Up by 5, out into the mosquitos before 6, hiked out before 6:45.
The first few miles were still under that rocky cliff, climbing over shoulders before dipping down across creeks and back up again. It was mostly burnt out and exposed, so the views were great but there was little sun protection. Very soon after leaving camp, I walked up a streambed to find a good place to collect water. After my midmorning snack, I had only a couple more big climbs and then it was all down and into thicker forest.
For a mile in this thicket, there was a tangled mess of blowdowns constantly sending me off-trail or making me climb or tightrope walk. At one point a branch caught the side of my shorts as I stepped down and tore a seam open six inches long. It wasn’t a particularly uncomfortable or embarrassing location for a giant hole. Many women’s dresses are intentionally cut in exactly the same place. So I hiked the rest of the day with it open.
Continuing down the hill following the creek (Red Shale Creek), I soon reentered a burn zone. I couldn’t find a lick of shade anywhere out here. And I was flagging because it was lunch time. Eventually, I climbed down into the creek and had lunch in an uncomfortable spot on the water’s edge. It still wasn’t shady, but at least it was a bit cooler next to the creek.
A few miles more meant crossing the creek where it had carved a much deeper ravine. I kept my socks dry by walking across on an unsteady fallen tree. It was not easy to avoid falling off it into the creek with it wobbling and trying to block my way with branches. Real highline walkers have all my respect.
The trail got much easier after it reentered the thicket here. It was completely clear, just a slow steady climb occasionally awash with mud. I stopped in a nice campsite for a break and to collect water from the nearby creek and was swarmed by flies. I surely killed a dozen in the few minutes I sat there.
From there it was nearly 5 miles to Rock Creek Guard Station, and the trail looked about the same the whole way. Nothing to mention. I pushed the whole distance in a single stretch, right past my usual dinner time, in hopes there would be a picnic table at the cabin.
No such luck, although there was a deer stalking around me the whole time I sat on the log in front of the cabin eating supper. It must have smelled me peeing on the ground as soon as I arrived and was just waiting for me to move.
I’m no ultralighter, and, in fact, I carry a buttload of stuff while hiking. And I had been holding out all day for the guard station because I knew it had the amenities needed for a hiker to lighten his buttload. However, I needed to pack up and carry all my stuff up to the brand new privy with me and leave it propped against the open door because I knew the deer would want lick every drop of sweat off of every square inch of everything I had sweated on. Indeed, only a few minutes after I had relocated, I could see not one but two deer going after the salt I had left on the ground.
Even though it was well after 8pm, I decided to leave and go another 3 miles up to Spotted Bear Pass. I didn’t have the daylight for the whole way, but I did have the twilight. Even though it was the end of a long hiking day, it was on the easier end of trail I’ve had in Montana.
At the pass, I climbed up a nearby hill into the woods. I found a relatively flat spot and finally put my headlamp on to make camp. I was in bed before 11 and skipped my nightly writing session to get to sleep sooner. Why do today what can be put off until after a good night’s sleep?
I vaguely remember hearing my 5am alarm and then falling asleep. Just before my 6am alarm went off, I was awoken by the sound of thunder, loud and close.
I sprang into action, going out into the pleasantly cool and stormcloud-darkened morning to fetch my pack et al. in under the protection of my rainfly. It started raining. I rearranged things underneath the rainfly to keep everything dry, then crawled back into my sleeping bag and went back to sleep. At the time, my thoughts were along the lines of “I would happily take a trail zero right here if it meant not hiking all day on the rain.” But I fetched the weather report on my Garmin, and it said the rain would be gone in an hour and the rest of the day would be fine.
I woke up again well into the 9 o’clock hour. It was starting to get uncomfortably warm. I had only intended to wait out the storm, but it seems my body wanted a lot more sleep. Fair enough. I could hike a short day and put in some big miles tomorrow.
I hiked out by 11am in my slightly drier socks. The damper ones were strapped to the outside of my pack to dry as I hiked. I crossed Bowl Creek and then lost the trail immediately. There was no sign whatsoever of the turnoff. I had to backtrack along trails I hadn’t even seen.
The trail to Sun River Pass was at least a mile of blowdowns across the trail. All expected, which is why I had decided not to try to camp at the top of the pass. Better to jungle gym navigation on fresh legs.
I met two trail crew guys two taking lunch just beyond the pass where the burned out forest began again. They informed me that they had just finished clearing the trail ahead, welcome news since I was expecting two more miles of navigating blowdowns.
I stopped after a bit over two hours, my breakfast drink not even finished, for lunch. I found a nice shady campsite on the edge of a meadow on the bank of Fool Creek. I also took the opportunity to lighten my load, fill a hole, and bathe a bit in the creek. I added the contents of my magic avocado to my normal lunch wraps. All told, I was stopped there for nearly two hours. Yep, short day.
Almost immediately upon leaving, a stray branch on the trail got caught between my legs and sent me face first toward the trail. The real Montana CDT was clearly going to have me falling far more often than anything in New Mexico. There were half a dozen near-falls on just this short day alone, and at least two actual falls. Bipedal motion is stupid.
From here, the trail soon entered a lush, densely overgrown, and not at all burnt forest above Open Creek, the kind that also harbors dense clouds of flies. Generally speaking, I was fine as long as I kept moving. But eventually I did remove my hat and swap it for a net. The latter was far more efficacious in the jungle.
At one point, the trail crossed the creek at a place where I would have to get my socks wet or stop and change into water socks. I took the third option, climbing the hill to stay on the same side of the creek until it recrossed less than half a mile down. At first this seemed like the easy obvious choice, but I erred too close to the creek and the vegetation got dense enough to slow me down. Plus there were many side streams to avoid and little puddles too. And then at one point I stopped in a meadow to check how far it was to the trail on the map and my legs were immediately covered with extremely fast-moving biting ants. I couldn’t brush them off faster than they could climb, so I had to run into the trail grass in hopes that would brush them all off my shoes. Anyway, I can’t say whether it ended up saving me the time I would have spent taking off my boots and putting them back on, but it did certainly keep my socks dry in the end.
Although the whole Open Creek Trail was a climb, it was after this that it started getting steeper and throwing in switchbacks. At the point where I finally crossed the headwaters of the creek and continued further up the hillside toward Lake Levale, I started to feel a little limp and disconnected from my body, like the end of a long, hard workout. It was unexpected since it had been a very short day both in terms of mileage and time spent hiking. Perhaps it was related to the heat.
I figured I had reached the lake when I saw a man next to an enormous pyramid style tent. He was making dinner while reading his Kindle when I surprised him, but he was happy to let me check out the tent. It had no floor but enough space inside for two people and their packs. He said the whole system weighed three pounds. More than I would want to carry for solo hiking, and less than I would want to carry if sharing a tent with someone else (because there was nothing to keep the bugs out or the dampness of the ground out), but maybe something I would consider as a communal space for a four-person winter camp if we also packed in the portable heating stove he described.
The lake was beautiful, blue, and full of very active mountain whitefish. (That guy told me they can survive being frozen in ice if the lake freezes through in winter. Not something I’ve ever heard of.) It was a perfect spot for dinner.
After dinner, I hiked on another me of miles into increasingly open views and increasingly diverse kinds of wildflowers. I made camp in a meadow under a huge crumbling rock walk. The sound of rocks tumbling into the talus pile as I lay in my tent went on so long it sometimes sounded almost like a herd of mountain goats walking by. But it really was just the natural process of the side of the mountain eroding off.
So, not much hiking done, too much falling done, but good prospects for the trail ahead.
Turbo Jesus was already up by the time my alarm went off. As I packed up the things in my tent and prepared to emerge, I could hear him getting the fire going again.
When I came back from fetching water, Josh was already up, but Kristin (sp? formerly Mittens and soon to be…?) wanted to sleep in until 6:30 since the group was not intending to hike out until 7.
The fire was a blessing because it was quite a cold morning, but by wearing my down puff and warming up by the fire between packing activities, I was able to hike out by 6:25, challenging the rest to “catch me before the split.” More on that later.
I hiked solo and as fast as possible for five miles. I nearly finished my breakfast drink overlooking Blue Lake then sat for a while beside Beaver Lake enjoying the sun on a cool morning while applying sunscreen and bug stuff and eating snacks. When I left there, I ran right into the gang. They had indeed caught me. Turbo Jesus appeared to be leading, as Josh stopped at a creek for water (and I passed him and his girlfriend there) but didn’t pass TJ for another mile, waiting on a rock for the others to catch up.
They caught up to me again at the next major creek crossing. They stopped there for lunch while I packed up and hiked to Strawberry Creek for lunch, another five miles down. Ever since Beaver Lake, except for a short respite, it was nothing but burned forest, stands of recently dead trees. There had been a good number of blowdowns coming down to the creek, and TJ arrived first, commenting on how easy the blowdowns had been to manage and then hiking on. Josh passed a while later, and I never saw his girlfriend.
The trail followed Strawberry Creek for quite a way after this, and at one point I found a handful of instances of its namesake growing right along the trail. One of them was large enough to be worth eating, and was ripe and sweet. Perfect. My usual lime was one fruit. This tiny strawberry was a second. Two fruits in a single day is more than enough, right?
A few miles later I arrived at the “split” I mentioned early. Turbo Jesus had left a message pointing out the direction for the Spotted Bear Alternate, but I intended to go the other way and stay on the red line. Mostly for purity’s sake and because it seemed likely to have somewhat fewer blowdowns, but also because TJ, as affable as he was, just seemed to care a lot about miles, big miles plans for the future. I would not want to try to stick with a group that he was pushing to go faster. I like to make my own plans. I went the other way, and that made all the difference.
The downside was that right off the bat I had to cross Strawberry Creek at a place where it was wide enough and deep enough there was no way to avoid getting my socks wet (except taking them off, which I probably should have done).
It was late in the day and the hiking was starting to wear on me, but the wet socks did even more so. I stopped a few minutes later at the planned time to sit on a tree in the sun and eat snacks, but I also finished my water. So I stopped again less than a mile later to collect water, and while I did that, I took off my shoes and changed into dry socks and did some foot maintenance.
A mile after that, I had some great luck. I saw a small crowd waving at me from the other end of a stock fence with no stock inside. It turned out to be a forest service trail crew simultaneously coming supper and packing up to move camp. The upshot was they had way too much food and the horses would carry out a lot of extra. But the fresh food they had no reason to send back. I was willing to jump on that land mine. I got all of the following:
Avocado and entire bag of Cuties (bringing my fruit count for the day to around 8)
Truly hard lemonade
Broccoli Mac and Cheese (broc mac)
Potatoes and onions
An avocado to go
In addition to all that, the horses would be packing out their trash, so I got to add all my trash to theirs and free up a bunch of space in my bear can.
After a two hour spree of chatting with those kids, I started hiking again. I had to crawl over ropes stretched across the trail and had no understanding why until I reached the camp of some guys with a team of very friendly mules who seemed ready to follow me right out of their camp. They had another rope across the trail at the other end of camp that dissuaded them. Apparently they do not need actual fences, just signals of where a fence would be.
A third of a mile further on, I came to Bowl Creek, my intended campsite, a very nice spot with the water rushing by just feet away from my tent. I was pretty drained, and I was in bed before the end of twilight, and asleep a few minutes after ten.
When I finally snapped out of a long and cozy dream, it was already almost 8am. I had slept right through my alarms. And it was 9:40 before I left camp. Since the morning was basically wasted, I didn’t set any destination goals. I just wanted to get to sleep by a more reasonable hour and get a proper early start the next morning.
It was an easy level walk down to the Badger Ranger Station. It was all locked and boarded up and there was no privy, but there was a nice hand pump and a picnic table and a shady porch, so I stopped for a morning break. The flies were a little annoying, but not too bad. Butterflies were desperate for my salt.
A little ways from there, I had to decide whether to stay on the official trail and go up on the ridge and through the pass or take a shortcut staying on the creek. Some commenters said there were a lot of blowdowns on the hill and that it was a pud (pointless up and down). But I went the official route anyway and I was glad I did. There weren’t any blowdowns worth mentioning and the views were incredible. Beautiful wildflowers all along the ridge.
I stopped near the top of the ridge for lunch on a sloped bit of ground in the shade of a tree. There was just enough wind up high to keep the flies down. There were a lot of hoverflies and the like seeking my salt but only a few biting flies, and I wrapped my legs in my towel again to protect my calves.
After lunch I came over the summit of the ridge and went across a lower ridge to start the climb to the pass. I met a couple of men camped right by a creek there that hadn’t seen anyone else out there all day. I told them to modify their expectations–more of us would be coming through soon.
And I was right. After a pit stop at the top of the pass and a proper break on a rock just below it, I was passed by Josh, not-Mittens-anymore, and probably-Turbo-Jesus-from-now-on. (The same trio I passed the day before–their names are still in flux.) They said they would stop at the next campsite for dinner and then maybe press on to the next creek after that to camp. Seemed like a reasonable itinerary to me.
Before I could even pack up and follow them, a man came up from the other direction, probably a friend of the two I had met earlier, but definitely a friend of the wilderness. He worked with an organization specifically trying to protect the wilderness. They had bought out or gotten canceled all but one of the gas leases in the area, and were trying to get legal protections in place with the state, local, and tribal governments to make the place a permanent wilderness protection zone. Very cool work.
A few minutes later, I was down at the river and there was a huge crowd. Wing It, Snot Rocket, Ben, Hot Mess, and one other were there in addition to the three I mentioned above. Everyone was eating dinner together, so I joined them in doing that. Since I was the last to arrive, I was the last to leave. The four new folks were going to hike on one mile and stop. Turbo Jesus wanted to make a fire, so they would check out the next camp and maybe hike on to Elbow Creek if they didn’t like it. I committed to Elbow Creek since I needed to get some miles done.
When I finally left, I was only a few minutes away from the first camp. It was already crowded. Another group had come in with horses and mules, which were corralled in the nearby meadow hungrily cropping grass. One was wearing a bell which seemed likely to continue into the night. Who would want to sleep with such a crowd and noise?
Around 9pm, I came to Elbow Creek, and Turbo Jesus already had the fire going and the other two had their tent up. Josh and TJ were carrying in more firewood and improving the fire ring. Then, while I set up, they dried their socks and shoes. Apparently they had just charged right through all the creeks I had rock-hopped and tree-walked across and had wet feet. TJ suggested the next morning would start with wet feet and I offered to help carry a nearby dead tree to the river. We started to do that, but as soon as I looked at the crossing, it was clear it was actually an easy rock hop and we had been moving the tree unnecessarily. The workout felt nice though.
There was some discussion of the next day’s plans while I finished getting ready for bed, and it seemed those three would be taking an alternate and walking a lot farther than I wanted to, so I probably wouldn’t see them again after the morning. So goes the life of a slowpoke with time to spare.
At least we could all agree that getting up early was the plan.
I really wanted to sleep in, but I also needed to get some miles in for once. And there was always the minute chance of getting caught camping without a permit.
I started packing around 5:40 and hiked out around an hour later. The mosquitos were already horrible. I had my repellent and bug net on before I left camp. A mile down the trail, I met two hikers headed up from False Summit to Firebrand Pass. They did not have bug nets.
“Seems like the bugs must be pretty bad here. Did you come over Firebrand Pass?”
“No, but I can tell you as long as you’re on this trail, they’re this bad or worse.”
“Did you walk here from East Glacier?”
“You must have gotten up really early or something.”
“Well, have a nice hike.”
One mile later: fall in a creek slipping on a rock, soaking the right half of my shorts, my right glove, and the right sleeve up to my elbow; and moistening my right sock.
I passed the hiker formerly known as Stache, Josh, and Mittens slackpacking north back to East Glacier a mile from the road. It was already 10:30 and they’d still be back there in time for supper. And I can’t imagine it’s long before they pass me headed south in the next few days. They did not stop to chat.
After passing the Marias Pass monolith, I stopped at a picnic table in the campground for a morning snack break. I also popped into the toilet to yogi some toilet paper since I had forgotten to harvest what was left in the motel room before leaving.
In the next few miles, the flies just got worse and worse. Stopping for more than a few seconds guaranteed the formation of a swarm. They totally ignored picaridin and were only slightly deterred by DEET. And they were far more persistent than mosquitos. They must have bitten me through my calf sleeves dozens of times, some of those bites even after I smeared DEET lotion onto them.
Two miles in, I met a trail maintainer who had been clearing the trail by hand saw. He was by himself and the main reason I could keep up a good pace on those first few miles. It was very clear where he left off work. The piles of blowdowns crossing the trail got thick and miserable in that exposed burnt out forest. It really slowed me down. And since I was out of the national park, none of the creek crossings were bridged anymore, which meant picking my way across on rocks and trees, which also slowed me.
I stopped for a relatively late lunch a few miles later, and had to use the trick of covering my legs with a towel to slow down the rate my legs were being bitten. I took a long leisurely lunch in a clearing with the shade running away from me and the swarm rising to attack every time I moved to chase it.
It was the after lunch part of the hike that was the slowest for the reasons mentioned above. And going slow just made it easier for the flies to attack. And it wasn’t like my effort was rewarded with views. There were just a lot of trees, dead or alive, and what views there were were blurred by the haze of distant forest fires.
I was keeping myself sane with podcasts, but my headphones were doing some kind of weird thing to make my volume constantly turn down. I had to lock the volume to counteract it. But the automatic triggering of the volume siren button meant a lot of my attempts to turn the screen off just took a screenshot instead. At one point later in the day, I pulled out my phone to see the camera was on and taking video of the inside of my pocket. And my battery had dropped precipitously. I hope this doesn’t happen again or I’ll have no energy left by Benchmark. How will I take any pictures or videos of non-pocket things?
Of course, there was very little worth picturing on this particular day. There wasn’t even all that much wildlife around. Probably because all the other animals are smart enough to avoid where the bugs are.
I stopped in a campsite for supper. And then right after that, the deadfall scramble got much less intense. There were a couple of places left to try to break or scratch my legs up (luckily only succeeding at the latter, but coming really close once on the former). It was it 10 by the time I reached my final campsite destination, several miles shy of where I could have been if it hadn’t been for all the trees blocking my way. But this campsite had tons of water and very few flies or mosquitos, so it was an ideal stop anyway. Even so, it was such a long time, it was nearly midnight before I got to sleep.
There’s not really much to be said here. I got up at 6, put on my camp shoes, and walked to the gas station to get microwaveable breakfast for myself. Jacob had the rest of his burrito. After breakfast, I packed up all my food to hike, but determined the internet in the room was far too lousy to handle uploads and downloads for this blog, so we left the room at 10 to seek better service.
On the way out the door, I realized my pack was completely busted where the right hip belt and strap meet the pack, which makes it very difficult to put on, but luckily doesn’t affect how it wears once put on at all. However, it’s the kind of thing that could further deteriorate into a complete breakdown and can’t be repaired at all.
Anyway, after a brief stop at the convenience store (this time primarily for headphones as I had forgot to remove the last pair before washing my shirt), Jacob and I relocated to the lodge. We found a decent cell signal in the back corner, and I even went out to sit on the deck. I was soon joined by one of the hikers who I’d camped with in the park, and soon Jacob came to say he was hungry. Around this time, the other host revealed that the other members of his party were washing clothes at the laundromat. Jacob wanted to wash some clothes to wear until he got home, and it turned out the laundromat was adjacent to Brownies, the deli, pizza joint, bakery and hostel, which would take care of the hunger problem. So we relocated again.
We had to wait a while for a table to come available at Brownies. Indeed, Jacob’s clothes were nearly washed and our pizza nearly finished baking by the time someone left. But once I sat down at that table, we remained camped there for the rest of the afternoon. My only activity besides eating and drinking was workin#sesg on this blog. And believe me, I was eager to get back on the trail. It was already apparent that I wouldn’t be able to make it to Marias Pass by nightfall long before I had gotten everything posted. And Jacob, bless his heart, stuck it out with me, sitting right there at the table with nothing much to do once his clothes were dry.
I got everything done just before 6, and Jacob was ready to head off too since his train left at 6:45. We parted ways finally in the street across from where we sat. I went back to the trail with locals worriedly (or patronizingly) telling me there were grizzlies out there.
I got back on the dirt road that led out the back side of town. Then it got grassy and muddy as it became Blackfeet conservation land ($100 fine for any use without a permit…definitely a fair price to pay to avoid the effort of getting a permit), then more of a firm if overgrown dirt track with plenty of bridges and water diversion work that you expect of national park trails as soon as it reentered the park.
It was also mosquito hell. Just tons of overgrown vegetation, small streams, creeks, and a surfeit of standing water. Perfect breeding ground for the mozzies. I was hardly into the woods at the very beginning of the section before I had swapped my hat for my headnet.
There wasn’t much to see on the section. Just a couple of spots that had views. Mostly a green tunnel. I took one break two hours in, then hiked on until there was almost no twilight left. I spotted a dirt patch on a closed sidetrack just long enough for my tent, the first such spot I had seen since starting hiking for the day. So of course I took advantage of it.
It was around 10:30 by the time I was in my tent with the mosquitos still buzzing around outside (except for the one that made it in somehow) and I was asleep by 11:30.
Given the hassle of all the uploading and posting I had spent most of the day on, I was happy to have gotten any hiking in at all, even if it meant making an illegal camp in the national park. But this amount was actually pretty good:
Another early start. By 6:30, when we’re ready to get going, Jacob says he is having trouble eating, didn’t get enough sleep, and doesn’t have it in him to climb back up the hill to Dawson Pass. So we parted ways. He took the trail down the valley and was at Two Med by 10 or 10:30.
By that time, I had climbed up to Dawson Pass and come around the ridge, and was already descending into the Noname Lake valley toward the north shore of Two Medicine Lake. It was beautiful along that upper ridge, views for miles in several directions. But it was also extremely windy. I took my morning snack break in the only spot along the way that had any wind protection.
Coming alongside the lake, I passed a family that had seen several bears just ahead, so I readied my bear spray and forged ahead. I didn’t encounter anything. An hour later I arrived at the Two Med camp store and Jacob was sitting at the table right in front waiting for me with a crowd of tourists and a few other hikers. We grabbed some snacks and carried them over to a less popular picnic area around the corner. He had been sitting so long waiting on me that he thought I might have fallen off a cliff on the way. And he had already had an early lunch while waiting. I practically ate two lunches before we left, the stuff from the store and what I packed in.
Jacob also bought some replacement trekking poles from the store, so we figured the last twelve miles to East Glacier Village would be no big deal. Jacob speculated he might even be able to catch the Atlanta United game. But it turned out to be a much more difficult section than anticipated.
The two mile or so climb at the front was not a surprise. We knew that was coming and that it would be a bit of a haul in the afternoon sun. We got through it with several breaks, usually to talk to the interesting characters we met along the way. It took several hours though.
Then it leveled out when we reached the top of the ridge. We thought there would be no more climbing, but we made a wrong turn toward a scenic overlook that involved another quarter mile of climbing. I definitely had wanted to see it though, so I was happy about the brief diversion.
But it turned out the descent out of the mountains was no walk in the park either. It was actually quite steep. And rocky. Hard on the feet and the legs. Slow going.
We stopped with several other hikers at a creek crossing to collect water. While we were there a single season western loop hiker joined us. He was doing 40 mile days on average and had already done all of the CDT up to Glacier since the beginning of May. But that was just the warmup for his year. He still had a long way to go. But I guess if I had a 7.5 pound base weight and lived off nothing but Clif bars and Pop Tarts, I could do big mileage too, right?
The last five or so miles into town were pretty awful. Everything hurt and the trail was just a muddy dirt road with tons of mosquitos and no views. It was already after 8pm by this point, a time by which we had already been in camp every day previously, but this was our big mileage day. Since everything in town closed at nine, I called the Mexican restaurant and put in an order.
When we got into town, we went straight for the Glacier Park Trading Co to get my box, a razor, detergent, drinks, and beer. The Mexican restaurant was next door and had supper waiting. And then we had to carry all that two blocks to the motel where we could walk right into the room because the motel had no check-in process.
The room was actually pretty good. Full kitchen, fridge for the beer, no bathtub but a deep washtub sink. No air conditioning but screens for the windows. We both decided to shower before we ate. I ate everything I ordered for myself and more (on actual plates with actual silverware no less), but Jacob couldn’t even finish his burrito.
After supper, I went to work in the sink doing my laundry. I stuffed washcloths in the drain, filled it up, poured in some Tide, put my dirties in, then turned the water gray.
It took a while, so I didn’t even get to bed until 11:30, but even though we shared a bed, with the curtains closed and no strength or energy left, we had no trouble falling asleep.
Trail miles: 19.1
The Jacob version:
Day 4 So… remember that waking up refreshed and not even sore thing? Well, I’m still not sore (a little surprised at that, actually) but I still feel kind of crappy this morning. Eating breakfast was a challenge and mentally, I’m just not really prepared for the day. And it’s a LONG day. About 19 miles. Part of it is just exhaustion and my trouble eating enough and part was because the wind gusts last night kept waking me up because they sounded like cars driving past. They were loud, but weirdly rarely reached ground level.
David had planned on taking an alternate CDT route to Two Medicine that stayed up high longer and offered better views, but it was a little longer and started immediately with a climb back up the pass we’d just descended the previous night. I’d struggled with the steepness coming down so I knew I didn’t have what it took to go up today, especially with a second big climb at the end of the day.
I also didn’t want to keep David from his preference so we agreed to park ways between Two Medicine. I’m more comfortable hiking through grizzly country with people, but this section was close to a busy trailhead so I wouldn’t be on the trail solo for long and the busier section of trail made me think bears would be a little less likely anyway. Plus, that’s why I had the bear spray, right?
The wind gusts hadn’t stopped from the night before and a few of them were strong enough they would push me around a little. Luckily, this trail was all a gentle descent through the valley and not on some exposed ridge like yesterday’s passes. Most of this was a really pretty hike, but it’s just hard to compare it to the views from yesterday’s heights.
But taking this route was a good idea. First, there were not bears. Second, it was really easy. I was able to push through the 2 and half hours it took to hike to the Two Medicine store and feel better when I finished than when I started. Plus, this ended with the bonus of getting a chicken salad sandwich, a coke, and a Powerade when I finished. I had expected David to beat me there. The map didn’t make it seem like his route was much longer and he’s honestly a much stronger hiker than me and would be keeping a faster pace without having to accommodate me.
But he didn’t beat me there. I finished my lunch. Emptied the trash out of my bag and waited for almost two hours. Just long enough to start thinking about when it would be time to start worrying, but finally he cruised in and I knew I’d made the right decision. If a stronger hiker had taken that long to finish the alternate section, I would have struggled. Instead I’d had a really good meal and a two hour rest and was in an incredible mood. While David shopped for some food of his own, I got an ice cream Snickers bar and a huckleberry cider David recommended.
The rest of the day was actually pretty good. The climb up the last pass on our hike was challenging, perhaps the hardest actual climb of the hike when you add steepness and rocky conditions, but I was feeling pretty good. The view from the top was surprising. Ever other view from the top of a pass had been limited by the mountains on the other side of the narrow valley, but here we were literally at the edge of the mountain range and we just looked out over the plains stretching into the distance. It was the first time in 4 days that how far I could see was limited only by the horizon and not a wall of rock.
This rest of the hike was uneventful. The descent was steep and rocky and my quads were quivering long before we reached the bottom. When the trail finally flattened out to a comfortable descent, it turned into swarms of mosquitoes on a dirt road with no interesting views complicated by the fact that just by the distance we’d traveled I was starting to crash. I was exhausted. Today had been about 19 miles and by the time we got to the store in East Glacier Park, I could barely hold my head up and walk at the same time. A 7-Up helped a bit. Sugar water is beautiful on a hike. When we got to the hotel and started eating after a shower (one of the highlights of the day) I could only finish half of my burrito. My body could have easily used all the calories in there but I was just too tired to eat.
Of course David has been doing distances like this on a regular basis for over a month now and it really puts into perspective just what he’s doing (and did on the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail).
Also I finished and I don’t regret doing it at all so it couldn’t have been that bad.
I woke up at 3:45am with a backache. That’s what happens when I make the mattress firm and sleep on my back. I rolled over and slept until 5am when the alarm went off. My clothes were dry–I had cooked them dry by body heat while I slept.
Jacob heard the alarm too and started packing as soon as I did. He actually went to the food prep area before me. I had to collect and filter water and apply sunscreen and bug stuff. Either way, the camp was already busy by the time we emerged from our tents. All but the last couple in was hiking out by or before I was ready to relocate to food prep. Everyone else must have started packing the moment they first saw even the tiniest bit of light.
Link and Smiles joined us at food prep just before we left. It was nice to not be the last to leave.
The first bit of the hike went up the valley over some rolling hills before crossing and recrossing Cataract Creek on suspension bridges. Jacob said the first of those was kind of scary since the cables on the side were too low to catch him if he fell sideways.
The trail switched directions and started climbing slowly up the canyon toward Triple Divide Pass. We were following a different creek and started having to do unbridged crossings. There were always well-placed rocks to hop across. Jacob borrowed one of my poles for these as he had forgotten his on a shuttle.
There were also a number of waterfalls both far and near. As the climb got more serious and the sun got higher, we got hot, so I made myself an ice pack at the first snowbank we came to. Soon after that, Link and Smiles caught up and passed us. We didn’t see them again.
Jacob noticed some animals walking across a distant snowfield, but we could not determine whether they were sheep or goats. We took a break just before the last climb up to the pass, and while we snacked (and I filtered some glacier melt runoff) some clouds rolled in.
The clouds were a great boon and made the last little climb to the pass like nothing. There were even a few moments of light rain but nothing annoying.
Halfway up, we were spooked by the sound of rocks clattering down from above, and we spotted a huge group of animals running across the hill. I think they were goats, but Jacob insists they were bighorn sheep. Either way, they were all female adults or kids. There were 13 in total, five of which were kids.
At the top of the pass was an incredible view on both directions. Jacob would later call it the most beautiful he’s ever seen. He was just in awe at the time.
There was also a handful of marmots at the pass, the only ones I saw in the park, though I knew they must be around. We got to hear one scream up close and personal; it was painfully loud.
Rain came again as we descended the other side of the pass. We had great views of Medicine Grizzly Lake and the array of waterfalls that fed it and the creek (Atlantic Creek) that drained it into North Fork Cut Bank Creek (and toward which we were headed). Even the rocks were interesting on the hillside, an ever-changing mix of red, yellow, and green layers, flaking off into traffic light themed talus piles.
But both of us were eager to get to Atlantic Creek Campground both because it would be a great stopping place to eat lunch and get some more water and because it had a toilet we were both desperate for. By the time we were close, I ran ahead to get to it first. Jacob was so pooped from having been so long and far since the last meal that he barely made out there–he was ready to give up just a few feet from the campground entrance.
The campground ended up having one major downside as a lunch stop: it was utterly swarmed with mosquitos. While I am fairly liberal with use of my bug net, pulling it out at the first sound of a mosquito whining in my ear, this was the only time I saw him put his on. I killed several dozen of them just in the hour we were in that spot, the first dozen just in the ten minutes Jacob was in the head. On at least two occasions, I killed one on accident just by brushing my hand across my skin. It was a madhouse.
Just a few miles up the valley was Morning Star Lake, and this was a beautiful campsite. Someone was already called there (and we would eventually find out it was one of the couples we were camped with), but we had plenty of evening daylight to reach the campground we were permitted for, so we just stopped for a snack.
We began the climb up toward the unnamed ridge in earnest there. It was slow going because it was steep, hot, and late in the day. To help with that, I stuck my head in the water and wet my shirt every time we came across or near a creek. It definitely helped. At one point I did it without warning Jacob and had to practically run up the hill to catch him.
It was almost six by the time we had climbed up to the outflow of Pitamakan Lake. Jacob needed water anyway, so I just got out my stove and started cooking dinner. When it’s dinnertime, you make dinner. We were briefly joined by a northbounder on his first night out, heading up to the Pacific Northwest Trail to walk home on. He told us this side of the pass was much more difficult than the other side.
When we packed up and began climbing again, we could confirm the trail up was extremely steep. Jacob had to take frequent breaks. It was clear he was flagging, but there was good reason to stop often anyway. The views were incredible from up there.
It was only a mile and a half from the pass down to the turnoff for Old Man Lake and our campsite. Jacob was moving even slower on the descent. It was pretty late in the day, and he said it was probably the most elevation change he’d ever carried a pack over in a single day. Basically, he’d just used up all his calories.
The campground was beautiful. We only had to stop at food prep long enough to brush our teeth before we could find a campsite. I couldn’t resist running down to check out the lake first though. Then I had to figure out which of the four campsites had soft enough ground to get stakes into. We had the whole campground to ourselves, so we had our pick of the bunch.
One thing that had started around the time of our stop at Pitamakan Lake and continued until this point was some intense wind gusts. Everywhere across the valley floor, there were frequent gusts through the tops of the trees that made them sound like passing cars. This kept up all night and kept Jacob from getting a decent night’s sleep. I got used to it eventually, but there was a brief heavy rain an hour or two into the night that woke me up. The drops on my tent were unignorably loud. And I was worried it would get worse and that I had left something out to get wet or my rainfly would leak. You know, the normal things that keep you awake at night. But it stopped after a few minutes and I slept well after that.
Trail miles: 17.8
The Jacob version:
Today provided me both the best experience of the hike so far and some of my biggest struggles. We got up earlier today and were out of camp by 6:30. Despite that early start we wouldn’t arrive at our camp until around 8 pm.
Part of what took us so long is that we did around 18 miles, which is up there for one of my longest, if not the longest hike with a full pack I’ve ever done. The other reason is that we went over two passes. Both involved miles-long climbs and both from a distance looked like the trail was taking you up a wall. In both cases, the trail on that steepest section was switchbacked and contoured so that it was actually easier to hike that section than it was the less intimidating section before you got to the wall, but the time you spent climbing with that pack means it’s never really easy going up.
The second pass that we had to cross wasn’t anything special. Well, let me say that some people would pay money for that view, but it paled in comparison to the Triple Divide Pass that we crossed earlier in the day. This pass is next to the peak of Triple Pass Mountain where water from one side of the mountain flows to the Pacific, another side to the Gulf of Mexico and another side to the Hudson Bay. This pass is really rocky and devoid of any larger plants long before you get close to the pass. I think this is because of the rocky conditions and not elevation at the lower parts though. On the initial approach through the valley, we saw pale specks crossing a snow field and onto what looked like a sheer wall. I’m not sure if these were bighorn sheep or mountain goats since we never got close enough to see them clearly. That didn’t matter, though. Less than a mile later we’d start up the switchbacks and hear something charging down the rocks toward us. It turned out to be a small group of female bighorn sheep and their lambs. They weren’t very skittish and didn’t really move as we passed them on the trail. They seemed more curious than wary. They looked a little mangy, but only because they were shedding their winter coats.
Not long after we left the sheep, he hit the top of the divide. The views here we’re the best of the trip. Either side was just dramatic mountains and glacier-carved valleys. The marmot family was even less concerned about us than the sheep. Their whistle is also LOUD.
The only real downside to this day is that I’m just not fully physically prepared for it. I’m not saying I can’t do it, but I can’t do this terrain at this distance comfortably right now. At the end of the day I started having trouble getting food down. Part of it is that I was trying for a no-cook menu so I wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle of getting a stove and fuel through TSA, and part was the fact that I always find it hard to eat when I’m really exerting myself. But I made it, and weirdly, I woke up this morning feeling totally refreshed and not even sore even though I was in a similar condition the night before, so I’m optimistic.
I decided to sleep through my watch alarm. I didn’t mind sleeping late. Our destination was not too far and the trail ahead looked pretty easy. So it was already 6am and the sun was starting to rise by the time I started packing up.
Jacob took a bit longer to eat breakfast than I would’ve and needed to filter some water before leaving, but we still got out of camp by 7:30.
We connected with the Virginia Falls trail within a mile, and with it came the hordes of day hikers. Families, people walking slowly. No problem. This was expected. And it was worth joining a popular trail to be able to see those falls. Virginia Falls in particular was impressive, though still not nearly so as Apikuni.
As soon as we crossed the bridge to continue on around St. Mary Lake, the crowds disappeared. The trail became overgrown with brush so that we couldn’t see our feet. It wasn’t surprising that this section of trail was less popular since there was nothing to see for miles ahead that couldn’t be seen just as easily from the road, but it was simultaneously annoying and relieving.
I won’t get into the detail of our conversations or the trail whose features are largely unremarkable, but I will say that Jacob likes to take pictures of things specifically to record on the iNaturalist app. For instance, a strange berry that resembled a tomato on the inside, or a flower cluster with a beetle sitting on every flower.
At the end of the section, we climbed over a hill to reach the creek, but instead of continuing up the creek to reach our destination, the trail took a two mile downstream detour over a bluff overlooking the creek to a bridge, then went up the other side of the creek. We stopped at that bridge for lunch. We also collected some water and wet ourselves in the creek because for two miles to either side of the creek we walked in the direct sun in the remains of a burned out forest. The bridge itself was our only source of shade on the whole section aside from a handful of trees that survived the fire. We ate lunch directly beneath it.
Jacob had flagged a great deal by the time we were hiking the last 3.5 miles to the lake and camp. He made very few remarks about anything and answered anything I said with only a single word. He seemed to be stumbling a bit more often too. He said he only wanted to lie down in the shade. Personally, there was enough of a breeze that I wasn’t too bothered. Since we weren’t climbing anymore, I wasn’t sweating too badly. And I had plenty of that I-slept-in-today afternoon energy.
We were both excited to finally see Red Eagle Lake come into view as we came over the last rise. We were soon walking through the campsite at the foot, and it was completely exposed. There were already some people set up there and playing in the water. They indicated the water was quite frigid. The water in the creek flowing out of it, though, had not seemed that bad.
We reached camp about 3:30. All the others had been there for hours already, so we got a slightly less shady campsite. After we stashed our food in the storage area and dropped our packs in the campsite, Jacob fell asleep under a tree and I joined the rest of the gang on a shady stone beach with a nice breeze. I tried wading out, but the soft, silty muck got too deep to walk through. I lay around on the beach for a few minutes, then went back to set up my tent in the direct sun until I was burning up again.
So instead of putting my mattress in my tent, I inflated it on the beach, waded out until the muck got deep, climbed on top, and went for a float. It worked just fine as a pool float, and the lake never got more than a few feet deep. It was cold, but only my arms were deep enough in it to feel it. I paddled out to the middle of the lake and back again. Coming back was upwind, so my arms were starting to feel worn out from paddling by the time I reached the shore.
I hung up the mattress next to the food prep area to dry and eat sat on a sunny log in hopes my shirt and shorts would dry too. Then I realized it was actually supper time, and it was not just that everyone else ate unreasonably early. So I went to fetch my water. By the time I got back, my mattress was on the ground. It had fallen when someone had taken their food bag down. I hung it back up and got all my food stuff out and by the time I had done that, it had finished drying. So I put it in my tent and went back to have supper.
Another couple had come in by then, Link and Smiles, and I warned them away from my wet sunny log. I needed that sunny spot so I could dry with what little sun remained.
I didn’t quite get dry, but right after I finished supper and got up to pack all my non-food things back to my tent, the shadow of the mountain finally swept across our campground. So I went to bed a little bit damp. But that was fine.
It was not even 9pm when Jacob and me hit the sack. We wanted to use as much of the daylight as possible the next day. We had a big day ahead. So every minute of sleep counted.
I got up at 4am in spite of my lack of sleep, only to discover our room lacked a coffee maker unlike every room we’d stayed in to this point. An hour and a half later, after showering, packing up, fetching more ice, and heading down to leave, we learned that there wasn’t any coffee to be had anywhere in the hotel at that early hour. Nothing anywhere opened before 6.
We stopped for gas on the way out of town, then fifteen minutes later, arrived in Browning to find the gas was much cheaper. Whoops. But we had to stop there anyway because one tire was very low on air pressure and it was the first place air was available. Luckily, the convenience store was actually open. (Presumably because it was now after 6.) I took advantage of the opportunity to get a cup of coffee. Screaming Eagle flavor (high caffeine). I wanted to hike really fast.
It was nearly another hour to Many Glacier with the road work intensifying and the slow cars ahead of us. And once in the lodge parking lot, I still needed to repack the food I had taken out of my pack as well as some items I had elected not to carry out taken out for convenience while not on the trail. It was 8am by the time I was ready to hike out, but it was sure to be fine since I only had 15 miles to go.
After the obligatory trailhead photo shoot, I was off down the Piegan Pass Trail and immediately saw a rabbit. I’d seen a couple in the park already, but I finally got one recorded, even though it’s unique features aren’t visible.
The next few miles were not very interesting. I couldn’t even see the nearby lakes through the trees, and there were a lot of bugs. I was hiking through dense green undergrowth with my headnet on. The trail condition was great though. Eventually, I reached the head of the valley near a small ice sheet and a big waterfall and the climb started in earnest.
The next four miles carried me up the wall of the valley, over and along several beautiful glacier-fed creeks, and up more than 2300 feet in elevation to the top of Piegan Pass. I had been worried about the snow across the trail here, but it was nothing to worry about. The steepest crossing was maybe a dozen feet wide, and the rest were easy to navigate or skippable entirely.
As I climbed, I passed more and more day hikers coming down. I decided to find a private spot for lunch near the top of the pass where passing tourists wouldn’t be likely to see me. This worked exactly as planned, except that I was spotted by a sneaky ground squirrel that managed to get within a few feet of me without being noticed by sneaking up from behind and below. But he made a small sound, drew my attention, realized he had been made, and fled empty-handed never to return.
Some day trippers I talked to had said they had seven at once coming up to them while they ate, probably using their numbers as a distraction to help each other get closer. They are extremely devious and not to be trusted.
From the top of the pass, I came down in a single section, playing leapfrog with a visiting family that seemed fun and sporty and kept a good pace. The last mile after the junction to Siyeh Bend was a bit of a blowdown jungle gym. It’s fitting that the last 500 feet of elevation was the slowest part of the descent, coming down the face of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain to the road that bears its name. A trail crew would come through the very next day to clear the mess, but I got to do all the climbing, detouring, crawling, and tightrope walking.
When I got to the road and came through the underpass, Jacob was already there waiting for me. Did I mention that my cousin was joining me for the latter part of this section? Well, he did. Since I had just come five miles without a break, I made him wait on me a little longer.
It was a little more than a mile from the road to Reynolds Campground where we were spending the night, so we got there by 4:30. We just kind of checked out the campsite and the creek for a little while before joining the rest of the guests at the food prep area and making our dinner. We put our tents up in an empty site but didn’t want to hang out there because the bugs weren’t as bad in the food prep area or by the creek. We hung out in those places until nearly sunset before turning in. With only a 15 mile day ahead, we had no need to worry about being early to bed, early to rise.
Trail miles: 13.9
The Jacob version:
I flew in to Kalispell Sunday night after running the Peachtree Road Race that morning. In hindsight, maybe I should have skipped the race, but whatever. It’s just that getting up at 4:15 am eastern and then getting to Montana at 10:30 mountain (12:30 eastern) is a long day. But my bag made it to Montana with me, even with a layover in Salt Lake, so not too stressful.
One of the benefits to traveling west is that getting up early suddenly doesn’t mean as much. That 6 am alarm still felt like 8 am. I ended up taking my time getting ready and still ended up just sitting there waiting for my shuttle to pick me up.
After a detour to REI to pick up some supplies I had shipped to Montana, the shuttle drove me out to the Apgar Visitor center so I could take the park shuttle to the trail head. The Going to the Sun Road started out just looking like any other forest in the west until we got the to the point where we had to get off the big shuttle and switch to the smaller shuttle. The views in this section are amazing. I almost wish I had time to rent a car and just drive it after my hike.
Even though I left Apgar before noon, it was after 2 before the shuttle got me to Jackson Glacier Overlook. I walked down the trail to the spot I was supposed to meet David, ate a little lunch and read for a while. I got in trouble when I got up and walked about 15 yards down the trail to see if David had made it to our rendezvous spot and some rangers saw my bag but didn’t see me so they didn’t know I never let the bag out of my site. They take bear precautions seriously. David made it to that part of the trail about an hour later and we set off for Reynolds Creek campground for the night.
I hiked just a little more than a mile today. I won’t even be sore tomorrow, but we have about 14 then so I’ll get to make up a little then. Since we have 52 miles to hike, obviously the other days will be more challenging.
Oh, and I used to play a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 and I’m pretty sure there’s a bend in the river we passed on the shuttle that inspired one of the areas in that game because I’m pretty sure I murdered a bunch of people in that exact spot in the game. I really play RDR as chaotic neutral with evil tendencies.
There weren’t a lot of great wildlife sightings today. None on the shuttle except for a Columbia ground squirrel at Logan’s Pass and only once we got to the campsite did I see any interesting birds. I saw a Western Tanager and two American Dippers. The dippers are cool because they look like little charcoal gray sparrows but they feed in fast flowing mountain streams and only there.