In the Smokies

Go Your Own Way

Story and Photos by Mike Cothern

Which way to go? The dilemma often confronts me while traipsing solo through Idaho’s high country. There’s just too much to see, to visit, to be tempted by. And since the question rarely has a wrong answer, making a decision can be tough. In this case I stood near the edge of Miner Lake in the Smoky Mountains on a late-summer day last year. I had just finished circling the lake while casting a fly onto the surface of its calm, mirrored water. The fish weren’t feeding—in fact, I did not even see one swimming the shallows—but it mattered little. The combination of the four-mile hike to the alpine lake and the meditative act of methodically tossing a line back and forth brought its own joy. I was now ready to continue on the trail to the next lake and then loop back along Prairie Creek toward my vehicle.

Or was I? The previous evening I had read an excerpt from Margaret Fuller’s book Trails of Western Idaho to learn about accessing the area. The mention of a primitive trail going over a pass above the lake but in the opposite direction of my intended route intrigued me. From my vantage point along the shoreline, I stared at the crest of the ridge that dropped down from Norton Peak. I did some mountain math, using the standard variables of distance and elevation, and even considered my tendency to be overly optimistic in estimating the travel time, a factor that often prolongs my return home.

Eventually, I chose to walk partway up the ridge that rose between the lake and several more lakes on the other side. The brief trek not only helped to satisfy a persistent longing to ascend but provided an excellent view back down through an avalanche chute that dropped directly into the small lake—a type of landscape feature I don’t remember ever seeing. At my turnaround point near the edge of the chute, I encountered the remains of a massive whitebark pine with a twin trunk that measured nearly six feet across. Knowing that the species’ oldest documented tree, which had been found in the Sawtooth National Forest, was nearly thirteen hundred years old made me wonder at this sight. How many centuries had this tree lived and how many times had snow, during a plunge down to the frozen lake, brushed its trunk? 

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