The Cramer Lakes are nestled six miles up a gentle incline from Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho. The jagged, irregular peaks of the ridges surrounding the lakes form the horizon. Mt Cramer towers over the rest at an elevation of 10,715 feet, the second highest mountain in the range. Each of the three lakes has a short outflow into the next, eventually reaching the South fork of the Payette River. The drainage from the upper lake tumbles over a twenty foot cliff, forming a stunning waterfall and a rewarding site for the weary backpacker.
The lakes appear as though there is a massive sheet of glass covering the surface, void of imperfections, allowing fish in even the deepest part of the lake to be seen from shore. A picture of my future wife, Janny, and me standing at the edge of the middle Cramer Lake is framed on our living room wall. Unfortunately, amateur photography does not accurately illustrate my memory of that day’s beauty or do the scenery justice.
Our satisfied smiles neglect to describe the details of nine blisters on her feet or of sleeping only five hours on the cold, lumpy ground the night before.
I had moved to Idaho seven months earlier and this was my maiden voyage into the Idaho wilderness. Despite my silent discomfort and green-horn status in the world of backpacking, this picture identifies in my heart the first time I felt as if I was truly home since leaving Atlanta. I was born and raised in Florida near the coast and went to college in South Carolina. My father is a CPA and owns his own practice, so my initial plan was to major in accounting and work with him after I graduated. After suffering through my first accounting class, I changed my focus and majored in economics.
Intense work in finance for ten years, first as a stock broker and then as managing partner of a hedge fund, burned me out. My career was demanding to say the least. Late nights, early mornings, endless travel, overbearing clients and the lack of any identifiable personal life led me to one conclusion; I needed a change. I researched my options and was looking for a job with a flexible schedule that allowed me to live a relaxed, adventurous life. I pondered over the many possibilities: high school economics teacher, firefighter, tiki-bar owner in the Caribbean, police officer, lifeguard, surf bum, ski bum, river bum… the list goes on.
I had only minimal experience from a summer lifeguarding job in college where I earned my EMT certification. Some Emergency Medical Services agencies in the northwest were hiring, so off I went. With no trailer, no rooftop carrier, and no storage unit left behind, my trailblazer was full to the brim; If it didn’t fit in the car, I didn’t need it. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado… it was quite a long trip, but I never allowed myself to consider turning back. I interviewed for firefighter positions in Colorado Springs and Boulder, and while waiting to hear back from either agency, I headed to Boise.
I tested and interviewed with Ada County Paramedics and was offered a job within days of my arrival. Anxious to explore everything my new location had to offer, I spent many hours wandering on the trails in the Boise Foothills, spring skiing at Bogus Basin and shopping at the local outdoor retail stores. I met Janny through work friends on a ski trip and seven months later, we planned our adventure to Cramer Lakes. The aluminum ferry boat from the Redfish Lake lodge shuttled us three miles across the lake to a remote trailhead. It was mid September and we were lucky enough to have warm, t-shirt hiking weather.
Fall colors were just starting to bloom and we watched the forest change color before our eyes. Bright yellow aspens glowed amidst the evergreen forest, ground covering ivy danced a deep fiery red in the breeze and the innumerable berry bushes burst with an enticing orange. The steep, irregular peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains rose above the fall foliage as we hiked deeper into the wilderness. I spent the entire day in awe at the magnificence of this new state I now called home. We arrived at lower Cramer Lake barely before the sun dropped behind the peaks, the last of the rays lit up the mountains as if light came from within them.
A grassy clearing at the outlet creek made the perfect campground and we quickly settled in. Projecting confidence and the image of a true outdoorsman, I set out to catch fish for dinner. In the back of my city boy mind I was slightly nervous we might go hungry. My fishing experiences growing up required discipline and patience; we woke too early, shivered in the dark morning hours, sat motionless and quiet hoping one of our poles would dance for a nibble on the line, and often came home disappointed. Idaho fishing proved to be much more exciting!
Every cast into the lake yielded a bite; I even had success without bait. Our fresh, campfire-charred trout dinner was satisfyingly scrumptious. My prideful smile gleamed brighter than the campfire that night. We woke early to a brisk, dewy morning. It surprised me how delicious leftover trout, instant coffee and oatmeal tasted after a long night sleeping on the ground. Packs and stomachs full, we continued up the trail. We got our first glimpse of middle Cramer Lake at eye level as we crested the hill. The cascading waterfall on the opposite side of the lake was a delightful sight.
The lake’s mirror finish appeared bluish-green in the morning light and reminded me of the time I spent near the Atlantic Ocean as a child. We balanced the camera on an adjacent rock with the timer set and posed for the shutter. It snapped several shots of the back of my head, and one with a look of terror across my face as I slipped on the trail and almost took an unplanned swim. The outtakes were worth it. Our final photo captured a small piece of the magic of Cramer Lakes. The painful blisters on Janny’s feet changed our plans for 3 more days of strenuous hiking.
Instead, we decided to stay in Cramer Basin and relax for the remainder of the vacation. Tucked in the trees between middle and upper Cramer Lakes we found a clearing. The soft grass was barely big enough for our tent, the bubbling sound of the waterfall was close enough to lull us to sleep, and the fire pit faced a four foot tall, flat-sided rock, the perfect campsite. That night, the rock radiated campfire heat and kept us toasty long after the warmth of the sun was gone. The sting of my disappointment about the cancelled hike was soothed by pink and purple sunset skies behind the Sawtooth Mountains.
We filled the next two days with short swims in the chilly water, long suns on the flat rocks near the bottom of the waterfall and short explorations we could tackle in our sandals. Our final night at dusk, I walked to a high rock ledge near the campsite and enjoyed my final moments at Cramer Lakes. As I stood relieving myself of the lemonade and water I had consumed all day, I remembered my “old” life and my “new” life. In Atlanta, I rarely found myself more than 10 miles from home and now I was in the middle of nowhere, Idaho.
I traded my expensive suits and shoes for zip off pants and a Casio digital watch and I couldn’t have been happier. Something very large moved on the rock ledge above my head and startled me out of my daydream. The light was dim so I wasn’t positive, but I saw it move again and knew what I was seeing. The biggest cat I ever saw walked effortlessly on the rocky ridge away from me and he passed our campsite. I watched paralyzed by surprise and fear as it glided over the ridge and disappeared into the woods on the other side of the lake. I saw a mountain lion!
Not in a zoo, not far away through binoculars, but five feet above me! I rushed back to the campsite and found Janny, clueless and warm by the campfire enjoying a steamy mug of hot chocolate. Neither of us slept well that night. She was convinced every sound she heard would be her last before the mountain lion pounced. She asked, “Did you hear that?!? ” in response to every leaf in the breeze and bug landing on the tent. We woke in the morning alive but tired, and packed up our camp. As we left the Cramer Lakes valley, I was content and exhausted. 33 years old and I was finally where I was supposed to be.
I knew I would grow to love the outdoors even more, and I have. I sensed I had met the woman I would marry, and I had. Since then, each time I sit around a backcountry campfire, I compare that trip to the Cramer Lakes trip; the fabulous campsite, the shockingly bright colors, the scenery on the trail, the unexpected wildlife and the personal epiphany I discovered. So far none of our endeavors have come close. We haven’t been back to Cramer Lakes but we have plans to complete our original planned loop this September. The best part is, Idaho is now my home and I can enjoy as much of it as I wish.