I had the feeling it was going to be an adventure, but than again, whenever my friend Joe is involved, even a drive down a mountain road can turn unpredictable. Heck I have it on good information that Maistoinna, the lovable lummox in Shangri-la Trailer Park, might be influenced by Joe and his exploits. But this story isn’t really about Joe, other than he was there and the hike was his idea. The real star of the story was the hike itself.
From the moment I first stepped into Glacier Park in the late spring of 2000, Rising Wolf Mountain and the trail that circumvents it, the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop, has called out to me. For whatever reason, I have ignored its summons until this year when Joe suggested this hike.
From the moment we agreed to give the hike a stab until the first steps from the trail head my gut was telling me this was going to be one for the ages. Not to disappoint, a half-mile into the nearly twenty mile hike a movement caught my attention.
“Bear,” I called out, breaking the silence. To our left, a black bear was foraging on a bench – the geological term, not a resting place for a tuckus, though I’ve rested mine on this type of bench before. We immediately slammed on the brakes, that’s when I noticed a second bear, a much smaller cinnamon colored cub in the middle of trail. “Second bear, a cub,” I remember commentating.
As far as Mexican Standoff’s go, this one was disappointing, and I wasn’t disappointed that it was disappointing. After a few seconds mama scurried off into the woods, affording us the chance to watch junior stand on his hind legs watching his mother before taking off after her.
It’s too bad I’m not the photographer I used to be, because I may have reached
for my camera. I think years of bear encounters have taught me a thing or two, whatever the excuse, the real reason that there isn’t any pictures is I was too busy reading Mama bear’s body language. We were a few steps away from being in that most ugly of situations – getting between a sow and her cub. Usually such an encounter is the highlight of any hike, this time around it was one of many treats Mother Nature had in store.
Soon we were trudging through sub-alpine meadows climbing towards our first goal – Pitamakan Pass. Little did we know that the breeze would soon morph into the real story of the hike. Was it my imagination or was the wind resisting our every step. As we climbed higher and higher the wind talked a little louder and shoved a little harder.
And then, when my heart rate was about to match the elevation, the wind
stopped. We entered what I dubbed Shangri-La Garden. I felt calm places before but never anything quite like this – the place felt like good medicine. Maybe it’s my age, in as much as such exertions don’t come as easy as they used to and the climb was really kicking my ass. Or maybe it’s because the terrain leveled out a bit and the reprieve was appreciated. It was about this time my mind started thinking woo-woo. I had the idea that when I die, this is where I want some of my ashes spread, which got me thinking about the area, and its significance to the Blackfoot. They call the general area the backbone of the world and the particular region is called Two Medicine and it is the tribe’s holy land. I toyed with the thoughts through the remainder of the climb over the pass into the teeth of the strongest wind I’ve ever experienced.
As we climbed the views got more breathtaking, or maybe it was the wind, whatever it was the hood went on. Suddenly the trail wandered upon a shelf in which a part a Glacier laid beneath us like a map. Beyond an alpine lake which I later learned was Pitamakan Lake rose Medicine Grizzly Peak which loomed over another great hike from my past. If you ever have a chance, hike to Medicine Grizzly Lake and Triple Divide Peak, you won’t be
disappointed. There’s a good chance you could encounter a Griz on that hike. I encountered a Griz on the trail to Medicine Grizzly Lake and since been told the area has the highest concentration of the bear in Glacier.
But I digress, Turning away from the Marmot pictured to the right, the final climb to the Pass stared us down, and the wind was getting crazier. Up here it swirled, blowing hard in one direction, stopping, giving a moment of calm before slamming back in the other direction. Half-way up the final approach it knocked me off my feet. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been knocked over by wind before, I can tell you for me, the experience was humbling.
At the top of the pass, we took a breather, hunkering behind a boulder to hide from the wind. I swallowed hard when I glanced around the boulder. The trail was carved into the side of the mountain, its widest part maybe three feet. I didn’t say it, but I was sure thinking about turning around. Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the wind and onto the Continental Divide. During this segment, I understood, no felt, why airplanes take off and land into the wind. It provides more lift, more control. I wouldn’t have enjoyed this part with the wind at my back. I know this because, a mile or so later, as we turned a corner and rounded the backside Flinsch Peak the wind again shifted and we were met by the swirl.
My hood was flapping so loudly it sounded like helicopter rotors and about
then I realized an arm to my sunglasses was bent by the pounding it was receiving. When we came to a wide shelf, I did an experiment: I threw myself backwards with my arms splayed and I was held upright by the wind. I know if the wind would have suddenly stopped, I would have landed hard on my keister.
As we approached Dawson Pass, I couldn’t watch Joe anymore. It was too frightening. He’s a tall, clumsy guy who was really struggling to maintain his balance. I was convinced the wind was going to knock him off a cliff. Every time he stumbled, I closed my eyes expecting when I opened them he would be gone.
After the hike Joe claimed that prolonged exposure to wind can screw with one’s mind. Of course I poo-pooed the idea, but I can tell you for me it stirred creative thoughts. It was then I went inside my mind and philosophical thoughts about the wind which were inspired by the aforementioned Blackfoot mythology. They went something like this: If this is the backbone of the world, it must mean this is the home of the Gods, and if this is their home they’re dreaming up their intent for everybody – everything. And how is it delivered? By the wind of course. So the wind is blowing so hard because it’s so close to its source. So if you stay up here long enough, you could catch the wisdom of the gods.
I think Joe’s right, prolonged exposure to the wind can fuck with your mind.
Once we dropped off Dawson Pass and dropped back into the treeline, the wind
resided and the sounds of the forest replaced the constant blowing. It was no longer necessary to yell to communicate. It was then the real challenge began. Say what you will, but I much prefer the climb to the descent. I’ll take a racing heart and burning lungs over screaming knees and gimpy ankles that protest every downward step. The next eight miles were bespeckled with great sights, minimum conversation and the knowledge that that was one hell of an experience, worth a day or two in the pain-cage.