, but it creates the illusion that even shadows can wilt in the midday heat. Parking our truck at Pohono trailhead, we waste little time on the scorching asphalt before we have shouldered our packs and begun the steep ascent towards the spectacular granite domes capping this visually stunning expanse of wilderness.

          I use the word “wilderness” a little loosely in regards to Yosemite because of its lack of large mammals. If there aren’t grizzly bears and wolves in the vicinity, I am hard pressed to consider any natural landscape as truly wild. Not to mention the lack of elk, moose, bison, and mountain goats. As it was in all of our “protected” parks, Europeans first decimated the native animal populations, many species now regionally extinct throughout North America, before the senseless slaughter was reluctantly curtailed. Black bear and deer are pretty much the only survivors of Yosemite’s genocide.

          To me, this national park feels like it exists for people, not for the natural flora or fauna or for any sense of preserving an ecosystem. I detect a spiritual vacuum in the absence of my large mammal friends and I believe the old trees radiate a particular sadness as well. What Yosemite does still have is an impressive array of giant Ponderosa, Cedar, Sequoia, and Redwood trees, and these ancient sentries must miss the hunters and hunted who once perpetuated that primordial dance beneath their collective canopy.

          People assume that the absence of large mammals biting, clawing, goring, and trampling folks would ensure Yosemite a safer bet than Glacier, Grand Teton, or Yellowstone. Truth is, animals are very rarely a problem, and Yosemite is a magnet for the most dangerous creature there is – a human who thinks they’re invincible. Splattered all over this park are the stains of rock climbers who made a mistake, or had some critical piece of gear malfunction, but that’s to be understood; rock climbing is a dangerous sport. Harder to comprehend are all the people who have drowned in the rivers, and even more incredulously, were swept over waterfalls. Apparently, people can’t resist thinking and behaving like jackasses in the rivers directly above the various falls and Yosemite has a plethora of these towering cascades. Nearly 1,000 people have died in the park since it first opened. Guess how many have been killed by the dangerous bears and mountain lions? The answer can’t get any lower because the number is zero.

          Instead of mammals, we see different species of lizards darting all over the ground and less than ten minutes into the journey, what we initially believe to be a colorfully banded coral snake. However, neither of us can definitively recall the helpful little saying to keep them and their non-venomous visually similar counterparts separated. Is it “red to yellow and you’re dead fellow?” Our snake is red to black and Jamie finally decides that makes him a “friend to Jack” and therefore not a coral snake at all. After racking my brain for a few minutes, I seem to recall pictures of a king snake from the Sierras with a similar banded look. I also seem to recall that coral snakes are strictly an east coast inhabitant. In any case, the sedate reptile slithers slowly across our path and doesn’t seem to mind as I close in for a few photographs.

          Later on, maybe a mile into a journey, Jamie and I are both suffering. In addition to the sweltering heat, the exertion of climbing the ridiculously steep trail in our hung-over condition is taking a serious toll. On top of that, my left foot is beginning to scream in pain. I can almost hear it whining aloud. A serious case of plantar fasciitis, coupled with the protruding foot bone of a tailor’s bunion finally prompted me to the surgical table for a couple of procedures during the early springtime. The doctors shaved a tendon on both sides, cut some bone from my foot, and after inserting a few screws to hold everything back together, they sent me on my way. And this was on the heels of a vasectomy. Take that, Edward Abbey. You may be one of my heroes, but you still fathered five children while having the nerve to lecture others on irresponsible breeding.

          The series of operations all but wiped out my snowboarding season and left me house bound for over two months. My strength and conditioning suffered immensely as a result. I can’t decide which is worse, my hangover, the physical exertion, this heat, my current state of bloat and sloth, or the deep rooted ache pulsating through my foot. This is not how I usually feel when backpacking; I typically enjoy the hard work and pain, but the converging crises are beginning to plague my mind with doubts. We still have some elevation to gain, several days to hike, and over thirty miles left in front of us. The hangover will fade, and once we hit the ridgeline, the hike will get easier, but my foot and conditioning won’t be improving anytime soon.

          If anything, the brutal hike quickly gets worse. Jamie soon looks more pale and drained than she did when we started, and while my physical sickness has flat lined, the pain in my surgically reconstructed foot is becoming a problem. By the time we reach the snowline, maybe four miles into what is supposed to be our epic journey, we are ready to call it a day. We find a campsite off-trail, erect our tent, and lay down to catch our breath. Jamie pulls out our map and scrutinizes it, her face getting more angry by the minute.

          “That backcountry ranger insisted we should trim a day from our itinerary, so now if we stop here for the night, the trip will be impossible. We’d have to push on for several more miles. If I could manage to eat something, I think I’d have the energy to make it, but even the thought of food is making me ill.”

          I can tell she is disappointed in how things are shaking out, and I’d like to inspire her to greater heights, but the reality of my healing foot is becoming more apparent by the minute. Even after removing my pack and boots, the appendage still throbs.

          “If we had that extra night, I might be able to limp through this, but as it is, I don’t think I can make it.”

           My voice quakes a little as I speak. Although there isn’t much I could have done differently, I feel disgusted with myself for being out of shape and injured. I hate the idea of retreating from a hike and I know Jamie does as well. It’s only happened one other time and that too was because of my messed up freak foot . The aggressive side of me wants to march on even if it means causing some irreparable harm, and were I younger, I might do just that. Pushing forty though, and already suffering from several arthritic aches due to injuries I never let heal, I can hear the voice of reason slipping past my stubbornness.

          “I miss the Sawtooths and the Wind River Range,” Jamie says. “If we have to call this off, let’s just go home to some of our mountains where there aren’t so many people… and traffic… and cops.”

          “You mean somewhere with actual wildlife?” I add.

          Jamie’s sick and pale countenance brightens at the thought. “I’ve heard this place is better in the winter anyway. Maybe we can come back for an epic snowshoeing trek for Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

          “Well, at least my foot should be healed by then. Six weeks of recovery time, my ass. I think we’re close to three months now.”

          “Don’t let it get you down,” Jamie says, trying to ease my frustration with a disarming smile. “You’ll be back to the real woods wrestling real bears before you know it. Besides, I don’t think either of us are cut out to be Californians.”

Due Time

Always the last time
And the promise
Of tomorrow
Just a joke
At which nobody
Ever laughed
Has finally preceded
A great sigh
Of relief

Instead of the fear
Regret and wondering
If ever again
The nights
Will feel as magical
As once they did
There is only remorse
Of time wasted
Coupled with disbelief
At the sick
Young man's distorted smile
Through the rum bottle 
In faded photographs
As if mortality
Had yet to find him

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Raised to believe
It is more important
To fight the battle
Than it is to win the war
I could once
Accept this unyielding
String of defeats
As something necessary
For spiritual survival
But the losses
Have spilled over
And the gains
Have become something
So insubstantial
I can’t imagine
They were ever anything
More than delusions
Of some
Post traumatic syndrome

The war is over
The battle lost
And without a victor
There are no medals
To separate the heroes
From cowards

We are all just awaiting
A bullets arrival
From a trigger pulled
Long before the
Chinese ever invented

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bad Medicine

There are faces of braves
Chiefs and shamans
In the rocks
In the tree trunks
In the clouds overhead
A tribe
Still with us
Still watching
And waiting for a lesson
To be applied

There is no judgment
In those empty eyes
No resentment
Or anger
Just overwhelming sorrow
For a world
That once was
And could have always been
Had the natives
To somewhere
Never reared their
Ugly countenance
To accept this toxic apathy
As fate inevitable

Thursday, July 14, 2011

'Shroom Huntin'

          I am halfway across the fallen spruce, inching along on my butt, sandaled feet dangling in a raging torrent closer resembling a river than a creek, when it occurs to me that our intended reward might not be worth this level of risk. In order to move, I have to place both palms on the bouncing bridge between my thighs, put the combined weight of my body and forty pound backpack into my shoulders while lifting and pulling myself forward a couple inches at a time. Twice already my hands have slipped on the wet bark causing a gut-wrenching instance of imbalance before recovering with a slow exhale and shaking of the head.

          Just downstream from my precarious perch, half submerged in the bubbling froth is a logjam of deadly strainers, fallen trees with branches still attached guaranteed to pin someone against, or under, one of these traps should they slip into the icy runoff. My pack has all of its buckles unfastened, but I’d still be lucky to get it off my shoulders before the current swept me into a life-threatening situation. What’s worse is knowing that once across, I’ll have to stand helplessly on the other side while my wife attempts the same feat.

          So enthralling is the creek ford, I don’t realize how badly my frozen feet hurt until I hit the far side. Hopping in place on the creek bank to bring some life back to my aching toes, I watch Jamie straddle the log and begin her own crossing. When she reaches the halfway point, I swallow hard against the frigid torture and wade out into the powerful flow as far as sanity allows. At this point, if she falls there is a chance I’ll be able to reach out and snag her before the current drags my wife into the nest of ominous strainers. My plan is to grab whatever part of her, or her pack, I can get ahold of and then throw myself backwards in hopes that the combination of my momentum and weight is somehow a match for the current.

          Thankfully, none of my planning is necessary. Jamie makes it across safe and sound and shaking slightly from the adrenaline rush. The pins-n’-needles sensation of our feet and legs thawing has us gritting our teeth for a full thirty seconds before the pained grimaces dissolve into a shared expression of nervous relief.

          “That was sketchy,” she says as we swap our river sandals for hiking boots. “Maybe on the way back we should look for another crossing.”

          “Yeah,” I reply, “besides, I’m not sure if the runoff has hit its peak. If the water gets any higher, we’ll have to find a different route.”

          “Let’s just keep the end result in mind,” Jamie suggests. “We’re out here to forage because we want to. We aren’t starving to death, so let’s not get ourselves killed.”

          She is correct, of course, but if there is a wild food worth dying for, it just might be a particular, highly sought after mushroom. No, not the magic kind. Although, I have found the hallucinogenic variety on Idaho’s public lands before. The primary target of our hunt thrives in areas of well-drained, sandy soil and recent forest fire activity. It possesses a meaty texture and earthy flavor that is impossible to beat, especially when sautéed with garlic butter, or better yet, battered and fried in bacon grease. The finest meal I can recall was a cheeseburger loaded with freshly picked ones that Jamie and I grilled up after a few exhausting days spent hunting the sometimes elusive treat. Ah, the mighty morel mushroom, or as I like to say, “King of the forest cuisine.”

          Due to their grid-like network of ridges and pits, giving the fungus a distinct honeycomb look, morels are easy to identify and thus, one of the safest wild foods to harvest. Something in their size and tan to brown colors remind me of toads, only slightly misshapen to also resemble a conical gnome hat. There is a fake morel that is similar, although the stem is longer and the cap more round, giving it a microphone-like appearance, and while some claim they cause gastrointestinal issues, other people eat them like potato chips. In any case, accidently including a couple of fake ones in your bounty won’t kill anybody. And, while morels are the holy grail of our June quest into the mountains above the South Fork of the Salmon River, foraging conditions for a variety of edible flora is at its prime.

          In a plastic bag attached to the outside of my pack, I have already collected a variety of leaves for a salad, and inside my pack is a small plastic tub of butter, garlic, and onions to accompany our planned mushroom feast. I brought the sauté fixings despite the fact we might find some wild onions and garlic, mostly because I can guarantee we won’t stumble across any butter out here. In a third bag, I have also harvested a collection of huckleberry and strawberry leaves for an anti-oxidant, after-dinner tea. In the absence of ripened fruit this early in the season, their leaves will have to do.

          The majority of my salad gatherings consist of wild mint with a slight smoky taste, the delicate pedals of strawberry flowers, and the more subtle flavor of young dandelion leaves. The mint looks a bit like stinging nettle, and you certainly do not want to confuse the two. Actually, even stinging nettle is quite savory, but it must first be boiled to destroy the plant’s tiny needles and itchy toxin.

          Shortly after the creek crossing, I find our first edible wild mushroom, although something has beaten us to it. The fist-sized puffball has had its white dome top neatly removed by the gentle bite of an animal, most likely a black bear, leaving a shallow bowl filled to the rim with what looks like a smooth chocolate surface. Unlike sand grains, the individual spores are so fine the naked eye is unable to differentiate one from the other making the collection of particles appear solid. I bend at the waist and blow out a quick breath through pursed lips. The spores scatter in a small brown cloud, some of them instantly snagged by the faint breeze and carried away, hopefully landing somewhere favorable for producing more of the tasty fungi.

          Like a bear, I have basically learned what wild plants are edible through trial and error. While walking backcountry trails, I sample random leaves that appear to have digestible potential. This isn’t a process I necessarily recommend, but it works for me. Basically, I let taste and texture serve as my guide while adhering to a few simple rules. First, while a lot of green plants have a disagreeable flavor, there are very few in the Rocky Mountains that will truly sicken you if ingested. As far as I know, and from what I’ve read, there isn’t a single plant that tastes good but is also poisonous. Toxic plants taste terrible and you should know the second one touches your tongue. Same goes for harvesting wild berries. Poison berries are gross, although it’s worth mentioning that even some of the edible berries don’t have a particularly pleasant taste, especially prior to ripening.

          Such is the case of the elder berry. This purple fruit grows in clusters resembling tiny grapes and while it can be processed into tasty wines and marmalades, the berry itself runs a tad bitter. Actually, because a lot of wild flora tends to taste sour, I keep plenty of water on hand to wash out the flavor of anything nasty. Also, if a particular leaf actually tastes agreeable, I will only eat a small sample the first time around and then wait to see if I experience any kind of adverse reaction. Never eat more than a bite of something until you are sure it is safe and even then, gradually increase the amounts until you are certain an actual portion can be consumed risk free.

          While this taste testing strategy may work on plants and fruits, I do not push my luck with the immense variety of mushrooms. When it comes to fungi, I will only eat, or even taste, what I can positively identify. Thankfully, the edible mushrooms are fairly easy to recognize. Again, while my harvesting techniques have yet to land me in any kind of trouble, I have spent my life in the forest, possess a certain familiarity with the common flora, and make no claim this system will work for others. Besides the inherent risk of eating wild plants, there are other concerns to consider, especially this time of year.

          “Tick!” Jamie says suddenly stopping in mid-stride. The tone of her voice is laced with disgust. She plucks the flat red arachnid off her shirt and while grinding her teeth in anger, crushes the blood sucker between her thumbnail and index finger. “Die you bastard!”

          Ticks and the potentially life-long blood diseases some carry, have zero diplomatic immunity in our eyes. Despite a two week anti-biotic treatment, the last bite Jamie suffered led to an entire year of swollen lymph nodes and periodic outbreaks of itchy bumps. So, when we see one, it dies. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile our more Buddhist like beliefs with our blood lust for ticks, but no spiritual philosophy is complete without a few hypocritical quirks. Besides, if someone can point out a useful role they serve in the grand scheme of things, I’d be willing to reconsider my prejudice.

          Jamie’s tick is the first of many. The higher we climb the more we find, appearing from seemingly out of nowhere to lurch across our clothes, backpacks, and exposed flesh searching for some warm, hair-covered crevice to call home. Each one is met with a similar, and hopefully painful, fate. Their peak season typically runs from March to May, but it really depends on the weather and elevation. Ticks do not like the heat and by the end of June are much harder to find. Or, as I should say, the less they tend to find you. Despite the lateness of their season, we are approaching the lingering snowline and up here, the little devils remain abundant.

          In addition to ticks, other harvesters, particularly mushroom hunters, have a surly reputation when it comes to protecting their favorite patches. I have heard of firearms being drawn and vehicles sabotaged more than once. As Jamie and I round a bend and come face to face with two young men in dirty hiking clothes, I wonder if we have encountered some fellow foragers. One of them has a wicked looking knife on his belt and the other is holding a broken branch that is much too heavy to be an effective walking stick, otherwise they carry no gear. Instinctually, my left hand slips into my pocket to ensure the razor sharp blade I always carry is where it’s supposed to be.

          “Nice day for a hike,” Jamie says in her usual beguiling manner. My wife is nicer than I am and thus the communicator. My job is to look intimidating and only talk if I have to when encountering strangers in the total isolation of Idaho’s backcountry.

          As it turns out, the two aren’t harvesters, but rather two city kids, one from Dallas, the other from Las Vegas, out to prove something to themselves by experiencing genuine wilderness for the first time. They are on an epic hiking quest throughout the Pacific Northwest, trying to hit as many broad expanses of backcountry as they can. At least that is their story, but the young man with the sheaved knife keeps throwing harsh looks at his companion as details of their trip drop readily from the other guy’s tongue. The talkative fellow has a blond beard, rosy cheeks, and must weigh close to three hundred pounds. He is easily the heaviest individual I have ever seen this high in the mountains. Part of me is struck with a sense of admiration, but the more suspicious side, knowing how hard this sort of physical activity can be for even a lean individual, can’t help wondering if they are on the run and hiding out for some reason.

          “So you guys do have actual supplies?”’ Jamie asks, fishing for information. “You must have a camp nearby…”

          The blond fellow opens his mouth to speak, but is cutoff by his friend. “We’re camped back that way,” he says, vaguely motioning down the trail from where we just came. “Where are you two headed?”

          Jamie tries to reply, but like our new acquaintance just did to his buddy, I interrupt her with an equally obscure gesture pointing towards the snow-covered mountain tops, “We’ll be up there somewhere.” After a few more awkward pleasantries, we move on with me sneaking glances over my shoulder. “What do you make of those two?” I ask.

          “Not sure,” she replies. “I hope they know what they’re doing, but Dallas and Las Vegas? Not sure their backgrounds have prepared them for something like this. Why, do you think they were lying?”

          I shrug. “Not sure about lying, but I get the sense we weren’t hearing the whole truth. In any case, let’s create some distance between us and them, shall we?”

          Shortly after our encounter with the two young men, Jamie and I jump over a small stream and notice a fresh bear track in the mud lining the bank. The track is as large as one of my outstretched hands, its claws unmistakable in the damp earth. A quarter mile later, we find an even fresher pile of bear scat. Unlike domesticated horses, our wild and furry friend had the good manners to turn his body sideways and drop his business just off the steep trail side. The massive pile is bright green indicating that we’re not the only ones out foraging for plants; our omnivorous neighbor has clearly eaten its fill.

          With my attention somewhat scattered by the prospects of strange men and bears, I walk right past the first few morels before realizing we are standing in an actual patch. We planned on doing some off-trail mushroom hunting once we reached a certain elevation, but clearly, Jamie and I are the first to venture this high this year or the bounty at our feet would have been already harvested. Like ticks, morels don’t like the heat and are usually past their season by mid-June, but the cool mountain tops are where their season extends a little longer. Even so, half of the morels are already beyond their prime. The ones having already dried out, we pick, pull apart, and scatter to create more next year. The rest, still heavy with moisture, are carefully cut at the top of their stems and deposited in a plastic container for safe storage. All in all, the morel harvest is fairly meager, but we have enough to transform a couple of meals into a king’s banquet.

          Another hour into our hike, we draw even with the snowline on the opposite side of the drainage. It being the southern aspect and receiving less direct sun, the snow still covers most of the mountain face. On our northern side, we are just entering the elevation where sporadic snow banks still shadowed by trees cling to life. Predictably accompanying the retreating snow, we soon find ourselves in the midst of a sizable patch of tannish-orange calf brain mushrooms. Less predictable is the sheer volume and size of these hardy fungi. Never have I seen so many of the delicacies and some are actually larger than the gray matter of your average bovine.

          While not as tasty as the legendary morel, they do possess a similar hardy texture and are just as easy to identify. If you see what appears to be the scooped out innards of something’s skull, somewhere between the circumference of a silver dollar and cantaloupe, lying on the ground near melting snow, you have found a calf brain. As it is with the fake morel, some people insist they contain a mild toxin, but I, and other people I‘ve met, have been eating them practically our whole lives and have yet to experience any kind of problem.

          After gathering enough “brains” to make a zombie jealous, we return to our hike. With ample foraging success, we now need a camp for the night. Still removing the occasional tick before it can bite one of us, Jamie and I climb high enough we are approaching the northern slope’s snowline. It is at this point in our journey that Jamie suddenly stops short in front of me causing me to run into her backpack. I hear the problem before I have a chance to ask what’s wrong. The distinct sound of claws scraping wood reaches my ears and over the top of Jamie’s head, I see a shaggy animal pulling itself into view up a sun bleached ponderosa snag right next to the trail before us.

          My initial reaction is to grab Jamie by the shoulders and start pulling her backwards. A second later, I realize the creature itself poses us no threat and we stop in our tracks to admire a yearling bear cub staring down at us with frightened eyes. Although technically a black bear, the animal is easily the blondest of the species I have ever seen. The young bear looks like a juvenile grizzly, or at least as though it has been to a salon for a summer dye job. An instant later, operating on some mutual wavelength, Jamie and I begin swiveling our heads in every direction for what has to be a nearby mom while we continue our back peddling.

          Fifty yards is too close to a bear cub, thirty feet is just stupidly pushing one’s luck. As we withdraw, the young animal shimmies down the tree, leaps back onto the trail and charges uphill quickly disappearing out of sight. We don’t see any sign of the mother and are left wondering if the cub has been orphaned. Bears have some of the most devoted and protective mothers in the wild, so only a serious, possibly fatal incident would have separated the two. We choose to believe, she is just ahead of us on the trail, and no doubt, joined her baby as it scampered past. The alternative is pretty grim to consider as most cubs need a couple years with their mothers before fully learning the ropes of the wilderness.

          Not wishing to cause more stress to the bear, or its mother, we opt to turn around and head back to the last flat piece of ground we can remember for our night’s campsite. Both of us are eager for supper and tired of removing the blood sucking arachnids that have been with us for the last several miles and are developing a case of tick fever. The symptoms of this illness are really more mental where every little breeze blown hair feels like something crawling across one’s skin. Tick fever also results in a lot of anxious dreams and restless nights. Not wishing to succumb to a full blown case, we descend down the mountain along with the lengthening shadows of a setting sun.

          After setting up camp, we prep our salad fixings and whip up a hot dish containing two kinds of sautéed mushrooms. The meal is a godsend, delicious in every way, but it still pales to our memory of that morel infused cheeseburger. Oh well, just another reason to keep harvesting, and besides, our foraged supper beats anything we are carrying in our packs. Our backup plan, had we been unable to find food, is beef jerky and trail mix so we are happy to be eating something other than the packing staples we have long grown sick of.

          It won’t be long until Jamie and I return to the mountains to not only gather more salad fixings and mushrooms, but to also wallow in our sizable berry picking addiction. We aren’t afraid to compete with grizzlies for the most delectable and abundant patches, and have even ran afoul of the Rocky Mountain King while foraging in Glacier National Park. However, if you’ve ever taken a plump huckleberry and crammed it inside the cavernous pit of a ripe thimbleberry and eaten both at the same time, you will never again question why otherwise level-headed individuals are willing to dodge bears, mix it up with dubious foragers, and risk their lives to get one sticky finger on Idaho’s glorious backcountry bounty.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Lonely Devil

There is no team
In I
No rag tag collection
Of likeminded renegades
No partner in crime
No third eye
Covering my backside

Because I subscribe
To nothing
And the ether therein
Any allegiance
Is strictly a matter
Of nebulas circumstance
Easily misplaced
Amongst the shifting sands

It is my footprints
And mine alone
Tracking a line back
Along the beach
For as far as I can see
Or remember

Too heavy
For anyone to carry
I drag my baggage
Over the castles
Of other people’s dreams
Fabrications and delusions
Forever chasing
A long lost horizon
Large enough for two

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Loud Colors

Sorting through the ash
Acrid smoke
And spent cardboard artillery
Of last night’s
Country wide war
City streets blackened
And left in ruin
Suitably encapsulating
Our precious freedom
To set the world aflame
Just as Jesus
Surely intended

Like everything else
Stolen and made stupider
This Chinese invention
Washed down
With all the lager
Lips and assholes
Any God fearing glutton
Can stomach
While the rest
Are left to the battlefields
How an exploding carnival
Is supposed to represent
The best
Our tribe has to offer