By late afternoon, cloud cover had replaced the morning's blue sky. It didn't seem to matter, though. The July heat continued its relentless assault on the south face that my dog and I were traversing.
Gus, a black-lab-golden-retriever mix, was 10 feet from me, partially hidden in some bushes in an attempt to elude the swelter and a swarm of insects. His energetic snapping at the bugs earlier in the day had all but disappeared. Like me, Gus was exhausted.
A short break two hours earlier had done little to restore us. All I wanted to do now was find some water, make camp and then escape this great outdoor adventure we were having. Without water or a level spot on the steep slope, my options seemed limited to one. I'd have to go down the avalanche chute 200 feet and bushwhack through the jungle of trees, bushes and deadfall to reach the creek on the canyon floor.
I'd set out in the heat two days before, packing an eight-day food supply and a dream of finding the fabled Ingomar Lake above Sawtooth Canyon in the Bitterroot Valley. Now I was finding out what the fabled part meant.
On the second day out, the trail disappeared at a stock camp, leaving us to fight the foliage and boulders. Had we even traveled four miles since then? Gus was eating into his load, but he was still probably carrying 13 pounds in his doggy pack, and I was toting nearly 90.
I didn't feel fit enough to hike up the rest of Sawtooth Canyon, let alone follow it to a side canyon and make the steep climb to the lake. My 59-year-plus-4-day-old body was desperate for a good night's sleep.
I also wanted to avoid what happened the evening before, when I'd dropped off the canyon wall in hopes of finding a clearing to make camp near Sawtooth Creek and instead had to turn around and climb back up the wall again to find a flat spot. As miserable as yesterday's travel had been, however, today's was even worse.
"Let's go Gus," I said. The dog opened his eyes and stared at me, disbelieving.
"Come on," I coaxed. "We'll have some shade and water in a little bit." Slowly, Gus got to his feet. Then seeing my new direction—down, not up!— he seemed to find a source of energy and bounded ahead of me; his tail no longer slumped near the ground.
The dog, it turned out, would survive this trip just fine. I wish I could say the same for me.
Ingomar Lake, an alpine cirque that guidebooks describe as mythical, has gotten that label for good reason: Few people ever find it.
The lake lies west of Hamilton, about 12 miles from the Roaring Lion Creek trailhead above the treacherous north-face terrain of a side canyon in the nearly trail-less Sawtooth Canyon.
Exploring Sawtooth had been on my to-do list for, well, since almost forever. When I was a teenager and my family lived south of Hamilton, my brothers and I had hiked on Ward Mountain and inside Roaring Lion Canyon. Somehow I never ventured into Sawtooth to the north.
In later years I'd read about the legendary Ingomar Lake, a hidden treasure at 6,865 feet, but I didn't think about it much until 2000, when I stopped at Angler's Roost, a sporting goods store near Hamilton. I was en route to a hike in Roaring Lion and asked a store employee if he knew about the small lakes up there. Nope. But a local angler joined the conversation and talked about the huge trout in nearby Ingomar.
Have you been there? I asked him.
Well, no, he said. But everybody knew there were monster trout in that lake.
With the fish story going ding-a-ling in my head, I used my topo map to make a detour on my Roaring Lion hike. I climbed the south face of Goat Mountain in search of Ingomar—and there it was. I could see the jewel-like, deep blue water about a quarter mile away and 600 feet below. I promised myself I'd pay it a visit someday and find out about those trout.
A decade later, it was time to get after it before I got too old to try.
Gus and I started into Sawtooth Canyon from the Roaring Lion Creek trailhead on a well-maintained path paralleling the boisterous Sawtooth Creek. After three relaxed miles, we saw a bull moose standing in midstream, which gave Gus plenty of reason to holler. A half hour later we stopped and made camp. Sawtooth Canyon's scary reputation was vastly overrated, I told myself with an inward smirk.
The next morning, however, the trail vanished at the stock camp—deadfall and the worthless vestiges of an old trail were all I could find. This was how people got to Ingomar? I hesitated for almost an hour before I hefted my monster load and began bushwhacking. I was no longer smirking.
Gus and I spent the next two miles and four hours fighting through the forest and scrambling up canyon walls to find any semblance of a clear route. That's when I made the fruitless decision to descend to Sawtooth Creek to find a tent spot. We wound up sleeping near a spring on a cliff.
That evening—after I retired with Gus to the tent to escape the biting flies and mosquitoes—I began to think about quitting. My back hurt, the bushwhacking was horrific, and my pack weight was ridiculous.
But the next morning, with the refreshed feeling and unwarranted optimism that can follow a good sleep, it seemed silly not to keep trying. My spirits were further buoyed when, shortly after leaving camp, I saw a cairn ahead and even located a vague trail. When we found a small spring an hour later, Gus flopped down in it. We already needed the break. And the trail had disappeared again.
Thereafter, each time we ran into water, Gus sprawled in it and cooled off until the biting insects got him moving again. We continued to run into the trail, though I learned not to try to find it once it evaporated. Instead, I pushed up the canyon on the route with the least resistance.
By 2 p.m. both of us were exhausted, and I was a mess. My rear was hanging out through the tattered seat of my pants. I'd lost a rubber boot on the tip of one ski pole and the other pole was breaking. By 4 p.m. I was going downhill, figuratively and literally.
Gus and I were headed back down to the canyon floor to once again search for a clearing big enough to make camp, and I admitted defeat. Tomorrow morning I'd hike back to the car, I told myself. And then I looked down, stunned. What the hell?
Right in front of us was a maintained trail complete with boot prints, horse droppings and fresh-sawed logs.
Mystified, Gus and I followed the path for another two hours until it disintegrated again. The side canyon to Ingomar was probably a quarter mile away.
On the morning of day four, I misread my dog. I spent two hours trying to repair the $200, one-month-old tent that Gus shredded after I left him inside it while I went out for toilet chores. I'd somehow gotten the idea that he would rather stay in the tent, away from the bugs.
Afterward I admitted to myself that this incident, like most of the others on the trip, was borne of a bad decision. I also took it as a sign: It was time for a layover.
The next morning, Gus and I finally entered the drainage leading to Ingomar.
I'd repaired my ski poles with duct tape. My torn pants weren't a pretty sight. My tent was tattered. I was still carrying more than 80 pounds. And now it was time for a 1,200-foot near-vertical climb.
At about 900 feet, Gus and I entered a burn area clotted with fallen trees and, beyond them, a massive boulder field. I nearly fell among the huge granite rocks, tearing the skin off the tip of my middle finger and tenderizing the others. The bleeding and pain were soon replaced by throbbing, as long as I didn't bump the fingertip.
Then I spotted the lake, about 100 feet below us.
"What's that down there?" I said excitedly to Gus, pointing with one of my non-aching digits.
The lake was beautiful. Gus and I walked to the western side, where greenery replaced the burned trees. I removed our packs, sat down and numbly stared at the scene, while the dog dropped into a deep slumber. I wanted to lie down like Gus and not move for a long time, but I knew I couldn't. With the camera bag still strapped to my chest I pulled the equipment out and shot scenes from where I sat, too beat to find a more photogenic spot.
Not far from the lake's edge I found a luxurious alpine lawn near a well-built campfire ring. Delighted, I hefted the pack for the last time that day and dropped it on my one-night home. I pulled out the fishing gear, kicked off my boots, slid into my soft, feet-loving Oxfords and headed for the shore.
Twenty-five casts and the loss of one lure later, I returned to camp with a beautiful west slope cutthroat trout. (I'd caught two, but the first one got away). Both probably weighed over two pounds—not the lunkers I'd heard about, but at least three times bigger than the trout in the lower creeks.
While the fish steaks slow-cooked in lemon pepper, I set up camp. And as the sun started to set, I finally sat down in the camp chair and ate one of the finest meals of my life.
Gus and I made it safely down from the lake the next morning. But as I wearily crossed a small tributary of Sawtooth Creek a few hours later, my right ski pole slid off a submerged rock. I landed face down in the stream.
Desperate to keep my camera gear dry, I frantically tried to push myself up and out of the water, but the camera bag and heavy pack slowed my efforts. When I made it to shore and fumbled with the zipper to open the camera bag, my right hand didn't cooperate, either. Then I noticed something odd about the third and fourth fingers. Each was pointing skyward at the last joint, nearly 90 degrees different from the rest of the hand.
Were my fingers broken? Thinking I probably wouldn't damage them any further, I grabbed them one at a time and straightened each back to where it belonged. Intense throbbing soon replaced the painful shock. I now had only two working fingers on my right hand.
Equally painful was thinking I'd wrecked my camera. I spread it out in the sun, waited about half an hour, and—it worked. Relief spread through me, bolstered by the realization that my fingers were only sprained.
Another rude awakening awaited me. As I neared the stock camp the next day, by this time moving about one mile per hour, I found the vanished trail that foiled me on the incoming trip. If I'd simply walked along the edge of Sawtooth Creek and continued around a small bend, I would have seen it on the south side of the creek—not the north, as my topo map showed. The trail looked in darned good shape, too; if I'd found it, I could have saved myself miles of pain. Maybe getting lost was part of the bargain, I tried to comfort myself. Can'a place be mythical if it's easy to reach?
Gus and I made it to the van on day eight in a mist-like soothing rain. The seat of my pants, a huge section of the tent, and the ski poles were covered in duct tape. I had sprained fingers and a bruised ego. But I'd done it.
Two and a half weeks later, sitting at my desk with my morning coffee, I spotted an online news article from the Ravalli Republic: "Sprucing up Sawtooth." Hard-toiling volunteer crews complete with pack mules were reworking the trail, clearing brush, cutting branches, and building bridges to make the "canyon of doom" user-friendly, the story said. If I'd set out just a month later, I could have sauntered most of the way. That sudden roar in my ears could have been Fate's deep-throated laughter bouncing off the canyon walls. But it was probably only the boiling blood rushing to my head.
I now think I ought to revisit Ingomar Lake before the snow flies—in keeping with that old saying about falling and getting back on the horse.
I wonder if my wife would like to go this time.