Category Archives: Kidhood

Sawtooth Kidhood 1955: Snowyside Mountain #1

My dad had climbed 9,363 foot Greylock Mountain in Atlanta when he was a kid.

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I have a photo of him sitting atop a radio tower on Shafer Butte, a mile above Boise, when he was in his twenties.

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He had something about getting up and looking around.

In the 1950s he found out that from Snowyside Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains you can see right through the clear waters to the bottom of fifty-two lakes. Yea, there were some “difficult spots” on the climb to the top. But from what he heard the peak was easily reach by following the ridge that rises from the Alice-Toxaway Loop Trail.

At 10,651 feet, Snowyside is the fifth highest peak in the Sawtooths. In 1955, when I was ten, our family of five broke camp at Toxaway Lake, loaded up the pack horses, and set out for the day’s adventure of checking out those fifty-two lakes.

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Mom and my little sister made it to where the faint trail up Snowyside’s ridge gave way to rocks, bigger rocks and then boulders. Mom never was comfortable with heights and my sister’s legs were too short to get over the increasingly large stones so they decided to hunker down out of the wind.

My big sister Vicky, dad, Flip the dog and I pushed on.

I remember approaching the top of several peaks only to have another, higher peak appear just ahead. Those jagged high points before Snowyside Peak were a source of great disappointment and consternation.

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Then we came to a vertical wall that stopped us. Dad considered a way around but the slopes were too steep and covered with dangerous scree. Yet looking through fifty-two lakes was calling and soon Dad was pushing from the bottom and Vicky and I managed to scramble past the obstacle. Dad was tall enough and reached the scramble spot on his own.

Unfortunately Flip was a dog who never did follow instructions. And, to be fair, his lack of opposable thumbs for scrambling made his lack of obedience mote, so poor Flip was left behind. We were sure he’d be in the same spot waiting our descent.

The wall turned out to be part of the final assent to the summit of Snowyside Mountain. Soon our eyes were watching the slope in front of us give way to every increasing open sky without another peak taunting “not yet you haven’t reached the top.”

And right there at the top of Snowyside Mountain was a slobbering, smiling, tail-wagging Flip imploring us to come look-see!

Sawtooth Kidhood 1957: Switchbacks #2

During the summer of 1957 our family found itself at the bottom of a long, steep slope of endless loose shale. It just kept getting more steep the further up it went.

I recognized the zig-zag pattern cut across and up the dangerous scree-covered slope from previous trails called “switchbacks.” But before I had only seen three or five or so zig-zags. These we did not bother to count. Fifty? Eighty? Five-hundred-eighty million gazillion????????

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We were mounted on the five horses my parents had rented from a dude ranch in Stanley Basin. I was twelve and my sisters were fourteen and ten.

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Mom and Dad explained the principles of shale and scree and gravity to us. They pointed out the horses had been over this dangerous scree many times. They pointed out the trail would get narrower and the horses would have only enough room for their hooves.

They pointed out if we spooked a horse it could step off the trail, slide the scree under its hooves, and we and the horses would be in an avalanche of rocks and horse and our own bodies.

I clearly remember how high up I was on that horse. How tiny the trail looked from up there. And how steep that slope of loose rocks was!

And I remember how the further up the switchbacks I rode the distance to the bottom of the slope grew to an endless potential of the horse and I rolling with tumbling rocks forever.

I don’t know if that dude ranch had to replace the crushed saddle horn I was hanging onto that day. I do remember Mom’s gentle laughter around the campfire that night as she observed, “I’ve never seen three kids sit so straight and so still for so long in my life!”

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.

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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!

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Grandjean to Alpine #1: Sawtooth Lodge

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.