Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Day 20: Schultz Saddle to Trees Below Bitterroot Junction

Thunder rumbled overhead. Brilliant flashes of lightning illuminated the tent.  Then, like someone unleashed a fire hose, rain began pounding the tent.  I looked at my watch. 12:30 a.m.  For the next few hours I lay awake, listening to the storm rage all around us. 

Crawling out of the tent, the drone of a thousand mosquitoes reassured us that we were not the only ones to have survived the storm. Steam rose all around us as the sun warmed the damp logs and plants. The storm seemed to have interrupted the record-breaking heat wave, leaving the day warm but pleasant.  

A small group of elk thundered out of our path. A large grouse ran and flapped into nearby bushes to hide. Soft creeks babbled through lush green meadows filled with wildflowers. We loved our initial introduction to the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.

We soon entered yet another burn area, the trail barely discernible in places beneath the downed trees. Yet many of the burned trees were still standing, some charred and black, others pale and ghostly white. The wind whistled and howled through the bare, ghostly forest overhead.  

We try to avoid camping near dead trees when possible. Standing dead trees can fall in the night, posing a safety risk. And dead branches aren't suitable for food hangs, because bears can easily snap them off to obtain your food. We eventually found camp in an oasis of living trees in the midst of a large burn area. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Day 19: Chief Joseph Trailhead to Schultz Saddle

Deb's restaurant served up huge, delicious breakfasts. We also received warnings about the thunderstorms predicted for later in the afternoon. With the forecast of high winds, dry thunderstorms, and possible hail following days of hot, dry weather, the locals are nervous of wildfires. One of the local women spoke about lightning striking her family's house and barn multiple times during a dry thunderstorm while growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. 

By the time we finished eating, packed up, and got back to the trail it was already mid-morning. Our trail wound through the Lost Trail Pass Cross Country ski area in the Bitterroot National Forest. Shortly after leaving the ski area, we passed a tall, handmade wooden ladder propped against a tree. The ladder appeared to go nowhere, but of course we had to stop and climb it anyway.

Lupine, paintbrush, and many other wildflowers carpeted the forest floor. Bright red runners from wild strawberry plants snaked across the trail. Orange and yellow butterflies flitted from one flower to the next, sometimes solo, sometimes spiraling in a tandem fluttery dance. 

Near Gibbons Pass, our trail brief overlapped with the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. There we read the sad history of the trail, which follows the route used by the Nez Perce as they fled their homeland in Oregon in a vain attempt to avoid further conflict and abuse. Lewis and Clark also once passed through this area. 

The heat gathered with the clouds all afternoon as we climbed over and around a snarled, tangle of downed burned trees. Thunder rumbled overhead, and we felt exposed, with only an open canopy of ghostly, burned trees to protect us. 

A slow drizzle dripped from the sky like a leaky faucet, creating a sauna-like effect as the moisture hit the hot ground. Too hot to don raingear, we just kept hiking. The rain quickly petered out. 

Lightning crashed against the next ridge as the storm closed in around us.  The sky opened and it began to pour.  We scuttled over slippery deadfall and brushed past rain-soaked baby pines, drenching our pants. 

We took advantage of a break in the storm to set up a hasty camp at Schultz Saddle. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Day 18: Ridge to Chief Joseph Trailhead (Darby)

Bloodletting isn't common practice anymore, but doctors once thought it was an effective restorative. Slowly draining the poisons from your blood would cure whatever ailed you, provided you didn't die from the cure. If so, Sierra and I must be the picture of health because the mosquitoes are slowly draining our blood as effectively as a team of leaches. And when they are done, the biting flies will pick our bones clean. 

The trail rises steeply today, as though we are climbing UP a black diamond ski run. We mentally check off some of our favorite Mammoth runs as we hike. Cornice Bowl?  Check. Scotty's Run?  Check. Climax? Check. Paranoids?  Check. And still we climb. 

The heat slowly rises, like water set on the stove to boil. The forest is stifling, with only the occasional soft breath of wind to provide a temporary respite. Entering a burned section of forest we feel we are walking through the fires of Mordor. Who knew even eyelids could sweat?!

And yet, there is beauty here. Pale green mossy strands cloak the trunks of the nearby pines. Purple lupine, lavender and yellow daisies, red tufts of paintbrush, and many other wildflowers brighten the steep, rocky trail. Colorful butterflies effortlessly glide from flower to flower, seemingly oblivious to the steep terrain.

We reached  the Chief Joseph Trailhead by late afternoon, and got a ride to Darby, Montana to resupply. After cleaning up, we walked over to the Little Blue Joint restaurant for some delicious food and milkshakes, which we've been dreaming of for several hot days of hiking. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Day 17: Twin Lakes Junction to Ridge Above Big Hole Pass

Yellowjackets swarmed our tent. They buzzed against the thin green material on the tent door. We cowered inside for a few minutes before pushing out quickly and dashing away from the tent. 

Unfortunately, the yellowjackets aren't just swarming our tent. Whether drawn by our sweet dispositions or our natural floral scents, they find us whenever we stop. At times, I will have several moving about my clothing, another fluttering on my arm, and several more lingering over my pack. With so many wildflowers in bloom, the yellowjackets' attraction to us is mystifying. And exhausting. When the yellowjackets swarm we don't like to stay in one place for too long. 

After the high alpine lakes, streams, and meadows filled with wildflowers, descending to the forested Sheep Creek canyon felt like walking into a fiery furnace. Down we went anyway, collecting cobwebs as we went. Spiders like setting up their webs across the trail, probably because trails attract wildlife, and wildlife attracts insects. 

Wading into the cool creek water was refreshing, which was good because our route crossed back and forth several times. Somehow we also managed to wet our shirts and hats, which helped keep us cool as we hiked back into the sweltering heat of the woods. 

We stopped a few miles beyond Big Hole Pass on the Continental Divide. Both the insects and the heat continue to plague us. We will sleep on top of our sleeping bags, drifting off to the gentle lullaby of a thousand droning insects. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Day 16: Hamby Creek to Twin Lakes Junction

Clean, warm, dry socks are a luxury in the hiking world. Although our shoes were still damp, we slipped on dry socks to take the edge off the painful chill of sliding feet into damp shoes. It was a mistake. 

Dew covered the tall grass in the meadow surrounding Hamby Creek, soaking our feet before we even reached the crossing. And with no bridge or log nearby, we had no choice but to wade on in. 

By the time we reached Miner Lakes Trailhead, we were sorely tempted to head down the road for a nice long soak in the hot springs near Jackson Lodge. But no cars were waiting to whisk us away to the comforts of hot springs and town food, and we hiked on.

Rock Island Lakes are beautiful green jewels, nestled high in the mountains. We climbed above them, over one rocky, snowy pass after another. We stopped occasionally to cool ourselves, dipping hats and shirts in the icy, snowmelt creek that paralleled the trail. 

Sierra's shoes, a brand-new pair of Brooks Cascadias, began falling apart just over 100 miles into our hike. The uppers tore apart at the flex point, leaving gaping holes in the shoes. Today, those holes connected, ripping across the top of the shoe until Sierra's toes poked out. With no way to repair the shoes in the field, Sierra will have to hike like that for three more days. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Day 15: Goldstone Pass to Hamby Creek

A squirrel chattered angrily just outside the tent. Five minutes later, the squirrel began protesting again. Our morning alarm, complete with snooze at five minute intervals. 

Climbing the final ridge before Goldstone Pass, we met Banjo, Kiddo, and two other CDT hikers who had flipped up to Helena and were hiking southbound to avoid the snow. Kiddo, who lives near Glacier, informed us that the glacier lilies are edible, so we promptly sampled a flower. Not bad, but almost flavorless, like a limp, mild lettuce leaf.

As we climbed up and down along the ridge, we slid down steep, rocky snowfields. I postholed once, striking my ankle against a sharp rock. Snowmelt water slowly dropped from the rocky cliffs like a leaky faucet, and it tasted cool and crisp. 

Lower down we waded through fields of purple and white lupine. 

A large barn owl swooped overhead, landing on a bare, gray branch of a ghostly tree ahead. He swiveled his round head and peered at us before lifting off and soaring away. 

Reaching the snowmelt swollen Berry Creek, we eyed a wet, slippery narrow log before wading into the icy, knee-high water. Squishing up the trail, water seeped out of our sodden shoes, and we knew they wouldn't dry before morning. 

Shortly after the crossing, a legions of bloodthirsty insects swarmed in, seemingly impervious to the large quantities of Ben's 100% Deet sprayed on every exposed surface. These mosquitoes drink Deet for breakfast. 

We decided to camp just above Hamby Creek, hoping for fewer mosquitoes than in the swampy meadows near the creek. It was a decision we would eventually come to regret. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Day 14: Lemhi Pass to Ridge Near Goldstone Pass

A loud buzzing surrounded us, as though we had stuck our heads inside a working hive. Swarms of bees flitted from one wildflower to the next. 

My ULA Catalyst is almost bursting at the seams, overstuffed with a 5-6 day resupply for two (the solo hiker's equivalent of 10-12 days of food!).  Hefting my pack, I wonder, as I so often do for the day or two after a resupply, how can we possibly eat all that food?!  And yet, time and again, we do. 

Most hikers find teeth along the trail, stuck in the jawbones of animal skeletons left behind by predators or hunters. But Sierra lost a tooth as she hiked along this afternoon!  Moments later we looked up to find a young male moose watching us curiously as we packed away her tooth. 

We found a sheltered campsite on the ridge and retreated into our tent just as it began to sprinkle. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Day 13: Bannock Pass to Ridge Near Lemhi Pass

The owner of the Silver Dollar Restaurant in Leodore had promised to open up by 7, but when we arrived the doors were locked up tightly.  We waited a few minutes before resigning ourselves to another cold breakfast of ProBars and PopTarts. To paraphrase Gramps from Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons, "This ain't the Silver Dollar, but it'll do."

As our trail passed through a pasture, we tried to speak soothingly to the cows. But the cows scattered as we approached, as though they had a premonition of the steaks, hamburgers, and veal cutlets to come.  Reaching the end of the pasture we discovered that, despite a self-closing mechanism on the gate, the rancher had nevertheless chosen to wire the gate shut, leaving us to climb up and over to escape the pasture. 

Farther up the trail, we met a Northwest Youth Groups trail crew hard at work, wielding axes, picks, shovels, and other heavy tools as they improved the trail. Beyond, packs, jackets, and water bottles lined the next mile of trail like items at a yard sale. Still farther up the trail we found an exhausted crew member lying underneath a tree, fast asleep. 

A red-tailed hawk took to flight as we approached, soaring over the valley below. We climbed out of the sage and lupine into alpine meadows lined with melting snowfields and filled with yellow glacier lilies and magenta shooting stars. Unfortunately, such alpine beauty tends to go hand in hand with swarming mosquitoes. We hiked quickly in an attempt to keep them at bay. 

Muddy sections of trail provided a record of other anime who had passed through: elk, deer, antelope, coyote, wolf, and bear. 

A tawny owl swooped 10 feet above our heads, its round face scanning the fields surrounded our camp for mice and other tasty creatures.  The deep red orb of the sun slipped behind the mountains, momentarily coloring the sky with bursts of reds, pinks, and golds.