Total Miles: 1193.7
The wind that swirled and shrieked finally died away and morning dawned in our valley of death. The trusty dead trees we’d hung between had been more than stout enough despite their frail outwardly appearance. Most noteworthy was the sudden drop in temperature overnight, as the warm evening morphed into a cold chill during the small hours of the morning.
With only a few spittles of rain, each never lasting more than a few minutes, we set off with as many layers on as we’d had in weeks under skies that seemed uncertain as to their ultimate intent. As we passed through miles more of burn area before finally settling into a rhythm following the banks of Straight Creek, we talked about how we wished that we knew more about burn areas, particularly expansive ones like this—how they started, how old they were, how great their scale. Ask and ye shall receive.
As we exited the Scapegoat Wilderness and reached a trailhead, a signboard stood beside the trail commemorating the Canyon Creek Fire that was responsible for what had at times looked like ground zero of a nuclear detonation. Across the months of summer in 1988, the fire raged throughout the area ultimately burning nearly a quarter million acres of national forest and wilderness land.
The largest fire in Montana state history since 1910, its impact will be seen and felt for decades still to come. While fast growing lodgepole pines have already sprouted to heights of 15 feet in places, others look as though they were burned only last year, the low grasses being all the life the land can yet muster. Even water courses that would have once run freely have since either diverted or dried up entirely. Such is the cycle of forest and fire.
Our last resupply stop in Montana would be our destination for what was only a half day’s worth of hiking, at best. Hard up against the collection of nearby wilderness areas, Benchmark Wilderness Ranch makes for a convenient resupply stop only a few miles off the trail. Along the walk from the trail, an unexpected airstrip is carved clean out of the forest. A product of the Johnson administration, according to one local it was built at the behest of Lady Bird Johnson who so loved the area that she wanted to be able to more easily visit it. Whether that’s true or not, it makes for a good story.
With no electricity and only a handful of rustic cabins scattered across the large property, it’s the kind of place you don’t expect to find much anymore. A slower, more primitive kind of getaway that appeals to those who have an interest in hanging on to the way things once were. Family vacations that were about family, not about screens. Time spent together that didn’t require a distraction to be enjoyable.
It reminded me of my own family’s vacations to Cedar Grove, a vacation spot in northern Ontario with cabins not dissimilar to the one we’d call home for the night. The sound of the wood-framed screen door banging against the trim was identical to the one of my childhood, endlessly dashing out to explore one thing or another. It was like turning back time if only for a few hours.