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.
We soon encounter one of the only signs of civilization along the trail: the Selway Lodge. First homesteaded in 1898, it has no phones, no TV, and no road access (it changed ownership after we visited and is no longer open to hikers). "Forty-two elk the other day in the meadow, and bears like mad," says then-owner Pat Millington. "Bears, bears, bears." We hike on into the growing night, scanning the shadows for shapes with teeth.
The only teeth we see are the jagged rocks of the rapids that begin near the confluence of Moose Creek. Boaters call this dangerous stretch "Moose Juice," because the Selway drops 150 feet in just 3 miles while rumbling through rapids with names like Double Drop, Wa-Poots, and Little Niagara. Three years in a row, boaters died along this stretch of river, caught in the power of spring floods. After a night camped by Ladle Falls, hardly talking over its roar, we hike on, both of us silently glad to be walking, not rafting.
In the lower reaches, the wild water calms, with only the silver streaks of trout flashing in the shallows; the ridges untangle themselves in the morning mist. We haven't heard a rattlesnake for days, the sound a distant, if not forgotten, memory. Instead, we savor the subtler rhythms of the Selway, a river worth hiking.
route: Forest Trail #4 is easy to follow, except for a few unsigned trail crossings. Be respectful of private in-holdings and packhorses.
drive time: Boise: 6 hours
the way: Several river companies will shuttle you from Race Creek Campground just outside of Lowell, ID, (park your car here) to the trailhead at Paradise Landing, which is north of Salmon on US 93 over Lost Trail pass.
season: This can be a sweltering midsummer trip. Plan to hike early and late in the day when the heat is least intense. In spring, don't expect to gain access until the roads are plowed. Call ahead.
cautions: Carry a snakebite kit and know proper wilderness travel procedures for bear country.
guides:Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, by Scott Steinberg ($19). USGS quads Burnt Strip Mountain, Dog Creek, Fog Mountain, Gardiner Peak, Mink Peak, Moose Ridge, Selway Falls, Shissler Peak and Spot Mountain (www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10 each).
contact: Bitterroot National Forest, (406) 363-7117; www.fs.fed.us/r1/bitterroot/.