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May 2003

Hike Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

River rats wait years to ride the wild Selway River. Hikers can taste its raw beauty right now.

The sound is undiluted and unmistakable. It shoots bolts of lightning-hot fear right past the rational mind to the darkest corner of your soul. TTTTTTTTttttttttt! Rattlesnake.

“Six!” I shout, jumping straight up in the air despite my 60-pound pack. The unseen serpent in the bush in front of me is the sixth we’ve encountered in the first mile of trail.

“Maybe it’s the heat that’s brought them out,” my wife says as we look for a shady spot along the sun-baked river. Could be, but we both know this is just wild country, and wild country sometimes has teeth.

The 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is a maze of pine-robed mountain ranges and untrailed canyons. The view from any ridgetop carries that slow ache of distance and untamed land. “This is the real thing,” says Bob Stewart, who wrangled packhorses through the area for a decade before taking up shuttle driving, “a hundred miles of solid nothing.”

And through the heart of that solid nothing flows a river. Federally protected on both banks, the Selway is one of the most pristine waterways in the Lower 48. To keep it wild, the U.S. Forest Service allows only one boat launch a day. With only 78 permits per season, the odds of hitting the jackpot hovers around one in 30. The wait can take years. But backpackers don’t have to grow old dreaming about the Selway; they can hike it without delay–without even a permit.

For most of its 50-mile route, Forest Trail #4 closely follows every bend and riffle of the river, even crossing over it twice on suspension bridges. Sitting on the riverbank in the dark of our first night’s camp, we dangle our feet over the current and listen to a hypnotizing gurgle. Moonlight shimmers on the water’s surface. The heat has slipped away. The snakes are forgotten.

We break camp with first light filtering through the pines, moving quickly in the cool morning. By noon, we’re swimming in the cold jade-green water, lolling away the hours until the sun slips over the summit of the day. Then we hike a few more hours in the cool evening.

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