Monday, August 19, 2019

RIB Part 5: Grace to Kooskia

Note: This post is the fifth update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff
Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

Part 3: Kanab to Torrey
Part 4: Torrey to Grace

Whew! So much has happened in the last month. Leaving Grace, I made the long, hot crossing of the Snake River Plain, climbed up into the Pioneer and Sawtooth ranges, and crossed the massive wilderness complex of central Idaho. Here are some of the highlights:

Second Stage Complete: As you may recall, the RIB consists of three distinct chunks: The Arizona Trail (AZT), my homemade route through Utah and southern Idaho called the Deseret Hiking Route (DHR), and the Idaho Centennial Trail (ICT). Really, the only "filler" section of the DHR is the lowlands that separate the Wasatch from the multitudinous mountain ranges of south-central Idaho. Of course, when I went through this hot and dry environment, temperatures reached triple digits and misery abounded. Water was scarce and my pack heavy, but I received some critical water information from the helpful local BLM office, which made my crossing possible. Although unpleasant, these sort of filler sections invariably pop up on any country-spanning hike - it's not dissimilar to, say, the Great Divide Basin on the CDT or the state of Pennsylvania on the AT. It's best to grit your teeth and make quick work of the crappy part, knowing that there's abundant beauty ahead.

Returning to the mountains, I traversed the underappreciated Pioneer range along with its more famous cousin, the Sawtooth Range. These ranges were a perfect finish to an amazing route - overall, the DHR is probably the best long route I've ever done. I'll have much more to say about it in some sort of wrapup after completing the whole RIB. In the Sawtooths, I joined the final stage of the RIB, the Idaho Centennial Trail.

An Orphan Trail: The Idaho Centennial Trail was designated by the state of Idaho in 1990, the year of, you guessed it, Idaho's statehood centennial celebration. Crucially though, it's only designated on a state level, and the state has little sway over the federal agencies that manage virtually all of the land the ICT passes through. Because the trail is unrecognized by its land managers, it has languished for years. Several sections of trail have been poorly maintained, abandoned entirely, or simply don't exist. The result is a hodgepodge of conditions - while a small minority is on good trail, most of the ICT is brushy, overgrown, covered in fallen trees, or an outright bushwhacky nightmare. This is particularly true in the wilderness areas, where trails are often unmaintained or maintained to a lower standard. These wilderness areas, though, are special in their own right.

The Frank Church and the Selway-Bitterroot are the two largest contiguous wilderness areas in the Lower 48 - and they're separated by a single dirt road. Taken together, they're nearly 300 miles of continuous wilderness. After my Sawtooths traverse, I left civilization behind for two full weeks, seeing people on only a couple of occasions. It was a deep, immersive experience - and one of the toughest bits of hiking I've ever done.

Ponderosa forests make for beautiful and easy travel. Unfortunately, they're few and far between
Take eight days of food and put it in your backpack and set off into the wilderness. Bushwhack your way through terribly overgrown brush, climb over and around massive fallen trees. Make less than half a mile an hour through a massive burn area. As if that's not enough, throw in five straight days of rain. Even when it's not actively raining, you're wearing your raincoat - because by brushing up against those overgrown, head-high plants, you knock all the raindrops off their leaves, drenching you. To top off this crap sundae (pun intended), throw in some lingering Giardia, so you feel miserable.

Remember the older-style tunnel car washes, where your car goes on the little track and moves through the foam-rubber washer arms and rotating bristle drums? Picture trudging through that, but 1) all day, 2) climbing over and under obstacles, 3) everything's prickly, and 4) your stomach is gurgling like a Yellowstone mudpot. Yeah, it wasn't fun. But at least there were wild raspberries!

Trail's under there. Good luck!
The Flip Side: Now that we've gotten the complaining out of the way, let's talk about the wonderful bits of the last few weeks. My resupply in the middle of the wilderness was a private residence - a homestead, really - that has been actively lived in for more than a century but a succession of owners. The current owners bought the property a couple years ago and beautifully restored the historic cabin. They offer tours of the place to the tiny handful of people who pass by - virtually all of them whitewater rafters floating the Salmon River. Not only did they accept and hold a box for me (no small thing, as the only vehicle access is via bush plane and the mail is delivered by said plane once a week), they generously fed me, let me take a shower, and even did laundry. The realities of life in the middle of nowhere is fascinating (everything is flown in; a gallon of milk ends up costing them twelve bucks when all is said and done), and the stories they told about the history of the homestead were riveting. 

There are four homesteads along that stretch of river, all similar in their remote nature. And of the four, I saw two of the homeowners as I passed by. Both invited me in for a cold drink. I was overwhelmed by their generosity, hearty spirit, and good will. 

Noah's Ark: The past month has yeilded an unprecedented number of cool animal interactions for me. Let's start with the important one: After six years, hundreds of nights in the backcountry, and close to ten thousand miles walked, I have finally, finally seen my first bear!  As a matter of fact, I saw two different bears within the course of a week. Sure, it required a crossing of the largest designated Wilderness area in the Lower 48, but still, I saw a bear. In both cases, the bears took off running as soon as they saw/heard me. Over the years, I've had dozens of encounters with off-leash dogs that were far more frightening than either of those bear encounters.

No bear encounter is complete without a terrible, grainy Sasquatch photo.
Speaking of apex predators, a couple days after the first bear sighting, I had another neat animal encounter. I was descending from a ridgetop into a river valley when I heard a faint howl of a wolf. A few minutes later, as I reached the valley floor, I saw him loping his way up the side of a ridgeline. I stood still and quiet, but he happened to look around and caught a glimpse of me. He regarded me with something like apathy for a split-second, then continued uphill with not a care in the world. As I passed by, I could hear him continuing his song - a remarkable baritone solo.

And as if that weren't enough, I saw one of the very rarest and most reclusive of critters - a wolverine. It happened in a flash, but I could see him running down the trail away from me - almost looking like a miniature bear, but with those distinct ring-like tail colorations, and shoulders lower than his hips. What a treat!

Finally, a coyote tailed me for about a half an hour through the sagebrush of southern Idaho. She kept her distance, barking like a dog every so often. When I first came across her, I saw at least one more coyote scamper into the bushes. She clearly wanted to know that she was there and meant business, but also clearly did not want to mess with me. I'm fairly confident that I came across her litter of pups and she was just trying to scare off the intruder. I tried blasting some heavy metal on my phone's speaker to get her to leave me alone, but to no avail. Apparently coyotes are more metal than Tom Araya's shrieks!

What's Next: I'm stuck in town for a couple days, as this last section completely destroyed my nearly brand-new shoes and a bunch of other gear. But as soon as my new stuff arrives, it's back at it - through a section I'm really looking forward to, the high mountain ridges of the Idaho-Montana border. And from there, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to Canada. Lord willing, I will be done by this time next month. See you then!