Lake Quest

January 2, 2014

One man searches for alpine lakes in Idaho.

By Robert McKie
Photography by Robert McKie

Every spring, when the snow recedes up Shafer Butte, my thoughts turn to mountain lakes. When I was twelve, I hiked to Leggit Lake with my Father, brother and several family friends. The austere beauty of the high country has haunted me ever since. Throughout my teen years, I hiked to about ten mountain lakes each summer. While planning those trips, I saw hundreds of other lakes I wanted to visit on future trips. Entire basins of lakes beckoned.

When I moved back to Idaho in 2006, I anticipated finally visiting all of those lakes. But work and life always threw new challenges my way, and I was lucky if I visited two new lakes in a year. In 2011, I decided to change that. I publically set a goal to visit 20 mountain lakes. This included a trip into the remote Goat Creek Drainage in the Sawtooths. The Goat Creek Drainage is an area with no trails where fires, horses and dogs are not allowed. In one day, I visited Warbonnet Lake, Little Warbonnet Lake, two Bead Lakes, and four Feather Lakes. I accessed the Goat Creek Drainage by taking the boat across Redfish Lake and setting up a base camp at Alpine Lake. The lakes were completely pristine, and during my entire time in the Goat Creek Drainage, I saw no evidence aside from a distant jet’s contrail that man had ever walked the earth.

In 2012 and 2013, I set a goal of 25 lakes. In both of these years, my job made it very difficult for me to leave town in the summer. As a result, I entered November in both years still needing several lakes to reach my goals, meaning hikes in the snow. Reaching mountain lakes in the winter poses a number of challenges. The days are short, access roads are sketchy, and hypothermia is a real possibility. Trails are often snow-covered, and hiking through deep snow is slow and arduous. Nonetheless, visiting lakes in the winter is a unique experience.

In the summer, mountain lakes are an oasis of life in the midst of stark, barren peaks. Green grass and a stunning array of flowers surround mountain lakes well into August. Over the years, I have seen deer, elk, mountain lions, mountain goats, mountain sheep, moose, antelope, wolves, and a wide range of birds and small mammals while hiking to mountain lakes. A summer day of hiking to a mountain lake in Idaho is accompanied by a steady hum of running water and the undulant cries of wildlife. In the winter, the landscape is more solemn. Few animals winter in the high country. On occasion, a hiker will encounter a blue grouse or the tracks of a bobcat. Aside from the crunching of snow, there is very little noise. Even the energetic sound of mountain streams is muffled by ice and snow. The underbrush is sparse and denuded of leaves and the boughs of the evergreen trees sag under the weight of snow.

Committing to visiting mountain lakes has been a transformational experience. I have hiked to lakes in the Salmon, Big Wood, Payette, Weiser and Boise river drainages. Days that might have otherwise passed uneventfully turned into forays into the mountains in search of lakes. Some lake trips are multi-day treks, while others, like Blue Lake outside of Cascade, require only a free afternoon. There is nothing quite like a day in Idaho’s high country, visiting mountain lakes.