By Rich Smith
I don’t know why I considered my hike into the mountains with my dog Molly this particular morning extraordinary. We walk these mountains each morning, yet today’s experience seemed special and worth mentioning. Perhaps it was the exceptionally clear sky and the bitterly cold temperature, or the two feet of fresh powdery snow that blanketed the mountains and valley. Or possibly it was just my mood this crisp, sparkling morning. No matter, for it was an experience to savor and commit to paper.
After hiking an unplowed logging road, I climbed onto a trail that wound into the hills above the Payette River. The recent snow smothered the terrain in powdery white fluff that covered all but the largest bushes and rocks. A forest of two-inch high rhombic ice crystals marked the side of the trail, each flashing like a thousand twinkle lights in the weak sunlight. Hoary frost clung to conifers and clothed the bare branches of wintering trees in a coat of white. The gentle breeze shook pin-size ice crystals from the trees, which fell in a gentle shower onto the path.
The trail climbed higher and ended on a ridge where the forest opened to reveal a canopy of cobalt blue sky reaching over a narrow valley covered by a checkerboard of farms intermixed with patches of forest. The blanket of deep snow on the ridge served to mute all sound. The civilization below, with its annoying bustle and clamor, seemed distant and powerless to penetrate this remote place. Only the muffled bark of a dog faintly echoed from the valley below.
As the sun struggled to peek over a distant mountain ridge, its weak rays promising to take the edge off the bitter cold, I noticed a set of fresh prints that tracked down the ridge and disappeared into the forest. My first thought was the tracks belonged to a dog, yet the prints, as large as my hand and unaccompanied by any human tracks, suggested otherwise. A bit further down the ridge I came to a pile of steaming scat mixed with feathers and bits of fur and bone. The scat left no doubt that it belonged to a wolf, and the animal must be nearby.
Idaho has hundreds of wolves, and a pack roams these mountains. This year the Federal Government decided to take them off the endangered species list in Idaho, and then a judge placed them back on. Human intervention in the ways of nature often produces unintended results. Protected from hunting, the wolves have grown in sufficient numbers to become a nuisance. They occasionally attack sheep and cattle and have reduced elk herds in the backcountry. It is necessary to control wolf populations with limited hunts, yet it would be a shame to see these animals disappear from the surrounding mountains. On occasion I have seen and heard wolves, yet they keep a respectful distance from us. I don’t fear them, but keep a close watch on Molly.
Retracing my steps back down the trail and onto the logging road, I spied a beautiful Red Fox ahead. He didn’t seem at all frightened and stood there staring at us as if to say, “What are you creatures doing in MY mountains?” Molly cautiously approached him until they stood almost nose to nose. He sniffed, and not pleased with what he smelled, turned and ran off into the forest. Obedient to my command, Molly did not chase after him.
Further down the road a mob of crows had gathered in a lone pine tree and abruptly ended the peace and quiet. Dozens of noisy birds cackled and called, each trying to be heard above the cacophony created by their neighbors. Perhaps they were protesting our intrusion, but Molly ignored them and gave chase to several squirrels that scampered into nearby Ponderosas. Distracted by the crows, I neglected to notice I had walked onto a large slab of ice slick as bear grease. I thrust my arms out to regain my balance and skated down the road, but thanks to the Yaktrax my wife insists I wear, was able to keep my feet under me. Meanwhile, Molly had tired of chasing squirrels and ran toward me at full speed. As she hit the patch of ice, her legs spread out like those of Bambi on the ice pond, and gaining speed she slid by me not stopping until she crashed against a wall of snow piled beside the road. She didn’t seem at all embarrassed by such clumsiness, yet with increased prudence walked back to me as I shuffled off the ice.
By now, my nose and cheeks began to lose all feeling--a sign it was time to get back to the warmth and protection of my car. I crossed over the river bridge and listened to the melodious tune of a Water Oozle. The frozen river showed only a hint of running water, which forced its way through a crack in the ice and then disappeared under the bridge. Large slabs of ice, unable to find room in the river, pointed skyward at odd angles of repose.
Closer to the car, I met a man jogging along the road. I wished him a good morning yet he did not return my greeting. His eyes remained fixed on the road ahead as he concentrated on his labored breathing. He had such a pained look on his face as he passed by that I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. To me joggers are a mystery. They never seem to enjoy their sport and pain is their main gain. I do not understand why anyone would indulge in such discomfort, but I’m told it has something to do with endorphins. I think this person might have been much happier had he hiked into the mountain with me and savored the beauty of nature. If so, he would have returned home with a smile on his face and warmth in his heart as I did.