Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Crziest Week of All Time

First, a bunch of pictures from the week in random order, because the internet is suddenly being surprisingly fast and cooperative.

A little bighorn sheep by the roadside:

Campsite on Little Redfish Lake, with the Sawtooth Mountains in the backdrop:

Relaxing at Alpine Lake at the beginning of the week:

Driving into the Sawtooth Mountains:

Hiking on volcanic rock at Craters of the Moon:

The infamous bull moose, taken from about 20 feet away as I was hiding behind a tree, fearing for my life:


Our filthy yet trusty steed, Princess Antelope Runner (after fording 12 creeks and traversing the ultra-scary Antelope Pass):

Wildflowers near Boundary Creek:

Claudia and I sliding down the hill on our crazy creek chairs:

After a 10-mile hike to Sawtooth Lake, the largest (and still frozen) alpine lake in the range, with 12,000-ft Mt. Regan in the background:

... It was crazy, but lots of fun.
Claudia and I were on schedule to do Visitor Use surveys for 6 days, which everyone else has been complaining about because they basically involve driving all over the place and asking people embarassing questions about how much money they spent and what kind of recreation they plan on doing while on their visit to the National Forest. Fortunately, though, the first site we were sent to survey was still closed for the season, so we instead had two full days with nothing to do and use of a Forest Service vehicle. We decided to camp in the stunningly beautiful Sawtooth Mountains and go for a dayhike to Sawtooth Lake. (See pictures above). It was a gorgeous day, the hike was awesome and we met a very cool fly fisherman named Phil who quit his job 30 years ago to tie flies. The only thing that marred it was that my cheap telescoping rod snapped while I was ducking under a tree on the way to the lake, so I wasn't able to fish for the 19-inch rainbow trout and elusive, endangered Sunapee trout in Alpine Lake, but we did get to trek through a bunch of snow and slide down some mountainsides in our crazy creek chairs and explore some really high elevations.
The next day we went to Boundary Creek, which is the put-in for the famed Middle Fork of the Salmon River (the largest undammed river in a single state in the U.S.), which was abslutely crawling with rafters and whitewater kayakers. We surveyed. It was uneventful.
Our next survey site was an unknown place called Fish Creek Summit, about 5 hours south, so along the way we stopped at Redfish Lake (again, pictures above) which was tons of fun and we scored some free kayak rentals.
After Redfish, we continued along through Sun Valley en route to Fish Creek and, along the way, encountered a FS road that seemed to be a shortcut. It looked like it switchbacked quite a bit on the map, but it took away a huge chunk of distance so we decided to take it despite the fact that we didn't tell anyone of our change in route and didn't have a radio (or any idea how to get our spare tire out from under the vehicle). The road started off somewhat sketchy, which we're pretty much used to around here: a narrow, rocky dirt road over a high mountain pass with steep drop-offs and a lush green valley below. Then it cut through a huge, flat basin surrounded by sage brush hills--also very scenic and cool. About this point the road started to get seriously washed out and washboarded and even more narrow, but it was flat so it was all OK.
Then we got to the switchbacks. We climbed up, up , up in 4WD, practically holding our breaths the entire time. At the very top, we stopped to take a breather. There were no people, no animals, nothing but wind and endless vistas and a feeling of stark, rugged loneliness. "Ha. Imagine if the road was blocked up here and we had to go all the way back?!" we laughed (it was already getting late). HA. Just then, we rounded the last curve and saw a big ol' snowbank blocking half the road, pushed up against one cliff, with a 9,000 foot drop-off on the other side. In addition to a lack of radio and spare tire knowledge, we also didn't have a shovel, so we scraped away as much snow as we could with our hands and then decided that one of us should stay outside the car (in case the other person went over, and also to help guide the tires), while the other one drove. I've learned in the past few weeks that I'm scared to death of these mountain roads--it's one thing to be on foot, it's quite another to be in a car which could lose its grip and go careening over the edge without warning--so I decided to face my fear and get behind the wheel.
Thankfully, as you know from the fact that I am alive and well enough to write this, we made it through the pass, and then had to face the maddening drive down. I kept the car in 1st gear, rode the brakes the entire time, and didn't unclench my knunckles for a second. I honestly believe it was the most afraid I have ever been in my life, but once it was over it was exhilerating.

After the treacherous Antelope Pass, the wonderful road took us over Bear Summit (not as high or as sketcky, but very muddy and we did a couple 180's in the road) and through Death Canyon before we finally reached Fish Creek and our campsite. Needless to say, we were in the middle of goddamn nowhere and there was no one to survey at Fish Creek, so we relaxed, twisted sage bundles to burn to keep the bugs away, and did a LOT of reading. RIght before dinner the following day, we decided to go for a leisurely stroll to take pictures of the multitudes of wildflowers that were blooming like crazy all over the hills, and--in this very un-mooselike habitat of high desert sage hills--a bull moose suddenly came crashing out of the willows by the creek not 30 feet away, heading straight for us. Claudia screamed and started to run, and I grabbed her and yanked her behind a tree (moose are territorial and will charge if you run or threaten them, but they hae very poor eyesight so your best defense is to hide). The moose stopped about 15 or 20 feet from us and stood there for about 10 minutes, not eating, just turning round and around, looking slightly confused, while we trembled behind the trees and I took pictures. It was freakin' AMAZING--but I slept in the car that night :)
Finally, the next morning, we left Fish Creek, forded 12 creeks in our Trailblazer, and checked out the Craters of the Moon National Park. It had all these cool volcanic formations--cones and lava tubes and acres of pahoihoi lava flows--as well as a bunch of caves, which we explored with out headlamps in the middle of broad daylight in the desert. Also very cool.
We were then faced with four days off, but had we had enough? Of course not! Another crew was off doing a natural resources project with identifying and classifying old growth forest plots that I was super interested in but hadn't gotten to do, and one of our project leaders, Sarah, was going to visit them for two days, so Claudia and I decided to tag along. The first day was really interesting--we hiked up a mountainside, used a GPS to find the old growth plots, then identified all the plants in the understory (very interesting--I can identify TONS of plants and flowers out here now!), mapped the latitude/longitude and slope/aspect, then bored the big trees to find out their ages, used a range finder to get their heights, and recorded a whole bunch of other info. The purpose was to determine whether or not the plots were ecologically significant enough to warrant 'sparing' them when doing either selective logging or prescribed burning in that area of the forest in the future, because the Forest Service policy for the past century or so has been to supress forest fires--which is very unhealthy for the forest. The woods naturally need to burn on a regular basis, so by supressing that, the trees have become overcrowded and have thus encouraged the spread of bark beetles (which can hop from tree to tree when they're close together and kill the trees) and created a greater fuel load (meaning that when (not if) the forest does burn, it'll be a huge fire that kills ALL the trees instead of a small fire that only kills the weak or small ones).
Anyway, the timber work was fascinating and very informative for the first day. The second day, Sarah, Claudia and I were only supposed to tag along for half the day, then we were going to go into town and get our broken radio fixed. That morning, we climbed up a pretty steep cliff, then weaved our way through the mountaintop going to different plots. After lunch, the FS woman who was leading the project asked us if we were comfortable getting back to the car (which was only about an hour away, though with no trails) and we said yes. I really WAS confident. But we couldn't go down the same way we got up, and--to make a long story short and avoid placing any blame--we got horribly disoriented, couldn't find the road OR the car, and ended up getting very, very lost in the hot sun without a map, radio or water. We turned around so many times I had no idea which way was up. Finally, we decided to climb as high as we could--still, without water--and then we saw a road in the distance and went down again to try to get to it. After a while, my legs kind of lost feeling and I just climbed and climbed like a robot, mechanically, looking down and identifying plants to keep my mind occupied. Several hours after leaving the work site, we finally hit a road, but without a map, we had no idea WHICH road. We did know that we needed to keep doing downhill to find water, though, which was successful, and thankfully Sarah had bleach, because the water we found was a muddle trickle coming out of a drainage pipe. But it was delicious. Still on the road, we got to an intersection, had no idea where to go, and decided to stay put until a car came, because surely they'd drive around looking for us. Unfortunaltely, though, as the FS woman was radioing in that they were missing 3 people, the fire manager overheard the conversation and decided to mobilize his search-and-rescue troops. So as we were waiting by the road, in fairly high spirits and totally prepared to spend the night out there, we saw a helicopter circling overhead. It circled for about two hours before it finally saw our smoke signals, and then radioed our location to the ground, and we were finally picked up by a truck about 7 hours after we'd initially gotten lost. It was all terribly embarassing, not only because they wasted a HELICOPTER on us while we were on a ROAD, but mostly because we were pretty close to civilization, had gotten ridiculously lost while on a pretty easy hike, and had to endure the embarassment of having the entire fire fighting team out hiking and driving around looking for us. But we're safe and sound, and will never go anywhere again without a map :)
Now, I really, really need to go shower.

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