Monday, July 27, 2015

Day 42: Fools Creek to Beaver Lake

We watched the tiny crescent moon set behind the mountains, and fell asleep under a clear sky bursting with stars. But we woke to sea of clouds covering the sky like a gray woolen blanket. A red-headed woodpecker chiseled away at a ghostly gray stump, tiny wood chips flying in every direction. 

We soon reached Bowl Creek, what should have been our first ford of the day. But Sierra innovated by dragging a narrow log to the creek and placing the tip between two rocks that were several feet of deep, running water away. By balancing on the narrow log and the following a series of well-spaced rocks, we were able to keep our feet dry for the crossing.  

Bowl Creek was also the site of the last message in Wired's birthday scavenger hunt for Sierra. Sierra opened one of two small Rubbermaid tubs Wired had left and was excited to discover a bright pink birthday monkey, complete with birthday party hat. Sierra gave the monkey a squeeze and it burst into song: "Happy birthday to you, you live in a zoo, you look like a monkey, and you smell like one too!"  Sierra named her new friend Bob Marshall, after the wilderness area where Wired left her birthday scavenger hunt.

We left Bowl Creek in a light drizzle. The clouds finally broke up just before lunch, instantly raising the temperature by at least 15 degrees. Sierra enjoyed a birthday candle adorned Hostess Ho Ho cupcake after a relaxed lunch at Strawberry Creek.  

The trail followed Strawberry Creek upstream, a pleasant, gentle, forested hike. We met 10K, a southbounder, the only hiker we saw all day. 

From Badger Pass, the trail became rough and bumpy, a dried swamp with deep footprints from the many horses, people, elk, bear, deer, and other animals that had traveled the trail when it was thick with mud. The trail smoothed out slightly just before we reached Beaver Lake, where we set up camp for the night. 

Day 41: Red Shale Side Creek to Fools Creek

Sierra's 12th birthday!  Warm fingers of sun tickled us awake. We enjoyed a relaxed morning, sleeping in, munching on Wired's Jelly Belly beans (a favorite snack), and sipping hot chocolate on a smooth, flat rock. Even after we started hiking, I stopped to wish Sierra a happy birthday often. 

Although we saw no animals, animal scat can tell an interesting story about the local critters. Bears regularly lumber along the trails here, leaving scat as they go. A wolf or coyote passed by shortly before we did, having dined on a squirrel or other small rodent. And yesterday we found an owl pellet containing the tiny bones of the unfortunate mouse who got caught in the owl's deadly talons.

We climbed out of the burn into the cool shade of an old growth forest with dense foliage blanketing the forest floor.  Mossy creeks wound beneath the trees. We climbed into a meadow teeming with brightly colored wildflowers. The Chinese Wall towered overhead.

We spend several hours basking in the beauty of the rocky cliffs of the Chinese Wall, climbing and descending the ridges beneath it. Then, we reluctantly followed the CDT back into the forest. 

Old growth forest was soon traded for the scarred trees of pale gray and charred black wood as we entered another burn area. We found a tiny oasis of salvaged trees next to a meadow by Fools Creek, and set up camp for the night. 

Day 40: Chinese Wall Pass to Red Shale Side Creek (Mile 2836)

The Chinese Wall!  The golden cliffs of nature's Chinese Wall, lit by the morning sun, towered above us. We stared up at it as we walked through beautiful alpine meadows scattered with wildflowers. Mixed in with a colorful palette of wildflowers were the tousled "Who Heads" of the pasqueflower seed pods.  

We reached Spotted Bear Pass, the site of the third hidden message in Wired's birthday scavenger hunt for Sierra. Sierra was very excited to find that what Wired had left for her was still there!

Thunder rumbled across the valley, and we saw rain ahead. We dodged random, isolated raindrops, and took refuge under a tree during a brief deluge. But we couldn't avoid the effects of the storm. Thick, sticky mud caked the bottom of my shoes, slowly adding layer after layer until it felt like I was wobbling down the trail on platform shoes. 

We planned to camp near the first crossing of Red Shale Creek, as The Bob tends to have camping near creeks. But just before we reached the crossing, we entered a burn area. What had once been the forest floor was now littered with soot and deadfall. With no camping in sight we continued on. And on. And on. 

We finally found a rocky, sooty flat spot near the trail. Sierra's birthday is tomorrow, and I had been hoping to find a beautiful campsite for her to wake up to. This definitely isn't it.

Worse still, I was not able to hang the food in any of the handful of standing, burned trees nearby. The Bob requires trail users to properly store their food (either hanging or in a bear resistant container) whenever they are not attending it.  But a ranger in the Bob once said that sleeping with your food does not violate the food storage requirements because while it is with you, you are "attending" it, whether awake or sleeping. I have before never slept with my food in Montana, in grizzly country, within a mile of sighting fresh bear scat. Of course, I suspected I would spend the night "attending" the food in the most literal sense. How can you sleep when you are worried that a powerful grizzly might reach in and swipe your food-stuffed pillow?!

Day 39: Benchmark Trailhead to Spring Near Chinese Wall Pass

We've finally reached "The Bob," the popular Bob Marshall Wilderness in Northern Montana. In stark contrast to the seclusion we experienced at the beginning of our hike, The Bob is teeming with people and horses: day hikers, horseback riders, fishers, weekend backpackers, and pack trains. 

Crrrrrrrrack!  As we traveled through a large burn area, one of the towering charred trees crashed to the forest floor below. Woodpeckers jackhammered loudly, trying to penetrate the bare wood to extract the insects living inside.  A sleek pine marten scampered up the trail and into a nearby tree. Deer stared at us, then serenely sauntered off the trail. 

With so many hikers and riders around, it was impossible to talk with all of them, as is our habit when we meet others on the trail. But we really enjoyed spending time with Dennis and Carolyn from Billings, a fascinating couple who have a lifetime's worth of trekking and bikepacking adventures to share. 

Wired had left another birthday message for Sierra hidden along today's route. We searched the designated spot for some time, but could not find it. Eventually we had to accept the fact that someone else must have found it already, and we hiked on. 

Perhaps we were overly optimistic to think we could find camping in The Bob just before the pass leading to the Chinese Wall on a busy July weekend. In the past five weeks on the CDT, we have camped near other hikers only once (other than at designated campgrounds) and seen one other tent. So we were somewhat surprised to find campsite after campsite, already occupied. We eventually found a small flat space in a meadow, less than a mile from the top of the pass. The meadow is popular with animals, and we will fall asleep to the sounds of a doe clip clopping through the meadow, tearing large mouthfuls of plants as she goes.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Day 38: Straight Creek to Benchmark Trailhead (Augusta)

Everything that could go wrong did. Rain tapped against our tent throughout the night. When we woke, a ceiling of gray dark gray clouds shut out the sun, eliminating any chance we would be able to dry out our wet gear. 

We packed up and began hiking quickly, anxious to reach the trailhead and get to our next resupply town. But in our haste we missed a key junction, hiking almost three quarters of a mile down the wrong trail before realizing we were heading in the wrong direction. 

We trudged back up to the missed junction at the Straight Creek crossing, a ford. A doctor recently advised Sierra to keep her feet dry as much as possible, so we switched to Crocs instead of crossing in our usual way, just wading across in our hiking shoes. It was a mistake. The current ripped the Crocs from my feet, carrying them swiftly downstream. Sierra tried to chase after them, but ended up losing one of her own Crocs, falling in, and partially submerging her pack in the process. Meanwhile, the Crocs had floated miles downstream, far out of reach. 

By the time we finally got back on the trail heading to Elbow Pass, we had lost almost two hours. So much for our dreams of an early day into town for our resupply. 

The rest of our hike to the Benchmark Trailhead was mishap free. Our friend Wired hiked through The Bob a few weeks ago, and Sierra was excited to discover a birthday card Wired had left for her at the trailhead!  We were also delighted to see Grandpa, who will be enjoying time in The Bob and Glacier National Park for the next two weeks before taking us home. 

Once in town, we headed to Mel's Diner for ice cream. After cleaning up at the Bunkhouse Inn, we enjoyed pizza at the Lazy B. 

Day 37: Dry Lake to Straight Creek

A deep chill settled over our camp in the night. Although golden rays of sun warmed the rocky mountain cliffs above, they could not penetrate the thick forest surrounding us. We bundled up in many layers and climbed toward the sun, enjoying breathtaking views from the ridge. 

We descended to a creek for lunch. Sierra discovered a natural log teeter totter in the forest. In my haste to get back on the trail, I accidentally kicked over our entire pot of cooked pasta, leaving me with no choice but to start over. As I was cooking our second lunch, a trio of hikers marched by: one CDT southbounder and two section hikers heading for Old Faithful. Later we met Patrick, his arrows and collapsible bow protruding from a side pack pocket. 

Dark clouds gathered. The rain, light and misting at first, turned to a steady drizzle that stopped only after we set up a rather damp, dismal camp in the midst of a large burn area. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Day 36: Ridge Above Rogers Pass to Dry Lake

Fierce winds buffeted the tent. The squat, scrubby pines that had seemed our best protection from the wind last night, now seemed like no protection at all. I woke before the sun, anxious to get off the ridge as fast as humanly possible. 

We leaned into the wind, fighting the gusts to stay on the trail. As we descended to Rogers Pass (5,610 ft) the taller trees provided a welcome respite from the relentless wind. 

We met only one other hiker today, Trailblazer. But the large mounds of fresh bear scat on the trail tell us we are not alone. Hungry grizzlies also travel this lonely corridor. 

We climbed Green Mountain, Red Mountain, and countless other unnamed ridges as we headed into the Scapegoat Wilderness. We climbed next to white cliffs clothed in rusty orange lichen. Wildflowers carpeted the ridgetops.  Mountains stretch endlessly to the north and west. 

Icy blasts of wind kept us bundled up a day. The wind also propelled a steady parade of towering thunderheads across the sky above us, but the fast-moving clouds did not drop any rain. Exposed on a ridge for most of the day, we were grateful that the threatened thunderstorms never materialized. We were also thankful to find a sheltered camp off the ridge near a dry, rocky lake bed.