Elizabeth and I are attending a wedding in McCall, Idaho, which gave us an opportunity to do something that we haven’t done in a while: hike with friends. So, this morning we got together five other people for a hike southeast of town.
We hiked the Boulder – Louie lakes loop . It was our first trip in the Salmon River Mountains, a vast wilderness that’s home to cougars, wolves, bears, and one of the largest roadless areas in the contiguous United States.
We started our hike at 10 in the morning under an overcast sky, taking the loop counter-clockwise toward Louie Lake. Two of the group members, Antoine and Hannah from France, were much faster hikers than the rest, and sped off into the forest. As I would later learn, they were long-time trekkers with significant experience in the Alps.
Despite being far northwest of our hike to Alpine Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains, we were in the same ecoregion, the South Central Rockies forests, and the trees were similar. We were at 6,300 feet, and climbed through a forest of small Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), white fir (Abies concolor), and some western larch (Larix occidentalis).
After a half-hour of hiking, we arrived at the shore of Louie Lake, where we found Antoine and Hannah already out of their hiking clothes and swimming happily.
As we sat at the edge of the lake, pondering the fine view of the pointed 8,310-foot summit of Jughandle Mountain, we all decided to try to climb it. If the climb was quick, we’d come back and finish the loop, if not, we’d just abandon the loop and come back the way we came. We set off for the mountain.
We stayed on the trail at first, hiking another half hour to the saddle on the northeast side of the mountain. There, at 7,700 feet, we left the trail and hiked cross-country through meadows and boulder fields toward the summit.
The going was slower than expected. Gray clouds moved in, dropping shafts of rain in the distance. I worried about a storm that would force us to retreat over exposed, difficult terrain.
Halfway to the summit, we stopped for lunch on a group of boulders with a panoramic view. In one direction were the Salmon River Mountains, in the other was the Payette River Valley. A corner of Louie Lake was just visible through the trees.
The climb was taking too long, and we decided to turn back. Well, not all of us. Antoine and Hannah, who’d been cruising up the mountain as easily as if they were still on trail, decided to continue to the summit and then descend the other side back to Louie Lake. The rest of us would go back and finish the loop.
Hiking down, I took note of the trees growing on the ridge. One in particular I identified before I even saw it. Its presence was betrayed by the cawing of Clark’s nutcrackers, a species with which it has a mutualistic relationship. The tree was whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis). The others were subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa).
By the time we made it back to the main trail, the tiny silhouettes of Antoine and Hannah were already on the summit.
The rest of us continued around Twin Peaks, walking through meadows that were gloriously full of wildflowers.
In every direction, rounded granite mountains rose out of the greenery.
Descending farther, the forest became wetter, much wetter than the forest in which we started. Hellebore, ferns, and shrubs were abundant, and the Engelmann spruce and white fir grew to impressive size, with trunks over three feet in diameter.
We finished the hike at 2:45, everyone’s expectations exceeded by the hike’s beauty and variety.