This is an account of the five day, four night backpacking trip that my husband, Ambrose, and I took to Stump Lake, including pictures 🙂

Day 1: August 9th

I took a half day off of work, so we could get started before dark. As we were pulling into the Kennally Creek Campground, the sky had become so covered in smoke that the late afternoon sun was an orange ball mostly occluded by clouds:

It’s watching you!

I dubbed it the ‘Eye of Sauron.’

The campground was crowded. We had considered staying at the site for the night and travelling on in the morning, but at the sight of a couple dozen people and the sound of screaming children in the river, we agreed to go out a mile and make camp. After parking and changing into our hiking clothes, we were off.

We had hiked this first mile of the trail before, on a trip two summers ago, so it was relatively familiar. Add to that a lack of gain, and we made that first mile in less than 30 minutes, stopping after crossing a well-maintained wooden bridge and before we could get too far from the water.

I took this picture on the way back, once the smoke had cleared.
This was where we camped the first night, as pictured on the last morning. 

I picked a place to pitch our tent, and Ambrose objected that it was too close to an animal trail. So we looked around for a better spot for another five minutes before he picked my original spot and I pitched the tent. I’ve gotten a lot better at doing that this summer. We use an REI Quarter Dome, which has a single pole set-up, which is actually three poles that are connected – I’ve never felt that really counts as one. The pole (poles) needs to be oriented properly, or the ends won’t go into their respective holes, and it seemed like last year was completely hit-or-miss, while this year, I started to figure out how to place the pole (poles!) right the first time.

I’ll admit, we’ve been spoiled this summer when it comes to mosquitoes. It’s been a dry summer, and we hardly had to break out our repellent at all until this trip, due to a lack of standing water breeding grounds in our usual routes. But I began to get bites almost immediately once we stopped, so I asked if Ambrose would mind eating in the tent instead of on the bridge as he wanted to. He agreed, and we huddled in the tent, with the rainfly deployed against the 30% chance of rain forecast, eating as the sky grew dark.

After we ate, I looked for my head lamp.

It wasn’t in my kit bag. It wasn’t in my pack top. It wasn’t in Ambrose’s things.

It was at home.

A headlamp is one of the ten essentials, one of those items that you should always carry with you on a backpacking trip. I had a fear, for a moment, that we would be hiking right back to the car, if not immediately, then in the morning, because I had left my head lamp at home. But Ambrose had his, and since we were not going to be travelling extensively, not needing to travel at night at all, we chose to stick it out and not change anything about our plans.

I was relieved not to have ruined our trip, but I did feel guilty for forgetting something so fundamental. And I knew, now that I thought of it, exactly where my head lamp was. At home, in my day pack, precisely where I left it after we rode our bikes to the movie theater. I could have kicked myself, but it would have been a waste of energy. Instead, I lay in the dark, and eventually fell asleep, waking only once to go outside and pee.

I completely missed the little creatures that crawled under the rainfly and munched on my boot laces. I thought that might cut our trip short as well, but though parts of the braided laces were pulled apart, they managed to hold through the remainder of the trip.

Day 2: August 10th (Continued – click the ‘Read More’ link below)

Ambrose made coffee using instant cappuccino mix and then our breakfast of grits, freeze-dried scrambled eggs with bacon, cheese sauce powder and a slice of Spam. I packed up my stuff and rolled both of our sleeping pads. I was still feeling a bit unsettled from forgetting my head lamp, but I was determined to be more cheerful in the mornings. I am not naturally a morning person, but when you spend 24 hours a day with another person, it helps not to start the day off whining or moping.

About 80 minutes after we woke up, we were packed and on the trail. No more than three minutes walk down the trail, we reached our junction and began to walk down trail we had not before explored, on the way to the Needles Trail.

Okay, this picture was also from the last day, not the second 🙂

As soon as we saw that sign on our first trip down Kennally Creek, I knew I wanted to explore the Needles Trail. Our first backpacking trip in this area was on the other side of the Needles Summit, toward two unnamed lakes nestled under the Needles, and I knew that we could take that trail over to our lakes. We didn’t get a chance to do it last year, and I was so excited to finally reach our lakes from this other direction. The next step will be to hike all the way from Kennally to our normal starting point and back – a trip I might make by myself over Labor day weekend.

We had about half a mile of relatively flat trail to walk, with a few downed trees to step over, and then we started heading up. After several switchbacks and a couple hundred feet of gain, we reached our final trail junction – the rest of our trip wouldn’t run us into any other trails, according to the map.

Our pace was slow, but steady, and we took a break after each hour of hiking. I tried to find us a spot that had a nice place to sit, but at the second hour, Ambrose overrode my choice and we went another ten feet down the trail, because we saw a wooden sign stuck to a tree, where no sign should rightly be.

The “No Trail” Trail sign

Neither I nor Ambrose had ever before seen such an official-looking sign for a trail that was not a trail. We tried to determine by studying the map exactly where we might be, based on what we thought the easiest route from our location on the trail to Blackmare Lake. Personally, I didn’t see any good trail routes. It seemed like every approach to Blackmare would involve crossing steep terrain – steep enough that I would hesitate to try it without a trail.

There did appear to be a visible trail heading up the slope, but we’ve learned the hard way that just because something starts out looking like a trail, does not mean that it will keep looking like a trail. And as we walked on, we began to see that our trail did not look very trail-like due to numerous tree falls that hadn’t been cleaned up.

Yes, the trail does continue past the tangle of trees. . .
Directly into yet more tangles. 

For a time, it seemed like we were stepping over trunks every ten feet, and then having to detour around trunks that were too high, too brushy or just too thick to step over. At one, we were forced to get down on the ground. The terrain to either side was thick with branches and steep, and the trunk barring our passage was too high to step over. Ambrose actually had to get on his knees and crawl under, taking care not to catch his pack on any protruding branches before heaving himself up. I’m small enough that I was able to crouch down and step across without going to my knees, but my legs protested such use, and, when I got to the other side and tried to stand up, I couldn’t. I thought that I must have used all the strength my legs had left, but it turned out I was trying to stand up too soon. It wasn’t my body and pack weight that my legs couldn’t lift, but the entirety of the trunk I’d just squat-walked under.

When we started in the morning, Ambrose said we had 2000 feet of gain coming up before we reached Stump Lake. I didn’t note the altitude immediately, but when I did, I figured that we would reach the lake before the altimeter gave a reading of 7600 feet – which meant the altimeter was way off, since Stump Lake’s elevation is actually 7800 feet.

After taking a break at ten to eleven, we decided that we were close enough to the lake to make it before we had to stop for lunch. I kept checking the altimeter to see how close we might be, but I couldn’t figure it out, based on the map’s elevation versus the terrain versus the altimeter reading. The downed trees began to taper off, and I was beginning to worry about how we would find the lake. Looking at the map, the trail didn’t actually go to the lake, just by it. I stopped to turn back and make sure I could still see Ambrose, and I laughed. Finding the lake was not a problem after all.

My first view of Stump Lake from the Needles Trail. 

It was not quite noon, and we had made it.

We found a nice spot, complete with a fire pit and plenty of level ground for pitching our tent, and dropped our packs before scoping out the rest of the lake. We were both quite pleased that we were not exhausted by the five mile trek as we would have been two or three summers ago.

A panorama of Stump Lake from the east side. 

Another view from the east

I loved seeing the roots of the lily pads in the clear water. 

There were no other people at the lake, though the fire pit bore evidence of previous occupation in the form of burned foil. We made lunch by the fire pit and then ate, enjoying the view. The smoke that we had encountered yesterday evening seemed to be completely below our elevation, just a smudge in the west, so the sky above us was clear and sunny.

Then I decided I wanted to go for a swim. Ambrose, wisely, chose not to join me, because that water is cold!

Some seriously cold water – how do the lily pads stand it?

It did take me some time to completely submerge and swim out. Once I waded into the shallow mud, I could feel just how cold it was. But I wanted to swim. I like the idea of swimming in mountain lakes, places where not a lot of people go. So, after some prodding from the shore courtesy of Ambrose, I dove in, surfacing with a shriek as I swam out a few yards past the lily pads.

But I didn’t stay long.

Rocks on the shore were in full sun, so I stood on them in the sun and the wind to dry off. Just as I got dry, the sky began to haze and the temperature began to fall. We pitched the tent and spent some time inside, while outside, the Eye came back out.

Camp set-up under the baleful glare of the Eye

Eye in the water

If the fire weren’t in the other direction, I might have gotten worried here. 

This trip was not meant to tax our abilities. We only hiked for the morning, and then had nothing left to do. I probably should have taken more than one book – instead, I switched between re-reading the book Ambrose had brought and reading the one I had brought. I’m giving serious thought to a Kindle reader at this point, because it just doesn’t make sense to haul more than one paperback on a trip, but I’m capable of finishing more than one, especially on a relaxing trip like this.

So we read, and chatted, and watched the sky, fretting mildly about the possibility of having to face the threat of fire. At the same time that Ambrose reassured me that we were in no danger, because the fire would have to cross a river and a burn out area to get to our location, he made a plan for what to do if the fire did make an appearance on our horizon. We would stuff everything into our packs as fast as we possibly could, and put on our long john tops and bottoms. Then go by the edge of the lake. If the fire was truly coming, then we would toss in our packs and then ourselves, waiting out the fire in the freezing cold Stump Lake.

I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of not only soaking all of my gear, including my down sleeping bag, but also my poor self in that freezing cold water for an extended period of time. But the whole burning to death thing wasn’t very appealing either, so I was glad we had a plan more substantial than, “Run! Fire! Eeeek!”

We spent the night with the rainfly off though, to keep an eye on the sky.

Day 3: August 11th
The morning sky was not clear, but neither was it smoke laden. Ambrose packed while I started on breakfast. I completely forgot to make coffee before starting to soak our cheesy eggs, grits and bacon, so I improvised by boiling water in our pot top (which doubles as a frying pan), and pouring it into our Nalgene bottles where I had already scooped the coffee powder.

I didn’t spill much, and only a little on myself; all in all, a successful experiment, but one in which I’ve no interest repeating.

We ate our breakfast and packed up, ready to finally connect the trail from Kennally to our unnamed lakes. Ambrose estimated that we would take four hours to make it to our lakes, but I thought we wouldn’t take that long – unless we got lost.

Getting lost was actually a possibility, considering that last year, from the other direction, we had been unable to link the two trails. Still, once we reached a certain point, we would be in familiar territory, so we set off with excitement.

We were very close to the Needles Summit. It didn’t take more than ten minutes for us to reach it, and find another sign.

To the right? Nothing!

 We continued at an easy pace and soon reached the spot where we’d gotten lost last summer, recognizing it by getting lost again. There’s a deceptive saddle that looked to us last year like it might be Needles Summit, but the real trail from Needles Summit came from the steeper section past the saddle. After that, it didn’t take us too long to find the trail we had traveled before, complete with evil switchback, which, this year, wasn’t so evil.

The trail switchbacks right on up. 

Looking down…

We reached the saddle in record time – I didn’t even have to wait very long at the top before Ambrose caught up. It only took about an hour for us to get there, and I knew it wouldn’t take us an hour more to make it to the lakes.

View of Square Top from the Needles saddle

I was right. In less than an hour, we reached our lakes, with enough energy to spare to completely circumnavigate both lakes in search of the ideal camp site – after we dropped our packs, of course. We picked a spot across the lake from where we usually camped, since the dry season meant that that bank was not completely bogged down as it had been in previous years. I wanted to watch the meteor shower, so we tried for the best view of the sky as we could manage.

Rainfly deployed

After we chose to remain on that side of the lake, we didn’t immediately put up the tent. Instead, we laid out the ground cloth and inflated our sleeping pads to lay out in the sun. Then the sun decided to take a break, and I decided that the weather looked ready to dump some rain on us.

The best way to prevent rain is, of course, to prepare for it as completely as possible. I put up the tent, stowed all my gear and deployed the rainfly in record time while Ambrose searched for sticks to demonstrate the bow and spindle method of fire starting to me.

The sun came back out, with intermittent clouds, and Ambrose and I tried to make a coal using a crafted-on-the-spot bow and spindle (we used his shoelace to complete the bow). We were each able to generate some heat, but only Ambrose got a puff of smoke, and neither of us made a coal before we decided to call it quits – partly because his shoelace was heating up. Then we ate lunch, and I took down the rainfy and lounged in the tent reading while Ambrose lounged under a tree reading. As soon as I got up to join him, the weather decided to stop teasing us and the rain began.

We ended up holed up for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, emerging only to answer calls of nature and to cook dinner and dessert during lulls. I was worried that the meteor shower would be completely obscured by clouds, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I tried not to worry too much.

As the evening grew dark, and still cloudy, we spent some time outside, watching dusk fall over the lake.

It’s a small lake, but we like to think of it as ours. 

I set my watch alarm for midnight and fell asleep after dark, but before the stars were all out, finally losing the fight to stay awake, even though I had made coffee for dessert.

The alarm didn’t help one bit – I slept right through it, but I did wake up in the middle of the night, to a clear sky full of stars. I got up to answer nature and used Ambrose’s headlamp, but then we stood outside together craning our necks and using our sleeping bags like cloaks to watch meteors streak across the sky.

Then we got sensible. I removed the rainfly, and we got comfortable on our sleeping pads, looking up with a very decent view of the night sky, and without getting cricks in our necks, from underneath cozy sleeping bags. Quite a luxurious way to watch a meteor shower – though next time I might get adventurous enough to sleep without a tent, for the added field of view and the lack of obscuring netting. The netting is see-through, but you can still see that it’s there.

A picture of the night sky from inside the tent – nothing but netting.

After a while, I lost the battle to stay awake again and drifted off.

Day 4: August 12th

Ambrose let me sleep really late this morning – 7am! The sun was up and out, no longer hiding behind a layer of haze and clouds. We took care of breakfast and packing and got on the trail back to Stump Lake only a little over an hour after I got up. Today was going to be another lazy day, so we didn’t hurry our steps, and I took the time to stop for pictures of the various trail markers that we follow. That information would have been really helpful to know before we started hiking up there.

I plan on compiling those pictures into another blog entry, once I take time to edit the photos to show exactly where the markers are. Often, you can follow the trail because it looks like a trail, but then you run into the spots where the trail isn’t obvious or there are too many options. The markers aren’t as easy to see in the photos as they are on the trail. Actually, they’re not always that easy to see on the trail either, but we didn’t get lost this time on the short hike back to Stump Lake.

How many trail signs can you spot?

How about here?

Yep, there’s a trail marker in this photo, too.

By the time we got back to Stump Lake, the sun had retreated behind clouds and haze again, so I decided against going for another swim – but I was tempted. Ambrose quickly got the tent up, having been infected by my rain paranoia from the day before. We did get a few sprinkles after mid-morning, but the day was mostly dry.

The stump of Stump Lake

I spent a lot of the day reading, and waiting for the chipmunks to take my bait.

I’ve wanted to take a picture of the small brown chipmunks that seem to pop up everywhere we hike in Idaho since we started this adventure four summers ago. At first, my problem was that I was using an old camera phone. Once we got a proper camera, I discovered that they were still too quick for me. I could snap a shot with them in the frame, but I didn’t have time to zoom in for a close up.

So I laid a trap. I placed a few crumbles of an energy bar and a sprinkling of vegetable soup mix (Ambrose’s suggestion) on a high-contrast rock and waited.

Bait laid

I laid it around 11am, and around 4pm, I was lucky enough that Ambrose spotted the chipmunk and alerted me. We were cowering in the tent, and I carefully unzipped the door in order to get a shot without mesh in the way.

Why yes, a lot of time did pass. 

At last! The close-up!

It turned out the chipmunk preferred the salty vegetable soup mix to the highly processed sugars of the energy bar.

After dinner we put the rainfly up. The air was cooling down, and clouds were rolling across the sky, leaving us with fewer sunny intervals before sunset hit.

Sometimes when I wake up in the night needing to pee, I hold it. I don’t want to crawl out of my comfortable cocoon of heat and venture into the dark, cold night just to expose a large portion of my skin to the wind. Sometimes, it works, and I can fall back asleep and end up needing to pee with extreme urgency come morning. This night, I got up twice to pee, and when I woke up the third time, I was overjoyed not to have chosen to hold it.

It was the crash of thunder and the crack of lightning that woke me the third time. Rain pounded our tent, and every time the thunder roared, I clutched at Ambrose. I might have made some whimpers. Maybe a few screams. He found that to be cute, and I told him that he shouldn’t feel too special. The first time I spent a night in a tent with a thunderstorm roaring outside was when I was in high school and on a trip to Devil’s Lake with Mary Rose. I screamed and clutched at her that night.

He still thought it was cute.

Day 5: August 13th
We slept a little later than planned, because the clouds made 6am darker than it would have been otherwise. But by 6:30, I was on the move, making coffee first this time, and then breakfast. While we were eating, I had a sudden feeling of nausea. The grits tasted foul in my mouth, and I had to stand up and consider whether I was going to vomit.

I didn’t, but I didn’t drink my coffee either. I packed it instead, and we set off with me in the lead, not just because I’m faster, but because Ambrose wanted to keep an eye on me. I still wasn’t feeling well, but staying wouldn’t help, so I put one foot in front of the other, and chose a game to play.

Ambrose estimated that we had navigated past 60 blown down trees on the walk up. I thought it was more, but I wasn’t sure by how many. So I decided to count, yelling out each tree’s number as I stepped over or around it. Keeping my mind on the count kept my mind off the icky feeling in my tummy.

We decided not to stop for long breaks after each hour of hiking in order to get back to the car as soon as possible. By the time we had hiked for an hour, my stomach was feeling better and we took a break and shared my coffee, stopping with packs on for less than five minutes before hiking on.

I decided that I would only count downed trees on the Needles Summit section of the trail. Some of the trees that encroached on the trail were either so small that I didn’t count them, or actually large branches that I tossed aside while Ambrose chanted “spear-chucker Jeanne.” Those didn’t count either, since when I was done, they no longer obstructed the trail. With those restrictions, we stepped over, crawled under or detoured around 125 blown down trees in less than four miles.

125 blow downs, no wonder we were tired!

 We took a break at the junction, knowing we had only two easy miles to go from there.

Looking down the last hard part on our easy trek.

Saying goodbye to the last hard part on our easy trek. 

At the sign marking the last mile to the car, I paused and waited for Ambrose to catch up. I discovered that his bells were not the first thing that I heard when he grew closer, but rather the snow stake that he’s been using instead of a trowel for digging cat holes. I could hear it clinking long before the jingle of his bells caught my ears.

Just one mile to go!

I came close to a three mile per hour pace on that last mile, arriving in about 21 minutes, and Ambrose shocked us both by coming in only three minutes after I arrived. The campground was completely deserted mid-morning on a Tuesday, and I quickly made my way to the river to rinse myself off in the chilly water.

I got in, and squealed at the cold, finally letting myself shriek with impunity – who was going to hear me but Ambrose?

When I walked back to the car, I saw that a forest ranger had pulled up, catching Ambrose literally with his pants down (he was wearing underwear), and me screaming in the river. Luckily, he didn’t comment on either of those unusual circumstances. After determining the car in the campground was ours, and that we were heading out, he wished us a good day and drove off.

Dressed in the sensuous cotton clothes that we’d stashed in the car, we buckled up and headed home. 

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