Category Archives: Kidhood

Sawtooth Kidhood 1957: Switchbacks #1

Most mountain trekking is on gentle slopes made difficult by uneven paths, stones, and fallen trees. But the trails are along ridges or following streams, with the steepness of the paths gaining a few feet in altitude for every ten or hundred of feet forward.

But when the trail reaches the spots between the streams and the ridges, where it is forced to climb to reach a pass between mountain tops, the gain in altitude exceeds the gain in forward movement.

Going straight up these climbs to the pass would have shoes and horses slipping backward and cause erosion where rushing rain and snowmelt follows where feet had trod.

Enter the switchback. The same as skiing back and forth across a slope to keep your speed in check, the switchback runs across the hill at a reasonable grade, then makes a 30 degree turn to run back across the hill. Repeat as many times as needed to reach the mountain’s ridge.

Between mountain peaks there are slopes covered with shale — the rock that has broken off the granite walls thanks to hot and cold and storms and lots of time.

These broken rocks stop sliding down the slope between mountain peaks when they reach their angle of repose, where any object sliding down a slope finds its unique spot where it no longer slides on the steepness of the slope.

The rocks are called shale and all together they are called scree.

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The rocks have found their place to stop sliding — but only barely. Just like an avalanche, any disturbance will get the scree moving down the slope and the larger the disturbance the more scree will get moving.

A larger disturbance like, say, a boy and a horse slipping off the narrow path of a switchback and tumbling onto the scree-covered slope.

Grandjean to Alpine Lake #4: Strangers Indeed!

Visiting the Sawtooth Wilderness Area today is as awe-inspiring and rigorous as ever. It is also something of a social event with regular exchanges of howdy-dos with strangers on the trails.

When horse packing in the 1950s, any interaction with other people in the Sawtooths was a rare event, indeed.

We once did come across another family out exploring the trails. It was so unusual we became friends and several times drove to Sunnyslope, overlooking the Snake River near Marsing, to visit.

There were only two other times we met another person during the eight treks we took in the Sawtooths. Both times they were men leading long strings of pack mules.

The U. S. Forest Service builds and maintains the trails in the Sawtooth Mountains and it is a constant job. In the spring it takes a surge of saws to open the trails through the winter’s accumulation of downed trees and areas damaged by avalanche and flood. All summer it requires regular clearing of trees blown and blasted down by wind and lightening.

Just how modern trail maintainers travel I don’t know. But the wilderness area is motor free, so I would not be surprised if long lines of mules still carry the tools and supplies needed to keep the wilderness wild while still open to human traffic.

During our horse camping trips in the 1950s, one string of mules was spied in the distance, working its way across a scree of loose stones.

Mule train INT.png

On another trip, a string of mules caught up to us from behind. After a few pleasantries the forest ranger said he had been watching our tracks for most of the day. He had also been watching the prints of very large paws that had been following us for miles. The paw prints of a large lion, known hereabouts as a cougar.

And here I thought I was the only one noticing how pungent sweating horses can get!

Cougar INT.png

Grandjean to Alpine #1: Sawtooth Lodge

map-all-sawtooths

In 1955, the year after we walked from Atlanta to Alturas Lake, we set off on another primitive camping trip in the Sawtooth Mountains. This time from Grandjean to Redfish Lake.

to-lodge

Grandjean is home to Sawtooth Lodge, a tiny log affair established in 1927. A few cabins and a campground round out the site at the end of a dirt road heading up the middle fork of the Payette River.

ledge-09

The lodge has an active stream splashing beside it. As a kid I was fascinated by the iron pipe that ran several dozen yards up the hill beside this stream. We walked up the pipe and watched some of the stream running into the pipe. Before the pipe got to the lodge, it branched in two—one branch headed to the sinks in the lodge and the other into a small, wooden shack of a building.

We looked in the shack and saw the water spewing from a small nozzle and hitting little buckets placed around a spinning wheel. A belt connected the spinning wheel to a generator. I understood the principle of hydroelectricity by this time, but had never witnessed it in such open simplicity.

pelton-wheel-png

Ever since I’ve wanted a house next to a stream that endlessly supplies running water and power.

Now that I think about it, I wonder how much effort the good folks at Sawtooth Lodge put into keeping the water running down that pipe, given freezing winters and constant debris washing down the stream. And I wonder how much jerry-rigging it takes to keep a Pelton wheel, a belt and generator running in the outback of mountain environments.

I think I’ll stick to the grid.

Atlanta to Alturas Lake #9: Dumped!

The return trek from Alturas Lake to Atlanta was going along just dandy when Dad learned a lesson about kindness to animals.

When picking up the pack horses from Atlanta locals, I watched as the man we were renting them from showed my dad the secret to cinching a pack saddle on a horse.

A pack saddle is held in place with a belt that loops under the horse’s rib cage. With the saddle in place the man ran this belt under the horse and through rings on the saddle to cinch it tight. Several times, he did what he could to get the saddle tightened down when the horse let out it’s breath. Then, when things were good and tight and there was no more cinching to do, he pulled hard on the belt and delivered a serious kick right in the horse’s ribs. The horse snorted and the belt slipped two or three inches through the rings and got tied off.

“They’ll always keep some room and if you don’t get it tight they can drop their load any time they choose,” was the man’s advice. Even so, I felt sorry for the horse.

The return from Alturas Lake followed the same steady climb we had come down from the summit, across the meadow of blue flowers, and on down the valleys of Mattingly Creek and then Middle Fork of the Boise River.

mattingly-creek

 

middle-fork

Even we kids knew going down is the dangerous part of climbing. That’s when heads hit rocks hard during a fall. And we remembered going up a very steep and very rocky section of the trail some five miles out of Atlanta. We kids got off the horses to pick our way down that several hundred feet.

It was right in the center of that steep and difficult part of the trail — right where it was the steepest and dustiest and most awkward — the pack on one of the horses simply slid to one side and landed in the powdery dust.

dropped-pack

The horse didn’t look one bit sorry about it, either. Indeed, he seemed quite pleased with himself!

I was too young to help unpacking the bedding and canvases and heavy pack boxes there on that steep slope. Nor do I remember if Mom and Dad carried all the goods to a more level place to pack them back on the horse, but it sure seems they could not have saddled and packed that animal in as steep a place as the horse was standing.

What I do know is that horse got a damn solid kick with Dad’s boot when the saddle was being cinched up. And the horse looked completely convinced it had been worth it.

Atlanta to Alturas Lake #8: New Boots

In all the planning Dad put into our first trek across the Sawtooth Mountains, one thing he made sure to do was think of footwear. We kids were outfitted with the popular Converse “tennis shoes” of the time, a modern cobbler’s approach to canvas uppers on rubber souls. Being heavier, Dad got himself a good pair of stout leather hiking boots.

Brand new stout leather hiking boots.

Half way through the first day of the walk from Atlanta to Alturas Lake there were blisters coming up on Dad’s heals. Some extra padding helped but the blisters were not to be abated.

By Alturas Lake Dad had blisters inside of the first blisters, including some on toes. I remember them being popped to make room for his foot to get back in the boots.

Well, folks, there are no cobblers or shoe stores at Alturas Lake, so the walk back to Atlanta was faced with the knowledge more skin would be rubbed raw in the future. And it was.

1954 new boots

Meanwhile we kids were prancing about in our thin canvas shoes with nary so much as a red splotch to show for it.

I’m not sure if those boots found the nearest trash can when we got back to Atlanta or not, but my dad was not one to toss out anything that had any life left in it. There is a photo from hiking in the Sawtooths the next year that has him wading barefoot in a creek while holding a pair of boots that look similar.

1955 Old boots

One thing I do know — he never again wore new footwear of any kind when taking off on a mountain trail. And I’m pretty sure he considered an extra pair of very comfortable shoes worth packing along just in case.

Alturas Lake #7: Choppy Water

The white caps are the strongest memory of my encounter with Alturas Lake.

Alturas Lake is two miles long and stretches along the valley of Alturas Lake Creek. There is a relentless flow of cool air settling from the Sawtooth’s high peeks down to the floor of Stanley Basin, the site of Alturas Lake. With two miles for the wind to blow along the surface of the lake, the water was always riled up. Choppy swells covered the lake like meringue on a lemon pie and I was introduced to the term, “white caps.”

What better place to rent a tiny boat and take the family on a putt-about?

life vests

It was all perfectly safe, we were assured by the man behind the counter of the Alturas Lake Lodge. The boats were all steel, which would sink like the Titanic. But at both the front and back of the boats were compartments sealed shut with strong welds. The trapped air in the compartments would float the boat should the choppy waters cause it to capsize.

front end

At the time I did not know of the Titanic and its unsinkable compartments. Nor do I remember the man behind the counter making the comparison.

It was a lovely time on the choppy lake, being beaten on the butt by the metal seats and sprayed in the face with the wind-blown icy water of glacial melt. We frolicked on the beach at the far end of the lake for an afternoon and then headed on the two-mile journey to the lodge.

beach

Checking out my Dad’s slides, I did seem to have an encounter with the lake on the return trip. We were not at a pier or sandy beach, so perhaps my sisters, mother and I were being let off near the campground while Dad returned the boat. I vaguely remember a mass of leaves, logs and twigs luring me off the boat. With no experience on lake water, it looked perfectly solid but was, instead, floating in some two feet of water.

My dad caught my nine-year-old reaction to being shocked at the unexpected results.

crying

Atlanta to Alturas Lake #6: Alturas Lake

The gentle, blue-blooming saddle between the trails of Mattingly Creek and Alturas Lake Creek is a ten mile hike from Atlanta and seven miles from Alturas Lake.

The ten miles from Atlanta were filled with all variety of gentle and steep trail, narrow and fairly open areas, and views up rocky peaks. All I remember of the seven mile trail down Alturas Lake Creek was a gentle slope on reliable sand and gravel. All down a wide mountain valley.1 wide valley

I also remember when the trail became a dirt road with two ruts rather than the one option of the path. I was convinced the lake could not be far away and remember my disappointment when the lake never seemed to appear.

2 road

But appear it did, although still a long way in the distance. And, once we did finally get to it’s shores, I found out there was still the walk along the north side of lake to get to the campground. It was a long, long walk.

3 lake in distance

4 north side

The campground was filled with trucks and cars and all sorts of tents and gear. We made quite the entrance, walking through with three horses, three kids, and Mom and Dad. We had barely settled on a spot and started pulling the packs off the horses when other campers were joining us and asking questions.

5 in element

My Dad was in his element!

Now that I think of it, these sixty-two years later, I’m not sure but what the attention Dad knew awaited when he came into the campground, fully loaded as a horse-packing family, was one of the reasons he’d drempt the entire trip up.

Just sayin’.