The “dog days” of summer may be over, but some are still melting in the heat. Here’s a story for you. Fishery biologist Dan Magneson, the assistant hatchery manager at Quilcene National Fish Hatchery in Washington,recalls a cooler time.
Wintertime in southern Idaho.
The dashboard lights are brighter than the sky as I pull off the road and switch off the engine.
Unfolding and studying my map under the dome light, I look over an area I’ve been planning to hike and explore since the previous Thanksgiving.
What it amounts to appears to be a high, windswept ridge, located more or less south-southeast of Twin Falls and lying inside the boundaries of the Sawtooth National Forest.
I’d explored the steep slopes beneath the nearly vertical rock face on Thanksgiving Day itself, curious whether or not the mountain mahogany trees that dotted the slopes and far-denser aspen groves sheltered any mule deer.
They sure did. Through my binoculars, each buck I spotted had an impressive rack, and each also sported an impressive harem of does. And I found them just about everywhere, although they were far, far beyond the capabilities of my camera.
And so after a full day of slipping and slogging along those slopes, I returned to my truck bone-tired, but content.
The plateau on top, however, remained unconquered despite two attempts to reach it. It was just too steep and too slippery, too risky to try when all alone. I decided I would get a map and return if there seemed a less dangerous route.
As it turned out, there was. But it would require a hike of a few miles down the canyon adjacent to the plateau and then a long climb up to the plateau itself. But at least the slope, although still very steep, looked passable.
I don insulated coveralls, pull on my boots and climb out of my pickup truck. Fresh snow – very light and powdery, like down – covers the whole world, lending a muffled quality to what little sound I hear. Although the hills still cover the dawn, I can see swirls of salmon and gray on the eastern horizon.
I am lucky in that there is a popular trail through the bottom of this canyon. Along its fairly level length, I’ll be able to make good time. The lichen-freckled, columnar rock formations that guard the edge of the plateau jut upward above the snowy slope like molars along a sun-bleached jawbone. They continue stretching toward the horizon until they disappear from view around a distant bend.
I trudge onward as the sunrise strengthens and begins bathing the landscape in a pinkish wash; I take this as a warning, because the sun will soon be rising over the hills ahead and right into my eyes. When it finally does, I keep my squint fixed just a few yards ahead, attempting to diminish the annoying glare.
At last I arrive at the point I’ll begin my climb to the plateau. Not yet snow-blind, I gratefully begin my ascent.
Before long, I’m leaning forward in an attempt to keep my balance as I wallow up through the snow, grabbing sagebrush and pulling myself along on the increasingly steep slope. The climb is lengthened by the fact I’m continually stopping for the combined purposes of catching my breath and cooling off. During these short breaks I distract myself from the discomfort by admiring the scenery. A pair of dipping, croaking ravens flap their way along the ridge; a friend remarked that ravens remind him of going hunting and I have to agree. Small hummocks, with their relatively sparse snow cover to begin with (thanks to the winds) have melted off and exposed the underlying cheatgrass and Oregon grape. A breeze stirs the loose snow from a pine bough, momentarily filling the air with a shower of sparkles.