In the last couple of days, I’ve learned a lot about how private property affects the development of long distance trails. Lots of “no trespassing signs” blocked perfectly good trails over bald grassy hills that I can see on my map and on my GPS and with my eyes. We followed one trail perfectly until it hit a “Safety Zone. Cross this gate, and you’ll be shot” sign, even though the trail continued clearly on the otherside of the gate. We traversed the fence for a long time, only to find other fences.
It was almost nightfall and we could see far because the hills were tree-less. I felt the adrenaline running as we hopped barbed wire fence after barbed wire fence in the dark, watching the sky in front of us fill with clouds and lightening. We needed to run from shelter, but we didn’t want to go near the houses where people would shoot us for hopping their fences. The hills were really steep and I swear I could hear dogs barking to come after us. I wanted off, off, off those hills–there was no way to tell from a map or GPS what is public and what is private, who owns what, and where I will be shot if I go.
We staggered to the base of the hills and found big piles of old brick and rusted metal–what looked like an old dump. We walked cautiously, though I felt happy because dumps are on public land–right? We hopped our last gate near a house quickly, only to see it too had a “No Trespassing Sign.” We found ourselves on a road that is also the CDT (the CDT is often just a route on a road), we started walking down a street of nothing but rural ranches and “Private Property” signs. It was dark and about to rain and we didn’t think there was any place to camp. We finally found a ditch across from a dilapidated old trailer home and pitched the shelter. I heard cars drive by at midnight and 2 am, slowing down near us. I couldn’t sleep I was so sure we’d be shot by meth-heads.
From a place on trail, my GPS showwed 5 miles to a town clearly visible from the ridge, but we ended up walking almost 15 around private property. Quite a bummer for the hiker seeking the temptation of food and a bed in town. Many congrats to those who work hard on right of ways for trails and those kind private property owners who are friendly to hikers and trails!
Just made Helena, MT through the mist and fog. It was so foggy, we couldn’t see 30 feet ahead, and the GPS was so useful in finding our much needed water source for the day. We opted to take the alternate into MacDonald Pass to cut off 6 miles, and followed the GPS again along these roads. When we got to 5 way intersection, we found major construction and a dumptruck filled with soil and rocks were coming at us. Using advice on Jley’s map at the GPS, we quickly chose a direction and started walking through the rain uphill. When we got 3 miles down the road, looking to our right for a turn and finding nothing, we saw a sign and a road on our left. I checked my GPS, and realized we were a mile passed another junction we needed to turn at.
When we got to the junction, though, we realized there had been no junction. There was a barbed wire fence and “No Trespassing” sign and an overgrown former road. We had to go all the way back to the junction! At the junction, I put up cairns for northbounders and our friend Pi, who is southbounding and behind us. Navigation has been a big problem for us.We gingerly walked around the giant dump truck and on new tread. On our left, brand new barbed wire and signs every 100 yards that read “Jim no longer owns this ranch. Please respect my privacy. No trespassing, fishing, hunting, ATV riding.”
According to my GPS, whomever recently bought the ranch was having the whole Forest Service road relocated. On our long roadwalk, a truck pulled up and offered us water–much needed in the dry section–despite the constant rain all day–the creeks that existed were polluted with cow. These friendly fisherlocals asked us of our trip and told us of their experiences in the area. One man had been fishing in the area since he was 5, and was distraught about the closing of the ranch to fishing with the new ownership. When we made it to MacDonald Pass at 6 (a respectable time), cars zoomed passed us at 70 mph. We tried to hitch at the top of the hill when they were going by the slowest before the quick downgrade. We were barely visible in the deep fog and mist. I watched 50 cars go by and began to wonder whether we would have to camp on the road, when a Belgian family vacationing pulled over. We chatted a bit, though their English wasn’t the best. “We have read hitchhiking is very dangerous in this country. And dangerous for us to pick up people as well. But we hitched all over Europe when we were younger. It is ok.” We are so lucky for Europeans!
The Bob Marshall Wilderness was gorgeous and we had the pleasure of, within an hour, running into 6 large grizzly scats right on the trail, each one progressively fresher than the next. No grizzly bear was seen, though.
The trail into and out of Lincoln, MT, is right up on the divide–going up and down over grassy balds with amazing views for a “Sound of Music” like experience. It was a lot of work to get up and down those balds, especially after our navigational skills failed us a bit. Many thanks to the horsepackers, boaters, and hikers who have given us water and rides along the way. We’ve met such great people and are psyched for our next section.
I woke up tossing and turning the other night in East Glacier. It’s 131 miles from East Glacier to Benchmark Ranch through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 53 miles from Benchmark to Roger’s Pass—which leads to Missoula. I had a week to hike 184 miles to make it in time for the flight. There was no way I could pull 30s over snow with route finding this early in the game.
I’m twitching, feeling guilty about not being hiking, and worried about hitting the San Juans before snow comes this fall. 10 days off is a huge amount of time, especially for people starting as late as us. The Bob Marshall Wilderness is, in fact, a wilderness, though, with no roads out of it. Benchmark Ranch has a 30 mile hitch on a dirtroad to Augusta, on the Eastern side of the divide, but it’s a hard hitch back to the trail after that. And Missoula is on the western part of the Divide.
So we’re chilling in East Glacier, probably headed to couch surf in Missoula for a few days. Waiting. Twitchily waiting.
Jim Wolf’s books would be helpful leaving Two Medicine. We roadwalked from the campground to Scenic Point trailhead by a two inch wide shoulder (NPS: it’s pretty clear you designed your parks for cars not people). Many people were on the trail, and we passed many.
Scenic point was indeed scenic and it was nice to see the canyon and pass we went over yesterday. The flowers were every color and like mini Dr. Seuss vegetation. Past scenic point, we didn’t see a soul and the park went on for quite a while, though we felt it had been neglected by most hikers. I wasn’t sure where the park boundary started and Blackfeet land began and it wasn’t until we were well, well down the Eastern part of the mountain that we left the park. The trail to East Glacier was generally good with us only getting lost once. It was quite muddy and with dense horseprints. Where we got lost was at a Y-fork with a jeep road and a trail with a log over it (which usually depicts “this is not the trail.”) We were spit out near Brownies hostel, where we had stayed at a week before and I had left my laptop. Home sweet home, especially since the hostel is right above a bakery!
When I started this trip, I knew I’d be flying back to California for 3 days for a memorial service. I planned my flight out of Missoula, which is just passed Lincoln, MT on the trail, specifically because it seemed like I could make it that far on the CDT by the 9th. In fact, we were supposed to be in Lincoln today, July 3rd. But being unable to get a permit to start the CDT on June 25th and the permit system making doing big miles difficult had made the intended mileage impossible.
I woke early fearing a ranger coming up trail would discover our stealth camping. We woke to clouds overhead, not the blue sky of when we slept. Still, we had to move on. We had little food and two passes between us and the hotdogs of the Two Medicine campground.
We were close to the pass, and at the top in less than an hour. The snow was firmer than the soft, good, Montana snow I’d come to love–even with my snowphobia, I was pretty sure that slipping far in this snow was near impossible. As we came down, we looked out at Glaciers and saw large footprints–a triangle with four clawed fingers. When we got to East Glacier, I looked it up. They were prints of the grey wolf!
The three miles to Atlanta Creek campground would’ve been easy if there weren’t 7 frozen waterfalls to cross. Each steep, frozen, thinly-snowed, 500 foot falling waterfall either had to be crossed along the snowy part, or gone around. We went around many, which was exhausting and time consuming, but safer than falling through. My favorite waterfall had formed a snow tunnel with which we could go through. On the way around a waterfall, we relished the last 270 calories a piece.
Soon, there was snow as far as we could see. The trail was gone, and there were a couple contenders for the desired pass. One was far on the left and the lowest to climb. Another was to the right and wasn’t an obvious saddle. The other was on the far right side of the bowl. Our map warned us that Pitamakan Pass is very close to Cutbank Pass–at Cutbank Pass leads to the alternate of the CDT which requires going along the sketchy side of Mt. Morgan to Dawson Pass. Without any desire to do another pass or go along a mountainside, I knew we had to get the right pass.
We found a lake and realized we needed to climb a hill between two lakes to get to the pass. We followed moose prints to prevent postholing near trees. As we came closer to the passes, the leftmost pass had no switchbacks. To the right was the other lake…a lake that looked more like the lake on the map than the one we had just passed. It was frozen with snow all around and we had to go to the north of the lake–the south was just ice cliffs leading straight into the florescent blue alpine water. The map showed us going to the north of a lake, and we found ourselves, looked up and saw switchbacks between a giant, steep snowbank and a glacier.
On the switchbacks, the wind was so fierce I literally was knocked down. The lakes were filled with icebergs and snow. As we neared the pass, we saw a couple signs—one to the left and one to the right of the pass. Assuming the left was Pittamakan, I opted to go around a steep snowfield rather than risk getting blown off and sliding into the frozen lake. I apologized to the alpine plants as I did it. I was greeted by a sneaky hoary marmot at the top.
The path down to Two Medicine was easy for me, though as I looked up at the pass, I had no idea how northbounders would ever be sure which way was the pass, especially in the snow.
A kind camper gave us a ride from the ranger station (1 mile walk from the CDT) to the campsite to drop off the campsite ticket, and back to the ranger site to deposit our camp fee (really, NPS? Do you have to have the hiker/biker sites be the furthest from the ranger station you possibly can???). Many hotdogs were consumed at the store that night, our day of the most epic pass so far complete.
We woke excited to start our first 24 mile day on the trail. As we hiked for the next hour, we encountered the largest bear scat we’d seen yet. We reached the sign for Florence Falls, and I checked the map to see which way. Oh…wait…this ISN’T the CDT.
This put our big mile day into even bigger mile territory, with very limited food. We hiked furiously back to Reynolds and down to St. Mary’s falls and Virginia Falls. The trail tread and width got a lot better near these touristy spots. As we crossed the falls, we didn’t even stop and thought “People plan coming to the park for months to see these, and we just zoom past them.” We had a big day ahead of us–and had already wasted two hours lost. Though, as we crossed the Virginia Falls bridge, I did take the time to note that a week previously, a woman had fallen off the Virgina Falls bridge to her watery death.
The St. Mary’s trail tread and width immediately got vegetated with nettles stinging out legs. Bear scat was plentiful and our singing and calling out and harmonica playing corresponded to the scat levels. At one point, we noticed very fresh bits of scat that had fallen in pieces up the trail for ten feet. Looks like we must’ve stumbled across a bear and it heard our calls. I was relieved to hear the making noise method works.
We walked next through a burnt area where the sun intensely crisped my face. Looking down the small container of sunscreen I had been using thusfar, I read the handwritten label: “Hand moisturizer.” Oops! I must’ve packed out the wrong container. Time to whip out the mylar umbrella!
Dark clouds formed around the mountains as we reached a sign: “10.9 miles to Triple Divide Pass.” It rained quite hard for 10 minutes and ended as quickly as it started. We still walked through burnt areas–relishing water whenever we found it even though it looked a bit brown. Throughout the park, scientists set up barbed wires on trees and bears use the barbed wire as scratching posts. The wire collects bear hair, which the scientists use to understand how many bears are in an area and the DNA of the bears. Through the burn area, we’d see the wire, but no hair.
We reached a huge river–one we’d crossed earlier on a bridge–but this time, there was no bridge. It was deep and swiftly moving and rapids looked intense. We noticed three young women crossing a log coming towards us, scooting across it on their butt and feet. I noticed places where former branches were on the tree were now stubby 3 inch points jutting out. I hopped on the log, sitting with one leg on either side, dangling into the water. I’d carefully use my hands to lift my body forward, and sit back down. Each time, I struggled to get my crotch over the stubs. As I reached the middle of the log, the water was moving swiftly, dragging my feet down the cold river. I knew I had to scoot forward quickly or I’d be swept away by my feet. Desperately, I pushed up with my hands and sat down as quickly as possible. I had a huge scratch a little too close to my crotch for comfort. It didn’t matter. I got off that log and shook my frozen feet back to life. I’d made it.
We went upwards and it started hailing marbles. It stopped after 5 minutes, but I was happy to have the umbrella–the same umbrella I had used to block the sun an hour before. We went through burnt blowdowns and I dreaded putting a log near my crotch again. The clouds got darker and lightening started hitting the surrounding mountains. We couldn’t see the pass anymore.
It started raining hard and thundering loudly. Giving up, we sat under a tree and decided to cook our last hot meal. We were almost out of snackfood so this was pretty much the only option. I was hesitant to cook right by the trail in case a ranger saw us cooking outside of designated food prep areas, but the tree blocked a lot of rain. As I leaned back on the tree, I saw that it had barbed wire on it, and the most grizzly hair we’d seen on any tree. Great. We were cooking under the bears’ favorite scratching area.
We finished the meal still hungry and packed up after it stopped raining. We went upwards into the now not burnt trees. As we heard thunder in the mountains again, we started to look for a campsite. We couldn’t get over the pass and make the extra three miles to our official designated campsite in this weather. It started hailing marbles again, and Frogs and I huddled under the umbrella. I gave up, and looked for a flat spot, unfortunately, right by the trail. We’d be so busted if a ranger found us. We set up over the newly fallen hail and I defrosted my feet and found a tree to hang food (spruce trees are difficult to hang in). As I went to sleep, I heard a helicopter overhead and kept thinking rangers were searching for illegal stealthy tenters like ourselves. Their rules which require camping in permitted campsites don’t allow for wiggle room in weather like this. I don’t know what else we could’ve done.
We had a happy reunion with Dogwood at the Many Glacier campground and met another thru-hiker, Seth, who had taken the Highline Trail. He looked frightened and still full of adrenaline from the experience. I was pretty happy we had taken the chill Chief Mtn route.
We’ve had great weather on the CDT–sun and not much wind. I’m actually a little sunburnt (sorry Dad, I’ve been putting sunscreen on everyday, though). The other thru-hikers seemed to find the passes sketchy because bad weather was involved, but we are very lucky so far.
We still had to pick up our permits for the rest of the Glacier trip, and during breakfast with Dogwood, I learned our next campsites were either 15 or 25 miles from Many Glacier and that Dogwood may have taken the last site at the place 15 miles away. We dropped by the ranger station and were told the 15 mile site was indeed taken. I really wanted to hike something like 20 miles. Without a 15 or 20 mile option, I was doomed to 25 miles–exemplifying why the permitting system in Glacier is so difficult for thru-hikers.
We set off for a 24 mile day over two passes at 10 am, but right as we exited, Seth, the Highline Trail thru-hiker, came into the ranger station to drop his permit. We ended up getting his spot at the 15 mile campsite. As we signed our permit, the ranger was sure to say “this route is not recommended,” quite casually as he listed off all the other things we had to agree to on the permit. “Watch out for the ford at Piegan Pass.”
The Adams had mentioned a beautiful photo exhibit at the Many Glacier Lodge that compares photos of Glacier National park from the early 1900s to how the glaciers are now. I highly encourage checking it out. We dropped by the lodge, and headed off to the canyon. Without much climbing, we found snow (must be protected by the high walls to the right and left) and saw glaciers. Then, we saw the ford at Piegan Pass, and realized it didn’t look bad. Still, upsteam 100 feet was a snow bridge. It looked like it might hold–but my greatest fear is falling through snow into a cold creek and being swept away by the river back under the snow. I didn’t want to ford, though, so it was worth the chance even though the bridge looked thin.
It worked, and we kept climbing through snow and route finding. We could see some of the switchbacks until it came to a steep snow bank endlessly up and straight down into the robust Morning Eagle falls. I had no choice. Grabbing my potty trowel, I crossed. We followed the switchbacks, and it crossed the same snowbank again–this time in the opposite direction. We crossed again, this time the potential fall into the Falls being greater. This continued a few more times-back and forth across the snowbank–until we gave up and went straight up the snowbank.
Piegan pass is very long and you look straight into Glaciers as you go up the valley. I didn’t know where the pass was and just looked at those Glaciers, fearing that was where I would end up. The wind was so fierce I feared it would blow me down. I wasn’t sure where the pass ended up until nearly the end. When we crested, we looked across at a steep snowbank “At least we didn’t go over that” only to see mountain goat tracks travelling across impossible spots.
It was endless snow and route finding to the Going to the Sun Road, but there were tracks to follow. Reynolds campsite was easy to find, but Dogwood didn’t show up all night.
The whole climb up to Red Gap Pass, we sang and played harmonica to keep the bears away. There were a few harmless snowpatches with run-off to drink. The views of the mountains across the valley of the Belly River were spectacular. Towards the top of Red Gap were a series of many switchbacks and two steep, long snow chutes that reminded me a bit of Forester Pass from the PCT. Without a way around, I held my breath and crossed with ease and was rewarded greatly: 24 mountain goats (or possibly sheep) awaited me past the next switchbacks–lazily eating the alpine plants. As we climbed right to the pass, three proud, stately handsome looking bighorn sheep crossed 30 feet in front of us–also headed to the pass. When the biggest horned leader reached the pass, he stopped and peered out like a king examining his land.
We reached a 100 yard snowpatch and as I braced myself again, I took my first steps. About a quarter into the snowy walk, I looked up. Hesitant to pause while endless snowy steep snow was below me, I cautiously peered up. 100 feet above us, a family of the fuzziest sheep walked gracefully, without fear. They look like Star Wars characters. To see animals walk without trepidation across the snow that I so disliked humbled me and was one of the most magical moments I’ve had on any trail.
We caught up with a backpacker named Kellan and together, we navigated past a snowbank and route-finded ourselves down the slope back to the trail. Kellan was out for a week or so, but unlike us, wasn’t carrying bear spray. He had a gun on his hip. Carrying guns in National Parks was recently made legal. Kellan pointed out that “it’s the city folks waving guns around” that people get scared about in parks, not people who grew up with guns. Still, I have to wonder if a bullet wound would be enough to deter a bear, or just irritate it.
At Poia Lake, we came upon swarms of mosquitos thick–so thick I couldn’t breathe without taking some in and couldn’t see because I was squinting my eyes. We left Kellan at Poia Lake and went down towards Many Glacier. As we walked through the well vegetated trail rampant with wildflowers, singing and playing harmonica once again to deter bears a dark brown large furry creature was ahead 30 feet ahead of us. It was a moose! (One of my favorite animals). It looked at us with sorrowful eyes, and I got quite excited. We took a step forward, and the moose bolted.
When we got to Many Glacier, we found our way to the employee housing. My housemate for the past two years, Abigail, grew up in Many Glacier as the daughter of the Glacier Bear Ranger. Although Abi had headed off to the Bay Area to start a new job, she had invited us to dinner with her parents. As we entered employee housing, a ranger came up to us with the facial expression, “What are you doing here?” I explained and she directed us to the family apartment where we were welcomed to a dinner and shower and great company.
The Adams have been in the park since at least the late 60s and have such an intimate knowledge of how the glaciers have melted over time, how bear management policy has changed, and the permitting system. When I decided I wanted to hike the CDT this summer about 6 months ago, Abi and I had a heart-to-heart about what to do in grizzly country—and I had come away with “make noise.” Speaking with the Adams reassured us significantly that making noise was really the best thing we can do. I’m not sure there’s a way to thank them for the mental peace that dinner and their conversation brought to us. That being said, they warned us of the creek ford before Piegan Pass, which we would cross the next day. Apparently, another ranger had fallen in and almost drowned earlier that season.
We couldn’t catch the bus back to the States and the Chief Mountain trailhead until 3 pm and didn’t get to Chief Mountain until 4 pm. We knew we had 11 miles to do and 11 miles starting at 4 pm is ok for the PCT–but we weren’t sure what to expect. We yelled and sang and played the harmonica to keep the bears away but only saw lots of other backpackers. There were some very easy fords that did nothing but got our feet wet, and we got into Elizabeth Lake at 7:30. The campsite had a separate place to cook/eat from tenting, which is common in the park, and a genius idea I think. A particularly rambunctious and brave chipmunk annoyed us and wasn’t frightened by my harmless attempts to scare it. All around, the CDT is quite scenic and astonishingly easy.