We’ve walked into fall, and northern Montana is painted in the most marvelous palette of pastel colors: ochre-tinted rivers fringed in lemon-yellow willows, valleys of dead gray trees mixing in with the living ones — the somber brown and green pines and spruces and firs, and the bursts of bright yellow aspens, their fallow leaves clinging on till winter’s fatal breath; an understory of green-and-tallow grasses, rushes and sedges, and myriad other little plants whose leaves have darkened to gold or withered or rotted out into red-brown splotch-patters – little dots like lentigos; or, otherwise, leaves as dark and red as plumbs. Wildfires have charcoaled large tracts of these Bob Marshall forests, leaving trees burnt graphite black or silver. All around the larches have yellowed. The sky overhead is a ringing deep and royal blue, crisp and smooth enough to drink, and almost always adrift in gigantic puffy clouds, fast-moving and white as spun cotton. Dying leaves drop from deciduous boughs, floating in quiet solemnity to the morning’s frost-hardened soil.
Summertime is over. It reminds me daily that this trip is ending, too.
When we left Lincoln, we climbed high onto the ridges of the Scapegoat Wilderness. The divide here rolled through a series of ups and downs along spines and cliffs that rise abruptly and soar at altitudes of 6,000-7,300 feet. Chimichanga’s folks had met us in Helena, where we bought food and stashed it in their rental car — the plan being to meet them again at Benchmark, in The Bob, where we would resupply.
We had about 55 miles to cover in two days, so walked with intention, and camped the first night in a forested saddle near a creek. In the evening before camping we saw fresh piles of grizzly scat, replete with berries and half-digested fur, so that when we camped the Griz was much on my mind.
I lay my tarp and mat atop a soft fern bed and slept a wink, my head near a dark bend in the trail. Then I woke at 2 a.m. to an animal crunching branches in the forest. An elk in rut, it moaned and bugled and scraped its antlers on tree trunks for hours — a ghostly sound in the tangled, brooding wood.
It’s so close to us, I thought. If this elk doesn’t fear us, then why would a Griz?
And so I couldn’t sleep and sat up frightened multiple times at the forest sounds — the groaning trees and miscellaneous shufflings — sat up with my hiking pole brandished, ready to – ready to do what? To poke a 500 pound bear? And I thought, With the bear’s padded feet, I won’t even hear it coming down this dark trail. The first thing it’s gonna do is eat my face off.
Rationally I know all of this is silly. Bears rarely attack humans. But I have very little control over my imagination in the dark of night. I didn’t sleep for several hours and haven’t cowboy camped since — not in grizzly country.
In the morning Chimi was the first out of camp. He came across a grizzly sow and her cub within a half hour of leaving. So maybe my intuitions weren’t as off-base as I’d thought.
We walked 30 miles to Benchmark Ranch that day. Chimichanga’s folks rented a cabin and brought us pizza and fruits and vegetables and chicken sandwiches and beer. We feasted and talked into the night. Chimi played scrabble with his old man beneath the dim light of a gas lantern. All of us hikers had expected to camp. Instead Chimi’s folks kindly insisted that we sleep in the cabin’s beds. The next day began our long trek through The Bob, so we couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff.
The Bob runs for about 60 miles on the Continental Divide, but the wilderness itself is about a million acres squared. When combined with the Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness, it forms the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex — a tract of protected wildlands large enough to encompass nearly 70 Manhattans. That’s more than 1.5 million acres for grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions and Canadian lynxes to call home. The U.S. Forest Service calls it “one of the most completely preserved mountain ecosystems in the world.” The place is named for the famous conservationist and forester (Bob Marshall), a man who regularly hiked 40-mile days through Montanan woods and whose efforts helped preserve 5.4 million acres of American wilderness – which, he wrote, would “contribute to the happiness of many exploratory souls.” I agree, Mr. Marshall, and thankya kindly.
I walked behind Dayglo at the end of our first day, taking switchbacks up a trail, monitoring storm clouds in the sky, when I heard him say, “Whoa.” I rounded the corner and had my first glimpse of the Chinese Wall, a dramatic escarpment that rises on average 1,000 feet from the surface. The 22-mile-long wall formed during the same mountain-building time as the Rocky Mountains, 170 million years ago. Colliding tectonic plates shoved the crust of Montana together, creating an enormous wedge known as the Lewis Overthrust. Many of the jagged and craggy mountains of Glacier National Park owe their formation to this event. The Chinese Wall is made of tannish rock, streaked throughout in black watermarks, so that it looks Gothic on a gray day, like a medieval cathedral with parapets and bastions and towers of solid rock.
We camped at the base of the wall as the storm brought rain, sleet, snow and ice. Messed Up walked into camp jamming Pink Floyd. The storm did not abate until 10 a.m. the next day, at which point we packed quickly in frigid weather. As we walked nine miles along the wall, craning our necks and gawking, clouds poured over the wall, scudding rapidly overhead. They boiled out and above a u-shaped valley to our east. Spots of sunlight shone through the rolling clouds and played all day along the wall’s enormous face.
Much like the mesas of northern Cuba, I was astonished to find the Chinese Wall — an impressive formation which I did not know existed until I began this walk.
The mornings are increasingly bitter with cold and darkness. We pack in bursts, slapping our hands together, blowing on them to warm our fingertips, then shoving gear into our bags until our fingers go numb again. The ground is stiff, blue and frozen. Beargrass bows under the weight of hoarfrost, straightening as noonday sunlight melts the ice. And yet there is much to enjoy in chilly hiking. It reminds me of skiing, the way the cold invigorates. You steel yourself against the frost. You feel alive and healthy, a kid on winter’s inaugural snow day: frisky, with frigid airs encasing your body.
It’s as if in the cold your warm heart beats hotter.
Our last day in The Bob we moved through a burnt and frozen landscape, where frost set in on a forest that burned not two weeks prior. Messed Up described it as “winter apocolyptic.” I walked behind Hedgehog, who fights wildland fires when he’s not hiking.
“Smells crispy,” I said.
“Smells like money,” he replied.
We’re now at the gates of Glacier National Park, 100 miles from the Canadian border. The last walk of the trip is set to end Friday.