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, August 26, 2011

Return of the Kid

          Nobody likes a trilogy. Let me rephrase that. Nobody likes the third installment of a trilogy. Don’t believe me? Name one that people hold in the same regard as the original and initial sequel. Hell, by the time any kind of follow-up rolls around, the once captivating idea has typically grown stale. Still, if some novelist or movie director is fortunate enough to get through back to back related stories with some degree of success, they almost seem obligated to force out a third.

          I wince inwardly as this realization lands home. This is exactly what I am trying to do. Vainly hoping another story will materialize for me in the Lynx Creek drainage of the rugged Sawtooths just a few miles above Atlanta, Idaho. The last two trips to this mountainous location on the Middle Fork of the Boise River led to first a heart-pounding, and then a heart-breaking, experience with the local mountain goats. The first time, while searching for Lynx Creek hot spring, my wife and I were caught in a stampede of the shaggy white beasts after they were spooked by unleashed dogs. Although a bit terrifying, the once-in-a-lifetime encounter, and my faceoff with the angry herd leader, reignited a passion for writing that I have embraced ever since.

          On our return visit the following July, we ran into a half-dressed, wild woman who had lost her Siberian husky in the same drainage. We never saw the dog, but I did find fresh, mid-sized canine prints in the mud around the geothermal seeps where the goats hang out. Later that afternoon, we were haunted by the cries of a lost baby goat perched on a cliff above our campsite. After spotting each other, the yearling began descending the sheer rock walls as if Jamie and I were going to be its new family. Like true warriors, we hid as the whimpering goat circled our foliage concealed tent. Leaving us emotionally traumatized, the youngster finally retreated up the rocks while we theorized it was another unleashed dog that caused the herd to panic and separate our fuzzy little supplicant from its family.

          Clearly, we have some kind of cosmic connection with this place involving mountain goat drama and that’s the reason it has been two years since our last visit. Subconsciously deciding we couldn’t handle witnessing more stress for the herd, we gave Lynx Creek a break last summer. Now, feeling the pressure to come up with a new outdoor adventure article, I have convinced my wife to revisit our old stomping grounds and the heart of my craft’s inspiration. It may be an act of desperation, hoping some worthwhile trilogy will unfold, but it’s the Fourth of July weekend and our reclusive nature insists we be somewhere far removed from the drunken idiots with their loud, colorful gunpowder and Lynx Creek is an ideal location even if nothing occurs.

          “Remember that couple we kept seeing on the trail the first time we came up here?” Jamie asks, interrupting my train of thought.

          My response is a bray of laughter. How could I forget? We should have known our Lynx Creek saga was going to be a little Twilight-Zone-ish from their presence alone. Jamie and I had been walking past their car camp on our way to the trailhead when the guy initiated a conversation with us. He was still young, in his mid-thirties, but had already grown soft. Not overweight by any means, just not in any kind of shape either. He briefly recollected aloud about all the hardcore backpacking trips he once endured, and as we chatted, his eyes took on a distant, competitive fire. His nearby wife, wearing caked on make-up and overly styled hair, didn’t look as if she had ever spent a day in the backcountry, nor did she look compelled to start.

          It was during our first break of the morning, resting a hundred feet from the path, when we saw them march by. Well, he was marching and she was reluctantly in tow. More humorous was the gear they had elected to bring. The doughy old-school adventurer carried nothing but a machete and a length of rope coiled about his shoulder. His wife held a pink, hard-shelled piece of carry-on luggage. Not sure what he intended on chopping with that big blade, or doing with that rope, and neither appeared to have water, but I guess I’ll never know what was in the small suitcase.

          We missed the hidden trail descending to Lynx Creek a few times before finding our way down, while the other couple kept missing the path to a higher lake, causing us to pass each other a few times throughout the day. Each time, the man did his best to puff out his chest and pick up the pace, while his lady made no effort to disguise her exhaustion and disgust. By the last time we saw them, the sun had just set behind the towering Sawtooth ridgeline, they were miles from their campsite, and the woman looked as if she was reevaluating their entire relationship. Between fits of laughter, we felt a little bad for them.

          In an attempt to avoid any annoying or amusing encounters with other people, Jamie and I are using a different route to access the drainage. On a map of the area, we noticed an old road paralleling the opposite side of the river, and while it came to an abrupt stop far short of our destination leaving us no choice but to forge our own path through dense underbrush and across loose talus, we have somehow successfully circumvented our fellow man on this busy holiday weekend.

          Approximately a mile from our destination, Jamie suddenly stops and points towards the closest cliff rising above the thick and prickly maze of buck brush we are trying to navigate. Shielding her eyes from the intense sun and squinting towards the rock wall, she asks, “Is that what I think it is?”

          I look up just in time to see a shaggy white blur disappearing behind a stand of trees atop the cliff. I only catch a momentary glimpse, but it is enough. “Yep,” I answer, “that’s one of our friends alright. Man, what is with this place? We can’t take two steps without tripping over a mountain goat.”

          Jamie’s smile could light up a black hole. “Maybe it’s that same one who tried to adopt us last time,” she says impishly.

          “We should have caught that goat when we had the chance,” I say while cinching up the waist belt of my backpack to get some of the pressure off my shoulders. “It could be carrying most of our gear about now.”

          After pushing through the labyrinth of buck brush, Jamie and I take a break on a rocky outcrop above the raging middle fork. As I quench my thirst, I survey the near and distant ridgelines. I see nothing until I repeat the process and then, from atop a nearby ledge I had just scouted, I spot our mountain goat for the second time. Only visible from the neck up, the animal is peering at us over the top of a boulder with his head cocked sideways.

          “Looks like someone is following us,” I say and nod my head in the direction of our observer.

          Jamie spots the white animal after a few seconds of searching. “Pretty sneaky,” she says. “I think he’s leading us to Lynx Creek.”

          Determining the sex of a distant mountain goat is all but impossible, but I believe Jamie to be correct. Males tend to live by themselves once they reach a certain age, while the females live amongst extended families containing multiple generations. Whipping out the binoculars for a quick look, I can positively say that our onlooker is two to three years old at the most. His goatee and horns pale in comparison to the herd leader with whom I experienced my standoff and he is half the size of that great beast.

          Standing up and pulling Jamie to her feet, I say, “Well, if the goat knows the way, let’s race him there.”

          The rest of the trek is a pleasant walk just above the river on an established, but rarely used trail. Downed trees slow our progress but before long we are once again standing on the banks of the swollen middle fork, looking across the impassable torrent towards the small hot spring on the other side. As predicted, the shallow pool is still swamped by the voluminous runoff, validating our decision to approach the drainage from this side; we weren’t going to be able to soak anyway.

          Neither of us notices our mountain goat escort until we have set up our tent and stripped naked for a cleansing plunge into a small eddy just downriver from camp. As we stand there working up the courage to jump into the freezing water, Jamie points to the top of a sheer granite wall towering over our camp with a gargantuan grin spreading across her face. I look up in time to see our goat friend pulling up a comfortable resting spot on his rocky overlook. Lying on its belly, the animal peers over the cliff for a bird’s eye of the Lynx Creek drainage.

          “Do you see where that goat just laid down?” I ask Jamie, my own smile beginning to match hers.

          “Yep,” she replies. “He is in the exact same location we first noticed that freaked out baby last time. I’m really starting to wonder if that is our goat.”

          Although I don’t want to vocalize my crazy suspicion, as it seems way too coincidental, but I feel an unexplainable certainty that our voyeur is none other than that panic-stricken yearling from two years ago. It’s almost like the animal recognized us on our hike in and purposefully headed to this precise location as if to let us know that he is, in fact, ok. We no longer need to worry; the lions and wolves never found him despite the echoing racket Jamie and I last heard. The distant mountain goat sits frozen in place while we swim and it isn’t until we are in the process of getting dressed that we notice the young billy has vanished once again.

          “Alright,” I say, re-thinking my earlier assessment, “so maybe this goat is just a pervert and it’s pure coincidence that he happened to be sitting on the same rock ledge as our last one.”

          “Only one way to find out,” she replies. “Get naked again and see if it comes back.”

          “I kind of doubt he would have been spying on us for my naked butt. I think he might have a crush on you though,” I say, “which means I might be eating mountain goat for dinner.”

          Normally primetime for mosquitos, Jamie and I take full advantage of the long cool spring having put off the bloodsucker’s arrival by spending our evening next to the river instead of hiding from the swarms in our small tent. Later we drift off to the sound of the almost hypnotic, fluctuating flow of the river and sleep the deserved sleep of the backpacker.

          The following morning, Jamie and I eat instant oatmeal and plan our day. We decide to make the off-trail push straight up the mountainside towards the headwaters of Lynx Creek. With snow still visible on the peaks all around us, we begin the arduous climb. Within the first hour, we have a four foot gopher snake slither right between us and spot two of the green and tan racer snakes, as they rear up at each other and square off like a couple of skinny sock puppets. The smaller one instantly backs down and honoring its namesake, tears off in a streaking blur through the sagebrush dotting our exposed climb.

          Later, as our route finding takes us back into a more forested area, we find a large hard plastic barrel tucked away in a stand of fallen timber. It is the type of storage container used to bait bears, a hunting practice I find particularly loathsome; almost on par with shooting treed lions from point blank range. That isn’t hunting, that’s the equivalent of me challenging a quadriplegic to a game of one-on-one basketball. Near the ambush site, we also find discarded dishes and rusting cooking pots. Looks like the hunters in this drainage are lazy on multiple levels. I am more willing to forgive the ignorance of your average person than I am the slob who claims to be an “outdoorsman” while being unable to hunt an animal without cheating and trashing the wilderness.

          Thinking we have found our headwaters, or at least a small lake, our ascent comes to an end when we crest a talus strewn slope only to find a massive cirque of angular pinkish boulders, some the size of cars. It looks as though a once rocky peak collapsed on itself, inverting the entire mountain top. There are a few melting snowfields, but otherwise, there is no water in the giant bowl. The headwaters are still above us, possibly over the next rise, but we have grown tired and hungry from the climb. We make the long retreat back to camp in time for another dip in the river and a hot meal of instant mashed potatoes and chicken.

          As dusk settles over the valley, we decide to head downriver for a better view of the rocky ledge overlooking our campsite, hoping for one last glimpse of our goat before bed. So fixated on the distant cliff, I fail to notice the shaggy white and black-horned beast drinking from the banks of the middle fork no more than forty feet in front of me. Out of the corner of my eye, I pick up on the slightest bit of motion and turn my head in time to lock eyes with the adult mountain goat as it raises its head in alarm. Both of us freeze in our tracks, somehow hoping the other has yet to notice.

          I try to catch Jamie’s attention with a subtle wave of my hand, but the movement is enough for the goat. Moving with astonishing speed, the animal slips behind a low sagebrush covered rise and vanishes from sight. A moment later, from the uphill side of the mound, appears a baby goat and on its heels a trailing yearling. Jamie and I watch with our mouths agape as a line of mountain goats, each one bigger than the last, charges into view and then up the mountainside into a shallow ravine full of tall undergrowth and a mixture of live and dead trees. The goat I had first seen is second to last, trailed only by a significantly larger herd leader. Within seconds, the spooked family has vanished into the foliage and shadows leaving us alone in the thickening twilight.

          The heart-racing experience immediately transports me back in time to the rage I felt on both previous excursions when some inconsiderate person let their dogs terrify the poor goat family. Only this time, we are the guilty party and we don’t even have a mutt to blame. Although purely accidental, our intentions don’t really matter when the end result is still a panicked herd. The last thing Jamie and I desire is to scare these noble creatures, but at least none were separated in the momentary chaos. I imagine the family will recover from our sudden appearance shortly after catching their breath. On our way back to camp, we check the cliffs one last time, possibly hoping to ensure our young rogue male didn’t witness us harassing his relatives. Thankfully, the ledge is deserted.

          “Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Jamie offers sensing my regret. “I’m sure these goats have seen their share of people. It’s not like they thought we were wolves or anything. They’ll be fine.”

          “I suppose so,” I say, “but I wasn’t paying full attention to my surroundings like I should have been. I feel like an amateur.”

          The images of the fleeing goats sits in the forefront of my mind until I finally drift off into a peaceful slumber. Thankfully, my dreams aren’t haunted by the suffering of mountain goats. In fact, I don’t remember dreaming at all. After breaking camp the next morning and packing up for the march back to our truck, Jamie and I scan the rock walls, but there are no signs of life.

          Shortly before our departing hike takes us beyond the views of exposed mountainside and drops us into the dense trees, I steal one last glance over my shoulder towards the distant ridgeline. It is probably just my imagination, but for a split second, I am almost positive there is a familiar white blur in the process of turning away from us and slipping back into the rocks. Whatever I noticed is gone before I can point it out to Jamie and I’m left wondering if I saw anything at all. It’s crazy, but I want to believe it really might have been our goat, knowing our times together were at an end, seeing us off with a final farewell. I return the gesture with one lingering, concluding wave before turning my back on the Lynx Creek drainage, possibly for the very last time.

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