Saturday, mom woke me up by calling at some ungodly hour to ask if we were ready to hit the road.
“Nope,” I said, maybe piling on the sleepy voice a little thick, “still in bed.”
“Oh, I thought you were going to hit the road early.”
Actually that was the plan the night before, until the kids realized our destination was a four-hour drive to a trailhead and a one-hour hike into Baker Lake for a one-night stay. I could see why they balked.
At about the same time, a huge wildfire had sprung up in roughly the same area. We could see the smoke hundreds of miles away. Small towns in the area were being evacuated. The highway was closed. Mike had called ahead to see if the area we were visiting was socked in with smoke or otherwise in danger of becoming a deathtrap. It wasn’t, but it still seemed prudent to find another campsite.
So, last night we had to both pack up the backpacks and come up with a new destination. I also had my heart set on trying out a new granola bar recipe to take along that wouldn’t make anyone’s throat close up because of an allergy to wheat, soy, peanuts, almonds and assorted other crap we have to avoid. Since trying out new recipes is most attractive to me at the least convenient time, midnight on the evening before leaving town early the next morning was perfect.
We had hiked into Baker Lake about five years ago for our first successful backpacking trip. Colin was five. That age was important for a particular reason, which I’ll share later.
We had attempted to hike into Louie Lake – which was much closer and more convenient – just the week before.
So Colin was five. Jack nine. We had hiked in to Louie Lake set up camp and started trying to make something palatable from our cache of expensive, freeze-dried food. The kids would have none of it, so we broke out the trail mix and jerky. Daylight was waning and Jack was slapping off mosquitoes. Actually ‘flailing at mosquitoes’ is a better description. In fact, there was a whole, dark cloud that had descended upon him and he was staring to freak out a little. The dog was in the same shape, absolutely covered with bugs that were slurping the life out of both of them.
I looked at my bottle of organic herbal repellant and cursed myself for not bringing the full-on DEET instead of this useless hippy crap, and wondered how quickly we could break camp and get the heck out of bug city.
It took twenty minutes to repack. Mike is a packing superstar.
In an effort to redeem ourselves, and the sport of backpacking, we drove four hours for a hike into Baker Lake the following week for a serene night in a secluded location.
It was important we introduce the boys to backpacking THAT particular summer, when Colin was five and Jack was nine, because Mike’s mom had become fond of telling stories about how they’d had Mike backpacking by the tender age of six. Various other stories also had her schlepping in a huge cast iron skillet in order to make biscuits and gravy for her clan.
Because I am more than a little competitive, I had to have at least one of my kids beat this age record. I don’t own a cast iron skillet, though, so biscuits and gravy weren’t going to happen.
Immediately following our Baker Lake trip, my mother-in-law’s memory moved the bar. In one story, Mike was four on his first sojourn into the wilderness. I’m waiting for a tale of Mike springing from the womb ready to don hiking boots and set off.
I’ve given up competing. I’ll save that with my future daughters-in-law. For now I’ll be content with once in a while prying our kids away from the television for healthy activity.
In any case, we returned from that trip to Baker Lake five years ago and patted ourselves on the back. We returned to lugging our 1964 Aloha trailer with the same relative density as a dying star into the mountains for our excursions. The packs have rested in our storage-slash-junk room I hope to one day clear out for an office.
Today, we’re wanting to simplify camping. It’s a pain to drag the trailer around, and the boys are outgrowing it anyway. I’d like them to get to know the satisfaction of finding a place to spend the night where we won’t have to listen to the neighbor’s generator powering their air-conditioned behemoth of an Airstream.
By about one am the night before our trip, we still hadn’t settled on a nearer campground, but had finished packing and whipping up a batch of allergen-free granola bars. We slept until my mom’s call woke us and resumed researching. We were looking for something within a two-hour drive, a not-too strenuous trek into a lake with tent sites that wasn’t too crowded.
Turns out that’s kind of a tall order. Go figure.
So we made the last minute decision to hike back to Louie Lake, the site of the mosquito debacle all those years before. We were running out of time. I’d bring the DEET.
What we didn’t bet on was the smoke from the fires to the Southeast of us, the fires that made it less attractive to travel to that part of the country, were actually blanketing our current intended destination. The fact that they were doing so became increasingly evident as we wound our way through mountains we realized we couldn’t actually see. Everything was tinged with sort of a cinnamon hue that might rival the skies of Beijing. When we got out of the car we could taste the smoke on the backs of our throats. Ash was falling and alighting on Colin’s dark head.
Adding to a general spookiness were swarms of federal agents with black SUVs and helicopters staged in every open field. Television news vans were parked up and down the street in little Cascade. Lovely.
Idaho gets national news coverage for two things: wildfire and armed kooks with survivalist aspirations. That fact that this particular kook had made his way into the backcountry with a 16 year-old girl whose family he’d killed made his capture rather more imperative.
I was tracking events on my phone. Mike was hacking and wheezing. My throat was closing up too, thinking about that girl on her forced march through the cinnamon-colored haze. The boys speculated on whether they’d send in armed snipers to sneak up on the kook or hang suspended from a helicopter to take aim.
“Boys, I just don’t know if this hike is going to happen,” Mike said.
Jack nudged his brother: “no matter what, let’s not complain.”
Ultimately, we ended up consoling ourselves with a short walk through a state park, sans backpacks, followed by an order of nachos and cheesecake before the drive home.
I continued to track events on my phone, through spotty cell phone coverage on our return. As we descended out of the haze and into the dry heat of the city, the manhunt ended, with the kook’s demise at the hands of a federal sniper, and the successful recovery of the girl.
We arrived home finding it much easier to breathe.