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Dennis Nicholls Guides us Into the Selkirks

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Put together about 4,000 square miles of territory, seven months of time, 336 pages and a man with legs and lungs Sandy Compton once described as similar to the mythical 'Straight Up Joe,' a guy with a "size four hat and no knowledge of switchbacks," said to have created all local hiking trails. What do you get from that mixture? Dennis Nicholls' long-awaited second guide to hiking in the local area, "Trails of the Wild Selkirks."

Published by Sandpoint's Keokee Books, Wild Selkirks is a companion to Dennis' first guide, "Trails of the Wild Cabinets," and bests its predecessor with double the described trails and more than double the amount of pages. Wild Selkirks will introduce you to this fabulous mountain range that stretches from the Spokane River to the Canadian border, and which encompasses the land found between the Columbia River and the Purcell Trench from Canada to Coeur d'Alene. Within the American Selkirks lie the lower-48's only herd of woodland caribou; the Salmo-Priest Wilderness; ski resorts like Schweitzer Mountain and Mount Spokane; towns like Metaline Falls, Priest Lake and Bonners Ferry; plus grizzly and black bear, elk, gray wolves, cougar and lynx.

"I discovered a land of magic and miracles, a land steeped in antiquity and bustling with civilization," Dennis wrote in the Summer 2004 issue of Sandpoint Magazine.

"I hadn't hiked in the Selkirks very much (before researching the book)," Dennis explained, "and I was amazed at the breadth of it! Like most people, I always assumed the Selkirks was that ridge of mountains from Schweitzer to Bonners Ferry, but it's much more than that. Now, one of my favorite places in the American Selkirks is the Upper Priest River Valley, an old-growth temperate rain forest which is relatively rare in the intermountain West."

From mid-May of 2003 to his last hike on December 5, Dennis explored the area, coming home to write about what he'd seen on the different trails.

"Probably the longest is Shedroof Divide #512 up in the Salmo Priest Wilderness," he said. "You can access it from Metaline Falls or from Priest Lake and for 22 miles it's the longest continuous, single-track hiking in the Selkirks. It's the heart of the wilderness," he enthused. "It's a high elevation trail and probably 90 percent of it is over 6,000 feet. I was hiking it during hunting season, and I saw this pretty little mule deer buck at the trail head hanging out by what I assumed to be some hunters' trucks. Up the trail, I ran into two hunters who said they hadn't seen a thing. About a half an hour later, I got up to this beautiful spring that's right in the middle of the trail and I heard something coming through the brush. I kid you not, this fabulous mule deer buck came walking by me within 30 feet!"

In seven months of hiking, Dennis was sure he'd run into "dozens" of grizzly but he encountered only one—near Hughes Meadow in the Salmo-Priest, and he spotted it first while still in his truck. "Twice it stood on its hind legs and looked toward me, then continued quenching its thirst," he wrote. "My dilemma was that the bear was just across the road from where I intended to leave my truck." The bear ambled off, however, and "That, I figured, would be the last I'd see of him."

About 30 minutes later, humming John Denver's Rocky Mountain High, the bear was back, "spanning the entire width of the trail.

"The hump was distinctive, as were the roundish, concave face and the small, round ears… I spoke to the animal. "Hi, how are you? And how on earth did you manage to cross the road, cross the river and get on the trail in front of me?"

Dennis doesn't record what the bruin said in response, but he does go on to tell of close to 170 hikes that will lead you into this majestic mountain range, on approximately 1,300 miles of trail. The book features Dennis' "sweat index," a measure of trail difficulty, plus information on handicapped accessibility of trails, a rating of their usage, what kind of parking is available at the trailheads, plus, when applicable, information on the flora, fauna, special habitat or wildlife sightings he encountered along the way.

For this man built in the mold of "Straight Up Joe," trail difficulty is hard to describe. "The most difficult is probably Hughes Fork," he said, paging through the appendix of trails in the book. "That wasn't really bad, though, it's just a long trail. I gave Noisy Creek Trail a five on the sweat index (you'll sweat 'buckets') but really, it was just a stiff climb all the way to the top of Hall Mountain." Finally, he settles on Parker Ridge as the most difficult trail in the Selkirks.

"Parker Ridge from the Kootenai River side," he explained. "That's probably the greatest elevation gain. You start at 2,120 ft. and top out at 7,670, so you've got to climb 5,500 vertical feet in nine miles." That's not quite as tough as Scotchman in the Cabinets—"that one's 1,000 feet per mile and this one's only about 600 feet per mile. But it's almost twice as long as Scotchman," he said.

The book is illustrated with photos Dennis took along the way, along with a few from his friend Jim Mellen, a guy Dennis said he "kept running into out hiking in the mountains. We ran into each other so much it defied the law of averages." Mellen and his wife, Sandii, joined Dennis for a few of his Selkirk hikes, as did Dennis' brother Archie, on vacation from his home in Virginia.

Dennis says the Selkirks exhibit a lot of differences from the gentler Cabinets, subject of his first book. And one of those differences was the impact of civilization. "I kept seeing all these old cabins and finding these things in what seemed like the most unlikely places," he said. "I read somewhere that at one time, something like 96 percent of the Selkirk peaks  in the Washington portion of the mountains had lookouts. Many of these trails start out in old roadbeds, and you go for miles before you get into truly pristine backcountry. It seemed like, at one time, roads went into every high basin there was."

The biggest surprise he found, however, was the Limestone Cavern in Crawford State Park north of Metaline Falls, right near the Canadian border. "The total cave is over 1,000 feet, though you can only take a guided tour through 494 feet of it." The tours are free of charge, but can only be taken in the summer. Call 509-446-4065 for information on accessing the cavern.

"Hopefully Wild Selkirks will appeal because it's comprehensive," Dennis said. "And still it doesn't deal with every single trail. There were a few trails—a very few—that I didn't get a chance to hike."

The ones he did, the ones he shares with us in the pages of this book, fulfill the promise that Dennis finds inherent in all wilderness. "There is something missing in our everyday lives…" he wrote, "in how we relate to one another. Going for a hike with others, being outside, is the best way to get to know them, and yourself."

Trails of the Wild Selkirks lets us get to know the Selkirk Mountains, and Dennis Nicholls, well indeed. As his friend Jonathan Johnson, professor of creative writing at EWU, writes in the forward of the book, "...as I sit at my desk and read Trails of the Wild Selkirks, both (Dennis') precise directions and his mountain-loving heart take me back up there with him again. I can think of no one better to take you there, whether it be in person or in the pages of his book."

The local "launch" for Trails of the Wild Selkirks is scheduled for Thursday, June 3 at the Power House Bar and Grill, located in downtown Sandpoint. The evening begins at 5 pm and will feature a Powerpoint presentation on the Selkirks and Dennis' summer of hiking. The book is $16.50, and can be purchased online at the Sandpoint General Store, www.sandpointonline.com, or check with stores in your local area to buy a copy.

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

hiking, Keokee books, Priest Lake, Selkirk Mountains, books, Dennis Nicholls, Into the Selkirks, hiking guide, Shedroof Divide Trail #512, Selmo Priest Wilderness, Metaline Falls, Noisy Creek Trail, Parker Ridge, Limestone Cavern, Crawford State Park

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