‘Benchmark to East Glacier’
We left Benchmark without a cloud in the sky. It was warm and our packs were heavy with food for the long stretch ahead. We endured the road walk to get back to the CDT and then tromped through the wet, horse-trodden, poopy, mud trail feeling happy that the sun was shining. We made it to the West Fork river before deciding to spend some time basking in the bright light. Some weekend hikers showed up. They said, “ya, it’s supposed to snow tomorrow, but it’ll be nice again the next day.” “Great, just great,” I thought. “That’s the day we reach the Chinese Wall. Oh well, at least it’s sunny now, and good weather will return soon.”
After a good day of walking and basking in the sun we set up camp in the only dry ground area we could find, a well established horse camp. We carried our food over to the fire pit assuming this is where most campers have eaten. I commented on all the bear scratches on the nearby trees. Neon tried to reassure me by saying that he didn’t think they were bear scratches. “Hmm, well I think we should hang our food anyway,” I said. Neon dug through his bag and said, “I don’t know where the bear string is.” And then I recalled the clothesline at Benchmark Ranch. “Um, I think it’s still at the ranch,” I said. I looked again at all the bear scratches on the trees and said, “well, I guess we’re sleeping with our food then.” I collected all the small logs and dead branches I could find and proceeded to build a bear fence around our tent. It started raining, which actually made me feel better since I think heavy rain washes smells from the air.
It was still raining when we woke. We joked about just spending the entire day in the tent since the sun was supposed to come out the next day, but we didn’t. We crawled back into our sleeping bags until it got a little lighter, then put on all our rain gear, packed up, and made our way up the now even muddier, horse-trodden, poopy trail.
Just as we could begin to see the Chinese Wall through the trees it started to snow, but then the sun came out. We climbed and climbed, but could only see parts of the wall through the trees. We finally reached the pass as the clouds rolled in and more snow began to fall. I snapped a few shots and tucked the camera back into my rain jacket. My mood sank a bit more. It felt like I had a split personality today. Singing one minute and pissed off the next minute because today had to be the shitty weather day. This was the first time on this hike when I felt like my camera was getting in the way of enjoying the moment. But the Chinese Wall is a big deal, I thought. I really wanted to get some good photos. I tried to remind myself that expectations were the best way to ruin anything good, but I was still mad, “why today?” I couldn’t help this downward spiral. Maybe I was just cold.
It wasn’t until after the Chinese Wall was well behind us that I was able to let go and enjoy the day. And despite the weather, my mood did improve greatly. I was like Gollum and the Chinese Wall was the ring. I had to be free of it to not be overpowered by it.
We descended down to Spotted Bear Pass. We walked through a recently burned forest. It was beautiful in the misty fog. The orange of the dead needles still attached to the branches was brilliant against the white fog. I was practically tripping over my own feet I was so distracted by the colors. Even the mud wasn’t upsetting me anymore. My mind was lost in this new color palette.
We made it to Spotted Bear Pass and began our descent down to the Spotted Bear River. It started raining again. I was singing. There were huckleberry bushes lining the trail. Beautiful, big, blue, huckleberries. Or perhaps they were blueberries–I’ve never learned the difference. I pulled my cold hand from my mitten and stopped to pick a few. Amazing. The taste of a wild blueberry. I would walk a thousand more miles for you, I thought. I slipped my cold hand back into my mitten and continued walking. We passed dozens of springs seeping fresh water from the hillside making a muddy mess out of the trail. I kept thinking about the blueberries. I stopped occasionally to pick one, leaving my mitten on to keep my hand warmer. We passed by another spring that was overgrown with ferns. I love ferns. That’s the Pacific Northwest girl in me, I thought. I stopped and said hello to the ferns thanking them for gracing my day. I continued on. It was getting colder and wetter now, but I still stopped to pick a blueberry here and there. I really wanted to stop and eat them all, and there were so many, but it was just too cold and it didn’t look like we were going to find a place to camp anytime soon. Big, beautiful, wild, blueberries. I couldn’t believe I was just walking right by all of them. I did want them. I hope they know that I wanted them. Another time, another place, another trail, I thought.
We made it down to the river where we found a dry clearing just big enough for our tent: right in the middle of the trail, next to the river, and next to a tiny established campsite. Great, I thought. Three things I try to avoid in grizzly country: camping near (or in) established sites, camping near water, and of course camping right in the middle of the trail. AND we still had no bear string. But it was late, cold, and this spot was dry. We set up our tent. I gathered all the dead branches and logs I could find and once again built a bear barrier around our tent. It was still raining and I actually slept pretty good.
We woke to wet ground, but no rain. It stayed cloudy for most of the morning, but by late afternoon we had full sun. The afternoon was beautiful. We climbed up Switchback Pass to an amazing view of the Trilobite ridges, up to Dean’s Lake and Pentagon Peak. And then down, down, down over wet, muddy, trail. As we came around a corner we saw a dry clearing at the edge of a cliff. Neon said, “I’m sick of this trail. I’m camping here.” We sat at the edge of the cliff sipping jäger and complaining. After an hour or so all the complaining melted away and I think we had a good evening.
Neon woke in the night to noises. I was too sleepy to acknowledge them. After a few more hours I tossed, turned, and jumped, “What was that? Did you hear that?” Neon said he has been hearing stuff all night and hadn’t slept a wink. We dug out our flashlights and shined them around the tent. “It sounded like something was smacking the tent, like the way a cat will smack at an injured bird,” I said. Neon convinced me that it was probably just a squirrel and I eventually fell back to sleep. We both woke groggy, wishing we had our bear string.
We hiked down into the Flathead Scenic River valley through the cold, frosty, morning. At 11:00 AM all the plants were still covered in frost and the temperature hadn’t risen above 36 deg F. As soon as we crossed the river we were in full sun and it was instantly warm. I stopped and said, “I’m BASKING here!” I fell right to sleep and woke in a daze. “Whoah,” I said, “I needed that!”
We reached the Gooseberry Guard Station. “Hey, let’s see if the ranger has some bear string,” I said. No one was there. Neon laughed and said, “man, that’s like the unwelcome mat.” In front of the door was a board with hundreds of nails sticking up from it. “I guess it’s to keep bears away from the door. Hey, I think this is for us,” I said. There was a mess of string hanging from the rafters on the porch, which I promptly grabbed and stuffed into my pack. “Woohoo, we’re saved!” I exclaimed. We walked on through the sunshine, an extensive burned area, and across many creeks to an open meadow where we camped. I built my best bear barrier yet, AND we hung our food. We slept great! Happy sleeping as we listened to the wolves howl all night long.
Another day of walking through the mud, in the trees, with the sunshine and we made it to the Two Medicine Trail. We were within cell signal of East Glacier. We sat by a clearing with a sunset view of a pretty mountain, sipped jäger, and complained some more. We’re getting really good at this complaining stuff, I thought. Ah, but we’re tired. It’s been a long haul and our reserves are long gone. It’s only the idea keeping us going now, though perhaps it was only ever the idea. It’s tough to say why, what’s real, why one day is good, or another bad. But to taste a wild blueberry is worth a thousand miles, I thought. This I know…