Tales of the Trail: Northwest Montana

The following story first appeared in Jim’s newsletter, Wild Wind.

This tale originally appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of Wild Wind, Jim’s newsletter.

It’s a gray, wet March day here in Big Sky as I write this. The snow alters between snow and rain as if not quite sure of the season. We’re hurting for snow this year, and it looks like it’ll be a mighty dry summer if we don’t get more moisture. Sitting here in the cabin, I’ve been watching the clouds dropping over the mountain, hiding everything, and then rising again, cloaking the forest in a fresh, ghostly frosting. Finding myself daydreaming, I keep shaking myself out of it, but it’s hard not to think about all the days like this that I’ve spent in the wild country, and under conditions not quite so comfortable as this snug cabin.

     I’ll never forget a three-day stretch of walking, up in the northwest corner of Montana several years back. It was the last few days of a thousand mile hike that pretty much took me the length of Idaho, with a little bit of the very northern part of Montana thrown in. Back then I never carried any raingear. If a storm blew in, I’d do one of three things: put up the tent and pull out a good book, find a dense stand of trees to shelter me from the worst of the rain and then walk on, or just put a garbage bag over the pack and keep going, resigning myself to getting wet. The choice depended on my mood, and how bad the approaching storm looked.

     On this particular occasion I had been poking along all summer at my own pace, but from my last food drop I had notified my wife of my finishing date, in order to arrange my ride home. I hate to have to hike to meet schedules, but found myself determined to be there, come hell or highwater. It turned out that the highwater wasn’t too far off the mark.

     Northwest Montana has some incredible stands of old growth cedar and hemlock. These areas remind me of the ancient forests  of the Olympic Peninsula, with huge, amazingly old trees, and green moss and ferns carpeting the forest floor. When I set off in the morning from my camp in the lush, canyon bottom, the air glowed a dull green. The day was very overcast, the clouds hanging like gray flannel over the mountains. It was warm for September and I walked up the trail and into the clouds, clad only in my T-shirt and hiking shorts.

     I remember thinking how good it felt to  climb; how strong my body felt after an entire summer of hiking. I felt energized that morning. Like a young colt fresh out of the corral, I fairly zipped up the trail. The old giants were left behind, and the forest became more like the Montana I knew, with scattered fir and open meadows.

     The trail led me higher and I found myself walking a ridge, skirting knobs, dipping in and out of the misty clouds. It was cooler here and I slipped into my wool shirt. The rain hadn’t started, but each twig and blade of grass clutched its own droplets of moisture rung from the invading clouds. My boots were soon drenched. But it seemed that day that nothing could squelch my soaring spirits. The views which I knew were missing at each clearing, hidden snug and tight behind the dense bank of clouds, bothered me not at all. I reveled in the haunting mist creeping quietly through the trees, entire forests disappearing on a whim, and the meadows sweeping off into the nothingness of gray.

     As I tramped through one cloud, I chanced upon a steep, sloped clearing, the trail traversing the upper part of the meadow. My steps took an abrupt halt when movement below warned me of the presence of fellow cloud-walkers. At first I was only aware of a large black blob moving slowly through the curtain of mist, but as my eyes focused I realized that I was looking down on one of the largest black bears I’ve ever seen! The fact that this was a Mama bear was soon evident as I noted three little balls of fur further down the slope. All the bears were very intent on their grazing and totally unaware of my presence 50 yards above them. I’d heard that a sow with three cubs had treed a couple hikers a few days before in this area. I was obviously watching the same bears.

     Uneasy at first, I soon realize that I had the perfect observation point. Hunkering quietly on the trail, I watched Mama graze peacefully across the slope while the cubs seemed to bounce here and there off of each other and from one patch of forage to the next. I could hear Mama’s lips smacking with grunts of gastric pleasure. The whine and playful squeals of the cubs was fainter, as they were farther down the slope, but each bearsound was like music. I thrilled to this closeness, this unmarred glimpse of wild life, this meeting of mist and mind, bear and mountain clouds.

     I’m not sure how long I watched the bears. Looking back now I don’t think it was more than a few minutes. But it seemed much longer at the time. Soon the clouds rolled silently upon the scene, devouring the hillside. Hidden from view, but still peering intently down the hill, I rose and walked quietly up the trail.

     The rain came riding on raven’s wings, silently and unnoticed. Somewhere the mist had turned to full raindrops. I got out the garbage bag for the pack, a wool sweater for me, and continued along the rolling, mostly forested ridge. Through the raining clouds, I roamed the drenched clearings and dripping forests, my world suddenly shrunken by the clutching fog of the day. For several miles I enjoyed this rich, dripping green world, but as the temperatures dropped and snowflakes came dancing sporadically within the rain, I withdrew farther into myself. The legs worked like a well oiled machine. No thought was needed to keep them going. Even following the now overgrown trail was automatic. My thoughts went off in flights of fantasy; mostly thinking of food and a cozy woodstove waiting at home!

     After nearly 15 miles, I was feeling soggy. The hands were stiff and getting numb. Time to stop for a warm up. I found a sheltered nook and built a small fire. I was hungry and devoured a healthy lunch that would have filled three good sized horses. It felt so good to have the heat inside and out! Fully revived, I slipped wool socks over my hands (the best mittens) and trekked on.

     It was nearly dark when I approached the Yaak River after nearly 22 miles. Needless to say, I slept good that night, snug and dry in my sleeping bag and tent. Starry skies that night only served to tease me as I awoke the next morning to the sound of pouring rain. I lay there for a couple hours, reading and listening, thinking of all the miles I’d come that summer. Only a few days left to go.

     I packed up the little tent in the rain, crossed the Yaak River on a road, then began a long climb to a high ridge along the Idaho-Montana line. The rain had stopped by the time I got up into the higher reaches, but the heavy clouds still hung lazily over the mountains. The dull day was brightened considerably by finding extensive patches of ripe huckleberries. My spirits soared with the extra treat, and though the overcast thickened, my purple tongue yelled encouragingly to the heavens, “Come on, Sun!!” Over and over, the echo filled the ridges and canyons, but it never heard. The rain came crawling back over the open ridges.

     The trail, like a good majority of the trails out west, had been built by the CCC back in the 30’s. Abandoned for many years, the skill and effort poured into its construction was still plainly visible. The extensive rockwork in places was masterful; very artfully done. Much time and thought had gone into that path. In the dense mist, I lost it for long stretches, but then found some nice sidehill sections still intact. Along the open crest I didn’t really need a trail, but in the whirling rain and clouds it reassured me and gave me something to relate to.

     The topo maps allowed me to keep track of each up and down, and twist and turn, but when at last I came to the saddle below Buckhorn Mountain, I could barely see ten yards in any direction. The rain had turned to a hard, icy snow. Making camp amid the clouds, I peeled off the wet clothes, thankful for my portable shelter and still dry sleeping bag.

     The morning came like a yawn, not sure if it was here or not. The clouds hung just as ominous as the day before, but now it was much colder and I wore long wool pants, a down jacket, wool cap, and my heaviest socks for mittens. The rain began soon after I started, alternating between sloppy snow and misting rain. I got wet, mostly from the heavy brush I found myself wading through. The two bull moose I stumbled upon gazed at me with an almost humorous look on their faces. Indeed, my soaked, drowned-rat look must have appeared silly. I laughed back and hiked on.

     Ten miles into the day the snowy rain ceased and I built another fire for lunch, drying my clothes and stoking up my energy with a good lunch. As I stood hunched over the snapping blaze, a thin ray of light began to crack through the dense cloud cover. Suddenly, like a dam breaking, the sun’s magic spilled through. For the first time in three days I was bathed in sunlight. Hoots and whoops echoed through the dripping forest as I jumped and jigged with joy.

     The sun came and went, sharing the day with brief showers and rosy rainbows as I made my way over Canuck Mountain and a series of unnamed knobs. The land became more rugged. I began skirting the cliffy ridge. Wilderness is a matter of sense, and I had felt the land growing wilder with each mile. A coyote loped across a nearby clearing. A marmot whistled a warning. Water oozed slowly back into the track of a grizzly bear. The rains washed everything clean. Each rock, tree, sight and smell was sharper and more clear. My awareness flooded with each rich gift presented to it. The cold, dreary miles were behind me, but also a part of where I was now standing. How can you get somewhere without traveling every foot of the way? And isn’t the Way the entire journey? Each mile of the approach is a mile closer to the end, but also a mile of its own, added to the heart of the traveler.

     Coming to a sloping field of car-sized boulders, I hopped and leaped from one wet rock to the next. My boots never let me down, griping like a treefrog to the slick surfaces, but on three occasions the huge rocks began to tilt and groan with their new weight. My jumping became a bit faster at such times.

     At last I topped Davis Mountain and looked north to my last peak of the trek. Northwest Peak was being pounded with wind and rain, but I could still make out the outline of the old fire lookout atop its summit. Making my way slowly along the rugged ridge, I was soon sheltered in the battered little shack, each gust shaking and rattling the stalwart building. Some day those wintry blasts will succeed in sending the old hut to the rocks below, but that night I used my weight as added ballast, and welcomed the four walls. The  wind pounded away with groans and screams, but brought only thoughts of the thousand miles behind me, each one full of its own magic, its own time, and its own stories.

Leave a Reply