Longest Day of the Year
I’m finally home in Santa Fe and getting back to processing photos. Since my last post, I ran three six-day river trips and took several hikes, without a real day off anywhere in the mix until I left Idaho. Needless to say, I have a lot of photos to wade through. Summer being what it is, I will doubtless shoot more before I’ve dealt with the last batch.
What a change from Desolation Canyon! I left Utah with a couple days’ spare time on my hands, and went from Deso’s thorough desert sandblasting to last gasp of winter in Idaho’s Lost River Range. As I drove towards the mountains, I could see vast ranks of clouds running in from the west, hitting the Lost Rivers and actually curling under themselves and flowing downhill as they broke on Idaho’s tallest peaks. It was like watching underwater film of waves crashing into a reef. I drove through a heavy hailstorm to a trail head off Pass Creek Summit. As soon as I parked, the weather cleared just enough to suspend my better judgment. I loaded up the pack and headed off.
The Lost Rivers don’t see a ton of traffic. The trails are faint, guidebook descriptions generally don’t exist, and the USGS maps of the area are delightfully inaccurate. My quad was last updated in 1963, and the trail took some finding at times. I suppose most folks these days would wish they’d brought a GPS, so they could come home and upload some waypoints to the greater good. I was pretty pleased to find an area where it’s still necessary to second guess your map. After several rather steep miles (they’re not fond of switchbacks around here), I hunkered down in a rather squalid camp just below treeline and scouted my options for the next morning. The inescapable conclusion was that I needed to wake up really damn early.
3:30 a.m. on the summer solstice: good times. My camp was a little off route, and my efforts the previous evening to find the trail up to the ridge had met with frustration. But I had found a tolerable bushwhack route, and I was able to find it again by headlamp in the deep night. My start time proved to be none too early, but I managed to be on the ridge of Massacre Mountain by 5:00, poised for solstice sunrise with fifteen minutes to spare.
The Lost Rivers are seriously spectacular, but I wouldn’t call them inviting. They are a giant faulted wave of tortured gray limestone, layers folded into contortions like I’ve never seen in sedimentary rock. The lingering winter snow didn’t make the peaks seem any more hospitable. Though they’re Idaho’s highest, they’re also one of the state’s driest ranges, caught in the overlapping rain shadows of the Sawtooths and Pioneers to the west and the Continental Divide to the east. The plant life is sparse and hardscrabble by alpine standards: conifers, mountain mahogany and sagebrush right to timberline, with tundra and sharp limestone blades above. It was a cold and stark landscape in the pre-dawn, and I was glad to see the sun.
I had planned to stay and explore for another night, but my boot and my anklebone were not playing nicely together. By the time I made it back down to my tent, I had real concerns for the hike out. I decided to save the headwaters of Big Creek for another day and make some painful progress towards the road. Thankfully, the solstice day was clear and bright and the lower flanks of the mountains were rather more cheery in the sun. I napped for an hour at a pretty green saddle, and when I woke up a cloud of swallows was swirling all around me, feeding, swooping away from my head with only inches to spare, as though I were just another sagebrush.
A change of shoes back at the car seemed to solve my foot problems more or less entirely. Glutton for punishment that I am, I therefore drove a few miles to another trail head for another hike. This one was easier, better trail and a light pack, and Bear Creek Lake did not disappoint.
I had hoped to head out to the Big Lost Valley to shoot the mountain wall at sunset. It would have been great, but the longest day of the year proved too long for me. As I burrowed into the back of my truck, I could see sunset clouds flaring. Enough is enough, and in seconds I was sound asleep.