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Basque Shepherds and Arborglyphs

Learn About The Basque Culture

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)

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)

The Tough Little Town of Riggins

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Any doubts as to the toughness of little Riggins, nestled between two of North America’s deepest river gorges, can be dispelled by its original name, “Gouge Eye”, which originated from a legendary bar fight between rowdy locals and gold-hunting prospectors.

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Unfortunately, Gouge Eye was renamed in honor of its first mailman, John Riggins. Nothing against Mr. Riggins, I’m sure being a mailman in 19th century Idaho was no cake walk, but for a town be named after a bar brawl? That’s awesome.

Just like Cascade, Riggins is a former timber town that has re-branded itself for tourism. It’s well-situated for it, midway between Boise and the college town of Moscow, and straddling the banks of the raging Salmon River. This is a great spot for whitewater rafting, hunting, fishing and hiking (as we experienced in the Rapid River Canyon), and popular with students and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

We stayed in the Best Western Salmon Rapids Lodge, which was both comfortable and rustic, decorated with river rock and timber beckoning back to Riggins’ logging days. The rooms offer views of both the canyon out the front and the Little Salmon River. There was a pool and outdoor hot-tub, a two floor lounge area and, the touch that really won us over, cookies and milk at 8pm.

Location of Riggins on our Idaho Map

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September 30, 2012 at 1:58 am Comment (1)

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)

A Short Hike to Rainbow Lake

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We were hosting a couple friends from San Francisco for the weekend, and had promised them an easy hike — just enough physical activity to justify soaking our bones in hot springs later in the evening. Rainbow Lake came recommended as a simple five-mile hike, just outside Cascade.

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I underestimated the time it would take to reach the trailhead, so we got a very late start on the day. Luckily, the supposed five-mile hike turned out to be even shorter than advertised, and we reached Rainbow Lake after only about twenty minutes of walking. The hike was beautiful — the forest lightly burnt in a long-ago fire and colored with fire-red bushes. The lake was small, picturesque and, considering the short length of the hike, surprisingly remote; we were in the middle of the Salmon River Mountains, and completely alone.

Anyone looking for a strenuous, all-day adventure will find themselves disappointed by the hike to Rainbow Lake, but for fishermen or families (or groups of friends who’d rather spend the time immersed in hot springs), the short hike is perfect. We came, saw the lake, ate lunch, and were back to our car within a couple hours.

Location of the Rainbow Lake Trailhead

Epilogue – A short time later, we were sitting down with a cooler of beer in the Trail Creek Hot Springs. We had arrived at the same time as a big biker dude, who wasted no time in stripping down into his birthday suit. Luckily, there are two pools at Trail Creek, so we weren’t compelled to admire the jewels.

Soaking in the hot water was the perfect post-hike reward and we could have stayed for hours, but felt compelled to leave after a rowdy family of locals arrived. They had quickly shamed Naked Biker into putting on his shorts (“this ain’t no porno-show”), but he made it clear he wasn’t going to abandon his pool. So they hocked next to ours, all ten of them staring at us. “No pressure, y’all. We’re jes waitin’ our turn!” Sigh. But it was time to be getting home, anyway, and so we emerged to dry ourselves off on the rocks.

As soon as we were out, they jumped into the pool. And then brought out the Palmolive. Under our horrified glares, they slopped dish soap into their hands and started cleaning their bodies and clothes. In the hot spring. With dish soap. I had never seen anything of the like, but was most surprised by their willingness to lather up in front of us, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. They could have waited five minutes, and we’d have been gone. Shameless? Ignorant? I’m not sure, but it was definitely amazing.

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September 21, 2012 at 3:31 am Comments (3)

The Lava Lakes in Payette National Forest

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Idaho has no shortage of incredible hikes, and we were overwhelmed with options when choosing the destination of our first big day out. Browsing through a formidable collection of books, pamphlets and online guides, the name “Lava Lakes” popped out. The eight-mile round-trip hike in the Payette National Forest sounded perfect, promising unforgettable wilderness, sweeping views, strange geology, wildlife and solitude. And it delivered.

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Nearly 20,000 miles of public trails snake throughout Idaho. How exactly do you narrow that down? At a 15 minute/mile pace, that’s 5000 hours of hiking. Even if you just concentrate on the top 1% of trails, you still have 200 miles to look forward to! The sheer abundance of possible hikes is almost disheartening. We pride ourselves on exploring our new homes comprehensively, but had to accept that completing even a tiny fraction of Idaho’s beautiful hikes would be impossible.

We didn’t leave much to chance for our trip to the Lava Lakes, making sure to stop by the Payette Forest ranger station in McCall before embarking. The ranger on duty was helpful in pointing out the best trails and recommending which paths to avoid; not all of Idaho’s bountiful trails have been recently “cleared”, meaning that sections might be impassible due to brush or fallen logs. The four-mile track to the Lava Lakes, though, had his green light.

The drive to the trailhead alone would have made for a satisfying excursion. We passed by the Brundage Mountain Ski Resort, picturesquely tucked away in the forest. The road, rough and gravelly, also took us past Brundage Reservoir, Goose Lake, the Hazard Lakes, and along a cliff which overlooked the Grass Mountains and Lloyd’s Lake. Assisted by GPS and a detailed map, we found the trailhead easily (location), and were happy to see that no other cars were parked there.

The trail was as clear and easy-to-follow as the ranger in McCall had promised, and it led on a slight incline through some unbelievable scenery. Fields of wild flowers and old-growth forest, much of which had been burnt in a wildfire years ago. Charred, dead trees struggled with the wind, swaying and creaking a bit too much for my comfort, but adding immensely to the lovely strangeness of the landscape.

Lava Rock Idaho

After a mile or so, we came upon the first evidence of volcanic activity in the area: large mounds of lava rocks. The area was shaped by the same natural forces that formed Yellowstone seventeen million years ago, and much of the lava is still exposed. The trail culminated at the Lava Ridge, where the rising mountain that we’d been ascending suddenly drops straight down into a craggy black cliff.

Due to haze caused by forest fires plaguing the state, we couldn’t see as far from the top of the Lava Ridge as one normally could, but the view was still impressive. Below us were the Lava Lakes, a trio of sparkling ponds set spectacularly in the fire-devastated forest. I could make out a pair of deer at the edge of one lake, and we monitored their progress as they jumped through the forest.

Turning around and starting on the trail back, we heard a snort. No more than fifteen meters away, a large buck was staring at us. He was watchful and perfectly still, but twitched when Jürgen brought his camera up and then bounced away. Ten minutes later, the same thing happened with another, younger buck. It was incredible; they weren’t nearly as skittish as I would have imagined. In fact, they seemed almost curious about our presence.

The hike back down the hill was easy, and we had returned to the trailhead about four hours after starting out. The Lava Lakes Hike (Trail #149) was a perfect place to begin exploring Idaho’s wilderness, and made us eager to get back out discover more.

Location of the Lava Lakes Trailhead
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September 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm Comment (1)