Photo by Jim Mellen
Miraculous Summer: Seven Months In The Selkirks
- Dennis Nicholls
At the edge of Hughes Meadows in the Upper Priest valley, a muddy trail slithered into the brackish marsh among sedges growing from the saturated earth. The telltale sign of beaver coming and going from their watery home to chew on trees and fetch sticks for their houses was etched in the black ooze, next to the imprints of a moose that must have wandered by earlier that morning. The last remnants of frost dissolved into dewdrops on each blade of grass, though cold shadows still played in the dark woods nearby.
October reds, yellows and gold blended in a palette of autumn colors beneath a turquoise sky stretched from ridge to ridge like a virgin canvas awaiting the stroke of an artist’s brush. It was as though the morning held its breath, anticipating a miracle with the coming day; there wasn’t even a whisper of wind.
A ray of sun sliced through the lingering forest gloom and fell squarely on a patch of soft dirt at the meadow’s fringe. Clearly outlined in the black soil was the impression of a bear track; one that looked startlingly like that of a grizzly. With a jerk, I raised my head and studied the vast meadow. The wildness of the landscape sent a shiver up my spine, a jolt of excitement, a shudder of primordial fear. I cast a glance over my shoulder into the forest as the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and my heartbeat quickened.
On a mission to hike every trail in the Selkirk Mountains south of the Canadian border, I spent the spring, summer and fall of 2003 on some 1,300 miles of remote mountain paths, researching a new book about hiking the Selkirks. I had high hopes of seeing a grizzly bear with every trail I explored, but for five months my hopes went unfulfilled. The wonders of the Selkirks were plentiful enough in other ways, though. From the Selkirk Crest to the Little Spokane River, I discovered a land of magic and miracles, a land steeped in antiquity and bustling with civilization.
The adventure began in earnest the week of the summer solstice. I met Jim and Sandii Mellen at Fault Lake, and for four days we clambered among the granitic highlands of the Crest. From wind-blown Hunt Peak and the ice-bound waters of McCormick Lake to Gunsight Mountain and Chimney Rock, to the Twin Peaks and Upper Beehive Lake, my initiation to hiking in the Selkirks included exhaustion and exhilaration.
Reclining against a boulder at 7,100 feet, gazing across Pack River to Roman Nose and Apache Ridge, I smiled in spite of the fatigue cramping every muscle in my legs. The evening sun hovered at the edge of the earth. Lavender, like the flowers of lilacs in spring, colored the eastern sky. To the west, swirls of scarlet clouds blazed across a fiery horizon. A calm serenity embraced me, and I slumbered dreamless that night while Jim was nearly trampled by curious mule deer.
By midsummer I was striding through the heart of some of the most rugged terrain in the American Selkirks with two friends, Jack Ferrell and Kitty Meredith. An excursion to Big Fisher Lake took us over an alpine pass in full view of the highest summit in the Selkirk Mountains south of the Canadian border. An unnamed peak, it rises to 7,709 feet northeast of the lake. A day later we found ourselves swimming in the frigid basin holding Long Mountain Lake, then, at day’s end, unexpectedly sipping cold beer from bottles someone had stashed and forgotten in Parker Lake. The Red Hook labels were faded and peeling, indicating the three bottles of pale ale had been there a long while. But the icy brew tasted as fresh as a newly tapped keg, and we sang our good fortunes into the night.
A month later I struggled over blowdown and beat my way through tangles of white rhododendron and skunkbrush along a trail that, in a bygone era, climbed to a forest fire lookout on Goblin Knob. The lookout is gone now, but I pushed ahead, anxious for views of Priest Lake and the high Selkirks. Upon losing the trail, I bushwhacked the last half-mile on a broad ridge frequently visited by the rarest of creatures, or so I assumed, upon finding a caribou antler in the brush.
Hazy days choked with the smoke of summer’s forest fires blew into September. I stood on the summit of Abercrombie Mountain more than 6,000 feet above the Columbia plains. The Salmo-Priest Wilderness loomed ragged and tattered to the east, the Columbia River surged southwesterly toward the Kettle River Range, and straight south rolled forested hills and shadowed valleys into the dim distance. Smoke obscured every horizon, but there in the middle of it all, I perched in a patch of blue sky on the highest peak between the Columbia and Pend Oreille rivers, wrapped in the warmth of the afternoon sun.
On my way to this peak I drove through the Aladdin Valley for the first time. Rocky Creek splashes from a steep-walled basin surrounded by forested ridges. It merges with the South Fork of Deep Creek, a long stone’s throw south of a driveway with a small, metal sign humbly announcing the fields and buildings on either side of the road as the Aladdin Hereford Ranch.
About a mile and a half farther, I turned east on Meadow Creek Road and drove to the Hess Homestead and Big Meadow Lake. A replica of the typical homesteaders’ cabins built around the turn of the 20th century piqued my curiosity, and once at the lake, I hiked a trail back to it. Ruins of the original Hess cabin, long ago fallen in and overrun with feral lilacs, made a mound of black, rotting wood in front of the newer log structure. I stood quietly in the meadow and imagined what it must have been like in that spot more than a hundred years ago.
Voices whispered on the wind. Shouts of laughter from kids at play sounded over a bellowing cow. A rooster’s crow greeted a century-old sunrise. I could see in my mind’s eye the toil it took this family to carve a life out of the wilderness. I could see the anxiety on the old farmer’s face when the snow piled higher and the wind blew colder. He might have wished for a lot of things, but in the end, all the wishes in the world could not plow the ground or feed the children. Whenever they left, the Hess family left a legacy shared by thousands of others when this land was yet wild and untamed.
That afternoon I drove farther north, past a fork in the road and a couple of houses in a community called Spirit and on to Silver Creek. I hiked first to Sherlock Peak and found a campsite on a high, flat bench overlooking the Pend Oreille Valley. In front of the pole frame for a wall tent was a pile of wood, including a splintered cross. I picked up the pieces and read the inscription, “The Year of Our Lord 2000 I Mark Arbia buried my fingertip on this spot.” Poor Mark. Perhaps he cut it off while chopping wood or field dressing an elk.
From the crest of Sherlock Peak I gazed longingly at the higher slopes of Abercrombie and Hooknose mountains. Two days later that’s where I sat wishing for rain to quell the fires, hoping the sky would remain blue. Had I found a magic lamp tucked behind a rock or hidden in the beargrass on that glorious peak and was successful in summoning a genie, what really would I have wished for?
That the Aladdin Hereford Ranch would always be in the heart of that magical valley. That the Hesses found fertile farmland and lived happily ever after. That Mark Arbia’s finger doesn’t hurt anymore. That bears would always have a place to roam wild and free. And that it would rain for days on end, bringing relief to the tortured forests in the infernos sweeping the north.
As summer waned and the days grew shorter, I ventured into the Upper Priest River, eager to explore the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. Those 39,000 acres of primeval forests and alpine ridges are the most precious of jewels in the Selkirks’ crown of wild country. This year marks its 20th anniversary.
From Round Top to Snowy Top, from the Hughes Fork to the South Salmo River, I envisioned days of exquisite backpacking along the Washington-Idaho border.
And then there was the bear track.
I peered into the shadowy forest beyond the cabin at Hughes Meadows, listening intently for any sound at all that could be the ruckus of a charging grizzly. The morning was as still and silent as a monastery.
My Dodge Dakota pickup started effortlessly, and I slowly steered it back onto the narrow dirt road that had led me into this wilderness Shangri-la. Cedars as thick as the pillars on the Roman Colosseum crowded the rutted lane, their towering trunks obscuring the brilliant expanse of morning sky.
At the top of a rise I stopped the truck and stared, dumbfounded, down the road. A bear lumbered nonchalantly into a clump of alders in the ditch and drank from a small stream. I was certain it was a grizzly.
Twice it stood on its hind legs and looked towards me, then continued quenching its thirst. My dilemma was that the bear was just across the road from where I intended to leave my truck for the next several days, but as I pulled forward for a closer look, the big bruin sauntered off into the woods. That, I figured, would be the last I’d see of him.
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, I grabbed my gear, secured the truck, waded through the waist-deep waters of the Hughes Fork, dried my feet and slid them into my boots. Then striking off toward the great unknown of the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, I hummed John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High. But a mere 10 steps through the ferns later, and at about the place where John was “coming home to a place he’d never been before,” there, 40 feet in front of me, spanning the entire width of the trail, was that bear.
The hump was distinctive, as were the roundish, concave face and the small, round ears. Its face and shoulders were frosted white, conjuring up the term, “silvertip.” I spoke to the animal. “Hi, how are you? And how on earth did you manage to cross the road, cross the river and get on the trail in front of me?”
The bear’s answer was to stand there, unmoving. For me, the smart thing would have been to retreat, but I could not take my eyes off the magnificent creature blocking my path to the wilderness. How ironic that the very symbol of wilderness itself stood in between me and the call of the wild thumping heavily in my chest. The grizzly could do anything it wanted, including charge.
Then a miracle happened. The bear casually stepped off the trail into the luxuriant undergrowth embracing the ancient trunks of old-growth cedars. It was as though he was granting me permission to continue my trek. Slowly, deliberately, I walked past the grizzly, singing aloud the words to another John Denver tune, Sunshine on my Shoulders.
“If I had a tale that I could tell you, I’d tell a tale sure to make you smile … ”
Safely past the bear, a smile creased my face. I strode confidently into the autumn forest. October reds, yellows and gold blended in an explosion of colors beneath a turquoise sky. It was as though the morning had just come alive and all of nature rejoiced in the miracles of the new day, the Selkirk miracles that left me smiling, singing, breathless.
The Selkirks' newest hike
The Selkirks' newest hiking book
Trails of the Wild Selkirks; Summertime at Schweitzer, a Selkirks hot spot; and Three Great Hikes in the American Selkirks