Almost eight years ago I made my first visit to Glacier as an adult. M and I were a few weeks into a period of living out of our truck, and made the all day drive from Theodore Roosevelt National Park anticipating the mountains. It was early November, cold and rainy, so we did what most tourists do and wandered around the fringes taking pictures through the fog. At some point we took highway 2 from across the divide, and looking for entertainment stopped at the Bear Creek TH to stretch our legs. Out of curiosity, I wandered across the pack bridge and up the first two switchbacks, peering through the drizzle down the seemingly endless pine hallway which led into the Bob. As the drizzle picked up I retreated back to the car, wondering what I always have since earliest childhood forest explorations: what was around the corner and over the horizon?
Now, finally, I know.
Friday before the start was a rush. Last weekends trip east for my sisters graduation was extended for 36 hours (in Minneapolis) due to tornado-induced flight delays, and everything, including the late drive in to the trailhead, felt cramped. I spend Friday on edge, looking around distant corners for things which might go wrong. All that tension finally melted away when we pitched our tent in the dark Friday night. I slept well. I was where I wanted to be, with nothing left to do but string together all the little things on the journey back north.
We had 11 people at the start, four more than last year. Everyone save Jeff and Casey were back for more, plus Cyrus’ girlfriend Kate, Greg from PA, Andrew and Chris from San Fran, and two guys from Kalispell who showed at the last minute and whose names I didn’t catch. It was cold, but bluebird, which stirred all kinds of optimistic thoughts. Like last year a ranger came to see us off.
I inflated my boat beforehand and carried it down to the Sun, having resolved at the last minute to take the low Sun River to Middle Fork route. Dan and Gedney were heading over White River to the South Fork, and I a bit wistful to miss out on their company. PA Greg was taking the direct line along the base of the Chinese Wall, then over Spotted Bear and Pentagon Passes before a likely mandatory swim across the Middle Fork at Schafer. Everyone else was going my way, though only Cyrus and Kate had boats.
The South Fork of the South Fork of the Sun was cold and splashy, but fast and entertaining boating straight away, and I got a fair bit of sun which made it easy to keep my hands alive. Cyrus and Kate had ran that section the day before, and found a nasty log right across the base of the steepest drop of the section. I pulled over to scout before I saw it, thankfully, as eddying out once committed would have been tough. The ~12 miles of floating down to Sun River Butte took two hours, and the weather just kept getting better. I snuck up on the some elk, spun around a lot to enjoy the scenery, and generally got very excited to be there.
The plan for the rest of the day was simple: walk as far and fast as I cared and see what happened. The huge North Fork Sun valley rolled out a practical infinity of meadows and forests between the mountains. The weather was neither warm nor cool, with a pleasant breeze and high diffuse haze. I was having trouble summoning much urgency, and let my legs tick over on cruise control, taking several scenic detours to investigate the sights.
The Bob has in your face mountains to match just about anywhere else, but they’re far from each other and tend to be hidden by the forests and the general vastness of the terrain. It’s easy to get lost in the concrete particulars and tiny variations in microclimate, which I quite enjoy. Ponderosa parks transition to open spruce and aspen transition to damp, thick, north facing thickets where ice hangs in the air well into the afternoon. Spring, with blinding green grass, flowers, and ungulates still down out of the high country, is a good time to focus on the small stuff.
By early afternoon the haze burnt off and it got hot. Around the same time I came out of the woods into the thoroughly open burn of southern Gates Park. Chasing elk ahead of me on the way towards the ranger station I felt slow and sore of foot, a good reminder that in spite of concerted efforts in training it is still early in the hiking season. I took a nice break in the soft grass by one of the cabins, eating and drinking a lot, and resisting the temptation to take a nap.
In every trip there’s a point where rhythm goes vacant and miles drag. It tends to coincide, not coincidentally, with the zone of 35 to 55 percent done. For my part, the afternoon was hot, the trail littered with deadfall, my feet hurt, the pace was slow, and the maths told me that I was not yet fit enough, or willing to suffer enough, to make it up near Sun River pass for camp. Which in turn made it almost certain that I’d be camping Sunday, and finishing Monday morning. I told myself that this was why I had 2.5 days of food, and to shut up and keep walking.
The deal I had made with myself prior to the start is that I’d hike until 9 or shortly thereafter each night. This time of year, and in the areas I knew I’d be, walking later is too nerve wracking with all the bears out and about. It was a clean and effective cutoff, and once I accepted that I’d get as far as the terrain let me, I was more content with my lot in life. Unexpected obstacles kept cropping up, in the form of the ragging Lick Creek and North Fork Sun confluence. I went through Gates Park because it looked neat, knowing I’d have to deal with that crossing, and thinking that it might be low enough to do on foot. Not only was the N Fork big and rowdy down in the bottom of a 200 foot dirt canyon, even Lick Creek was too big and swift to cross solo. I bushwacked and third-classed some dirt downstream, inflated the boat on an awkward perch, and did a lazy crossing. I do think Lick would have been crossable on logs a ways back up, and the North Fork looked a lot lower the following morning. Right on schedule at 9 I crossed a little clear creek, with a nice bare spot amongst the deadfall up on the other side. Monroe Creek, to be precise. On a less calm evening I’d have worried about camping so close to so many snags, but it was clear that the night was going to be very still and very cold. I pitched the tarp, went down to the creek, cooked dinner, ate a lot quickly, made a hot water bottle, and went to bed.
Sleep came quickly.
It was easy to wake with the sun, at 530, but harder to be excited about getting back up on sore feet in frozen shoes. I gimped down and grabbed my bear bag and some water, and retreated to my sleeping bag to make coffee. Watching the light creep down the western hills got me excited about moving, so I packed up, wedged feet into frozen shoes, and worked out the kinks on the trail.
Sun River pass was fresh country, and proved to be gorgeous small forest which was thankfully at least part unburnt and thus not quite so thick in downed logs. The day was getting warm.
I had crunched numbers of maps before going to sleep, and had a new goal: Spruce Park by 9. There’s a nice little camp on the eastern edge by the river I had in mind. But first things first.
I had determined to have a very conservative floating strategy, and thus skipped the upper section of Bowl Creek, which looked floatable but full of wood. Strawberry Creek, which I had warned the hikers about, proved to be barely knee deep. I took a break at the put in to fuel up and dry everything. The best part of the trip was in store.
No pictured, unfortunately, but perhaps the perfection that was the 20 miles down to Schafer is best left un-photographed. The first time floating a great river can never be repeated, and I made sure to pay attention to all the little things. Fresh bends cutting spruce into the river. Deep holes good for fishing. Rainbowed cobbles. Steep limestone banks. Huge ramparted cliffs hidden up steep drainages. The river was fast enough to be efficient, but not rowdy enough to be worrisome. While packrafting I can give myself over to just looking as I can with no other thing.
In the last few miles I payed attention, finding the place Kevin and I crossed back in 2009, the few places PA Greg could probably ford without swimming, the portage around fresh deadfall ripped out by the recent floods. At my takeout, while eating and letting my gear dry in the sun, I looked downstream and saw a head and tail above the water, 50 feet away. A river otter, and a good omen. I had many miles to go walk until Spruce Park, and almost had the hours to make it happen.
But I could not. The stream crossings were big in the afternoon, Lodgepole was the first all trip where I stopped and made sure everything in my pack was well cinched up. Deadfall was cleared for a ways, but came back soon enough, and together with tired legs slowed me down. When I stopped at the Granite Cabin to put on rain gear, I knew I would have to settle for less distance, which made it easy to stop on the east bank of 25 mile creek. The crossing looked sketchy, and the site was flat and had a big spruce to keep me dry. I built a fire, ate, dried out, and once again easily went to sleep as the creek roared and the rain beat steadily down.
Next morning the creek had gone down a bit, and I was down to four bars and a bit of coffee. Time to move, and finish by noon or bust. I cursed my overly conservative choice to not boat anymore many times, as my feet kept protesting every rocky descent. I probably could have put back in at Lodgepole and floated at least down to Granite without hazard, but the river trail is quite nice, and I was content to finish the journey on my own terms.
I picked up Dan’s tracks at Spruce, confirming my assumption that he would beat me out. The last seven miles dragged, but there was nothing to do but keep walking.
Gedney’s wife Kate was in the parking lot when I made it around 1140, which if nothing else absolved me of having to hitch back home. I was content to brew my last coffee, eat my last food, and fall asleep in the warm sun. Greg rolled in around 130, and we were able to enjoy the magic of the moment, toasting with beers and in no rush to do anything, before packing up and driving in to get pizza in Whitefish. We were hit by a hard rain around Nyack, one more piece of our perfect timing and conditions.
It all seems a bit off, as largely due to the weather the whole trip felt a bit easy. I think that right before I get up and try to walk, and am reminded by stiff calves and sore feet that 96ish miles in 2.3 days is rarely easy. Rather, it was a delightful and almost businesslike trip. I know the Bob, I know the spring, and I know what it will be like. Now it is just the pleasure of filling in gaps and seeing what variations will come to pass this time around.