CDT Montana Day 6: Spotted Bears Only

Today’s miles: 22.8

Miles to date: 117.4

I wake at 3am shivering, and put my puffy jacket on. Three hours later as we start packing up there’s a light sprinkle of rain. I eat carefully in my tent and when the precipitation breaks slightly, I seize the moment and head out. The trail is rolling with some small ascents through a dry burn area, then levels out. I hike completely alone all morning, 10.3 miles without stopping to our lunch spot at Strawberry Creek. Midway through the morning I tire of periodic bear calls and play music from my phone in my shirt pocket. (Typically I would not do this because I want to preserve the silence of the wilderness for others around me, but we have seen no other hikers out here, and we all agree this is a legit way to warn grizzlies of our approach.) As the first lines of Sufjan Stevens’ record play (“Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you”), I hike by a winding creek set just below me, against a forest of blackened trees and a million bright yellow wildflowers that have grown up since the fire — the music and the landscape together move me so deeply and suddenly that tears spring to my eyes. I’m so grateful to experience this.

At the creek I meet Whiz and Foxy, and the guys soon arrive too. I eat, dry my gear in the sun, lie back on my dirty Tyvek for a moment. My feet feel a bit better today and I rub a bit of Aquaphor on them (I carry it in a contact lense case) in hopes it will keep my skin happier with all these water crossings.

Cowboy, DJ, Foxy, and I take off for the junction to the alternate route we begin today, the Spotted Bear alternate. It goes up higher than the formal CDT and so should have better views; it also shaves off several miles from this long section between resupplies. As we begin this alternate, Cowboy declares that he no longer just wants to see a bear, he will now only accept a spotted bear. We hike beautiful trail along the river and reach a locked ranger cabin at Gooseberry Creek just as some rain starts. Perfect timing for a snack break on the porch!

A woman walking two beautiful horses arrives — she’s from Australia and riding the CDT. We chat with her until the rain seems to let up and then immediately have a double creek crossing. The first is relatively shallow, the second is deeper and swifter and requires a steep climb up the opposite bank. After this there are a few blowdowns, and I feel a wave of trepidation. “If there are a lot more blowdowns you guys will need to go ahead,” I announce, “because I don’t want you to have to see me like that.” They laugh, but I’m kind of serious.

Fortunately the trail is pretty clear. We organically spread out and I hike alone again. There’s a big climb up Switchback Pass, and the rain begins again in earnest just as I start. But it keeps me cool as I climb, so I don’t even put on my rain jacket. I feel great on this long climb, like my trail legs are finally coming in. I pass a huge towering waterfall on every other switchback and feel almost joyous in this rain. As the trail levels out briefly, I hear a howl far above me and look up to see DJ waving from the top of the pass. I climb, happy, and the rain stops just as I reach the very top, triumphant.

But hiking feelings are fickle. There are still almost three miles to camp, and it’s mostly uphill through a burn section. It crushes me. My feet suddenly hurt terribly and I have a new blister forming on the ball of my foot that slowly becomes excruciating. There are many freezing stream crossings and I come to appreciate them in a perverse way because my icy numb feet can’t feel pain (or anything) for several steps after each ford. I drag myself the last half mile through sheer will alone. Finally, Dean Lake and camp. Whiz explains that some “camping bros” have taken the meadow with the better tent sites, so we all crowd in together on slopey ground. We are all freezing and exhausted, and my wet feet are really unhappy. But it’s stunningly beautiful up here, the light on the mountains reminiscent of the Sierra Nevada, and I’m enjoying the trail family, and before bed we see a beautiful young elk grazing just across the lake.

Morning wildflowers in the burn as I feel my feels.
More morning beauty.
En route to the Spotted Bear junction.
DJ on the first bit of the Spotted Bear route.
Jodi’s horses at the Gooseberry cabin.
Cowboy on the deeper river crossing.
Climbing views.
In the last miles, through recent burn.
Looking back, almost to camp.
Camp by Dean Lake, with evening light on the mountains.

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