Hiking to Buckhorn Mountain Lake

The summer solstice is the day that provides the most light to walk-by every year. Rising at dawn east of easterly and falling west of westerly, the sun shines directly overhead at noon and falls, seemingly rolled by gentle gravity, into brief hours of darkness around 11pm to 5 am. The summer solstice was never the best day to travel in the high country of Idaho because it also tends to be the day with the most snow melting–rivers and creeks are running high, weather is unsettled and warmth is just catching up with the long cold darkness of winter. It is usually a fiery day that bring a smile to every face, but sunlight is slow to warm the earth, but like scalding water poured on an ice block, the snow goes quickly once the melt begins. The warmth speeds its effect exponentially as summer progresses. For that reason I planned to do my solstice hike a month later than the solstice, in July, having learned that lesson in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.

I guess I shouldn’t call it a solstice hike. But I’d learned from previous solstice trips that July might be the better time to hike in these mountains. Actually, I knew that this plan would be a good one as it responded to my former girlfriends’ concerns about making poor decisions on my solstice hikes. It was the proper and reasonable response to many difficulties resulting from those fine, scary, fun, and mostly unexplainable hikes which usually ended up with a shrug of my shoulders when asked why I went. “Not really sure why, Sue” never seemed an adequate answer. However, I learned that there is never an adequate answer to the why’s in life. I could’ve made plans to walk in snow-free lands or flatter places but, nah, why? After all, I wasn’t planning to climb a Douglas fir tree in hurricane winds to test my mettle, like some latter day John Muir. I could simply move to Boise, I suppose.

I started out at Boulder Meadows Reservoir, hiked up to Boulder Lake, and on between Buckhorn Summit and Buckhorn Mountain, over the lowest pass, at 8,159 feet elevation.  I saw no snow in this dry year and worked up and down across a steep, handsome, rugged scree slope over towards Buckhorn Mountain Lake several miles distant. For a short hike it sure seemed long and after hiking up 500 vertical feet I looked over a view point and recognized that I had to descend 500 feet and another 500 down to get into a valley between where I now stood and what should be Buckhorn Mountain Lake. I didn’t see the lake but I knew it was beyond yon ridge looking about twice removed from hideously far. I’m not saying that 1,000 or 1,500 vertical feet is all that much to climb, but I’ll admit to a vague form of intense disappointment and will deny that age has one single thing to do about it. But my, oh, my, it seemed like a long, hard trek that stood before me.  I sat down and groaned, ate from a bag of miserably wet raisons and peanuts, moaned about having to give up more elevation than I had gained and, worst of all, I would have to gain that same elevation a second time to be at the freakin’ lake.

Reluctantly, eventually, slowly, I took the plunge, limping slightly as a reminder to enjoy my self-pity. Oddly, the down portion became the hardest part of the trip, well until I had to go back up, because it pounded my toes but I was in bliss when I crossed a meadow full of wildflowers all, it seemed, in full glorious bloom. Water squished up with every step. I took a cool drink from the meandering creek and headed uphill again to get closer to this distant, ethereal, beckoning, and entirely theoretical mystical lake above me. Was it a pretty trip? Sure it was! Pretty painful.

I soldiered on. There was hardly a sign that people had ever visited Buckhorn Mountain Lake when I lumbered up to it but the fishing was superb and the scenery inspired my mind. It’s a small lake, maybe 10 acres but very deep, and every fish I caught was roughly 16 inches, rainbows that weighed at least a fat pound. They were most likely planted by an airplane three years ago as fingerlings. That was the human impact but a clear benefit for me right now.

I walked around the lake, took a dip in it, had a short sleep beside it, skipped stones in it, and had to leave it for home within the hour. Now I’ve got a better plan to return to this lovely, nearly invisible and unvisited lake next year. Forget the steepness of the last mile or two (just chock it up to a demented memory), camp beside the lake, and get to know it’s beauty. The 7-hour hike was worth it but it was only half-over at 4:30 pm and I have a much better plan for the next year. But don’t even think to ask.

The long summer solstice fleeted. That is always the way that nice things seem to work: one must leave a cherished place somewhat unknown to recognize that rarity increased its value enormously.  Realistically, I might never get here again, so I wanted to know something, no, I wanted to know everything about this land that I’ve walked upon, this place that I’ve seen and the water that offered me fish. This air smells bitter and sweet with lodgepole pine pollen, a smell that fills your head with sneezes. I idled here a bit, cleaned the redolent fish, felt a warm wind that scribed the lake water below me, lingered and ate handfuls M&Ms and a few fresh huckleberries. This basin expressed friendliness but shadows of the peaks grew and the last breeze chilled my neck. Still, it was an effort to pick up my pack and walk away from Buckhorn Mountain Lake.

An osprey landed in a small whitebark pine snag beside Buckhorn Mountain Lake. She called and called and called in that wimpy, complaining voice of hers before lifting off and leaving the lake basin. She seemed to be scolding me for finding and catching fish in this lake. As if it were her own damned home! I held up my three big rainbows to her and yelled to her “Don’t you wish?” as she flew away to another basin far, far, far away. I stuffed the fish into my daypack and headed down the outlet creek from Buckhorn Mountain Lake to Buckhorn Creek and up the creek just as the sun set. The unnamed tall, rocky peaks rose in cirques on either side of Buckhorn peak at the headwaters of three drainages. That confused me three years ago: there were three drainages, not two, along with the trail being under snow. I wasn’t thinking then and now a trail ran through the pass beside Rapid Peak. The mountains held a mystic glow on their backs, side-by-side like brothers and sisters crystalized in this nameless range of spectacular mountains. This place is home for elk and wolves, salmon and bull trout, wolverines and bears. And one pissy, pointy-winged, complaiing osprey. It should probably be called the Buckhorn Range, right? I don’t know.

I saw twenty kinds of wildflowers, from shooting star and columbine to larkspur and blue gentian, on this trek from fairly low to higher elevation areas and back, from forests to alpine heather and scree. I saw wildlife from hawks to black bears and forests from big old Ponderosa pines to lodgepole pines to the higher elevation whitebark pines. Some of the forest is burned and some is not. It shows a healthy mosaic pattern.

There is plenty of water everywhere.  These solstice hikes have become for me a symbol of brilliant days of summertime in the mountains of Idaho, the power of being alone in wild places with wild life, and of the will of nature to heal what otherwise we are killing. Sometimes it was clear that nature was a killer too, if her warnings were not heeded, but the summer months were verdant and vital, young and full of joy and these feelings soothed me.

Buckhorn Creek is the dominant drainage in this vast unprotected wilderness; it is the heart and soul of the land, the light and dark, the hot and cold of daytime, the source of water, and the flow of its seasonal consciousness. Buckhorn may be a word that some crackpot from Idaho first used to describe this place. You may argue about its name with fellow hikers but that will change nothing. It is a term that speaks of the respect that I have for this land and everything it supports because I know where Buckhorn Creek is. Call it what you will: it is a wilderness of rock, animals, and vegetables.  The mountains don’t much care.

I move onward to Boulder Lake, a long, clear hike in twilight, and leave this wilderness world to the osprey, fish, flowers, and huckleberries. On the trail from Boulder Lake to Boulder Meadows Reservoir I walk and stumble in darkness between lodgepole and whitebark pines with a summer solstice moon to lead my way. As always, I wander through darkness to find my home under these perfect mountains.                           .

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