Another Perspective

Sawtooth Days

Three days with Happy Jack in God's great outdoor gym.

By 9.17.09

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Happy Jack Feder's (HJF) antediluvian Toyota Corolla rolled into Salmon unannounced on a recent Friday evening, its trunk and backseat crammed with camping equipment. He likes to surprise people, even as his wife Kathy often poses the pertinent question: "Do you think that's a good idea, honey?"

Upon his arrival, HJF boldly stated that he wanted to climb Borah Peak (named for the legendary Senator William Borah, a hundred miles distant, and at 12,662 feet the highest mountain in Idaho) first thing the next morning. I said this was a bad idea because mountains that high are not to be trifled with without conscientious physical preparation. ("At nine to ten thousand you're sucking wind, even if you're in good shape," I said.) We went back and forth over this, and finally decided on a three-day backpack trip in the Sawtooth Wilderness near Stanley starting on Sunday. Curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of my home office, HJF slept until noon on Saturday, and only got up at my insistence. Borah Peak, my eye.

A cloudy Sunday morning found us heading south, up the canyon from Challis, and through Clayton and Sunbeam. Occasional dollops of rain hit the windshield as we climbed among pine-carpeted ridges with the Salmon River boiling below. We rounded a bend after Sunbeam and the jagged Sawtooths came into view, and around another was Stanley's (population an even 100, according to the 2000 Census) Main St. bisecting the Sawtooth Valley in front of those granite spires with their grayish late summer glaciers awaiting a new primer of fresh autumn snow.

We stopped at the Chamber of Commerce and got a couple of free maps from its lone Sunday guardian, a steely white-haired old lady who wouldn't tell me her name even after I'd introduced myself. We asked a few questions about the area and mostly got: "Well, I don't camp and hike myself, but…" From there we checked out the two nearby tourist camping traps of Stanley Lake and Redfish Lake, both crowded with Boise RV weekenders. We had no intention of staying, but had some nice photo ops. Then it was on to visit a writer friend of mine named John Rember, who lives in Stanley with his wife Julie, also a writer. I introduced HJF and we sat around sipping tea with the gracious Rembers for an hour in the living room of their comfortable cabin. John was quite taken with HJF's tales of adventures in self-publishing, and at one point even produced a legal pad to take notes. HJF has that effect on people. You meet him one minute, and the next you're interviewing him. We pulled out a map and John gave us some more backcountry information, as he used to work for the U.S. Forest Service in the same area where we planned to backpack. And we bid the Rembers adieu.

It was three o'clock by the time we got to the Iron Creek Trailhead. The weather remained cloudy without rain. We spread a tarp on the ground of the dusty parking lot and covered it with the contents of the Toyota's trunk and backseat. The tent, two large empty backpacks, two sleeping bags and rolled-up ground cushions, packages of freeze-dried food and oatmeal, bags of dried fruit and nuts, a small gas cookstove that looked like a lantern with a burner on top, various small cooking utensils, water bottles and a water purification filter pump, and various clothes for wet weather or cold nights. It was now the hour of reckoning.

Preparing the backpacks for three days in the mountains is something HJF takes seriously? How shall I put it? The answer is usually "No."

"One extra pair of socks," said HJF. "Not two."

"Extra socks are a no brainer," I said. "Wet feet, blisters. It's smart to have extra socks. I'm taking them."

"What's in that little jar?"

"Instant coffee," I said.

"You can't take the jar."

"It's plastic."

"It's still too heavy," said HJF. "How much do you need? Put it in a plastic bag."

"Three teaspoons a day," I said. "For Monday and Tuesday."

HJF handed me a red plastic utensil. A fork on one end; a spoon on the other. "Six teaspoons," he said, as he slipped a paperback into a pouch on the side of his own backpack.

"Six, seven, eight," I counted.

"That's enough!" he said sharply.

"What are you telling me?" I said. "That I can't bring an extra ounce of instant coffee, but you can bring a book?"

"I'm just trying to keep you under forty pounds. You'll thank me for it. What's in that grocery bag?"

"Two cigarette lighters; each wrapped with two feet of duct tape," I said.

"What's with the duct tape?"

"What's with the duct tape?" I repeated. "Haven't you ever watched 'The Red-Green Show'? All purpose: tent patching, lacerations, contusions, poor man's moleskin for blisters."

"I've got moleskin," said HJF. "And I've got a first aid kit."

"I'm taking my lighters and duct tape."

"I've got a lighter. Leave yours in the trunk."

"One lighter?" I said. "And if it runs out and we can't make a fire or cook on the stove? I'm taking my lighters."

"What else is in the bag?" HJF asked.

"My generic Swiss Army knife that I bought in a convenience store for $4.95."

"Leave it. Put it in the trunk."

"It's got a screwdriver and a little scissors."

"You don't need it. Leave it."

"It's got a corkscrew," I said.

"You quit drinking twenty years ago."

"I'm taking my Swiss Army knife," I said. "Backpacking? Are you kidding? It's useful. It's a utilitarian thing. And, who knows? I might want to stick somebody."

"Why did you bring that big tube of toothpaste?"

"It was the one in my medicine cabinet."

"You should've gotten one of those small ones at the drugstore," said HJF. "Like me."

"I forgot," I said.

"What's in your pockets?" HJF asked.

"Forget it," I said.

"Leave your house keys and wallet in the trunk," said HJF. "You won't need cash where we're going."

"If somebody steals your car, they're not stealing my wallet and house keys too."

"Nobody'll steal the car," said HJF. "I'll lock it."

"That car might look good to somebody who's desperate," I said. "We now live in the Age of Obama. The woods could be full of desperate people."

I ended up leaving my cellphone (no coverage anyway), my fourth pair of socks, my third pair of underwear, the half jar of instant coffee, and my sneakers after I'd put on my hiking boots. I'll spare the reader the finer points of the extended negotiations over "mountain money" (toilet paper). Suffice it to say that HJF had his, and I had mine, and half a roll was left in the trunk.

Before we shouldered the backpacks we walked over to the trailhead signs, where day hikers loitered studying trail information and a map. One of those hikers -- a gray haired guy -- took our picture with HJF's camera. Then we were off.

The first mile was relatively flat and took us through a forest of second growth lodgepole, the trees a pointy fifteen feet tall. They weren't thick and the woods appeared open. The trail followed chattering Iron Creek upstream awhile. We passed a wooden boundary sign for the Sawtooth Wilderness. We also greeted small groups of day hikers -- perhaps a dozen people -- coming down the trail.

The trail began to climb and offered views of the surrounding Sawtooths, the gray peaks matching the sky. We crossed Iron Creek on a rickety bridge of haphazardly placed logs. After four miles we made Alpine Lake (elev. 7,823), in its mountain basin, and made a camp far enough from the lake to permit a legal campfire. I gathered firewood, the brittle branches of nearby fallen dead snags. There's no logging in wilderness areas and large dead trees aren't hard to find. HJF stayed in camp and unpacked and put up the tent.

We ate a big package of freeze dried lasagna for dinner. Just add boiling water. HJF never camps without one species of fresh vegetable: a big yellow onion, a small portion diced made the lasagna tasty. There was also a one bagel ration apiece per meal. And dessert: steaming tea, Oreo cookies, and crackers. Hot food in the mountain air requires little seasoning. It just tastes good.

Afterwards, by the fire, I looked up and noticed the sky was clearing and a few stars showed themselves. In an hour the sky was sparkling, as was the breeze-shimmered lake. The white gauze bandage of the Milky Way stretched across the heavens. There was no moon, but nearby trees and rocks shone ghostly in starlight, and the surrounding peaks and ridges were visible in distinct silhouette, as if the stars were falling off a cliff behind them.

I slept by the fire for two reasons. First, some middle-aged guys have to get up a few times a night. Sleeping in the tent would have required fooling with two zippers (sleeping bag and tent) in the dark just to get outside. Secondly, HJF snores. Even as he was zippered up in the tent, the racket heard from outside was amazing. Though as a literally unconscious security measure it might have kept the bears away.

It was cold. Even in August the wee hours at that elevation are near frosty. I lay on my back on the cushion and in the sleeping bag, leaving my glasses on awhile as I stared up at the tops of the pines pointing at the strengthening stars. I could see my breath rising. The fire died to its last hissing and snapping red embers. The stentorian HJF bear security alarm system continued to function. It was going to be a long cold night on the ground. But I entertained two cheerful thoughts: no rattlesnakes are present at 7,800 feet in Idaho to slither into the sack with me, and the cold night canceled the mosquitoes.

I was reasonably comfortable. It's simple; the secret to staying warm is covering the extremities: feet, hands and head. From the waist down I wore just socks and underwear for comfortable sleep. From the waist up I wore a t-shirt, a sweatshirt, a light parka, a wool ski cap pulled low over the ears and to the tip of my nose, and a pair of $1.29 soft work gloves. From the waist down, the tropics. From the waist up, the polar regions. I slept well despite my nocturnal trips to the frigid bushes, those made more interesting by my walking around on sharp stones and pine cones in my socks in the dark. Returning from one of these journeys, I tripped and fell hard onto my cushioned sleeping bag. HJFs olfactory gales never missed a gust.

Sleeping outside the tent, the first hint of daylight awakened me. The stars faded into a dark blue sky. Alpine Lake was a jade glassine pane perfectly reflecting the surrounding peaks, marred only by the concentric rings of rising trout. The first sun lit the highest peaks as if God was shining a celestial flashlight on them. The strange cawing of unseen birds echoed in the lake's basin. I couldn't tell where they were or how far away. I sat up, still wrapped in the sleeping bag and took it all in. I played games with my vaporizing breath, but you can't blow smoke rings without real smoke. I turned my head toward the tent and tried to rouse HJF.

"Get up! It's morning!"

Just a mumbled response and resumption of snoring.

I put on my pants and stiff, cold boots and shivered hard as I did so. I needed to move around. I walked down to the edge of the lake and washed my face, the water felt warmer than the air. I went back to camp and finally succeeded in rousing HJF. Breakfast was oatmeal, our bagel ration with peanut butter squeezed from a tube (HJF haunts sporting goods stores before these trips), nuts, raisins, dried apricots and banana chips. HJF isn't a coffee drinker (he had hot chocolate), but I had my instant, which tasted lousy with powdered creamer. No matter: I drank it.

We stowed all the gear in the zipped up tent, not anticipating any trouble from passing hikers during the day, and had none. This also secured the food from the marauding attentions of birds, squirrels and chipmunks. We packed a day pack with lunch, water, mountain money, binoculars, etc., and spent most of the day wandering near timberline around Sawtooth Lake (elev. 8,430), the largest lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness. The weather was perfect and I plastered on sunscreen three times that day.

We took the trail up the switchbacks between Alpine and Sawtooth Lakes, 600 vertical feet in a mile, views grander the higher we climbed. For a Monday it was busy with day hikers; we saw and chatted with 20 or 30. From the corner of one switchback we looked down a long valley to see the distant town of Stanley and the lines of roads, and the White Cloud Peaks beyond. Coming in to the lake we passed last winter's old crusty gray snowdrifts melting into the rocky scree. Snow in the August Idaho mountains looks like March snow in Manhattan. It was windy at Sawtooth Lake, ruffling its deep blue water. More glacier drifts hung above us on Mount Regan (10,190 feet), one shaped like a rough pointed-down arrowhead. Back to camp in the late afternoon. Dropping down the switchbacks and staring straight down on Alpine Lake, with more mountains beyond that we couldn't see from camp. Back there, HJF finally spent some time reading his book, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. I took a nap in the sun, then gathered more firewood.

We walked out late on Tuesday morning, then drove to Stanley for gas and (for me) real coffee. We were unshaven, dusty, and smelled of campfire smoke. What hair we have hadn't been combed in three days. At my apartment in Salmon, HJF took a shower before heading out for the last 200 miles home to Helena, Montana and his family. I saw him off at the curb with a bear hug and hearty handshake.

As the Toyota drove out of sight, I thought of the last poetic line in J.P. Donleavy's novel The Ginger Man, and find it conducive to paraphrase:

God's mercy -- On the wild -- Happy Jack.


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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.