Backpacking to Caribou Basin Part 2

You can read Part 1 of “Backpacking to Caribou Basin” here.

I wake early and go down to the lake to fish, but get nothing. Not much activity on the surface. Temperamental.

In camp, Chris has water hot for coffee. The deer has spread our stuff around, so we pick it up while the coffee cools. She has nibbled on Chris’ straw hat, and drug my ball cap off the branch where I hung it. Guess she didn’t want to eat our hats. She has also bitten a hole in the plastic bag that holds my instant coffee, so I put it in another bag. Tonight I will hang it with my food.

Chris says, “So, you want to try to make it to the top of the scramble?”

“Heck, yeah.”

We try to get an early start. Oatmeal and pack a little lunch. By 9 we are wandering up thru the granite and the snow and the water courses and little thickets of trees. This is a big basin! We have spotted out our route from camp and pretty much follow it. Mostly on granite.

I love granite! It uplifts my spirit to be around huge masses of it. I do not know why. Something magical; mystic wacko spirituality, rooted in the earth. It is great to scramble over; it gives a wonderful grip to boot soles. Doesn’t slip. Even wet it holds, if a scum has not formed over it. It forms sloping ledges that intersect each other, with nice broken-up transitions. It seldom gives you dead ends. Other rocks will crumble and break off, but a granite handhold is firm. If it is cracked, you can see it.

Yes, we walk/climb mostly on granite, but there are places where snow must be crossed. Carefully. Stay away from edges and hollow spots. This snow is still pretty solid. We do not fall thru.

Toward the top, there is dirt. And trees. Mountain hemlocks give good hand-holds, too. There are not many scary spots, just enough to give us a boost. A little shot of adrenaline now and then concentrates the mind wonderfully. We move carefully, and then suddenly there is blue sky on both sides. We are on the crest of the ridge, about 20 feet from the low point of the gap, where the scramble comes up from the other side.

The guy we talked to was right; the view is tremendous, almost frightening. An eagle’s eye view without wings.

To the north, looking back the way we came, we see Big Caribou Lake and the huge granite basin that contains it. Beyond are the Salmon River and Coffee Creek drainages, and Scott Mountain above them.

To the south are Granite Peak, Middle Peak and Red Mountain, and Bully Shoop beyond them. And there, away off to the south, are the Yolla Bollas!

The real killer view, tho, is to the west. To the right. And down. Seemingly almost straight down, like a raven would see them, are Emerald and Sapphire Lakes, gleaming deep blue in their own granite bowls. Blue of the lakes and blue of the sky, green of the meadow below, and shining grey of the granite.

Straight across the chasm of the Stuart’s Fork looms mighty Sawtooth Peak, visible for miles from many directions. Visible from my own backyard in Lewiston. Almost as tall as Thompson Peak, and craggier.

Grandest of all, climbing straight up in a sheer 2000 foot wall of rock, rising to a sharp peak above us is, we think, Thompson Peak. Sit down so you don’t get dizzy looking at it. But something is wrong. Something does not quite make sense. We check the map. That is Caesar Peak, not Thompson. Then, suddenly, it all falls into place in our minds. Why the glacier on the back side faces east, not north. Why we cannot see Wedding Cake, a sister peak. Where Sawtooth Ridge is- we are sitting on it! Ahhhhhh. Nothing like sitting in a high place to get the lay of the land.

Next, we start looking for the trail- scramble, rather- up from the other side, Packer’s Meadow, on the Stuart’s Fork. We are just off the ridge, on what we is the way down. Scary-looking, very steep, but there might be a way, if that chute cuts back under the nob we are sitting on. Is that the trail way down there? It could be. Then I spot something white, moving. A hiker. I point it out to Chris, and we are watching a speck working its way up. Then another behind it. Two hikers. Its sort of fascinating, watching them work their way up, trying to guess which opening in the manzanita is the route. They are a helluva long way down there. They move steadily, but the one in the rear is definitely not moving as easily as the one in front. We pose absurd conjectures as to who they are, what they are doing, what they are saying to each other, what their chances might be of making it all the way. It is one thing to look at squiggles on a map. Quite another when those squiggles turn into steep rocky switchbacks in the hot sun.

We break out our lunches and play the stupid food giveaway game. We are at the point in the trip when we each realize we have over-packed on the food, again. As usual. So each of us is trying to get the other to eat his food. I tempt Chris with my dried trout, which he cannot resist. He gives me pastrami and cheese on a wrap with mustard, which is delicious. I pull out the dehydrated papaya. Who can resist that?

It would be wonderfully trite and facile to characterize this exchange as two friends sharing food with one another in a comradely manner during a peak experience. It would also be disengenuous. The truth is, we are slyly trying to trick each other into lightening the load we will be carrying out. No one is fooled. We both know this.

Looking down toward the trail below, we see that one of the hikers has stopped, apparently waiting for the other. Waiting a long time. Not moving. Uh, oh. They are still are very long way down there, barely more than specks, and they have not come to the hard part, yet. They ain’t gonna make it. We give up on them and head back down to camp.

Backtracking ourselves is pretty easy. We have left footprints and slide marks, and we remember the tricky places, but down-climbing is harder, so in places we have to find another way. Its not that tough. There are multiple routes. Take your time and be sure. Once we get onto the granite shield, we just follow our eyes. Its open, and the ways are obvious. When we get to the snow fields, we just go ahead and walk down them, avoiding edges and holes. Its easy going.

Finally, I tell Chris to go ahead. I have to make a little side trip. We are into the “flat” areas, broken boulder fields and small copses of woods, past the geriatric mountaineering part. Later, wandering back thru the broken ridges and gullies, I hear a shout, so I give a hoot back. Then I realize it was not Chris’ voice. We have had the place to ourselves for almost a day and a half, and have gotten used to it.

In a bit, I come on a young man who saks me about the route to the pass, so I point out the way we did it. His English is excellent, but he is German. Maybe 30 and very fit. Says he is with a group. I look down by the lake and count a dozen people. Wow. As I go, I see a bunch more, in different spots, heading different directions. There is a group headed around the lake and a group headed up to the scramble. Small groups seated by the lake on points and in coves. In all, I count at least 20 people, and they are all in their 20’s and 30’s. All young, beautiful, handsome, fit, energetic. Holy smokes! Its freakin’ Fort Lauderdale at spring break, transposed to granite!

In camp, Chris and I sit in the shade and chill out, pleased with ourselves. We did that climb prtetty easily. Its almost shocking to realize you are in better shape than you thought! Unusual, but encouraging. You don’t know what you can do until you try.

Chris has blown out a flip-flop. He always packs them, for use around camp. I seldom do; I just go barefoot, usually. This time, tho, I brought a pair, anticipating using them for crossing the river. Honestly, I have never really liked flip-flops, so I give them to him. They were a little small for me, anyway. Now he will have to carry them out. My diabolical plan to reduce the weight of my pack is working.

In an hour or so, the exodus begins. The main trail runs over the snow, about fifty feet away from us, so we greet the groups as they pass. Seems like they are all staying down at Snowslide Lake. Must be some party down there.

Ever since we set up camp here, we have been watching an odd little bird, bobbing eratically around, comically energetic. It looks like a sandpiper, but it has an orange bill. I decide to take a photo, so I turn on my phone, but instead of my home screen, I get a very dim printed message. Even with my glasses on, in the best light I can find, all I can read is “Warning! something something something something.” What the heck? So I start pushing buttons, and it changes to “Downloading. Do Not Turn Off Target.” I hate to admit it, but I do not always obey signs. I try to turn it off. I push buttons. All I want to do is take a photo, but this screen will not respond to anything I do. Won’t turn off, won’t change screens, won’t do nuthin’. There is no cell service here, so how can it be downloading? Its probably going to run itself out of batteries (it does, eventually.) All this new-fangled technology is just wonderful. When it works.

Chris offers to take over as official expedition photographer. He gives me his phone to shoot the bird, which I do, but the photos are not clear. Later, online, I identify the bird as a spotted sandpiper. In breeding season, they have orange bills. You learn something every day, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

The moon comes up, nearing full, and is now on the other side of Jupiter. Its pretty bright, but does not keep me awake. I am out like an artificial light in a power failure, but later on I awaken, with the moon about to set. Clouds have moved in. Huge, low, fluffy clouds with big breaks in them. They scud overhead, backlit by the moon. They reflect off the lake, competing with the snowbanks in the mirror of the surface, reflections on reflections, a glorious light show of the midnight high places.You cannot capture this on camera, nor describe it adequately.

Stars peek thru the patches and I see Vega, obvious by its brightness and its position high in the sky. The moon goes down and the clouds clear off and the constellations become discernable. There is Cygnus, almost overhead. Cygnus, the swan.

I am not really a waterfowl hunter, but once I was out with a friend in his duckboat, after ducks and geese. A large bird came in low over the trees and I started to raise my shotgun. He said, “No, don’t shoot,” but I had already stopped. It was a swan, huge and white, shining in the morning sun. That is the image I see when I look up. When you really see a constellation, it is yours forever.

As the moon sinks farther below the horizon, the moonglow fades, the sky darkens, and the stars become more visible. Then I realize that Cygnus is right in the Milky Way. Even better! Cygnus is my new favorite constellation. (I still love you, Orion, but you simply are not visible right now.)

James Montgomery

James Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school, got a law degree, and worked as a nonprofit administrator, before retiring. His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing. He is now serving as president of the board of directors of Empire Recovery Center.

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