Posted: Sunday, November 7, 2010 10:00 am
Updated: 9:48 pm, Sat Nov 6, 2010.
Newspaper article By DAVID GUNTER
SANDPOINT — Together, they have hiked nearly 3,500 miles over the course of about 360 trips to the trailhead. For Betsy and Jim, these hikes are more than a passion for the outdoors. They are the weekly remembrance of a love story that plays itself out on the trail.
For this couple, a romantic walk means spending the day exploring wildflower strewn meadows, scrambling over boulders to find hidden mountain lakes or stepping into snowshoes for a climb that leaves them standing breathless and awestruck on the highest peaks the region has to offer.
They have been together for some time, but this chapter of their love story started seven and a half years ago, at a time when Betsy was recuperating from a battle with breast cancer. After a year that included two surgeries, a half dozen rounds of chemo and seven weeks of daily radiation treatments, she found it difficult to climb the stairs at the library, much less anything as rigorous as a hike.
Jim, though, sensed that the outdoors was just the medicine his wife needed. He’d been spending part of his Sundays fly fishing and discovered the trail up to Harrison Lake on one of those outings. Somehow, he knew that asking his wife in person to join him the following week would result in a “no.” With that in mind, he made the invitation via e-mail.
“He was right — my first instinct was to say ‘no way,’ ” Betsy recalled.
After mulling it over, she decided to drive into town and find a pair of hiking boots to replace the ones she had long ago given away.
“Then I e-mailed him back with a ‘yes!’” she said. “He was shocked.”
The first hike was scheduled to last 15-20 minutes up the Harrison Lake trail to a good view spot, where they would call it a day. Betsy, however, wouldn’t turn around at that point.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to the lake — I didn’t go into town and buy hiking shoes for nothing,’” she said.
On the way back to town after the hike, the couple stopped into Buck & Edna’s — it was still standing on the Pack River Road at the time — for what Betsy described as “one of the coldest beers I ever had.” Still on a hiking high, she asked Jim what the plan was for the following Sunday.
They have been hiking together every week since that time.
“Fifty-two weeks a year — rain or shine, fog, cold, blizzards and 40 mile per hour winds,” Betsy said. “We’ve been out in it all.”
There are some great trail guides available for those who want to hike the Selkirk and Cabinet Mountains, but none have quite the personal touch of the “hiking reports” Betsy logs after each trip. They recount the time the couple left home, when they arrived at the trailhead, GPS readings, mileage covered and the time they got back to the truck, all interspersed with personal reflections and weather reports.
“As you can tell, I’m a perfectionist,” Betsy said as she thumbed through the indexed and very organized notebook of reports.
When asked if she has a favorite hike, she responds: “Do you have a favorite child?” Still, when pressed, she does list Fault Lake and Big Fisher Lake as two locations that get high marks, along with Bee Hive Lake, Chimney Rock and the one that started it all, Harrison Lake.
Getting her to name a trail she’d never want to hike again turns out to be an easier proposition.
“Goat Mountain,” Betsy said without hesitation. “The elevation gain is 4,000 feet in three miles. I’m happy we did it, but I never want to do it again. It’s a killer.”
That trip, like all the others, is listed in great detail in her reports. Other day trips include attempts to summit Silver Dollar Peak — a still-elusive goal — and successful hikes to the top of Scotchman Peak, the summits of three of the Seven Sisters and the highest peak in Boundary County, which has no name at all, just a map listing as “7709 feet.”
While most of the hike reports recall trails that have proper signs and guidebook listings, there is also a category for unmarked trails in the notebook. Once done, those trips, too, receive some sort of a name to commemorate their completion.
“Those are the trails that only exist in Jim’s mind,” Betsy said, flipping the report pages until she finds her notes on one particular hike. “Here’s a good example: This is one I named, ‘Bushwhack to Nowhere.’”
One of the more memorable climbs took the hikers to a remote spot that has come to be known as Miracle Mountain. On the rocky slopes beneath its peak, those who have the tenacity to find the place can still see the crumpled remnants of a plane crash.
“We couldn’t find it the first time,” said Betsy, who, with her husband, learned about the site from Royal Shields. “It’s up in the boonies on a ridge above Little Harrison Lake, between Sister Four and Sister Five. I swear, it seemed like nobody had ever been there before.”
On their second hike to find the plane crash, they encountered Royal and Jana Shields, who led them to a sign above the wreckage. Amazingly, the wooden marker tells of a family that survived the crash almost 25 years ago.
Under the words “Miracle Mountain” the sign reads: “Irwin family of four walked away from plane crash of C-70040. 4-20-86. Praise the Lord.”
“We’ve talked to other avid hikers and nobody — I mean nobody — knows anything about it,” said Betsy, who later researched the crash and posted a plastic-covered newspaper clipping under the sign for those who might want to know the whole story.
When she went to the Bonner County Historical Society Museum to look up press accounts of the accident, volunteers asked her if she was a lawyer or a member of the Irwin family.
“Neither, I told them. I’m a hiker.”
Along with the written reports, Betsy chronicles the couple’s hikes with her camera. Her requirements are simple but non-negotiable: The unit has to be small enough to fit into her waist pack and be able to handle both close-ups and panoramic vistas with ease. Readers of the Daily Bee see her work regularly in the “Your Best Shot” feature slot, a venue that has become a stand-in photo gallery for her more than 100 published shots of wildlife, plants and mountaintop views that can only be earned the hard way.
“I love doing both — hiking and photography,” said Betsy. “And they just happen to complement each other.”
On some of their early hikes, Jim opted to scout ahead on the trail when Betsy stopped to collect photos of a flower or batch of huckleberries that caught her artist’s eye. Now that she has become known for her photos, he has started to help her scout new images — sometimes, it seems, with a little too much enthusiasm.
They started hiking together in the early 60s. Now 70, they take their weekly outings so seriously that they close their business — Mountain Spa & Stove — on Mondays to allow time to get to some of the more remote trailheads. On average, each hike totals about 10 miles, though several have gone considerably farther.
“We’ve only missed about six times in seven and a half years,” Betsy said. “I’m so happy that we do this, that we have our health and that we live here.”
Betsy 's photographs can be seen in the Daily Bee, while selected hike reports and images can be found online at www.riverjournal.com by clicking the Outdoors tab and going to the Mountain Walkers column.