Idaho and Montana 2010

North America
September 12th 2010
Published: January 13th 2011
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Happy New Year!

Ok, but this entry is from 5 months ago, so need to rewind my memory a bit.

August saw me off to the California for another interminable week of meetings with work. This time evenings if not the meetings themselves was perked up somewhat by the inclusion of our favourite Geordie, Barry (see pic), into the fold. Our hotel seemed even more stale than the last. My room view, fine, except for the never-ending car park that stretched forward below me and spanned most of my vision. That is Milpitas! Well one evening I went to visit one of my US workmates who kindly cooked for me and we chatted mainly about our other work mates - it was certainly nice to get away from the hotel for a bit!

Anyway, fast forward to the end of the week and bring on my first visit to Boise, and definitely not the first visit to see Richie, but the first in his new stamping ground. As we flew in over southern Idaho it was certainly a dramatic entrance, tracking across barren canyons and desert wasteland. Just at the last moment a few irrigated fields appeared then suddenly a mass of greenery which punctured the orange desert, and the yellow grass hills loping rather than towering above the city.

Usual confusion ensued as I exited the arrivals hall and waiting outside for 30 mins, while Richie waited for me in the arrival halls and somehow failed to spot me pass with my long haired and bearded disguise (and yes richie 6 months on its still not cut!). But once we finally found each other, we headed back to Richie's bachelor apartment for a relaxing morning, but a somewhat energetic afternoon excursion up table mountain, and later on still an enjoyable drink and buffalo burgers in one the downtown bars.

The next day we began our road trip north - the idea being to get up and down to Glacier National Park, including a 4 day, 3 night hike in under a week. A bit of a tall order as it turned out - though the main thing that destroyed our plans was some unseasonable midsummer snow! Day one we headed north up into the grassy hills and a very narrow valley with a real raging torrent running through. Idaho is known for its white water rafting and this was one of the main rivers, judging by all the punters on rafts heading down in the opposite direction. Looked pretty awesome - so maybe next time! Anyway we headed on north as far as a turn off for Hells Canyon overlook. Well the guidebook raved about this place, saying it was the most dramatic view in all Idaho - so I pushed Richie to do it. He was looking a little more concerned at the prospect of 20 miles on dirt tracks to get there. Well the road rose quickly snaking up through a forest, and then the weather got progressively worse, or maybe we just got progressively closer to the bad weather. In any case as we rounded the final corner and over the saddle we got the briefest view of some towering mountains which overlook hells canyon before they disappeared along with us into a mysteriously calm fog. On we drove up to the final car park from which we could see precisely nothing. Out we got for a wee stretch in our shorts and t-shirts, just as it started to snow. A quick hike up to the weather station at the top. Then waited as long as we could bear it, but despite a brief moment when it seemed the sun might burn though, we were left within the fog, and somewhat the wetter and colder headed back to the car for a long drive down to the main road. Thankfully Rich still had his sense of humour though.

At the bottom we headed briefly along the huge Salmon River before rising out of the gorge it's created and up to the White River Battleground viewpoint. By that time the heavens had really opened, and we sprinted for the covered viewpoint where we read about the history of the battleground, indians fighting for their land back. In the light the view looked strangely other-worldly, almost like we had stepped back in time, but thankfully the only assault on me was not a feathered arrow, but a rather untimely gaseous explusion by rich just as we got back into the car.

As night fell we pushed on in a bid to catch up some lost ground, finally arriving at the one-motel (in need of modernising), two-bar town of Kooskia. After a pretty good chinese, we hit bar one. Didn't last too long there and headed for bar two. Quieter, but a somewhat alluring barmaid kept us in there. After drink 3 or was it 4, we got chatting and got some handy advise on the local hot spring just (80 miles) down the road. Did we also do karaoke? No I can't remember. I think we resisted. It couldn't have been too wild a night, because getting up the next day was quite ok. And I felt positively settled after my pancakes. Well actually it would have been hard to be anything other than rooted to the chair after eating the 3 each that we ordered. One was quite enough. Biggest darn pancakes I ever saw.

So we headed on snaking through the Bitterroot Wilderness of pine clad mountains. Finally we stumbled upon the start of the short hike to the hot springs that we'd been advised were unmissable. Well, alas Richie decided the better of taking his swimming trunks, for reasons best left known only to a few, so when we finally spied the hot springs it was me alone that took a dip. Now there were 3 pools, but by far the most appealling was the partially concealed one below the path and actually in the river. So the pools were strangely hot-cold. The closer to the spring you got the hotter they got, but away from them you were mainly in the flow of the somewhat icy river. Now that was rather enjoyable, especially as I had some good banter with a local family who were bathing au naturelle. Rich in the meantime was looking somewhat uncomfortable at distance (so as not to appear like he was perving, but I could see that he was!).

Anyway, all good things come to an end, and so we headed back to the car and continued on. The scenery soon got more spectacular as we headed across the border into Montana, and tracked the side of a huge lake. Alas distances were much further than they looked on the map, and what with my extended bathe in the hot spring we didn't arrive at Glacier till after sunset. We quickly checked into one of the managed campgrounds at the entrance after setting up camp and shivering a little over dinner we went for a walk down to the lakeside and were greated with a stunning moonscape with high peaks visible in the far distance and a spooky mist swirling just above the lake surface.

The next day for whatever reason, we decided to head south on the main highway skirting the park to re-enter via Medicine Lake. I'd sussed out a couple of good hiking circuits that looked possible. In any case we had glorious weather as we crossed the Continental Divide. With a cunning bit of photoshop trickery we also managed to get a single photo with both of us on at the roadside signpost. However weirdly I've come out looking twice the size of Rich. Clearly this must be an optical illusion(as even in my current rotund state I am not twice the size of Rich), but I leave it to the many readers of this blog to profer an explanation!

At Medicine Lake we got our bear briefing and quickly set out around the back of the high peak to the north of the lake, with our next 3 nights of camping staked out. It was only a matter of minutes before we met our first hiker, who promptly told us to watch out for a bear that apparently she hadn't seen but some others had. The explanation was a bit garbled and we were left confused as to where the clearing was in which the bear was lurking. So we gingerly set on, wondering who in the hell had forgotten to pack bear spray. But after wondering a few milliseconds we both realised that it was Rich who was the culpable one. Maybe it was this burden of responsibility that provoked Rich to take the lead on shouting and singing ditties as we walked along - standard practice to alert bears to your presence. I suspect however that Rich just secretly enjoys singing silly songs out of tune!

After 30 mins or so we'd pretty much got over the worry that a bear might eat us at any moment and were enjoying the walk in the sun. We hit our first river crossing, and realised that this matched the description given earlier but there was no sign of mr. bear. Obviously Rich's singing had done the trick. On we marched up the valley into a sudden change of weather. We hid under two very skinny trees for a bit to wait out what looked like might be a passing shower, still singing to each other of course. After a bit the sun came out again and we pottered along some more passing some odd looking tall grasses that are characteristic of the region, and a cacophony of other flowers too. Through a forested section (harder to see, so more worrying for bears) and out the other side. It's at this point that I can possibly say that my greed saved our lives. Because I was dying for a fudge graham. And I called a halt to proceedings to get them out and sat on a suitable rock. It was when I got up to stretch my legs that my attention was drawn to a large brown bear (alternatively known as a grizzly) dandering along about 50m away. Now had we not had our break we might have carried on into a little gully with a stream and wandered out more like 10m away from said bear and things could have been a whole lot different. As it was I was reasonably confident it wasn't coming close so grabbed for my camera and got a couple of shaky shots and a video. In the meantime, Rich was somewhat more pragmatic in that he hollered over to the bear. Not sure if the bear had actually noticed us before, but looking up, it didn't seem too perturbed at our presence. I'm not entirely sure what we would have done if it had come our way, but thankfully it didn't. It loped off up the hillside, scratching itself on a few smaller pine trees as it went. Kind of what bears do I guess. Our very first bear! Hard to describe what it feels like to see one not on a TV screen.

With hearts beating double timebut thoroughly bouyed but this unexpected sighting on we carried. We could see the full course of the rest of the afternoons hike ahead, to the lake at the head of the valley, surrounded by towering mountains. We could also see the pass we'd be heading over the next day. Well the singing got more silly for a while, but then the weather really turned and we were drenched in a torrential storm. And it got really cold. Considering it was August 31st we really weren't expecting this. The last two miles were squelchy and unpleasant.

Thankfully the rain abated just as we hit camp and we could get our tent up in the dry, but the cold never really left us for the rest of the trip. I'd been expecting shorts and t-shirt weather, oh for a down jacket that evening. The rest of the evening was filled with the practicalities of camping: hang food, toilet, lower food, cook, raise food, toilet, jig around to keep warm, get cold, walk somewhere, walk back, toilet, get in sleeping bag, sleep, wake, get cold, not sleep, get up and repeat in new day.

After a bit of banter over breakfast with some other backcountry hikers (nick spills entire 1kg bag of trail mix and we have to pick up every last raisin - thereafter trail mix was bit gritty), we broke camp and headed on up to the pass. The pace was good, if only to keep warm. The wind on the far side of the valley had picked up (we could really hear the trees across the way swaying) and the clouds were looking decidedly ominous. As we crested the pass we were almost knocked over by the force of the wind, that obviously we'd been sheltering from. Once we'd put on all the clothes we could possibly manage (which still only included shorts for Richie) we managed a few photos before our faces started to freeze. We could see the entire ridge of the continental divide - the plan being to cross it on the following day. But this day we'd head downwards away from the divide. This involved a painful traverse across a snowfield in hail. The hail was rather like being sand-blasted and only abated once we'd got well down from the pass. We both knew we were heading up this bit the next day and were praying for sun!

THe path snaked through more forest and meadows - here the flowers were at there most colourful. Fantastic, but the weather wasn't playing ball, and before long the rain set in for the long haul. We arrived at camp early (we'd had a vague plan to head on without packs to bag triple divide peak (the peak that marks the water division to pacific, hudson bay and gulf of mexico) but it really wasn't an option. We were drenched. Our puny waterproofs weren't up to this. And again it was cold.

The next few hours were some of the most forgettable of my life! About 20 hours inside a tent. I suppose most seasoned hikers have had to do this at some point in their career, but for me it was pretty much a first. And cold and wet, with Rich's balding toup a matter of inches away, didn't make it any more pleasant. Having said that we did make it out briefly for dinner and a bit of banter with some entertaining local hikers, two of whom seemed even worse equiped but didn't seem to be suffering from the cold at all. They told us about the tasty thimbleberry which tastes of raspberry yoghurt - we did find some on our way home and I concur, strangely yoghurty in the mouth. After dinner, Rich also spied some white mountain goats away up on a cliff face that towered directly 500m above our camp.

So the next day was really decision time. The rain had continued all night and was showing no sign of stopping any time soon. Our gear was pretty much soaked and the thought of a 3rd night in the cold wasn't filling us with any great enthusiasm, so with a somewhat heavy heart we agreed to bail out. As we headed back up the way we came the snow started coming down. 1st Sept and snow! If it weren't so incredibly cold and wet it would have been beautiful.

The snow did stop just back the other side of the pass and we were treated to a real surprise when a group of bighorn sheep charged down the path behind us oblivious to our presence. Again it was up to Rich to shout a warning, and if not I fear we could have been run over. As it was the lead sheep veered off about 5m short of us in some surprise. He stared us out for a bit, then led the rest of this group (10 or so) away with a little bit of horn jostling.

Well thereon we retraced our steps precisely back to the car. The sun did come out, but we could see that the cloud had never quite cleared from the head of the valley, so we weren't too disappointed about quitting. And as luck would have it, within minutes of arriving back at medicine lake the heavens opened again for some torrential rain. Back in dry clothes and loving every second of it, we headed north in the roozermobile to try for the Road to the Sun route back through the park. How lucky we were, because in travelling that 20 miles or so north the weather completely changed. After a piece of fruit pie we headed along up into the valley. The views as sunset were approaching were absolutely stupendous and with all the stopping we didn't make the pass till pretty much sundown. We had just time to hike the short way up to the pass on the Continental Divide. On the way up we got a cracking view of the Garden Wall half shrouded in cloud and half lit up by the last rays of sun.

Alas the decent from the pass was in the dark of night and also a driving rain storm, so we couldn't see what would have undoubtedly been a dramatic set of hairpins on the way down. We stormed out the park and instantly the skies cleared - it seems that the weather systems stick to the mountains of the park, so whilst we'd be battling clouds, snow and rain, probably the rest of montana had been bathed in sunshine. That evening we contented ourselves with a room in a motel and an evening watching movies, inwardly chuckling to ourselves about not being wet or cold or stuck in a tiny tent two inches apart with bears prowling!

So that was really the end of the hiking adventure as planned. We headed south back to Boise via a more westerly route. This time the trip had two notable moments. Firstly we hiked the trail to Elk Bends hot springs (recommended by Richie's guide, but with less than adequate directions, so we actually found it by blind luck!). We assumed the trail would be a short one, but no, in the sweltering late afternoon heat, with only a minimum of water, we trudged over a couple of miles steadily upwards through a dramatic yellow grass valley. We knew there was someone else up the trail because we'd seen two hired motorbikes at the trailhead, but there was no sign of anyone. Just as we were all for giving up the trail rose even more sharply up an increasingly narrow gorge. Round one final last bend we were greeted with the sight across the way of a man stark naked shaking himself in the sun. We'd made it.

So as it happened the two (male) naked bikers were just leaving as we arrived. They did tell us where the best pool was (there were 4 of 5 in total) and we have to agree with them. That pool was almost mirror-like with an incredible view down the valley. Whatsmore it was a perfect temperature for late afternoon in the shade. More incredible still was the hot waterfall behind the pool - a veritable power shower. So we had a good hour there and felt thoroughly refreshed. Even better, the walk back was entirely downhill. And the car was still there despite Rich failing to lock it.

So homeward bound we had our last night in a glorified parking lot next to the main river. What could have been a good night was spoiled somewhat by the hillbilly campers next to us who insisted on playing country music full volume until the early hours and shining torches on our tent. Well we were in America after all. At least they didn't get their guns out and start firing off rounds...

Next day was a final sprint back to Boise. We passed the Sawtooth mountain park, but neither of us felt like a hike. Instead we settled for some excellent ice cream in the quaint (but slightly cheesy) Idaho City. I got way bigger scoops than Rich from the somewhat well proportioned serving girl (despite the fact that Rich in a sign of clear desperation left an unusually large tip!).

So back to Boise. Now as my flight left at 5am or so, it was decided to go crazy, and not sleep at all that night. It seemed like a good idea at the time. So things started well with a late evening visit to the pool and jacuzzi at Rich's apartment complex, followed by pizza at his local pub. Then a couple of drinks and we were both knackered. Problem was that it was still only midnight. As luck would have it there were late night showings at a cinema. So I shouted Rich the $1 ticket to see some movie which was actually quite amusing. Also amusing that it was us and about 5 teen couples who were presumably more interested in smooching with each other than the movie. God only knows what they thought of us!

So out the cinema at 1.30am and we still had a good 2 hours to burn. So we set off up Table Peak for the 2nd time of the holiday. This time driving most of the way, then with torches up to the summit. The summit was in fact surprisingly busy - with teenagers. But they ignored us. Below was the grid of lights that is Boise. We chilled there in the cool until finally it was time to head to the airport and a long (30 hours or so) flight back to the UK via SF and Newark.

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14th January 2011

My singing was out of tune??!! How dare you.

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