Our trips never go according to plan anymore. Lugging backpacks an exhausting 12 miles uphill to the first campsite was as unexpected as Ed’s last-minute business trip to Europe.
He had arrived home in Missoula numbed by jet lag and sleep deprivation just a day before we were supposed to trek into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana.
Unfortunately, he had about three days worth of headaches to iron out before he could leave on a five-day backpacking trip we had planned since May. The fabric of his life had begun to fray during the week he was gone. Every seam involving the family, the job, the house and even the dog urgently needed a stitch of him.
“The boarding kennel made a mistake and gave my dog to some guy who’s apparently mentally unstable and has no address,” Ed said over the phone in words slurred by fatigue and frenzy.
Within a day, a sympathetic cop and a newspaper reporter helped bring Ed and his cocker spaniel together again.
But the Beartooth trip was off. We needed a Plan B that required less driving and fewer days. We needed to scale down our hiking distance from 60 miles to thirtysomething.
“Might as well leave the fishing rods at home,” Ed said.
We had to compress the trip into a framework more realistic for a former logger who, by an unexplainable twist of fate, had become the president of a golf bag company.
The boost in Ed’s income was enormous, but so was the price. He went from a 40-hour-a-week woodsman who could draw a clear line between work and play to a God-knows-how-many-hours-a-week executive. Recreation blends as poorly his career as foreplay with parenthood.
“You’d better plan all the meals,” he said. “I just don’t have time.”
I planned the route, too. A 35-mile loop to some of the highest points in North Idaho.
“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. “We are never tired so long as we can see far enough.”
This sounded like a prescription for Ed, who chose to fly his single-engine plane to save a few hours of driving. I picked him up in Sandpoint and together we drove north beyond Bonners Ferry.
The first day was supposed to be a leisurely six miles up Long Canyon, one of only two major unlogged drainages left in the Idaho Selkirks.
But nothing seems to go according to plan anymore. At the first rest stop, Ed’s pack fell over and crushed the bag of tortilla chips he’d carefully lashed on.
And for no explainable reason, we hiked 12 miles that first afternoon. It was the old Ed I saw charging up the trail, setting a pace that opened the spigots on my pores. Twelve miles was nothing to the old Ed that had joined me on countless trips through the wilderness of Idaho, Montana, Canada and Alaska.
But with no warning, Ed’s legs turned to rubber at 11 miles. His pace turned sluggish. He was chilling as we set up the tent. He was face down on the ground and snoring at my feet before I could cook the pizza in my Outback Oven.
“It’s the jet lag,” he said after I nudged him and flopped the food into his bowl. He crammed the pizza in his mouth and cussed as he burned his tongue. He made a few minutes of small talk, washed down a dose of Ibuprofen, crawled into the tent and began snoring while his hand was still a few inches short of pulling the sleeping bag zipper all the way to his chin.
“I’m glad I didn’t pack in a beer to go with your pizza,” I said to the oblivious blob beside me.
He still had some tomato paste on his lip.
The next morning he apologized as I flipped a pancake. “I’ve got to re-evaluate my priorities,” he said.
“How much Ibuprofen do you have left?” I asked.
“Enough for three days.”
Gradually that day, Ed figured out where he was, and where he was headed.
He slowed down long enough for me to get photos as he hopped from rock to rock at the creek crossings.
He paused to marvel at the towering ancient white pines in the old-growth forest of Long Canyon.
He thanked me for getting him out.
“Twinflower,” he said, dropping to his knee. Scattered across a creeping mat of glossy green leaves were dozens of three-inch tall lamppost stems, each festooned with two tiny bell-shaped flowers.
Such pauses were frequent, but short. We had a higher calling.
The switchbacks prompted us to gear down for the steady climb out of the canyon. We ogled at Smith Peak emerging to the east. A few switchbacks later, we cheered as Pyramid Peak sprouted through the treetops to the south.
Then we reached Parker Ridge and stood speechless.
“I’m really thankful you got me out here,” Ed said as he scrambled to the top of a car-size white granite boulder. There he sat, staring down the entire length of Parker Canyon, which is flanked by Parker Peak and Fisher Ridge, the highest points in North Idaho.
We dropped our heavy packs and painted our presence over the open ridges. This was the throne room of the Idaho Selkirks with a king’s view of The Lion’s Head, Chimney Rock, Myrtle Peak, Harrison Peak and West Fork Peak. The Canadian Rockies loomed to the north. Snowshoe Peak stepped out of the Cabinet Range to the east.
We scrambled up another slope carpeted with blooming heather to look into Trout Lake. Then we glissaded down a lingering cornice and scrambled through boulders and lupine to Long Mountain Lake.
In a long-standing tradition, we capped the day by jumping naked into the frigid waters of the mountain lake, emerging breathlessly clean, renewed - and hungry as bears.
“Look at that,” Ed said with disgust, pointing to his bare white legs. “I’m rubbing the hair off my calves from wearing long pants all the time.”
We hiked above the lake to make camp, not wanting to give up the view for a moment of daylight. The mosquitoes joined us for hors d’oeuvres as we dipped tortilla chip remnants in the salsa. I flipped falafel patties while Ed chowed down on the wheat pilaf and freezed-dried green beans.
There was no shortage of conversation from Ed that night.
He had two more days worth of Ibuprofen and renewed priorities.
“We can bag a couple more peaks tomorrow,” he said. “Check out a few lakes. Too bad we didn’t bring the fishing rods.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos