Climbing the rocky switchback trail, icy rain pelting our swishing plastic rain ponchos, my cousin and I huffed our way toward Alpine Lake. The dark stormy clouds had quickly rolled over the jagged mountain peaks, obscuring a summer day with a wintry mix of rain, then hail.
We were in Idaho to celebrate my aunt and uncle’s 60th wedding anniversary in the high plains of Caldwell outside of Boise, but a quick cousin getaway seemed the perfect balance to talking, eating and sitting in the Methodist church basement. So we had planned a quick trek into the Sawtooth Mountains to stretch our legs, breathe some fresh air and look for a few jars of our childhood favorite: huckleberry jam, an Idaho specialty.
Outside Boise, we followed the Boise River on the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. At the Arrowrock Dam, motorboats jetted across Lucky Peak Reservoir. Pine trees overtook sagebrush, first mixed with deciduous trees, then standing tall on their own. The old mining town of Idaho City had been transformed into a tourist hot spot with quaint shops and soda fountains. After our scenic drive, we arrived in Stanley late in the afternoon.
The young man at the tourist center was wearing a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness T-shirt; he’d worked along the Gunflint Trail one summer. He said Stanley was like the Boundary Waters without mosquitoes and recommended various hikes for two fit but fifty-something flatlanders from Texas and Minnesota.
Stanley, once just a few buildings along a dirt trail, is a growing destination for hikers. Our new condominium in Stanley Town Square was a few blocks off the highway and featured a deck facing the jagged Sawtooth Mountains, their sharp-edged rocks piercing the blue sky.
After settling into our condo, we set off for a visit to Redfish Lake, the destination of our parents’ mountain pilgrimages, now a popular resort area. We walked the busy beach, snapped photos of the lovely lake below the mountains and strolled on a boardwalk, but we longed for a more rustic hike. After driving around the Salmon River and Sawtooth Scenic Byways, we found a little trail into the silent woods. Although the inclines were slight, we were winded from the day’s sharp rise in elevation.
As the sun was getting low in the sky, we took a dip in a hot spring in the Salmon River below a historic bathing house built by the Works Progress Administration. In a series of scalloped shallow pools, hot near the source pipe and tepid near the cold raging river, tourists in bathing suits floated in the slightly sulfuric water.
Too relaxed for a restaurant dinner, we bought provisions at the Mercantile, which fulfilled all of our needs but our hankering for huckleberry jam. We returned to our comfortable condo to eat, shower and climb into our soft beds.
In the morning, we had our coffee on the deck and scanned the weather: scattered showers. We packed up for the rigorous 10-mile hike to Alpine Lake recommended by the information center guy and stopped by the Mercantile for rain gear, a jug of water and an emergency kit. We asked the cashier — no huckleberry jam.
At the trailhead, we signed in at the registration “desk” and headed up the path. It was steep but well-maintained with pebbles. We huffed along, excited to finally be on the trail but frequently stopping to catch our breath. The rain came, first as a slight mountain mist, then in more serious drops. We donned our clear plastic ponchos and puffed on as younger and more agile hikers passed us by. The early birds on the way down reported thunder, high winds and hail at the mountaintop.
The rocky path turned to steep switchbacks. We dried out a bit and took off some layers, but the sky darkened again — heavy clouds on one side of the sky, white cumulus clouds and sun on the other. We discussed turning around but decided to press on unless we saw lightning. Nearing the summit, the rain became cold and heavy, and then hail — real hail — sprinkled the ground around us. We trudged onward, pulling our cold hands into our sleeves, wiping our wet foreheads to clear away the icy rain.
At the summit, the hail miraculously ceased. We followed the dirt path down to Alpine Lake, a glorious sparkling blue beauty in the mountain peaks, including the jagged edges of Sawtooth Mountains that were so much closer now than from our morning balcony. We relaxed on a large rock, and the sun warmed us as we ate our lunch.
The hike down was so much easier: The rocks were not slippery, and the two log bridges across a small stream were simple to traverse. Although other hikers told us they’d seen lightning when we were up on the top, we never saw it. We laughed at the places we almost gave up and marveled at how much time it took to climb up. The cool air warmed as the rocky path softened with pine needles, then dirt, but the sky darkened once again. At the parking lot, we changed out of our muddy boots — our feet were swollen and our ankles sore — and closed the car doors just as the raindrops hit.
We headed out of Stanley with a stop at another hot spring to soak our feet. It was a perfect cousin getaway, although we never found that huckleberry jam.
Kathryn Kysar is an English professor and writer who lives in St. Paul. Her latest collection of poems is “Pretend the World.”