While grabbing some coffee the other morning in Stanley, Idaho, a girl noticed our grungy bikes and asked where Blake and I had been riding. After taking a long gulp of the much needed caffeine, I smiled back, and told her we had been up in the White Clouds for 3 days of mountain biking and hot springing. She seemed to get the soaking part, but looked up with a confused expression at the currently cloud covered Sawtooth Range, and thought we had literally been mountain biking up there - in the clouds above downtown Stanley - for 3 days. After I cleared up the misunderstanding, and we shared a laugh, it really hit me that most people have never heard of one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the Northern Rockies.
There is reason behind this. While the jagged precipices of the Sawtooths are in-your-face the entire length of highway between Galena Summit and Banner Summit, the stoically massive White Cloud Mountains, which sit 15 miles to the east, are hidden behind rain-shadowed sage-brushy foothills. While anyone can sip coffee outside the Stanley Baking Company and indulge in a view which rivals any in the country, access to a comparable White Cloud scene is a tad more complicated, and thus not on your average person's radar.
That may change soon. These mountains along with their sisters to the south, are currently being short-listed for National Monument status. It's not the first time they have been slated for heavy regulation. Wilderness has been proposed since the early 1970's when a molybdenum mine was slated to decimate Castle Peak, the most iconic mountain in the range.
Thank god that mine thing didn't happen, because the trail twisting descent into Chamberlain Basin would not have greeted us after our first morning spent climbing ever so high into the mountains from our start at the Grand Prize Trailhead. We had gone into this 3 day trip gunning for some of the remote singletrack on the backside of the White Clouds. Some trails in this remote corner of Idaho are spoken only in longingly hush tones among friends in the back alleys of Ketchum. Tones otherwise reserved for secret bro-powder-stashes, or tales of Hemingway`s long lost fishing hole. At least that how I pictured it, after one local asked me to not use a certain trail on a certain new mountain bike route, followed by BIKE running a cover story featuring the same trail, referring to it as "Zip-Yer-Lips".
After stopping to fill our bottles at the lower Chamberlain Lake, we used what little daylight was left in the clear autumn sky to get ourselves over a 10000' pass, and into the Little Boulder Creek drainage. A wind sheltered spot at a trail junction provided just enough ground to pitch the tent. With a warm meal and cold beer in our bellies, sleep came easy. In the morning, we left our gear at the campsite, and headed up to check out a glacial hanging valley know as the Boulder Chain Lakes. The trail quality was only surpassed by the scenery, both best for savoring. If you happen to do just that, it's not hard to figure how some would digest then excrete this area with strict regulations attached.
The problem I have with most wilderness advocacy organizations is the same one I have with most religious fanatics: a blinding faith trumps all else. White vs black. Good vs bad. All in for the greater goal, and to H-E-double-hockey-sticks with everything else.
It's no surprise that at the heart of this new proposed National Monument we have the Idaho Conservation League. The same group who has been at the forefront of the proposed Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness for decades. This time around they appear to be working with other recreational user groups. I hope this is not a front. I hope when they say "We want to ensure the Boulder-White Clouds are protected as they are today. A monument designation provides greater latitude than wilderness designation to protect multiple recreation pursuits," they truly mean it.
I want to believe that they will not smile and make nice until designation occurs, and then when a management plan is to be drawn, use cutthroat tactics to shutout large areas to mechanized and motorized users. Containing those users to small areas, and simply say, "Hey, we are working with you. We kept some trails open for you. You still get to ride up here."
I really do want to believe.
It's scary though, because that is exactly how the process goes for a National Monument. The president of the United States declares the designation under the 1906 Antiquities Act, and then a management plan is created for the area. The National Monument designation itself does not come with clear regulations, like that of a National Park or a Wilderness designation. It's a highly interpretive and unique process. Which means whoever has more sway at the table, on those given days, could have the most influence over the management plan, and thus the land and the rules applied to it.
After gathering our gear at the campsite, we descended the rest of Little Boulder. The flowy pumptrack turned to rockgardens, which in time, turned us giddy. We approached the confluence with the East Fork of Salmon River through a semi-arid sage-brush-scape, and after 10 miles of dirt roads, landed at West Pass hot springs.
Situated on an old mining claim a stone's throw away from the East Fork, West Pass Hot Springs has the tired worn look of a 1890's meth lab. A cabin sits decomposing near the creek, and rusty warped metal tracks, which once carried material to be processed, jut out of a hill into space. Three bath tubs sit in a neatly terraced row, waiting to be filled with hot mineral water from a nearby hose, and a overturned fourth lies abandoned near the creek that runs through it all. The gold may have been taken long ago, but thanks to the volunteer efforts of unknown hot spring enthusiasts, this gem remains.
We stayed that night out back of the Bowery Guard Station, a half mile down the road from West Pass. Wolves had been spotted hours earlier at the Guard Station by bow hunters, instantly reminding me of where I was, and that 'wild' is not just a capitalized-suffixed proposition in these mountains. The grizzlies are long gone from this land, but the wolves remain to keep us from feeling too comfortable, and the ecosystem in check. I wish the feeling of wild nature thriving could have lasted longer, but in the next breath the hunters told of how the day before, the pack's numbers had been decreased by one. It's fate condemned by a Fish and Wildlife bullet after it had tried to take down a small horse at a ranch along the East Fork.
The wolves kept their distance from us that night, and with the morning air hovering around freezing, the first order of business was to get the hot tub full at Bowery Hot Springs. Which, lies a short walk upstream from the Guard Station. After climbing into the perfect water temperature, we compromised to the fact that – RedBull be damned – there is nothing more energizing before a long day's ride then a decent soak. After indulging for probably too long, we started up the East Fork of the Salmon River trail. We climbed for hours on the beautiful singletrack through threateningly hollow rain clouds, before bombing down the remaining 4 blissful miles to the car.
While breaking down our bikes for the drive back to Stanley, a guy came up smiling on his atv. He told us how he's been coming into these mountains for 30 years, and how his sons had grown up playing in them. It`s where they learned to hunt. Which, is what they happened to be doing right now. His knees and hips were in too bad of shape to be up there with them, but he was still happy as a child to be out here at all. Needless to say, he does not want a National Monument.
Same story, different person.
I've been in the White Clouds 4 times in the past 3 months, and the 30+ people i have talked to–from hunters, to mountain bikers, to moto riders, to backpackers–do not want any new designations. They are all scared for the same reason: being shut out of land they hold dear to them. Even the staff I chatted with at the Stanley Ranger Station this summer are scared of the possibilities of what could happen.
If I`m serious, and occasionally I can be, the way to win these folks over would be to create an approved management plan before a National Monument is designated. That way, there will be no uncertainties while moving forward to preserve and strengthen both the wild ecosystem which surrounds this corner of the Salmon River drainage, and the recreation opportunities generations have come to love.
We drove down the dirt road leading towards highway 75 and civilization. Before my mind turned to what toppings would dress our pizza in Stanley, I glanced back towards the White Clouds before the big peaks escaped behind the foothills, and wondered if I would ever ride in these mountains again. I carefully took extra effort to store the memories created. The hot springs, the conversations and laughter from kind folks met, and of course, the best loaded mountain bike descent of my life down the Little Boul... – I mean – "Zip-Yer-Lips," trail.