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The Bluepenciler

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A sudden clattering of rocks high on the cliffs above and the echo of hooves on their crumbling sedimentary layers gave away the presence of the mountain goats. Impossibly, they climbed straight up a face of stone so steep that not even trees could maintain a foothold. But with unassuming ease they leapt from ledge to ledge until they were out of sight and a safe distance from the man who had disrupted the solitude of their alpine sanctuary.

I didn’t see the goats but Mike did. He had gone to fetch water for breakfast while Sandy and I muddled around the campsite we had spied the day before  from clear across the canyon. 

We knew the saddle between the West Fork of Blue Creek and the North Fork of Ross Creek was where we wanted to spend the night, but it was no easy task getting there. We had done well hiking the rugged terrain above Little Spar Lake, but we weren’t mountain goats and our packs were heavy. The broken rock, the narrow ridges, the tangled forest, the sharply rising mountainsides had all contributed to our fatigue, yet by the end of the day three of the five that had started out on this adventure made it to 48 Hour Pass.

Don’t worry - the other two didn’t fall off a cliff or get eaten by a mountain lion. We had all climbed from the sedgy meadow which had harbored our first night’s camp to the top of a glaciated divide, then four of us carried on all the way to the summit of Scotchman #2, the sibling of Clark Fork’s more famous mountaintop, Scotchman Peak. A mere twenty feet less in height, #2 is absolutely no less spectacular for shear grandeur.

Connected by the fractured black and gray rock of Black Top Mountain, these three peaks form a spectacle of unparalleled majesty. For several days in early August they belonged just to us and one other party of off-trail hikers.

When the four of us returned to where we had left our packs and had eaten lunch, Renee and David decided to return to the splendid meadow in which we had become coated in frost the night before. From there they dropped back to the shores of Little Spar Lake and camped by its placid, reflective surface, reflecting in their own ways upon the serenity of the wilderness of the Scotchman Peaks.

Sandy, Mike and I continued along the headwall encircling Little Spar Lake to a high point where we turned south toward the pass. Before us lay the jumbled mass of The Compton Crags, so named by Kevin Davis, an avid backcountry explorer, for the family who homesteaded at the mouth of Blue Creek decades ago. The Comptons are still there and Sandy, being the oldest of the three Compton boys, was along on this hike, interested in exploring his origins.

He explained to me, while we traipsed among the stony highlands of the Scotchmans, that Native American clans in southern Idaho developed their identities by the watersheds in which they lived. They became known by the totality of their ancestors and their families as well as by the streams and mountains and forests of their home territories. In like fashion, Sandy wanted to discover the nature of his home watershed, Blue Creek, and find its origin among the peaks he has long admired and long explored. But it’s a big world in the primitive backcountry of the West Cabinets, and for the first time he was about to meet the birthplace of the West Fork of Blue Creek. I was privileged to be there with him.

At about 5,000 feet the west fork makes a fishhook turn - if you’re going upstream - away from the slabs of mudstone, sandstone and other sedimentary rock protruding from the flanks of Scotchman #2. The ascent out of the canyon toward the bedrock thrust nearly a mile above the valley floor is a precipitous one. 

At the top of the ascent an amphitheater carved deep into the mountainside cradles the remains of what could well be an ancient glacier. It is here that water trickles from beneath a glacial moraine and down the flat surface of a luminescent rock not a hundred feet from the snow and ice feeding its untamed flow. I fell to my knees, leaned forward and drank tentatively from the icy brook. The waters laughed in the chilled thin air as it made its very first contact with the earth and sky. For so long it had been bound up in ice, frozen until the sun could free it to cascade from one rocky cairn to another in a rambunctious run to the sea.

The virility of youth surged through me - vivacious Life as new as the snowmelt, as fresh as the flowers blooming at the water’s edge. Then for one fleeting moment I tasted the age of the rock, the antiquity of the mountains, and I suddenly realized that youth and age are inseparable where all things begin.

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Author info

Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

Tagged as:

mountain goats, hiking, Cabinet Mountains, Scotchmans, Compton Crags, Blue Creek

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