Six frozen chickens for enlightenment

Almost two full weeks ago now, I rolled out of town in the middle of yet another crystal afternoon, grabbed supplies in West Glacier, and headed over the Continental Divide at cruising speed. Destination, the St. Mary valley.


A headwind out of Browning threatened to kill momentum, but 107.5 KBWG spins some ridiculous dancehall mashups on Friday afternoons; I rode an uptempo wave up and over from Cutbank, and shortly after five I was back in the park, hiding from the wind behind the truck, a circuitous three-hour drive to be 50 snowy miles from where I started.


After consecutive weekends of social trips I wanted quiet, and therefore had to fit 3 days of food and a pile of field gear into my pack. Six fisher bait stations equals six dead chickens, though to be precise Nate had grown tired of butchering birds and instead I had a drybag of venison roasts in my pack. In any case, it was heavy.

The St. Mary winds are legendary, and therefore a bike is a wise investment in winter, save right after a heavy snow.

With a heavy pack, 30 mph headwind, and darkness impending I suffered.  You can’t get aero wearing a 45 liter pack.  At the first extended foray into the trees the snow was unrideable, and I stashed the bike in the woods, resorted gear, and bailed onto the lake to ski the ice, until true darkness and nerves had me back up on the road walking the last stretch of bare pavement into Rising Sun.  I should have pushed through that snowpatch; it was gone two days later.

After Rising Sun the road hugs undulations along the lake, resulting in a random succession of heavily drifted and totally bare spots.  Skis were off and on frequently.  I’d done this stretch before, but in the tunnel of my headlamp the unpredictable surface and massive drifts reduced the uneven world to a claustrophobic halo.


Not that it was possible to get lost skiing on a road, but knowing this fox had gone the same way brought reassurance.  Two and a half full hours after leaving the car I made it to the cabin, unlocked the door, fired up the stove, made soup, and went to sleep.

Tomorrow, with a promising forecast and five station to hit, was a big day.


Very big.


The details are mundane: scooting across the ice early in the morning, bare hands freezing in the wind to take pictures.  A half hour later, sweating up through thick forest to find the trail.  Finding a good rhythm of work, with tools in the out of the pack.  Skiing, skiing, skiing, observing the small wandering of moose in the aimless patterns of winter forage.


Spectacular scenes (Virgina Falls, above; and St. Mary Falls, below) given back their vitality by frozen isolation.


It was a big day because of the 9.5 hours I was away from the cabin, skiing or working on stations with scant breaks for eating and looking.  It was a big day because the upper fingers of the St. Mary River are the quiescent inroads of forests into one of Glacier’s rugged hearts.  If life in human civilization fosters consistent if limited existence by surrounding us with spaces small enough to apprehend, the walls above the Twin Lakes, Gunsight, and Blackfoot basins smash sentience by revealing how small a corner of existence it can grasp.


Winds rip off Mount Jackson.


Same view writ large, from near Mirror Ponds.  The afternoon sun was cooking the snow into an adhesive mess, but by this time my work was done and only the ski back remained.  Regardless of how sticky the re-trail breaking would prove I knew at this point I’d make it back before dark, which is to say, well within the margin of comfort.

In my write up of the Fat Bike Summit a few weeks ago I left out Jay and Tracey Petervary’s excellent Alaska Ultrasport slide show, which they gave Friday evening.  Towards the end, after the expected succession of cold pictures and gear questions, Jay fielded the modern endurance athletes “because it is there” inquiry.  Not why do you do it, our culture can grasp that, but what do you feel like when you are done.  Capitol W wilderness, with all its elegant exposure of human frailty, is not meant to be the norm, but an acceptable vacation only.  Jay  said, with eloquent forcefulness, that he is genuinely sad when he reaches Nome or Mexico after weeks living on the bike, because the journey itself is so enjoyable.  This is of course the crux and indeed the point of adventure outdoors in the modern era; to subsume indigent mores so thoroughly that the privations are embraced fully, and ends are regarded with suspicion.

I’m not there yet.  I was glad to get back to the cabin in time to make a pot of tea and large bowl of pasta, and eat both on the porch as the sun went down.


The wind howled that night.  I woke up sometime well after midnight to the chimney humming harmonics, like an enormous glass bottle.  The next morning I found one of my ski poles in a tree well 50 feet away from the porch, and the drybag containing the lure, which I had hung from a nail, had disappeared.  With only one station left and a simple ski out, I had many cups of coffee outside as morning crept across the valley.  This cabin, perched on a small hill with a subtle yet ideal view, was not one to say an easy goodbye.


The wind and sun had wrought an impressive change on the snow in barely 40 hours.  Yep, those are my tracks.  What had been 8 inches of windpack was turned down to bare ice.  Skis with full edges advised.


Another shot of the most-photographed scene in Glacier.  It looks better frozen.


Even more walking on the way out had me glad to see my bike.  I’m not ready to move out into the wild permanently, but we seem to be on ever easier terms.

4 responses to “Six frozen chickens for enlightenment”

  1. “to subsume indigent mores so thoroughly that the privations are embraced fully, and ends are regarded with suspicion.”

    This line so eloquently captured for me the spirit of backcountry travel and is one of the reasons I’ve come to embrace minimalism in its execution. Outstanding write up.

  2. What Ike said. Really, really enjoyed this.

  3. […] couple years ago I spent a few nights, alone, at the Baring Creek cabin along St. Mary Lake in Glacier National […]

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