on the Divide

As nice as our riverside camp was last night, this morning is was COLD! Even though I know I’ll be warm as soon as I start hiking, those 15 minutes before I do seem like eternity. Not wanting my hiking partners to see me cry, I jumped up and packed, then took off in search of sun. By 2pm the burned forest tress were offering no shade so we jumped in the first river big enough for full submersion. Had trouble finding the CDT in the maze of horse trails near Blacktail Creek but eventually got on track. I imagine this is good training for areas to the south where there is no trail at all! Once back on track it was a huge climb on excellent tread. The switchbacks just kept going up, well over 1000 feet in elevation gain. From the saddle we climbed further up to the actual Continental Divide for 360 degree views of seemingly endless mountains surrounding our vantage point. Incredible! The CDT can’t possibly stay in the actual divide the entire time since the terrain is too rugged, so when the path does lead to America’s backbone the feelings of awe are overwhelming. Toek, Jug and I continued on the Divide for a bit before dropping into a valley and camping. 23.5 miles today and I’m feeling great. My knee is doing better and my shin splints are almost healed. It’s nice to not have every step be agony anymore and a 20-mile day not be torture. Hopefully everything holds up and I can focus on my hike, not merely the pain from failing joints.

  • Starting Location: Straight Creek
  • Destination: on the Divide


Straight Creek

A short seven-mile walk brought us to the Benchmark Wilderness Ranch where most hikers send re-supply boxes full of food. The ranch was closed but our boxes were outside in metal bear proof boxes so we dug through our stuff and ate well. Then it was four hours sitting on the cozy porch in comfortable chairs, digesting our huge lunch and continuing to graze on snacks. Thru hikers can burn about 6000 calories a day and it’s only a matter of weeks before the ‘hiker hunger’ kicks in and gorging is a way of life. It’s hard to pack in enough food while hiking, so re-supply days are also a change to bulk up on needed calories. Hiked on for a few miles and found a great camp along Straight Creek. Even though it’s only 2.5 days until our next re-supply, we brought a lot of extra food other hikers left behind. Carry the extra weight is a pain, but free food here means less money spent in the next town.

  • Starting Location: Chinese Wall
  • Destination: Straight Creek


Chinese Wall

People often ask me ‘Why do you do these hikes?’ and my answer is usually as lame as that particular question. Why would anyone want to live in the woods, sleeping wherever they please and drink from mountain streams? Why would somebody want to be surrounded by spectacular scenery for months at a time, test the endurance of their body and boil their possessions down to the perfect bare essentials? In that everlasting pursuit to escape the commonplace of existence, sometimes we have to step back from this sanitary, plastic, mechanized culture we’ve created and simply walk. It sweeps the clutter aside when your world slides by at 3 mph. When was the last time you were completely happy with your surroundings for more than an hour, a week, or months long? Thru hiking helps me appreciate what is taken for granted: food available constantly, hot showers, shelter from the cold and rain. By stepping away from these conveniences we see how irrelevant they are for us yet how nice moderation can be. I guess you have to occasionally hurt yourself to appreciate how well you really were.Today we walked along the Chinese Wall, a giant limestone ridge whose sheer cliff edges resemble the man-made structure of its namesake. The weather was perfect again with ice-cold springs to quench the thirst associated with hiking on a warm summer day. I’m glad to have such pleasant companions to share this with. Montana is overwhelming me with its incredible wilderness areas; sometimes I just have to stop and stare in awe.

  • Starting Location: Spotted Bear Creek
  • Destination: Chinese Wall


Spotted Bear Creek

It’s very rare that I get up early in the morning, but last night I pitched my tarp just right and woke as the sun turned the sky an imperial violet. Before retiring for the evening I had mixed oatmeal and instant pudding in my cook pot to soak as I slept and it was delicious. Switch’s ankle is pretty messed up so Prophet and he bailed from the CDT to get to a town. Being as painful as it was for him I think he made a wise decision. It’s not easy to come to a realization like that, but now he had a taste of thru-hiking life and can get his ankle healed for a future hike. Prophet will hopefully meet back up with us in Lincoln. The hike today was brutal for me but gorgeous. Coming down Switchback Pass was a long and painful descent. I picked up a branch to complement my bamboo staff. This helped eased the jarring and I look forward to receiving my trekking poles soon. This section had a lot of blow downs! Everything from the simple step over logs to gnarly trunks full of branches that made crossing a bit of a puzzle. The slopes are so steep and the underbrush so think, going around isn’t always an option. Sometimes you gotta just climb through the chaos. Spotted Bear Creek was beautiful and the trail meandered along its bank. There were frequent feeder creeks and I drank freely without worry of contamination. Just before Spotted Bear Pass, a thunderstorm hit and was gone in minutes. Toek, Jug, and I figured we should cook before any more rain hit and it stayed away just long enough to do so. As soon as we started eating, the rain was back so Jug and I ate under our umbrellas while ToeK disappeared inside his poncho. After eating we hiked on to My Lake and made camp. The rain abated and we lounged around, as hikers tend to do, telling goofy travel stories and farting like bull moose. There’s something about trail food that makes everyone gassy and there’s the lack of self-consciousness with trail life that lets us all break wind freely. See?!? This is the magic of thru hiking.

  • Starting Location: Dean Lake
  • Destination: Spotted Bear Creek


Dean Lake

I heard Steady rustling when he awoke but it was freezing outside and I couldn’t stand the thought of getting up just yet. Hoping for the sun to hit me was stupid though, so after he left I jumped up and got out of there.  Finally packed up and hit the trail in all my clothing layers.This journal is starting to sound like a record of pain but I can’t help writing about it since walking is all I do every day. By favoring my knee this past week I’ve developed something like shin splints. This is a three-inch circle just above my ankle that is red, puffy and painful as all get out. I’m in shock since I’ve never had things like this happen to me on a hike before. It’s not like I’m a beginner for crying out loud! This is my fourth thru-hike. Why am I in so much pain? I’m actually hobbling down the trail like an 80 year old, grimacing and sloppy with my footing since every step is agony. My legs are in excellent shape but the connective tissue is all messed up.At least the scenery is nice. Took the Clack Creek alternate to get up into the mountains and out of the valley. The hike along the Trilobite Range was beautiful and took us past an amphitheater of stone where shouted words echoed back. Wildflowers are blooming in the snow-free pockets of earth where tracks of deer, elk, bear, and what appeared to be mountain lion as well. Seeing a cat track that’s over four inches across makes you feel less like the top of the food chain and more like a mouse. Nice kitty!Limped to Dean Lake, which lies in the shadow of Pentagon Mountain, for a much-anticipated camp. Set up my tarp with a clear view of the east and hope to be warmed by the sun as soon as it crests the horizon. Elk, upset by our intrusion into their lofty alpine bedroom, are snorting their dissatisfaction. The pollen in my sinuses has me snorting back. Ah yes, life on the trail.

  • Starting Location: Lots of tracks
  • Destination: Dean Lake


hiking merrily along

Another beautiful morning on the CDT as the trek continued down Two Medicine River. Last night it got into the 20’s and was still chilly early on, but hiking warms yer blood up pretty fast. Had a break at the boarded up Badger Creek Ranger cabin and opted for the ‘purple’ route and a pleasant crossing of North Badger Creek. Saw a herd of bellowing cows who were so kind as to spray poop all over the trail as they fled in terror. No mere cow feces could spoil such a great day in the mountains, though, and our crew of five merrily walked on. I’ve always wanted to use the word ‘merrily’ to describe myself walking, and now I’ve finally done it.

After cooking supper just shy of Badger Pass my energy was restored, so when the group decided to camp at 7:30 I pushed on solo. The end of the day is my favorite time to walk and since I tend to sleep in late every morning, it’s a chance to cover some miles. Popped in my (somewhat repaired) headphones and sang along to the music which was sure to send any bears bolting away, wishing they could run on two legs so the other two could over their ears. At 9pm I somehow heard a voice over my music and spotted Steady Sr. down just off the trail. Figured my day was over so I camped with him in a nice grassy meadow. Guess I did about 28 miles today and boy do I feel it. My leg muscles aren’t sore, but that damn knee…

  • Starting Location: Two Medicine River
  • Destination: hiking merrily along


Two Medicine River

Off to the post office as soon as they open to mail home the ice axe. Even if it’s only 7.5 ounces, just knowing it’s gone eases the burden of my pack. Toek and I met with Jug and newly named Switch to continue south on the CDT. Prophet had left earlier to get a head start. Oh, and there was another hiker who joined us – Fatboy – one of the many free range town dogs who inhabit East Glacier. He romped along with us as we walked even though we gave him no food. After a few miles we tried to yell at him to go home, but he was stubborn and kept going.

About 8 miles into our warm sunny day, the clouds moved in and started raining on us. The temperature soon dropped and it turned into snow! The combination of soaking wet foliage and frigid temperatures made walking cold and uncomfortable but there was nothing to do but keep moving forward. Bundled up and trudging along I looked up to see a large furry face round the corner of the trail in front of me and stop. A bear! As soon as I said ‘Hey Bear’ it turned tail and bolted away. Even though I never got to see more than its head and shoulders, I’m confident in the shape that it was a grizzly. Fatboy chased it, and we were terrified that would bring the bear back to us.

The sun finally peeked out and the snow stopped and we reached Maria’s Pass as a BNSF train lumbered by. Spotted a few boxcar tags from Whistleblower! There was also a nice continental divide billboard for photos. Ol’ Fatboy the dog was still tagging along and even though it was nice to have him along, nobody cared to share their meager food supplies with this hairy freeloader. Luckily there was a pay phone at the pass, so Jug called the hostel in town and they sent a car to play dogcatcher. The last time the dog was in a car however, it was to be neutered, so he wouldn’t get in. There was a brief chase and he ran away, so we hiked off before he could follow us again and the hostel folks continued trying to lure him into the car. 15 miles on the CDT – not bad for your first day, pooch!

Our troop of five continued on, the trail now a muddy jeep track through the woods. With the weather being so fickle it was an easy decision to take the low route along the Two Medicine River. Ended the day at a large backcountry hunting camp, roughly two hours after we had cooked our dinners. Cooking and then hiking on puts your tempting heated food odors miles away from where you sleep. It’s a safe way to camp in bear country.

Six days of food in my pack to get me to the next re-supply 125 miles away. Even though my knee has me hiking slower than usual it should work out just fine. I’m tempted to hitch into the town of Helena to see a doctor and get an opinion regarding my pain. Unfortunately I can’t afford to wait around town for days to get an appointment, so we’ll see what happens when I get there.

  • Starting Location: A new hiker joins the group
  • Destination: Two Medicine River


Zero day

Zero day! Gotta wait for the post office to open on Monday so today is rest and town food. Got some Ibuprofen for my sore knee and checked email on the computer at the gas station.

  • Starting Location: June 24
  • Destination: Zero day


East Glacier

Leaving Two Medicine campground (and the bear canister) behind, the trial went up onto an exposed ridge with winds that nearly knocked me off my feet. It’s times like this I’m glad to have a large body to weigh me down. A lighter hiker would have been blown right off the mountain! I’ll have to send a thank you letter to the Stone Brewing Company for saving my life.A short 10 miles brought us to East Glacier for a beer on the porch and a meal at the Whistlestop Restaurant. Found the Backpacker’s Inn hostel and got a bunk. I hate paying for lodging, but there aren’t a lot of camping spots in town.

  • Starting Location: June 23
  • Destination: East Glacier


The Divide

Today was the first time we walked on the actual Continental Divide. After trudging through snowfields up Pitamakan Pass, a quick map student showed a CDT alternate, which promised excellent views and possibly dangerous trail. Judging by the lack of snow around the peak of the Mt. Morgan, a decision was made to walk the trail around its summit. This was an excellent choice. The views were incredible and the trail in fantastic condition. We are on the Divide! Strong winds whipped around us as we shouted and snapped photos of the sweeping vistas; words can’t describe the feeling so I won’t even try.From Dawson Pass, the trail took us towards Bighorn Basin and a long snowfield gave Toek and I a chance to do some boot glissading. It’s a way of ‘skiing’ down the mountain on the soles of your shoes, covering ground quickly and having fun as well. At the bottom we had no idea where we were but my fancy GPS showed us right where to go. These gadgets take away from the skill level backcountry users need to develop, but damn if they aren’t convenient. At Two Medicine camp store we ate crappy convenient store food while looking over our photos and video from today’s adventure. After using the restrooms (with flush toilets, don’t ya know) I washed my hands and was startled at the reflection in the mirror. Sunburnt nose, scraggly 5 day beard, filthy shirt; oh yeah, I’m a thru-hiker again.

  • Starting Location: June 22
  • Destination: The Divide