These long days provide for longer adventures. After a day of work, there are still plenty of hours of daylight left. The Sawtooths offer endless peaks, valleys, lakes, and streams for exploring. As the snow slowly recedes with the warmer weather hikes to higher elevations are slowly opening up. I am eager and impatient to hike to every lake and explore the valleys that reach up through the mountains.
Finishing a hasty dinner in the car, I drive to the popular Iron Creek Trailhead. I pass cars leaving, heading back to camp, or into town for dinner. There are only a few cars left in the parking lot when I arrive. California, Idaho, Idaho, Oregon, Idaho, Idaho; I add my little car from Maine into the mix. Maine has its own beauty; mountains rounded by glaciers and time, a rugged coastline, with more islands and harbors than you can count. The Sawtooths too were shaped by glaciers but instead of crushing and rounding, the glaciers here carved out the valleys, cut the steep aretes and rounded the cirques. These mountains are so much younger, newer, and untouched. They seem limitless; soaring up from the valleys piercing the sky.
Moving quickly up the trail I pass hikers coming down, some weary from a long day on their feet, others still moving briskly, smiling as they know I will soon get to see the beauty they just witnessed. Iron Creek chatters along beside me on the trail and I hear the hermit thrush singing its evening song. My mind wanders as I move steadily on, waiting for the moment when the trees will become fewer and I will get glimpses of the peaks.
I cross the mangled mess of trees crushed, bent, and tangled from the weight and power of an avalanche. I can still see piles of snow that have not yet been warmed by the sun, hiding under the bowed trees. I look up the steep side of the mountain; trees turning to brush, a small meadow, and then a rocky talus slope that ends abruptly at a rock face with its own contours and crevasses.
As the trail winds up the valley, I begin to hear a stream in the distance. The warm days have been filling the creeks, creating spectacular waterfalls but making crossings difficult. I wonder if I will have to slip my shoes off and brave the icy water. My mind immediately thinks back to crossing streams where the cold water hurts just as much as the rocks as my feet slipped and bumped trying to find stable footing. Today, I can keep my toes dry if I am careful crossing the rocks and logs piled across this creek.
Further up the trail, I want to keep stopping to take pictures, and just take in the mountains’ magnificence but I know, the views will increase with the elevation. I admire the work put into the switchbacks perched on the edges of slopes and cliffs. Each one of those rocks stacked to hold up the next has been carried and placed by hand to support the thousands of feet that will walk this trail every year. For a moment, I stop and catch my breath, but as I turn to face down the valley, I catch my breath again. The bare rock faces too steep to hold snow are jagged shapes piercing the smooth snow covers and sky. The rocky slopes still hold onto white sheets of snow that blanket the mountainsides. The pointed peaks and ridgelines earned them their name, Sawtooths. I study each tooth, each rocky column cutting into the clear blue sky. A few clouds are scattered like sawdust behind the ridge. In the evening light, the alpine glow turned the pink granite a rosier hue. The sun is gone from the valley but the higher peaks are still basking in its warm hues.
I look down into Alpine Lake, saving the trip for another day as I keep pushing up towards Sawtooth Lake. Eventually, running, slipping, and sliding in the snow I make it to the edge of the lake. Looking across the frozen lake to where the mountain plunges under the ice and water, I shivered with the chill breeze and the thought of jumping into the icy water. I scramble higher to a rocky outcrop and let my eyes follow the ridges that encompass the lake. As I scan the mountainsides an irregularity stands out. The long straight line of a trail rising across the steep slope of tumbled rocks and scree. I trace it up to the divide, noting the patches of snow that erase its path for a moment. I glance at the sunlight on the mountains, my watch, and back to the ridge, deciding I have time for one more quick adventure. Half running, half walking, I slow only to cross the steep snow that still covers parts of the trail. I’m glad it is firm and frozen with tracks I can match step for step.
I come over the rise, the sun in my face, the wind whistling by me and over the ridge and I look into another world. Snow stretches down until peaks rise again. The black burnt trunks of trees poke out of the snow as far as I can see. It’s a black and white photograph with a brilliant blue sky. I try to take it all in the wind, the valleys, the shadows, and peaks. It is vast, wild, and free.