Footloose on the St. Joe
August 21, 2011
Photo gallery: Starting on the Bitterroot Divide on the Montana-Idaho border, Outdoors editor Rich Landers and David Moershel of Spokane hike to the source of the St. Joe River in the heart of a region scorched by the 1910 forest fires. They anointed themselves in the holy water above St. Joe Lake and continued downstream to explore and fish about 30 miles of river through the roadless section of Idaho’s famous trout stream.
The St. Joe River is famous for it’s clean water and bounty of native westslope cutthroat trout, such as this one being reeled in by a fly fisher in the river’s roadless section. To get there, Outdoors editor Rich Landers and David Moershel of Spokane had to invest some sweat and on blood lost to feasting insects as they hiked the trails for four days. Idaho regulations require that all cutthroat trout caught by anglers on the St. Joe River must be immediately released.
Alpine heather was in bloom as David Moershel of Spokane hiked the Stateline Trail on the Bitterroot Divide between Idaho and Montana. He started at Cascade Pass southwest of Superior for the 6-mile trek to the source of the St. Joe River and St. Joe Lake.
Stateline Trail 738 courses along the spine of the Bitterroot Divide for roughly 70 miles — some of it unmaintained — just 20-some miles south of Interstate 90 from the St. Regis, Mont., area to Missoula. This stretch southeast of Cascade Pass and Forest Road 320 offers stunning views on the way to Illinois Peak.
David Moershel hikes through a craggy section of Stateline Trail 738 heading toward Illinois Peak and St. Joe Lake.
The Stateline Trail winds along the rocky spine of the Bitterroot Divide between Idaho and Montana, roughly paralleling Interstate 90 for miles. David Moershel of Spokane started at Cascade Pass southwest of Superior for the 6-mile trek to the source of the St. Joe River and St. Joe Lake. Oregon Lakes and Missoula Lake are on the Montana side (to the right) of the Divide in the distance.
The St. Joe River begins here as it flows toward St. Joe Lake out of a shallow spring-fed tarn on a grassy bench below the Bitterroot Divide on the Montana-Idaho border.
St. Joe Lake at the headwaters of the St. Joe River is nestled against the Bitterroot Divide on the Montana-Idaho border below the Stateline Trail. Water from springs near the divide flow into the Lake. The St. Joe River is born at the outlet of the lake, where it soon tumbles down Rambikur Falls.
Huckleberries were still green at the end of July at St. Joe Lake, elevaton 6,500 feet.
From St. Joe Lake, Trail 49 leads down 5.5 miles along the St. Joe River to Medicine Creek, where Road 320 follows another 5 miles of river to Heller Creek Campground. From here, as pictured above, the river starts gathering a decent flow. This is the trailhead where backpackers begin a 17-mile trek downstream on Trail 48 through a roadless stretch of the river to Spruce Tree Campground.
David Moershel didn’t go far below Heller Creek before he was tempted to wet a line in the St. Joe River.
The St. Joe River’s native westslope cutthroat trout, more often than not, eagerly greet the patterns presented by fly fishers during summer.
Large snags left by forest fires create important habitat for cutthroat trout and bull trout. Standing from this spot, Outdoors editor Rich Landers caught or raised more than a dozen cutthroat trout while casting a Royal Wulff pattern to the water left of the logs.
A white-tailed deer checks out hikers near the campsite at the confluence of Bean Creek and the St. Joe River.
The St. Joe River is home to all sorts of wildlife, including amphibians that oftent watch unnoticed as anglers wade the shores to fish for cutthroat trout.
A harmless snake seemed undaunted on a rock along the St. Joe River as Outdoors editor Rich Landers cast flies to catch cutthroat trout.
An unusual hole revealing the St. Joe River flowing under an overhanging rock in the middle of the stream caught the eye of Outdoors editor Rich Landers before he used the rock as a platform to cast and catch several cutthroad trout.
St. Joe River Trail 48 occassional breaks into the open enabling hikers to get a good view of the river.
Sometimes Trail 48 leads very high above the St. Joe River, leaving anglers with a tough scramble to get down to the good fishing holes they spot below.
Anglers must bushwhack to the fishing holes in the upper roadless sections of the St. Joe River where angling pressure is light.
A little effort to get to the water from St. Joe River Trail 48 almost always pays off for a fisherman.
Numerous log jams and sweepers such as this create serious hazards to people who might consider floating the roadless section of the St. Joe River. Expert kaykers sometimes paddle the upper river at higher spring levels, but even they are forced to make arduous portages. Outdoors editor Rich Landers and David Moershel considered floating the river in inflatable kayaks. After taking a close look at the entire roadless stretch, they’re very happy they made the wise decision to Backpack along the river on Trail 48 instead.
Fresh wolf tracks lead up from the St. Joe River roadless area near Bacon Creek.
Good, clear water is in abundant supply as for backpackers on Trail 48 along the St. Joe River. But it’s still advisable to purify these waters before drinking.
David Moershel uses a SteriPEN ultraviolet light to purify a liter of water in 90 seconds at a campsite along the St. Joe River.
The first rays of morning sun are welcome at a make-do campsite deep in the canyon shadows of the St. Joe River roadless area. Despite high temperatures in the 80s during the daytime in late July, night-time temps dropped into the 40s.
The evening is prime time for fishing in the St. Joe River’s roadless area, and it’s also is prime time to see white-tailed deer and other wildlife.
In the lower third of the St. Joe River roadless area, hikers get a good look at the ravages of bark beetles infesting the aging lodgepole pine stands that emerged from the 1910 fires. The lodgepoles are near the end of their natural life cycle, and the beetles are feasting on the occasion.
Heavier use on the lower third of the St. Joe River Trail 48 becomes obvous as the trail gets wider and the routes to the river’s fishing holes become more tramped out.
After dropping some 2,600 feet in elevation during a few days of hiking and fishing down from the source of the St. Joe River, Rich Landers and David Moershel noticed the lower elevation huckleberries were getting ripe.
Outdoors editor Rich Landers didn’t let a flat tire — plus an equally flat tire on the other side of his pickup — derail his quest to access the roadless area of the St. Joe River on notoriously rough Forest Road 320 before setting out with a backpack to explore the cutthroat fishing in nearly 30 miles of the famous Idaho trout stream’s upper reaches.