HIKING IS GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN. The fresh air, the scenery nature provides and the exercise relaxes us in ways not easily obtained anywhere else. Hiking not only reduces the stress of our daily lives, it gives us pause to appreciate the world around us. And that break from the everyday routine is what gives us new ideas and can help us be creative.
In a journal article published by “PLOS ONE,” researchers Ruth Ann and Paul Atchley and David L. Strayer describe just that in their research about disconnecting from technology and getting out into the natural world. Their results showed a cognitive advantage in creativity and problem solving when we spend time in a natural setting. Test subjects (Outward Bound participants) showed a 50 percent increase in performance on a creativity/problem-solving test after spending four days backpacking.
David Straker, adjunct assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, also observed evidence of improved brain function in the outdoors noting, “Exercising in nature can have more mental health benefits than on a treadmill.”
Fortunately we live in the Inland Northwest − an area with abundant opportunities to get out into the natural world and improve our brain function! There are numerous hiking trails that lead to wonderful alpine lakes where you can fish, scramble up to a peak for awesome views or just relax and let your brain go about restoring some prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes.
Every spring, my husband and I look forward to more daylight and swapping snowshoes for hiking boots. With fly rods strapped to our packs, we head to one of our favorite destinations - the Selkirk Mountains. The mountain range begins at Mica Peak, southwest of Coeur d’Alene, and extends 200 miles into Canada to the Kinbasket Lake Reservoir. The range was named after Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, not the marooned sailor, Alexander Selkirk, the hypothetical prototype of Robinson Crusoe.
Typically our first spring trek is to Harrison Lake, at the Pack River headwaters. If conditions allow, Harrison Peak and Little Harrison Lake are options from here too. Upper Pack River Road (trail #231), a few miles north of Sandpoint on the west side of Highway 95 at Samuels, follows the Pack River to its headwaters. The road is paved to the Bonner- Boundary county line where it becomes gravel and can be a bit of a wicked ride from there if the road hasn’t been graded.
Harrison Lake trailhead (trail #217) is at the end of the road, which is about 20 miles. This very popular (especially on weekends) six-mile round trip hike starts as an old road that narrows to a trail about half-way to the lake. Nice views of “The Beehive” (Beehive Mountain) can be seen along the way. As you near the lake you will pass the “two-mile snag” and then the junction with Trail #6. Trail #6 originates in the Myrtle Creek drainage, west of Bonners Ferry, and is a slightly longer (4.5 miles one way) alternate route to reach Harrison Lake and Peak, as well as Myrtle Lake.
Immediately after Trail #6, you will cross the lake’s outlet stream and start climbing the exposed granite just below the lake. At the upper edge of the granite, you enter the timber around the lake where the trail branches; some trails leading to dispersed camping sites.
Harrison is a great lake for fishing success, especially for kids. Idaho Fish and Game stocks cutthroat trout here, and they are usually very hungry and fun to catch. Fishing regulations apply. If you plan on camping, secure food storage is required to discourage bears, and a food storage box is available.
Harrison Peak, (7,292 feet) with its unique profile, reminds me of a huge ocean wave turned to stone as it begins to break. Summiting Harrison Peak is not for the faint of heart and will require some dedicated brain function involving busting through brush, rock hopping, and firm footing. You can access Harrison Peak by climbing the ridge north of the lake. As you summit the peak be prepared to feel an abundance of wind around you. If the wind doesn’t bother you, and you aren’t afraid of heights, the view on a clear day is spectacular. From here you can see quite a few Selkirk peaks including Roman Nose and Gunsight. Also, immediately east of the summit, as is the case on many Idaho peaks, you can see an old fire lookout camp from the 1930s.
Fire lookouts dotted the high country of Idaho in the early 1900s. Ray Kresek, author of “Fire Lookouts of the Northwest,” notes that Idaho had more lookouts than any other state – more than 900 in the 1930s. Initially many were tree lookouts - basically a tree with a ladder nailed to it or one with spikes pounded into the trunk (Harrison Peak itself was sufficient). Tree lookouts evolved into cupola style buildings, many built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. In addition to constructing lookouts, the CCC built many of the backcountry trails we use today.
Back at the lake, if you prefer to keep some vegetation around you, but still want a little bit of a challenge (i.e., no trail), you can hike cross-country to Little Harrison Lake. Little Harrison Lake is only about a mile south of Harrison Lake as the crow flies. However, for those of us on the ground, it requires some orienteering through brush and granite while side-hilling for about two miles. I recommend reviewing your route on Google Earth, printing the photo, and having a topographic map in your back pocket. The effort is worth it, Little Harrison is a gorgeous lake and you will likely have it to yourself. It is regularly stocked with cutthroat trout and the fishing is good.
You can reach Little Harrison Lake from Beehive Lakes too. Here again you should be prepared for a bit of a challenge; there is no trail and you will need to engage your mental creativity and problem-solving abilities, as well as every muscle in your body. Scramble up the ridge to the north of Beehive Lake, at the top of the ridge you will notice the backside is steep and rocky. The best route is whatever works for you. Keep in mind you have to come back this way or hoof it over to Harrison Lake.
The Beehive Lakes trailhead is at the end of a short fork in the road about a mile before the Harrison Lake trailhead. This is a longer hike, about five miles one way, with a few switchbacks before a level stretch, then up exposed granite to the lake. Once you hit the level section, while admiring the view, keep your eyes open for the small pond a little ways below the trail; this is a favorite spot for moose. We often see them wading and feeding around the pond. The Beehive Lakes are not only popular with people, they are very popular with mosquitoes, especially in the spring. Come prepared to fend off the little beasts.
So, to enhance your creativity and improve your problem-solving abilities, dust off your hiking boots and schedule your next hike to the Selkirks. Albert Einstein once said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Listen to Mr. Einstein and get out there and have some fun.