The Frank Church River-of-No-Return. Need I say more? While the largest contiguous wilderness area in the U.S (if combined with the Gospel Hump above and the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness, it comprises almost 3.5 million acres of wilderness) was named after the wild river that was impossible to return by, it is definitely an area not for the faint of heart. A grueling 56 mile 'road' brings you into the fringe, taking at least 2 1/2 hours in a high-clearance 4wheel dr vehicle. It has haunted me since my brothers told a starry-eyed 17 year old tales of it's glory; it's staunch, stony stance in the face of bravado. It's coldly glittering granite peaks, which laugh at the whims of the many who dare to enter. It is true wilderness at it's finest. When you gamble upon entry, it ignites in the heart of us that ageless flame of survival. That risky dance of Man vs Mountain. Seems appropriate for a couple who beat the odds for 20 years by doing everything backwards and leaping off the cliff with both eyes closed, right? I thought so. In the Year of Change, I decided way back in January that this, this spectacular bastion of Wild, the last remaining outside of Alaska and the Yukon, would be a perfect destination for our 20th anniversary. We've survived much, things that might have broken and shattered other marriages. We have laid to rest arguments of the past, agreed to disagree, said Goodbye to old tired hot buttons. We have allowed each other to grow, to change, and somehow managed to hold on to that steadiness we bring to each other in the face of the raging storms of life. Still, over 20 years later, we choose each other; we have realized in the end, we are soulmates, best friends, lovers.
I plotted, I planned; there really isn't that much information on the Frank Church, but there is a fantastic book written by a true badass, Margaret Fuller, a woman made of iron who has hiked, backpacked and swam almost every inch of the magnificent Church, and did it in era when most women were throwing back Valiums and baking cakes for the PTA and wiping their kids' snot on their red-checkered aprons. A blueprint, indeed for me. Although there were hikes I really wanted, that were really deep within, very remote, and truly wild, I decided on the Bighorn Crags, perhaps the most well-traveled and well-known, but also considered the crown jewel of the Frank Church. I felt they were a must for a first time destination. (Frank Church, I must mention, was a fucking kick-ass man whom if you haven't researched, should've been Carter's running mate. In fact, as much as I love Jimmy Carter today, probably should've been president).
I originally planned on 12 days. Twelve glorious days spent with my best friend, exploring. As it developed, I remembered another incredible wilderness just South: The White Clouds. I looked and plotted and decided we could do both. Even less information was available for this area, but hey. I'm ok with map and compass. I saw pictures. GLORIOUS PICTURES. Enough said. I dehydrated all our food, trying new recipes. I even dehydrated cake. Scott was mobilized on a fire for over a week right before our trip-- I packed, I planned, I did everything. He came back, just in time. I, having a fabulous job, was afforded an extra day off the day before which allowed me to cook like Emeril/Alton/Insertyourfavoritechef on freaking speed. I made casseroles for the Teens, I packed, I weighed. Scott managed to do something, I'm not sure what, but I do remember him contributing. Really. I do. The kids were a little aghast "YOU'RE LEAVING FOR HOW LONG?!" I assured them they were fine. We had our emergency satellite communicator, I was anxious to be off. With a mixture of trepidation, sadness, angst, we left The RocketDog with the kids, as they felt safer with him, and let's face it. 12 days is a long time (read: a LOT of food) for a dog to be out. He did have a new pack, but I, as much as I love him, really didn't want to add his food weight to mine. Finally, everything was ready, we were off. We decided to do bear canisters this time, two Garcia style loaned to me by two awesome friends from REI. Scott's pack weighing in around 47 before water and incidentals, mine around 39 before water and incidentals. I am rather proud that these were not heavier for that amount of time. We hit the road at about 2:30 and spent the night in a favorite spot outside of Salmon, ID. Next morning, after a nail-biting drive in spots of 2 1/2 hours we arrived at the TH at 8400' about 1:20 and met the campground hosts, an older couple named Jeff and Chris. Fantastic people, somewhere in their late 60's on up, (hard to say!) they were particularly thrilled that I worked for REI. At 2:30 we hit the trail, our destination about 7 miles in. White granite sand straight uphill for the first half mile.
The trail humps in the fist part, but then it undulates up and down. Within 45 minutes we were treated to a raging thunderstorm at over 9,000'. Sweeping winds pelting us with hard, packed snow and soaking us within seconds. We tried to take cover under an alpine fir (lololol) to get our shells on and our pack covers, and then we continued hiking, one of us exclaiming every few seconds "OW!" "Jesus! Fuck that hurts!" as the hammering went on. It soon turned to rain, and after about 4 miles it stopped and the sun came out Ah, thank you. The trail was so full of granite I swore that my boots had a quarter cup in them.
We were about 1 mile from our planned lake, and around 4:45 or so. We happened upon a strange sight: It looked like a struggling old man with his much younger son, slowly making their way on the trail. As the older gentleman didn't make way, I finally managed an "Hey there. How you doin?" As the figure turned slowly, I about dropped to see it was a slight 12 year old boy, with an old external frame pack, badly loaded and almost as big as he. Turns out the 'son' was actually an older teen, a leader on a Boy Scout excursion. A bit of small talk with the older leader, while the young boy remained silent and wistful. I felt a pang but soon upon rounding the corner, we encountered more of the straggly group, this time a gang of 5, one of which was hastily trying to hide his tears. Again, I saw young boys, with old, heavy equipment and distraught eyes. A stouter looking young boy started grilling Scott and I, and asked when we'd started. When I told him 2:30, his eyes just about popped out of his head and he exclaimed "WOW. You guys are ROCKIN!" Scott and I exchanged glances and I laughed and said "Well, it gets easier the more you do it." I gently inquired about their loads, their fueling, all the while glancing at the poor young boy holding back shudders. I finally turned to him, and his eyes became pools of hurt and fatigue and tears welled up that wouldn't be easy to hold in. He asked if they were close to their destination (about 1.5 miles away) so I smiled at him and told him it would be ok, to change socks when their feet started to hurt, and next time bring powdered Gatorade and that they would be there before they knew it. I reminded them to eat frequently, and take breaks when they needed them. The chatty one's face cleared and said "Oh yeah! Socks! Good idea!" Scott and I reluctantly left them, neither of us with a good feeling. Shortly after we came upon the two leaders, neither of whom looked fit enough to be leading a 50 miler, but rather fit perfectly with such a motley crew. A bit of small talk in which the leader expressed wishes to continue on to Wilson Lake but that they may just camp at the creek crossing up ahead instead. We met the rest of the boys at the creek and I proceeded to slip gracefully (ok, that might be pushing it) on a rock to a chorus of gasps from the boys. I managed to right myself with a decent scrape of my leg and brush off any pain until we were out of sight, then there may or may not have been a "fuck that hurt!" uttered. We decided, since the storm had slowed us down a tad and the Boy Scout encounters too, that we would camp at Welcome Lake. Indeed, this was an excellent choice. We hoped the Scouts were ok and they weighed on our mind that night.
It was cold, it was late, but I had boiled the water immediately upon reaching camp so while we set up the tent, etc, homemade spicy chicken sausage spaghetti was rehydrating nicely in my expensive, fancy cozy made from a Fed Ex bubble envelope (it was AWESOME). I made us hot tea with whiskey while we waited for the rest of the time and we hit the sack to a chilly night, but snug in our little REI Quarterdome 2 tent, since my Big Agnes, that we had been excited to try, wasn't going to be ready until Sept. We slept soundly and awoke to a clear morning, and decided to dayhike the 14 mile RT to Reflection Lake. It is long switchbacks up a steep ridge and down, and then farther south, through very pretty alpine meadows. I'd packed us a pasta salad for lunch, and the day was a perfect one. Before we left, I explored the lake meadow a bit and found this super cool tree that had almost decomposed perfectly in it's shape. Yeah, I'm a geek. So sue me.
On the way to Reflection Lake:
The Frank Church has burned many times. Some really interesting snags, and some extremely large ones. The camera just doesn't do them justice.
On the way home, we sat atop the ridge for a few and watched some gathering clouds. When the lightning started in, we dropped back down to camp.
It was a hot dusty hike, we decided to go for a swim. Well, one of us dunked herself and ran back out, the other one actually swam.
We'd met a young family coming down the ridge as we were going up, they camped directly across from us. Glad I'd brought bikini bottoms, since our usual skinny dipping wasn't going to work this time. We awoke early to kids screaming and yelling, and a little crying. Sigh. I have kids. Yeah. But c'mon people. This is the wilderness. This is why they make duct tape. Our plan for the day was to dayhike to Heart and Terrace Lakes, Heart was our original destination for camp and probably would've afforded the solitude we wanted, but it was a little hump up another ridge, and one we would've had to make extra to dayhike from there. The trails are faint in a lot of the Church, so we ended up cross country-ing it, thanks to Scott and his fancy satellite communicator, up this unstable talus slope. Let's suffice it to say there was discussion about this.
Went back to camp and broke it, heading on up to Wilson and Harbor. We hadn't seen the Scouts since the first night, were wondering if they'd be up there. Met a couple of nice guys down at the creek crossing, they were from Florida and the elevation was killing them. Um, yeah I bet. Wasn't really a factor for Scott and I, neither one of us noticed it, but then, we don't live at sea level either. The trail to Wilson is short, but straight up and very rocky. Of course we didn't get pics of the worst parts, because we were too busy trying to hold on to our asses that it kept handing us.
A selfie, just in case you know, I got lost and someone needed to look for me. *cough cough*
Wilson Lake was magical. No one there, all to ourselves. We played in the lake (FREAKING COLD), and enjoyed this small bench at almost 10,000' that was unreasonably but much appreciatively warm (meaning, usually you don't describe a night at almost 10,000' anywere in North America as warm) and calm. That night, we lay in the tent, heads out the doors, and watched an incredible Perseid Meteor shower. For once, Scott tired before me, but something ran across my hair-- bug, mouse, who knows, but I suddenly felt tired too. Hee. Next morning we got up and decided to dayhike to Gentian Lake, Crater Lake and Big Clear Lake. Wilson was gorgeous in the morning.
Along the way to the lakes, we met another group of older men who, after some small talk, mentioned that the White Clouds just had received official designation as a Wilderness that Monday. I immediately thought "Great. In the news, now people will come this weekend since the forecast is so good". We moved on down to Gentian Lake, where I had considered leaving another love rock for my young friend Josh, an amazing Marine who was killed in an Osprey accident in Hawaii in May. The lakeshore was indeed covered in gentians, but I didn't feel moved by the setting. We decided to continue on, hoping for a better place.
Up up up to another saddle at 10,000, with Crater Lake and Big Clear Lake on the north side, and Mirror lake and several more on the south. In all, you could see 7 lakes from the saddle.
Crater Lake was breathtaking. I spotted some smoke up on the ridge, and apparently a fire was just starting. Of course, DH was all about watching it. A plane flew by, and we hoped they reported it.
More trail, on the way back we met some horsepackers, and decided to take the shortcut up the ridge.
We'd had great weather, had missed all the storms since the first day, but the sky was threatening as we hit FishFin Ridge. Of course! We hustled it out, starting about 3:30 and hit the TH at about 6:30, pretty done in. Some off and on thundershowers with mixed rain and sleet, so we were on and off with our shells, irritatingly enough. I only had a tank top on so when the wind was blowing it was chilly, believe me.
After the drive out, once we got to Challis, I checked the weather, sure enough, the White Clouds were forecast as part of the system. We decided we'd been there, done that before, so we hit this little dive drive-in that I'd spotted (much to Scott's dismay, he was unsure of the looks of it and not enthused at all). AND OH WAS HE WRONG. Fantastic food! I was ordering this giant burger, onion rings and fries and the man looks at me and says "Wait. Have you ever been here? Do you know how big our onion rings are?" Scott, in true husband fashion, immediately responds "Oh, she can eat it. Believe me" Harrumph. The beef was the best I'd ever tasted. The onion rings? Well yeah. Ok, they were HUGE. And delicious, but as big as my hand. I may have left some food on the tray. But I tried, believe me, I tried.
He tipped us off to a B&B and Scott called, and got us the 'honeymoon cottage'. It was for our anniversary trip, so yeah. We took it. Showered again, (because we could) and went into 'downtown' Challis to get a coffee. Here was the sky at 4pm:
Glad we stayed out. In a humorous turn, we were crossing the street, which mostly consists of bars, an old building that says "First Forest Service Office", a coffee bar/restaurant, and more bars. Two clearly drunk men were sprawled on the sidewalk in front of one of the bars, staring at me. One of them yells out "Hey there! What's yer name?" And my quick husband yells back "Scott! What's yours?" It was all I could do not to burst out laughing, which didn't seem like the best idea. Poor Scott, neither man replied, but they didn't go any further with the small talk.
Picture of the cottage, and a video I shot of the approaching storm out front:
It was a pretty interesting place, the man told me it had been a Montgomery Ward house, built in the late 30's. When he bought it and started to renovate, the walls were nothing but cheesecloth that was stapled to the floor and ceiling beams, and then wallpapered over. WTF! He said no studs, no insulation. Wow. What people did because they had to back in the day.
Turns out, the kids didn't want to go to Montana, but Scott's phone was sure blowing up about the fires back home. We figured we'd go into the White Clouds the next day, Saturday, and play it by ear. After a nice night's rest, we were treated to a fabulous breakfast by the owner, homemade bread and ham and cheese omelettes. A BLM ranger was also with us, and he scoffed at my worry that the White Clouds would see more traffic than normal this weekend. In fact, he tried to look over my head and give Scott 'the eye wink' which, as you can imagine, did not sit well with me. In Part II, we shall see who was in the correct corner. We set out to see if we could replenish some lunch stuff. Turns out, good thing I made as much as I did, because the lone grocery store didn't even sell pepperoni sticks. Huh. If you've made it this far, congratulations, I love you, and the White Clouds will come in Part II. Thanks for reading.