Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Legends trip to the Bob

Jake backed up against the Rockies.
     Back in mid-July, I was roasting away in another Arkansas summer(the hottest I had ever experienced). I was laid up with a torn up shoulder, and bad motivation with a general feeling of lethargy. This made me dream of a trip to cooler climes and better outdoor conditions.  Summers in the Ozarks bring temperatures of 95F+ daily with night times above 70. Bugs, briars, snakes, poison ivy, heat, and humidity make hiking an endeavor to partake in small doses only.
     So under this shroud of chains, I dreamt of visiting the West. Drier climate and higher elevations. Cool breezes and wider trails with less undergrowth barging in. Being on a budget, I didn't have to think long to decide a course of action. A call to the busiest man I know was in order. I informed Scopa that I wanted to visit him in Montana for at least a long weekend of backpacking. He broke into the talk of an excited teen. "Hell yeah!", said he, "Let's do the Chinese Wall". We each went to work trying to arrange the trip. I was disappointed to find that he wouldn't be able to take leave(he's USAF) until mid-September. Bummer. By then, the southern heat would be dissipating. I mean, that's the beginning of Ozark-ian prime season. Too late. I'd already made up my mind.
     We extended an invitation to the usual suspects, and one bit. Hard. Will had been denied three consecutive leave requests(USAF also, bless them). He was chomping at the bit. We decided on a date, while Scopa, our host came up with three possible trek options. The one thing we knew is that it would be in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and that it would be, to quote Will,"EPIC!" 
      For us Arkansas boys, we had research to do. What would the weather be like? What gear would we need to purchase? Isn't that Grizzly country? That would be my job. My brother Will expects a proper briefing in a proficient, military manner. So I read as much as I could, researched better insulation layers, etc. I read the history of the "Bob", looked up weather averages, and even what kind of conditions were possible if it stormed. I have determined that with trips like these, fun seems to be split into three parts: planning and dreaming, the trip, the stories. Many of you should know what I mean. The planning for this one lasted two full months. The hiking section of the trip would be 5 days. The glory would last forever. At least that's my attitude.
     Will and I flew into Great Falls International airport on Sunday, September 18. Scopa and his family picked us up and we had a joyous reunion. Will and Scopa are childhood best friends and Scopa is like a surrogate brother to me. We went to his house and had to immediately empty our carefully packed backpacks. Everyone likes to show off new gear and be the first guy with a Backcountry Boiler or full side zips on their rain shell. I presented our host with an 11 gram titanium cathole digger. We re-packed and decided on an itinerary.
     The plan was to drive ourselves to the Benchmark trailhead, via the town of Augusta(gravel road through the downtown). Then we would hike northbound on the CDT to Indian Point ranger station(closed for season), on to Larch Hill Pass, before turning off and crossing the Continental Divide. From there, we would hike down the other side, headed south to the White River. Then returning to the CDT via White River Pass, and coming back out of the "Bob" the same way we went in. A 55 mile trip by our estimate.
     Now, a word about the Bob for the un-initiated. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is actually three separate Wilderness areas that adjoin each other. The Scapegoat, Big Bear, and Bob Marshall, combine to form a 1.5 million acre wilderness, adjoining Glacier National Park to the North. No roads, no cell phone towers, and in our case, no hunting. A true wilderness, like Thoreau never even imagined. Home of Grizzly Bear, Cougar, and wolves. Tall mountains, deep valleys, and wide alpine meadows. Aspen, Cottonwood, and more conifers than I could name.
     I won't give you a step by step trip report. I couldn't even if I had used a voice recorder. There was too much to be seen, and scarcely enough time to enjoy it. But I will give you a day to day summary of how the trip went.

Scopa and Will at the trailhead.
Day 1:
      We arrived to the Benchmark trailhead and grabbed our packs. It was 10 A.M., and the sky was a cool crystalline blue that I've only ever seen over the Rockies. It was 50F and breezy. Glorious hiking weather. The CDT is well marked at the TH and the path was wide and firm, though with a slight dampness to the soil. Must have rained the day before for a bit. Scopa and I had included gaiters in our kit, so I was unperturbed. We walked down into the Sun River Wildlife Refuge which envelops most of the ground we would cover on our trip. It was kind of nice to know that the deer, elk, and grouse wouldn't be spooked away from us throughout our adventure. Why go out if you're just terrorizing the wildlife anyway?
South Fork of the Sun River, looking North.
     The first section of the trail isn't even in the Bob. It's several miles of gentle downhill walking across a wide trail before you come to the signage welcoming you and asking for a registration. Shortly after that, we crossed a wide wooden bridge over the South Fork of the Sun River. It appeared to be a great river for kayaking or pack rafting. Clear, fast running, and wide. It may have been a little shallow in places, but appeared to be about knee deep. After the river, we passed through an area that has seem fire in the last several years. Although it's a bit sad to see the standing carcasses of those long, tall pines, it really is beautiful in a way. Just not the type of thing I'm used to seeing.
     The trail is between 5k and 55k for the next 6-8 miles. Mostly gradual ascents and descents, with an occasional steeper section. It was all very well maintained by the forest service and local hiking clubs(I don't know which). Shortly after we crossed the West Fork of the Sun River on another wide wooden bridge(labeled "Pack Bridge" on our map) it began to rain. Gently, but with volume and consistency. The views South became obscured by a hazy cloud. The wind didn't blow, but it cooled dramatically. We ate our lunch standing beneath the cover of a cedar grove. My hands were freezing by the time I finished with my MetRx Big 100 bar. I wanted dry gloves for that evening so kept them in their drysack. Fortunately, my arms are shorter than average so my First Ascent BC200 sleeves would fit over my hands and trekking pole handles. It wasn't bad, but we began to wonder if we were gonna have to pitch camp in the rain that night. 
We got wet, the peaks got snow.
     About mile number 10 was Indian Point ranger station. Scopa let us in on a secret; there's a cabin there, so we could dry out on the porch if we needed to.  So we unanimously agreed to press on, despite the misery inherent with hiking while soaked and cold. To our South, the haze lifted, revealing a new snow line about 500 feet above us. Gorgeous! We arrived at the cabin around 3 P.M.  I stopped just below to refill some water bottles while Scopa basically claimed the porch of the cabin. The rangers were apparently gone for the season. We needed to dry some gear out before looking for a place to camp. As it turned out, we just bivvied right there. The sun had come out and helped to dry us out. I set up a clothesline and Scopa found a good cook area within the horse corral. Shoot, it had solar powered electric fence, and our gamble was that the manure would mask our food scents a bit anyway. We enjoyed our hot food with some coffee and hot lemonade. Then we selected a fire ring and dried our socks a bit before bed.

Day 2:

 We arose by 7 A.M. to a hard frost on our bivvy. It was around 25F. Chilly for us Arkansas boys! We packed up and continued on toward the Chinese Wall. The elevation gain was less gradual now, but not horrible. By 7000 ft, I had a headache and wobbly knees. Well, wobbly calves at least. I really think that I was a bit unprepared for even this elevation. I live at about 1200 ft. Scopa shrugged off my complaint as just being too fat. Maybe. We were looking at the Wall by about 11 A.M. It was astoundingly beautiful. Just imagine a sheer 1000 ft bluff, stretching as far as you can see. 

Navigation, old school style.
Our trail turned to the North and our elevation began to jump up fast as we had to climb up a pass. The rain had turned the trail into mush here. It was pretty tough going for me. The trekking poles really helped since I was taking a step back for every three forward. But the downhill after the pass was even worse. It was like mud skiing, though with large obstacles. That took even more out of me. We continued on though I was becoming more aware by the minute that our goal of Larch Hill Pass that day would be unachievable for me. The other two were beasts. I could sense their disappointment. But I knew that I needed to be reasonable. I've always read that hikers from low altitude should jump no more than 1600 ft between campsites above 5500 ft. The elevation, pace, and sloppy trail were draining my energy. It probably doesn't help that I weigh 215 lbs and hadn't drank enough water. I demanded lots of picture taking stops that day. We decided to camp beneath the Wall, so we waited until we found a good spot about 45 minutes before dark. We were three miles or so short of the pass. I don't remember if we decided then or not, but I had a sinking suspicion that we were going to need an itinerary change. Our mileage for day 3 was kind of a guess anyway, would be the longest of the trip, and now we were going to have a 2.5 mile pass to climb in addition to it.
Will, meet Wall.

     Our camp spot was on a gorgeous stretch of alpine meadow with beginning of a pine forest about 200 yards away. We cooked there and built a fire to dry our socks again. It was cold and would get colder still overnight. The bear line crew spent forever getting a line hung. It seems to be a lot tougher to hang in Griz country, where you need so much more height from the ground. In the absence of hardwood trees, they had to climb pines to get the lateral line high enough. Will and Scopa seemed to delight in both line hanging and fire building. I'm generally too lazy for a fire, and in Arkansas only really need a critter bag. Though we have black bears, it's the raccoons and 'possums that will get your food.
We bedded down for a cold night around 9 P.M.

Chinese Wall, looking North.

Day 3:
     We woke before sunup, and were treated to a glorious sunrise across the mountaintops on the other side of the Sun drainage. It was crisp enough for gloves. Maybe 25 F again. The good thing about the cool temp was that the trail was firmly frozen now. The going was much faster while it was still frozen. We began to grind up the 700 ft. rise to Larch Hill Pass (el. 7780 ft.). We hadn't eaten breakfast and I was feeling extremely nauseated. This is where I really failed my companions. About 550 ft. into the climb, I was heaving. I knew I'd feel better if I vomited, but also that I needed to keep my nutrients and water down. So I begged them to break for breakfast, which was oatmeal. They agreed. I had much difficulty even eating 2 packets of instant oats. My legs were weak and my belly was bubbling. Maybe I just didn't eat enough the previous day, or maybe I was a bit dehydrated, but I really think it was the altitude. Weak, I know. I will say that I almost always get altitude sickness when I snow ski.
Scopa, straddling the Divide.

     My "limitation" brought about the itinerary change. Our new direction would be to stay on that side of the Continental Divide, and hike down into the Sun River drainage, returning to the Pack Bridge after 2 days. Our mileage would supposedly be longer, but the altitude and altitude gains would be negative. So, the guys left me behind to scramble up the pass, while I packed up and started down. within 5 minutes, they yelled out that they had reached the divide. I was filled with regret that I had turned back, but not badly enough to follow them up. I really felt sick. I really have no idea how people tackle 14ers. 
     The trail back took us past our camp from last night, and the trail had softened by then. We hung a hard left onto the Moose Creek trail and began an earnest descent across a seemingly never ending meadow. The trail was much drier because of the morning sun it seemed to get. In many places it was a knee to hip deep rut. after several miles, we came upon wolf tracks. It was the first time I'd ever seen them in person, but were stunningly obvious. It was just a few at first, but then we walked on top of them for the next dozen miles or so. In hindsight, I still cannot believe how active the wolves were. Our habit of yelling ,"Yo... Bear!" likely kept them clear of us that day. We checked the map and decided on an approximate camp area near some water crossings. The rest of our day was downhill, with few rises. We passed through another burnt out area with long, straight tree trunks spread out like "pick em up sticks". The day had
been glorious.

     Our camp area was a meadow split by a large gully. We selected the side closest to running water, while cooking and hanging on the other. While setting up our shelters we found a several day old pile of bear scat. Great. No fire that night. I think we were all tired. We were asleep shortly after 8 P.M. Shortly before I achieved REM, I heard something large just below where I was sleeping. I hollered to the other guys, "did you hear that?". They both told me to go back to sleep. Those mean guys. I read that you should talk to a bear if they come into your camp. I just wanted to be safe, not the official camp weenie. Oh well. I guess I was the weenie. It wasn't the last time that night that I heard the noise, but I never spoke up again. I just shined my light down there until it stopped. It got really cold that night. No
kidding. Probably around 20 F. We all agreed it was the coldest night so far.

Wolf tracks.

Day 4:
     We arose before dawn again. My feet were a bit sore from my new-ish Salomon XA Pro 3D trail runners. No specific painful area, just sore and sensitive. There was heavy frost inside of me and Will's GoLite Shangri La1's. We knocked it off as good as we could before shoving them inside our mesh outer pack pockets. Scopa had water boiled for our oatmeal. We scarfed and ran. Our day would be about 16 miles, so we wanted a good early pace. I loosened up and lead that day. My normal fast pace isn't as fast as Scopa, but it's similar to Will's. We turned South onto the North Fork of the Sun River trail about 9 A.M., then came upon a large stream. It was a wet crossing, but we found a log downstream a bit and gambled. Scopa led, with me and Will following. I lost one of my strap mounted Bolthouse bottles. Normally this could have been a dangerous mistake. With two companions there wouldn't be a water shortage for me though. Besides, we were in a wide river valley, with water
sources abundant. They still got a good laugh at the fat guy though.

     We made good time this morning as the terrain was nearly flat. The forest had thinned out as we approached the West Fork of the Sun again. While we were hiking along and talking about politics or something else we seldom agree on, we heard the loud snapping of cedar branches to our 4 o'clock. I just knew it was going to be a Grizzly. Good thing I was in front of our group! Nope, I was shocked to see a full grown Wolf. No kidding. Big, maybe 120+ lbs. Grayish-tan with a much darker shoulder area and head. He darted towards us from within 30 yards. Then he seemed to notice that we were all armed with two clubs apiece. Seemingly, he thought better of a confrontation and bounded into the thicket. Once we were safe, I scrambled for the camera in my hip pocket, but to no avail. Instead, I got pictures of the brush where he disappeared into. Why couldn't he have just sit and stared at us instead. Nevermind, I didn't really want to get to know him that bad.
     Our luck that morning gave us something to talk about for the rest of the day. Every so often one of us would say,"we saw a wolf!" I still do this every couple of days. It's one of those things I never thought would happen to me. It is very hard to explain. Even after all of the tracks we had seen the previous day, it was(and is) just unbelievable. 
     After a while we stopped for lunch. Will boiled water for Ramen while Scopa laid out his damp fly and bag. I hurried into the bush to make an appointment with a cathole. I found very fresh bear scat of acorns. I mean steaming. The grass was over knee high but had been laid over in several directions by high winds. Not the kind of thing I get to see in Arkansas. With trepidation I finished my business and returned to the guys. 
     We learned something new that day. If you make Ramen and add cool iodine treated water to it, the whole mess turns blue. As in "blue water" blue. Very interesting. It kind of made me wander if that kind of chemical reaction was toxic. Nevermind. It was my brother Will who was eating it, not me.
     The trail skirted the river within a quarter mile for the rest of the day. It was fairly level except where it had to rise as the valley narrowed. It was clear for most of the way except where it entered aspen groves laden with tons of berry laden thorny type bushes. We just called it "bear habitat" and kept moving. I was grateful for my long pants and gaiters there.
     We crossed what seemed like miles of meadows, where the track looked like furrows, sometimes 5-6 lanes wide. The horses are probably the cause of this. It's inexcusable in my opinion to take a thousand lb. animal and create new trail instead of the perfectly good one that is within 3 feet of you. 
     After the first wet crossing of the trip, I noticed pain in one of my Achilles. Maybe it just tightened up in the cold water, but it would give me pain with each step for the remainder of the trip. I also noticed soreness between two of my toes. This turned out to be a spot where sand had entered through the mesh top of my shoe and rubbed my skin raw. Some medical tape solved it easily though. We arrived at Pretty Prairie by about 3 P.M. Of course it took us 25 minutes to cross it! It was likely about 2 miles long. I was walking with a decided limp by now, with an uneven stride caused by my Achilles. We set up camp in some shade along a fast running small creek. The guys scoped out our cook/bear bag area while I claimed my camp spot. Will and I laid out our damp gear in the hot sun while Scopa donned his barefoot runners and took a 4-5 mile jog. That guy irritates me with his youth and stamina. I'd nearly
crippled myself hiking 16 miles that day, and he goes JOGGING!?!?!

Will and Jake, West fork of the Sun, southward.

     We were tired that night so crashed early again, with no fire. It would be our warmest night so far, with a low about 45F. I slept like a stone. 

Day 5:
     We arose and cleared camp by 7 A.M. Nobody felt the need to eat a hot breakfast since we were about 5 miles from our ride out of the wilderness. We selected a track that gave us a more direct withdrawal. No bridge for the Sun River, either. Shoot, we just waded through without removing our shoes. It's generally no fun to hike in shoes when you feel water sloshing around, but it wasn't bad with my Salomons. I considered it a test to see how they'd dry out. They worked fine. Our new goal was brunch in Augusta on the way back to Great Falls. It was all the motivation we needed to knock out the remaining miles. Some folks snapped our pic at the trailhead, and we climbed in Scopa's Jeep. 
     Both Will and Scopa were amazed that the Ziplocs full of Gorp they left in the jeep were apparently pillaged to the last crumb by mice. Somehow, within a fully locked up late model vehicle, the snack food
had fed an entire mouse family for the winter. Ah, the things you see in Montana.

Three members of the Legends Patrol, after wading the river.

    I was exhausted, but content. 61 miles of backcountry fun in less than 96 hours. Fast and light in new surroundings. Good companionship and a wonderful adventure. We were strangely silent on the return trip. Augusta welcomed three weary hikers with a brew and burgers. Strangely, not even a single complaint on our appearance or lack of hygiene. Maybe they've seen it before. Maybe they have low standards. Either way, it was the perfect ending to a perfect trip. The first bacon double cheeseburger and onion rings always are.