Three weeks into a trek across Idaho, we reached the last switchbacks of a 5,000-foot climb up Sleeping Deer Mountain above the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
An afternoon and morning I’d trudged across hot sideslope, clambered over logs and fought chest-high brush in wet bogs — the 9,881-foot white granite peak in my sights. The trail was cleared earlier this summer, but it was often hard to tell; newly fallen logs and vegetation from recent fire made slow going.
Topping the ridge, I anticipated the best view of our trek from Hailey to Salmon — the Pioneers, Boulders, White Clouds and Sawtooths we had crossed in more than 270 miles.
Harsh winds met me. Below, smoke filled the valleys in every direction. No views today. When David caught up, we agreed to skip the steep trail climbing to Sleeping Deer Lookout. Why bother?
Our Idaho revisit, 30 years after our hiking heyday, was marked by dry days, dead trees and fire — old, recent and ongoing.
My husband, an Idaho native, had planned his homecoming trip to favorite areas, crossing new and old wilderness: Hemingway-Boulder, White Clouds, Sawtooth and Frank Church-River of No Return.
The first week — over foothills behind our Hailey home, roads, trails and goat paths across the Pioneers and Boulders — started like summer hikes in the wetter 1980s-’90s. The first day was cool; on day two, hiking up Hyndman Creek toward Pioneer Cabin, darkening, growling skies soon pelted us with showers.
Once the rain gear was on, the showers quit, and we did not see rain again until our fourth week in the Salmon River Mountains.
We did see dead trees — probably 30 percent of forested slopes. Looping through the White Clouds near Castle Peak, revisiting a favorite trailless basin became late-night disaster as we were led astray by horse tracks then cut back for two cold creek crossings and steep scrambles up a rocky ridge to Noisy Lake; the old game route was obscured by dead logs. At Upper Champion Lake, David’s favorite fishing hole, we enjoyed a lovely campsite but no fish; I wondered if that was the result of the Valley Road Fire of 2005, winter kill or no longer stocking this wilderness lake.
At our first rest stop at Smiley Creek, 130 miles and 10 days in, we could see smoke creeping into Stanley on the north end of the valley. The Pioneer Fire, burning hot near Lowman, was sending smoke up Payette River drainages.
Crossing the Sawtooths from Pettit Lake to Sawtooth Lake into Stanley, we smelled smoke and saw alpine lakes glowing red from dramatic sunsets enhanced by smoky skies, and we waded deep-dusty trails from dry days and heavy horse and hiker use. Stanley was smoky from the Pioneer Fire and a new start by Redfish Lake.
Past fires dominated our third segment in the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church wilderness. To start we hitched three rides on Idaho 21 (which links Stanley to Boise); later that road closed due to fire at Stanley Lake.
Hiking across the Salmon River Mountains, we climbed and dropped thousands of feet across steep ridges and big creeks perpendicular to the Middle Fork. Our first three days were through the burned remnants of the 2012 Halstead Fire, which burned about 340,000 acres: blackened tree skeletons, moonscape lake basins and fields of lupine, other wildflowers and shrubs. The first mile over boggy meadows and downed logs was almost impassable until we found a relocated trail on the ridge. We climbed steeply through flower-rich burned basins and crept along eroded contour trail on a high ridge with views of the White Clouds and Sawtooths and glimpses of smoke filtering up drainages. Roughneck Lookout and lakes below were spared from fire; we camped off trail in meadows and a fringe of trees by Island Lake.
The next day we hiked more blackened lake basins above Falls Creek and slid down a jeep road by black sticks near Seafoam Lake. The riparian area around closed-up Seafoam Guard Station was intact.
Our worst post-fire encounter came the next day. After climbing a steep road to Sheep Mountain, we followed a ridge trail surrounded by stony peaks. At a blackened boggy ridge, we dropped into Little Loon Creek and remnants of a 1975 fire. Unbeknownst to us, the main trail had been relocated. We hacked and clambered our way over logs and through Ceanothus/alder/willow jungles in the creek drainage one afternoon and most of the next morning, averaging a third of a mile per hour, until we met newer trail dropping steeply off the ridge.
Our drought ended abruptly while camped on the Middle Fork. We descended 6,000 feet on ridge trail and route from Sleeping Deer to the river, took an R&R day at Flying B Ranch Resort, then camped on a sandbar. We awoke to pelting rain. Throughout that day and the next we were soaked by thunderstorms along the Middle Fork and on the steep climb up heavily burned Waterfall Canyon into the Bighorn Crags.
Our days in the stark, scenic Crags were mostly cloudy, cold and windy, but rain only threatened. It wasn’t enough moisture to end the Pioneer Fire; two new fires, Roaring Creek on the north end of the Crags and Roaring Lion Fire far to the east in Montana, added new colors to the sunsets reflecting in the high mountain lakes.