Revisiting the shadow

Lake McDonald.

Apologies for the dramatic title; and while shadows (for once present, as this weekend is not overcast and rainy) played a prominent role in this latest trip, I am primarily speaking about that concept of the shadow found in one of my favorite poems.

It took far too long, and far too much agony, to decide on a trip this time.  Yes, conditions are making life complex, and most of the trips I had in mind for this time of year are for various reasons not so possible, but I live where I do.  When I lived in Ohio or Iowa such indecision was acceptable; here it is not.  Eventually, and with much, much patience on M’s part, I decided on three days of meanderings on foot and packraft, from Apgar north to the border and back.  No snow, plenty of walking, good training.

Training is of course the main reason for my nervous indecision.  In three weeks and a few hours from right now I’ll be starting the classic, and given the unknowns I’d be foolish if I weren’t worried about the integrity of my preparations.  At the same time, it could be quite the spoiler to let things go adrift at this point, due to fear of failure.  I did come home a day early, but my feet hurt and my at the same time my legs feel fresh, all of which adds up to a good sign.  Not only do I need to be physically strong in three weeks, with enough but too much training between then and now, as well as enough but not too much rest (given how hard some of these trips have been on tendons and ligaments, resting is not the simplest of topics), I need to be mentally prepared.  There will be fear and intimidation, but if I go into the race with the right frame of mind I know things will go well.

Inflating the boat at Apgar on Friday morning.

For me, the rules governing mental reserves are in this respect quite similar to those governing physical ones.  The size of my capacity is built up in a cyclical process which ebbs and flows ever upward, and can be surprisingly dynamic.  Huge gains can be had in a short time if things are properly balanced, and at the same time large holes can with ease be dug if mistakes are made.  In the end that’s why I came home early yesterday; I was only having so much fun, and in this case fun is more relevant than just fun.

Setting off.  Light and cloud were consistently extraordinary for the whole trip.

M and I woke up early and made it to Apgar by 730 Friday morning.  Lower Logging Lake had one spot available at the close of business Thursday, and I didn’t want to get scooped.  Mid-June is the start of tourist backpacking season in Glacier, and the prodigious snowpack is causing many parties to be rerouted into the relatively few spots without snow or problematic creek crossings.  Places like the Quartz Lakes and Belly River area have been busy lately.  I got my permit, and decided that paddling from Apgar to Fish Creek was more stylish than walking, so that’s what I did.  It reinforced, for the first of several times during the trip, that the primary benefit of packrafting in the lower 48 is not efficiency, as too many trails create faster options on foot, but rather being able to see the same areas in dramatically different ways.

Once I found a decent system, I was surprised and pleased to be able to fit three days of gear and the raft and paddle into my new Golite Jam.  Key to this was rolling the boat into a longer, thinner package.  Tarp and bug net go loose in the bottom of the pack, then raft on one side, blue dry sack (with quilt, socks, hats and fleece) and XS thermarest next to it.  Food on top. 

I took out at the ranger boat house, wended my way through the campground, and up the road towards Howe Ridge.

Low altitude beargrass is coming out now.

Howe Ridge proved to be a very enjoyable hike.  The southern third has been cleared this season, but the northern two-thirds has not seen a trail crew in quite some time.  (I believe Sam can tell us more.)  It all burned recently, and the ethereal skeletons-above green-below combined with a quiet and moderately challenging trail finding and footing to give a great experience.  Good training too, crawling over all the deadfall.  Only once did I get further than 10 feet away from the trail, but it required a lot of constant attention to find.

Lower Camas Creek ford.

Hoping back into maintained trail, and seeing people, was a bit jarring.  Glacier, for all it’s popularity, it a very lonely place for 9+ months out of the year.  The lower Camas trail had not been much walked however, due to the very proper warnings about the above ford.  Big cobbles on the bottom, too.  I bushwacked upstream to the base of the lake, inflated the boat, and did a lazy crossing.  I think you could go to the same place and find a place to wade (without swimming, maybe) safely.

Packraft’s eye view.

I hoofed it a few more miles downstream, with only elk and deer tracks along with one set of ranger footprints (gov-issue boots) to keep my company.  Lots of flowers and birds, generally spring turning rapidly to summer looking.  I inflated the boat and jumped back into the creek at the first opportunity, and even though the meandering ways were much slower than walking the trail out, it was worth it.  Flooded willows, open vistas, broods of Canada goslings on the move.  A great easy float.

Moods of road walking.

I still had miles of walking on the closed-to-cars Inside North Fork road, and some trails miles, to go.  It was 1800 by the time I packed up and got going, and the maths did not looks especially favorable  for not walking up the dense brush of Logging Creek at dusk.  Add that to hurting feet, monotonous walking, and mosquitoes and you have a ripe environment for the shadow.  Between the essence and descent indeed.

Over the years I’ve gotten to know Mr. Shadow well, and for me the battle is always to embrace the process without being a defiant slave to it.  In my younger, less-secure days (mostly as a climber) I tended to either give it entirely or do things I didn’t really want to do just to prove to myself that I was free from self-doubt and fear.  Neither is an especially happy path.  so I walked along on Friday night, enjoying the surroundings while at the same time stewing in all the reasons why doing this, then, now was silly.  All a moot point, I needed to make miles, find a place to camp, eat, and sleep.  I hadn’t finished pack until after midnight the previous night and woken early, and the combo was not doing my mood any favors.

I was already resolved to not go up to Logging Creek.  Hiking in that kind of brush, at this time of year and that hour of the day, in Grizz country, it just silly.  This conviction was reinforced when, a half mile before Logging Creek, I heard a vigorous and pine-cone-loosening scramble from one of the Ponderosas off the road.  Too big to be a squirrel, perhaps a martin?  Nope, a black bear cub, recognizable by it’s cute little head sticking out in profile 70 feet up.  Damn it, where’s mom?!

I stopped, started yelling loudly, and put my head on a swivel.  No momma bear.  Hastily, I decided to creep forward and get outta there fast.  Then I noticed mom off in the woods 50 feet away, me exactly between her and baby.  That was stupid.  Never letting her get out of sight, I broke into a swift trot down the road.  She didn’t move a muscle, and I got off lucky.  Black bears aren’t as likely to be aggressive, but she was a big black bear, and I should have backed off a bit or at least waited to see if she appeared.  Of course as M pointed out last night by the time I noticed that cub she could have already been behind me.  That’s the third black bear in 13 months whose presence I’ve only noticed because of the scrambling of cubs climbing a tree.  Something to watch out for.

I should note that this miscalculation didn’t do much to improve my mood.

When I did reach LogginG Creek campground, I found out why the Inside road isn’t yet open.  The campground was entirely flooded by Logging Creek, as was an impressive amount of forest, and 150 meter of road I had to wade through.  Burrrr.  I continued on to Quartz Creek, also closed but not flooded.  The mosquitoes were out in force.  I was glad I brought a bug bivvy, made dinner by the creek to maximize the breeze, and fell asleep quickly.  Birds woke me up at 500, but I had placed my tarp in a shady spot and went back to sleep until 700.

The lower Quartz Lake bridge is quite the engineering feat.

The next morning was very pleasant.  Coffee and junk food for breakfast put me in a good mood, as did the scenic meadows heading up Quartz Creek.  I had one swift, crotch deep ford to do, but the gravel bottom made it pretty casual.  I was tempted to inflate the boat and hop back in at the above bridge, but decided to save that for another day, continue on to Bowman Lake, and head down to Polebridge, calling the trip a day early.  I was expending too much mental energy, and the glimpse I got of the huge North Fork the night before had me not so excited about floating it, as the third day plan was based around.

I should note that I’m quite the control freak, which is why moving water, especially fast moving water, is not my favorite thing.  Mountain biking and skiing only became fun when I developed enough skill in both to have reliable control.  I’m not there yet in a boat, if I can ever be on something like a swift early-summer creek.

The trails of Glacier go on forever.

Once I got within 2 miles of Bowman Lake I began seeing people every 200 meters.  It must be summer.

Can’t have too many Bowman pictures.

Swift-water fears aside, Bowman Creek looked too inviting.  I figured I might be able to float a third of it.  Views from the road and previous experience suggested that once it emerged into a burned area in the lower reaches the wood would make it un-fun and un-safe.

I didn’t make it quite that far.  I had some lovely, clear meanders, then the unvisited lower Bowman Lake (or perhaps Bowman Pond is better), then more nice meanders.  Then the banks steepened I was flying down over waves, dodging tress, and punching a diagonal hole before screaming into an eddy on the wrong side of the creek and pulling out.  A ferry across to the road side of the creek looked no good, with swift water and essentially no eddies.  So unwilling to run the creek at such a level or chance a sketchy ferry I pulled the pack off the boat, broke down and stashed the paddle, and bushwacked upstream to a good crossing.  Packing the boat required putting my headnet on, as did the bushwack to find the road.

Impressive elk shed.

I’m becoming disturbingly familiar with walking the Bowman Lake road.  At least I know the landmarks now, and had boated past the most wooded and thus mosquito-infested stretch.  The only unknown now was whether M had noticed my train of special spot messages (usually meant to denote a camp) and assumed it meant I wanted to return to basecamp (home).

Fortunately, the Polebridge Ranger Station has a pay phone, and I had brought a debit card (to buy snacks at the Polebridge Mercantile).  I quick voicemail insured my rescue, eventually.

I paused on the bridge to watch the river.



Said snacks: coke, beer, brat baked in a pastry (amazing!), Guacamole-bacon pastry (excellent!).

As it turns out M had picked up extra hours at work, so my voicemail was quite necessary.  After some very nice munching, beer drinking, and people and cloud watching from the bench on the store’s porch M called the store, and the gent working fetched me to the phone: I was to be rescued that day.  M arrived, we got dinner in Whitefish, and I slept in our bed last night.

It was yet another excellent trip with a satisfying end.  I think that when I look back on it this spring will be remembered fondly.

5 responses to “Revisiting the shadow”

  1. Barbara Chenault Avatar
    Barbara Chenault

    Seems to me based on my long ago kayaking and whitewater experiences that conditions dictate what you do, not what you had planned to do. So the type of craft in relation to river condition, inc volume of water and degree of drop and debris in water tells you what is doable….just sometime not the message we want to hear. Your grandfather would NEVER fly his Cessna when he did not have a margin of weather above minimums, and he was a skilled pilot. Backing away may have a sense of allowing defeat, as you just might have lucked out and gotten by with it, but that “lucking out” is really about stupidity and arrogance. We are just a dot and can not expect to “out do” the forces of nature, despite our inconvenience.

  2. Another epic Dave. Loved the images.

    No shame in living to fight another day. The mountains will always be there. Waiting.

  3. The Howe Ridge trail was originally cut in purely for fire access and was nearing obliteration after years of neglect. In late summer of 2004 the West side trail crew responsible for the re-construction of the Trail of the Cedars was given a change of pace from the heavy construction work and tasked with clearing Howe Ridge starting at the junction trail to Trout Lake and working Southward. Ironically enough you posed this question to me Dave but I happened to be part of that crew. We were successful in clearing the trail a goodly ways but were not able to connect up to the inside road. I do not believe a crew worked in there during ’05 but more work could have been done previous to the recent fires. I have no information whatsoever as to what has happened after the bad Lake McDonald fires of recent years.

  4. You mentioned something about Howe in an earlier comment Sam. I had a hint.

    There was orange flagging at distant intervals the whole way along the rough section, and the trail status report seems to hint that a crew might be headed back up in late summer. It’s a very nice trail, and given the ease of shuttling would probably get used a fair bit if it didn’t involve so much stick hopping.

  5. […] radio and thinking about the trip report contest, got me thinking that I’ve not fulfilled my commitment to discuss […]

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