Thursday, August 28, 2014

The End of an Era, Off the CDT

Hike up to Scenic Point
Taylor picked us up early from Roger’s Pass and we quickly piled into Sara’s car and made our way toward Glacier National Park. We decided to skip the Bob Marshall Wilderness for now because we have a wedding we need to get to in Los Angeles, and Glacier is a much easier place to organize a shuttle, or so we thought.  I got to drive, which turns out is a lot faster than hiking and the 65 mph speed limit was about 10 miles an hour faster than I felt comfortable going. It still felt like we made good time, however, mostly since we were not walking, and we arrived at the Two Medicine backcountry office just after noon. We had to wait an hour or so to pick up our permit so we enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the lake. 

Last switchback on the way down to Two Medicine
After lunch we picked up the permit, enjoyed “good rangers being bad actors,” (as the ranger put it) in the bear safety video, then drove back to East Glacier to hike back to Two Medicine for the night.  If that seems a bit ridiculous it’s ok.  We felt the same. 

The hike from East Glacier into the park was a great introduction to the spectacular awesomeness that is Glacier. We quickly climbed above treeline and had magnificent views of glacier carved mountains with waterfalls and rivers running into the dry, relatively flat plains of Eastern Montana.  Near a mountaintop called Scenic Point (as if they had to tell us) we saw our first herd of bighorn sheep for the section, and actually CDT. The trail then descended a few thousand feet to Two Medicine Lake where we camped in the “backcountry,” which here meant we were in the back of the car-camping campground. 
Sara above Oldman Lake
We arose early the next morning to find clouds had rolled in and turned the mountains an intimidating gray. I voiced my thought that it would be a great day to see a grizzly, and not more than 30 second later I spotted a black bear on the slope above us. He was still pretty far away so we did not even attempt to pull out the camera. Our trail then took us around one mountain and up a long valley to Pitamakan Pass. The last push to the pass gave us great views of Oldman Lake, which looked silver under the clouds. The lake views from the top of the pass, however, were fantasmic. We could look almost straight down on a beautiful royal blue lake with two others in view as well.  Snow still bordered one of the edges and an arc of rocks that had tumbled down the snow during the winter was visible just below the surface. It was then that I think we first truly realized the splendor of glacier.
View from Pitamakin Pass

We ate lunch a few miles down the trail and Taylor was able to add a tail frog to his list of amphibious species found in the wild. Meanwhile a mountain goat ¼ mile away paid us no mind as he munched on his own lunch salad.

Triple Divide Pass
Our second pass of the day was Triple Divide.  Triple Divide Peak is the junction of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay watersheds all meet. Originally we had hoped to summit the peak, but then saw that it was rather sheer, and decided the pass was just fine. Crossing the pass meant that we were no longer hiking through drainages that led to the Missouri/Mississippi Rivers. As we hiked up the long valley with stunning waterfalls and other cool stuff a massive cloud rolled in and started covering the higher elevations. By the time we reached the pass we were in pretty solid clouds and our view was limited to about 20 feet of gray and some ever present marmots. 

We did drop back below the clouds on our way to Red Eagle Lake and caught some glimpses of glacier remnants.  Most of the glaciers we saw were sad little reminders of climate change rather than impressive goliaths with the power to shape mountains. We still enjoyed seeing whatever glaciers we could though because our glacier sightings have been minimal for most of our lives. 

About a mile before the head of Red Eagle Lake, our camp for the night, we entered a recent burn area that had obliterated most of the undergrowth and seemed to be only just recovering. All of the trees that were still standing were dead and provided little shade.  We learned later that that fire had burned and absurd amount of acres. Over 34,000 acres were charred.
Bullwinkle sighting

That night, though, we arrived at Red Eagle Lake and got set up just before the downpour started.  Our restaurant was under a large tree along the lakeshore with views of the burned mountains across the water. After a bald eagle flew through the rain, the storm slackened just in time for a moose to wander into the water 50 yards away. He saw us and really did not care. After 10 or 15 minutes of Taylor trying to sneak up to get pictures, the moose sauntered, or whatever moose do, into the middle of the lake. It was one of those beautiful moments that is hard to believe. We were in Glacier watching a moose traverse a lake and we had cherry cheesecake pudding. At that moment things could not have gotten much better. 

It rained pretty hard throughout that night so in the morning we packed up very wet tents and headed off toward St Mary Lake. Just before we left the burn area Taylor frantically interrupted Sara’s verbal pole vault lesson with, “bear, bear, bear.” We turned to look and not 20 yards to our left a cinnamon black bear was nibbling his way through thimbleberries.  Taylor and I immediately started pulling out our cameras while Sara alternately tried to scare if off and get a good look. The bear very much knew we were there and probably saw the size of our muscles and knew we were not a threat. That was by far the closest Sara and I got to a bear for that long of time the entire hike.

The one bridge that didn't say 1 hiker at a time
We came out of the burn area in time to hike along the shore of St Mary Lake, which is one of the lakes that appear on GNP advertising. Aside from not being able to get to the shore for lunch, it was a gorgeous hike.  Along the north end of the lake, and after a rainstorm, we crossed two incredible waterfalls. Virginia Falls was simply stunning.  It was very much what you would picture in your mind when you think of a waterfall: tall, mossy rocks, and wet. St Mary Falls, however, just exuded power.  It was only 20-30 feet high, but the amount of water being forced through the rocks was incredible. The water at the base also seemed to have no bottom. Apparently the bridge below the falls is a very popular jumping spot.
Deadwood Falls
We camped another mile or so up the trail along the same river.  After setting up we walked a tenth of a mile up river to Deadwood Falls, which was a similar to St Mary, but only 10-15 feet high. I decided that since we had a few minutes of sun between rainstorms I might as well jump into a river formed by glacier runoff.  Sara couldn’t believe it, since I normally wimp out (I prefer the term “remain sensible”) at the mere mention of cold water while she jumps into everything. The water was cold. It was not cold enough, however, to keep me from jumping in twice. Like St Mary Falls, the pool below Deadwood was incredibly deep so I could not even sense the bottom as I went under.

After my little swim we went back to camp, made dinner, and jumped into the tents in time for it to rain ridiculously hard. In the morning we packed up wet stuff, again, and began hiking up to Piegan Pass. The trail up to Piegan was spectacular. The pass itself was also incredible. We were just below cloud level so the mountaintops were covered leaving their height open to our imagination. The valley below needed no imagination to make more scenic. Sara described it as an Alpine Grand Canyon. And the descent definitely seemed akin to hiking down to Indian Gardens. We dropped below massive sheer walls, but instead of varying rock layers, we descended the lengths of multiple waterfalls, snowfields, and green goat and sheep pastures. This was by far our favorite couple miles in Glacier.
Sara dropping into the "Alpine Grand Canyon"
At the bottom we popped out near Many Glacier and decided to get some hot chocolate in the little store. Before we were could get there, however, we had to negotiate park tourist traffic for a half mile on the road. The traffic was made even better by the grizzly owning the slope above us. This was the first grizzly I had ever seen (Sara got to literally fish with them in Alaska and, yes, Taylor and I are jealous) and I would have liked to sit on the road all day and watch him strut his stuff, but with thousands of people milling about and jabbing fingers uphill, the moment was lost. 
Climbing up to Swiftcurrent Pass
From Many Glacier we climbed back up into the clouds concealing Swiftcurrent Pass. By this time it was late afternoon and our camp was in Granite Park, just over the pass. The clouds were very moist though and, combined with the wind, chilled us pretty deep down. That, combined with two days of not being able to dry out our sleeping bags, made the Chalet that was in the area hiding amongst the fog, seem very inviting. We imagined a great front room with a roaring fire and cups of hot chocolate just waiting to be consumed. Instead we camped in the middle of a cloud overlooking what was supposed to be a gorgeous view, but all we could see was gray.

The cloud hung around the next morning when we began our last day on trail. As much as we would have liked to see more expansive views, the 20-40 foot visibility actually made for an incredible morning of hiking. Being from Arizona, we have not had many opportunities to hike in clouds. The stillness and almost smothering feeling of them is something else.
End of the line at Logan Pass
The first few miles out were great. We saw few people on the Highline Trail and could only imagine how many bears we walked near (we really wanted to see more bears). As the morning wore on we started to see more day hikers coming in from Logan Pass, and then the illusion of serenity was shattered by a considerate group of hikers announcing their presence with an air horn. We were furious. True, they could not see us because of the fog, but we could hear them talking, which meant a bear could. We could hear the runners that had just passed them, which meant a bear could. They could hear us, which meant a bear could. There was absolutely no need to carry, much less use, an air horn for bear safety on the most popular trail in the park. The horn announced to us that our CDT experience was officially over and it was now time to adjust back to “normal” society, as long as Taylor could refrain from throwing the air horn and person attached into the mist.

The rest of the hikers were actually polite and pleasant so the hike out was still enjoyable. The clouds cleared for moments here and there so we could get glimpses of the glaciers and waterfalls for the last time. Sara and I began feeling a little nostalgic since every step was taking us closer to ending our trip. And just after noon we reached Logan Pass and it was over.

Exploring a cave in Craters of the Moon
We did not quite finish the CDT. We still have the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the last 20-30 miles to the Canadian Border, which we are saving for a symbolic last section. We did, however, have two amazing summers of backpacking. Since late April last year we have hiked nearly 3,000 miles on the CDT and spent numerous nights out under beautiful stars (which only I can see after Sara takes her eyes out), pouring rains, and among many nocturnal creatures. We have found that the act of thru-hiking sets you in a different world where time, days, and really anything off trail does not matter as long as you can get to your next resupply before the food runs out. Thru-hiking is freeing in so many ways and we are very grateful of our time on the trail. Thru-hiking is also incredibly draining physically, straining emotionally, and simply hard. While on trail we talked a lot about our preferred manner of wilderness exploration and realized so much of it depends on what you want to get out of the experience. While on the CDT we had to pass up so many little side canyons, peaks or waterfalls just to make sure we hit our miles for the day. But, we did get to see a larger portion of the country because of the 25-30 miles a day we logged. We felt like we were constantly fighting an ethical battle of miles versus appreciation and only somewhat succeeded in keeping a balance. Still, the CDT is an absolutely incredible trail and our memories of our time outside, and together, are worth more than we can measure. We recommend a month outside of the “real world” for everyone to appreciate nature, the pure charitableness of humanity, and to just have time to think.

Sara in the freezing water at Lower Calf Creek
After getting off trail, Sara and I took Taylor to the airport in Missoula, signed a lease for our house, then took a couple extra days to drive home to Flagstaff. Along the way we camped along the Salmon River and visited Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. We spent a morning worried about flash floods and then an afternoon worried about lightning in Capitol Reef. And then we capped it off with a gorgeous hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante. After a frantic few days of packing, visiting family in Prescott, and running with friends, we are now in LA for a wedding on our way up to Missoula for good. Even though we were still on trail just over a week ago, it already seems longer than that. We hope to continue our trail adventures in Missoula and finish the last little section of the CDT.
Like last year, we will continue to occasional update this blog with our outdoor adventures that we do together. I will also be blogging about my races, trail runs and rides, and other endurance adventures at Lastly, we want to send out a HUGE thank you to everyone who came to our aid on, and off, the trail. We met some incredible people while hiking that made our experience so much better. And, of course, our parents gave us considerable help that enabled us to keep hiking, and eating food while hiking. Thank you.

Happy Trails.

Forrest and Sara.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Anaconda to Roger's Pass

(We have finished the CDT for this summer and are currently back in Flagstaff.  Due to a lack of wifi the last few sections we are still posting our blogs in order.  This post covers the section from Anaconda to Glacier.)

Trestle Bridge hidden near the trail
The hike out of Anaconda was not the most pleasant experience we have had on the trail. We spent another 9 miles walking paved highway with little shade before crossing under I-90 and switching to dirt. It was very tempting to jump in the Clark Fork River and float to Missoula from there, but the area was trying to be returned to wetlands so water travel was restricted. We ended up doing another 11 miles that day on well traveled dirt roads before settling down.

At this point we were in a conundrum. We had enough food for 5 days but the section was short enough for us to comfortably do in 3 full days. The problem was that the Elliston PO closed at 11:15 on Saturday (day 3) and we needed to hitch down into town. Our original plan was to zero on the trail Sunday since it was also closed then, but we didn't see an enticing zero option on the trail. So, we decided to do a 40 mile day and get in to Elliston in time on Saturday.

The 40 day actually went pretty well. The trail was a lot of dense lodge pole pine cleared out about three feet on either side so we felt like we were hiking down a hallway for miles at a time with no perspective on distance. We had a few miles of dirt road and few miles of bush whacking. But the greatest thing was not hurting the next day. Last year our 40 sidelined us for two days. The next day we got up early and hiked the last 9 miles to MacDonald Pass. Along the way I picked handfuls of berries before catching up. Delicious, yes, but I did miss most of the bear that Sara saw as she came over a hill.
Setting up the Big Agnes Copper Spur for the first time

We made it to MacDonald Pass above Elliston around 9:15 so had two hours to get to the post office.  We decided that I would start hiking the seven miles to the pass and Sara would try to hitch so if she couldn't get a ride then I would still be there in time to get our box.  To help me hike quicker I gave Sara the tent and took the swedish fish and started off.  After about a mile a car came by honking.  Sara's hitchhiking skills were still above par and she grabbed a ride for both of us with a couple very active in the Montana Wilderness Association. We got our box without issue, but realized that in all the excitement of getting a hitch, the tent did not make it into the car and was still on the side of the road.  Bill and Marita (our ride) gave us a ride back up to the pass to find it, but it had already disappeared into the wild.  Fortunately Bill and Marita were the greatest people to have around in this situation and they gave us a ride the other direction to Helena (calling police, sheriff, and outdoor shops for lost tents along the way) so we could replace our shelter at The Basecamp.  The staff at The Basecamp was also incredibly helpful and helped us find a new tent, let us leave our packs in the back while we found huckleberry and white chocolate mint ice cream, and watch Guardians of the Galaxy (you should see it). The hard goods buyer even drove us back up to the pass when we were ready to leave town.  So despite having a very stressful day after an exhausting stretch, we met some great people who saved the day.  
Bit smoky but still a beautiful trail to Roger's Peak

That night we camped in the campground at the pass before setting out towards Roger's Pass for our next stretch.  The first couple days of this section we spent a lot of time on hot dirt roads and had plenty of opportunities to test out our new tent in evening rains.  The first two days of this section were difficult to get through.  We were both still a bit tired from our 40 mile adventure and stressful day in Helena, and we didn't feel a need to press the miles since Taylor would be meeting us at Roger's Pass on Monday night/Tuesday morning.  The last day to Roger's Pass was beautiful, however.  We popped out on a beautiful ridge with storm clouds constantly threatening a downpour and wind that allowed no tree to grow more than three vertical feet.  The view was incredible though. The east side of the trail was lined with cliff faces that fell away to the plains of eastern Montana, while the west and north led to the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  By this point Sara was feeling pretty tired, but the the cooler weather had helped me throughout the afternoon and I felt ok enough to scurry up to the top of Roger's Peak and get one last look around before dropping to huckleberry elevation and the pass.  We camped next to the highway waiting for Taylor through another night of rain and a rare night of traffic noise before heading up to Glacier for our last section.  

(We will try and get the post up from our last section in the next couple days.  For now,

Happy Trails,

Forrest and Sara)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Montana's Smoky Mountains

Ok, so the mountains we just hiked through are not actually called the Smoky's. That is still a very Southern phenomenon. But the Anaconda Pintlers were full of smoke the few days we went through them, slightly obscuring what could have been an incredible view.

We got back on trail just after noon on Saturday before my parents drove back to Flagstaff. We hiked through a cross country ski area, which I am sure we will be back to visit for a weekend get-a-way from Missoula, read even more Lewis and Clark/Nez Perce history at Gibbons Pass then hiked into our first few miles of burn area. The next day or so the trail wound through the skeletons of forests with only occasional respites in areas that had escaped the flames. We entered the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness and ate next to the beautiful Surprise Lake, then hiked through even more burn area. To make things worse the smoke from current fires somewhere in the northwest rolled in and cut visibity down to 5 or ten miles. We, mostly me, struggle mightily in such big burn areas and smoke haze sends me into another level of depression. We were still hiking high up on ridgelines, but looking down on tree carcasses is not quite as pleasing to the eye as blue lakes against a green carpet.

We did see and hear a good bit of pika activity in this area, which gave us something else to do. We are still taking gps data of all the pika evidence we come across for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Their study is tracking the disappearance of pika habitat as scree fields turn into ovens at lower altitudes.

Finally after a day and a little we made it to the pretty part of the Wilderness. By Montana standards this was described to us as a small Wilderness area, which now explains the size of my omelet the other day. There must be a couple hundred miles of trails through the Pintlers that need exploring along with dozens of alpine lakes the would be great for an afternoon of reading. High peaks with intriguing spinal ridges greeted us after every climb (there was a lot of climbing). I had no idea this place existed and it has definitely been one of the greatest "little" mountain ranges of the hike.

Aside from the thieving night critters.

I'm going to blame marmots, but I suppose it could have been any number of sticky-fingered bandits with a taste for sweaty millinery. Marmots have just been our scapegoat since they overran our lunch spot above Copper Mountain last year. Anyway, the last night of this section we ended up hiking late due to a rainstorm and damp camped on an the edge of an incredible ridge overlooking a basin full of avalanche residue and grazing elk. What made for a beautiful camp also made for easy access to our tent for residents of scree fields. We spent much of the night listening to scampering paws and attempting to ward of the forays into the tent vestibule. We thought we were successful, but as we packed up I noticed my hat and sunglasses were missing. After looking around I saw them about 30 feet down the cliff face/embankment. I scrambled down only to recover my glasses and the remnants of my hat. I came up with several angrily creative (I thought) ways to punish marmots for the first few miles that day, but the trail called and we moved on to Anaconda.

By trail calling I mean to say the road called. Our miles into Anaconda finished with 9 on a hard packed dirt roadway and 12 or so on and near MT Highway 1. We made it in all right and are now holed up in a motel on the edge (i.e. there are no buildings east of us) of town for a day off. The town is an interesting place. The occupied houses and businesses are very well main tines with immaculate lawns and gardens, by are separated by multiethnic boarded up buildings. It's hard to tell if the old mining town is dying or coming back, though, since there is reconstruction going on everywhere. Either way it is eerie.

Next stop for us is Elliston, MT our friend Taylor is going to join us for a skip up to Glacier. But for now we have another pound of blueberries to eat.

Happy trails,

Track and Field

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Lima to Sula, via Leadore...Sagebrush to Mountaintop

As I am sitting here writing, the sun is coming up over soutwestern Montana through low clouds, the (some) fork of the Bitterroot River is flowing 50 yards away, and a hummingbird is making it difficult to type as he keeps zig-zagging between my face and the keyboard.  We are now in Sula, MT at the south end of the Bitterroot Valley hanging out at a camground with my parents who have been up here resupplying us for the last week.  We took four days to get from Lima to Leadore, ID and another four and a half from Leadore to here.
One of the lines of Ups and Downs

The section from Lima to Leadore overall was less than stellar in our book.  For the most part hiking felt better than before, but the first day out was miserable.  We had used the morning looking for places to rent in Missoula when we get off trail so it was just afternoon by the time we started a hot and dusty 7.8 mile dirt road walk, half of which paralleled I-15.  From there we jumped, or rather slogged, up a steep hill to the divide, only to find that the routing along the divide only took us up and down and up a series of steeper hills.  Since we both like starting in the morning, and were not quite back in the trail mindset after a busy morning, the climbing exhausted us.  Towards the end of the day we did see a spectacular herd of elk in the deep shadows of a hillside.  When they heard us they all took off to create the illusion that the entire hillside was moving. 

The next morning we dropped down into Shineberger Creek and traversed through cow territory towards a small mountain range that included Mount Garfield.  We got our first taste of the hidden treasures in the small mountains as we climbed up out of the sagebrush and within a mile felt like we were high up in the rockies.  Unfortunately we then dropped back down into wide open sagebrush again.
Sara on the last push up Cottonwood Peak

A day or two later we took a side trip up Cottonwood Peak, which is right on the Divide.  There is no trail up and heading northbound on the CDT means you go up the steep side.  And I mean steep.  We gained appx 3200 feet in less than a mile, with heavy packs.  It was a definite effort.  I have started to look at all these steep climbs as training for the Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill.  Pretending we're in the middle of a training workout helps us silence our screaming calves and quads a little on each ascent.  The view from the top of Cottonwood was glorious.  A turqouise lake came into view, the few buildings of Leadore were visible a day and a half away, and the ridge of the Divide ran away from us, very obviously in two directions.  

The next day we had another big ascent up Elk Mountain (along with some incredibly steep hill climbs and descents following an ATV trail), which afforded another great view even though our legs were reminding us of the strenuous Cottonwood climb the day before.  New trail up Elk Mountain though made it a much more pleasant climb and descent.  From there we had a loooong 11 miles down to Bannock Pass where my parents were waiting to help us resupply.  
Being Elk-like on the top of Elk Mountain

Having my parents around for the off-trail time in Leadore we knew was going to be pleasant, but it also ended up being incredibly good timing.  We spent the next morning trying to figure out how to get money to pay for a security deposit.  Since none of us had checkbooks it required a drive to Salmon, ID and a great lunch at a mexican food place overlooking the Salmon River.  If we had to try and hitch that drive, then hitch back to Leadore, then hitch back to the trail we probably would have needed another day.  We did secure the house though so we now have a place to live in Missoula!

Ocean of Bear Grass near Lena Lake
The section from Leadore to Sula was glorious!  There has been a lot of recent beautiful trail work done and we think it has the highest percentage of trail of any CDT section we have done so far (not counting the Colorado Trail sections in CO since the CDT overlaps).  We still had a crazy amount of steep climbing and descending so physically it was very challening, but it was much more enjoyable since we were going through alpine lakes, jagged rocky mountains, obvious glacier residue (big rock deposits, or "glacier poop") and a beautiful bloom of Bear Grass.  We had not expected to be back in the mountains like this for a while (possibly the Sapphire Range?) and the unexpected nature of the hiking made it more pleasant. One of the lakes where we enjoyed lunch was called Slag-A-Melt.  Doesn't a name like that just make everything more fun? 

We finished up yesterday by catching a couple who were hiking the sections bordering Beaverhead County.  We hiked with them for a few miles, which made the one 5.7 mile section of logging road go by much quicker.  Sara and I enjoy hiking together, but it is always a treat when we get to hike with another person(s) for a little bit.  

Upper Slag-A-Melt Lake
My parents met us at Chief Joseph Pass yesterday and took us down to the Sula Country Store and cabins.  We had a great dinner with scrumptious cheesecake before enjoying the hot tub.  Well, Sara and my parents did, I fell asleep before making it to the water. My parents are heading back to Flagstaff after we resume our trek so we won't be spoiled anymore.  But it has been wonderful to have them around to help us, and they got to explore a bit of the Idaho/Montana area as well.   Hopefully we get resupplied ok this morning then back to the trail this afternoon. Our next stop will be in Anaconda, MT.  No more border hopping, we are in MT for good!

Happy Trails

Track and Field