PHOTOGRAPHy: Kirk Anderson
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Lakes are always good for a fishing story. Once, in my haste to make it over a nearby pass before an imminent thunderstorm, I hurried by an unnamed gem in the southern Sawtooths without taking time to tempt the large trout trolling the shallows near shore. I never forgot the lake or its fish, however, and when I returned eight years later with a group of backpackers, I told them that they’d have to wait.
I assembled my fishing pole and tied on some fly or another—in spite of opposing local lore, I don’t think the fish in the Sawtooths really care—and tossed it into the lake. It was midday and there was a breeze, but these slightly disheartening details didn’t faze me. Fishing this lake seemed like destiny. Sure enough, on my second cast, a fish took my fly. It wasn’t a big fish, maybe twelve inches or so, but it didn’t get away. As I removed the fly from its lip, I could see that it wasn’t a cutthroat, a rainbow, or a brookie. It must have been some more exotic variety, perhaps a golden trout. I don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that I got a second chance—and how often is it possible to make good on one of those?
Even when alpine lakes aren’t destinations in and of themselves, they are exquisite features of the environment when encountered during a big day in the mountains. The lakes in the Chamberlain Basin, for example, are a convenient stopover point when going to or from Castle Peak, a popular climb in the White Cloud Mountains.
addleback is ideally suited for a refreshing swim after climbing the west wall of the Elephant’s Perch. The puddle near Washington Lake in the Pioneers is the jumping-off point for the northeast ridge of the Devil’s Bedstead.
Short stints spent lakeside sometimes leave their mark as profoundly as longer ones. I once spent two hours sleeping by a fire on the shore of Pass Lake near Leatherman Peak in the Lost River Range. It was after dark, and my brother and I were halfway through the kind of goal-oriented mission not usually compatible with peaceful time spent by a lake. But earlier, some two thousand feet above, on the high, barren spine of the main Lost River crest, we had run out of water and descended to the lake to refill our bottles.
It was autumn, and at 9,000 feet, the temperature was below freezing. A thin skin of ice had formed on the lake, with several fractures in the veneer that made it look like a cracked windowpane. As subtle currents drove the ice across the water, it creaked and groaned and sent out reverberating shrieks like the cries of Tolkien’s Ringwraiths. The fire had warmed only half my body, and the remainder of our ridge traverse, to be run in the dark and cold, loomed ahead. Despite the unnerving wails, the unsatisfying heat, and the prospect of suffering, Pass Lake was a refuge and a respite—and there would be times in the next twelve hours when I ached to return.
We can thank glaciers and global warming for the existence of our higher alpine lakes. Although the great continental ice sheets that crept south from Canada didn’t extend into central Idaho, glaciers in the higher ranges such as the Sawtooths, the Big Horn Crags, and the Pioneers carved countless alpine cirques. As recently as 4,000 years ago, when the global climate warmed and glaciers receded, the ensuing melt water filled the basins and dotted the mountain ranges with crystalline lakes. A few of the larger glaciers in the Sawtooths ran down to the lowest valleys, leaving big pools of water such as Redfish, Alturas, Petit, and Stanley as evidence of their passing.
With easy access from Idaho Highway 75, some of the large lakes, especially Redfish, have become popular destinations complete with developed campgrounds, boat ramps, and sandy beaches. Despite the crowds and motorboat traffic, they still possess a wilderness-like quality. Visitors often comment on the Caribbean-clear water, which many locals take for granted. And the spectacular backdrops—rugged peaks with snow-filled couloirs—add to the lakes’ character.
Deeper into the glacier-carved canyons, however, lie the true wilderness lakes. Some are easy to get to and may be swarming with day hikers. Others lie at the heads of steep, hanging valleys and require exploratory, off-trail scrambling. These are the lakes where adventurous travelers can wake in the sun and take a morning swim in the nude, knowing they are the only people around for miles. To have unfettered access to these jewels is a great gift—a gift best appreciated not by reading about them, but by seeing them, live and in the flesh.
Erik Leidecker is co-owner of Stanley-based Sawtooth Mountain Guides, and a regular contributor to Sun Valley Magazine. He lives in Hailey with his wife, Gretchen, and daughter, Sascha.