The RocketDog

The RocketDog

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The White Clouds: Big Boulder Lakes (Frank Church Trip Part II) August15-18 2015

The White Clouds-- doesn't take much imagination to surmise the origin of the name.  Spires of white granite rise cloud like into the bluest of skies. One of the newest designated Wilderness areas in the country, the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness encompasses 142 sq miles.  Since we were so close, going into the Frank Church, we simply couldn't NOT go.  After we spent the night in Challis, we drove a little farther south on Hwy 93 and then headed southwest then west on Hwy 75.  Can I just say that the drive is absolutely breathtaking?  I can not even begin to explain the colors of the desert sagebrush around us; the rocks, the hills, the cliffs-- rose, gold, darkest of greys, sandstone, sage, absolutely saturated and I was overwhelmed by the intensity.  Even if you never leave your car, if you are in the area, DRIVE.  You won't regret it.  About 10 minutes after we gassed up, a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep ran across the road in front of us.  I got some video (well, sorta.  If you crick your neck anyway)

I thought I took some pictures, but alas, I didn't really.  I think I was too busy enjoying it. Anyhow, the drive only takes about an hour, and each mile brings you closer to this gorgeous paradise.  We passed many ranches, and I dreamed about living way out there, away from pretty much everything.  (I mean, let's face it: Central Idaho is away from just about everything anyway, and if you've ever been in Challis, you know it's not in any danger of ever being 'big'.  Pop. 1,080.  Here is a google map shot, with my lovely drawing points for reference:
You can see it truly is in the middle of nowhere.  There were some gorgeous old houses, and some new ones built to blend in, as well as a few *cough* junky ones.  The cool thing about the area is, it's very dry; less than 10 inches of rainfall a year on average, so the wood of old cabins is very well preserved.  The Ponderosa Pines are MUCH more orange than the ones up here.  Even Scott couldn't believe the difference.  Something so beautiful about that bright orange bark, with dark black furrows.  As a kid, having over 24 in our yard and having to rake the damn needles every fall, I never thought I'd say it....but yeah. Ponderosa Pines FTMFW.  Anyhoo...

You might remember the BLM officer we met at breakfast in Challis. The one who poo-poo'ed my worry that the White Clouds might be overrun on this gorgeous weekend, after having been in the news all week, and the weather just being the most perfect ever.  The one who looked over my head and winked at my husband, and said "Nah.  You don't have anything to worry about", as if I weren't not only not sitting there, but definitely not worthy of any 'real' conversation.  You know, man to man stuff that us wimmenz wouldn't know nor care anything about.  You can also imagine the steam engine that fired right up at that table, to which my gracious Scott managed to put out lest the poor B&B owner's kitchen suffered the wrath of.  Well.   Turns out the BLM officer was full of shit.  (Like we didn't know this anyway!)  I counted 25 cars at the TH, and that did not include the horse trailers on the other side.  :(  Yeah.  Sad face.  As we start changing into our boots, we see two young people in Forest Service uniforms heading our way.  A young woman named Katie, who was a Ranger, and her assistant, and young man named Matt.  Super nice and great people. When I asked her about the number of cars, she immediately responded: "Oh this is totally not normal. Even on 4th of July we only had 7 cars.  I'm sure being in the news with this weather pattern is responsible for this".  COUGH COUGH.  WELL WELL MR BLM DUDE.  Who's your daddy now?!   She continues on that her and Matt are heading up to check out the area as per maintenance and to take down all existing fire pits.  After a bit of chat, she realizes we aren't n00bs and confides she's glad that we know how to practice Leave No Trace, because she's becoming quite disillusioned by all the crap she's finding everywhere.  We part, expecting to run into each other later.  In my haste at getting going, I forget to snap a picture of the TH sign, but I did get a map pic.
Our goal for the night was Sapphire Lake.  I think we started around 10:30?  (This is what happens when I wait too long to blog.)  We knew we had all day, but we wanted to get up there and see where the people were.  The trail starts off very easy, through a nice cool forest.  Lots of log crossings on this trip.  After a mile and a half or so, you start up this steep switchback in open sagebrush, and the sun was beating good.  There were some steep drop offs right at the edge of the trail.

The above is kind of a downward-as-I-was-walking angle, but you can see how it drops sharply off at the top of the picture.  Yii Yiii.  First view of the peaks, and a giant Doug Fir with the strangest bark I've ever seen.  And yes, it was a Doug Fir.

We met a fair number of people on the way out.  Whew.  That's always nice.  Hee hee.  One gentleman advised us we were only about a mile away, but we had 'Heartbreak Hill' starting right then.  He basically was close, it was pretty tough and steep.  We made Walker Lake around 1:30, about 7 miles from the TH.  The official trail ends there, and you just kind of cross country it around a meadow and a ridge and then head straight up a ridge to your South.  It's only about 1/3 of a mile, but it's basically switchbacks that are about three feet in each direction.  Pretty much straight. up.
Scott's ready to go here.


                                                                                                          One report we'd read, said to follow these cairns.  So, Scott is merrily yelling out "Cairn!" and I'm happily following, and we're going up, up, up.  Like Whew, up.  Suddenly, I'm thinking....we shoulda toined left at Albuquerque, and I make Scott stop.  We check our position on our map on the phone, and oops.  We've gone too far NW and we are very close to attaining the ridge up at Sheep Lake, except...we didn't WANT to go to Sheep Lake first.  (We probably should have kept going, then come down, but who does the smart thing?  Certainly not us!  We like the hard things!) So we turn around, descend and cross the meadow, then finally I spot the faint bootpath switchbacks.  Up we go.  FWIW, this picture is very deceiving.  They are quite, um, exhilarating.
A little crankiness sets in, (Who me?  The Angel of Patience? Never!) but finally we're over the ridge and in the basin.  There are no paths in the basin, you just basically go where you're least likely to crush fauna and whatever is the path of least resistance.  We circle around Hook Lake and reach the outlet of Sapphire, and find a very nice spot in some old Whitebark Pines.  What a gorgeous lake.  Scott sees some tents at the farther end, so we drop packs and set up camp.

What a view!  We started the water going, since our camp was at 9900' and rehydration takes longer.  Saw a couple with a very industrious and focused mid-size terrier, which we waved hello to.  We hit the sack early. The low was pretty chilly, probably due to not a cloud in the sky.  We were snug in our bags and tent, though, but we did have full base layers and down sweaters on in the early am for breakfast. We were camped on a little lagoon, and had a nice little 'beach'.

Morning light on the lagoon.  Walked around, took a couple pictures of the immediate area and the outlet from Sapphire to Cove Lake.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Decided to just do a little exploring and head up to Cirque lake. Took the day pack for lunch.  Scott's daypack doesn't pack up into itself like mine, and in an effort to reduce weight at home, since we had bear canisters this time, we decided to only take mine.  He insisted on carrying it, which while I appreciated, made me feel a little like a kept woman.  Grunt.  We passed two tents, but saw no one in or around them.  Cirque was very pretty.

 I wanted to go up to that saddle, and peak bag one or the other, but Scott had some pretty gnarly blisters he was trying to keep ahead on, so we went left up this beautiful grassy ridge that reminded me of something in Switzerland or something.


I'd seen a big green belt from down at camp, and wondered if it were juniper.  It was fir.  Of course.


Some panoramas from the top, there.  GPS showed us just over 10,000 feet.

We messed about, thought about looking for "The Kettles", but after such a dry year, figured they'd just be small potholes, if there were any at all.  While we stood there, reflecting upon the rubble that granite mountains produce as Time marches on them, we heard the sound of falling rock.  Immediately I was like "GOAT" in a whisper to Scott.  We stood stock-still, and after about 10 or so minutes, we finally spotted two of them, to the left of us.  Goats have immeasurable patience and will stand perfectly still, but we got 'em this time.  Anyhow, we decided to make lunch, so under a small rock to try to shield the constant breeze that blows at 10k feet, we boiled water for lunch and waited to rehydrate it.  We took some more shots of the white granite and surrounds. We watched a couple and a dog head up to the peak on the right, and two guys head up to the peak on the left.  I begged and begged Scott, but his bloody blister was not to be swayed.  ::Sigh::  I guess I would hope he would let me off too, if I'd had such.  He snapped some nice pictures while I wandered.

After lunch, we made our way back down and rested a bit.
The outlet from Cirque:
 One of my favorite shots:

We decided to head up to check out Gentian, Snow and Boulder Lakes.  We made our way across the outlet and headed to our left, picking our way across increasingly large boulders, finally dropping down to the lake side.  Still quite a large snow bench remaining.  While Gentian was not that exciting, Snow Lake was gorgeous.  Absolutely gorgeous.  There was a large, grassy bench between the two, and Scott and I both wished we'd camped up there.  So breathtakingly amazing.  Boulder was just to the side, and we walked over there, but kept walking back to Snow, and then back to Boulder, just taking it in.  Pictures just can't do it justice.
 Looking back towards Cove and Hook lakes:
 First glimpse of Snow:
 Scott, on the grassy bench, taking it all in:

 Looking towards Boulder Lake:
Panorama of Snow looking toward Boulder
 Boulder, which was actually quite heart-shaped.

We stood at a saddle, overlooking Sapphire, and it was straight down loose scree and boulders, and well, why not?  We made it down to camp, and a bit fatigued but thinking of a drink, we decided to try mixing up some powdered Gatorade and splashing the whiskey in it.  Who knew it would be so good?  The afternoon sun on Sapphire and 'our' little lagoon was absolutely magical.

 The little rocky chute in the middle of the picture, was the drainage we went down from Boulder Lake.  "Stay left! Stay left!"
We decided to head back up to Snow for dinner (Scott wanted to move up there for the night, but I wimped out on moving camp.  I'm lazy) and to enjoy the bit of warmth the sun provided before it fell behind the ridge.  Just as we were scurrying to get going, along came our Ranger friend Katie and sidekick Matt, faces covered in dust and carrying big packs and shovels.  We exchanged greetings, and she mentioned they were taking the fire pits down, and I advised there was one up by Boulder Lake.  It was already late in the day, and they had several to do here, as well as some at Cirque, and she tiredly mentioned they were hoping to make Sheep tonight, so we offered to take care of the one at Boulder.  She gratefully accepted, after making sure that we knew that if we couldn't, in her words, "make it look like NOTHING was ever there at ALL" then not to bother, but since my husband is very self-depreciating, I told her he'd started in the Forest Service years ago and we'd do a good job.  She was visibly relieved and more than happy to have us do it.  So after scrambling back up, in a hurry to beat the sun going down, we attacked the fire pit.  Well, easy if you have a shovel, not so easy with rocks.  But we managed it, although just as I got the water boiled, I knocked it over (D'OH) and the sun dipped behind the ridge.  Since that lake was over 10k feet, and had a worse positioned ridge, we knew there would be sun down at our 'beach' and I re-boiled, carefully stashed the meal in the FedEx cozy, and back down to our beach we went.  I re-hydrated some of the trail cake I'd made, and it had a full 30 minutes by the time we got to it.  It was freaking DELICIOUS.  WARM FUCKING CAKE.  I mean, CAKE!  Exactly like real fucking cake!  It was awesome.  We crawled into our tent, thoroughly happy with the days adventures.  Next morning, we reluctantly packed up, thinking we'd get home a little early, since Scott's texts had blown up in Challis with requests for mobes (mobilizations) due to the massive wildfires going on.  We hit the 'road' at a decent time and soon were at the ridge, ready to tackle the loose, slippery scree.  Going up is never the problem, it's always the coming down.

 Just before the descent, and Scott smiling on the way down.  Nervous laugh, anyone?

Looking back up after a bit of the way down, looks easy, dunnit?  But it's very loose and slippery.  And literally, that steep.

At the bottom, were two giant Whitebark Pines, hundreds of years old.  One alive, one dead. Gorgeousness.

Soon we were at Walker Lake. We changed out of our long sleeves and pants, because the trail only gets warmer as you go down and we were now out of the basin.  So there were people camped over across the stream, whatevs.  I ain't ashamed. We won't mention who led the way out, or how we got off trail a bit.  Suffice it to say we crossed the creek twice like we were supposed to and found the trail again.  Soon we were hot, dry and dusty, and cranky a bit.  The trail was kind of meh in terms of scenery.  We came upon a horse party with a large dog, and they made absolutely no move to acknowledge us or give us any room, and several of the party were sitting off the trail.  We had to go in amongst the sagebrush, and when you're hot, tired and dusty (did I mention hot, tired and dusty?) you feel a little hard done by when you get prickles in your boots and socks and nary a "Thank you!" comes your way.  Finally, after what seemed like hours, but really wasn't too bad, we saw the old Mill.  We'd heard squatters lived there, and we HAD seen a "TRUMP" painted on the roof of one of the old buildings.  I wanted to take a couple of pictures, and saw "Live and Let Live" spelled out in some sort of sticks on the side of one of the cabins.  Erm.. We hustled out of there as quickly as we could.
(You can just sorta see it on the side here): 

 The drive out was so beautiful.  I took a bunch of pictures, but it's really just something you have to see in person to appreciate. We came upon an old road with an old, old wooden bridge that had collapsed/been taken down. (I'm pretty sure it collapsed, given the looks of it.)  It gave me the shudders, a little.

 We hit our new fave, The Challis Lanes, for another burger and decided to drive on to Salmon.  They had a brand new Super 8!  Yippee!  And never was a hot shower and clean, new, fresh, soft sheets more appreciated.  We won't mention how black the shower water was, all I can say was Yeah baby.  We decided to go downtown to Bertram's Brewery for beers and.....salad?  Yes.  Salad.  Amazing what you crave after so many days.  Tired, happy, and oh so glad for the Salmon Super 8.  The drive home the next day was so smoky you could barely see.  We were glad we'd left when we did, the last night in the Big Boulder basin I'd woken up in the middle to the sharp tang of smoke, and I'm sure it got hazy and hard to breathe up there in the next few days.  We had a nice drive, just enjoying the small towns, and marveling at a huge chunk of area that had burned in the 5 years since we'd been through there on a family vacation with the kids.

So, as it turns out, Scott was supposed to mobilize, but then they decided to bring the trailer home, so we came home early for 'nothing'.  He ended up missing 14 days of overtime, ugh.  But we had a fantastic time, all my food turned out totally worth it, the best food we'd ever eaten backpacking-- just as good as home cooked stuff, and just like you'd made it that moment.  We saw some beautiful country, and enjoyed each others company, so we have no regrets.  Life is about more than money, it's about living and loving. 

(I will leave you with my selfie in the Challis Lanes bathroom, that I took after seeing my face in the mirror, covered with dust:)

 Here's to the next 20, my friends.


  1. Wow, lookit that blue sky! Looks like a truly great trip.

    I don't understand your rationale of heating extra water because of the elevation. Water boils at a lower temperature, but continuing to boil it won't make it any hotter. Instead of boiling the water longer, if you are rehydrating dehydrated food, you should let it sit longer (e.g. if it calls for 8 minutes, let it sit for 10-12). Of course that will cool it, so what we did was make a food-cozy out of some old fleece to help insulate our food while it rehydrates.

    1. I guess I didn't explain myself well. I prefer a raging roiling boil, not an immediate bubbles-breaking-surface boil. I don't mean a lot of water, just enough to compensate. I know to let food sit longer the higher the elevation. My cozy is a FedEx Bubble envelope-- works most excellently!