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The Big Miss

Predicting the weather in October in North Idaho is hit and miss. You could throw a dart at a splattering of weather options and find yourself with just as accurate a prediction as any on-air forecaster. Sure there are some general rules:

  1. There will probably be rain.
  2. That rain may be snow in the mountains at some point in time.
  3. That snow could melt off or be there until next spring.

With that in mind, we knew that the odds were good that Mid October could be our very last chance to drive up to some local towers before winter makes it a true challenge.

The goal was to visit, photograph, and take drone videos of three or four towers for the website. We had planned on hitting some of these over the summer, but forest fires and subsequent forest closures had squashed our plans. St. Joe Baldy, Middle Sister, and Conrad peak were on our radar with a potential bonus run out to Surveyor’s, weather permitting. 

Our meet-up point was a gas station, which conveniently allowed me to stock up on even more snacks than I could ever possibly eat. Pretty sure cookies were procured as well, but that may have been later down the road. Off we went.

The first stop was St. Joe Baldy. I was riding in a car with Stephanie (one of our contributors) while Cat led in her jeep with her husband, Mike. We ran into snow and ice towards the top and decided to park before the final climb to the top. We donned our gear and hoofed it up instead. 100 yards later, and we hit the crest. 

Most towers are in such remote places that you can easily transport yourself to a different time mentally as soon as you reach them. It’s easy to visualize what it must have been like to be alone on top of a mountain, miles from the nearest person.

St. Joe Baldy is not that way! The lookout has been converted to an equipment shack, and the mountaintop is full of microwave towers, electrical equipment, and propane tanks. However, the views are phenomenal. 

You look down on Saint Maries in the valley below. To the North, South, and East, you have ridges and mountain peaks as far as the eye can see. To the West, you can see all the way to the Palouse.

It was too windy to fly the drone, and it was a biting cold wind, so we didn’t stay long before heading back down to the cars. I am not sure if the vehicles would have slipped around on the ice coming up that final stretch of road. However, I can say that I did. I fell right on my rump, embarrassingly enough.

Back in the vehicles and onto the next stop, the plan was to drive up towards Conrad Peak before cutting over to Middle Sister. Another 40 miles up the road, we rolled through my favorite little town of Avery. The Avery Store is an excellent place to top off the fuel tanks, top off the coolers and top off the belly before heading deeper into the forests. I think this is where I may have grabbed the cookies; either way, I had far too much food for such a short trip.

Pulling out of Avery, we continued along, following the picturesque St. Joe further away from society. As fantastic as that drive is, it came to an abrupt halt for us when we hit a literal roadblock. A road-closed sign was sitting in the middle of the road. Taped to the sign where the road closed orders from the Forest Service.

We had made the mistake of assuming that the roads were re-opened, that the forest fire and road closures that blocked us from exploring these in the summer woul have passed. We had been so concerned with syncing up on a date to get out and watching the weather that we never bothered to look at road closures. Whoops!

Reading the closure required some special degree in Meets-and-Bounds navigation. It was the most unclear document attached to the most useless map I had ever read. Thanks, USFS! Our maps and apps came out, and with enough reading of their documentation and comparing their maps to ours, we figured we could still make it to Middle Sister. Conrad, where we planned camping, and Surveyors were out, sigh.

We jumped back in the rigs, turned around, and with a bit of backtracking, we were on our way to Middle Sister. We turned off the main road, navigated some beautiful roads in the St. Joe National Forest that I had never been on before, and eventually, we saw it. Woo-hoo, for now. 

That was the closest we would get to Middle Sister on this adventure. The road ended. Another look at the map, and we should have veered right at the last intersection. We backtracked a bit, made the right turn, but didn’t get more than another mile before the trip to Middle Sister ended. The snow had fallen, melted, and froze on this section of road. Pure ice along a few hundred-foot drop off made our spidey senses tingle, and we decided not today.  

It appeared that all routes into Middle Sister were blocked due to fire closure or difficult to safely navigate due to snow and ice. We turned around and found a campsite to hunker down at for the night before darkness settled in.

I have zero regrets. There is no such thing as a bad night around a campfire with some of your closest friends. Maybe if we checked the map and saw the closures, we would have skipped the trip, and that night’s whiskey, beers, and tall tales around a firepit wouldn’t have happened. So though I am bummed that we didn’t hit the original itinerary, the towers will be there next spring when we can give it another go.

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