I thought we were headed out for an easy, spring, creekside hike in the mountains to a historic site of interest. In my head, I had pictured a stroll in the woods along a babbling brook. I was very excited!
Our host, Adrienne, had recommended the Pulaski Trail (they pronounce it “Pul-Ski” here) in Wallace, Idaho. It follows the Placer Creek up to an old mining tunnel where Edward Pulaski and his men took refuge as the historic Great Fire of 1910 engulfed everything around them. In total, the blaze burned 3 million acres and killed 87 people. It remains one of the largest and deadliest fires in US history. Although the fire sucked the oxygen out of the tunnel as it passed, Pulaski, and 45 men that trusted him in that tunnel survived. I’d read the compelling book, The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, about this fire and life in the American West. I loved the story, so I was excited to visit this historic, reverent site.
Adrienne said it was an easy, pretty hike. The online picture showed a paved trail with interpretive displays along it. I opted for my hiking shoes instead of my boots. Mistake number one.
We arrived at the trailhead in Wallace just before 9am. The trail begins at 2700 feet elevation and ascends 800 more feet over its two miles. As it turns out, only the first 200 feet of that two miles are paved.
In the shady woods, where the pavement ends, there is some snow. Just enough to make it a little slippery, but not a big deal. I chose my steps carefully. A wooden bridge took us over the fast-moving, lower river. I stopped to dip my hand. It’s literally ice cold. It’s beautiful and crystalline, but loud as it crashes over rocks in its speedy descent.
Part of…well, a lot of…finding wildlife is about hearing a leaf crunch, a rustle in the grass, bird calls or birdsong suddenly silenced. There will be none of those cues today. Just the rush of a spring flooded river running down Pulaski mountain.
We ascend at a moderate incline through the spruce and fir forest. The trees are gouged by pileated woodpeckers hunting bugs. We are walking within the gorge, varying 10-30 feet above the river and anybody’s guess how far below the ridge of the ravine. I prefer my trails a little bit wider, especially those that are slippery and along a precipitous ledge. We pass over some snow-free areas on the pine needle-cushioned path where we move faster. I am ever-hopeful that eventually we will round a bend or crest a hill and walk out of the snowy shade.
We approach another bridge. The snow is deeper on this flat, wood-planked span. We balance on the sides to avoid the compacted, sloped and slippery middle worn by so many footfalls that came before ours. (Note about bravery or lack thereof: This bridge crosses a rivulet to the side, not the roaring, rushing danger of the Placer). It’s apparent now that there will be no end to the snow today. I think to myself about turning back. I’m not sure-footed, I’m afraid of heights, the roar of the river drowns out any conversation and I don’t expect to find any wildlife here. But I can’t think of something I’d rather be doing than exploring this mountain today, so I carry on.
Over the next mile, the snow is deep. We are post-holing. This is no longer the hard-packed spring snow, it feels more like freshly fallen fall snow. The good news is that when my foot is plunging through a foot or two of substance, there is little room for slippage. The bad news is that the snow is falling into my shoe at the bottom of each hole and melting. On each step. My right foot is wet. It is on the uphill side where the deeper snow won’t support me. My left rarely plunges into the snowpack and when it does, it doesn’t go far. Luckily it’s warm out, so there’s no danger of hypothermia. Contrarily, the seasonable temperatures and my exertion have left me thirsty. I left my full water bottle in the car. Mistake number two.
Some of the snow has a firm crust on top from the freeze-thaw cycles and is marked with the frozen indentations from previous hikers. I walk tentatively, with light, quick steps sometimes staying on top, sometimes jarringly falling through. I am hugging the cliff side of the trail where the snow is heavier instead of walking along the more exposed trail edge where the ground drops away steeply to the river. Rob is walking here. He is sure-footed, and his socks are dry.
We finally arrived at the top. I stepped off the trail to grab some handfuls of clean snow and plunged hip deep. That’s far enough. With my thirst quenched I laid down on a dry interpretive sign that is usually waist high, but today is level with the ground.
It overlooks the tunnel opening. Rob hiked around to read all of the plaques while I rested. And experienced some hip-deep post-holing of his own. High above the roar of the creek, it’s quiet and peaceful. I can see through a break in the trees to another, distant snow-capped mountain.
We rested here, talking about Pulaski and his men, how crazy it was that they survived way down in the tunnel and marveling at the pictures of these desolate hills. Then we started back down the way we came. The surface of the snow is warming in the sun now. If I stop at all, the snow will melt under the pressure of my shoe produces a slippery puddle. As long as I keep moving, it’s not too slick. There is less post-holing, but it’s also less predictable and therefore jarring. I step with my right foot and plunge almost knee deep, my left leg buckled in the surprise of the drop. I am now sitting on the snow, and my right leg is stuck. The snow, even though soft-enough for my weight to push through it, is like concrete now. I cannot pull my foot out. I squatted on my left leg to get the angle right and worked my right ankle around to find just the right spot where it had slid in, and I was out. There was a fleeting moment of real concern. This snow would be hard to dig out. I understand now how easily avalanches trap people. It might be a powder that comes sliding down, but its readily compacted hard as a rock when it stops.
The last few hundred feet before we rejoin the pavement has melted to form a slick of water and ice. It’s as slippery as an ice rink but bumpy and uneven. Thankfully the trail here is pretty flat and level with the river, so a fall isn’t so dangerous. There was much slipping and some sliding, but no falling. Had we started up this way now, I would have immediately turned back. The family of four, a mother walking with a child and a father carrying a child, have no such concerns. I’m a flat-lander and out of condition for these “easy” mountain hikes!
Off to buy a pair of flip-flops at the gas station, ring out my socks and try the Huckleberry Shandy at Wallace Brewing.