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Thru-Hiking The 'PNT'… Idaho's Panhandle And The Selkirk Mountain Range

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Contributing editor Jeff Kish is hiking the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail this summer. This is his third report from the trail. See Kish’s full collection of trip reports and gear reviews at GearJunkie.com/PNT.

“We tack half a beaver carcass to a tree and then stick a few gun cleaning brushes around it,” she said. I was sitting on the side of the road at the edge of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, eating huckleberry pancakes and talking to the local that gave them to me.

“We buy them from a trapper in Oregon. It’s a great deal: five bucks gets you a 40 pound carcass. Pretty much anything goes after beaver.”

Lacy and her husband work for Fish and Game, and they own 89 acres abutting the PNT where it climbs up into the Selkirk Mountains. She specializes in forest carnivores and wolves, and she was telling me how they collect fur for testing. It was an interesting start to a section that would take me clear across the Idaho panhandle and into Washington State.

I spent the next day hiking along the Selkirk Crest, a high alpine ridge with great views, but no water. I woke up parched, and I struggled with dehydration well into the afternoon on exposed tread that offered little refuge from the sun.

Eventually, I found a patch of lingering winter snow, and I sat at its edge, scraping handful after handful into my mouth for respite.

The following day I awoke to the splish… plop of leaping trout on the bite, and pikas calling “meeeep!” across Lower Ball Lake. The next six miles would be a cross-country bushwhack over dense undergrowth, streams, muck, downed trees, and vertical terrain.

The guidebook warned that this would be “the very worst place to hurt yourself on the trail” and “you’d never be found if incapacitated there.”

It was a frustrating slog and a battle for every mile. I spent more time staring at my GPS than taking in the surroundings, and I paid the toll to get to Lion Creek in sweat and blood.

I hadn’t seen another hiker in several days, but I shared the bushwhack with black bear cubs and a large moose who was as stuck as I was in the tangle.

At Priest Lake, I had a choice to make. The original PNT burned in a fire several years back, and the forest service decided to cease maintenance on the route.

The author of my maps listed several alternatives, but one in particular caught my eye. It included a trail “whose status is completely unknown,” but the notes continued:

“I beg someone adventurous to try this recommendation, though, because if it goes I think it would make the best overall possible route.” Challenge accepted!

No trail, time to bushwhack…

To get to the trail, I needed to cross Hughes Meadow, a wide flood plain that encompasses Hughes Creek. The scratchy, chest-high grasses mostly crushed beneath my stride, but the occasional edge would catch a shin and pull through with a dry slice.

The first water crossing wasn’t appealing. The stagnant water rose from a slimy bed of rotting silt, and it bloomed with algae. I expected to wet my ankles but promptly plunged to my thighs in the sediment, just barely keeping the phone in my pocket above waterline while wondering if I was picking up leaches.

The next water crossing was over Hughes Creek, where the cool clear water flowed fast over smooth polished gravel. It rinsed the clumps of mud from my legs just in time for my climb back up into the forest.

Trail #311 was there, and the tread was cushioned by the superb variety of detritus that one can only find on the floor of a cedar forest. I crossed the border into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness under a canopy of old growth, and then I began my climb up to the Shedroof Divide.

In a few hours I’d realize an electrical storm was climbing up to meet me from the other side. I heard the first low rumble before I saw any lightning.

The forest had grown dim for such an early hour, but I had yet to see the sky ahead. I was on steep terrain and hadn’t seen a suitable spot to tent for miles, so I continued my climb into the deteriorating conditions.

Flash! I counted the seconds: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven….” rumble!

I must be nearing the top, I thought. Yes, the GPS confirmed it.

Flash! I counted again: “one, two, three, fo…” bang!

The rain began to pour down just as I broke treeline. The wind blew from the southwest, where the sky was an inky purple. It was time to run. I needed to get off the ridge.

Flash! Crack! There was no time to start the count. The storm was on top of me. The lightning made landfall 100 yards down slope and stained the hillside with a pattern of black and deep red ochre which billowed with smoke. Too close for comfort.

There were no opportunities to escape the ridgeline for the next couple of hours. I ran south through the gauntlet, promising myself that I’d stop at the very first place big enough to camp, but nothing came that didn’t seem too exposed.

Lightning scars the mountainside

Finally, well into the night, I reached a junction between two trails that was just wide and flat enough for my tent. I hastily erected my refuge in the middle of the intersection, and then I slept soundly for the rest of the night.

I awoke to bright sun, hung my socks and shoes to dry as I broke down camp, and then I marched the last 22 miles to the tiny town of Metaline Falls, where I’d spend the night in a teepee owned by a Pacific Northwest Trail Association board member.

“The deer, elk, coyotes, and wolves come into town at night, so expect that,” she said. “The only thing that will bother you in there are the neighborhood cats, though. And the chickens. We don’t know where they came from, but there are chickens all over this town.”

—Contributing editor Jeff Kish is hiking the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail this summer. He will be making regular trip reports and gear reviews from the trail. Follow the whole journey at GearJunkie.com/PNT.

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