Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

August 19, 2013

NOLS Backpacking Expedition, Beartooth Wilderness, Montana (Part II)

Right, so where was I?  Oh, that's right, we were in the land of no mosquitoes, otherwise known as Sky Top Lakes in the Beartooth Wilderness of Montana.  Otherwise known as the group's most favorite place to camp, for many more reasons than the absence of biting bugs.  But all good things must come to an end, and after a night there we moved on.

The lakes were located in a deep cirque, so the only way out was over a high ridge, where lakes still looked mostly like frozen glaciers even in late July.   We had a giddy moment all sliding down snowfields to practice self-arrest moves.  Which morphed into who could go the furthest down the snow while sliding on their stomach.  A few of the guys had fairly impressive slides on the bumpy snow while pretending it didn't hurt, especially while wearing a heavy pack!

The clouds moved in, and we moved on, for awaiting us was a steep descent down to Cairn Lake, looking moody in the gathering grey skies.  Two teams went north around the lake and found a campsite...the third team attempted a southern traverse and got stopped by a cliff dropping into the water and had to turn back.  Back luck for them from our distant view across the lake.  Meanwhile, it started raining us as we trudged over steep boulders and scree to find a campsite.    We rushed into camp and set up the tents, getting in fully dressed to warm up and dry off.  And to help the tents further on their way toward smelling like a wet dog.

We soon had hot water brewing for the straggling team, but were dismayed to see only two members show up.  They calmly told us the news that Kate had slipped on the wet rocks and bashed her knee.  a rescue party ensued with enough people to carry the packs, and carry her...if it came to that.  But by the time we got ourselves organized she had walked with her remaining team members almost all the way to  camp!  What a trooper.  The gash on her knee, once we had a chance to look at it, obviously needed stitches.  Which would mean her backcountry experience was over.   Kate was adamant she wanted to stay out with the group, so instead the instructor team taped up the would as best they could and agreed to see if she could hike on it the next morning.  Cue more rain and we all went to bed.

After the tough terrain recently, we were dreading another hard day, but instead found a relatively pleasant hike down a glacial valley along a waterfall-river.   With a random dead moose floating in the water.  Hmmm.   Ryan taught us to eat bluebell flowers for some fresh food, as they were everywhere.  Tasted like fresh green beans, yum.   Kate babied her knee and motored along without complaining about the pain.  We were all pretty happy to reach a trail, though...the first we had seen since the first day of hiking.   It was then a quick scoot over to Fossil Lake, the lake with more islands than we could count.  We found a great spot to camp where we had a layover day, resting tired muscles and learning more skills useful in the backcountry.

A few of us woke up early for a morning assault on Mt. Dewey and Rosebud, the peaks leaning over us to the East.   Aside from a really steep scree field, which required careful clambering to avoid shooting rocks on top of the people below, the peaks were fairly close.  I think we were resting on the summit by 8 am in weak sunshine. From there we could see yesterday's hiking route and the whole range laid out in miniature.   It was easy to spend an hour up there, and then we reluctantly descended, picking up Rosebud summit as well for alternate way down.

More trail hiking ensued the next day, getting us most of the way to Twin Island Lake, where we discovered: 1.  The water was really warm; 2. It was shallow enough we could WADE out to the islands from the shore; and 3. There were no mosquitoes on the islands.   Yah, back in the land of critters with a move to lower altitudes.  About six of us eventually waded/swam out to the island to soak in the sun in peace.  That evening we had a group pot-luck to use up the rest of our food as our resupply was coming the next day.  Odds had it, every tent group had ended up with uneaten quinoa, so we ate quinoa in as many ways as we could think to prepare it.  All were good...although everything in the backcountry tastes good so I'm not sure if that counts.

Down to Russell Lake in the morning, more trail so the easy hiking continued.  We found a very cramped place to stay tucked in the trees, set up the tents and went to meet the resupply.  Which was a mule train loaded with lots of bags of food for 15 people for another 7 days.   Rachel met up with a college friend working for the ranch, and we were all happy to get our special bags as well, which we had stuffed with a little chocolate or other snacks.  Or in my case, apples and a garlic clove!

Heavily loaded with food again, we were climbing back to higher altitudes.  Oh, goody.  We were clearly camped by a small trail along a rushing river, but it wasn't on the map and we weren't sure if it led anywhere, although the lake we wanted to get to was at the top of the same drainage.   There was a trail up a steep cliff a ways down Russell Lake, so instead of trusting the land, we went to the map.  And spent a torturous day climbing straight up the rocks (it seemed) and finding lots of dead ends over cliffs that required us to reroute.  Again.  Or perhaps I was just having my toughest day of the trip...I felt really weak and was probably carrying my heaviest pack of the whole 3 weeks.  Made worse by the fact that at the top near the next lake, we clearly found the trail that we should have hiking on the whole way up.  It was still only 1 1/2 miles of hiking...but when we got into camp I sort of sagged in a heap and hoped my new cook group would figure out dinner.   They did.  A bit of food, water and sleep always works wonders.   And another layover day to eat up some of that heavy food.  More classes.  We're starting to get the hang of this backcountry stuff now.  We can even bake, and splint imaginary broken bones.  Some brilliant sunsets, too, and a full moon.

It's now time for the students to take the lead with route selection and daily navigation.  The I team will hike behind us and get some time off of teaching for a couple of days.  We choose a path that takes us back over 10,000 feet for a few days to get rid of bugs.  It works, but our navigation needs some work. One team mindlessly hikes along Otter Lake for a long ways in the wrong direction.  My group completely overshoots our meeting point and we circumnavigate a pointless lake while narrowing missing losing our lone map, after forgetting to commandeer a compass while packing up that morning. The terrain is tough, and amid boulder fields on a long hiking day we see absolutely no places to camp, and are forced to go further along.  Finally, a green spot of grass between Gravel and Till lakes, we're saved.  Everyone is exhausted after a long hot day.  But the sleeping is ideal and from our high breakfast kitchen area the next morning, views are fantastic.

Student leadership continues and I take the helm for the day, for a relatively easy nav leg over to Maryott Lake.   A lot of down and up but walking on grass rather than boulders is fantastic.  At the outlet of the lake, Andrew catches the biggest fish of the trip...with his hands.  We thought it was just a dumb fish stuck in the shallows.  It becomes dinner.  Later we realize that it's spawning season.  There is roe everywhere.  Thankfully no bears..

....continued in Part III...

NOLS Backpacking: Part 1

NOLS Backpacking: Part 2

NOLS Backpacking: Part 3

A Backpacking Poem

NOLS: The Crew

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