Our van whined in the December twilight as it struggled to carry eight riders and a month’s worth of supplies on the road that wound its way up Galena Summit. It was a moment full of anticipation: I was anxious to see the Sawtooth Valley hidden on the other side. My father called it “the beating heart of Idaho,” and the long climb to it was finally going to come to an end. I had heard endless stories of the land’s unmatched beauty and striking features and a mix of pictures and my imagination had created a sublime image of our destination. As we rose over the top, I got my first short glimpse.
I didn’t expect to be met by the landscape of gray we found in front of us. We faced a pine-studded expanse of snow without any other distinguishable features. A low layer of clouds covered the mountains that were supposed to be on either side. I didn’t see any rivers or streams cutting through the land. Rather than being impressed by the valley, I was struck more by winter’s power to hide it.
We began our descent into the valley while the remaining light faded. Plows had pushed up mountains of snow on either side of the road and they rose uncomfortably high over our van. The rare gap between piles gave snapshots of a progressively darkening valley floor. We fought to keep catching glimpses of something, anything that could show us the real Sawtooth Valley. By the time that we coasted away from Galena we were driving into a world of black with little to take from it.
There were some features that became more obvious at the bottom. Rivers and creeks were signaled by the arrival of the bridges that spanned them and the slight depression that they made in the snow as they wound through the flats. Fence posts poked their heads through the drifts that had blown up around them. Old snowmobile tracks were left scribbled on short slopes. As we traveled through, there was evidence of an energy to the valley that winter had frozen still.
It was noticeably colder. While sitting in the van, we were comfortably wearing all of our snow gear, and the windows that our eyes had been glued to quickly fogged over. We did our best to keep the glass clear, and we did for a time—but the cloudy edges of the windows gradually began to crystallize and spread. Soon our hands became too cold and numb to continually rub off the ice that was forming. The last thing that I saw before I gave up battling the ice and shoved my frozen hands into my armpits was the silhouette of a cabin close to the highway. A single light shining over the driveway did more to emphasize the surrounding black than to shine through it. I had never seen a place be so hungrily dark. I sat back to watch the white creep closer and closer to the center of the window, turning them into portholes, then pinholes, then nothing. Only the windshield was spared thanks to the help of the defroster and the efforts of the ice scraper in the hands of the passenger seat rider.
We drove on in our new cocoon, those of us not sitting in the front effectively cut off from the rest of the world. Seeing nothing outside had me conjuring up fantastic images of cartoonish peaks looming over the van, massive beasts loping alongside us, and endless wastelands of ice surrounding us. It all disappeared when we turned into the driveway of our lodge, stopped, and opened the van’s door. Hopping out brought us into the same empty, hidden world. We didn’t take much time to scan the bit of landscape visible around our new home. It was late, and the biting cold drove us to quickly unload our gear, light the stove, have a quick dinner, and dive under flannel sheets and covers.
We came to the valley to learn about it and connect with it—seven students, two professors, their child, and his stuffed sheep. We didn’t seem to make much progress in making a connection by our first morning. Daylight had us rise to a world of white. A massive wall of fog had built up while we slept. Our lodge sat near the edge of the Salmon River which, it turns out, was still running because of the hot springs that fed into it. Clouds covered the skies and obscured the horizon where our professors claimed the Sawtooths, covered in the same snow that blanketed every inch of the valley, lay hidden. Our goal for the next month was to learn about the local history, geology, ecology, geography—all of it. While learning about the valley in the classroom, we also planned to become intimately familiar with the land by backcountry skiing on its slopes. We would feel the land underneath our feet; we would go out into the cold and let it fill our lungs and sink into our boots.
Sometimes lessons and practice would work in tandem. Our first real introduction to the Sawtooth Valley came later that first day. After breakfast and class at the lodge’s table, we strapped on our snow gear and stepped outside to be trained in avalanche safety. Part of connecting with the Sawtooth Valley came with recognizing the dangers implicit to its identity. With the right slopes, enough snow, and Sawtooth weather came the chance for avalanches. We learned how to recognize the warning signs. We learned that when we took a moment to slow down and pay attention to the land around us it spoke to us. The snow spoke to us when we dug a pit into it, pulled out a section, gave it a pat, and watched the weak layers of snowpack collapse in our hands, saying “Avalanche here!” It spoke to us with an echoing whumph when the weak layers collapsed on slopes too shallow to slide on. It hissed at us as our skis carved their way through the powder.
We quickly came to terms with the idea that the valley in winter is not a place that one can travel through as they please. There were days when all three highways out of the valley were closed to traffic because of avalanches. If we didn’t pay attention to the signs while on the slopes, we could face the consequences of ignored snow. Racing across the snow without skis, post-holing, to make it the last few yards to the buried beacon carried to the bottom of a slope showed the snow’s lack of concern for your urgency. It helped us understand the struggle of survival that deer and elk faced each winter with their narrow legs. It helped us appreciate the millennia of selection that allowed the snowshoe hare tracks we often saw to be so shallow in the powder.
As we finished learning to speak the language of the land, we made our way back to the lodge. The fog that had settled in the morning had burned off by midday. We were finally able to lay our eyes on the hills that surrounded our home. The clouds fought longer against the sun but they, too, were eventually pushed back. By that afternoon, the peaks of the Sawtooths had started to peek through. In the many days that followed, they seemed much more willing to show themselves as they became familiar with us.
A month in the Sawtooth Valley was more than enough time to develop a connection to it. I fell in love with this place not simply because of its striking beauty but also because I immersed myself in it and came to understand it. I developed an appreciation for this land more strongly than I had for any other. If you find yourself somewhere like the Sawtooth Valley (or anywhere—even the area around your hometown), do all that you can to enjoy it. If you want to truly fall in love with that place, do all that you can to understand it.
Henry Vaughan, Naturalist