Six Idahoans rediscover Craters of the Moon

Group retraces footsteps of 1921 expedition and concludes trek in uncharted territory

rbarker@idahostatesman.comApril 21, 2014 

  • TIMELINE OF THE GREAT RIFT EXPEDITION

    Friday, April 11

    After driving on unpaved roads half the morning, the six backpackers started at Wood Road Kipuka Trailhead and walked 7 miles on the Wapi flow.

    Saturday, April 12

    The members camped overnight near Kings Bowl, an explosion crater centered along the Great Rift, where they were treated to dinner from Bruce Reichert, host of Idaho Public Television's "Idaho Outdoors." The crew was shooting video for a program on wilderness.

    Sunday, April 13

    The group hiked north, splitting up briefly, with some temporarily leaving the rugged lava flows behind while hiking through a portion of the section of the monument administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

    Monday, April 14

    Expedition members entered the Craters of the Moon flow, the third and largest flow in the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

    Tuesday, April 15

    The group made its way north from Bear Park kipuka (an older piece of land surrounded by younger lava flows) toward Blacktail Butte.

    Wednesday, April 16

    The group hiked to Blacktail Butte in the heart of the Great Rift Wilderness Study Area, four miles from the nearest road.

    Thursday, April 17

    The group hiked nearly 15 miles and made it back to the national monument headquarters at 8 p.m. They went from Blacktail Butte to the Tree Molds trailhead just north of Big Cinder Butte.

Dan Buckley gathered the members of the Great Rift Expedition together last Monday, the fourth day of their 62-mile hike, to see if they wanted to continue exploration of one of Idaho's least-traveled landscapes.

The trip to commemorate Robert "Two-Gun" Limbert's expedition, which led to the creation of Craters of the Moon National Monument, had been harder than they had expected.

Buckley, superintendent of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, wanted to know if the five men and one woman wanted to go past the point of no return.

Their feet were battered and bruised from hiking on the untrailed and uneven lava rock. One member of the expedition compared it to walking all day on a Stairmaster. Deep cracks and crevasses big enough to swallow a man are everywhere.

"You get tired, you lose your focus and you have a dangerous situation," said Brian Bean, 60, the owner of the Lava Lake Land and Sheep Co.

The wind had blown continuously, with gusts up to 50 miles per hour along with rain and snow. Several members of the party had cuts and bruises on their hands from falling while carrying 45- to 60-pound packs weighted down with water.

"We were going into territory that nobody had ever been in before," Buckley said. "We have no written or oral history of people going into these areas, so we really didn't know what to expect."

Bean, the oldest member of the team, says Buckley told them that once they entered the Craters of the Moon lava flows - the largest of several the expedition would cross - they would be committed for a long hike out.

"We said we were all in," Bean recalls.

FOLLOWING IN BIG FOOTSTEPS

The team finished the historic trip in twilight at 8 p.m. Thursday. They were following a tradition of national park expeditions that goes all the way back to the 1870 Washburn Expedition into Yellowstone.

Limbert, a naturalist, photographer, guide explorer, performer and Idaho promoter, had explored the Great Rift area between Arco and Rupert several times before his June 1921 trip, which was sponsored by the Idaho Statesman. The trip resulted in his publication of an account and photos in National Geographic magazine.

"I offer this as a plea not only to the people of Idaho, but to the entire nation, that they may have a new national park or monument in many respects the equal and in some easily the peer of many of the 45 now within our boundaries," Limbert wrote in the Idaho Statesman.

He called the area "a vast expanse, silent, dead, except for an occasional bird, a country with cold volcanic mountains, a riot of color and fantastic shape so unearthly as to make one believe himself on another planet."

In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge designated it a national monument, calling it "Idaho's National Park." President Bill Clinton expanded the monument in 2001 after several visits by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

NEW HORIZONS

Even as Buckley's team was following Limbert, it was blazing a new path not only of adventure but of science and geography.

Eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago created the lava flows that make up Craters of the Moon. The lava rose from the Great Rift, a series of deep cracks that stretches 52 miles south from the monument headquarters.

The flows cover 618 square miles, including the smaller Wapi and Kings Bowl lava fields formed 2,000 years ago.

Native Shoshone traveled through parts of the area, as have Limbert and other explorers, hunters and park employees. But much of the region has never been explored - a rarity for a 21st century American landscape. The Great Rift Expedition discovered more than 15 caves, archaeological sites and natural and scenic features.

Botanist Mike Mancuso, of Boise, a member of Buckley's team, counted more than 30 plants of the more than 700 known to exist in the monument, including Hood's phlox, desert parsley, Beckwith's violet, yellow bells and Dagger pod.

"The thing that really struck me was the incredible abundance of moss and lichens on the lava," Mancuso said. "I wasn't expecting that."

The other team members were Ted Stout, Craters' chief of interpretation; Sun Valley photographer Craig Wolfrom; and Allison Konkowski, a Student Conservation Association intern at the monument.

Konkowski, 24, was one of the hardiest of the hikers. Even though the maps show little elevation change, there are places where you can drop 20 feet in a step if you aren't watching. The uneven landscape made it hard to keep track of the other hikers.

"It's definitely a mental thing," she said.

WILDERNESS UNFINISHED

The other goal of the trip was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

In 1970, Craters of the Moon became the first National Park Service unit to have a wilderness designated within it. Several members of the team think Congress should protect the Great Rift Wilderness Study area as wilderness, which would have a mostly symbolic effect within the monument but ensure no future motorized development.

"It's unfinished business," Mancuso said.

The team found few signs of humanity in the area. Mancuso noted the lack of cigarette butts. A Mickey Mouse birthday balloon was found among the lavas, having drifted into the area. So were several .50-caliber casings from World War II-era fighter pilots practice-firing above the monument.

Mancuso said he gained respect for what Limbert had done more than 90 years ago.

"We had radios," he said. "It's a little different game now. But it's still very wild, and you depend on your own resources to get through."

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