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TR Sawtooths 2013—Smoky With a Little Ash On Top

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TR Sawtooths 2013—Smoky With a Little Ash On Top

Postby Eiprahs » Mon Jun 23, 2014 7:50 pm


Ever more wild fire determines our back packing destinations. Our 2011 trip had been marred by smoke. Our 2012 trip, was saved from smoky oblivion by the 150,000 acre Halstead Fire by prevailing westerly winds that gave us clear weather. So Inciweb, the government site that tracks all manner of disaster, is at the top of my trip planning bookmarks.

While the Rim Fire was devastating the central Sierra, other fires blazed across the West, including our destination venue, the Sawtooths. The most notable was the Beaver Creek Fire, burning west of Hailey and Sun Valley, which headlined national TV news when thousands of locals were evacuated and the remainder served official notice of imminent evacuation. The Elk and Pony Complex fires, which burned much bigger acreages near the historic gold mining town of Idaho City, were largely over looked by the national media—no rich and famous live there.

So we thought we had a handle on this smoke thing. The Beaver Creek Fire was far enough South not to concern us. It’s northward progress had stalled, and the satellite imagery, available thru Inciweb, showed the smoke plume staying well South (isn’t technology great?).

Our plans set, we paid little heed when the Little Queens Fire broke—a lightning strike “sleeper” just outside of Atlanta, ID. 16 miles SW of our destination, it seemed too far away and too inconsequential to matter. What we didn’t realize was the Little Queens Fire would be allocated resources only to protect structures and build fire line at Atlanta. For all intents and purposes the Little Queens Fire’s North, West, and East sides were “let burn”. And burn the fire did.

Day 1. Redfish Lake to ponds West of Cramer Lakes.

Only Chris and I made this trip. Chris is on board with “no stop” approach driving. We threw our gear in the rig, set the cruise control as high as we dared, and were off. At 5 hours we refueled and changed drivers, at 10 hours we were at the Redfish Lake Lodge Laundromat/Shower building, where we changed, ate, and made final preparations with the benefit of electrical lighting. An hour later we were aboard the Redfish Lake Hiker Ferry, the first sunrays sparkling on the water, the sky just ever so hazy.


At the hiker kiosk a Fire Closure “NOTICE” was tacked up with map of the closure area. Our original destination was now in the closed area, but our back up route, an off trail wandering thru three isolated cirques was still “legal”. I completed the trip permit, outlining our route more accurately than normal, just in case.

The bureaucratic stuff done, we were on-trail. Jeez my pack was heavy, but, like the drive, nothing to do but hump it up the trail. In less than two hours we were beyond Flat Rock Junction on the long, gradual climb to Cramer Lakes. Thanks to the topography, the next couple of miles were shaded, and we had better and better views West towards Upper Redfish Lakes and Reward Peak, places we visited last year.

Breaking into the oddly long, straight, and gentle final trail segment to the lakes, I turned on my Garmin Foretrex 401, a barebones GPS used by the military, and verified the first way point was loaded. We passed by a bald faced hornet’s nest hanging at head height at trail’s edge. Good thing the residents were still chilled, although a hazy sun was now upon us.

I checked the Fortrex frequently—its bearing arrow resolutely pointing ahead. Finally, at a washed out section of trail, I heard a very slight beep. The arrow pointed behind us; time to leave the trail.
I loaded the next way point, and we traversed a lightly wooded slope, biasing slightly downhill. “Beep”. We had walked directly to the second way point, and were now at a small creek. This GPS stuff is all right.

After a snack and a photoshoot of the large—for the Sawtooths gigantic--spruce trees, we headed up stream.

Spruce Tree

GPS or not, our path thru rock cliffs had been used by others.
“Beep”. Game trail confirmed as correct course.

Guardians of the Route

“Beep”. The ponds.

We set up camp, noticing that the sun was waning, a smoke smell intensifying. Something like a snow flake, only grey, fluttered down. Then another; then a flurry. I couldn’t catch the “flakes”, then noticed them collecting on the tent. Ashes—burned pine needles and fragments of leaves that showed every vein, every detail, but when touched they vanished. The smoke grew denser, till we could hardly see across the pond. Our eyes stung and I started coughing. What was going on? Let’s climb to the ridge top and see. So we climbed to the saddle west of camp, and the ridge SSW till, 1100 vertical feet higher, we gained the top. We could see the dim outline of a fire convection column four drainages over—yep, that’s the Little Queens River valley, but that smoke is rising far North of the fire location.

Assured that the fire was still a long ways away, we enjoyed a great dinner. The smoke plume shifted South, skies cleared.


Day 2. Exploring West and North of the Ponds.

Chris had passed thru this area three years ago and he wanted to show me where he saw moose tracks. The sky dawned clear, although a big smoke plume was to our South. We climbed over the saddle west of camp, and dropped along a number of shelves to the valley floor.


Valley Floor In Sight--Marshy Area

We saw no moose, but we did see these guys:


Instead of returning via the saddle, we climbed up a spur ridge to yesterday’s lookout. The Little Queens Fire was putting up some smoke, but nothing with strong convection and, thankfully, the fire had not crossed the divide into the next closer drainage. So we returned to camp for supper, after which we followed the odd little bench holding the ponds North till its end, from which we climbed to the ridge top.

From our vantage point we could see tomorrow’s route past the ponds, up thru the roche moutonnees (fr: “sheep backed rocks”), and onto the slabs left of the talus-filled pass, but right of the high point.

The Three Cramer Lakes.

Day 3. Ponds to Hidden Lake, Exploring the Back Side of the Temple.

Morning dawned clear and cool. We packed quickly, walked along the East side of the ponds, then moved thru the roche moutonnees. From yesterday’s vantage point we could not see the lakelet in the roches, but we walked right to it, and a rock-rimmed beauty it was. The terrain, instead of being all rock, as it appeared from yesterday’s lookout, hid small meadows like this one:


We soon reached the ridge top, and this was our view back to last night’s camp.

Elk Peak at left. Third bump to right of Elk is Reward Peak. Next major high point is Mt Underhill, then Packrat Peak. Monte Verita is seen thru and above Packrat Pass. Big Baron Spire a touch further right.

We followed the ridge south just below its crest, soon reaching the trail at Cramer Pass. Turning right we entered the South Fork Payette water shed. Dropping towards Hidden Lake, we encountered three groups of people. The first, two dudes, were tense and unfriendly. The second, three men and one woman, all college age, were very excited and talkative. “Did you know you are in a fire closure zone?” the woman asked. “No”, I answered, “When we entered the South Fork Payette was OK.” “They changed it”, she said. They had entered from Yellow Belly Lake and figured that since going North they would be OK. The third group, five people camped at Cramer Lakes, had popped over the pass as a day hike. We blithely continued South to Hidden Lake, where we snagged a camp site, even tho we were now under a pall of smoke and a smoke convection column was visible to the WSW.

Following lunch, we returned back up the trail to the last switchback, where we went off-trail into the cirque South of The Temple.

South Side of The Temple

Tarn at 9400 Feet

We passed the tarn on its East side, and contoured over to the treed ridgeline, hoping to see into the larger cirque below Sawtooth Peak. We were thwarted, as a small intervening cirque blocked our view.

We returned sticking close to but not exactly following our ascent route. This being very fractured country, it is very easy to get on the wrong side of a vertical walled gulley. The odd, foreboding light sapped the color out of everything, so this pond was an eye popping surprise:


We hit the trail feet from where we left it. Back at camp we treated ourselves to dinner and experienced a second ash flurry.

Day 4. 15 Lakes Basin

Today’s goal was to explore a basin West of Hidden Lake with, by the topo map, 15 ponds and lakes. Chris had visited this basin three years before. Since our 2009 trip, I had wanted to explore it, so today was my chance.

The ascent was straight forward--up the trail until we were under the belt of green extending to the pass, then straight upslope. The slope was steep and a good part of the way we climbed a dry stream bed, now more a staircase than a stream bed.

View Into 15 Lakes Basin

The basin was a disappointment so no photos. All of the tarns were shallow, save the lowest and largest, which was very deep and beautiful. Well, OK, we only visited about 8 of them, so maybe we missed the good ones.

Making our way back over the pass, we caught this view of the Temple and Sawtooth Peak.

Left Cirque Site of Yesterday’s Adventure

Hidden Lake was mossy and green so we searched for a better water source that afternoon. We hiked south past the lake’s outlet and down onto the broad slope of the main stem South Fork Payette. The creek livened up considerable, but remained unappetizing. Giving up our quest for non-green water, we chose a shallow pool with energetic flow to pump water.

Meanwhile, the sky became more and more cloudy and evening was somber without a light show. Then the showers came.

Day 5. Hidden Lake to Upper Cramer Lake.

We awoke to a much wetter world. Fire closure, hah!!

The showers continued and showed no sign of quitting, so we packed wet and headed to Cramer divide. At the divide we were treated to some unusual cloud features. Looking north thru the XC pass, we could see fog, which rose and fell like some bizarre tidal ocean, first filling the basin, then disappearing.

Fog Ocean Laps The Shore

Somber Teal Lake

A very strong wind was blowing across the summit crags of Mt. Cramer. Shreds of cloud tore between the towers, a scene we videotaped. Suddenly, the very clear air became opalescent and hazy. In seconds shreds of fog formed and the whole cirque became hard to see.

Mt Cramer With Insta Fog

Then, just as suddenly, the air cleared completely. Too bad we no longer had the camera rolling. We were witnessing creation.

Snack time over, we dropped over the pass where I “shot” the Arrowhead.

The Arrowhead

More showers fell and we arrived at a deserted Upper Cramer Lake during a particularly heavy one. Dang, do we hike out and call it a trip? We discussed our plans over lunch, sheltering behind a dense clump of trees.

At lunch time’s end we gambled on weather improvement, set up camp, and explored above the lake where we found:

Sawtooth Rendezvous—Uncle Jessie Meets R2D2

By dinner skies had largely cleared and we had some great views.

Ridge NW of Camp

Upper Cramer Lake—8 Photo Stitch

Upper Cramer Lake After Sunset—18 Photo Stitch

After sunset we were treated to a blazing star display. We retreated to the tent after getting cold—seemed like it would freeze hard.

Day 6. Upper Cramer Lake to Redfish Lake Lodge.

Wrong again. I was out of the tent at 5AM. The air felt warm, almost balmy. Not a star in the sky. Shortly drops started drumming on the tent. We should have packed up at 5! Aaarrrgh! We crawled out and by headlamp pulled our gear to the tree clump shelter for packing. By 6:45 we were on trail, moving fast to make sure we were at the dock for the 10 AM ferry. The rain followed us all the way to Flat Rock Junction.

From Flat Rock Junction Chris jogged down the trail—just in case the ferry brought someone out early—so he could let the ferry know to pick us up at 10.

I stopped at the hiker kiosk to read the fire closure notice. Yes, effective the day after we entered, the fire closure area was enlarged to include the South Fork Payette drainage.

I had scarcely slipped my pack off at the dock when the ferry came into view, loaded with day trippers. What lucky timing! Should have bought a lottery ticket right then! 9:30 AM and we were back at Redfish Lake Lodge where another boat load of people was queued to board. The smoke was gone and people were back.


That night I logged onto Inciweb to check out the Little Queens Fire. Yes, the fire had made major runs 10 miles North to the very headwaters of the Little Queens River drainage, bringing the northern fire front nearly West of and 8 miles from Hidden Lake. But things were good now, meaning that the evacuation order for Atlanta was lifted. Interestingly, two roads in the Atlanta area remained closed—heavy rain had triggered numerous mud and debris slides and, with a wet forecast, the USFS continued the road closure. A couple photos illustrated the muddy mess.

So we witnessed the transition from Summer to Fall, from Fire Season to Rainy Season, from uncertainty with risk to sanguine normality. Except for Cramer Pass to Hidden Lake and our last day, we saw no one. Our trip, while not what we intended to do, was a great adventure, albeit smoky with a little ash on top.

Map of Little Queens Fire: ... 444730.pdf


This is the fifth of five trip reports about our Sawtooth Wilderness adventures. You can view the other reports here:
2009 Trip, Part 1: viewtopic.php?f=8&t=10767
2009 Trip, Part 2: viewtopic.php?f=8&t=10787
2010 Trip: viewtopic.php?f=8&t=10978
2011 Trip: viewtopic.php?f=8&t=11018
2012 Trip: viewtopic.php?f=8&t=11060

Route Map—Day Trips and Return by Trail Not Shown ... ||line=off

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