The forecast called for rain, yet our ambitions managed to convince us otherwise. We hit the road for the Northern reaches of the Idaho Panhandle where we would set up camp at the Upper St. Joe River Trailhead. As we made our way through the Idaho Panhandle late Friday evening we continued to evaluate the forecast by the hour. In our minds, an 80% chance of rain meant that there was at least a 20% chance of, well, less miserable conditions. It wasn’t until we woke up at 3 am to discover that our ambitious thinking was wildly incorrect. With rain bouncing fiercely off the rain fly, we acted upon an unspoken agreement that there would be no cancellations today.
The rain certainly showed no signs of retreating and our rain shells succumbed to the elements. We made valiant efforts to remain dry, but those efforts were short-lived as we hiked through the freshly watered overgrowth. Eventually we were drenched head to toe with soggy feet and early onset hand pruning, the kind that makes you question whether or not your hands will ever be the same.
The rain also brought with it heavy fog and a layer of depth otherwise absent on a sunny day. Swift fog and fluctuating temperatures continued to shift the landscape by the minute.
When retreating from the exposed hillsides we found ourselves entrenched in dense pockets of brush and fallen trees. There was so much trail to be hiked, yet it was incredibly difficult not to stop and stare aimlessly. A long winter followed by consistent rainfall resulted in some of the most abundant overgrowth I have seen in recent years. The vegetation expanded from valley floors and into wide open meadows where it met dense Firs at the base of the Bitterroots. Although the trail gets its fair share of thru-hikers it still maintains its backcountry roots and untamed allure.
At 6 miles in we found shelter under tree cover and surveyed the river from the bank. The rain had mildly spiked flows yet the water remained crystal clear. Remnants of braided channels were made visible where spring runoff carved new paths like a series of veins feeding the forest basin. These veins eventually led us to deep pools where we tested our luck chasing the St. Joe’s Westslope Cutthroat Trout. The Westslope is native to the St. Joe where they thrive in an ecosystem abundant with nutrients and a variety of food sources. It’s just a matter of identifying exactly what those food sources are.. and which ones are on the menu.
Oh and don’t forget patience...Patience is a necessity when chasing trout. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to achieve when you’re out here. No worries, no obligations, no cell service.
As the fishing slowed and the cloud cover showed signs of retreat, the next leg of the adventure was set into motion. It was time to load up the packrafts and explore the valleys at the river's pace. With a final gear check and the tie-downs fastened we hit the water. A small braided section afforded easy access to the main stem of the Upper St. Joe where we let the current do the rest of the work.
Each bend revealed features that are typically obstructed from trail view offering an entirely new perspective of the drainage. It was unreal! Modest rapids led through stretches of terrain where trail access was nonexistent.
That whole part about being soaking wet inevitably became the disposition of choice...Well, let’s be honest, we didn’t really have a choice. Were we uncomfortable? Absolutely. Did we regret our decision? Absolutely not! Just lace up those boots, press on and embrace the unexpected.