Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Scotchman Peak and Other Hikes in the mountains of northern Idaho and western Montana

We have a cabin in the far reaches of northern Idaho. It sits about a 200 yards off Lake Pend Oreille (“Ponderay”), about 30 miles from the Montana line and some 60 miles from the Canadian border. It is  beautiful, rugged, and remote country and still has a feel of wildness to it somewhat unlike what we feel when we hike the mountains of the East. Black bears, grizzly bears, moose, mule deer, white tail deer, elk, wolves, wolverines, and cougars still roam the woods.  Bald eagles and other birds of prey soar across the sky.  The lake itself is one of the deepest in the States--more than 1,000 feet in places. Indeed, the US Navy in World War II had a rather large base on the southern end of the lake. The water is crystal clear and ice cold, and when the wind whips across the lake, white caps appear on the surface like so many ripples across a Kansas wheat field.   Wikipedia has an interesting overview of the lake: 

Sunset on Lake Pend Oreille from the beach near our cabin

Our Husky "Mei Ping" on Monarch Ridge Above Lake Pend Oreille

The lake is surrounded on all sides by mountains; the Coeur d'Alenes, Selkirks, Scotchmans, and Cabinets. Most of the high peaks top out around 6,000-7,500 feet, although a trio of peaks in the central Cabinets are close to 9,000 feet and are home to the remnants of the last glacier in the area. While not tall by the standards of the Rockies, the mountains are rugged, the views spectacular, and the many lakes picturesque.  An additional plus is that  many of the peaks and lakes are accessible in a day hike as long as your auto can handle the rough access roads to the trail heads.

Fault Lake in the Selkirk Mountains

 Wanless Lake in the Cabinets

Leigh Lake in the Cabinets

Basin below Ibex Peak, Cabinet Mountains

Chimney Rock in the Selkirks

Unfortunately, our cabin is almost 2500 miles from our home in Virginia, and we do not get out there as much as we would like. Winter trips are rare.  Winter and spring hikes are further limited by deep snows and heavy spring runoffs, so for the time being, you'll have to read about our past hikes in the fall and summer.  We'll start with one in the summer of last year to the summit of Scotchman Peak, the “jewel” of the Scotchman Wilderness and a local favorite. It is a rugged, rock strewn peak towering above the town of Clark Fork, ID and Lake Pend Oreille. At 7,000 feet in elevation, it does not sound like much, but the climb is steep (4000 feet in 4 miles) and the view from the top is spectacular, offering a panoramic view of several ranges.  It is well worth the thigh-burning climb.

 Lake Pend Oreille from the flank of Scotchman Peak

H and I tackled it on a crisp day in late summer of last year. There is no water on the trail, so we hauled our own and enough for the dog. It's a good thing because I probably lost a couple pounds of water in sweat on the way up. The first 1.5 miles were truly ugly as we made the climb up the flank of the mountain from Mosquito Creek. H at one time called for “mercy.” The rate of the ascent eased up a bit, but never provided much relief.   It was a hard hike the entire way up. I spent much of it looking at my feet, only looking up when we walked through the meadows and eventually broke through the tree line. The views at those moments certainly eased the pain coursing through my thighs.

 Clark Fork River Delta & Lake Pend Oreille from the Scotchman Trail
Breaking through the treeline, the trail turned rocky and the weather changed. From a sunny, warm day, we were greeted by a cloudy sky and a strong wind whipping across the rocks with few trees to break its force. Blowing through our sweat-dampened clothes produced an air conditioning—ie cold—effect; luckily, we packed extra clothes.  The views only got better and better as we crested the ridge and headed south towards the peak, with Lake Pend Oreille and the Selkirk Crest at our backs to the west, Scotchman Peak #2 to north, and the Cabinet Mountains to our east.

 Emerging from the treeline below Scotchman Peak

Looking into the Scotchman Wilderness

At the top we were greeted by mountain goats. Aggressive bunch they were, even though we had the dog with us; walked right up to within a few feet of us. I suppose they were used to seeing humans and those same humans probably give them lots of people food. In other words, we were their chuck wagon. We broke out lunch, but provided nothing to the goats, much to their disappointment. I would like to have enjoyed lunch and the fantastic view for a while, but the wind and cold were a bit much. I imagine the wind was probably blowing 30-40 MPH and the temperature a good 20 degrees lower than at the trail head.  Between the aggressive goats, the wind, and the cold, I did not want to stay too long. Meanwhile, H--who has no fear of heights--clambered over the rocks and headed for a detached peak about 50 meters further east along the ridge to take in more of the scenery.  We spent about 30 minutes at the top and snapped off a number of photographs.  Here are a few of them:

I love this photograph.  Does he not look like a true king of the mountain?

Our trip down was noteworthy for two reasons. First, the steep descent was what we like to call a “knee buster.” After a while, one begins to wonder if the ascent may have been less painful than the descent. Packs do not help; even a 25lb day pack.  This time, it was me calling for "mercy" on behalf of my knees.  Second, as we neared the bottom, it became quite clear to us that a bear had been on the trail between the time we passed through on the way up and the time we returned.  Fresh tracks, bear "poop," and overturned logs were evident.  Never saw the bear itself, but our antennas were certainly up for a possible bear sighting.  It would not have been our first such encounter.  All in all, a great hike 'tho we were both glad to see the vehicle at the trail head.  I know for certain my knees were pleased.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a wonderful narrative! Makes me want to come back and have you guys torture me up a mountain again...almost. Beautiful, beautiful photos, like from an outdoor magazine. M