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Sawtooths to Selkirks

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Connecting the wildlands of Idaho, Montana and British Columbia

There’s kind of a tricky spot right there. You gotta scale that rock face.”

    “Kind of tricky” seemed an understatement to me, so I studied that rock face for a moment. The peak on which I precariously perched was narrower than a Sandpoint sidewalk with broken rocks heaving in all directions. A shallow notch split the peak in two and in order to ascend the further rocky knob where Josh danced in the wind would require me to hang out over a thousand-foot cliff above this gnarly terrain eager to break me into a thousand pieces should I slip and fall.

    I sat down, studied the steeply sloping rock face for another moment, then took off my pack and dug around for some dried fruit and my water bottle.

Josh disappeared beyond the jumbled boulders atop what we had been calling Burnim’s Spire for the past couple of days. He was a little embarrassed at having a mountain as awesome as this one labeled with his own name, but it seemed only fitting to me. His trek from the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho to the Canadian Selkirks was about to culminate. One mountain along the way named in honor of this fearless hiker seemed appropriate.

    He skipped back into view, a six-foot, four-inch beanpole standing stark against a blue sky with nothing but open, dizzying space on all sides.

“Is that as far as you’re coming?”



    That’s what I liked about hiking with Josh Burnim. After four and a half months and 900 miles on the trail, he could sprint circles around me, even with his 60-pound pack on (I’m sure it was actually heavier than that, `cause having hefted it once, I think I threw out every vertebra of my lower lumbar region). But he never pushed me beyond what I was capable of and comfortable with. Though virtually total strangers when we started, it turned out we hiked well together.

    I first met Josh at Sandpoint’s City Beach one hot afternoon in August, nearly four months into his hike. Enjoying a short rest break, he had called and wondered if I’d like to meet him and find out more about his journey through the wildest country remaining in the Lower 48. Intrigued, I sat in the cool grass and listened to his soft-spoken passion for wilderness, wildlife and the magnificence of the wild country cloaking range after range of mountains from Stanley to Sandpoint. And when he was done, though he had related only the smallest fraction of his adventures, he invited me to hike with him if I could. It took all of three seconds for me to decide I most certainly could, and though my first attempt to join him was foiled by a freak accident (remember when I told you in the last issue of TRJ I was run over by a bed?!), an even better opportunity came along in mid-September.

    Porcupine Pass is a broad, heavily forested divide between Porcupine Creek and Cultus Creek. It’s about 12 miles to the top from Highway 6 just north of Salmo, British Columbia. That’s where I hooked up with Josh on a Saturday that must’ve blown in from the South Pacific. Not a cloud marred the emerald sky and a welcome breeze cooled the sweat on my forehead.

    By 2:00 in the afternoon, Josh and I were striding along the road - a necessary part of the route in order to get to wilder country. We located camp a few hours later amidst the rhododendron choking the banks of North Cultus Creek and chose to sleep out under the stars that night.

    As we hiked that first day, and throughout the week, we spoke of Josh’s purpose in spending an entire summer traipsing on trails, bushwhacking through wicked brush and summiting some of the gnarliest peaks in the Rockies on a route that his brochure says extends for 800 miles, but which his daily journals revealed was more like 900. He was on a journey of discovery from the Sawtooths to the Selkirks to see first hand what obstacles lay in the paths of wide ranging animals seeking to move along the spine of the continent. Josh was intent on helping raise awareness of the need for wildland corridors connecting the remaining fragments of Rocky Mountain wilderness in order to benefit the wildlife dependent on large, undeveloped tracts of land.

    He began the trek at Redfish Lake outside Stanley, Idaho in early May. During week after week of hiking, he crossed the Salmon River, the Selway, the Lochsa, and scaled mountains in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot. At Lookout Pass, Josh traversed into Montana and found his way to the small town of Trout Creek. From there, he crossed the mightiest of rivers in Montana - Clark's Fork of the Columbia - then entered the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, forded Bull River and embarked on what he called the most difficult leg of the entire trip - the Scotchman Peaks.

    This part of the journey brought him back into Idaho, where he skirted the shores of MacArthur Lake and scrambled over the granitic highlands of Roman Nose, Myrtle Peak and down the lush valley of Long Canyon.

    On the edge of the Salmo-Priest Wilderness where Washington, Idaho and British Columbia meet, Josh stepped uneventfully into Canada and trudged through a clearcut on his way to Stagleap Provincial Park and Highway 3. An official refusal to enter the country and several days later, I joined him at Porcupine Pass.

    When Josh and his companions at the time reported to Canadian customs subsequent to reaching Highway 3 at Kootenay Pass, there was some disgruntlement that they had entered Canada the way they did. Despite a letter requesting permission to do so, the authorities refused the hikers entry into the country, only to reverse themselves the next day and allow Josh to continue his pilgrimage.

    Thank goodness for me, because the grueling 30-plus miles for which I accompanied him were among the best miles of backpacking I’ve ever done.

Though we encountered roads and clearcuts two of the first three days out, once we negotiated the treacherous flank of Burnim’s Spire, we entered a land of rugged wilderness at the edge of West Arm Provincial Park. To the east lay Kootenay Lake, westward snaked the silvery Salmo River, and to the north glistened the narrow, fjord-like bay of Kootenay Lake called the West Arm.

Our greatest concern following the successful traverse of Burnim’s Spire was where to find water. We were high in the mountains and preparing to cross miles of open, barren rock and meadows. But one of those meadows yielded a tiny trickle and one small pool and we rejoiced at our good fortune.

    We were equally rewarded that evening when, dead tired and on our last legs, we stumbled upon a glade surrounded by yellowing alpine larch below a remnant snow bank tucked close in against a high cliff. Snowmelt surfaced among the grasses and sedges cushioning our campsite at the humble headwaters of Lasca Creek and we had ample water once again.

    Spectacular would be an inadequate word to describe the country we hiked through those seven days in September. High above the towns of Salmo, Nelson and Harrop we wandered in a magical land gripped tenderly in the colors of autumn. Signs of wildlife - bears, cougars, bobcat, lynx, wolverines, moose, elk and maybe even wolves - were to be found everywhere, offering us the encouragement that here in the remote landscape of the Canadian Selkirks, Nature still thrives and seeks only how to connect with wild spaces far to the south.

Josh Burnim has an idea of how that can happen. He did it; he connected the Sawtooths with the Selkirks, though not without encountering the obstacles man has placed in the animals’ way and not without sharing the same fear and trepidation man's intrusions into the wilderness instill.

    Nine hundred miles in 150 days will have ended for Josh at Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park by the time you read this. What’s left for him will be the telling of his adventures to whoever will listen; to whoever cares about the fate of wildlife scattered across the mountains from the Sawtooths to the Selkirks.

     The Heron Community Center will present a free slide program with Josh Burnim on Thursday, Nov 7 at 7 pm (mountain time). Stop by and learn what Josh discovered regarding the need for wildlife corridors to connect core wilderness areas.



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

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