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Crunch, crunch, squeak. We’re postholing through mid-calf deep snow up to Triple Divide Pass. Dense clouds swirl around us, a sharp this-is-no-longer-summer wind biting the bits of skin we still have exposed. The trail winds through the cliffs, expertly chiseled between rock bands. Mountain goats leap nimbly on the bands above us, seemingly impervious to the late fall snow building up around them. The monolith of Triple Divide Peak looms above, the snow accentuating the great bands of rock wrapping around the peak. Hearts soaring, we continue punching our way up, our winter souls pulsing to the gusts of the wind.
All summer every footstep, every action, every decision, every motion Dan and I have made has been ultimately directed into movement. Movement north, north, ever north, the end goal being the Canadian border – and one hundred miles through Glacier National Park. When huffing over so many dry, dusty mountains, when there were injuries and infections to battle, motivations to boost, and tired bodies to move, the thought of this land of towering mountains, thundering waterfalls, and glistening glaciers pulled us on when nothing else could. Our hearts beat snow, our blood runs ice. Winter lives in our souls – Glacier National Park was the dream, the reason.
While Dan and I both have been feeling the urge to get home and start prepping for ski season (there is also great amounts of wood that needs to be gathered), I think we even might have hoped to see snow before the end of this trip. Fortunately, northern Montana was more than happy to oblige! The evening before we left East Glacier, fat flakes fell heavy from the sky, and we spend a cold, happy couple of hours skiing around the golf course to get our September ski in.
Starting up out of town, the clouds hang heavy in the sky over us, and soon, as we wind our way through golden and scarlet brush, wet snow begins to fall, becoming heavier and heavier as we climb in elevation. Several big horn sheep pass us by, picking their way nimbly down the ridge by us, unconcerned by our presence. Passing by Scenic Point, we laugh, as we become completely engulfed by clouds. The trail wraps around to the northwest side of a peak, and the trail becomes obliterated by snow and Dan leads, his long legs an advantage in the deep conditions.
Soon we are down in Two Medicine Campground, we’re too late to talk to the ranger about backcountry sites, so we’ll do that tomorrow. Meanwhile, we eat dinner with the only other people there – a guy who hiked the AT last year and his wife. I’m clumsy and spill wine all over my rain pants.
“That’s something they never talk about,” we joke. “When you spill wine on your pants do they have to go in the bear box?”
Glacier continues to awe the next morning, gracing us with more snow overnight. We watch a bull and a cow moose foraging down in a swampy area before climbing up, up, up to the cloud land. We are up to Pitamakan Pass without seeing anyone, I think the cooler conditions are keeping most people away. The trail tops out at a heart stopping overlook of Pitamakan Lake. Good steps here. Don’t tumble over. Over Pitamakan Pass, we dive down into a lush valley, dense with crimson brush, the blueberries overripe and the aspens a deep gold. Autumn is getting on, and we scour the land for animals.
Triple Divide is a decent climb. At this point in the game, though the excitement level is high at being here, the body is also just tired. But the beauty pulls us up to where the clouds wrap their cold arms around us and the wind leaves cold kisses on our cheeks and nose. We keep stopping to gape around us, the beauty overwhelming. At the top is a snowman we are enchanted with, little shale rocks for buttons, his whole body icy from the pummeling winds.
The next day is golden, a watery autumn sun shining down, and we let our limbs thaw in the light. We don’t have to go far today, because of the way the backcountry sites are, so we stop for little things, lounging in the rustling of dying leaves. The smells of fall wash over us – sometimes the dank, over powering, too-much-mold smell; sometimes the sharp, bright, spicy smell that makes me dream of pumpkin pie and chai. We are giddy with it, drinking it in, breathing it deep into our souls, filing up with the pulse of life.
We pass Virginia Falls, and we marvel at the luxury of having the time to clamber around on the rocks, the mist billowing over us. The temperature is not quite warm enough for it, but we do it anyway. Finally, after hoping up and down the complex of falls, hands chapped red with cold, we continue down the trail. As we reach St Mary Fall, we see a couple coming up the trail towards us.
“Did you go to Virginia Falls?” They ask and we say we did.
“Is it worth it?” We blink. Worth it? Worth what? After coming this far, it better be!
As we cross the Going-to-the-Sun Road the next morning, we gleefully pile our trash in the bin. Always glad to be rid of trash! Then it is climbing up to Piegan Pass. The legs fall into a rhythm. Though they are tired, one of the biggest things I’ve learned on this trip is no matter how tired the legs are, it’s not so bad to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just keep moving. As the clouds hug the peaks again, we decide to take advantage of the wind and dry our tent before heading down the other side. Tumbling down the north side of the pass, the wisps of clouds twirl around the incredible towering presence of the Garden Wall. Huge and dark and slightly foreboding with the snow and the fog, it dominates most of the rest of the day.
We round a brushy corner and come upon a grizzly digging up the tundra, woofing quietly. He looks up at us, and I feel his eyes land on me. Then, as though shrugging, he goes back to his digging. We navigate down and around him, breaths fast in our chests and bear spray out.
It’s our last night. We’re in Many Glacier campground, a crackling fire warding off some of the chill. A melancholy fills the air. Maybe it would be good to spend this night with others. There are a few tears. At times, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be done, but now that it’s so close, I think that desire was wrong. As the last embers die, we crawl into our tent, tucking into the familiar feel of the small space, all our things arranged just so around us.
We drag in the morning. Leaving camp for the last time? How is that a thing? But eventually we are all packed up and begin up our last pass of the trip. Not a mile into the day, we meet a lady moose coming down the trail. She is making odd grunting noises, and we hop off the trail to skirt around her. The trail meanders for a while before climbing up. We scan the wall ahead of us. There is the Ptarmigan Tunnel, and I’ve been trying to imagine what it even is. It is, it turns out, to be an actual tunnel! As we round a bend, we see it is a tunnel with doors, both propped open for now, but soon to be closed for the winter. It looks like something from the Lord of the Rings, and we walk through the tunnel listening for orcs. On the other side, it is not a stretch to imagine the stone giants living here, heaving boulders crashing over the cliff walls to the glacial carved valleys below. The trail is incredible, carved right into the cliff, but bitingly cold – it feels like this cliff rarely sees sun.
Staring in awe up the next valley – Helen Lake sits beneath some of the tallest peaks in the Park, and seems like a good place for a future trip – we soon lose all the elevation we gained, meandering through the changing leaves. We can’t help but stop frequently to stare backwards at the peaks, rising mighty above us.
But too soon, we are climbing, the very last of all the climbs on the trail. My parents appear around the corner – they are picking us up. And then the last sign post. There is a small CDT marker, as well as one for the Pacific Northwest Trail. Just a bit further is the boundary line between the US and Canada, and we get our passport stamped. Pictures at the boundary line – it feels surreal. Just this little spot, this mark on the map, is this really it? Where we’ve been hiking towards for months? But this is it, the finish. I don’t think my brain computes it. This little spot doesn’t seem like much, it’s not the most incredible place on the trail, but it’s the end.
I think I thought I would have answers at the end of this. I think I thought I would feel satisfied. Maybe the thirst for adventure would be quenched. But for all the questions I answered, I have more questions than ever unanswered. We are not satisfied – I think the desire for adventure was a small flame, and we just poured gasoline on it. More, more – more wild, more mountains, more rivers, more vastness. The soul wants it all.
At the mountaineering shop Elaine and I worked at in Boulder, Colorado, we sold a variety of maps highlighting regions and trails for adventure. Some of the maps cycled through quickly – the Indian Peaks, Summit County, Rocky Mountain National Park and Elk Mountain maps sold on a daily basis. And then there were the odd balls, the maps that sat on the rack, that almost never sold.
I always found the latter category fascinating. During slow times, I was known to pull out a dusty map of the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness or Himalayas, opening it on our big wooden table at the shop, looking at mountains, ridges and valleys and imagining routes through that landscape. On a hot, sweltering July day in Boulder, it was an escape to another world.
On the bottom corner of that rack, almost hidden, sat National Geographic map #725, titled “Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.” In the six years I worked at the shop, we sold this map one or two times. I remember an older gentleman came in looking for the map, and when we found it, with a knowing and distant look of adventure, told me in a hushed tone, “you need to visit the Bob.”
And so the Bob Marshall Wilderness was introduced to me. Research showed it was a place deep in the northern Montana Rocky Mountains, home of wolves, grizzly bears, inaccessible mountains and the best Wilderness in the lower-48. It’s a huge expanse, the fifth largest wilderness in the United States. It is known to have the highest per-capita rate of Grizzly Bears in the lower-48, more even than Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Grizzlies prefer more remote, more wild locales than even National Parks can offer.
It’s possible I never would have gone to the Bob. It’s not exactly a place you end up in accidentally. But, as the trail gods would have it, the CDT happens to take the hiker right through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Indeed, it goes into the heart of it, below something called the Chinese Wall, a seven-mile cliff face smack dab on the divide.
After our fire-induced road walk connecting Rogers Pass and Benchmark, the weather took a 180° change. A major cold front moved into Augusta on our rest day, blowing a swift wind and a steady rain down from the north – raw, cold, winter-like. By the time evening rolled around, that rain was coming down more swirling, frozen and whiter in the form of a wet snow/sleet mix.
We pride ourselves in being prepared for cold weather, but our layering system was under-gunned for this type of wet cold. We headed into the local convenience/hunting store, and came across a couple $25 thick fleece jackets. Neither were the epitome of style – mine had a defined green camo hunting motif and Elaine’s black hoody could only be described as something that a 15-year old fan of dystopian fantasies would wear – but they were very warm. As we left the store and walked back to the lodge in the cold snow and wind tucked into our ugly fleeces, we knew we had no excuses not to head out.
It was quick turnaround the next morning. Since we had walked the section from Augusta to Benchmark two days earlier, we were able to accept a ride up to the trailhead and still maintain our continuous footpath. We hitched a ride to Benchmark with Mack and Connie who own the Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters. After a stop at the local bar to pick up some breakfast burritos, we began the 35 mile journey to the edge of the Wilderness. As the truck bounced down the dirt road into the mountains, snow swirling in the headlight’s glow, we found out that our hosts were, for lack of a better word, caretakers of the Bob.
Mack and Connie take visitors, mostly on horse, into the Wilderness to hike, ride, fish and hunt. On this particular trip they (and their staff, which included a girl with a Master’s Degree in literature – stereotypes be damned) were taking two gentleman from Oregon elk hunting.
Hunting in Wilderness may be a strange concept to some, and I’m sure folks on the left and right coasts of this country would disagree with it. But before casting judgement, let it be known that Mack and Connie are on the front lines of the Wilderness movement and have fought hard for decades to preserve land in northwestern Montana. I suspect when these two walk into a meeting with a land manager or a politician, they command instant respect. They walk the walk and talk the talk. In our continuing education about the real American west away from the Boulder bubble, this was one of the best encounters we had. They drove us right to the trailhead, and before departing Connie told us, “Enjoy the Bob Marshall. It is a magical place.”
The trail headed due north across the Wilderness boundary. A light snow fell, leaving the path wet brown but the trees and shrubs on the side covered with a thin layer of white. The contrast between the yellow and red underbrush was stark against the white.
Through forests and river valleys the trail meandered. Sometimes we’d be in ancient timber stands, hundreds of feet tall, and the next minute, walking though the skeletal remains of a burned forest. In these sections new stands of bright green pine have filed in the space between the burned trees, the rebirth of life under the remains of death. We will both be gone by the time this forest is ancient, but in some ways that is comforting, the cycle of life never ending, unaffected by our blip of time here.
We breaked under the shelter of an old patrol cabin, and then continued our way. The trail began to rise noticeably, and with it the snow grew deeper and fell steadier. Clouds and fog shrouded high cliffs in front of us, and a quick glance at the map confirmed we were approaching aptly named Cliff Mountain.
We circled the base of Cliff Mountain, crossed a small pass, and came to the southern reach of the Chinese Wall. A sheer cliff rose a thousand feet, dark and foreboding as the mist whisped around it. It extended north into the fog, the end nowhere in sight.
Darkness was approaching, the snow falling hard and it was time to set up camp. We tamped down the snow on a flat section under the wall and hunkered down. The wet snow required constant tightening of the guy lines and shaking off, but inside the tent we were warm and cozy.
The next morning was magic. Cold magic, but magic nonetheless. The fog lifted some, revealing the Chinese Wall in all its splendor, with the fog just kissing the top of the cliff wall. The world below was white, as about eight inches of fresh powder blanketed the land. Our core, wrapped in our $25 fleeces and a host of other layers was warm, and the plastic bags between our socks and shoes did an adequate job keeping the feet from freezing. Ahead on the trail, animal tracks jutted off in all directions. The world tells a story with a fresh snow.
It’s rare when place and time converge to create such perfection. If I’d custom ordered up the conditions I’d wanted to see the Bob Marshall in, this would have been it. Deep fall, moving into winter. Cold. The first snow of the year. Mystical and beautiful. Hikers a few days ahead had to endure this section in smoke. We were luckier. Sometimes being patient pays off.
After traversing along the base of the wall, breaking trail through the powder, we had to descend off the ridge thanks to a fire reroute. The reroute took us into a new Wilderness area that most CDT hikers don’t get to visit, the Great Bear Wilderness. But not before a chilling descent. That snow up high fell as ice and sleet on the trees, bending them directly across the trail. As we passed through, we got an icy car wash, soaking our gear and freezing us to the core.
The sun emerged and soon we were sitting back, drying our gear and enjoying lunch in a beautiful old growth forest. The rest of the day wandered through magnificent river valleys and forests in the northern Bob. Yellow leaves dropped from trees and the rich smells of decomposing leaves permeated the air. We camped that night under the stars in deep forest, the sound of elk bugling and wolves howling serenading us to sleep.
The next day brought us up and over Gunsight Pass, a 2,500 foot climb through a recent burn near a mountain that literally had a notch in a cliff wall. It was something out of a novel – a lonely mountain in the northern Montana Rockies that looks like a hideout for cowboys or banditos. And then, past serene creeks that carved through moss covered ground, and down into an old, deep, peaceful feeling forest. If the Bob Marshall is the land of mystery, the Great Bear Wilderness is a step beyond, an Avatar-like dreamscape that captures the soul.
As the the light waned, bear tracks. A horse rider had crossed the opposite direction no more than ten minutes earlier, and these large bear tracks were on top of those. A grizzly bear, heading the same way we were. We suddenly started raising a ruckus, singing bad pop songs and telling the bear in no uncertain terms that we meant no harm. The tracks continued on to the Flathead River, requiring an icy ford at the end of the day.
Across the river the bear tracks disappeared, and we emerged at the Schaefer Work Station, a wilderness airport and a USFS ranger cabin. It was dark now, so we poked our head into the cabin, aglow and overwhelmingly warm from a hot fire in the woodstove. A group of rangers inside informed us there was camping nearby, and a gentleman walked the 300 yards with us to the campsite. He lives in Eureka, Montana, along the Pacific Northwest Trail, and after talking with him about it…well, we have another adventure to embark on! This country speaks to us…we will be back. That evening Himal and Chosen staggered into camp. They told of epic tales of avoiding fire and freezing. They did not have the $25 fleeces, and Himal only had shorts, not ideal for temperatures in the teens and 20’s. Himal is a minimalist though, and I suspect it’s as much his identity as being good in cold and snow is ours.
The next morning was smooth travel along river beds in perfect fall weather, flurries and rain mixed with sun. Somewhere on this section one of those moments hit me: perfect happiness. Not because we are finishing – in a sense I dread that – but because I was in the perfect place, with the perfect partner, moving exactly how we wanted. No bosses, no traffic, no stress other than those things that are real: water, food, warmth, movement. The way life should be.
The rain began to beat down hard. We put on every layer. The trail dumped out onto a dirt road heading north towards Glacier National Park. It was too cold to stop. We moved in the cocoon of rain, pitter patter on the hood, breath exploding in front of us. We crossed another mountain pass and soon hit Highway 2.
We turned right, avoiding the spray of 18 wheelers, rounded a corner, and saw it: the southern border of Glacier National Park. Grey mountains erupted from the valley, and snow capped peaks that were sheer, unlike anything we have seen. Our destination for the past five and half months, right there in front of us. It was a joyous, emotional moment, a hug and a few tears shared. We made it to Marias Pass and camped on the side of the road, an icy wind blowing down from the glaciers above.The next morning, it was back on trail for a 15 miles walk on the CDT to the town of East Glacier. We’ve been laying low for 36 hours as a storm rages in the mountains. This will not be an easy finale. The mountains have about a foot of snow on them and there are still 100 miles to go. But the route is open, the fires doused. For a snow-loving, mountain couple, we woudn’t want it any other way. I am giddy with excitement – we are going to Canada and we get to cross some of the best mountains in the world to get there to finish up this 3,000 mile thru hike on the Continental Divide Trail.
If the news cast an accurate portrayal of the situation in Montana in autumn 2017, one might think we’d be unable to continue – if not already charred to death – as a result of forest fires everywhere. Images of burning woods, massive flames and smoke abound. But if that were the case, how did we spend the last three days walking through beautiful woods in a relatively smoke free environment?
On the CDT there are the highlights – Glacier, the Winds, the San Juans – and the sections of infamy – the Red Desert, the ridgeline of the Idaho/Montana border, the boot heel of New Mexico – and then there is everything in between. These latter sections are like a blind date. You have no idea what to expect and no preconceived notions. The section south of Helena fell squarely into this category.
Sometimes you nail a town and sometimes you don’t. With Anaconda, we didn’t do so well. We ended up spending one night on a far end of the town, the next night on the other end, and didn’t really get to experience what the actual city was like. It’s an intriguing place though, an old Copper smelting town with beautiful Victorian homes and a head turned towards the future. The locals were really welcoming, and it’s easy to see that as times change, this town is working hard to change it’s image. The old smokestack and Superfund site loom on the outskirts, but inside city limits advertisements for skiing, mountain biking and hiking abound. It reminds me of Leadville, Colorado 20 years ago.
We had about a 20 mile road walk out of town. Combined with our previous segment, and this was more than 100 miles of road walking straight. Elaine and I are not big fans of road walking, but in the west, in the late season when the snows have melted and rains dried up, it’s a reality. We are not the first class of CDT hikers to deal with fires, and we won’t be the last.
One of the main benefits of road walking is easy access to “trail magic.” Trail magic is essentially act of kindness performed by folks to make our lives out here easier. Sometimes it’s in the form of a cooler of soda and beer on the side of a dusty trail, or a ride to the post office across town, or a warm bed to sleep in at a stranger’s home. Heading out of Anaconda, we were subject to trail magic in droves.
If there is an energizer bunny of optimism out here this year, it’s in the form of a hiker named “Tour Guide.” We met her on a long climb outside Grand Lake in Colorado and were instantly boosted to a better place with her glowing reviews of the trail and overall stoke. We have some mutual friends in the endurance sports world, and I have a feeling this is just the beginning of a friendship.
As we were leaving Anaconda a car pulled over in front of us and a man stepped out enthusiastically saying hello. It was Tour Guide’s husband Keith. Keith is spending the summer driving around the west in support of Tour Guide’s hike. It turns out we just missed crossing paths with her again outside Anaconda, as she bumped north to Glacier after finishing Colorado to head south and finish her walk in Yellowstone National Park. Nevertheless, it was great seeing Keith and he told us to give him a call if we needed anything.
About half an hour later a truck came up besides us waving Ben and Jerries Ice Cream out the window. It was Keith, who had gone grocery shopping in Anaconda and decided to pick us up a treat. I’ll say this – there are few things better than Ben and Jerries Coffee and Toffee Bar Crunch Ice Cream while walking down a hot road through a Superfund site in Montana!
The magic didn’t stop there. After leaving the paved road, passing the Montana State Mental Hospital and crossing Interstate 90, we headed up a dirt road back towards the Continental Divide. Just as we were settling into a groove, we saw a sign beckoning CDT hikers. A voice with a distinct New England accent carried across the ranch land from a trailer, shouting “Come on over for some pie!” How could we refuse?
The gentleman of about 65 years old at the door step introduced himself as “Boston,” instructed us to set our packs down and led us inside. His trailer was full of wildlife pictures and bear skulls, but we were not nervous. Hunting is a way of life out here, and Boston’s mannerisms put us at ease. He gave us iced water and each a slice of Boston Cream Pie. He had just had hernia surgery that morning, and we were beyond impressed to see him up and spry.
Boston moved out west from the town with his namesake years ago, went to Colorado, got sick of all the people, and now lives in this trailer in western Montana. He makes his living as a hunting guide for wealthy tourists and lives a simple life in a beautiful, remote place. He introduced us to his two pigs. I’ve never been up close with a pig, and found they are personable fellows, about on par with dogs in this category. It was a little strange petting two animals that Boston plans on butchering in a month for winter meat, but he is giving them a good life before that fateful day.
As we continued up the road the pine trees closed in and the bare ground gave way to green and reddish meadows of Kinnikinnick. The air cooled and the feeling of being in the mountains returned. With it, an edge came off and as we set up camp in a forest meadow a happiness to be back in nature returned. We fell asleep to nearby elk bugles and distant wolf howls.
The next morning we quickly returned to the Continental Divide Trail. We didn’t know what to expect, but were greeted with miles and miles of smooth, flowing, well-graded singletrack. The trail meandered over and around mountains, river beds and ridgelines and traversed through some beautiful autumn woods. The ground cover is betraying the change of seasons, turning deep orange, red and amber. The occasional aspen patch is dotted with yellow leaves. The elk are making a mating call ruckus, the shrill, haunting pitch of their bugle echoing through the hills.
Bow hunters are a regular site now. Clad in camo, they move silently, in search of prey, of food for winter. I respect bow hunters. The range for bow hunters is about 60 yards from their prey. Given that we’ve been out here for five months and have gotten within 60 yards of an elk or deer less times than I have fingers on one hand, well I’m convinced bow hunting is a difficult endeavor. They are earning their meat.
On smooth trail like this, with such peaceful forest, it’s easy to let the mind wander. And wander it does. Thoughts of life after the trail abound. What will we do this winter? What other adventures await and how do we make them a reality? And while friends all seem to be settling down, why do we still feel this urge to move, to explore, to see more and more? I feel an urgency, I want to see it all, experience it all. I thought this hike might quench that desire. Instead, it seems to be like pouring gasoline on a bonfire.
One thing is for certain. I am lucky to have a wife, a partner like Elaine. Somebody who shares passion for the outdoors, for skiing, for big bold adventures. She is strong, a natural athlete, somebody who just belongs in the outdoors. She is not a limitation, somebody I have to get permission to do something from. She is an empowerer, and she is dauntless. Want to ski across Greenland next spring or down Denali? How many wives would say “hell yeah,” and start researching permit processes? Mine does just that. She always tells me most husbands or boyfriends wouldn’t want their significant other on such adventures. I coudn’t imagine it any other way. When the shit hits the fan, and things get critical, you want somebody you trust and know is on your side.
We spent the second night camped in a tight forest in a space just long and wide enough for our tent. Five months into a trip it’s easy to recognize the perfectly shaped spot, no matter how precise the fit. It’s all automatic now, setting up camp, cooking, the day-to-day hiking life activities.
The next day was more of the same, meandering trails, fall smells, dreamy forests. We played leapfrog with the hiker Moment for awhile before joining forces with her for the last ten miles before the road to Helena. Moment is the real deal – humble, understated, strong as heck. A female, solo hiker who hasn’t short cut anything and has hiked alone for 95% of the route. While exceptionally friendly, she’s admittedly introverted, a trait I find I like more and more in humans. My boss at work Larry says, “You have two eyes, two ears and one mouth. Use them accordingly.” It is something I aspire towards – say what needs to be said and spend more time listening.
Before long, we were at the top of McDonald Pass, and after hitch-hiking for 30 seconds caught a ride in the back of a pick-up truck into town. Our friends Wolfman, Dumpling, Sherpa, Chosen One, Lumber and Moose are here. It is good to be reunited with the pack. We may join forces tomorrow and negotiate what we have been told is the worst fire section of the entire trail to Augusta.
Helena is turning out to be a little gem of a town. It’s an island of progressive thinking, cool little indendepnt shops, easy access to the mountains and great food. It kind of reminds me of what Boulder must have been like 40 years ago before big money came in and the population grew to the packed place it is now.
Tomorrow, up ahead, mystery clouds the path. There are fires in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier. The trail may or may not close. But there is no sense in worrying about this. Rain or snow may also come. It’s a dice roll, like everything in life. We tend to want to control everything and dictate the outcome. If I’ve learned anything on this hike, it’s that things unfold how they will, maybe not how we envisioned, but generally exactly as they should be. Worrying does no good, except for increasing gray hairs and wrinkles on the face. And there is no time for that, especially since big adventure awaits.
The long and serpentine path thru southern Montana has taken us to the farthest west section of the entire Continental Divide in the United States. We are in Darby, Montana, deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. In a few days it will be September, the legitimate start of autumn. Smoke fills the air in all direction: Montana is burning. We are tired and a bit wounded. But we’ve come so far, almost 2,500 miles, and there are barely 500 miles left – maybe 20 to 25 days. So far away, so close.
The route from Leadore to here was as rough as we’ve seen. As has been the case since we entered Montana/Idaho, the trail follows the ridgeline of the divide. Switchbacks don’t exist. It’s essentially like hiking up the Ambush face at Eldora (and then down) over and over, every day. Because we’re on a ridge, water is very limited, necessitating heavy carries. The air resembles something out of the Hunger Games, smoke filled, blood red sunrises and sunsets, a constant haze. To add to the fun, a heat wave has smacked the northern Rockies, creating the perfect concoction of suffering, itchy eyes, scratchy throats and sweat. This isn’t the Shire…it’s more like Mordor.When Lewis and Clark came through here in 1805, the whole expedition almost failed. They were tired, they couldn’t find the way and they did not have the necessary supplies until the Nez Perce gave them horses to continue on to the Pacific. As we filled up our water at the distant spring on Lemhi Pass, 25 miles into this stretch, exactly where Meriwether Lewis did 202 years earlier, we couldn’t help but feel a kindred spirit of adventure. When I was 12 or 13, my mom checked out from the library the entire seven volume collection of the Lewis and Cark journals. I was fascinated and read the entire thing, spelling mistakes and all, cover-to-cover. It had an major impact on me and is a factor why we’re here.As we headed north, we entered true forest. The grassy hills of Lima went away, replaced by ever-thickening forest. The trail crossed high, talus filled passes with snow and dropped into deep river valleys, down to 5,800 feet, where the vegetation turned lush. Blueberry bushes were a constant distraction, and since we were moving slower than normal thanks to injury, they provided some valuable sustanence as food supplies grew short by the end of the ration. We saw a mother black bear and three cubs clambering up the talus looking for berries. Elk often crashed through the forest, already leery of the upcoming hunting season. We saw more wildlife in this section than we have anywhere since the San Juans. I had my first bout with injury in this 123 mile section to Darby. With the exception of a few nagging annoyances, I’ve stayed heathy on this journey, but on the second day out of Leadore, on a day with a 20 mile water carry, a near full ration and 7,000 feet of steep climbing and 6,000 of descending, I got a twinge on the outside of my ankle, a strain of a tendon or ligament. The body finally barked back. It got worse the next day and kind of stayed that way. It’s not torn or ruptured, it’s just tendinitis, so hiking in pain becomes something I have to manage for a bit.
Pain is an interesting thing. Dwell on the issue, and it can overwhelm you. But with the power of mental distraction, it’s not hard to continue on. Five percent of the body hurts. Meanwhile, 95 percent of the body is well. A wolf with a leg shattered in a trap can still function fine with three legs. Focus on what is right – almost everything – and the pain becomes a dull, distant thing. Of course working through injury that can do more damage is not good, but this is not the case here. Sometimes I think injury is just another excuse to quit, to fail, to distract. But it can provide the opportunity to get stronger mentally.
The section also took a toll on the camera. An errant pack lower, and the lens got bonked and broke on a piece of talus. Little things like this are more frustrating out here than normal because it’s just another thing to deal with. But, as has often been the case, our support network came to the rescue, Elaine’s dad shipping out our replacement that will arrive at our next re-supply. Between her parents, her grandfather sending out our re-supply boxes with little surprises, my mom sending treats like spiced salami, cheese, Scottish chocolate, tortellini and all sorts of amazing items and, well, we’re exceptionally well supplied and blessed.
This is the hardest part of the trail. But just when you need it most, the trail provides. We staggered to the end, a half-day slower than we’d hoped, and were looking at a resupply in Sula, a “town” that is essentially a gas station. It’s not really a great place to recover. As we walked down Chief Joseph Pass (there is an amazing nordic center on top of the pass), a gentleman named Curtis picked us up. Turns out, Curtis is an avid bikepacker who opens his home to human powered travelers. We had homemade soup and a sampling or 20 types of mead for dinner. It’s exactly what two struggling hikers getting our butts kicked by the Montana/Idaho border need.
Tomorrow, we hope to move into the Anaconda/Pinter Wilderness. We’ll see. At the US Forest Service Office in Darby we got vague warnings that part of the trail ahead could close. Montana is burning more than ever, and the heat wave is settling in. Last night was filled with lightning, little rain and 50 mph winds so the situation will probably be worse in the morning. We’re praying for that first cold front with 3-4 inches of wet snow to help get control of the fires but it’s not in the forecast.
As Lewis wrote in his journals when he arrived at Lemhi Pass, “immense ranges of high mountains” await. Between that and the fires, the CDT is hardly handing this thing to us, exactly as it should be.
As the long summer turns to the dog days of August, the trail follows suit. After the wild splendor of the lush Wind River mountains and the sublime beauty of Yellowstone, we’ve entered terrain that is a little less spectacular but no less difficult on the tired body. The Continental Divide Trail along the southern Montana/Idaho border tests the mind, body and spirit.
The Continental Divide is not a straight north and south route. Nowhere is this more evident than in southwest Montana, where the route, following the divide, swings agonizingly far west, then north and then back east again before resuming its course to Canada. As summer turns to autumn and thoughts turn to future work, skiing and adventures, it takes energy to stay focused on the task at hand.
The CDT is unique from the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in that it is accepted practice to hike “alternates” when the regular route does not work for whatever reason. For example, in New Mexico the official route follows a ridgeline walk through the Black Mountains. Very few follow this route, instead choosing the Gila Wilderness route. Simply put, the Gila is much prettier and almost everybody goes that way, CDT markers be damned.
As one heads north alternates abound. This seems to be especially true as the date grows later, as we hear of more and more “alternates” popping up to speed up progress and hasten arrival in Glacier. These alternates are tempting – that’s natural with the changing of seasons and the press of time. And when the trail gets tough, as it did between Lima and Leadore, a long road walk to cut off hundreds of miles of divide walking can seem especially appealing. But we’re not going to go down that route. For us, it’s not right. We have a certain way we want to feel about this hike when it’s finished. We want to have absolutely no regrets when we cross the Canadian border.
The trail straight out of Lima was some of the most difficult on the entire route. It’s 103 miles along the divide, or four approximately 25 mile days. Each day consisted of 5,000 feet of climbing, give or take a few hundred. We have not encountered terrain that undulating for that many days in a row since Colorado. The one thing that make it easier is that Montana/Idaho are simply lower than Colorado. Whereas the route in Colorado was at 11,000-13,000 feet, in Montana it’s at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. That makes a significant difference in effort, recovery and appetite.
Day one out of Lima was very challenging. The route followed the sage covered spine of the divide, climbing steeply 200 to 300 feet at a time. On the profile map, this day looked like an EKG machine, with steep peaks and valleys. A long two hour consistent climb is much easier on the body than repeated short, steep, punchy climbs. Elaine and I reminded each other that this was great ski training, turned up the volume on the music, and suffered through it. If we have one ability, it is an ability to shut off the mind and suffer for hours on end. This was no longer a meandering hike through the west – it was intervals up hills behind our house, hour 23 of Expedition Amundsen, Richmond Ridge of the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, and the hours of pain training and racing that we’ve grown accustomed to.
While the initial day was the queen stage of the route between Lima and Leadore, the other days offered similar feels. Long grassy ridgelines, steep climbs and descents, occasional forests, cows aplenty and a hazy atmosphere filled with smoke. There were exceptions, however. We camped at a place called Deadman Lake on night two, a beautiful blue oasis in a forest, and caught a couple Cutthroat Trout. The last day featured a climb up to the top of Elk Mountain that will be our last foray above 10,000 feet of the trip. The rock cut bench trail reminded me of the route up Lake Ann Pass in the Sawatch…it felt good to get up high.
Of course a highlight of this section was the much anticipated eclipse of 2017. For most of the hike, this eclipse has actually been something we’ve been nervous about, as we did not want to be in a town during the event. Hotel rooms that are normally $50 in Casper, Wyoming were selling for $600 on eclipse weekend. Our goal was to be deep in the backcountry during eclipse madness for the simple reason of expense.
We timed it well. Our hiking during the eclipse was along a high ridge on the divide and there was nobody around. We purchased the glasses and enjoyed watching it grow. We decided to lunch early and witnessed a 99% totality, with about five minutes of very surreal beauty. The land turned sunset color but the shadows were still coming from directly above. And then it got cold, very cold, perhaps a 20 degree drop in temperature. Perhaps the most significant thing I got out of the experience is how life on earth basically is sun driven. Without it, I suspect life on earth would cease in a few years. It’s a fragile balance we live on.
Eclipses aside, on a 3,000 mile hike one encounters much beauty. But honestly, sometimes it’s moving forward through terrain that is less inspiring. This would be an accurate portrayal of the section from Lima to Leadore. Beautiful in its remoteness and open western feel, but not spectacularly so. However, as we move north, the promise of more jagged peaks, deeper forests and true Wilderness beckons. We are entering the land of Lewis and Clark, wolf packs, designated Wilderness areas and one of the greatest National Parks in the land. Good things lie ahead, however challenging it may be to get there.
Leadore is a fascinating town. A main road runs through a mountain valley surrounded by ranch land and sage hills. The town consists of a few houses, a restaurant/bar, a hotel and some very interesting locals. We are in the heart of the wolf controversy here. Indeed, google search Leadore and wolves and you’ll find numerous accounts of ranchers who have lost many heads of cattle and sheep as a result of wolf depravation. Wolf trapping and hunting is common here.
We had a good discussion with a rancher about this issue. Full disclosure – we’re about as pro-wolf as they come – but we wanted to hear the other side. This rancher and his wife have lost – according to their estimates – $100,000 as a result of wolf depravation. It’s not a theoretical issue for them…it’s real. He has killed 24 wolves in the past 15 years, all legally and reported, a result of them harassing cattle or sheep on his land. He told a story of how he shot a female wolf pregnant with nine or ten cubs. And then, a revelation. He said he was not happy about that. Yes, he was happy to no longer have that wolf or its future cubs harrassing his cattle, but he didn’t like having killed those pups. He talked about the majesty of wolves, how beautiful they are, and how he sometimes talks to them, gives them names as he watches them cross a distant ridgeline or disappear into the forest.
That revelation made me feel better about the situation. He’s not killing wolves because he’s a bad person. He’s doing it to defend his livelihood. I appreciated the conversation and the honesty within. He left because a call came over the radio of a car accident and he is an EMT. Rancher, wolf hunter, life saver. Life is not clean and simple and it’s certainly not black and white.
I’ll never hunt a wolf, but I also won’t demonize somebody who does so with reasons like that rancher. We’re one but we’re not the same. That realization and lesson makes some steep up and down well worth the effort.
North. The word has power. It invokes images. Wild images of deep pine woods, dancing aurora night skies, wolves sliding through the shadows, fog rising off lakes, owls hooting calls to one another through the night. In the north everything intensifies: the sound of a twig breaking raises the alert, a recent bear scat invokes a glance around, the smell of decomposing vegetation a harbinger of changing seasons, of autumn in the not so distant future.
There is an urgency to this quest. The seasons are changing. The morning light is less than it was a month ago. The mind says move. The body, tired from the 2,000 mile journey thus far, does its best to keep up. At this point, that’s what this is – mental fortitude versus physical fatigue. But then there is something wholly unnatural about walking north in the face of a northern Rockies fall. Your mind plays games with you. Through it all, into the wild, we walk. At this point, it’s what we do.
After a quintessential northern night at Upper Brooks Lake – crisp air, a shimmering moon, a fire – we head northwest. A deep dew coats the land so we wear our rain pants to avoid a soaking from the dense vegetation. That’s a big change from the south…the plants are higher here, thicker, wetter, more.
The trail rolls thru the Absaroka Mountains. It’s a hard range to get a grasp of, to feel. It’s exceptionally jagged, in many places looking almost unclimbable. The rock is loose, the peaks towering. We pass thru, thankful for a route, because negotiating this mountain range without one would be hell. The northern Yellowstone elk herd does it every year of course, but they are – simply put – better than us.
Fire has ravaged this range. As recently as four years ago the Cub Fire burned thousands of acres. Black skeletons cover the hill sides, and in between them, vibrant flowers. Fireweed, the first flower to return after burn, resides prominently.
Our bodies are up and down in this segment, both from the land and how we feel. We have not had any real source of fat in a week, and the lack of that is making us inconsistent. Hills hurt a little more, endurance isn’t quite as deep. It’s a long haul from Pinedale to Old Faithful. From somewhere, Elaine leads us up a long 2,000 foot climb, and it feels like we are fresh again, moving fast, peppy. And then on the next climb, for no reason, we’re sluggish and slow. It’s like that at this point in time. Mental strength, always mental strength to do a marathon a day.
We pass a place called “Parting of the Waters.” Here, phenomenally, a creek divides, never to be rejoined again until it reaches the ocean. One branch heads east to the Atlantic, one branch to the Pacific. Being a human, I change the course of nature, taking a Nalgene full of Atlantic water and dumping it in the Pacific Creek. Always have to tamper with things, that’s the human way.
We camp at the edge of the national park. It is our last day without the requirements of a permit for some time. A site at the bend of the Snake River. I catch a cutthroat trout and release it back into the world. We’re hungry, but not too hungry to negate a life. Maybe later, but not now. It’s a great night – more fires, relaxation. It’s really part of the reason we are here. To be, not just to move.
We enter Yellowstone. The southeastern part of the park is basically empty of humans. The CDT follows the Snake River drainage west thru fire charred lands. This area was anihilated in the 1988 fire, that great inferno that changed western fire management forever. Thirty years later, and the land is alive. Twenty foot high pine groves are everywhere, healthy. Meadows with flowers abound. The land feels right. Like death, fire is not the end.
Rain greets us in the morning. We enter the cocoon of wool and Gore. We’re transplanted back to the Hardangervidda, to the far north, to the place of past and future adventures. We pass a lake, a stiff wind ripping across it, driving rain into us, making us wake up and feel alive. There is the smell of wood cutting, as rangers work on putting a roof onto a new cabin. We chat, traveler and caretaker, as a fog drifts over the top of Mount Sheridan. We are technically in Yellowstone, but right now we could just as well be in Alaska, the Yukon, Norway. It has that feel. I imagine Dick Proenneke building his cabin on the edge of Lake Clark in Alaska and envision Elaine and I doing that same thing, sometime down the line, in similar conditions.
We enter the land of smoke and geysers. It’s a land of mist and fire, Nyflheim and Muspell rolled into one, and it feels as ancient and godlike as those realms. The crust boils, a kaleidoscope of boiling water and steam. We reach into a creek, discover it’s hot – perfectly hot – and decide to take a dip as the rain beats down. It’s perfection in nature.
The days clears, we pass thru pine forests, rolling hills, a large lake, great beauty. In the morning we wake to a world of fog. It engulfs the forest, enters the body as we breathe, cleansing, bringing back to life. In my book, a foggy morning by the lake in the woods is nearly impossible to beat. At this rate, autumn isn’t some distant concept. It’s just about here. Beautiful goes to phenomenal as we enter more geysers, steam and fog mixing. What is this place, how is it that so much beauty can converge in one spot? We are a lucky duo to be here at this time.
And now, a brief respite at the largest campground in Yellowstone, Grants Village. Last night, beans in a can and hot dogs for dinner over a roaring fire, and a campfire talk from a ranger like we used to do as kids. It’s good to be back in civilization, however briefly. Tomorrow, we hike to Montana.
A thousand miles left. Less than two months. This thing is in grasp. The best part, the northern part, is yet to come. We are happy, we are well, we are loving the moment and this hike of the Continental Divide Trail.