With permits and a shortish day, there was no reason to rush in the morning. The night before, we sat out on the picnic table at Brownie’s Hostel in East Glacier drinking spiked seltzer and eating Cheezits, the nearly full moon rising through a smattering of clouds.
Sleep was good, finally. Nothing more to panic over, my pack is filled and we’re off. A last minute request comes in from home and there’s still the rooms to sort out when we return in eight days, but mostly it’s a morning of eating far too much, piling packs and ourselves in the car and driving up to the border.
We’ve already gotten silly around each other, comfortable just being ourselves, but now we’re quiet as the nervous energy builds. The road is superb, winding high with views straight into the colossal mountains – jagged, sharp with a peculiar shape that sweeps up around the lakes, entire flanks striated and uplifted and diagonal angles.
The day is cool and gray and rain spatters the windshield. I ask Austin if I should close my window and he says, “Nah, we’ll be in it soon.”
Massive rivers flow out of the park towards the rolling plains. Saint Mary is full of Western shops and horseback riding outfits. Richard plans to return for his own Glacier adventure, but now we’re focused, pushing further north. Stunted and gnarly aspen trees with thick trunks line the roadway.
The rain gets heavier and Richard has to turn on the wipers. I ask him if we’ll get storms and he tells me at 1:00 but no lightning expected. The border is closed still and we see very few cars. Richard uses the shift to control his speed and bumps us over a few slumping areas. I open an entire bag of tangerines and share them with the car.
At the border, we unpack our backpacks and Austin and I past the gated road to the concrete monument. Just as we turn around to encourage the others to join us, a patrolmen drives up. He tells us we tripped the camera and asks us how many long trails we’ve done so far. We’d heard that the border patrol had gotten a bit aggressive and disallowed photos, but this one encourages a shot before we start. We strike a serious pose, then a silly one before walking to the trailhead. I kiss Richard goodbye until we see each other in Colorado and we’re off.
The trail cuts down through thick forest, a veery two-tone twittering, wild roses and Indian paintbrush in orange, pinks and yellows brushing our shins. The mud is slippery and I take my time moving mostly down as we head towards the Belly River.
The mountains are hidden in low mist, only ghostly silhouettes appearing here and there. We sing, everyone adding a bit of their own version of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” which I sent them as we planned. “Those bears are going to avoid us now,” Emily chimes in. Mostly because we sound so awful.
The plants are damp and my lower pant legs get wet. Oceana needs to stop to heed nature’s call, so we split into twos. A very good plan to head out as four it turns out. We don’t talk so much as sing and call out to the bears we know are somewhere around a bend or hidden in the high plants. “Hey bear! We’re in your area, your ‘bearea!’ The bearea barrio!”
No bears find us and we slip and slide along, but more hikers do, many asking if we’re doing the CDT. “Yes!…trying to!” We’re grateful for the cool air out of direct sun, but just as Richard said, the rain arrives at 1:00; heavy, continuous rain.
At first I try attaching the umbrella to my pack. It keeps the rain off, but I must be doing something wrong because it comes so close over my head, I can only see about three feet ahead of my step.
Well that’s not going to work. I pull out my rain coat, getting pretty damp as I slip it on and return the umbrella to its spot on the side of my pack. I don’t mind walking in rain and the temperature is pretty nice, but the trail soon fills with water and, in my haste, I neglect to put on my rain pants.
I get wetter and wetter, soaked to the skin. Unwise and dangerous really, so we just keep moving, fast and deliberate, continually calling out for bears even as we wonder if they wisely nestle down somewhere dry when it rains.
The sky rumbles and we both wonder if it’s thunder. Not expected, but that definitely isn’t a plane engine. The claps gets louder and closer, echoing down the valleys. Drama on day 1, the CDT gods asking us if this is how we really want to spend our time.
I see a flash of bright light. One-two-kaboom! It sounds like it’s in the clouds, but we’re exposed in a meadow. It is a lovely meadow, electric green and filled with flowers. “Thunder bear!” Oceana yells out just as another flash brings on more echoing thunder.
We keep moving, hitting the turn off trail towards our first campsite. It’s actually part of the PNT, the Pacific Northwest Trail and heads up steeply. My breathing is ok, but my bear bag is stuffed with eight days food and I’m not fast. Oceana is close behind and build my confidence when she tells me we’ll have 3,000 feet to climb the day after tomorrow and will I stay with her?
On a ridge, we spy our first bear grass, voluminous cream-colored flowers with erotic nipple pointing up. More flowers, more yelling out to let the bears coming and an increasingly loud crashing sound of a waterfall.
Our thunder has stopped and so has the rain except for a few drops. A sign leads us to Gros Ventre Falls but tells us not to leave packs unattended. We head straight down and meet the others at a thick, overflowing cataract falling into an unearthly blue pool.
I break open the avocado I carried out, the others laughing at my story on the PCT when a young and fast walker emerged from the forest at a stunning view and handed me an avocado, as if he’d brought it with him simply for this purpose.
I’m wet and cold, so we press on to camp, our sight abutting a large oval of lake next to a gigantic buttress of rock. All things have to be taken care of correctly, so we tie our Ursacks to the bear pole before setting tents 50 yards away in an established site. We have our own beach of tiny, flat, multi-colored shale.
Once I change into dry clothes, I’m warm. The others arrive and we set tents, hang our clothes on a bush, then return to the eating area of logs and stumps for dinner. I make my first cold soak – a delicious Pad Thai with peanut butter and spices. It’s a perfect little group, not at all as I anticipated. I love to be alone, but I truly enjoy them, individuals with strong personalities, all ‘solo backpacking’ so enjoying and helping one another, but not reliant or demanding.
When we finish, I show the girls how to make a bowline on their bags and throw the rock bag over the bar to set the rope and hang their bags. Using a stick to hold the bag in place (as I demonstrated in a video) is near impossible considering the weight on day 1, so we just tie off the lines and hope the local bears don’t know how to cut a line.
Bit by bit, the clouds clear and the mist covering the rock face across the lake breaks into small puffs. We skip stones, then toss them in on their heads to make a ‘plook’ sound. Quiet and satisfied, a massive falls across the lake and veeries are all that one can hear.