Foreboding Selway Crags desolate, beautiful

Dan Rydholm

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“You can do it, Jared!”

I’m starting to wear out that phrase.

My 11-year-old son, usually such a great hiker, has slowed to a stumble already. Maybe it’s the smoke from a hidden forest fire, hovering in the air like smog.

I glance back. Jared’s leaning against a tree; every joint in his body looks loosened.

How can he be so exhausted?

I wonder.

It’s only been half a mile!

This is Jared’s first adventure with us on our yearly backpacking trip with friends, and we’re tackling a new location.

The Selway Crags in central Idaho, selected by my husband when he spotted them from the air on a business trip, stand like hidden statues on a massive estate — forgotten, but all the more regal for their obscurity.

Besides, to my husband Chris, obscurity only heightens the adventure.

And me? I smile as I slow my pace to match Jared’s. I’m just along for the ride.

I love the mountains, of course — I was raised camping as much as our time and budget allowed.

But these days I feel more like a pansy than a hardy wilderness flower — fond of mild temperatures, thriving when conditions are ideal.

Has mothering finally made me go soft?

Just ahead, Chris points out the first of many summits we’ll encounter this weekend. We’ve crested the top of the first hill, and an exposed ridge snakes away to our left. We’ll follow that ridge until we drop down into the South Three Links Lake area in about eight miles.

Over the next three days, we’ll hike through all three South lakes, then loop back to the trailhead. To me, that’s a short hike, but I still feel doubtful. It’s been almost a year since my last backpacking trip, and I see thunderclouds on the horizon. Do I still have what it takes?

“You can do it!” I say again.

I wonder who needs to hear it the most.

Several hours later, while slapping off the millionth mosquito as it tries to drill through my shirt, all “ideal conditions” have vanished. The trail disappeared somewhere in the shamble of rocks behind us — which isn’t a concern since I’m not the navigator — and we’ve been hiking in the Lower Three Links Lake basin for half an hour. The basin seems more like a bog than a valley, and the lake is a surly, dark slick that probably serves as a breeding ground for 90 percent of the region’s mosquitoes.

“Is this where we’re camping?” I venture at last. “The scenery’s nice ...”

My voice trails off. Scenery doesn’t stave off the skeeters.

Chris takes his time before answering. He’s got an extra pack slung over one shoulder, and he’s wearing his searching-for-shelter squint.

“We should keep going,” he says. “The middle lake has to be better.”

But what if it’s not? The question emerges as a few rumbles of discontent from the rest of our party, but we soldier on, even Jared — who manfully endures a dozen more falls before we arrive at our camp.

The first raindrops have started to fall when we emerge onto what looks like a rarely-used game trail.

But the bugs have thinned out, and the air’s sharp and cool.

Middle South Three Links Lake broods in the twilight, holding the promise of fishing and photos tomorrow. It’s smaller, set close to the base of a towering rock face of granite. The sound of a waterfall spilling down the broken cliffs fills our ears as we drift to sleep, and I sigh.

This pansy survived the first day.

The next day arrives amid thunderclaps, which set the tone for the rest of our stay. All seven of us — eight including our friends’ shivering dog, Walker — huddle beneath a miniscule camp hammock, opened up and pulled taut between several trees. Walker, who lost his pack of food somewhere between the first two lakes, wolfs down a total of 12 fresh-caught fish instead.

“Thirty seconds, mom!” Jared gloats after his turn to fish. “That’s the longest it took me to hook one!”

And he’s right. The fish are thin, cold, and hungry. I doubt they’ve seen a fishhook all season.

This place seems trackless, as if no trail had ever been built — dotted lines on our map notwithstanding.

When the weather breaks, some of the more intrepid of our crew take a hike. They’re thinking of Fenn Mountain nearby, but opt instead for a nameless beast a bit closer.

Despite weathering another storm at the summit, they return to regale us with tales of a rainbow, an eagle, and a view of the Upper Three Links Lakes that looks like fairytale world. I have a feeling we’ll be back before long.

We spend the next several days in and out of our tents, evading the rain, and trading stories around the campfire. This place has grown on me, but to be honest, I loved it right from the start. I love anywhere the people aren’t thick — and that’s here. We see only two other folks on our whole trip, and they’ve been hired by the forest service to count hikers.

“Can we take your picture?” they ask, a bit shy. “The folks will like proof that this route still gets used.”

I am enchanted. Nobody comes here ... not ever? Selway Crags suddenly tops my list as a vacation destination, soggy weather and all.

As we hike out the next day, I reflect on what must be the most relaxing trip of my life. I remember the rain-enforced naps in my tent, the goodness of a hot meal in the rain, and the joy of Jared’s jokes by the fire.

True, the conditions were not my definition of ideal. But maybe “ideal” is a moving target, with acts of God (such as thunderstorms) being just that — intended for a purpose I cannot foresee.

I loiter on the last several miles, shoving ripe huckleberries into my mouth like a bear before winter. I’m suddenly unwilling to leave, and feeling more renewed than I have in weeks.

Again, I inhale a deep breath of this air. The rain has cleared off the smoke.

I hadn’t noticed it earlier, but the view from the trailhead stretches forever in the late afternoon sun.

Sarah Coleman Kelnhofer writes from College Place, where she and her husband strive to tame their half-acre of wilderness while their children try to reclaim it. Last year, she even grew pansies – in a secret location – hidden from the local wildlife.

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