A mass of humanity in the Idaho backcountry
My timing is often far from impeccable when it comes to fishing trips. It seems I’ve a certain knack for planning trips that coincide with such things as—but not limited to—bad weather and rising rivers. Often times those two go hand in hand, as they did the past two summers on multi-day trips to my favorite Idaho Panhandle trout river. If so inclined, I delved into the bowels of the UA archives and extracted a couple of stories about those ill-fated trips HERE and HERE. And so, as my trip to the Idaho Panhandle this year approached, I naturally obsessed over the forecast to see whether the weather would show any indication of bad weather, or not.
There was none. Not a single day with a chance of anything other than clear skies and temps in the 80’s and beyond. That alone should have been a warning: with such a steady forecast of nice weather, I ought to have known that I wouldn’t be the only one with plans to visit the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho.
I left home at 6:45 on a Thursday and drove 7 hours to Superior MT. From there it took me a couple of hours to make the 43 mile drive over Hoodoo Pass to Hidden Creek Campground, on the banks of the NF Clearwater in Black Canyon (for details on the drive itself, feel free to read THIS). The reduced rate of travel was due mostly to the fact that I was gawking at the scenery and therefore driving slowly. There was, however, no option other than to drive slowly once I reached the summit of Hoodoo Pass, and particularly once I entered Black Canyon, which is a winding, narrow, pothole-riddled gravel road, partially washed out in a couple places). As I idled into Hidden Creek I was surprised at how many people were camped there, and I was lucky to get the last of 13 campsites. 18 miles from Hoodoo Pass, Hidden Creek is a nice, mostly-shaded Forest Service campground ($10/night) with what appeared to be a great fishing hole right next to camp (I shall call this Knee Replacement Hole).
After securing my spot I walked down to the river just to scope things out. There was a friendly, older gent just returning from the Knee Replacement Hole. We chatted a bit and he indicated that the fishing was great, particularly once the sun was off the water, which it would be soon. After dinner I grabbed my 4 weight rod and headed down to the river, hoping to ply the waters of Knee Replacement Hole. However, the hole was occupied by the same friendly, older gent I had met earlier. I had learned that he’d had 2 knee replacements earlier this year, and because of that he wasn’t likely to be moving either up or downstream anytime soon. I opted to fish down from there, landing about 8 fish in 45 minutes. Nothing of size (mostly 10-inch fish), but the action was lively enough to keep things interesting. The flow seemed ample, but I was shocked at how warm the river was, particularly while wet wading at dusk. It was a nice welcome to the river and I was eager for what the next couple of days of fishing might have in store. A little whiskey by the fire topped off the evening, and at 10PM I retired to the penthouse bunk in the Man Van as The Loud Three—camped directly across the road—laughed and cajoled well into the night. Nothing wrong with that; their raucous story telling didn’t bother me one bit. I’d driven 9 hours that day and was plenty tired. Sleep came easily.
The Loud Three were up at 6 AM, using their outside voices as they broke camp and departed. I made coffee and breakfast and briefly contemplated running down to Knee Replacement Hole to wet a morning line. Assuming it would be occupied by the namesake angler, I opted out and was on the road by 7:30 AM. As I proceeded down Black Canyon I stopped every mile or so when a particularly fishy looking run caught my attention and there was room to pull over. Black Canyon is steep in some places and the road is narrow in all places.
Many fishy looking pieces of water were far down steep embankments and the pullouts were not always in reasonable proximity to a fishy looking piece of water. Since I was road fishing I took the easy way out and only stopped where access to good water was easy. I don’t often fish in this manner—preferring instead to hike along rivers, working water as I go—but here I was: the road angler. The NF Clearwater through Black Canyon has a fair amount of gradient so not all the water was fishable. But when it was worth fishing, it paid off, and I caught at least a couple of fish everywhere I stopped. Nothing of size, mind you, but the fish played nicely.
There weren’t so many angler types in Black Canyon that I would consider it busy, so after stopping a few times I decided to proceed downward to Kelly Forks. From there it would be about 18 miles to my rendezvous point at Bungalow, where I was to meet up with my buddy, Jawn Owl, at 7 PM. Figuring I would stop and fish often along the way, I assumed I would have no trouble stretching the hours and making a full day out of it. My assumption was incorrect. The road from Kelly Forks downstream was a highway compared to Black Canyon Road. The river was also much larger, having added Kelly Creek to the flow and all. Every spot along the way that looked fishy had at least one or two anglers in it. And the road was rather busy with vehicles and 4 wheelers buzzing up and down, the plumes of fine white dust barely having time to settle before another rig drive past. I suppose I was anticipating a much less populated scenario than what I encountered, and in retrospect I should have paid Kelly Creek a visit, done some hiking to more secluded waters. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I opted to proceed to Bungalow to secure a campsite and then head back out in search of some quieter water. When I arrived at Bungalow I was confused by what appeared to be only two campsites, both of which were full. I passed the two roadside campsites, trying to make sense of it all. Then, a friendly guy in a white truck pulled up alongside and asked, “Are you looking for Jawn Owl?” Why yes— yes I was. Sort of. I didn’t expect Jawn to arrive for several more hours. “I’m planning to meet him here this evening,” I replied. The friendly guy, whom I shall refer to as Mr. Rogers, was Jawn’s neighbor back in Lewiston, and Jawn had told him I’d be in a van. Mr. Rogers saw me driving around looking confused and figured I must be the guy (the Man Van is hard to miss, so his assumption was a fairly easy one). He instructed me to drive up the road, just past the roadside campsites, and turn right onto a smaller dirt road. He assured me there was plenty of room to park the van at their camp. I thanked him, and when I nosed the van into the camp area I immediately grew claustrophobic: there were no fewer than 15 trucks parked in a large grass clearing, with travel trailers everywhere, circled like covered wagons. I broke out in a cold sweat and my breathing grew shallow; my vision blurry as I contemplated the situation.
The intensity of the mid-afternoon sun added its weight to the situation as I staggered down to the river to find a quiet spot, enjoy a cold beer and calm my nerves. After my heart rate returned to normal I realized that Bungalow, while it was exactly what I was looking for, was not what I was looking for at all. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was quite the outpost, and not what I had expected. Actually, I’m not sure what I expected, but in our minds we always conjure up images of what a place may be like in an ideal world. This was not it. I made the decision to head back upriver in search of a quieter spot to camp. 5 miles later I pulled into Weitas Creek Campground.
With only 6 campsites, Weitas Creek is not a large facility and I was lucky to grab what I assumed to be the last spot. Looking back at it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find it so busy, but at the time I was still in denial that there were this many people out recreating in the Idaho backcountry. I set up camp and chatted briefly with the nice older couple—the Hummers— in the campsite next door. The couple (named for two hummingbird feeders hanging from their trailer awning that attracted swarms of hummers) had been there for 2 days, doing a little fishing, a little napping and generally enjoying the good life. I apologized for moving in next door and, after setting up camp, walked down the trail to Weitas Creek, a hand towel in hand, to wash the stink off. When I returned to camp there was a guy (who would later become known as Mr. Brown) wedging his truck camper into a narrow space on the other side of the Hummers. It didn’t appear to me to be a separate campsite and I thought it a pretty bold move on his part to set up camp there, without at least talking first to the Hummers, who didn’t seem to mind. In my assessment, Weitas Creek was now beyond full, although it was still a far cry from the settlement at Bungalow. It would suffice nicely for the next couple of nights.
At 6:45PM Jawn pulled into camp. He had gone first to Bungalow, and, without having seen the Man Van or his neighbor, Mr. Rogers, he pondered, “WWUAD?” His first inclination was to drive up to Weitas Creek. If I wasn’t there he would proceed downriver to Washington Creek Campground. His intuition was sound, and we toasted his arrival with a couple of Hamm’s (the beer refreshing) from his cooler. He remarked that Bungalow was quite the congregation of people, and hadn’t been surprised to discover that I wasn’t there. He also noted that there seemed to be a lot of people on and around the river. I agreed.
After Jawn unpacked his truck it dawned on him that he’d forgotten something fairly significant. But Jawn is a sunny optimist and shrugged off the matter. Later that evening, after discussing Bigfoot at great length, and telling lies around the fire, we retired to the comforts of the Man Van. I offered a light jacket and an extra pillow to help ease the severity of situation facing him: a night without a sleeping bag. Despite that the day had been near 90F, the nighttime temps would cool considerably, making for good sleeping…unless one is chilled to the core for lack of insulation. Jawn wrapped himself in a couple jackets and gave the thumbs up.
At one point during the wee hours just before dawn—when it tends to be the coldest—Jawn got up and removed the seat cover from his truck, returning to his bunk where he wrapped the seat cover around his legs in a vain attempt to trap some body heat. Suffice it to say he spent a near sleepless night. I hadn’t even heard him get up as I slept rather soundly—if not a tad bit warmly— in the comfort of my sleeping bag. When arose at 6:45AM I observed a semi-comatose rommate, his lips blue. I checked for and found a pulse, so I proceeded to make coffee and heated water for oatmeal. When he emerged from the van Jawn was semi-coherent; his motor skills slightly delayed. Probably a mild case of hypothermia, which gradually eased as he warmed himself by the morning fire. There was no need to ask how his night had gone.
We were scheduled to meet up at Bungalow with Jawn’s brother-in-law, Clem, (named for his
propensity for pushing his supply of Clementine oranges on us generosity in sharing his supply of Clementine oranges) and Clem’s eldest son, Droo. We drove the few short miles down to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, where we encountered Mr. Rogers himself. To make a long story short, we came away from the encounter armed with a sleeping bag for Jawn, who was still moving slowly. He noted that he felt like a snake: all he wanted was to seek out a rock in the sun. But we had fish to chase, which we would do after we found Clem and Droo, which we did a short while later. Clem noted that there were more people on the NF Clearwater than he’d seen before. Hmmm. He then offered us an orange.
We didn’t get onto the river until 9:30AM, by which time the sun was well up in the sky, leaving little shady water. We did find a few good runs and all got into fish: most of the which were small, ranging from 8-12 inches. Clem and Droo, in particular, found a pod of rising fish in one run and put on quite a catching clinic. Droo caught what he alleged was a solid 16-17″ fish, although I didn’t see the fish. Obviously
I questioned his integrity I took his word for it. He seemed to be quite an accomplished young angler so I had no reason to doubt his claims.
Come lunch time Jawn had fully regained his target body temperature of 98.6F, and—with fully functioning motor skills—made sandwiches for us all back at camp. As we were eating, Mr. Brown strolled through camp, dressed in a manner to suggest he had been out fishing. We exchanged niceties and inquired how the fishing had been. Mr. Brown had hiked a ways up Weitas Creek (a tributary of the NF Clearwater) where he caught a few fish: “Nothing too big—mostly browns.” When I heard that I cocked a raised eyebrow toward Jawn, who choked back a hearty guffaw. Knowing full well that the only trout in these rivers are westslope cutthroats (and bull trout, which aren’t really a trout), we had a good chuckle after Mr. Brown had returned to his camp on the other side of the Hummers. We ate a few Clementines as lunch dessert, after which we drove back upriver to Kelly Forks, into Black Canyon. We fished there until the sun went off the water, landing a few more fish, though nothing bigger than 10″ for me. I was shunned by a couple larger fish that wanted nothing to do with anything I threw their way. I finally hooked into a good fish, but before I could even see it, it snapped my 5x cleanly (it was probably a huge brown). Jawn managed a couple nice 12-14″ fish that seemed like absolute hawgs compared to what I’d caught.
It was getting late, and as we waited for a caddis hatch that might (but did not) result in a trout feeding frenzy, the smell of grilling meat wafted downstream from a nearby camp. From that point forward all we could think about was our own feeding frenzy, so we drove back to camp after a day of acceptable—but not exceptional—catching. Dinner did not disappoint, as Jawn presented us with prime cut ribeyes that were no less than 3″ thick. The steaks, coupled with a plethora of sauteed veggies and two types of rice, left no room for Clementines, which Clem offered nonetheless.
After a few lies were told around the fire, we retired to our sleeping bags (yes, even Jawn) for a good night’s rest. We’d put in a solid day of fishing and had earned some shut-eye. Especially Jawn, who’d gotten by without much of that the night before. I heard him cooing gently as he crawled into his borrowed sleeping bag.
The next morning we arose early, packed some bacon and oatmeal on top of the steaks we’d consumed less than 10 hours earlier, and headed upriver to seek out some cooperative trout. We didn’t find many. The day was headed well into the 90’s and the fish seemed to know it, preferring to hide in deep pools behind large rocks, with little intention of coming out to play. We fished with relatively little success until returning to camp around lunchtime. Like the trouts, nobody seemed particularly hungry (although I did accept another offering of Clementines). Clem and Droo packed up and headed downriver toward home, planning to fish along their way; Jawn left a short while later. They all had less than 3 hours of travel ahead of them. Myself, I had more like 9 hours of road between where I was and home, but I had no intention of making that drive. My plan was to slowly meander downstream, maybe do a little fishing (if I could find some shady water) and spend the night at Aquarius Campground, 30 miles from Weitas Creek. Along the way I found no water worth stopping to fish, though I did pass by several spots were hoards of people were frolicking at the river’s edge. Being a Sunday and all, I figured the majority of people would be leaving to get back to their jobs in the civilized world. I assumed campsites would likely be half empty.When I arrived at Aquarius the campground was fully occupied. It was 3pm. I decided to do the unthinkable and make the 409.3 mile drive home. At least I would have the highways mostly to myself as few people should be trekking across eastern Washington that late in the evening. What I didn’t bargain for was a concert at the Gorge Ampitheatre in central WA, which must have gotten out around 10PM. There was a heavier-than-there-should-have-been traffic on I-90, from Vantage westward, and by the time I reached Snoqualmie Summit on I-90, it was 11 PM and I was in standstill traffic (due in part to road construction lane closures).
As I crawled along at speeds seldom exceeding 3mph I reflected back on the weekend and how crowded the NF Clearwater had been. Then it hit me: I had no right to be bitter about it because, after all, I had been there, too: I was part of the problem. My impeccable timing merely added to what many agreed was the busiest they’d ever seen it on the NF Clearwater.
Maybe if it had rained it would have thinned the crowds. On second thought, I’ll take the nice weather.