Freeze & Thaw Wilderness Walk

At the trailhead
At the trailhead.
Rafting, skiing, skydiving, backpacking – they’re all gravity sports. Sometimes you’re cooperating with gravity and sometimes you’re fighting it. On a recent backpacking trip, gravity really “whooped up” on me.

Andrew Ashmore works at one of our good customers, Mountain Gear, in Spokane, Washington. We’d talked about doing an outdoor trip but had never put anything together. I mentioned a trip I’d done some 15 years ago, a winter backpack into Stanley Hot Springs, in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area here in North Idaho.

Stanley is a 5-½ mile hike from US Hwy 12, up above the Lochsa River. You start out at an elevation of 2,200 feet, top out at 3,800 feet, drop down to cross Boulder Creek, then back up to the springs at 3,400 feet. In my earlier trip I’d gone solo, which now seems risky and foolish for a winter hike. I had the springs to myself that first night. Walking from my tent through the snow to the hot pools and lying there looking up at the stars in the total still and quiet has always been a special memory of mine.

Andrew thought it sounded like a good trip so he was for it. Now, he’s a seasoned mountaineer who’s climbed Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska, peaks and volcanoes in Mexico and South America and been up to 23,000 feet on a satellite peak to Everest in Tibet. I hadn’t done much backpacking since that trip into Stanley, but I’d been jogging and really wanted to see Stanley again, so I said, “Let’s do it”.
Up the trail under threatening skies
Up the trail under threatening skies
I borrowed some high-tech snowshoes and ski/hiking poles from my boss, Laura and a foam sleeping pad from my coworker, Pam. I still had my old external frame backpack, a leaky ¾ Thermarest, a down sleeping bag and gaiters. Lots of my boating gear crossed over. NRS splash wear for my rain gear, a medium Sea Stow Bag was a perfect dry stuff sack for my sleeping bag and Pursuit Sandals in case we needed to wade Boulder Creek. Since we wouldn’t be able to dig “cat holes”, we took PETT Wag Bags for our human waste.

On a Saturday in mid-March we met in Lewiston, Idaho, halfway between Andrew’s home in Spokane and the trailhead. We divided up the community gear and set off for our adventure. The heavy rain we drove through worried me. The footbridge across Boulder Creek washed out in 1999, so if the creek was high, we’d have trouble crossing it. At the trailhead it hadn’t rained but the clouds looked ominous.

There were many signs of wildlife in the lower portion of the trail - deer, elk and moose poop galore and an elk carcass. The trail itself was terrible! Much of the snow at the lower elevations had melted, but heavy traffic on the trail had compacted the snow so it hadn’t melted there…and it was soft. Since exposed sections of the rocky trail were bare, using the snowshoes was only possible for about the last mile. Two-thirds of the way in, it started to snow. Slipping, sliding, breaking through in the deeper places wore me out.

Home in the woods
Home in the woods
Fortunately there were still snow bridges over Boulder Creek, so we didn’t have to wade it. From the creek up to the springs was the longest half-mile I think I’ve ever traversed. By the time we got camp set up and had dinner it was dark. We trudged up to the hot spring pools and found them occupied. When planning the date, I hadn’t thought about it being Spring Break season. We met students from the U of Idaho, here in Moscow, and the U of Montana, in Missoula.

Wow, that warm water felt good on my sore muscles! The hot water bubbles out of the ground into the series of pools at 110-120ºF (depending on which guidebook you read). Strategically placed logs create the pools and you just move up or down the series to find the temperature you like. One of them was just perfect “hot tub” temp at about 104-106 degrees. We lay in the hot water and chatted with our fellow soakers until fatigue and the warm water made it hard to keep our eyes open.

Nature's Hot Tub
Nature's Hot Tub
I got a good night’s sleep; the two pads and the down bag kept me comfortable. That morning we’d slept a bit late. A breakfast of gussied up instant oatmeal, soup and powdered cappuccino mix warmed the belly, and then it was back to the hot springs to warm the rest of the body. Everyone else had pulled out, so we had the pools to ourselves for a while. Later that day a couple of hikers showed up and the solitude was broken. We stayed as long as we could, knowing we had that long slog back through the crappy snow.

By the time we broke camp it was getting late. When we reached the lower third of the trail it was dusk. I was following Andrew when sounds caused both of us to stop in our tracks. Above us on the hillside 3 to 4 wolves started to howl. They were answered by a deep, moaning call from below us. What a thrill! Their howls sent shivers up my spine.

Ahh, that feels good!
Ahh, that feels good!
For about a half-mile of the trail they called back and forth and we stopped to listen each time. Further down the trail there were large paw prints in the snow that hadn’t been there on the hike in…and the elk carcass was gone. I know that wolves aren’t known to attack humans but in the fading light I found myself involuntarily turning to look back up the trail. I don’t regret my wariness…as one of my heroes, Aldo Leopold wrote, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
It was fully dark when we reached the car, tired but satisfied from a great weekend adventure.

Wilderness…where man is merely a visitor. Howl on.

Clyde Nicely
NRS Customer Service
e-Newsletter Editor