We ride through snow and rain after trying to explore some single track in the Great Burn. Casey decides to leave for home but the rest of us continue to lightning, more snow and bullets going off in our fire.
Wary of overnight precipitation after the previous day’s rain, I had set up a quick carport. Experience taught the value of a little shelter when trying to pack in the rain. Of course, the better prepared you are for something, the less likely it is to happen. So it wasn’t surprising when we awoke to a dry morning—not even dew on the ground.
It was dry but not so warm—about 42°F. We made hot breakfasts on a long abandoned folding table, its original color long lost, and sat around the fire while Jeremy and Jesse recounted their late night escapades.
Apparently a man-eating deer had repeatedly approached the fire like a ghost out of darkness until Jeremy felt he had no choice but to launch a spear he’d carved. He actually hit the deer, the story goes, but the spear bounced harmlessly (supernaturally?) off its hide. Hoof prints around our tents suggested the deer contemplated revenge as we slept.
The two of them had also walked down the road for what reason I didn’t catch. They said they came across our late night “Forest Service contractor” asleep in his car. Weirdo. We didn’t see him again.
By that second morning we were all curious to see what Joel’s surprise meal would be (like Jesse’s MREs last year¹). “Hold still a second,” I asked him so I could focus in on the bit of bacon in the bite of potatoes he’d prepared.
“It’s good,” he assured with a smile. Whatever the taste, the packages seemed all to contain a little merriment.
We quickly gained a few thousand feet of elevation from our campsite along Cayuse Creek travelling north toward the Great Burn area. I expected the day to warm up but if anything it was getting colder. I activated the heated grips while the others endured.
From this mountain I could observe high rugged mountains in every direction as far as I could see ... began to snow about three hours before day and continued all day ... I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life. Indeed I was at one time fearful my feet would freeze in the thin moccasins which I wore. After a short delay in the middle of the day, I took one man and proceeded on as fast as I could about six miles to a small branch passing to the right, halted and built fires for the party against their arrival which was at dusk, very cold and much fatigued.¹
The day would demonstrate that little of these mountains has changed since they were traversed by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their party 205 years ago.
A rough jeep trail splits from Road 581 to climb the final steep mile to the summit of Blacklead Mountain (7,326 feet)¹ at the southern entrance of the Great Burn. Navigating the rocks was a welcome distraction from the cold.
“The Great Burn is a geological wonderland at the northern end of the Idaho Batholith. Glaciation is evident with many U-shaped valleys and cirque basins ... Some of the higher ridges in the southern portion are defined by granite pinnacles called ‘dinosaur rocks’ because they resemble the backs of these prehistoric creatures.
“This primeval landscape burned heavily in the Great Fire of 1910¹ leaving charred snags, grassy slopes, and expanses of sub-alpine tundra-like meadows. High cirques, impressive stands of mountain hemlock, and dozens of clear lakes also adorn the high country.”²
We parked at a clearing to look out across untamed peaks under low, dark skies—perhaps a taste of Lewis and Clark’s experience. I felt small and vulnerable looking at the infinite desolation stretched before us.
The cold air penetrated jackets and gloves us as we stepped off our bikes. Heated grips and fat fairing had kept me warm but the others were clenching their fists as they ambled stiffly around. I suggested a little fire to warm up but generated little interest. Better to keep moving.
In spite of the cold, I was eager to see the Great Burn country I’d read of. A double-track trail open only to motorcycles headed in the right direction but ended in a small saddle after just a few hundred yards. Vehicles were prohibited from the obvious trail onward but after a moment looking around we noticed an unmarked single-track trail continuing up the ridge.
The path was so narrow I several times expected my panniers to strike trail-side rocks but managed somehow to squeeze through. When Jeremy and I saw the trail enter thick trees, we decided to hang back and wait for a verdict from our younger brothers. Threading that needle would require some reward.
Casey followed ambitiously behind Jesse and Joel but stopped short of entering the woods when one of his panniers struck a rock, tearing loose the zip-ties that held bracket to frame since one of his bolts rattled loose the day before. Jeremy and I offered sage advice while Casey cobbled it together a second time with my remaining supply of zip-ties.
Joel and Jesse returned without major discoveries. With the sky looking ready to unleash a torrent, it seemed further exploration of the Great Burn would have to wait.
“I think I’m gonna go home, guys,” Casey announced.
The rest of us reacted similarly: “Okay. Good luck.”
Casey left in the middle of last year’s ride¹ too. He avoided dirt naps this time but was concerned about his panniers. We weren’t going to twist his arm. “Before you go, can you get a picture of us,” I asked.
We congregated back at the intersection with the main road where Casey would go his separate way. Frozen pellets—not quite snow, not quite hail—began to fall and accumulate as we sat there on our motorcycles. Far from discouraging, it was kind of exhilarating. We could only laugh and be on our way.
Precipitation relented but roiled clouds continued dark threats as we followed the road along Toboggan Ridge toward Cayuse Landing Field, a little airstrip along a lower section of Cayuse Creek.
Low bushes in fiery autumn dress framed our expansive view of endless mountains, dark under grey skies, and swirled in the mists of low clouds. It was easy to understand why these mountains were the hardest part of Lewis and Clark’s journey from near St. Louis.
“The explorers took eleven agonizing days (September 11–22, 1805) to traverse the trail—the most arduous stretch in their entire journey to the Pacific. Battling rain, sleet, and deep snow, as well as hunger and dangerous mountain terrain, often hacking their way through dense underbrush and around fallen timber, gasping for breath in the rarefied mountain air, and eating some of their horses for sustenance, the half-frozen and thoroughly exhausted men trudged wearily onward. For some time, it appeared they might be stranded in the mountains or forced to turn back.”¹
Appetites urged a break as we descended from the mountains to a wide road along the enlarged Cayuse Creek. Jeremy and Jesse put a line in the water while we ate. The wide but shallow creek held little promise of fish so after eating, we wasted no time getting back on the road by the airstrip, back up into mountains cloaked in clouds.
Our pace was cautious on the hard-pack road dark and slippery with a persistent sprinkle of rain. The forest was quiet and green. A spray of water was the penalty for veering too close to leafy branches bowing into our path under wet weight.
We wound upward and then followed switchbacks back down to Moose Creek Road. Jesse immediately recognized where we were, having made several fishing trips up the North Fork of the Clearwater River, to which the world famous Kelly Creek¹ is a primary tributary.
Sun and rain were dueling for dominance as we hopscotched along the road, following Jesse’s lead to fishing holes. Slow and deep, the water was green with the reflection of verdant moss and encroaching forest. Entire schools of fish could be seen, silhouettes swaying in the shadows. Abundant boulders were home to lichens and tiny flowers, and a perch from which to fish or photograph.
Joel and I were content to watch, to let our thoughts slow to the creek’s languid pace, as Jeremy and Jesse caught a dozen fish in as many minutes.
When sprinkles became steady rainfall we packed up and accelerated down the road in search of clearer skies. We unwrapped snacks and unzipped our jackets to dry a little when finally, after quite a few miles, road and sunshine temporarily coincided.
The inevitable subject of Joel’s meals came up again as we stood together at river’s edge. “She scowled,” he said of Jill, when she saw he’d thrown in some extra granola bars out of concern she wouldn’t pack enough. “I ate granola bars the first day and I’ve been behind ever since,” he lamented. He really had it rough.
We hadn’t gotten much into the Great Burn so I wanted to actually reach our next and final high destination, Flat Mountain. It was hard to tell which way the weather would go. Probably intermittent rain and sun. If we got wet, just wait a few minutes for the sun to return and dry us out.
It began sprinkling almost as soon as we turned up Cold Springs Creek toward the summit. The road became more primitive as we climbed, from gravel to dirt, then ruts and rocks. Flowers and berries, purple, orange and yellow, were welcoming garlands. It was a strangely threatening beauty, drawing us onward even as dark sky and canted trail whispered doom.
My brothers were cold—perhaps as cold as they’d yet been—when we reached the top of Flat Mountain. Somewhere below was Ring Lake and Pete Ott Lake but we had no view from the cloister of large evergreens we’d stopped within. I think the others could not have cared less about the view at that point. They immediately began gathering wood to build a fire. Expletives may have been muttered.
“I’m gonna go see what’s up that trail,” I announced, referring to an ATV trail heading off from the road there. I was still on my motorcycle, still warm. I wanted the view. The path was smooth dirt along an undulating forest floor carpeted green with small shrubs and grasses. It rose and fell steeply and veered sharply between giant trees.
From “this is pretty nice” I began thinking, “this is truly great.” Navigating the dirt roller-coaster required some attention but it wasn’t strenuous. It was perfect. I wanted to go and go but decided I should turn back to invite my brothers along.
Visibility suddenly dropped and the sky became thick with snow. Crazy! The trail grew quickly slippery. We’d have to wait for this to clear.
The snow—or snow pellets, to be more exact—was falling heavily when I parked next to the other motorcycles. I pulled my tarp from its straps on the motorcycle and walked to where my brothers stood to set up a shelter next to the roaring fire. “This would be a great campsite,” we observed, if not for the weather.
We realized this was something unique when lightning cracked the sky above us as close as I’ve ever experienced it. The rare phenomenon is called thundersnow.¹ When it happens, the snow muffles the sound so that if you do experience it, you must be very close. The snow had a second effect, reflecting the light like a prism. The sudden, deafening brilliance appeared blue and red. It was truly awesome.
The lightning subsided but the snow persisted. Our enthusiasm waned. We thought we’d wait it out but it didn’t seem to be stopping. If it didn’t stop then we’d have to descend the rough trail under that inch or two of snow.
It didn’t stop. Jeremy did a little test run around camp then Joel and Jesse took the lead to leave a track in the snow for the heavier bikes to follow down the mountain.
A thousand feet lower, it was raining. Dips and ruts were filled with wide puddles. We continued, perhaps cold and uncomfortable, but nonetheless glad for such an elemental, shared experience. I wouldn’t trade it. My only regret is being unable to follow that ATV trail through the forest on the ridge. Another time.
Mountaintop camping was apparently out for the last night of our trip. Jesse took the lead to find us a site back along the North Fork of the Clearwater that was familiar to him. We were back in RV country which meant sites were elaborately occupied or undesirable.
The road led us through time from afternoon to dusk. Nearly out of daylight, we had little choice but to camp at the next place we came to.
We were unhappy to compromise on our final campsite and a bit snippy—I should say brotherly—with each other as we set up. More rain seemed likely so I set up the tarp a fourth time while Joel and Jesse worked on a fire. In no time we were huddled around the crackling campfire exchanging drinks and silly barbs. It was happy times again.
Then a bullet discharged in Jesse’s face. He was leaned into the fire more than the rest but we all recoiled, momentarily deaf and stunned. After a few seconds we realized there’d been a live round in the fire pit. Nothing was hurt but our hearing. We had unkind words for whoever had left it there.
We weren’t sure what to do. Were there more? If so, we reasoned they weren’t likely to hurt us. The lighter casing would fly, not the lead. And the casing probably couldn’t escape the logs we’d piled on. That’s what we told ourselves. It took a little more whiskey before we were convinced.
The night wore on. I had a bag of pepperoni in my luggage left over from the last trip. We decided they would be good roasted so we carved a stick. After the grease dripped out there wasn’t much left.
Another bullet exploded. Again, Jesse was the one leaned in close. This time I thought he might be hurt. He yelped and darted behind a tree. The rest of us jumped up and took several steps back.
It was quite annoying. We had more unkind words for whoever left bullets in the fire pit. What to do? It was cold, dark and damp. We didn’t want to go without a fire. But none of us were willing to sit around that one.
A single option came to mind. I grabbed my little folding shovel and began a new fire pit adjacent to the existing one just as fast as I could dig. Dirt was flying. Then Jeremy and I quickly pushed the rocks from the old to the new pit and carefully picked out a few coals to build up a new fire. And finally I took the loose dirt and buried the old pit. Safe at last.
We weren’t sure which way we would go the next day. Would we have rain or sun? Would Jesse be able to dry his gloves that way or would they perish in the bullet-free fire? And what would Joel have for meals?