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The Bruneau Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes We Visited in Bolivia

The Bruneau Dunes are perhaps the most bizarre natural phenomenon in the state. Trapped in a low-laying basin just south of Mountain Home, they’re thought to have originated during the Ice Age, in the aftermath of the Bonneville Flood. Unlike most sand dunes, those at Bruneau don’t shift dramatically with the wind. They’re trapped in the basin, and the highest peak stays at about 470 feet year-round.

Bruneau-Sand-Dunes

We parked our car near the foot of the dunes at a small lake and, after walking through a wetland forest, began our ascent. 470 feet sounds manageable, but we started having trouble well before reaching the top. Sand is never easy to walk on, and Bruneau has particularly loose sand which can gobble a leg up to the knee. It took about thirty minutes of tiresome crawling before we made it to the top.

Our shoes, clothes and mouths were filled with sand, and our thighs and calves were burning from the exertion, but I felt only glee upon cresting the summit. Yes, the view was remarkable, but most importantly: we were standing on top of North America’s biggest sand dune, and were about to run down. The softness of the sand, so troublesome on the way up, now beckoned to me: “Jump! I am so very soft!” And jump, I did. Jumping, rolling, sprinting, leaping through the wonderfully soft sand, it took about 20 seconds to reach the bottom.

Location on our Idaho Map

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January 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm Comment (1)

Table Mountain… and Crime in the Tetons

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While we were visiting Driggs, we couldn’t resist sneaking over into Wyoming for a hike in the Grand Tetons. Sure, we’re supposed to be concentrating on Idaho’s sights, and yes, there’s plenty to see without ever leaving the state. But look at them! How could we resist?!

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We had chosen to embark on an eight-mile hike to Table Mountain. While parking our car at the Teton Campground trailhead, just over the state line, we should have sensed the sinister shift in the air. We had left the safe haven of Idaho for Wyoming, a lawless land of thievery and malice, and it was a decision we’d regret. But we’ll get to that later, because the hike was amazing, and it’s better to concentrate on the positives.

The trail to Table Mountain was exhausting, sharply uphill for the first six miles, with a gain of over 4000 feet in elevation. But it was a glorious day; autumn was in full swing and the Tetons provided such a dramatic backdrop that it was easy to ignore our burning thighs. As we neared the flat cylinder-shaped summit of Table Mountain, the unmistakable profile of the Grand Teton came into view. After cresting the top, we took a long break to appreciate the landscape below us. Fresh air, unforgettable views, pure nature, exhausted muscles and the satisfying feeling of accomplishment, there’s nothing that makes me happier than hikes like this, and I was in tremendous spirits during the walk back to the car.

My mood changed immediately, though, once we arrived. Thieves had broken into our car and stolen my laptop and tablet. Unbelievable. Here, we travel around the world, Sri Lanka, Buenos Aires, Bolivia, and the first place we’re the victims of crime is Wyoming. The cops told us later that, although they have suspects, it was unlikely we’d ever see our stuff again. There’s a gang which targets cars parked at trailheads. Pretty clever; it’s a remote location where people are guaranteed to be gone for hours.

The theft was a setback, but we got off pretty lightly. Everything we own was in that car. I can deal with a lost laptop, especially since it meant that I’d be getting a new one. But it was a rough end to what had been a wonderful day. Sorry, Wyoming; you have some amazing nature, but the chances we’ll someday be spending 91 days with you have dropped significantly.

Location of the Trailhead

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December 13, 2012 at 8:59 am Comments (0)

Basque Shepherds and Arborglyphs

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Our first morning in Sun Valley was rather appropriately spent in a sunny valley. We hiked through the Colorado Gulch just outside Hailey and into a grove of Aspen trees which feature arborglyphs: a unique form of graffiti left by Basque shepherds during their lonely days spent on the hills.

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The Basques began emigrating in the 1800s, due to financial troubles back home. The rolling landscape of south-central Idaho suited them, reminiscent of the hills in northern Spain, and they settled in nicely here. The men were honest and the women hard-working, and the newcomers were welcomed with open arms by Idahoans. Another wave of Basques arrived in the mid-20th century, fleeing the brutal anti-Basque policies of Francisco Franco. As a result, Idaho lays claim to America’s strongest population of people of Basque descent.

While in the Sun Valley, we had the opportunity to meet a couple of transplanted Basques, including Alberto Uranga, who came to America in 1968. Back in the Basque country, he had been a tuna fisherman, but in Idaho he was put to work tending sheep. Apparently, that’s just what Idaho believed Basques excelled at. Alberto is fluent in Basque, English and Spanish, and eventually left sheep for finance, founding a retirement investment firm in Boise. After finding out that Jürgen and I are based in Spain, he engaged us in conversation, boasting about the resurgent Real Sociedad soccer team, and bitterly recounting the story of his departure, which had been so rushed and chaotic that he didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to his father.

Tree Art

During the boring hours, days, and even weeks which they spent in the hills tending sheep, Sun Valley’s Basque shepherds left their mark on the land by carving into the Aspen trees. These markings are called arborglyphs and are now considered an important cultural relic. They take the form of names or phrases, in Basque and English, and sometimes drawings. A house, for instance, which reminded the artist of his home. Or the shapely curves of a buxom lady.

We took a gorgeous hike through Colorado Gulch to find some of the arborglyphs. The Aspen trees were in their autumnal glory, with leaves glowing yellow, and we hiked for about a mile into the hills before encountering some of the tree carvings. Nearby, was a modern-day shepherd’s trailer. The shepherd was nowhere to be found, out tending his flock, so we chanced a peek through the windows of his trailer. Very simple, just a bed, some canned food and a few empty soda cans. Nowadays, I suppose shepherds have cellphones to stay entertained and connected, but 50 years ago? I can’t even imagine how lonely it must have been.

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November 15, 2012 at 3:20 am Comments (5)

Goldbug Hot Springs

Hot Springs of the Northwest

The best hidden gem we uncovered during our travels through Idaho was the Goldbug Hot Springs. Found at the end of a beautiful and moderately-rough hike through a canyon just south of Salmon, these cascading hot springs offer an idyllic experience, far off the beaten track.

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We had been completely unaware of Goldbug’s existence until finding a flyer about it in Salmon’s Chamber of Commerce. It wasn’t in any of the guide books we read, and even most of the locals we would talk with later, from Challis to Sun Valley, hadn’t heard of it. Or perhaps, they pretended not to have heard of it. Goldbug is a paradise, and there’s no better way to ruin paradise than by attracting too many tourists to it.

The trail to the hot springs gets started here in a small parking lot just off Highway 93. The two-mile trail initially skirts through private property, but soon enters public land and becomes increasingly gorgeous as it follows a small stream into a mountain valley. Even without the promise of hot springs, the trail would itself make a great excursion. The final stretch is strenuous, going up into the hills, but the reward waiting at the end makes it all worthwhile.

The Goldbug Hot Springs are a collection of five or six pools complete with waterfalls and a view over an unforgettable valley landscape. The pools are of varying temperatures; warmer nearer the source, cooler further down, but never too hot nor too cold. And the waterfalls are the crowining touch; I sat underneath one for about fifteen minutes, just letting the hot water pound my shoulders and neck. Even if there are other groups visiting the hot springs, the number of pools almost guarantees some solitude.

We stayed much longer than we had planned, and felt like we were floating on clouds during the walk back to the car. Apologies to all the residents of Salmon and Challis who would like to keep Goldbug secret. We can totally understand that. But this is a piece of nature so incredible, that it simply must be shared.

Location of the Trailhead on our Idaho Map

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November 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm Comments (10)

Colgate Licks

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For the 70 miles between Lowell and Powell, Highway 12 cuts through the Clearwater National Forest: a beautiful stretch of driving, but one without any towns, services or other people. The only time we got out of the car was to visit Colgate Licks: an open glade in the forest whose sodium-rich rocks attract wildlife of the licking sort.

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There’s a short hiking loop around Colgate Licks, which takes you into the woods and allows you to sneak up on the rocks, in the hopes of catching some wildlife off-guard. Elk, deer and antelope are the most frequent visitors of the area, though we didn’t see any animals; just some tracks. Still, the walk was beautiful, through clusters of red cedar and lodgepole pine.

One thing we did spot in the area was a wildfire, raging just across the Lochsa River. It was so close that we could actually see flames, although the situation seemed to be well under control by a group of firefighters based out of the Powell Ranger Station. Of course, since Powell is my last name, I felt an immediate kinship for all these brave men and women — in fact, I felt like I should be their leader. Chief Ranger Powell of the Powell Ranger Station has a nice ring. Too bad fire scares the piss out of me.

Powell-Ranger

Colgate Licks has a tragic story behind its name. In 1893, William Carlin, son of a US General, organized a hunting party and hired George Colgate as their cook. The men went off into the woods in search of elk and grizzlies, and eventually became completely lost. Mr. Colgate had the double misfortune of (a) falling sick and (b) being a lowly cook. Carlin and his friends abandoned him in the woods to die alone, which he did. His remains weren’t found until nearly a year later.

A grisly story for a beautiful area. Luckily, today you’re in no danger of getting lost on the Colgate Licks trail, which can be completed in less than a half-hour.

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November 6, 2012 at 6:54 pm Comments (0)

Copper Creek Falls

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The day after our grueling hike to Hidden Lake and Red Top Summit, our hearts weren’t yet finished exploring the wilderness of Northern Idaho, but our aching bodies were. So, a simple one-mile round-trip walk to Copper Creek Falls sounded like a good compromise.

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The trailhead is found almost on top of the Canadian border, less than a mile south of Eastport along Copper Creek Road (NF-2517), and we arrived 30 minutes after setting out from Bonners Ferry. At the Ranger Station, we had picked up a self-guided walking tour describing different aspects of the forest trail, such as old logging ruts and trees, but we quickly stored this away. I didn’t care much whether I was looking at a lodgepole or an eastern white pine: we were there for the waterfall!

We didn’t have to wait long. After a brisk ten-minute hike, we arrived at the viewpoint. The Copper Creek Falls drop 160 feet into a pool of water which you can wade into. I wasn’t about to take a shower, but would bet that people do in warmer weather. Copper Creek provided a neat excursion, perfect for families or anyone who’s not up for a major hike. And it’s nicely secluded, despite the ease of access. We didn’t see another soul during our time there.

Location of the Trailhead

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November 2, 2012 at 12:34 am Comment (1)

Grizzly Patrol Hikes to Hidden Lake

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I was walking about fifteen feet in front of Jürgen, when suddenly I spun around, grabbed the canister of Bear Spray strapped to my hip, and pointed it right at his face. “You’re toast, grizzly punk!” Jürgen didn’t even flinch… it was, after all, the 23rd time I’d practiced this maneuver.

Hidden Lake Idaho

We were hiking on a remote path in the northern extreme of Idaho, close to the Canadian border. For days, people had been warning us about bears on the path and suggesting counter-measures, but we had laughed them off. “Bear bells? Please, we want to see bears!” But the laughter stopped after visiting the Ranger Station in Bonners Ferry. With a disquieting sternness, the ranger warned us that not only were there grizzlies in the area, but they were likely to be grumpy because of hunting season. Ten minutes later, we were in a sporting goods store, searching the shelves for Bear Bells.

Sharp as a tack, the salesman recognized the easy mark, and sold us not only Bear Bells but a $49.95 can of Bear Spray as well.

We didn’t see any grizzlies during our nine-mile round-trip hike to Hidden Lake and Red Top. In fact, we didn’t see any wildlife. But that was fine. The incredible northern nature gave us plenty to gawk at, and an endless vista of pine-covered mountains isn’t going to tear your chest open with its claws or gnash your skull into sludge.

Bear Spray

It had snowed a couple days before our visit, and we immediately noticed that ours were the only human tracks on the path. There were some deer and rabbit footprints, but despite this hike’s general proximity to Bonners Ferry, we were the only people who had journeyed to Hidden Lake in at least two days.

Hidden Lake lays just a mile and a half from the trailhead. Deep blue water ringed by pine trees, it’s beautiful, but there didn’t seem to be anything especially “hidden” about it; it was, in fact, rather easy to find. But our trail continued up Red Top mountain and, once we had gained some elevation and could look back on the lake, the name made a lot more sense. Hidden Lake is completely encircled by mountains and obscured by tall pines.

The rest of our hike, to the summit of Red Top Mountain, was rough but completely worth the effort. From the top, we had views of the entire region. We could easily see into Canada, and enjoyed a panorama encompassing the Selkirk Mountains. We ate lunch on the remnants of an old fire station (destroyed by a long ago fire), and then started back down the hill.

Location of Trailhead | Hidden Lake | Red Top Summit

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November 1, 2012 at 11:04 pm Comments (4)

Reliving the Big Blowup of 1910 on the Pulaski Trail

Smokey The Bear

Big Ed Pulaski was probably as famous as it’s possible for a firefighter to be. He invented the Pulaski: the hatchet/pick-axe tool which has become the fireman’s most important weapon. And as a young man, Big Ed’s accomplishments were even more notable; unless you’re unimpressed by something like saving 40 men during the biggest wildfire in North American history.

Pulaski

The “Big Blowup” of 1910 wiped out much of northern Idaho, with especially devastating effects in the Silver Valley. The fire burned over three million acres (about the size of Connecticut) and did so with terrifying fury. In August of 1910, Ed was supervising firefighting crews, when the winds suddenly shifted, placing him and his men in immediate, mortal danger.

Pulaski was familiar with the terrain and remembered an abandoned mine in the vicinity. With trees falling down around them and panicked wildlife, including a bear, pushing by them on the trail, Big Ed led his men to the mine. All 45 made it safely inside, and laid on the ground while the fire roaring outside sucked the oxygen out of the air. Suffocating and in the grip of panic, some men wanted to escape the relative safety of the mine — but cool Ed Pulaski trained his pistol on them. “The first one who tries to leave, gets shot”.

Due to the scarce oxygen, all 45 men lost consciousness. When the fire passed, 40 woke back up. The loss of five men was tragic, but without Big Ed’s knowledge and level-headedness, the toll would have been much worse.

A two-mile interpretive trail just south of Wallace leads to the location of the old mine which saved the lives of 40 men. Along the way, placards recreate the hellish nightmare of the Big Blowup, showing the extent of the devastation and sharing quotes from Pulaski’s memoirs. At the trail’s end, you can see the mine. It’s closed off and rather small, but the weight of history makes it improbably dramatic.

Location of the Trailhead on our Map

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October 17, 2012 at 11:54 pm Comment (1)

The Smoke-Choked Canyon of Rapid River

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For a couple weeks in late September, the wildfire smoke which had been choking West Central Idaho was a habitual part of every conversation. “Never seen it like this!” “The worst year I can remember!” “Usually you can see the mountains from here!” Though it might have ruined the views, we decided to pretend that we were lucky to be present for the smokiest season in decades. Yeah, we planned it perfectly! How many other people get to see smoke like this?!

Smoky River

When we pulled into the Rapid River trailhead just south of Riggins, the smoke was the heaviest we’d yet seen. But far from ruining the experience, and I’m not just being facietiously optimistic, the red-tinted clouds created a kind of permanent sunset, tinting the landscape under an eerily beautiful light. The trail we’d be exploring (#113) follows the canyon almost interminably, and we had decided to go for an eight-mile round-trip hike.

Getting out of the car, we noticed it had a flat tire. And a subtle feeling of dread began to come over me. The smoky, blood-red sky, the stern warnings from townsfolk about rattlesnakes in the canyon, and now a flat tire? That’s the first five minutes of every horror film ever made.

Luckily, we didn’t encounter a single rattlesnake during the entire hike. Though, the first time a cricket chirped in the brush next to me, I screamed and jumped backwards. In fact we didn’t spot any wildlife at all unless you count a Praying Mantis or a pile of berry-licious bear poop.

Despite the hike’s eight-mile length, it was easy. Mostly along the river, with only occasional steep hills. As the hours passed, my fear of snakes vanished and I even found myself hoping to see one. I’m beginning to think that spending time in the wilderness just makes you tougher. By the time we got back to the car, we were dusty and smalled of manly B.O. We got that flat tire changed in two minutes, spitting on the ground, hands dirty, and bragging about how we’d have strangled them cowardly rattlers had they have shown themselves. Grr!

Location of the Rapid River Trailhead
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September 25, 2012 at 7:27 pm Comments (3)

Boulder and Louie Lakes

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For the last few miles on the way to the Boulder Lake Trailhead, we were following two buses. School buses. School buses full of peppy children excited for their long-awaited day out. “I can’t believe this”, I hissed at Jürgen. And, of course, they were going on the exact same hike as us. We parked, put on our boots, and then waded into the mess of screaming, happy kids. Off on our big day of pristine nature and peaceful solitude.

Boulder Lake Hike

But despite the inauspicious start, we managed to have a nice time. Quick and inexhaustible little monkeys when alone or in small groups, children slow down considerably when congregated into large herds. We passed them immediately and didn’t slacken our pace until their piercing voices had completely faded into the distance.

So we arrived at Boulder Lake in almost no time at all. It was a moderately difficult hike, through the woods, following a stream uphill, but the view of the dammed-up lake was worth the effort. Set high in a range of granite mountains, Boulder Lake was large and blessfully quiet. We paused for awhile on the ramparts and scouted for wildlife; and only continued on our way when we heard the wild pack of kids nearing behind us.

The path continued east to the unsigned trail which would take us to Louie Lake. Before setting out, it’s worth stopping at the McCall ranger station to get a detailed explanation of the route — we would never have spotted the trail if we hadn’t known exactly what to look for, and where to look for it.

I figured that, after climbing up to Boulder Lake, we were as high as we’d get for the day, but the trail to Louie Lake continued even further uphill. Luckily, the nature was so entrancing that we hardly noticed. By now, the children were a distant memory and the only signs of life were chirping birds and the occasional, curious chipmunk. The views from the highest point of the hike were incredible — the Long Valley of McCall to the west, and nothing but autumn-colored mountains to the east.

We descended until reaching Louie Lake, which was just as big and beautiful as Boulder. From here, it was another mile back to our car. It was a loop of seven miles, which took almost five hours to complete, owing for lunch and photo breaks. Strenuous, but not overly so, it made for an excellent day hike.

Location of the Boulder Lake Trailhead | Beginning of Louie Lake Trail

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September 24, 2012 at 2:33 am Comments (0)

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