Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Call of the Sawtooth Mountains

A crisp layer of frost clung to the tent our first morning in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range. It was early September but a cold front had sent the mercury plummeting at our campsite beside Redfish Lake near the town of Stanley, Idaho. Even with an extra blanket and the added warmth provided by Otis, our rescue mutt, my wife, Ella, and I emerged from the tent blowing hot breath into our frozen palms and clamping our teeth to keep them from chattering. A shroud of fog hung over the long lake, and the granite sentinels that had inspired us the day before were now invisible. It was hard to hear the call of the mountains without seeing them.

Redfish Lake, Sawtooth Mountains
The Sawtooth Mountains near Redfish Lake
“What do you think?” I said, fumbling with the knobs on our Coleman stove. A mug of hot coffee was the solution to almost any situation.

“About what?” Ella said.

“The hike today.”

As if on cue, it was raining again, a drizzle so close to snow it turned to ice nearly on impact. My toes, if they were even still there, might as well have been cubes of ice in my boots. We were not prepared for this. When we arrived the afternoon before it had been sunny and in the upper sixties.

“I don’t know,” she answered slowly after a long hesitation. It was our first visit to the Sawtooth Range, and though we had plans for a ten-mile hike, I suspected both of us were warming up to the idea of being talked out of it. I crammed my fingers into my armpits.

“Let’s go to Stanley, get a latte, and see if it burns off,” Ella suggested.

Sounded good to me. I shut down the stove and crammed everything haphazardly into the car for a hasty escape.

The Stanley Baking Company was a thing of legend, and it was appropriately packed when we arrived half an hour later. All the way up from our home in Colorado rumor of this quaint, log-cabin cookery seemed to follow us. Obviously, we were not the only ones with the idea to wait out the cold basking in the aroma of bacon and espresso.

Stanley—a rustic town with a relaxed atmosphere and almost no pavement—feels as if it were plucked from the backwoods of Alaska with its forgotten-by-technology vibe and rugged mountain setting. The entire county in which it resides, Custer County, has no stoplights. With a population of a mere 4,300 in a space covering almost 5,000 square miles, Custer Country is a place where the elk likely outnumber the people.

The reason the name “Sawtooth” is particularly apt for these mountains needs little explanation. These tightly arranged granite tusks form one of the most dramatic segments of the entire American Rocky Mountains. They are also the southern rampart of one of the wildest regions left in the contiguous United States.

Goat Lake Sawtooth Range in Idaho
Goat Lake near Stanley, Idaho 
This broad expanse, which contains the Sawtooth, White Cloud, Frank Church and River of No Return wilderness areas, spans some 2.7 million acres, roughly twice the size of Delaware. The spiny serrations of the Sawtooths cleave the Idaho sky, ruling over the landscape with unchallenged authority. Resplendent with green forests, crystalline tarns, and busting wildlife, the Sawtooth Mountains stand as a monument to the rugged West as it must once have been.

In the 1960’s this area almost became a national park. Frank Church, who spent nearly half his life serving the state of Idaho as a senator from 1957 to 1984, led the conservation vanguard who fought to protect the vast beauty of these mountains. A long battle evolved eventually into a great rift between conservationist camps, one that was further complicated by the discovery of a vein of valuable molybdenum in the Sawtooths’ neighboring range, the White Cloud Mountains.

The war over the Sawtooths’ fate was divided into three belligerents. The first faction proposed that the area undergo a feasibility study to become a national park. The second argued for conservation but worried over the sheer volume of people the designation of national park would attract. The third and final camp was the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), their shareholders and supporters, who filed paperwork in 1968 to begin construction of a massive open-pit mine to harvest the aforementioned molybdenum.

ASARCO was backed by Idaho governor Dan Samuelson, who claimed Castle Peak (the site of the proposed mine) was “nothing but sagebrush on one side and scraggly trees on the other.” Touting the General Mining Act of 1872, which allowed for private acquisition of mining claims on federal land, ASARCO began to move forward with their plans to construct the mine, an act that galvanized the divided resistance to settle their differences.

The Sawtooth Range in Idaho
Sunset over the Sawtooths in Stanley, Idaho
Governor Samuelson lost his re-election in 1970 to conservation-minded Ceil Andrus. With support mounting nationally to save the Sawtooths and White Clouds from this destructive fate, a compromise was reached between the discordant conservation groups that created the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a relatively new designation that protected these stunning peaks from both mining and from the over-exposure certain to follow national park status.

“Look at the mountains!” Ella said as we finished breakfast. Sure enough the towering monoliths of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area glistened in clear skies. The distant summits were dusted in fresh snow.

My belly was bulging with eggs, toast, bacon and hollandaise sauce, but what mountain enthusiast could pass on such a place when blue sky was showing and the heavenly glow of the sun cascaded down the shoulders of such spectacular peaks?

“Should we go after all?” she asked.

I grinned and climbed into the driver’s seat.

Twenty minutes later our Rav4 bumped to a stop at the trailhead and we lashed our hiking shoes on our thawing feet. Otis sprinted up and down the parking lot, poking his bearded snout into the dense bush after a noisy chipmunk.

Just a few hours ago I was ready to lick my frozen wounds and turn for home, but now I couldn’t help but think of John Muir as I shrugged on my backpack and marched towards the protected range.

The mountains are calling, and I must go.

NOTE: This article first appeared in print and online for Our Backyard, September 2017 issue, a regional publication that serves western Colorado and eastern Utah.

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  1. A day with an enjoyable blend of civilisation and the outdoors by the sounds of it. An enjoyable read as usual!

    1. Thanks! I didn't feel like this was my best work ever but it was an amazing place and deserved some kind of write-up. Thanks for reading and commenting!