Updated: Jan 6, 2020
As we trudged over the last little rise our view opened onto a stunningly clear lake dotted with rising trout. Imposing mountains scattered in every direction. A waterfall flowed from an upper lake over a 20-foot granite face into a deep pool.
At that moment every one of the eight uphill miles and every ounce in my obviously overloaded pack melted away.
We quickly set up camp and began to fish around the lake to eager brookies in the 8- to 14-inch range. After a well-earned dinner we watched the September sun slowly dip behind the mountains from our waterfall perch. This is why we had come to Idaho.
The trip had started with a question: “How are we going to top this?” We were coming off a high from our last backpacking and fly fishing adventure in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, and Max and I needed to find something that could go toe-to-toe.
It kicked off a lengthy discussion about our criteria. It had to be rugged and authentic; big mountains with rivers and lakes were a must. It couldn’t be overly touristy and needed to provide ample fly fishing opportunities. The checklist led to research – scouring blogs, Instagram, travel sites, maps and books. Locations were proposed. Options were weighed. Emails were exchanged. Finally, we were left with a clear winner: Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.
The Sawtooths are some of the most beautiful and dramatic in the country. The range covers 678 miles and is peppered with alpine lakes tucked deep into the high granite peaks and narrow glacial valleys. Our short exploration would barely scratch the surface.
We met in Boise, rented a car and drove up to Stanley – the quintessential mountain town with dirt roads, wood buildings and that perfect mix of ranchers, anglers, hunters, river bums, mountain junkies – and the gateway to the Sawtooths. We rented a cabin on the Salmon River the first night and, in the morning, grabbed breakfast at the renowned Stanley Baking Company. From there we drove to Redfish Lodge and took the ferry across the lake, into the heart of the Sawtooths. With six days of wilderness ahead of us, our packs felt light as we hit the trail.
After a bar-and-coffee breakfast the second day, we loaded up small packs and fly rods, left camp and fished our way around the upper and lower lakes. At the far eastern end, we discovered a hidden inlet where two mountain streams fed the lakes. These streams created a sandy flat that led to a deep drop off.
I took off my boots, rolled up my pants and waded in.
The water was freezing, but my first cast with a small streamer resulted in a school of Brookies following and a hook up. After a few more casts, I noticed more top feeding fish and switched to an Adams #12. I landed fish after fish on the dry until my water-numbed legs couldn’t take any more.
We loaded back up and followed one of the streams up towards its source. After gaining some serious elevation, we noticed a faint trail heading further up and, even though we were losing daylight, decided to chance it. As we hiked upward and neared the end of the basin, we rounded a corner and came face to face with another aquamarine gem tucked high into the protected the upper bowl. We soaked in the alpenglow, the mirrored surface perfectly reflecting the peaks’ vivid hues, snapped some pictures and made our retreat back to our campsite as the sun began to drop out of sight. After dinner we laid the next day’s plans and went to bed with thoughts of fishing fresh on our minds.
Before the morning light had summited the peaks we broke camp, loaded up, and began the next leg of our journey. Our route would take us halfway back the way we had come in, across a small river, and then up a literally breathtaking series of switchbacks. The trek was comfortable in the coolness of the morning and we made good time. Occasionally the canopy would open up and we could catch glimpses of the surrounding peaks bathed in the dappled morning light. We crossed the river with only a few mishaps and made our way to the junction.
Now the real work began. We started up the steep series of switchbacks as the day warmed and we ascended out of tree cover. Our paths crossed with a small group making their way down. They warned us about a heavy overnight snow near where we were headed, but promised that the divide and lakes that lay just over the other side (planned for the next day) were worth the leg-burning effort. Methodically we made our way up and out of the valley, stopping to rest and take in the views as we went.
When we finally arrived we were spent. We mindlessly set up our tent and settled in. Max grabbed a nap and I grabbed my fly rod, hustling down to the lake in search of trout. Tired or not, I was excited to get after more fish. I probed along the shoreline, testing different spots that looked promising with both streamers and dry flies. As the afternoon sun moved across the sky, light played over the surrounding mountain spires and brought new depth to the lake as shadow and sun played musical chairs on the surface. I made it back to camp, fish-less but happy. As the sun was going down, a full moon was rising above the distant peaks.
In the middle of the night it began to rain. Hard.
I wasn’t getting wet, so I rolled over and went back to sleep, relatively unconcerned. The next time I woke up it was getting light and I could see inside the tent. There was water, pooling in some areas and running under our sleeping pads. My bag was still dry and so was I, so I listened for the rain to lighten as I drifted in and out of sleep and tried to formulate a plan. Gradually, the rain sounded like it was letting up. When we unzipped the doors and peered out, we could see that the rain had indeed stopped and had been replaced by a heavy wet snow. A quick survey of our tent site revealed that the ground we previously thought was high and dry was actually acting as a basin for the standing water our tent was now sitting in. Rookie mistake.
Visibility was bad, so we decided to scrap our plans for the divide until the clouds lifted and we could dry our gear. After hanging the gear, we ate a damp lunch. Not too long after, two people appeared out of the cloud cover and wandered over to introduce themselves. Kevin turned out to be a travel writer from the Guardian in Yorkshire and his guide, Sara, was from a local guiding outfit out of Stanley. They had been up in the snow, working through the backcountry off trail. Sharing some time with them, along with their report of better weather in the forecast, lifted our spirits and made the sogginess more bearable.
We finally got the gear dried out and the weather slowly improved. We moved camp to higher ground, did some more exploring around the lake, and then made our dinner. Tomorrow we would go higher.
The morning dawned clear and bitter cold. We ate quickly, packed frost-covered daypacks and rods, and started the climb to the divide that separated the two valleys. We covered the two-mile ascent in quick order, loaded with anticipation. We weren’t left disappointed. The valley we emerged from opened up on one side and the jagged snow covered peaks overlooking the deep blue lakes opened on the other.
We took our time and our pictures at the top and then charted our route down to the lakes. The morning painted vibrant colors on the granite canvas as we descended the windy switchback that gradually lowered us to the first lake.
Every turn in the trail offered views more magnificent than the last.
Along the way, we scanned the shoreline for signs of fish. Nothing. A feeling of panic began to creep into the pit of my stomach. While I certainly could not complain about the views, I wanted fish. We reached the end of the lake and rounded the corner where the second lake lay, much further below than we initially realized. Again we made our way down the switchbacks to the lower lake, my anxious anticipation of fish riding shotgun and making a fuss. When we reached the edge of the lake, the trail followed the shoreline to a small outlet. Then I spotted them. Stealthy shadows lazing in the shallows, occasionally breaking the surface in quick splashes to feed. Yahtzee!
Max and I decided to divide and conquer. He headed back up the trail and worked the lake clockwise while I went the other way. We would meet somewhere in the middle. The first section of shoreline offered few openings to fish from. I could see trout in the water and my adrenaline-fueled eagerness caused a few sloppy casts and tree tangles that spooked the fish. I took a deep breath and moved down to a more open section and threw out my streamer. I was immediately rewarded with a quick strike and soon landed a small brightly dotted brookie.
As I worked around the lake I could see a number of rings appearing on the glassy surface. These fish were just begging for dry flies. I switched reels, tied on the trusty Parachute Adams and made my first cast. With a splash, my fly disappeared and my line danced as I stripped in the feisty fish.
And so it went: Spot. Cast. Catch. Release. Over and over, until I lost count.
I met up with Max and we fished a little longer. Then, realizing the afternoon was slipping away, we began our hike back up and out. The valley took on a completely different look now, with fading afternoon light casting new shadows and highlighting previously unnoticed beauty. We went up and over the top, racing daylight back to camp. We made it back in time to watch the sun slowly fade from sight, sharing its last warm pink light with the surrounding towers.
We were up at 5 a.m. to pack in the dark and hit the trail, needing to cover some serious ground in quick order if we were going to catch the ferry back.
One foot in front of the other down the narrow trail, silent other than the steady creak of our packs and subtle crunch of our boots. The bobbing beam of my headlamp providing the only illumination.
The sky slowly came awake, transforming from a faint glow on the eastern horizon to a misty gold. The morning fog began to burn off and we reveled in the beauty. After reluctantly boarding the ferry, we watched the sun crest and set aflame the teeth of the mighty saw that gives this spectacular place its name.
To hear about a couple of my other adventures, take a listen to this podcast with my friend Drew DeVries at Adventure Deficit: http://adventuredeficit.com/episodes/b-o-g-o-adventure-story-with-the-mountaineering-marketer-allen-crater/