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.