I somehow manage to sleep in my lumpy, sloping space because the birds sing and I ‘roll’ over and knock off. But it’s not enough and I’m wasted from yesterday’s jungle gym of tree fall.
I see pink on the mountains from my ridge spot, then throw everything in my pack – delighted my bear hang brought no visitors – and I head off for the alternate. Along the way, I look for any possible camp spots and see nothing, just lumpy ground with overgrown plants.
The trail is clear at the moment, which amazes me. What criterion do they use to clear or not to clear? A deer stands alert at the junction, his fur a deep orange in the morning light. He suddenly leaps away, whit tail flashing. If only I could leap.
I reach the North Fork of the Sun River, rushing, cool and one I will follow but never be this close to again. I spy five bags tied up a dead tree as if the top decoration on a Christmas tree. I wonder if whoever hung these is aware black bears can climb trees, and fast.
I meet one of the owners, Caleb, dressed in pajama bottoms and packing heat. He’s also got a rod and reel and tells me he caught a trout snd cooked it up last night.
He’s here with five friends and tells me they got their asses kicked walking in here – the ascents, the blowdowns, the heat, the bugs. I’m surprised such young men are phased by all this, though they admit big boys do cry.
“You’re alone? How do you cope?!”
I don’t, I tell them, I just keep pushing through. Before I go, Caleb mentions they were quiet for a bit and a bull moose ran across the trail right in front of them. I make a note to keep being loud and making my presence known.
I climb high up above the water on an eroding (slowly) cliff. The views to the mountains are superb. I choose a log to sit on and make breakfast, the ground at my feet filled with wildflowers – and a ground squirrel hole. I enjoy the crashing water, the light breeze, the mountain view and constant peeps of warning.
The trail winds away from the river into a corridor of new growth, perky bright green pines crowding into the full sun. Clouds move in too, giving the burn area a spooky touch. I much prefer cloud cover, since I usually cover every inch of my body in the sun. The air, though, is humid. Rain? I wonder.
The trail veers down to make a cross and I meet a young family from Great Falls on a horse pack adventure. Yes, they really wear jeans, plaid shirts with snaps and ten-gallon hats. They ask me about my hike, the mom interested in the fact that I’m married and out here doing this thing.
Then Brent offers me a ride across the ford. I haven’t been on a horse since I was a teenager! He tells me to simply wear my pack, put my foot in the stirrup and heave myself on behind him.
OK, maybe that was possible a few years ago, but now I’m bionic, also my pack adds 20+ pounds and my legs are destroyed from the blowdowns.
But still, I go for it. Up and over and not quite on…I forget that this is a living animal, moving under me as Brent tries to calm her – and encourage me. I ask the daughter to take my picture and she politely avoids snapping while I’m still in mid-air.
“I can’t quite get up there.” I say, winded and embarrassed.
“You’ve got this!” he says as I give it all I’ve got and fall in behind him, terrified I’ll fall off.
“We’ll both go if you go,” he tells me, meaning what exactly, that I’d pull him off? I am very nervous, grabbing tightly as this huge animal begins to move quickly for the cross. Your body moves up and down and forward with her motion, it’s exhilarating to feel such power.
Brent tells me she senses my nervousness, so I get quiet and just let the ride happen. She is surefooted through the rapids, I can’t imagine how her hooves find purchase, and then, we’re done.
Brent tells me to simply lift my leg and slide off, and somehow that motion is easy after all the huge downed trees I’ve straddled this week. They’re right behind me and I thank them for such a fun diversion. The young girl’s horse trots and she rides with such ease.
They invite me for burritos down a trail four miles ahead, but we soon hit blowdown, which slows things down for everyone. Brent has a saw, and walks his horse with the two pack horses behind. It’s tedious finding a way through the logs, but apparently this alternate is more cared for then the official trail. In fact Brent tells me one section of the CDT will never be cleared and I suspect that’s the first section.
As I wait for them, I look at my Garmin and Richard sent a message that a woman was killed in her tent by a grizzly not too far from here. On dear. Well, I make a lot of noise, eat my food away from camp and keep all odors tied up high. I also have bear spray at the ready, but I guess not much can be done in a surprise attack.
My walk through a burn does bring fallen trees, but also great views into the mountains. Suddenly, I come upon a checked fleece jacket. This must be the wife’s! I throw it over the bag and keep walking.
A shoe! I try to wedge it into my side pocket as I move, and then I find the other shoe. This time I take off my pack and stow it, thinking I’ll carry it to burritos. But then the clothes piles increase – tights, shorts, water shoes, a special spray for horses to keep flies away.
I decide to make a neat pile and tell them where it is when she comes running over. I wonder why she doesn’t ride her horse and she tells me she loves trail running. Passing with a giant armful, she hands me my hat I must have dropped picking up her things! That would have been a disaster to lose.
I sort of hope we’ll share a meal, but the sky is turning black and I hear long rolling thunder. I take the side trail part way and call out, but no one answers. It’s still far to Gates Park, so I continue on as it begins to drizzle.
Rain coat? It’s so hot and I’m so sweaty, I decide to use my umbrella instead as the rain gets heavier. I’m mostly dry as I enter a gate which takes me to an enormous area of grassland surrounded by mountains.
My pants, though are soaked from the vegetation, and my sneakers muddy. All I want now is to get to the cabin where I can sit this out under an awning.
The trail goes on and on and I see no sign of a cabin, just an enormous field and sparse woods, where even here, there’s blowdown to crawl over. Two red headed cranes crackle in the grass.
When I finally reach the cabin – really a group of buildings and cabins – I’m soaked and miserable. No one is here and there’s a covered porch just for me. I strip off wet clothes and hang them, then get water from the spigot, which comes out filled with dirty particles so I filter it.
I’m absolutely exhausted. My body is worn out and all I want to do is sleep. But instead I make food as the sun comes out and the breeze picks up. My things are dryer and I’m in better spirits in this gorgeous place.
I eventually pack up again and head off the last mile to the CDT and a few more to a camp spot. A red hawk shrieks high above, a distinctive sound often used as a sound effect for a bald eagle which has a wimpier call.
I come to a river far below me and work my way down to cross, then right back up into a verdant wood. Am I to finish this day with not a single blowdown? It looks that way as I walk on easy trail in dappled light, mosquitos clinging to my headnet.
The spot is an actual, bonafide site with perfectly flat ground. I set, get water, then eat food out of camp. The mosquitos are blood thirsty, so I wrap my feet in the bug burka while I eat. I have another fallen tree a bit higher than last night’s, but manage to hang my bag in an ideal spot, then turn in at 7 to rest up for tomorrow when I’ll pass the Chinese Wall.
My forest lair is the perfect place to sleep – thrushes singing and the creek a gentle roar.