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.

No comments:

Post a Comment