Sawtooth Range Hike

Some photos come at a higher cost than others, but in the era of besting each other’s posts on social media, that’s easy to forget. We had planned to spend Labor Day weekend hiking in the Sawtooths, so after a bit of research into routes we had yet to explore, we settled on Cramer Lakes as our destination. Those familiar with the area will know that accessing this particular trailhead means traveling across the infamous Redfish Lake by way of a 10-minute shuttle boat ride. It’s fast and breezy, and delivers you right to the proverbial gate of the Sawtooth Wilderness.

What wilderness enthusiast could resist hiking toward places with names like Garden of the Giants and The Elephant’s Perch? Once we stepped off the boat and filled out our wilderness pass, we started down the trail. It was maybe 80 degrees under a bright blue sky. But with a pack on in direct sunlight and climbing uphill, it didn’t take long before we were sweating. About a mile into our 7-mile hike, my husband said, “Um, where did I put the van key?” “I don’t know…it’s not in your pocket?” “Nope.” Much frantic pocket-patting ensued. Our 1995 Dodge conversion van is our adventure-mobile.

We purchased it in 2010 for the sole purpose of taking a 3-week road trip to Alaska and back, but haven’t had the heart to sell it since. I mean, the thing has comfy bucket seats, romantic track lighting around the ceiling, and a TV/VCR combo unit. It has shuttled us to the mountains, national parks, and wilderness areas for the past decade. Parting with it at this point would leave us as bereft as losing a pet. A few expletives may have made their way down the trail at that point, because one thing had become clear: without the van key, we wouldn’t be able to return home. Hike or no hike. So we really only had one choice: retrace our steps to find the key. We kept asking people we met if they had noticed the flash of a silver key on the trail, but were consistently met with an empathetic “Nope…sorry guys.” We reached the boat dock again and asked the shuttle boat driver if he had found our key on one of the seats–but of course he hadn’t either.

So back into the boat we went for a return trip across the lake, back to the Redfish Lake dock, back to the shore, and back to the dirt road amid throngs of tourists to retrace our steps to the overnight parking area. So much dusty road, and no shiny key. At our van, of course all the doors were locked, but we couldn’t see the key locked inside either. Where oh where had our little key gone?

We slumped back to the lake’s shore and pondered what to do next. Call AAA? Call a family member to pick us up? Continue our hike and work it out tomorrow? The sun rose higher in the sky; temps climbed to 90, even despite the fleeting breeze, and my husband’s frustration was at its peak. “Well where did you specifically see it last?” I asked. “Here, in my pocket,” he said, patting his pocket for the hundredth time, reaching in and pulling out the empty liner for the thousandth. But then I had an idea… “Wait. This morning you were wearing your down vest, weren’t you?” It was hard to imagine in that moment beneath the high-noon sun that the morning had been chilly enough for a puffy vest, but that’s Idaho in the mountains for you. “Yeah…” he said. And the realization washed over his face like water. More expletives.

He opened the top of his backpack to pull out his down vest, reached inside the right-hand pocket, and pulled out the single silver key to our van. It gave a sinister flash of the sun like Piggy’s specs in Lord of the Flies . “Yay! It’s not lost after all!” “Yeah…but that means I’ve had it with me this whole time.” In effect, this oversight had cost us an extra 2 miles on top of a 14-mile round trip hike. And if there’s one thing my husband hates more than mosquito bites and sunburns and poison ivy in the mountains, it’s his own inefficiency. Ultimately, we decided to re-start our journey rather than quit altogether–in spite of the lost 2 miles and lost 2 hours, not to mention the climbing temperature and tension in the air borne of the frustrating circumstances. So back to the shuttle boat, back across the wide blue lake, and back up the trail into those saw-toothed mountain peaks. We didn’t say much as we hiked.

But by the time we reached Lower Cramer Lake, footsore and exhausted (now nearly 10 miles into the day), the mental anguish of our unnecessary backtracking had dissipated with the heat. We had an evening swim to rinse off the day’s sweat, cooked some savory beef stew for dinner, and sat back to watch the pink alpine glow settle onto the granite cathedral around us. After all, this is what we came for.