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.