Spring in Idaho?
April 21 - 26
Journey to Hell with a free load of firewood
|Free campsite in Hell's Canyon|
Suddenly the weather has turned positively balmy. As we descend into Hell’s Canyon the temperature has risen (has that got something to do with the name?) and the deciduous trees are well on the way to establishing their new garb. Their bright, fresh green provides a welcome relief to the monotonous uniformity of the coniferous forests.
Hell’s Canyon is a huge rift on the border of Oregon and Idaho - the deepest canyon in USA apparently - deeper than the Grand Canyon yet less famous because it is more difficult to capture it’s grandeur in one hit as is the case with the Grand, but spectacular none-the-less.
|Mountain goat on the Hell's Canyon cliffs|
On our way in we stopped at a local roadside store to pick up some firewood where we were asked where we were going. In response to our answer - to the Hell’s Canyon Dam - the shop owner offered us the wood for free if we were able to give a lift to a couple of guys who needed to get down to the dam. They were part of a rafting shuttle service and needed to pick up some rafter’s cars and take them to the bottom of the river. The more talkative of the two guys had lived all of his life in the canyon, as had his parents, his grand mother and great grandmother. He recalled his great-grandmothers tales of times when thousands of people lived in the area prospecting for gold; of times when the local sherif declared marshal law because of the level of lawlessness; of three day horse trips to the nearest town - one day to get in, one to party, and one to get back; of a lady who came in with all of her possessions in a wheelbarrow who disappeared into the canyon, only to re-appear once a year to refill her barrow, until one year she didn’t emerge and was never seen again - tough times in a tough, but beautiful landscape.
Having dropped the guys off at the dam, we found ourselves a delightful campsite on the edge of the lake under a grove of walnut trees with the walls of the canyon towering above. Apparently the fruit trees were originally planted here to support a bootleg liquor business but later became a renowned fruit and nut producing concern. Seems like it all “went under” when they put the dam in and the hydro company bought the land.
|Paddling Hell's Canyon|
Our next couple of days were spent hiking up onto the spurs above, kayaking on the lake and watching the Mountain Goats moving carelessly about on their precarious ledges. Mum mountain goat paid no attention at all as one of her young seemed to look for, and then stand as close as possible to the edge of, the most dangerous looking ledge of all!
|Lunch stop at Payette Lake, McCall|
We exited the canyon via a winding gravel switchback road with precipitous drops below alternating with grassy slopes and glades of yellow flowers before disappearing into the pine forests once again where we encountered a male Blue Grouse in full display plumage - the females immediately bolted at the first hint of an intruder while the male, completely pre-occupied with matters other than short term survival, continued to strut about on the road flashing it’s orange eyebrows and red chest patches until it’s options were to flee or be run over. There seems to be something pretty constant about male behavior that transcends species boundaries!
|Why other people take the freeways|
False alarm - it’s still winter in the Sawtooth Ranges
|Sawtooth Ranges, Idaho|
Just as we were starting to shed our clothes - yes we were wearing sandals and t-shirts for a moment there - we climbed yet another zig-zag road to find ourselves in the snow once again, this time with the amazing backdrop of the Sawtooth ranges. I wonder why you would call a mountain range that? Probably something to do with the spectacular series of jagged, snow-covered peaks that completely dominate the horizon.
The good thing about spectacular mountains is that they provide a great excuse to stop driving, so this we did, and donning snow-shoes we set off in the sun for a jaunt of a few hours, which was long enough for the weather to change completely, getting back to the van as the first drops of rain / snow began to fall.
|Time to don the snow-shoes again|
The down-side of this spectacular location is the fact that at least half, if not more, of the pine trees have died or are dying, the result of exotic beetles and possibly a fungal rust disease. Wherever you travel in the world, tree decline seems to be a constant threat as our pests and diseases are transmitted by our jet-setting and global-trading lifestyles (need to make sure we get the mud off our snowshoes before we use them again!).
|Stormy one day...|
|Sunny the next|
|Warm enough for a swim - shame about the ice|
|Confused about the seasons - winter or spring?|
Brief departure from planet Earth to visit the Craters of the Moon
Well, there is little risk of being bored when a day’s drive takes you from classic alpine landscapes, through equally classic idaho farmland and then dumps you in a surreal place like Craters of the Moon. This charred and contorted landscape makes it clear that, while you think you are relaxed and comfortable where you are now, the earth may have a different plan for you and could completely reconstruct your reality - fields of lava flows and lava tubes, peaks of cinder cones and spatter cones and piles of shattered and fractured rocks that have been flung about by someone who seemed a little pissed off - all suggest that tomorrow will not necessarily be the some as yesterday. Given that some of this occurred only two thousand years ago and it’s been going on for a lot longer than that (about the last 15m years), it seems that there is little reason to think that it has finished. With this thought in mind, we set up camp in the middle of it, with lightning and thunder broiling across the brooding moonscape, hoping that the next act would at least wait until after we had finished our pancakes and coffee the next morning.
|Exploring the lava tubes|
Enough fire and brimstone - back to the glacial
There is something about a US road trip that makes it hard not to notice the power of the earth and the passage of vast amounts of time (unless you are still on one of those ‘60s/’70s sort of road trips). From the clear signals left by tectonics and vulcanism, you suddenly find yourself in landscapes scoured by glaciers that periodically (every 5 - 15 thousand years) drop in from the north leaving trails of lakes and wetlands when they have had enough and retreated to whence they came.
As a result of this we next found ourselves wondering around wetlands in the broad Idaho plains, spotting sandhill cranes, and the classic bathtub toy - the ruddy duck. These cute-as little blue billed ducks with stuck up tails bob their heads up and down as if someone has just turned a key in their bum a few times (there’s got to be a You-tube video of this somewhere - I’d suggest you do a search). Also our first encounter with a moose which I set out on foot to get a photo of, only to find out later that they are a bit like african hippos - the unlikely cause of a large number of unfortunate animal-human interactions! Fortunately, on this occasion, it chose to wander off through the marshes rather than trample me to death (or whatever it is that mooses do to people).
Into Wyoming - and if you think the Sawtooth Ranges are impressive - wait till you see the Grand Tetons
|The very grand Grand Tetons - view from our free campsite|
I suspect that the term “grand” could be easily over-utilised when describing landscapes, but the Americans seem to use it reasonably sparingly and generally quite appropriately. I reckon it’s not a bad descriptor for these ranges. Again, pretty sawtoothy, but with bigger and more intimidating teeth than the previous range.
This has been the locale for some very early mornings and some reasonably strenuous activity. Our first morning was a 4.30 am wakeup call to join a group of people (couldn’t believe there were other people stupid enough to be doing this too) for a ranger led trip in search of sage grouse, birds that establish mating grounds, or leks, where dozens of birds come together and the males all do their stuff to impress the girls - this involves the inflation of brightly colored air sacks on their chests, the fluffing of feathers, the spreading of tails(spiked like yukka plants) and lots of bobbing up and down with occasional inter-male skirmishes. At some point the females determine who’s most impressive and make themselves available to become the mothers of the next generation of silly-looking strutting birds. Whilst all this is going on, the elk and bison are wandering around in the background with the odd coyote passing through, all set against the backdrop of the mighty snow-capped Tetons.
|Hiking the Tetons|
|Taggart Lake - GrandTetons|
This range also provides the backdrop to the relatively fast flowing Snake River (fast enough to make good kayak progress without working too hard) so we bobbed along on it, taking detours into oxbow lakes to view pelicans and bald eagles and lots of ducks as well as our first loon - which probably isn’t all that exciting for most but, given that we had adopted one as our mascot, we were impressed.
Morning kayaking was followed up by an afternoon bike ride - Christine dropped me off at the top of a road that follows the base of the Tetons, which is open to cycling but not to cars. It’s hard to imagine a more scenic cycle with craggy, snowy mountains towering above and ice-covered lakes along the way. Christine picked me up again at the bottom of the ride and the next day we returned to hike around Taggart and Bradley Lakes. Being early in the season, much of the track was covered in snow and made for hard going as we regularly disappeared through the snow crust up to our knees and thighs, meaning we ended the day exhausted but well rewarded in our ridge-top free campsite overlooking the ranges.