Sunday, June 28, 2015

Day 12: Morrison Lake to Bannock Pass (Leadore, ID)

The Data Book uses the word "road" to describe many different things, from highways or paved roads passable by ordinary cars and trucks to forest service, mining, or ranch roads are steeper and rockier, requiring a 4WD vehicle or quad.  Some are merely a shadow of the memory of a former road, long since abandoned. 

Likewise, in the CDT vernacular, "trail" may refer to established trail tread, an established route marked by signs, cairns, or blazes, or a cross country route that may not bear any resemblance to a trail at all. 

We experienced all of these today as we climbed above Morrison Lake on a steep, rocky, rutted 4WD road, then continuing from ridge to ridge. We veered off on established trail tread as we headed to Elk Mountain, although the trail disappeared from time to time. Realizing that the trail passed by on the shoulder of the mountain, we dropped our packs and quickly scrambled to the top. 

Despite the name, we did not see elk today. But we discovered precious birds, hiding in the tall grass next to the trail. And several times, startled antelope and deer bounded out of our path. 

I hid behind a dense tree and exploded a snowball on Sierra as she hiked by. We both raced to nearby snowfields and the war was on. Laughing and dripping with melting snow, we called a truce a few minutes later. 

Heading down to Bannock Pass, we met our first CDT hiker, Commando. He was heading southbound from Helena, Montana having flipped up from Colorado to avoid the snow.  He told us what to expect in the tiny town of Leadore, Idaho, where we are heading today. 

And then we saw the elk. Not just one or two. Not just a small herd of 20 or 30. A large herd with at least 100 animals grazing near the river bottom. We heard their plaintive cries as they sensed our presence up on the ridge, and watched as they slowly gathered and moved farther downstream. 

Commando had warned us that the restaurant closed at 7 the night he was in town, so we were pleasantly surprised to find it open when we arrived. The owner/cook/waitress was clearly overworked, but she put her heart and soul into the cooking, serving up some tasty food.   We slipped between the cool, fresh sheets at the motel happy, clean, and well fed. 

Day 11: Nicholia Creek to Morrison Lake

Rounding a corner, I startled tiny antelope who had been sleeping in the grass next to the trail. He bounded away quickly, no doubt in search of his parents. 

Reaching the swampy Harkness Lakes, a crazed mama duck ran at us, squawking and flapping her wings. Behind her, two small ducklings peacefully swam on the lake, while a bemused red winged blackbird looked on. 

I heard the steady beating of wings and looked up to see a bald eagle directly overhead, cruising just above the treetops. At such close range, I could appreciate the bird's enormous wingspan, likely wider than I am tall. 

Our trail disappeared as we climbed onto as high ridge.  We followed the ridge, walking in a sky carpeted with short cropped alpine grass and wildflowers of every imaginable hue. Even the rocks wore colorful orange, green, and gray lichens. 

A piercing cry alerted me to a large herd of elk grazing on the nearby hillside and lapping up the moisture from a lingering snowbank. Mothers continued to cry out as they gently nudged their babies down the hill, slowly moving them to safer territory and better grazing. 

Farther down the hill we met a weekend backpacker (our fourth in 11 days) hiking with his aging yellow lab, a sweet dog with silky ears. Lower still, a group of four antelope sprint out of our path, little one in tow. Just before we reached Morrison Lake Sierra discovered a huge frog in a swampy creek that crossed our trail, and I spotted the largest rabbit I had ever seen....perhaps the origin of the jackalope stories?!

Day 10: Buffalo Spring to Nicholia Creek Junction (2230)

Road walking. Some of the CDT is routed over forest service and other two track dirt roads. Although I prefer trail, I am currently hiking on a sprained ankle (injured just before we left), so the cross country sections we've hiked lately have been both painful and exhausting. A little bit of road walking on virtually untraveled dirt roads was just the thing to provide a more relaxed day and to give my ankle a chance to heal. 

Most of our route traversed grassy ridges and hills, but occasionally we dipped into the forest. Nearing Deadman Lake, Sierra spotted several mushrooms such as the one pictured below.

At the beginning of the day, we noticed a four mile discrepancy between the mileage a in the Data Book and our GPS app.  The official CDT seemed to wander aimlessly all day, never taking a direct route when a circuitous route was available.  For example, when we reached Deadman Lake, the Data Book route cut directly across the outlet and joined a road that climbed steeply and directly up to the top of a ridge. Our official route went around the lake and followed the inlet stream for a mile or so before crossing the stream and slowly climbing back above the lake to the top of the ridge, adding approximately two miles. 

Or then there was the section that followed Nicholia Creek for a mile or two, only to cross the creek and follow it back downstream on the other side of the valley. But there our adherence to the official route was amply rewarded, as we watched two beavers swimming and playing in the ponds they had created by damming the creek, with a third beaver hiding in the bushes. 

Equally rare as the elusive beaver, we also saw a backpacker on the trail, only the third hiker we have seen in ten days!  A local, he was taking his dog for a weekend jaunt on a loop that overlapped with the CDT.  

Day 9: Ridge to Buffalo Spring

"Yip, yip, yip, owwooooooooo!"  We wake to the frustrated yips and howls of a lone coyote. 1:30 a.m.  The noisy serenade continues for almost half an hour as we struggle to go back to sleep. 

We woke again when the sun touched our tent, and quickly resumed following the ridge. But travel was slow today. Several times, CDT markers pointed us down a trail that simply disappeared into the woods, some distance from where our GPS indicated the route should go. We backtracked and rerouted ourselves numerous times.

It was evening by the time we reached Buffalo Springs, where we had decided to camp. Someone else was car camping just above the springs, and he invited us to join him for some food. We followed him up to his camp, where he presented us with an amazing smorgasbord of delicious food: fresh salad, cold drinks, pizza, chips, and more!  We ate and ate and ate. 

Just as the sun was setting, we set up a tent nearby, grateful to go to sleep on stomachs full of such delicious food. 

Day 8: Modoc Road to Ridge (2189)

There are Tour Divide riders in town. The Tour Divide is a bike packing race or tour that follows the Continental Divide. Although the route overlaps with the CDT at times, it avoids wilderness areas and tends to opt for dirt roads.  And instead of covering 20-30 miles per day, Tour Divide riders may cover 100-200 miles or more in a single day, allowing for more frequent resupplies. 

Lima is a tiny town, with a motel, a small cafe, and an Exxon gas station with a convenience store.  But the store obviously caters to Tour Divide riders and hikers, with plentiful snack options, including ziplock bags with snack-sized portions of carrot sticks and other fresh food. We saw two Tour Divide riders stocking up while we were purchasing our own supplies. 

Back on the trail, large sheep and cattle ranches give way to the rolling greenish-gold hills of the open range. Wild irises, lupine, and other wildflowers provide a splash of color. Antelope bound away across the fields as we approach. A furry striped badger dashes across the trail into a waiting hole, then plays peek-a-boo, popping out to see if we have left, then retreating into his hole, only to pop out again a minute later.  A red-tailed hawk soars overhead. 

The trail climbs up steeply, following a ridge top fence line along the Idaho/Montana border for endless miles. Late in the afternoon a strong wind comes up, its relentless gusts pushing us into the sharp, barbed wire. Across the valley, a large herd of antelope eye us warily from a neighboring hillside. We chase a herd of elk from hilltop to hilltop, their hooves pounding out a path for us to follow. 

We listen to echoes of thunder as angry clouds drench a nearby ridge with torrents of rain. Bare hills stretch endlessly in every direction, and we wonder where we will ever find shelter from the storm. Just as the sun is beginning to slip behind the distant mountains, we find a sheltered spot on the ridge and fall asleep to the echoing hoots of a pair of owls. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Day 7: Spring to Modoc Road (Lima, MT)

The ghost forest came alive with the music of birds. Rat-a-tat-a-tat. A woodpecker jackhammered on a nearby tree, providing a very effective alarm clock. Numerous other birds sang in the ghostly, burned trees.

Shivering on the cold, bumpy ground, I sat up and surveyed the tent. Leaving the relative warmth and comfort of a cozy down bag to put on wet clothes and soggy shoes is hard. 

Reaching a junction, I hurriedly covered up the sign and asked Sierra if she could tell, without looking at the signs, which way to go. "That way," she said confidently, correctly pointing to the CDT. "How do you know?" I asked. "Because it is overgrown and not very well maintained, so it must be the CDT." Exactly. 

So many wildflowers are blooming now. Cheerful golden sunflowers with faces turned to greet the morning sun, sweet-song white phlox, showy red and yellow columbine, delicate purple lupine, fuzzy white beargrass, wild strawberry blossoms, and many, many more. 

We finished our day with a long walk on a dirt road. As we neared Interstate 15, we saw that one of the local ranches had a bear box with a huge CDT logo right on their front fence!  Hitching around here is not a problem, as two different cars pulled over to ask if we needed anything even before we reached the Interstate!  We got a ride to the nearby town of Lima, Montana, where we will resupply before getting back on the trail tomorrow. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Day 6: Taylor Mountain to Spring Near 2147

Water. I woke surrounded by water - the dew on the grass in the meadow, the rain-saturated muddy ground - but had absolutely nothing to drink. My water bottle was completely empty, and the next listed water source was miles away. 

Thirst. Thoughts of water consumed me as finished the climb to Taylor Mountain. Distracted, we made a wrong turn, leading us into two snowfields. And at the base of one of the snowfields, a large puddle of fresh snowmelt.  We slowly scooped out three liters, a half cup at a time. Water!

Even the elk abandoned the official CDT route as it traversed a steep and treacherous side hill strewn with rocks and riddled with the holes and raised tunnels of industrious ground squirrels. We made slow progress, constantly checking GPS for reassurance that we were still on track. 

Although the trail eventually appeared, it disappeared again later in the afternoon, abandoning us in a snarl of downed trees and wet, knee-high grass and brush. Again we relied on GPS, making slow progress until a "junction" where our route joined an existing, maintained trail. 

By then it was getting late, and we began searching for camp. But in the middle of a burned out section of forest, we had to hike on for a while to find living trees in which to hang our food. We eventually found a grassy knoll with a few live pine trees in the midst of the burn and made a hasty camp.