Just a few days after I returned from my seven-day backpacking trip through the Wind River Range of Wyoming, I was off on another adventure, this time in the wilderness of Montana. My adventure started with a six-hour road trip to Missoula (my longest solo road trip to date!). I was headed to Liz of Snowqueen and Scout‘s house, where I would meet her and three other women that I met though social media in person for the first time. All five of us would be participating in the first annual Wild Sage Summit, a gathering of influential women of the outdoor industry in the rugged Montana wilderness. We would spend three days backpacking together, and getting to know each other in person. It would be my first time backpacking in a group of all women, and I was excited for it.
We all stayed up past midnight having a packing party, discussing the benefits of lightweight gear, and of carrying less stuff in general to lighten our loads. Alyx of Shoestring Adventures was able to lighten her usual load by ten pounds! Liz showed us a map of our proposed route through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Montana, and gave us a choice: a straightforward out and back trip, or a thru-hike ending at a different trailhead. The one-way trip would allow us to see a lot more scenery, but had a catch – a seemingly small cross-country section where we would need to use our route-finding skills a bit to link one trail to another trail. A guidebook assured us that there would be a reasonably clear trail to follow through the cross-country section, even though it wasn’t on the map (we would later learn that this trail hadn’t been maintained in over a decade). So we of course chose the more challenging trip.
We got off to a leisurely start the next morning, in stark contrast to my usual experience when backpacking with my husband. (He insists that we wake up at 5:00am to get our start bright and early.) I drove the shuttle car to the end trailhead with Jaymie of Mug Life and enjoyed getting to know her better during the drive. This was going to be fun!
Our first day, we hiked about 10 miles with over 3,000 ft of elevation gain over steep, rocky terrain on an unusually warm late-summer day.
During our afternoon snack break, Liz checked our progress on the topo map, and proclaimed, “So we have a little bit of climbing coming up… and then more climbing.” This was the first of many funny moments that made the trip memorable.
And climb we did! Up and up and up until the sun started getting low, and the colors of the landscape lit up with firey reds and yellows.
Finally, we reached our goal – beautiful Bass Lake.
Now we just needed to find a campsite and a place to cook dinner. Tired and hungry, we decided to make a tiny-but-flat campsite work, and cook dinner down on the lake’s beach. The hot day quickly turned cold as the sun set, so we washed up and cooked some hot meals to share. Alyx put a packet of mushroom risotto inside her shirt to help speed up the cooking process and keep her warm, unaware that the ziplock seal hadn’t been closed quite properly. Soon we would all see Alyx standing there bewildered as, to quote Liz, “her mushroom risotto water broke and she birthed our dinner into the world.” Her shirt would have to join our bear hang bags that night.
Back at our tiny campsite, we determined that there was not enough room for our tents to fit. In fact, there was only just enough room for us to line our sleeping pads up side-by-side and “cowgirl camp” under the stars. It was my first time sleeping outdoors without a tent. Far out into the wilderness with no light pollution nearby, we were treated to a dark sky lit up with stars. Even the Milky Way was visible. A nearby colony of pikas called out “ehhh!” every so often, and all seemed otherwise quiet and serene. But I cannot lie – I barely slept that night. Korrin of Wild Wilderness Women was the only one of us lucky enough to sleep like a rock.
Our second day continued along the established trail around Bass Lake, and then turned off towards Bass Pass on a vague-but-discernible trail. With only minor route-finding required, we triumphantly reached Bass Pass.
From Bass Pass, we followed a few cairns down the mountain and into the creek bed below. Then the trail disappeared. But we pulled out the topo map, and pressed on.
At times bits and pieces of the trail would reappear again, assuring us that we were heading the right way. Everyone’s mood remained positive and adventurous.
We bushwhacked through underbrush and rocks, getting scratched and bruised up legs. We hopped across a giant field of boulders, cracking jokes when we found a very randomly placed cairn in this seemingly middle-of-nowhere place. (“Let me mark this! Yeah, I’d take this trail again.”)
But eventually, the trail disappeared, and a wall of seven-foot-tall underbrush stood before us. So we pushed through it.
Up, down, over and through mile after mile of jungle-like forest, five foot tall ferns, creeks and boulders.
Along the way, I found an old, rusty bear spray in the “jungle.” Had someone else really bushwhacked this same way before? And every once in a while, a trail would suddenly reappear, only to lead nowhere in particular, or disappear again. We amused ourselves by playing word games, telling stories, and yelling “HEY BEAR!” to keep the bears away. (Which worked! At one point a startled bear ran crashing through the forest away from us.) And then finally… we made our connection with the Kootenai Creek Trail, just before dark. All in all, we spent about 12 hours backpacking that day, ending the day’s adventure hiking by the light of our headlamps up to a campsite by the Kootenai Lakes. We set up camp (this time in tents), cooked and ate dinner and did our bear hang all by starlight. Alyx proclaimed, “Our motto should be: You can sleep when you’re dead.” And rather than going right to sleep after a long, tough day, we stayed up late talking and laughing about the day’s adventures.
Finally, we all went to sleep. About six hours later, in the pitch darkness, we awoke to the sound of something big crashing through the forest. It was heading right for our camp, and it was making deep, guttural grunting noises. Having worked around bears before at a wildlife sanctuary, I knew that this wasn’t a sound that a bear makes, but it was scary. And it was LOUD… and too close for comfort. I said, “Do you guys hear that?!” and pulled the safety off my bear spray, just in case something was about to attack. We made lots of noise to try to scare it away. It was largely unmoved. It continued to grunt near our camp for a while, and then finally went away. We would later learn that it was bull moose looking for a mate.
After the sun rose, we got to see just what a scenic spot we were camping in. It was nice to spend some time enjoying our beautiful surroundings before getting back on the trail.
Our third and final day was spent on the Kootenai Creek Trail backpacking through beautiful wilderness forest and alongside the crystal clear Kootenai Creek. Despite the blistering heat, some of us opted to wear yoga pants to keep our legs from getting battered any further by the underbrush that creeped into the trail here and here. With thoughts of the ice cold beer that awaited us back at Liz’s house, we backpacked our final miles together.
It was a trip I’ll never forget. We entered the trail as nearly-strangers, and left as friends.