Total Miles: 1285.0
Late yesterday afternoon while traversing the never-ending burn zone that is northern Montana, a bright sign appeared beside a trail junction. Dated one day before we’d left our last town stop in Lincoln, it detailed the location of a new forest fire burning in the wilderness only a couple of miles due west of the CDT. It also described the resulting closure of the CDT several miles ahead and a nearby trail to use as a detour.
The smell of smoke that lingered in the air late yesterday evening was our first clue that we were getting close to the burn, despite the lack of any discernible smoke in the perfectly blue sky. Not 2 miles into the morning, we’d arrived at the junction where we’d veer from the CDT and begin our detour into the unknown.
It took only the first few hundred yards to realize that no one had been this way in a very long time. It was also Exhibit A in how adept nature is at reclaiming its own when left to its own devices. Overgrown to the point of often completely concealing the trail bed underneath, this detour was proving to make for some slow going. As it turns out, it’s hard to move very quickly when you can’t see your own feet.
Pressing through long stretches where a machete would have been useful, one upside was that what was often completely consuming the trail were thickets of my favorite wild berry: bright red, sweet tart thimbleberries. Pausing every so often to pluck the most ripe ones, we decided that our unexpected detour should at least be known for the tasty rewards that had offset all the bushwhacking. “Thimbleberry Lane” makes it all sound so pleasant in retrospect.
The one thing that’s rapidly driven home whenever you find yourself on a trail that has seen neither frequent use nor maintenance in years is how much a “normal” trail suddenly feels like a superhighway. Cutting our usual pace in half at times—not to mention healthy doses of scrapes from fighting through the overgrowth—the roughly 10 miles between us and reconnecting with the CDT were an exercise in being thankful for that trail. It was also kind of just some good masochistic fun.
When we at last ended the brutality and rejoined the trusty CDT, we’d arrived at a ranger station where we were first surprised to see actual people—a rarity indeed. Three guys from the ranger district were busy wrapping the ranger station in foil, in the event the nearby forest fire came any closer. The danger was still miles away, but considering that it had already swollen from 50 acres to nearly 10 times that in a week on account of the gusty winds, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that the trail and the ranger station cabin could be in harm’s way at some point soon.
As crazy as it sounds, the trick of wrapping the ranger station in tin foil is not a new one. It’s also pretty damn effective. Chatting with one of the rangers on the crew, he mentioned that this very cabin had survived a fire in 2017 that blew directly over the cabin all on account of it being wrapped entirely in foil. After commenting on how much of the last 150 miles of trail have been through burn areas, he frowned and said that of his ranger district—encompassing all of the wilderness areas we’ve recently been through—a full 70% of it is estimated to be burned. Ouch.
Leaving the ranger station behind, we set off down the trail towards a hopscotch of the South Fork Two Medicine River expecting to ford across it numerous times in the next few miles. Before we reached even the first crossing, however, we finally had the sighting I’d been hoping for ever since we entered the Bob Marshall Wilderness: two grizzly bears—a mother and a cub—dashing across the trail and up a nearby slope, hastening to get as far away from us as quickly as possible. In seconds, they were gone.
Inching closer to the spot on the trail where they’d been only moments before, it was clear that we shared at least one thing in common: a taste for thimbleberries. There in a shady bend in the trail, thickets of ripe ones were just waiting to be devoured. As we walked away chatting about how lucky we’d been to see them, I looked down in the sandy gravel of the trail to see several beautifully clear paw prints. Clearly they’re no dummies—after all, why bushwhack when there’s a perfectly good trail right here?
Eight crossings of the crystal clear Two Medicine River later, we sat down to dinner, to dry our wet feet, and to ponder the day ahead tomorrow. In a few short miles, we’d arrive at Marias Pass and the southern boundary of Glacier National Park but with it comes a heap of disappointment that we’d been preparing ourselves for. With the Blackfeet Reservation closing its borders for the remainder of 2020, the US/Canada border being closed through at least late September, and the park itself reducing its services to a fraction of normal in response to Covid-19, the CDT within the park is officially closed. Leaving us with the option of either road walking around the park to the west or returning next year to walk the official trail within the park, we’ve opted for door number two. As sad as that is, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
What does that mean for us? It means that tomorrow will be the end of our trail in Montana having completed all but the miles ahead in Glacier National Park, and that we’ll next head back to West Yellowstone where it all began to continue hiking south through Wyoming. The disappointment of not hiking Glacier this season cuts deeper than the inescapable sense of this hike now taking on the quality of an unfinished symphony.
Well over 20 years ago, on my first trip west of the Mississippi, Glacier was the destination of a trip my Dad and I took together. Like no landscape I’d ever seen or hardly even imagined before, it was a revelation. It was like discovering that the landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt—exaggerated in their scale to overemphasize the glory of the mountain west during Manifest Destiny—weren’t exaggerated after all. It was also the last wilderness adventure we’d ever take together. Being repelled at the park’s boundary in what should be a culmination of sorts instead feels like a memory that was slowly rising to the surface has begun to drift away sinking just out of reach.
That’s the glass half empty side of the story anyway. Want the glass half full side? Waiting for us at the park boundary tomorrow to help soften the blow will be our friends Lynn and Paul and their two boys who just so happen to be vacationing at the park this week. Seeing familiar faces from home feels like just the medicine to wash away our disappointment. That, and tomorrow I turn 40, so I’ve got that going for me….I think.