Pseudo-backpacking Dawson-Pitamakan (an adventure narrative)

Cities call–I have heard them. But there is no voice in all the world so insistent to me as the wordless call of the Rockies. I shall go back. Those who go once always hope to go back. The lure of the great free spaces is in their blood.  –Mary Robert Rinehart

One thing I was adamant to do in Montana was backpack in Glacier.  When bear sitings and fully booked backcountry sites made this pretty unlikely, we decided to camp at a front country site and blast an entire 19 mile, 3,000+ feet elevation gain hike in one day.  It was a pretty lofty goal, but sheer will and determination made it possible.  This is the story of pseudo-backpacking in Glacier National Park.

I went to Montana mostly because two friends (Josh and Cara moved across the country to work with a YWAM base in Lakeside) had made the move from central Indiana to northwestern Montana and Mackenzie, Sam and I were curious. And we wanted to hike and explore and climb.  Also, it was the opportunity to spend time with some of the best people life has to offer. People that understand life the way that I do.  And that makes me feel not so crazy for a brief moment in time.

After a week of day hiking in Glacier with Sam, the best of day hiking companions, the weekend brought more serious hiking endeavors to be conquered.

Josh, Cara, Mackenzie and I rose early Saturday morning from our campsite at Apgar, though not nearly early enough for our 2 1/2 hour drive through the park and a 19 mile “day” hike. After a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee, we were off twisting along Going to the Sun Road on our way to the Dawson-Pitimakan trailhead at the Two Medicine entrance of Glacier National Park.  I was especially excited because I’d never quite done this type of hiking, so long and so diverse.  I was more than ready for the challenge. But let’s be honest, I’m always ready for a challenge, for pushing myself past what I think I can handle. Tackling a 19 mile hike in a day with significant elevation gain was exactly the kind of adventure I wanted from this trip.

We laced up our hiking boots, adjusted our trekking poles, and filled our packs what would hopefully be enough food and water for the entire trip. The trail started off relatively flat and spirits were high and my nervous excitement to be hiking a “real trail” was almost bursting. We passed through wildflower fields dotted with ruby red and sunny yellow buds, secretly hoping we’d catch sight of a grizzly (from very far away preferably).

The first parts of the trail follow Two Medicine Lake, a 3 mile long lake that butts up against the Two Medicine campground, one of the quietest and most scenic frontcountry campgrounds in the park.  We noticed a difference in the people here, they were hikers, not just tourists. Most of the other parts of the park we visited were overrun with families and people of all ages and sizes.  I still enjoyed every bit of these hikes, but the air here at Two Med was different.  Campers there buzzed about scrambling up Flinsch Peak  (elev. 9,225 ft), near Dawson Pass the day before or their encounters with Grizzlies.  This was real Glacier.

As we continued on, the trail rounded around the base of Rising Wolf Mountain, we saw Dawson Pass, looming far ahead in the distance, and the uphill ascent began.

We passed Upper Two Medicine Lake just as the ascent began, which we could have camped at were it not for an insane amount of bear sitings in the days before.  Beautiful and teal-blue crystal clear, like all of the lakes in Glacier, this lake was a reminder that the mountains aren’t the only thing that Glacier can boast about.

We were about 6 miles in, and the first twinge of pain was beginning to radiate from my feet, but we hadn’t completed even a third of the trail. I was, of course, not pacing myself and if I wasn’t careful, I would be sore and dehydrated. I distracted myself with the scenery that was becoming a new normal in my life.

Stopping at a bend in the trail, we took our first break, Clif Bars and gulps of water all around. We were still mostly excited and the task of having 2/3 of the trail left didn’t faze us, yet. We packed up and continued pushing forward.

Moving along slightly slower than when we started, mostly due to the ascent up to the pass, we passed No Name Lake and its backcountry site and for the first time, I realized that this wasn’t just a hike, it was a backcountry excursion. We were just crazy enough to do it in one day. For portions of this uphill climb, I forgot about my feet and the friends I was with and was actually completely present. Finding moments like this are very rare in my life and my brain, so I did’t let them pass by unnoticed. I am convinced this hike changed my life forever.  Maybe this sounds dramatic and crazy and pathetic, but something inside me felt at peace for the first time in a long time.

Looking back at what got me to this point, my mind swims with memories and feelings that are hard to sort out. Family vacations to the Smoky Mountains, growing up near the Indiana Dunes, having a dad that adventured in the Boundary Waters wilderness, quitting Pharmacy school, moving to Nashville, moving back to Indiana, making friends that shared my passion for adventure, my unending strive toward challenging myself. These things and so much more led to this time in my life.  And from that point on, I looked at all of these memories through a different lens. Maybe I was created to do this forever.

Pausing to glance backwards, I realized the progress we had already made.  We had gained enough elevation that we could see where we had come from, a tiny indented trail snaking through trees.  I could no longer see the campground or Two Medicine Lake, only the mountain pass that loomed above our heads and mountain peaks surrounding us. Also ahead, snow. Yes, mid-July snow. Thankfully this trail was traversed enough that a path was cut out from this snow field. But, at least three feet of snow was packed up along the trail as we trekked through, gaining elevation in each step.

The elevations in Glacier are lower than in places like Colorado.  Glacier peaks are in the 9,000 and 10,000 foot range, where you’ll find 13,000-14,000 foot peaks in other parks of the Rocky Mountain range. But, the starting elevation is much higher in Colorado.  Estes Park sits at around 7,500 feet. The areas surrounding Glacier are at about 3,000, so the mountains look just as high in Montana as they do in Colorado.

The 1 1/2 miles from No Name Lake to Dawson Pass are the steepest, but the closeness of the pass urged me on regardless of my already throbbing feet tightly strapped in my dusty brown Merrell hiking boots. Talking between our group had drastically decreased.  We were spread farther out along the trial and focused on our next pit stop at the top of Dawson Pass. I stopped just shy of the top and waited for my friends, so that we could reach the pass together. A few more steps and we were drilled with whipping wind.  We had arrived at Dawson Pass.

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Trying to convey the scene with words or even a picture seems a pathetic attempt to capture greatness. The wind forced us to layer on fleeces and jackets as we were completely engulfed in mountain views. Directly in front of me was a steep rocky drop into Nyack Valley. Dawson Pass is the lowest point between Mount Helen and Flinsch Peak, at an elevation of 7,600 feet. I was straddling the Continental Divide. Off in the distance to my left is Mount Saint Nicolas, the most technical mountain to climb in the park, with deep gashes cut out of the rock near the peak. In front of me lies lies Mount Stimson and Mount Phillips, and the remains of Lupfer Glacier, which technically isn’t a glacier anymore. As I spin around, I see the trail that brought us up here, Rising Wolf Mountain and Pumpelly Pillar. The wind is fiercely whipping my body as we huddle together to take photos of our accomplishment. We celebrate for a short minute, then retire to a small boulder in the middle of the pass to eat lunch.  This boulder is barely large enough to block the wind from the four bodies that are hidden behind it, but we really had no other choice.

We pulled out our PB&J’s (prime hiking food), trail mix, granola bars and the like, and filled our calorie deprived stomachs. We chattered with renewed excitement. Most of the uphill ascent was over, but less than half the hike had been completed.  Somehow, we didn’t care about this, and I’m glad we weren’t fretting about what was to come. We packed up what we had left, adjusted our boots, clothes, and poles and readied ourselves for the rest of the hike. Then, the trek to Mordor had begun. (I only wish, but this was really the only thing I can liken the next couple of miles hiking to, trekking along a mountain pass).

As we set out from Dawson Pass, our feet traveled on a path about a foot wide.  Flinsch Peak shot up sharply to my right and plunged  below to my left. One foul step on the rock and shale path would mean a very not fun, though I can imagine quite scenic, tumble down to the bottom of the valley. Even though these conditions demanded watching every step my feet would take, I couldn’t manage to stare straight down.  My eyes were drawn every which way, except where they should have been.

Continuing along the Continental Divide, we deviated slightly off the well traveled path and scrambled up an offshoot with a flattened top.  We stood with our feet mere inches from a ghastly fall, feeling on the edge of some kind of mountain world. I felt completely limitless and fearful at the same time. I have yet to replicate that feeling anywhere else.

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As we rounded down off of the Divide, we were faced with a snowfield. It was a very tiny and mild snow field, and also pretty well traversed, but we had to cross snow nonetheless. We had a 3 second lesson on how to attempt a self arrest with our hiking poles, just in case the worst happened. We all crossed safely and I reached for my cell phone to take a photo only to realize that my phone was no where to be found. It could be anywhere, at the bottom of the valley, covered in rock and shale, or it could just be at the top of that flat precipice where we sat for a couple minutes. Thankfully, it was the latter and Josh graciously volunteered to make the 2 mile roundtrip trek back along the path we had just traveled. Of course I would leave my phone sitting on top of a mountain. After the phone was safely in my hands, we continued on towards our next mountain pass.

We came upon Pitamakan Pass fairly quickly. The saddle through the pass was thin, and gave way to mountain and lake views all around. Because it lies along a thin ridge, both sides of the pass and their valleys make for another stunning view that words fail to describe. Leaving there pass, our downhill descent began.

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In front of us was a layered zig zag of switchbacks. In the next mile, we descended close to 1,000 feet. My trekking poles became my knees’ best friend. Each step was lightened with the help of my poles and my eyes could drift upwards to see Oldman Lake dip behind Rising Wolf Mountain. By this time, my legs and feet were finally beginning to realize the torture that I was putting them through. But, I was getting a bit delirious from not eating nearly enough and exerting myself that past 11 miles. Mackenzie and I bounced our craziness off of each other and cancelled out our aching feet with fits of giggling. We were planning how we would use our trekking poles were a bear to attack us, singing about subjects that can’t be remembered, yet still marveling at the environment we found ourselves in.

The next few miles were all jumbled together. We were trying to beat the sunset because, remember, we started later than we planned for doing a 19 mile day hike. I remember passing through a very thick huckleberry patch, half expecting to see a grizzly with every glance. At one point, I remember standing and slowly turning myself about in a circle taking in everything.  Among the short grass and huckleberries, I paused to stare at Pitamakan Pass, now far off in the distance, appalled that I actually crossed a mountain pass. We passed through meadows reminiscent of scenes I’d only seen in my dreams. The terrain quickly changed into thick forest hiking, the smell of pine, a lovely intoxication, my favorite scent in all of the land. We ducked in and out of forests and meadows until finally the campground came into sight. Despite thinking we were almost done, we still had over 2 miles left, which may have very much been the hardest 2 miles. I had seen the end, my mind and body thought I was done, so it stopped pumping adrenaline.  Those last 2 miles felt like 15.

But, alas, the bridge crossing over to the parking lot found our feet. Finally. We were relieved. We had made it well before sunset and all had went as planned. But, at the same time, I was sad that this adventure was over.  I knew I would never experience something exactly like this again with 3 close friends trekking mountain passes, meadows and forests.

After stripping our boots off and letting our feet breathe for the first time all day, we climbed into the car and sped off to find food.  We all wanted one thing, meat. Meat to replenish our bodies and muscles, especially after eating only nuts and oats and fruit all day.

The drive back “home” to Lakeside was one of tired excitement. Conversation was a faint buzz of the leftover adrenaline. It was probably one of the most gratifying times of my life. I wasn’t over thinking anything. I was present. I was there fully experiencing that moment. All of those things are hard for me, yet in that moment, it all came so easily.

My trip to Montana, and specifically this hike changed my life.  That sounds dramatic, but it really was a turning point in the way I view my experiences. I spent a week with some friends who are so close to my heart. I explored the mountains. I hiked 45 miles in one week. I actually relaxed on a vacation. (Yes, despite the 45 miles of hiking…) My pull to the mountains and the outdoors grew and was even more intertwined into my life. I’ve learned to be thankful for the outdoors that’s close by in Nashville, but still long for those white capped peaks every day.

I can’t quite explain it all even 6 months later, but I know I feel different. I’m trying to decipher what this means for the course of my life. I haven’t quite figured anything out yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.

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