The Hike to Spangle Lake
A meditation on why we leave the order of the human world for the chaos of Wilderness
By Mike Medberry
I can’t believe I forgot my sleeping bag.
I had planned to hike sixteen miles from Atlanta, Idaho to see the ultimate headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Boise River at Spangle Lake in the highest, most stunning country in the Sawtooth Wilderness. It would be the conclusion of a hike from the Snake River to the top of the Boise River drainage. The whole river would be below me. But now I just sat on the tailgate of my pickup, drank another afternoon beer, and watched this gorgeous, cool, day, aiming toward the end of summer.
Spangle Lake sparkles, glitters, and gleams! I just know it does. It’s an exotic place in my mind. I tried to conjure up the weather report to determine if the temperature would be too cold for me to go on up to Spangle without a sleeping bag, but my cellphone had no reception and the weather looked stormy. But a guy can have his dreams, right?
I contemplated going back the 130 miles to Boise to get it—down the Atlanta Road (bumpity-bumpity- bump all the daylong stinkin’ way), back past Queens River, downriver to Dutch Creek Station (boor-ing!) , on to the North Fork (oh, that would be pretty… for the fourth time), up and over to Idaho City (through all of the cheerless mine tailings), down to Lucky Peak Reservoir (which was the grand apotheosis of I-don’t- know-what, maybe the unflooded city of Boise), but at least I would miss Arrowrock Reservoir on the way down, which might be some consolation.
I get cynical when things don’t work just right for me and… well I just didn’t want to go back without hiking in the Wilderness. So instead, I drank another beer, trying to gain some sort of lousy consolation. I just can’t believe I forgot my sleeping bag.
Then three guys pulled up on my right in a carryall-rig and unloaded their backpacks while I sat thinking about what to do. Cheer and energy was on their side. I drank from the bottle and pulled out some raisins-and-peanuts and sat chewing and listening to old music. We exchanged pleasant salutations and talked about their plan to work on trails within the Sawtooth Wilderness as they loaded their packs. The men were paid by a consultant who contracted with the US Forest Service, like what the old CCC had done. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a federally funded program that was part of the New Deal, supported by President Franklin Roosevelt. The program hired young, unemployed people in the 1930s and early 40s after the Great Depression. The CCC had created many of the superb trails on the Sawtooth National Forest and their legacy still lived in the current funding of Forest Service trail projects.
“I can’t believe that I forgot to bring my most excellent, new, delightful, down sleeping bag,” I muttered mostly to myself, and tried to take another glug out of the now empty bottle. I threw it in the back of my pickup.
“That’s pretty bad,” one man said. They laughed a little as two of them donned their packs. “You ever backpacked before?”
I shrugged and grimaced. The third man laid a sleeping bag on the tailgate beside me and said that he didn’t think that his dog would miss it. It was his dog’s sleeping bag. “Just leave it in the truck when you return,” he said.
“Hey thanks!” I said brightly, abandoning all pride.
I listened to another of Sinatra’s whines on his CD. Frank sang something about living a dog’s life. I reached for another bottle of beer in the back of my truck. Walking around to the driver’s seat I noticed a flattening tire. I closed my eyes for a second and inhaled deeply. “OK, go flat, you damned shit!” I said. “I’ll fix you on my way out.” I left the truck, poured the half beer into the dirt, put on my pack, and headed out behind those young men.
Into the Wilderness
The trail crew launched like rockets down the trail, and I didn’t think that I’d see them again, but they were sitting at the entry point to the Sawtooth Wilderness about two miles up. They sat and smoked a bowl beside a sign at the edge of Wilderness. I said “Hey” trying to sound enormously cool, and talked with them a bit. They told me that their goal for the day was beyond mine; they were going to Plummer Peak, a 9,900 foot mountain, roughly 15 miles up the trail. The altitude where we began the trip was 5,400 feet. It was 4 o’clock.
“That’s ambitious!” I said. But I was thinking: that’s impossible. “Good luck!” I signed into the ledger as proof of my passage and walked by. Soon they marched beyond me, but their dog, call him Young Labrador, hung back to bark ferociously, apparently wanting to regain his sleeping bag. “You lose, Buckwheat!” I whispered to him. “It’s all mine now!” He showed me his rapier-sharp teeth.
I walked five miles and stopped by a grove of turning aspen and Douglas fir trees which made an otherwise parched spot shady and cool.
The nearby river flowed the width of a softball pitch, and just now it had the personality of a chatty creek. Its banks were granite and they squeezed into a serpentine-green slide. The river begged me to stop. So I did. It begged me to fish. So I did. I found it as productive as it was pretty, and I simply had to keep three small fish. Among the trees, not far from the river, I set up my tent and threw my gear inside. This was a very fine spot to be camping and I took in all of the air with a deep breath.
However, the too-short sleeping bag smelled like wet dog and the sudden pitter-pat of rain on the tent lulled me to sleep, but watered me from below. The smell soon led me into half-waking dreams of a dog howling at my feet and grabbing them in its mouth, growling, shaking madly: The Beast! That mad dog moved through my dreams like swamp gas.
In the morning, after a fish breakfast and drying out the wet tent, I looked up at 9,900 foot Mattingly Peak which rose out of gauzy clouds. It was as high as Plummer Peak, a dramatic 4,000 feet above me. I watched it for a few moments with the cotton wandering across the wide peak and then I packed up and headed out.
The Middle Fork flowed wildly, cascading out of the high mountains. Now it slowed in a meadow. Now columbine and chokecherries grew along the path beside it as the drainage ripened with the changing colors of Autumn. Beavers had been there a few days ago and might come again. Deer, bear, elk, wolves, wolverine were out there somewhere. I knew they were out there somewhere out in these kind woods, but I never saw a single one of them.
One More Confession
Now I have to make a second confession, to bring this trip into a proper perspective: I also forgot my knife. I know, I know, you’re saying: “Your sleeping bag and your knife? Uh, Mike, did you remember your stove, your underpants, socks, food, and your jacket?” I proudly say “yes” to those and anyway, I didn’t necessarily need underpants, did I?
You ask: “How did you clean the fish and cut the rope to set up that tent?” Well, you already know that I didn’t forget my tent, right? It was on the far side of damp though. I searched through my backpack for the knife and then sat searching for inspiration. Nothing. I looked for sharp sticks, jagged rocks, arrowheads, and other more primitive things lying about that would allow me to perform tasks like gutting fish. Not a truly sharp thing came to mind or hand so I grumbled and went out fishing and thought: something will rise!
Yes indeed. Of course, as I already mentioned, the fish did. Now I had three fish to clean, maybe a decent meal, right? Maybe. And that’s the way I’ve written it, right? But there was nothing to clean them with. Did I mention that? No. So I went through my backpack again looking for something that might slice the fish from asshole to gills without ripping the fish apart: corkscrew—naw; bottle opener, fork—too messy; fishhooks—possible in a pinch; fingers, pencil, pen?—ick, no way, what a mess!
Ah hah, I found my First Aid kit—maybe a razor blade? Noooo. Rock, paper, scissors? I thought about that. Ah yes, there are scissors in the First Aid kit. They would cut bandages or fish and rope—that’s it! It felt good to be back in the 21th century once again where scissors could beat rocks as a tool. I made a note to myself: make a list of things to bring on every backpacking trip that might be helpful. Think of TP for instance. Please remember to refill the fuel container once in a while. Bring matches too. On other solo trips I had forgotten each of these. Quit going solo.
Mountains of Gold
A redtail hawk screamed at me from her perch. “Shaddup. smarty wings,” I screamed. She had none of the needs that I had. I soldiered on and thought about the drive up to Atlanta. On that drive, I saw mining and landslides and buildings and forest fire scars. This land was changing beside the town, but the river endured. It cleaned up every mess given time.
Mining surrounds Atlanta. Naked rocks stacked in piles, defined placer mining from years past. Roads climbed just about every tributary of the Middle Fork near Atlanta giving access to gold and silver mines. They were mostly holes pick-axed and dynamited into the ground. However, the Atlanta Gold Company, headquartered in Canada, proposed in 2006 to mine two open pits and put $40 million into a cyanide heap-leach project on their patented land. Faced with lawsuits from the Idaho Conservation League and others about that plan, the company backed off and chose to mine underground. So far Atlanta Gold hasn’t produced high quantities of gold in years.
In addition, small-time miners scour streams for gold with lawnmower-sized suction devices and in the process make a mess of fish habitat. Of course not the habitat for steelhead or salmon or lamprey–those had been eliminated years ago by downstream dams on the Snake River–but for the native threatened bull trout (which had been isolated by dams from swmming to the ocean) and rare, uncommonly lovely cutthroat trout. A few of the mines are ragged holes in the ground or have reservoirs to block the flow of tailings downstream–this might work for a few years but not forever. It will take the diligence on the part of conservationists to block mining in the region and to gain effective protection for fish habitat.
The future of mining in Atlanta will depend upon the price of gold and silver and the price of cleaning up the mines, like the Tolache, Minerva, Atlanta Gold, and Monarch Mines. The miners must maintain the high quality of water entering the Boise River which affects the safety of human populations and rare species in and around this river. It will also depend upon the price of that most useless of elements, gold, and the desire, the motivation, the greed, and conniving politics from hardrock miners to get to the gold in competition with ardent conservationists fighting for water, plants and animals, as well as their own health. The system of use and protection is defined by competition among advocates, which changes the way the whole world works.
Spangle Lake Beckons
Everywhere change is in process: the leaves fall from aspens, the water grows less forceful day-by-day, the air feels cooler. Somehow beauty grows. I felt good to be above mining and human manipulations on the land. It was good to have a nice trail and fish to catch, but upon consideration the trail had to be constructed and maintained by people, people had transplanted fish into the river; the joy of my many gizmos and maps that REI had sold me—all of the things that I had forgotten–and coffee, ah yes, coffee from Costa Rica or Kona or Kenya heated up on my metallic stove fueled by gasoline; these all came from other places: boots were crafted in China, my backpack and aluminum pans originated in some faraway unknown place.
It felt as if all the trappings were loaded on my back and I realized that I couldn’t get away from the production, consumption, and practicality of living in the United States. But here in wilderness I felt free to walk wherever I wanted. Freedom at a price. I guess that’s the price of awareness. I denied the importance of what I didn’t want to see and discounted the privilege of my being here.
No, actually, I’ve never discounted the value in wild places—it is always a privilege to be in this undisturbed and wild land. I’ve seen the price of maintaining places as untrammeled, maintaining all of its birds, mammals, and reptiles, all of the trees and vegetation, all of the insects. A miner once told me that mining will always win when the price of mining an ore goes high enough—“We will get it when the population wants it,” he said. But today the mountains and streams and trees and wildlife felt eternal, the place sublime and more golden than any ore.
Hiking gave me time to think about what the world is doing to us and we to it: pollution, population growth, fighting for things (fighting, always fighting, always), wanting all of life’s pleasures, seeking youth, time, strength, immortality. Maybe that miner was right. But when I turned around I saw the beauty right there: a sudden Shangra-La, a worldly paradise far away from the hassles of modern life: a gift to all who took the trouble to see, enjoy, and to preserve it. What person could say that the land has less value than the minerals beneath it? Not me.
In the late afternoon I arrived at Spangle Lake. In the perfect campsite I found my hiking and working friends and Young Labrador laying low. Their presence was marked only by the absence of impacts of other people on the land, an absence that seemed a presence. The three men had cleaned up all of the other the campsites. I hooted hello to them and went searching for the second best campsite. I never found that campsite but I found a nice place above Spangle Lake and settled in to mess it up a little. I caught another few fish and watched the lake darken into night. Spangle Lake delivered what I had thought it might—fish, solitude, fine scenery, reflection, and a natural place to sit in and read and write. It was alive with sparkles, sparks, in the morning and I guess that is all I wanted: a way to look at our world that pleases my heart and soothes my soul.
On the next day I caught a 20-inch cutthroat trout in a nearby lake and a dozen or more in lakes beyond the tallest mountains. This cutthroat laid still for me to take one picture before she swished her tail and swam away, annoyed by the shallow water. Her girth was greater than my grip and I felt a fool for letting her go free. But why had I captured her to begin with?
Walking around at the top of the world took me to a place where whitebark pines were lined on a ridge like grave markers. These pines had lived for so many years, hundreds at least, maybe a thousand, that their forms defined their lives: wind and deep snow bent some and they had adapted by growing low. Others appeared to have lived only on the sunny side of the trunk. A few were stout and straight-growing and seemed to have lived most fully. These whitebarks were sheltered by the environment, protected by boulders, and their fate had deposited them on a warmer, more protected spot in this otherwise harsh environment. At long last, however, drought or disease, or both, brought them to an end.
Another few seemed to be on their last breath with their lives contained in thin strips of bark that barber-poled up the trunk. All of the deaths and near deaths began to settle-in, but as I walked over the ridge, I saw a more remarkable thing: seedlings of whitebark pines grew, toiling from soil with pure happenstance. They were young and didn’t know where they were growing.
Upon returning to Spangle Lake, a pair of ospreys flew above the lake. Quickly, far gone in a spiral updraft, headed out beyond the next ridge with no roughness in the climb. The climb had seemed so endless to me yesterday—the hike was up and up and relentlessly up—so flying looked good at the moment. I also had some notion, however, that climbing in the air might be just as tough as climbing on the ground, but the theory of finding a thermal sounded good. I wanted to glide.
I took the time to move my camp to the best space that the trail crew had last night and the view was stupendous. I slept beautifully, awoke, sucked-up a tank of coffee, packed up, and took out gliding. The same columbine grew in the cool, moist forest in the “V” of the rivercourse and when the view was good it was incomparable. Maybe, just maybe, my friends would clear the broken, tangled trees, and those nasty, thorny blackberry vines to clear that avalanche run. Or perhaps they might have my flat tire off and put the new tire on my car when I got back. But if wishes were facts, even hikers could fly like ospreys! I saw the men and their nifty dog on the way down. The men worked hard to clear the path ahead of me and even that damned dog was civil.
The river sashays through what was solid land, rages under weather-making peaks, dodders in an autumn-colored meadow, whispers out of the Wilderness beside predictable humdrum roads, villages, towns, and cities, into reservoirs, canals, laterals, and drains then, eventually, into the Snake River. You ask me what made me come into this bloody Wilderness when there is all of that well-ordered life to enjoy in our human world?
You kidding? Maybe it’s chaos. Maybe it is the inhuman aspect of the place. But I remember the goodness in my new friends (and their damp dog); the disordered brutality and beauty in this disobedient landscape; the stark, blinkless views of Spangle Lake; the silence and vastness of the sky and its blue, blue, saphire-blue, blueness; the hints and tracks of wildlife somewhere out there living in the boondocks that left me wondering about their present existence; there is the inspiration of whitebark pines, fabulous constellations, crags and stalwart mountains, and the river that flows forever, but never runs away.
It’s not chaos that I liked, but the random piece-by-piece connectedness of the wilds, the thinking about, and finding, surprisingly unpredictable but acceptable natural things—hot springs, uplifted mountains, beaver dams and the freakin’ ants–moments of silent inspiration all these seduced me to get out beyond civilization and live for a few days to walk in respect in its beauty. And I suggest that it may do you good to go there as well. Find some humility. This wilderness is an old friend who always recognizes, welcomes, and judges me simply by what I am.
But soon, as the trail gave way to road, my one flat tire–impossibly unround it remained–waited for me to replace it with a less flawed model, and then the long road unwound, eventually back to scathing civilization to my home in calm, happy, and equivocal Boise.
Mike Medberry is the author of On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey to Recovery.