This piece was published in our Voices in the Wilderness Series in The Western News in July of 2014
By Tony Brown
The Lincoln/Sanders County Line has a little-known, unique distinction. It divides Bull Lake from Bull River. These are separated by a quarter mile and 20 feet of elevation. Bull River drains the west side of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and runs south. Bull Lake is fed by Ross Creek and the Scotchman Peaks. Lake Creek drains Bull Lake and runs north to the Kootenai River.
Growing up in Troy, we thought of hunting and fishing as the Yaak River or the Lake Creek. Lake Creek was the place to catch big bull trout and prime whitetail hunting. My best buddy lived on Highway 56, so I became familiar with Lake Creek. I camped on Bull Lake before there were designated campgrounds, hosts or FEES. Campers sat at the fire and Hank Williams songs were resurrected from the night. My children swam in Bull Lake as babies. I don’t doubt that our youngest was conceived on its shores.
I’ve also camped at the lake when mosquitoes were so bad they would carry you away. On two occasions, micro-bursts destroyed our campsite.
When I put myself into a pair of moccasins 500 years in the past, I know pitching my tipi in a swamp wouldn’t be best. But, behind Bad Medicine Campground, just up Emma Gulch in the Spires, it’s warm and dry with outcroppings to protect from weather and fresh water. And, it’s hidden.
When white men encountered the Indians, they asked, “How’s the hunting?” The Indians answered, “No good, bad medicine, don’t go there.” To this day it’s known as Bad Medicine. The story of a rockslide burying an Indian camp was made up to keep white men from poking around.
There is no vantage point that allows a full perspective of the Bad Medicine Spires, unless you hike in, which I have several times. Approaching from the north on Highway 56, only a third of the Spires are visible. When traveling north on 56, the south face is visible. From across Bull Lake, the Spires appear to be a continuous cliff face. They are actually walls that run perpendicular to Bull Lake. The mountain between the Spires and Bull Lake is larger than mountains on either side of the Kootenai River at Troy. The valley between that mountain and the Spires is larger than the valley in which Troy is located, yet the valley isn’t visible from any road.
Thirty years ago, my wife Val and I were on a moonlight canoe ride when I looked up and saw the moon shining through a spire. Around the spire, green lights blinked as though from an alien craft. From Dorr Skeels, we watched the lights ascend out of sight behind Mount Vernon.
For a time, I thought I‘d seen two spires positioned so as to give the illusion of a hole — a hole through sheer rock was too incredible. Besides, I thought someone would have discovered it already, and I’d never heard of holes through the cliffs at Bad Medicine. For that matter, I’d never heard of anyone who’d hiked into the Spires. I knew then I’d have to hike into the Spires and see for myself.
My first attempt was up the mine adit road from the Ross Creek Cedars road and off the end of a switchback halfway up the mountain. After hours of hiking, I became increasingly frustrated. I tried to follow the ridgeline, only to find wall after wall hundreds of feet high. To keep going, I would have to backtrack around the top. I was getting no closer to the hole I’d seen.
For my next attempt, I studied a Forest Service map —this was before Google Earth, — and there were no trails. From Bad Medicine intersection on Ross Creek Cedars Road, I headed into the brush. I reached a shale slide and began along the base of the cliffs, two steps up and one back. And, I found my first hole in a spire. I wasn’t even close to the one I’d seen from the lake.
On my next adventure into the Spires, I went in from the North end. I canoed across the lake from Angel Island and bushwhacked up Emma Gulch. I remember pushing into the hidden valley and seeing for the first time the full enormity and height of the spires and cliffs.
A small stream tumbles down 30 feet where the ridgeline meets the draw. I thought I was in Shangri-La. A mountain goat grazed high up on Bull Mountain, the mountain between Bull Lake and Hidden Valley. There — they have names. The sun rose higher over Snowshoe and shadows crept down the cliffs and spires. At every minute new images appeared, dancing down the walls. I saw a Chief’s profile with deep-set eyes and large prominent nose shadowed above a warm morning smile. Comfortable and serene, I knew I was not the first to stand on that ground.
I could also see clearly how Bad Medicine was formed — not a catastrophic event that occurred in a heartbeat. Bull Mountain is slowly sliding east. It will eventually push across the narrows south of Angel Island, and there will be two Bull Lakes, North and South. The waters of South will spill over the divide at the County Line, and South Bull Lake and Bull River will be united. North Bull Lake will become marshland and ponds.
For nine more hours, I hiked up the ridge, climbing around wall after wall. Half way up, I rested under a huge cedar tree growing out of the cliff, as big and old as any in the Ross Creek grove, clinging to the rock and arching skyward for hundreds of years. It was further evidence of Bull Mountain inching away from Mount Vernon.
I timed this hike to coincide with the full moon. If there was a hole in the Spires, and I wanted to photograph the moon through it. I wasn’t able to take that picture, but one of my best photos is of a campfire perched at the very top of Bad Medicine, 15 feet from a 400-foot drop. I lay in my sleeping bag in a patch of huckleberries, grazing on berries and watching a full moon light the snowcapped peaks of the Cabinets. I slept well.
In morning light, from the edge of the cliff, I found myself looking directly through the hole in the spire I was searching for, like the eye of a giant needle. I edged my way out to get a photo and saw there were holes in other spires. I began to see that each wall had a hole or a notch, lined up as if a missile had made them, all the way from the first hole I found the year before to the top of the highest spire.
If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, nothing will.
Did a comet crashed through the Spires? Did softer rock captured like the core of a Twinkie melt away, leaving holes skipping from wall to wall in a perfectly straight line? Did a juvenile delinquent alien in his father’s Quantum Millennium Terraplane doing a fly-by shooting ten million years ago?
Bad Medicine Spires is a magical and mysterious place. If you visit, go with humility and respect. Watch every step you take. A fall will be unforgiving. Sit quietly, open your eyes and you will see many things.
Tony Brown is a life-long resident of Troy, and the former mayor of said city. This is only one of his many good stories.