I was telling a friend about my frustation that I’ve been here in Montana eight months but haven’t really gotten out and explored much. I knew there was so much to do and see, but where to start? My friend suggested a systematic approach.
“Work your way down the Bitterroot, one canyon at a time,” he said.
The Bitterroots are a range of mountains that are part of the northern Rockies, lying within a Forest Service wilderness area of more than 2,000 square miles, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. If you drive south from Missoula, the Bitterroots are on the right-hand side of the road, and their canyons point at right angles to the road, and most are served by trails. My friend’s suggestion was to get a guidebook and a map, start with the closest canyon, and go from there. If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for a systematic approach, so I immediately cottoned to the idea.
My plan is to make these trips every Sunday, or, failing that, at least once a week. (I’m a freelance writer, I can go any day I want, except for all the work I have to do this month…) Since I’ll just be making day hikes, I won’t be able to penetrate very deeply into the wilderness, but I’ll still be able to see territory unlike anything I could ever have seen back east.
Why just today, for example…
I wanted to get right on this plan, now that I was back from Arizona, so on Saturday I went to a local discount sporting goods store and stocked up on the necessary equipment. (Amy has all of our hiking stuff down in AZ.) I didn’t go too crazy, not that you could tell that from the bill, but I wanted to have at least a minimum level of survival and comfort gear. Just as there is territory here that is unlike anything back east, there are also weather, wildlife, and natural hazards unlike anything back east. I don’t want to be “that guy” on the news: “The hiker, recently arrived in Montana from the East Coast, was utterly unprepared for the conditions he encountered…” I bought a first aid kit, a compact “tube tent” for emergency shelter, water-purification tablets, a good compact flashlight, a compass, a Forest Service map of the area, and Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, by Scott Steinberg, among other odds and ends.
For my first hike, I picked a trail relatively far north (i.e., closer to Missoula) in the wilderness area, along Bass Creek. The Bass Creek trail runs about ten miles in one direction, along the creek, to Bass Lake, supposedly a good trout spot. I knew I probably couldn’t do a twenty-mile round trip in one day, at least not without working up to it, so I decided to walk the first five miles to another trail which cuts over to the smaller Lappi Lake, for a round trip that I estimated at about twelve miles. Though Lappi Lake looked fairly obvious to me on the map, I was excited to read in Steinberg that the lake is “little known.” I had visions of pristine clear water surrounded by mountains and trees, and no one around but me.
I set out from the house around 9 a.m. this morning and was at the Bass Creek trail head, south of Florence, less than half an hour later. I wasted the next half hour tinkering with my pack and trying to decide what I really needed to bring. The first aid and survival items were a given, of course, but did I really need the long underwear, sweater, and roll of duct tape? It was 10 before I finally set out, with a mostly full pack (including – obviously – the duct tape).
As I left the parking lot, I was thrilled to find myself in a cool pine forest with a rushing creek to my left. But – almost immediately – I was surprised to find myself really struggling and out of breath. This might be because I’m not used to walking uphill over uneven terrain with a pack on, or it might be because of the long hours I put in yesterday with a beer in my hand, first at the Garden City Brew Fest and then at a neighbor’s barbecue, or perhaps it was a little of both.
After the first twenty minutes or so, and after shedding some layers, I started to feel better and find my stride. And then, about 40 minutes into the hike, I found… snow. Though snow was almost entirely absent from the wooded areas beside the trails, I began to encounter long stretches of trail covered by 1-3 feet of dirty leftover snow. There was usually a narrow bind of particularly icy snow that, once I got used to the slipperiness, was a fairly solid walking path. But there were frequent less firm patches, and so every 4 or 5 steps I would break through the top of the snow and plunge up to my knee in snow, though this only rarely resulted in snow actually getting inside my boot.
To put it mildly, this took some of the fun out of the hike, not to mention slowing me down considerably. And after the initial hard going, I decided I probably didn’t have enough water along to make such an ambitious strip. I decided to just try to find the beginning of the trail to Lappi Lake and then turn back. But this trail, along with the one I was actually on, proved elusive. Well before I found the turn off, the main trail seemed to me to disappear in a confusing mess of snow patches and fallen trees. Perhaps once the snow melts, it will be easier to find my way, but today I had to give up.
Instead, I took a side trail that eventually led into an open area at the foot of a waterfall. The open area was completely snow covered, and covered as well with little 3-6-inch fragments of pine boughs, still green and strewn everywhere. What few trees were on this open area were saplings, and they were all bent severely toward the ground. Perhaps this was what was left in the aftermath of an avalanche over the winter. I made a strenuous climb up a wooded slope to one side of this open snow field, eventually gaining a rock outcropping overlooking the base of the waterfall, where I had lunch.
The walk back down the trail to the parking lot went faster – it was downhill, for one thing – but I found that my increasing exhaustion made it more and more difficult to recover from my periodic plunges knee deep into the snow. I made it down without injury, though, stopping near the bottom to soak my aching feet in the creek near a disused sluice gate. I was able to keep them in about 10 seconds before the chill turned to pain, and for several minutes afterwards my feet felt as though they were wearing a coat of tingling fur. I dried off on my pants legs and got moving again, emerging into the parking lot a few minutes later.
Back in Missoula, I stopped at the Reserve Street Safeway for some ground turkey so that I could make meatballs with spaghetti tonight. As I made my way up Brooks, a chihuahua came darting across the road, followed by a man on foot. It ended up in a grassy area near me, so I turned in to see if I could help. The man proved to unequal to the dog in a foot chase, though, and the thing wasn’t interested in coming closer to any other strange humans. It headed back toward the road, where more cars slowed and people stepped out to see if they could catch the thing, too, but the one constant in the dog’s behavior was its avoidance of anyone trying to catch it. Up and down the road it ran, causing dozens of cars to stop and drivers further back from the action to honk their horns, wondering what the damn holdup could be.
At first, I wasn’t going to get involved, but it happened that, as I pulled back out into traffic, I was just far enough back from the dog that I ended up following it for a while, and the thrill of the chase gradually overcame me. I followed the thing around for the next half hour, periodically leaving my car to try to catch it, encountering other people doing the same thing. At one point, thinking it might respond to food, I threw some trail mix out in the street, but apparently the dog didn’t like M&Ms and peanuts and left them lie.
Eventually, I teamed up with a man in a Nissan sedan who had the idea of trying to tempt the dog with the pizza he had in his car. We followed the dog down a side street and had it cornered in a fenced grassy area, but the dog managed to get around us and started heading down the street again. Thinking that it must be getting awfully tired by this point, and feeling a little frustrated, I broke into the fiercest sprint I could muster, which unfortunately wasn’t all that fierce, since I was (1) exhausted and (2) wearing heavy hiking boots. The other man was similarly inspired, and there we were, running as fast as we could down a quiet residential street, trying to box in the dog. We came close but it had greater endurance and eventually drew away again. Looking back now, I can’t help but think, if only I’d dived for it. But that kind of second-guessing will make you crazy.
The last I saw the chihuahua, it was running across the field behind Southgate Mall, headed for the train tracks, and there was no quick way to follow it in my car.
I drove home and drank about a gallon of water and then made spaghetti with mushrooms and meatballs.