Happy Anniversary, Linds!
This post is gonna be quite a bit different from some of the others we’ve done. Wednesday, Lindsey and I celebrated our three-year anniversary as a married couple! Whoop! They always say cheesy things like “It’s been an adventure” or “Feels like just yesterday” — but I’m learning that these things are repeated often for a reason. When you’re with the right person it really does feel that way. But when things get really exciting is when you take the adventurous aspect to the next level and get out once in a while on a super rad trip. A couple years ago, we did just that, so I thought I’d reminisce a bit about how we spent our 1-year anniversary. 🙂
For this trip, our destination was Redfish Lake, in the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. To celebrate year one of our marriage, we rented a car and hauled ass across the West in search of an old relic left up in these mountains by my grandfather back in the’70s. Back in those days before Leave No Trace was widely adopted by wilderness wanderers, he used to leave stuff all over the place. Not out of disrespect for the wilderness, but just out of a crazy desire to know who the people were that might have also passed between the same mountains as he had. So throughout the ’60s and ’70s, it’s hard to say how many ketchup bottles and peanut butter jars tucked between Western alpine ridges contained a note from him, with his address and a request that anyone who find it please write him a letter, addressed to Norman in little old LeGrand, Iowa.
The particular relic we were looking for, though, wasn’t a ketchup bottle, but a little bicycle license plate that read “KIRK”. It belonged to his son (my uncle) Kirk, and had been nailed to a tree sometime around 1977. In the years since it had been hung up, plenty of travelers had found the same lake. With the license plate fixed on a prominent tree by the shore, it had actually become unofficially known as Kirk Lake. When my sister took a trip out to Idaho to find it in 2008, the tree had since fallen but she found the rusty plate still nailed to a tree. I took my own trip out to find it in ’09, and I figured it’d be fun for Lindsey and I to take our first backpacking trip together and check it out again.
Saddleback & Kirk Lakes
Kirk Lake is a small, heart-shaped lake that sits above a chain of three larger ones called Saddleback Lakes, about a half day’s hike in from the trailhead off of Redfish Lake. So not too bad to get to, but the last mile or so is damned steep (“takes a lot of heartbeats to get up there,” says Grandpa Norman). We had planned about 4 days out in the rough, and made it up to the Saddlebacks with no issues on Day 1. Little chilling out, little gourmet campsite dinner (chicken curry), and we were dead to the world cozied up in our little tent before we knew it.
Saddleback Lakes are arranged with one draining into another, along a narrow bowl formed by Decker Peak to the south and Elephant’s Perch to the north. Elephant’s Perch is a gnarly dome of rock overlooking the valley and Redfish Creek, which meanders down below to eventually drain in Redfish Lake, tinged with slicks of grease from a million granola hippie climbers who dip their hair in Upper Saddleback after a rough climb. Damn, that was poetic. All about a fuggin’ rock. Anyway, it is pretty badass.
After spending some time relaxing in camp on the morning of day 2, we hauled south to Upper Saddleback to catch a steep uphill east to find Kirk Lake and see if the license plate was still there. With no trail, it was tough going, scrabbling up using tree roots and trying to keep rock slides from triggering. After maybe a half hour of hunched down crawl / hiking, we crested the ridge and bushwhacked a bit to the shores of Kirk Lake. Having been there myself before, there wasn’t quite as much mystery & anticipation surrounding the hunt for the fallen tree this time. We beelined it to the spot I remembered from 6 years before, and sure enough, it was still there! There were plenty of volunteer trees trying to overtake the dead and long-fallen Kirk tree, but the plate was still surprisingly visible and well-affixed to the old trunk. Just shy of 40 years since he’d put it there, I was finally able to share one of the coolest memories of my grandpa with Lindsey. Super cool stuff.
At the time of the trip, Lindsey was working at a design firm called Ideas That Kick. One of her projects over the course of the weeks leading up to us leaving was package design for a company called Lonolife. These guys were in the middle of developing a K-Cup bone broth drink, with a target market of granola hippies who sit at the bottom of domes like Elephant’s Perch and think about climbing it, but instead kick back with a solar-powered Keurig and sip a hot bone broth in the shadow of the beast. “Damn thing’s so tall, man ohhh shiiiit this stuff’s delicious. PALEO, BRO, ONLY WAY TO GO.”
Anyway, one of Lindsey’s tasks on our trip was to photograph some epic vistas for the Lonolife packages, so we hoofed it up to the saddle above Kirk Lake to try and find some overlook, package-worthy spots. We figured we could try to get some cool shots on the way up, and possibly summit the roughly 9,800′ unnamed peak along the ridge to the east. Thankfully, I’m a total genius mountain man, and I directed us on the exact path of our failed 2009 summit of the exact same peak, soooo… Yeah that went as you’d guess. But we got some cool shots at least.
Yep, that’s the finished package. Please feel free to call me Beef Bone from here on out. Def not gonna stop anyone who does so. Thanks.
Day 2 had us coming down from Kirk Lake, breaking camp, and then descending the remaining 2,000′ to the valley floor and Redfish Creek before heading further up the valley, so we called the summit a lost cause and said goodbye to the license plate. As I write this, now 40 years after it was left there, I hope it’s still around, as unnatural as it is for a metal license plate to be situated in such a place. It’s definitely possible that’ll have been the last time I get to see it, and if it was, that’s alright. Such a rad experience.
My badass mountain man skills continued to serve us well and led us off the trail on the descent after we broke camp, and we had a kinda annoying climb down to the valley. Gaining or losing 2,000 feet over the course of a mile is hard enough when there’s a trail, but just straight difficult when you’re also bushwhacking and backtracking off of dead ends. We were to become really familiar with that whole bushwhacking thing over the next couple days, so I suppose it’s just as well we got used to it early.
Farts & Bears
The Sawtooths aren’t considered terribly dangerous with regard to bear encounters, but they do happen on occasion. As is normal with black bears, they tend to avoid humans, unless you get between a mother and her cubs. The rangers in the area had told us that there had been a handful of sightings, so be sure to have our bell (we didn’t) and / or mace (we didn’t) handy, just in case. This wasn’t really an issue in the end – we just made sure to not hike silently, with the occasional “HEY BEAR” shout just to let em know we were around so we wouldn’t startle em. Night 2 gave us our first bear-ish encounter, though. But first, a word about me as it relates to backpacking meals & snacks. Tons of protein, salt, dried fruit, nuts, when combined with altitude change, turn me straight up into Gassy McGoo. So Linds got to deal with that starting to set in overnight (sorry babe). Sometime in the middle of that night, she woke up to a rustling, grunting sound she was pretty convinced was a bear. Having had one pass right through my campsite on a previous trip a few years before, I can’t blame her for being pretty freaked out in that moment. So naturally she tried waking me up to tell me, but realized as she started shaking me that it wasn’t a bear, just me snoring. Cool. So Gassy McBearMcGoo was really just a great tent partner that night. 🙁
The next morning, our destination was Lake Kathryn, about a 4- or 5-mile hike through mostly trail-less rough, and the origin point of Redfish Creek down in the valley we’d camped in night 2. Lake Kathryn is also the namesake of another member of my extended family, Kathryn Mills. I forget the exact chain of who’s related to whom, but I think she was something like my grandpa’s (the one who posted the license plate) aunt maybe? Anyway, she had also held a deep love for the Sawtooths, frequented them, but had suffered an untimely death. Her family made a case to the Forest Service to have a lake in the area named after her sometime in the years after Kirk Lake had been unofficially named, and so she lives on up there. So yeah, the Johnson family heritage runs pretty deep in that neck of the woods.
Lake Kathryn was…really hard to get to. No joke. We got off track a good many times and for sure would have gotten lost if it hadn’t been for the GPS on my phone. Wrong turn after wrong turn, we finally found ourselves across the valley and at the bottom of the final climb that would put us over the ridge and drop us down to Kathryn’s shores. It was getting on towards dusk and the climb was HARD. We were each carrying packs that were about 30lbs, were exhausted, and had gotten pretty tired of bushwhacking and wrong turns throughout the day. The scrambling climb up to Kirk Lake was really nothing compared to this last hike we had to get up. I think it was mostly due to our state of being exhausted, but when we finally crested the ridge after nearly tumbling down the whole slope a number of times, we both just burst into tears. In the end, it turned out to be SO worth the hike, too. Lake Kathryn wasn’t terribly far off of any trails, but it felt incredibly remote, like we really had the whole world to ourselves up there.
As we made camp and dusk settled in, the water of the entire lake seemed to come to a boil as the fish came out to feed for the evening. I’m a terrible fisherman, but I really regretted not having a rod with me that night cause I wouldn’t have needed any skills. A fresh catch was literally the only thing that could have made it better up there. After basking in the sunset for a bit and filtering some fresh water, we settled in for a cold final night at 9,000ft. As we lay ready to go to sleep, we were really surprised to suddenly get a text message on Lindsey’s phone from her mom. Some wizardry of bouncing signals had somehow delivered a cell signal to her phone out in the middle of nowhere. So we spent a few minutes texting her mom from the tent and assured her all was well, since she was a mom and bound to worry about broken legs, bears, and overly gassy husbands, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
The next morning we woke up to a once again boiling lake surface, poured some instant coffee, broke camp, and headed back over the ridge and down to the valley. A bit more bushwhacking brought us back to the trail, and another half day’s hike brought us home to the boat dock where we’d been dropped off 3 days earlier. Not a long trip, but definitely a memorable one that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend with anyone else. Happy Anniversary, Linds! Thanks for being so awesome, and for making every day feel like an adventure. Sure do love yah. <3