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Backpacker Magazine – September 2009

Rip & Go: Loon Creek to Horseshoe Lake - Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, ID

Explore a supersized wilderness that's home to Idaho's densest population of gray wolves.

by: Jason Kauffman

Horseshoe Lake (Braden Gunem)
Horseshoe Lake (Braden Gunem)
(Photo by Dave Schiefelbein)
(Photo by Dave Schiefelbein)

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Key Gear: Trekking Poles
Unless you surprise a grizzly, you'll only face one significant hazard on your ascent to Horseshoe Lake. Well, make that three: the trio of stream crossings along upper Loon Creek. Its banks often have large logs or logjams spanning the stream to make crossings easier. But if traversing logs or rockhopping isn't an option (whether the water's too deep or you don't trust your balance), scout for the widest sections of the creek and cross facing upstream, using your trekking poles for balance. We like Black Diamond's Spire Elliptic ($135, 18 oz., Testers say its oval-shaped shaft is stronger than traditional round-shafted poles–we've never bent or snapped one. No poles? Scavenge the banks for shoulder-height, arm-width sticks. With poles or sticks, brace yourself against the current and angle across heading slightly upstream.

See This
Gray wolves
Fourteen years ago, federal biologists introduced 36 gray wolves to central Idaho. Today, the estimated population is 846 members in 88 packs, and wolves occupy every major drainage within the Frank Church, including the Loon Creek basin. The Landmark and Yankee Fork packs use Loon Creek as a "natural travel path" to get from dens to hunting grounds (they prey on elk and deer); wolves are most active at dawn and dusk.

Locals Know
Despite its great distance from the Pacific Ocean, the Frank Church contains some of the best spawning habitat in the Lower 48 for the endangered Chinook salmon. These fish swim upstream more than 800 miles from the Pacific to spawn in the chilly waters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River–and in tributaries like Loon Creek. Chinook create redds, or spawning nests, by sweeping their tails to scour holes in the gravel riverbottom, where females deposit thousands of eggs. To spot oval-shaped redds in upper Loon Creek, look for the characteristic pillow shape of disturbed rocks at the downstream end of the nest. Another "really obvious" clue: rocks that appear brighter than others (Chinooks brush them free of algae), says Idaho Department of Fish and Game's anadromous fish manager Pete Hassemer. Look for redds at the downstream end of slow pools. Each year, between 600 and 1,000 wild Chinook return to Loon Creek's pristine spawning grounds from late July to August, says Hassemer.

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