Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Lewis and Clark Trail Cabin at Syringa: Escape to the Wilderness

I could see why some might think this would be ideal Bigfoot country. Anything or anyone could live in those hills without expecting to be found, giving me renewed awe of the Lewis and Clark expedition. An online account of a Sasquatch sighting as recent as the fall of 2012 claimed that the native Nez Perce, although well aware of the stories, tend to keep relatively tight-lipped about the large-footed legend with those not in their tribe. 

Efforts to convert the American Indian over to Christendom from the southern corner to the northern tip of Idaho were evident while driving through one small town after another, filled with quaint, white church houses. The radio dial offered on-air sermons, and in Midvale a white-haired woman named Betty placed her hand upon mine as I ate my lunch, praying that my trip would be a safe one. 

“Do not be afraid of the wilderness,” a radio evangelist with a southern accent crackled over the airwaves, “The wilderness is a place of growth.”

I drove through Kooskia, (pronounced “Koo-skee”) past the Opera House, the funeral parlor, and the market, heading to Syringa, on the meandering Highway 12.

Distant trees stood tall and blue-gray, and their colors popping against the blue sky, accompanied by the ongoing river, created brilliant combinations.

The area was rich with an almost tangible lore; Chief Looking Glass, Sasquatch, the Kooskia Internment Camp of World War II with its legendary residents who built the highway, created deeply touching artwork, and courageously convinced the powers that be toward fairer treatment. Adding to the history was the abundant rainfall, mountains, and glistening water on the winding rivers, not to mention the wildlife. Bear, cougar, moose, wolves, elk, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, beaver, otters, bald eagles, osprey, Canadian geese, trout, Steelhead, Chinook salmon, and Whitefish. 

And then there’s the recreation: Whitewater rafting, tubing, hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding, hunting, and lots of other things, I’m sure.

“We're not in the middle of nowhere, but one can see it from here…” said the ad for the Lewis and Clark Trail Cabin at Syringa, where I’d reserved a two nights’ stay. 

With its fire ring, Little Smith Creek trickling through the backyard, a horseshoe pit, old school furniture and enclosed porch, charm wove through every photo.

It wasn’t long before I spotted my getaway on Little Smith Creek Road. Parking under a large cedar tree, owner Scott Swearingen was there to offer help. After brief introductions and comments about the cedar tree shading us (“The cedars only grow in certain places”), I was asked if I had any questions.

I did.

“Is it safe to hike around? What about the bears and mountain lions?”

“Just make some noise, you’ll be okay. Let them know you’re there,” Scott replied.
“---that’s not what another lodge owner told me once about this area,” I countered, doubting.

“I know,” Scott said, choosing his words thoughtfully, “it’s just that some think a little differently.”

As he began to walk away, the cabin owner said, “I try to be there if people need me, and not be when people don’t. Some just come up for the peace and quiet.”

I mirthfully remembered the website saying that cooking, assistance with chores and fire-tending while telling stories of the area (or lies, but those would have to be arranged in advance), were available at an hourly rate, and grinned to myself.

 “You’d have to be a good people reader in order to know which type was which,” I commented, and he just smiled. Mr. Swearingen was an excellent people reader, but I didn’t find out why until a day or two later. 

The rustic two-bedroom, one-bath, cedar-framed cabin was a trip to yesteryear, beginning with the screen door, which sounded like summertime when it banged shut. The interior smelled like Grandpa’s memory-filled creek-side home in Pennsylvania. There was no cell service or internet there, either, adding to the peacefulness.

After viewing the collection of DVDs, video cassettes, and books, I noticed two photos from Mr. Swearingen’s outfitting days; one of a bighorn sheep. The comforting hum of the living room’s freestanding fan, the birds chirping, and tumbling water in the creek lulled me into a state of calm.

I roasted sweet corn and grilled sliced onions, and seasoned sparingly, wanting my food to mirror the atmosphere. Until, that is, I found my favorite cherry-flavored soda in the fridge, offered on the honor system for a buck. I tumbled sparking ice into a spotless glass from the well-stocked kitchen and poured, taking plate and glass to the picnic table within its circle of conifers.

Squirrels peeked behind branches, scolding and flicking tails. They didn’t hibernate here, but ate year round. And they wanted my corn. 

Since I’d vacated the cabin, hummingbirds swarmed the red plastic feeder by the front door. Butterflies danced about, sampling hundreds of wildflowers. 

I went for an after-dinner hike up the road, which narrowed to gravel, then to barely a trail, engulfed by butterfly-filled, waist-tall flower bushes, singing with color. Bleeding hearts, daisies, and sweet-smelling Syringa made me feel like royalty in a parade. Crossing a small stream and expecting it to be ice cold was folly; nothing was cold in the hundred-degree temps. Making noise as instructed, I loudly sung a favorite song, then wondered how far the sound carried. Upon emerging from the forest, I’d either be greeted by applause, or curious stares.

Thankfully, I saw no one.

Sundown arriving late, I sat outside watching hummingbirds, who’d only approach if my face was in a book. Once it was, they weren’t above fly-bys within inches of my head. One aggressive bird continually chased others from the feeder, but when dipping his head to drink, three more snuck back.

When it got too dark to read, I got paints and brushes out, to create something influenced by the Northern Idaho I saw. Deep, dense green, with the off-white and pale pink/peach of a Syringa flower’s center found its way onto the paper, a gift for the owners.

I did one more, of the evergreens. Once completed and knowing I needn’t wake up early, I grabbed a shower with surprisingly good, five-star-hotel-worthy water pressure, and then took the book, “Ridgerunner” to bed. 

It was all about a man who kept breaking into lookout stations and thieving, couldn’t be traced, and knew his way around the mountains and forest like a wild animal, may not have been the best choice. It was nonfiction, and had happened nearby. 

When I left the cabin the next morning after sleeping in, Scott and his wife, Pam, offered ideas for places to visit. Selway Falls, the Lochsa Historical Ranger Station, Three Devils, and the River Dance Lodge, where I could get a bite to eat.

“Ask for Rachel,” they told me. I’d seen the café’s menu sitting neatly on a chest of drawers in the cabin, and appreciated how the businesses supported each other.

When commenting on the fantastic water pressure, and the difference the water had made on my skin and hair, Scott said, “---thought I’d put in an adequate hose!” 

Pam said simply, “It’s just our well water.”

The mountain water made my skin clearer, and my hair fuller, putting me into an even more festive mood after spending the night surrounded by nature, books, and the sounds of tumbling water.

When thanking the Swearingens for stocking the fridge with my favorite soda, they told me their daughter was behind that pick, since it was also her favorite.

“Hi!” the daughter called cheerfully from the kitchen, and I waved enthusiastically back.

River Dance Lodge, with its Syringa Café, was just a mile or two down Highway 12. Not really all that hungry, yet feeling I should eat something, I ordered their Prosciutto and Bleu Cheese salad. I stared at the bottom of the plate twenty minutes later, having had the best salad I’d ever tasted. There was something in every bite, I hadn’t had to dig. Roasted prosciutto, crumbled bleu cheese, sundried tomatoes, finely diced white onions, candied walnuts, and a honey-Dijon vinaigrette with only a hint of flavor, so as not to overpower. I attempted to get the recipe from Lorraine Smith, who chefs there with her husband, Greg, but was basically unsuccessful.

“The dressing’s a family recipe, and I promised not to give it out,” she told me kindly yet firmly.

 “Oh, wow!” I exclaimed an hour later, when approaching the frothy, turquoise-blue water of Selway Falls stumbling over huge boulders. I gingerly turned the SUV around, using caution so as not to morph the trip into a whitewater adventure.

Getting dinner at the Kooskia Café, I ordered an old-fashioned, open-faced roast beef sandwich, assured that everything there was homemade. 

The café’s wait staff seemed like the epitome of “nice”, and even gave me their “secret” fry sauce recipe.

“We don’t tell people from around here, but since you’re not…”

(It’s ranch mixed with Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbeque sauce. And it’s good.)

“It’s so hot today, I’m gonna eat light,” said an older gentleman walking into the café, “Give me some French fries!”

I settled in at the cabin, sunburnt, happy, and ready to read and sleep. Having scared myself with the previous night’s selection, I opened Peter Jenkins’ “Walk Across America”, and read until slumber ended the chapter.

“Wish you were able to stay longer,” said Scott the next morning, “there is just so much to see and do here.”

I agreed. I still hadn’t spent a couple of hours at one of the sandy beaches along the river, an absolute must. When asked what I’d done so far, I mentioned Syringa Café, and attempts to get a recipe from Lorraine. Scott and Pam laughed, saying, “Good luck.”

The Swearingens invited me into their home for some more Idaho talk, and to view the pen-and-ink, incredibly detailed artwork of Scott’s brother, Charlie, who lives in Idaho City.

“My brother says that this area and his are very similar,” Scott commented, “but I don’t really agree.”

“They’re both filled with trees,” I nodded, “but it’s more dense, and…” I searched for the right word, “vertical here.” 

“The cedars only grow in certain places…” I recalled.

Our talk took an unexpected turn when I asked where this couple, so obviously comfortable with one another, had met. The two had literally been through high and low together, becoming engaged at the summit of Mount Borah, Idaho’s highest point, and then married at the concourse where the rivers joined in Lewiston, Idaho’s lowest sea level location.

“We met in prison,” they said.

Pam was offered a prison job, but initially declined. When a second job became available, her then-friend, Scott, had encouraged her. Being around inmates was new, and something that could induce anxiety in anyone. At times Pam wondered if she’d get through it. 

Conversations with Scott, also working at the prison, merited the creation of what Pam called “The Speech”. By way of a been-there pep talk, Scott told her something to this effect:

“In times of trouble and stress, one has to take care of themselves first.

Keep a schedule. Eat healthy.  Minimize caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Get good rest. Get good exercise. Don’t listen to the negative self-talk that haunts one at the end of a long day. If one forces themselves to do these things when they just want to hibernate, they will be well-prepared.

Well-prepared to say the right things, make the right choices, and take the steps to eliminate the problem.”

That helped. She stayed at the prison for years, with The Speech displayed at her desk.

Being a former psychology major, I wanted to know more.

They told me that prisoners know how to read people, having lots of time to think about what body language, tone of voice, mannerisms, hairstyles, and the ways people dress meant.

“Everything you do says something,” they said, “and many prisoners will use that to their advantage. If you open the door a crack, they’ll find a way in.”

I was intrigued.

“Many don’t want to know about you to be your friend. Once they find a softy, they’ll get them to buy them cigarettes, contraband, and pass along messages to the outside.”

 “Prisoners have all day to think about that stuff,” added Pam, “while we were still going home to our families. We had to learn this.”

Scott put three books down on the table.

“Here are the sorts of books we read, to educate ourselves,” he said.

 “Games Criminals Play”, “Body Language”, and “The Gift of Fear”.

Pam stayed at the prison, moved up in the ranks, and eventually becoming a Lieutenant. When she was required to oversee the release of an infamous criminal, one who had murdered people, the victims’ family was outraged at his impending freedom. Knowing this, prison employees were asked to voluntarily protect the prisoner from possible sniper fire. The employees encircled him, not necessarily out of respect for the life of the prisoner, but to support Pam in her duties, risking their own lives to do so. It was the kind of thing Pam would not soon forget. 

Scott eventually had his fill of the prison career life, and moved on to become a State patrolman.

The Swearingens must have seen more of the county’s negative behavior than most. Yet, they were still there.

“You’ll find more good than bad,” they told me, adding, “People here are really good.”

The cabin owners wished me well, gave me directions to a good beach along the river, and sent me on my way.

Going back through Kooskia’s Main Street, I spotted an old building’s wall, painted in bright colors.

“Welcome to KOOSKIA,” it said, “Gateway to the Wilderness.”

Down in the corner was the artist’s depiction of Sasquatch.

 A few minutes later, I switched on the radio.

“Abraham had to spend time in the wilderness,” the preacher was drawling, “because the wilderness was a place of growth.”

I thought about Scott and Pam’s prison stories of personal strength, and of my visit to the Lewis and Clark Trail Cabin. About the peaceful meal, the hike in bear country, wading through the stream, the wildflowers, butterflies, squirrels, and hummingbirds. Of the Perfect Prosciutto Salad. Reading late at night, sleeping in, finally discovering a beach of my own, and of the friends I’d made.

‘The cedars only grow in certain places,’ I remembered.

Places like the wilderness.