Part 1: Preparation
The last time I visited Yellowstone was over 15 years ago. I was 15, and as my parents liked to do during the summers, they loaded me, my sister, and brother in a van, and we drove there from Missouri on a big road trip. I regret to say I don’t remember a whole lot from the trip, but I have always retained the general impression. I enjoyed myself, and like many of the other places we went, I always imagined going back.
The opportunity would finally open up over the holidays--something that occurred to me a week prior to them. My daughter, M----, would be with her mom visiting family in another state, and I would remain separated from the rest of mine because of Covid. Yes, I would much rather have spent the time with them, but such as the situation was, I was not going to sit around feeling sorry for myself. I quickly began making preparations.
First thing, I Googled where in the park had all-season camping, and Mammoth being thus identified, I bundled up M---- and made a trip to REI for a map so I could explore that surrounding area. Currently I am a wildland firefighter, and after putting in a year’s worth of work in half that time during the summer, I enjoy the winter off season watching her during the day while her mother works. I think, too, she gets something of a kick from watching me, especially while in the excited state of planning a modest expedition.
She rides with me in the passenger seat of my Ford Ranger.
“You know what I need M----?” I asked. “M----! M----! Do you know what I need?”
“I need those cold-weather leather Carhartt gloves from ACE and a metal pail! Do you think we can go to ACE after REI?”
*More incoherent talk
“M----, what’s your name?”
“TWO!” she says.
“M-----, that’s your age! What’s your name?”
She continued repeating “two” with a huge grin on her face and an attitude that I found amusing. She knew what she was doing, but I knew she should be able to say her name at that point, as well as string together a few more words in sentences than I thought she was then doing. It’s nothing I am at all worried about, but I continue to work with her on it with flash cards, identifying common items, and narrating my actions. Oh, and of course, by reading.
We didn’t end up going to ACE, anyway. We went to the park. There are only so many errands a kid is capable of handling at two--on top of the holiday shopping ones she’d already been through-- and there was one last errand I wanted to do the next day. We were going to gather firewood. As I watched her trot her toy horse across puddles and patches of snow, I contemplated where we would go. Then I started growling at her, and we played chase.
Concluding on where to go for the firewood was not difficult--the Lolo National Forest, which is where my current fire crew, The Lolo Hotshots, are assigned. So, having spent a little time there last season doing training and prepping a burn unit, I know it alright. M and I started the drive south through the town of Lolo, where I noticed a trailer of pre-cut wood at an antique store. Hmmm, I thought, that’s a nice hefty-looking pile--more than I’d ever be able to collect with my hand saw and axe. But I wanted to get M out into the woods, where she could develop muscle toddling over uneven terrain and picking up fallen limbs, and so we continued until a heavy wet snow started to fall, and I came to the realization that the next turn I’d want to take was a little further than I remembered. She was starting to squirm.
“Hey, M” I said, “How about we go and get some hot chicken tenders from the store and then check out that trailer of wood? ...would you like that? Chicken.”
Now there was a word she understood, and her face lit up, and we did a U-turn to get some hot chicken tenders, which we both devoured greedily in my truck cab before pulling into the antique store parking lot.
There was the wood--Doug Fir, which I identified by the bacon-striated bark--and there was also a number, which I called. “$85 dollars,” the man said. “I could pay the man inside the store.” I walked into the overcrowded antique store and payed the maskless old-timer, who probably regarded me as some Missoula lefty, being I did have a mask on, and M and I made our way to the trailer, out of which I started throwing in rounds and halves as fast as I could into the covered bed of my truck. Snow still fell all around.
M stayed with me that night. We watched Polar Express, and the next morning I dropped her off at her mom's, ruffling her hair, saying goodbye and wishing them both safe travels. I still had a lot to do before leaving early the next morning, first being to unload the fire wood, stack it on a rack, which I made, then split it into quarters, and tie several bundles together that I would take with me. I accomplished all of this, and as a result, I now have a beautiful stack in my backyard where there wasn’t one before.
The stack is a good excuse to have many more fires, both in the woods camping and in the backyard chiminea with friends and family or just myself on lonesome, wintry nights and no more pay 6 dollars for every measly bundle, or even more, what it would have cost me to buy a chainsaw at this point and to pay the the gas for it and my truck to collect the equivalent. It would have been nice to cut, but I guess you could still say I am proud of making the purchase.
The second major item on the list was to refashion the top of my stove pipe so it wouldn’t risk torching the canvas and wooden poles of my tipi if it made contact with them for too long. This is a concern I expressed on the BushcraftUSA forum where I occasionally post. And though I didn’t then have a solution a gentleman with the tag @rbinhood made the suggestion that I:
“Get a section of stove pipe one size bigger than where your pipe contacts the tent. Slide it over your pipe and run sheet metal screws through the outer pipe so the tips touch the inner stove pipe. Tighten the screws enough so the inner pipe doesn't slide out, and is evenly suspended all around. You now have a double wall pipe where it contacts the tipi wall, with air space between the two pipes, so the outer pipe stays relatively cool”
Brilliant! But I didn’t have a larger section of stove pipe, so instead I used a roll of plate steel, and it seemed to have done the trick because I didn’t go up in flames.
Additionally, this same gentleman remarked on the mildew staining around the base of the tipi-- a result of me leaving it up in the fall when damp leaves fell all around it--and while I had previously tried scrubbing it, he also suggested that I try oxyclean. So I tried Oxyclean, soaking it in my bathtub a whole day, then taking it to a laundry mat to dry it in a big dryer. Some of the mildew and staining did come out, but a lot of it remains, which if Borax won’t work to further remove, will forever be a mark of my neglect and source of frustration. The tipi was relatively expensive, it cost me several overtime days on fires, and there’s always the chance, since the producer is a small business, that I couldn’t get another in the future. Lesson learned: take care of your gear!
All said, I accomplished everything I needed to and went to bed buzzing with wine, ready to pack and hit the road the next day with enough time to set up camp in beautiful Yellowstone.
Part 2: Yellowstone
I pulled into Mammoth campground inside Yellowstone just around 3:00 pm. That gave me about an hour and a half to set up camp before sundown. Plenty of time. The temperature hovered around 20, where it would remain most the days while I was there. I quickly unloaded everything from my truck, then started a fire. I’ve made this the first priority during cold weather camping, because it gives me something to return to for warmth.
Following the fire, is the shelter. I had mentioned I struggled with setting up the lavvu before, and, in addition to the metal pail and Carharrt gloves, which I did indeed up end buying at ACE, I also bought a stool there to make the process easier. I shoveled away snow on the platform at the campsite and leaned all the poles against each other, oriented my wood burning stove in the center and used the stool to secure the canvas to the top post. After that, I wrapped it all the way around and secured it on the inside, tying the top laces together at the top to give me a smaller opening for the door to fit into more tightly. I wanted to prevent as much heat from escaping as possible. It looked great out there against the backdrop of snow covered mountains, sage, and pine, exactly as it should be. I unfurled my sleeping roll inside, and feeling satisfied that I was fixed to the place--no amount of cold would drive me away--I returned to my fire.
I brought a thick ribeye to celebrate my first night there, and as I started cooking it on a cast iron pan over a Coleman burner, a fellow walked over who’d I’d learn was named Tex from Idaho. He informed me that he’d been at the campsite over a month, and he looked it. From under his Wiggy’s coat hood and out of the sides of a balaclava, long grey hair tufted from head and beard. He examined my lavvu through spectacles and informed me he’d been sleeping in a tent--which was no problem according to his cold weather philosophy. According to him, staying warm was all a matter of metabolism--the body generating its own heat inside a sleeping bag, and although he thought a wood burning stove inside a shelter seemed nice, I wouldn’t expect him to ever seek one out for his own use. As is the way of wily old-timers, he’d perfected a method that had worked for many years--perfect or not. I enjoyed chatting with him, while at the same time balancing fire and food, finally saying goodbye as I threw a rich piece of melting steak fat into my mouth.
The sun had, by this point, settled beneath the mountains an hour or so, and I figured I better get the wood burning stove going. I took one of the pre-tied bundles with me to the lavvu, lit a cardboard roll covered in wax to start the fire, placed a few quarters in, and stoked it nice and hot. I then set a pot of water on top of the stove to boil water for my sleeping bag and to keep it from freezing. The rest of the water I dumped into the metal pail in case I needed to heat if it froze over later. That was the whole idea of the pail--to practice self-sufficiency if there wasn’t a water spigot, but of course there was, at least at this campground, so the idea wasn’t really necessary.
I let the fire warm for a while, while I enjoyed the stars outside. Around 8, I retired into a shelter, that even at around 10 degrees, I didn’t need any layers on to enjoy. I leaned into my Crazy Creek camp chair, read another section of White Fang, happy to be again living out some Jack London fantasy, and right before I fell asleep, I noticed the moon directly above the top opening of the lavvu. A sign of something perhaps. Maybe that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Periodically throughout the night--almost every two hours-- I woke up to add more wood to fire right before it died completely. Consequently, or not, this almost directly coincided with my sleep cycles, which makes you wonder how much of our DNA is tied into staying warm at night.
As a result of my efforts the lavvu was warm when I woke up, and I had no problem starting the day, first with smore’s Poptarts and coffee heated on the stove top. I wasn’t in a hurry, and in truth, I hadn’t much of a plan. After all the planning I did just to get there in the week since I’d conceived the idea, I didn’t put much thought into what I would actually do. Although, I did have a pair of cross-country skis that a friend had given me a couple years back. I never had a chance to try them, and I thought this was the perfect trip to start. Where I would go, I left to the Fates, who, once again, as I was pulling out of the camp to explore, put me into contact with Tex. I waved to him, and he ambled over to my truck and stuck his grizzled countenance inside my passenger window.
“Merry Christmas!” He said
“Merry Christmas to you Tex! How’s it going?”
He said he was taking off that day and asked what brought me out over the holidays anyhow. I told him my daughter went with her mom, and from there, a short conversation followed on the nature of relationships, particularly on that between a man, such as he, who felt like a caged, pacing animal inside four walls, and the previous woman he’d been in a long term relationship with, who would have been happier keeping him there. “It wasn’t her fault,” he said. “She deserved the kind of person who could settle down. It just wasn’t me, and it took me a long time to realize that, but now we’re both happier for it.” I empathized, but did not voice my own opinion that I’d like to balance the two--the domestic and the wild--although sometimes the wild got the better of me. And so there I was.
“Hey Tex,” I asked “Do you know anything about cross-country skiing in the area?”
“Well, there’s lots of it!” He said, and I already had my map ready to show me where.
After saying goodbye to Tex and pushing a herd of buffalo along the road, that’s how I ended about 30 miles to the east in Roosevelt.
I parked and for the first time, snapped into the cross-country skis having no idea, really, what I was getting into. It did take some time to get the coordination down, between skating one foot forward, and at the same time, pushing off the pole in the opposite hand, but really it wasn’t bad at all. I cruised a little faster than walking speed up the trail, passing a few people along the way and felt a great rush. “What a way to experience Yellowstone!” I thought. “In the summer this trail, not to mention the roads, would be jammed with people. I’m really doing it!” Thus, I arrived gloating to my first destination on the trail--a wood platform overlooking a gorge, inside of which was a steaming, stinking river, full of belching sulfur and oil. Very cool.
I admired it awhile, took a couple pictures and turned back down the platform where I met a couple from Bozeman who’d just skied up.
The couple and I exchanged holiday greetings. They informed me that this was a trip they tried to make weekly, which, I now realize among other attractions, is what has made Bozeman so popular. They were within range to easily do it.
“Have you checked out the waterfall?” The man asked, I think sensing my excitement in the new experience.
“No.” I said.
“It’s just up the trail. Where that couple is heading.” He pointed. “You could just follow them.”
God Bless the Fates. I followed. And there I found the waterfall, the outer layer covered in ice, water still rushing down the center--a beautiful phenomenon.
I retired to the lavvu that night and looked through some Christmas photos and videos of M---- playing with her cousin. I felt a tinge of sadness not being with her or the rest of my family, but also, I was grateful for all that I had seen.
I realized the next day that I had not been rationing my firewood very well, especially not with keeping the fire in my stove going all night, which wasn’t really necessary even at zero degrees--the coldest it would get, My sleeping bag and the hot water kept me plenty warm, and it was easy enough to just wake and start the stove in the morning, and yet, I still needed more wood, so I decided to drive to Gardiner about 20 minutes away, eat a big pancake breakfast, and buy some. It was a fruitful journey, but it got my day started late, so I mainly hung around the Mammoth area, skiing to a few more stinky geysers and exploring the Mammoth Springs Hotel.
The architectural design and color of the Hotel stood out neatly against the snow with the sun shining on its long exterior wall. More impressive still, is what I found inside-- a painting from an artist who’d I later find on Wikipedia, Thomas Moran.
“(February 12, 1837 – August 25, 1926) Thomas Moran was an American painter and printmaker of the Hudson River School in New York whose work often featured the Rocky Mountains. Moran and his family, wife Mary Nimmo Moran and daughter Ruth, took residence in New York where he obtained work as an artist. He was a younger brother of the noted marine artist Edward Moran, with whom he shared a studio. A talented illustrator and exquisite colorist, Thomas Moran was hired as an illustrator at Scribner's Monthly. During the late 1860s, he was appointed the chief illustrator for the magazine, a position that helped him launch his career as one of the premier painters of the American landscape, in particular, the American West.
Moran along with Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith are sometimes referred to as belonging to the Rocky Mountain School of landscape painters because of all of the Western landscapes made by this group” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Moran
I stood a good time admiring the painting, the colors and light, the drama he had managed to capture. “It’s wonderful,” I thought. The fact that someone could capture this scene on canvas, and that I could stand and admire it at the beautiful Mammoth Springs Hotel in Yellowstone NP, one of the greatest conservation efforts accessible to anyone from anywhere to experience, really made me appreciate people in spite of all the terrible things we are capable of doing to each other and to the environment.
This thought and the image of the painting I carried with me into my final day. I wanted to make the best of it and started early on a long drive to Cooke City to see what roadside animals and vistas I might admire along the way, of which there were many. It was nice. I picked up coffee at a roadside cafe--the whole town blanketed in thick snow--and I made my way back to the spot where I planned on going on a longer--10 mile--cross-country ski run, since I about had the hang of it.
The exhaustive effort skiing really helped clear my mind--the crispness of the weather was perfect, only a few people on the trails. I tried to take some more photos, as I also did along the drive, but none of them really turned out in dramatic fashion, a la’ Thomas Morton. It was mostly overcast, for one, and one can only hope for so much from an Iphone. However, as I was returning on my ski route, I did get a picture I like.
I think it portrays more subtlety--the red willows and white fir in the foreground. The mountain peeking out behind them, the big, unabashed cloud, and the happy little ski trail to the left. Thomas Morton it is not, but I do think it is a picture that Bob Ross could appreciate, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.
The final night, I had a big ol’ ripping fire, cracked some scotch ales, cooked a mean meal of Kielbasa, peppers, and pineapple, and played Tony Rice over my bluetooth speakers, which I felt the most appropriate--bluegrass by a legend who on Christmas had passed away. I really enjoyed my own company but did feel a little loathe that no one else in the campground shared my spirit. Every night, the half dozen or so people who pulled into camp at around 5--just around sundown, mostly stayed either in the camper, van, or tent. What were they doing in there? Come out and have a beer I wanted to howl. This vitality in me had grown throughout the days I was there. And in White Fang, I found the same sentiment expressed.
Jack London says of the wolf, who grows in strength and spirit:
“There were easements and satisfactions. To have a full stomach, to doze lazily in the sunshine--such things were remuneration in full for his ardors and toils, while his ardors and toils were in themselves self-remunerative. They were expressions of life, and life is always happy when it is expressing itself. So the cub had no quarrel with his hostile environment. He was very much alive, very happy, and very proud of himself.”
I broke down camp the next day. The leather Carhartt gloves, which I had not worn to the time, came in very handy to fold the freezing tarp and metal stove. The drive home I blasted AC/DC and admired a mountain range before Butte where our crew had hiked up to, slept several shifts, and worked a fire the previous summer.
I don't often take vacations and will probably never make it to a tropical island or France, but I think now, sitting in my recliner reflecting on the experience: give me 4 nights in sub-freezing Yellowstone, and for the rest of the year, I will be fine.
It’s been a pretty crappy year, but I hope everyone has a happy New Years eve; and the world, a better year to follow.
On Friday, December 4th 2020, I camped at Rock Creek, Montana. All the campsites that were not closed by the Forest Service were available to me, so I picked from what I could determine in the dark to be the best. Rock Creek, a substantially sized blue ribbon trout stream, ran along one border. On the other border, about a hundred years from the fire ring, ran the potholed, ice patched gravel road I drove to get there. Steep canyon walls rose on both sides, and large mixed conifers-- spruce, fir, and ponderosas-- kept it sheltered. This is not unexplored territory for me. I’ve frequented it often since moving to Montana, but usually during the summer in order to fish.
After I backed my truck into the site, I unloaded my gear. Then I set a cot in the truck bed, unfurled my sleeping bag on top of it, pulled out a book and lantern, and tucked in for the night. Thus, I had almost accomplished the first part of my mission, that being to leave Missoula after 5 pm, arrive at my destination, and get a good night's rest to be ready for the following two days.
The book I brought with me was White Fang by Jack London, and I do not think I could have chosen more aptly. I’m going to quote the first paragraph of the book, because I think Jack London, unfairly, has the reputation of writing some pulpy fiction, but he can also churn out some beautiful prose with a clear-eyed view of nature at its core.
"Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild."
Opening the book, to read those lines under the light of a lantern in the cold of a northland winter night is a gripping experience. And I was gripped and continued to read about the struggles of two men and a dog sled team transporting the load of a third, deceased man, across the Northwest Territories. One by one the men lose their dogs to the jaws of wolves. Then one of the men is eaten by a wolf, and the remaining one left to fend for himself as they stalk toward him in the night. It is a man vs. wild tale....a man vs. the forces of nature beyond our control threatening to extinguish the flames of our existence tale….a man vs. the cold tale.
As I read White Fang, I slowly lost feeling in my feet. “Why did I bring this sleeping bag when I had a larger, warmer one available to me?” I thought. And I really didn’t have a good answer other than I wanted to try to get by with only what I needed and little more. There’s an aesthetic behind this idea. I’ve spent more miserable nights in the woods than I care to recollect, and I do want to be comfortable, but I’m afraid if I make comfort my main goal, then I might as well start saving up for an R.V. to get my outdoor fix or to just say hell with it and stay comfortable indoors.
By around 10 pm, my feet went completely numb, even under two pairs of wool socks. I did eventually nod off. But then at 11, I woke again, and I stayed awake, not so cold that I was completely miserable, but cold enough that I really started to empathize for the homeless across the country who had to deal with this almost every night. At 2 am, I finally said to hell with this and threw all my gear back into the truck and headed the one hours drive back home. Nature had won...for the time being.
Late the next morning, I woke comfortably from my bed at home and after waffling over the issue a bit, I decided I was going back to Rock Creek again. I still had my mission to complete and all my stuff was still packed. The only thing I added was my military surplus, extreme cold weather sleeping bag. Apparently, it was issued to the troops in Alaska, and it has always worked plenty well for me.
That afternoon, I found myself again at Rock Creek at the same site--still nobody out camping, I observed. This time I set out to accomplish what I was most excited for...set up a proper cold weather camp. If I could do this right, then virtually no time of year would be off limits for me to go out during the weekends (or every other weekend) and snowshoe or fish or just mull around a campfire and read and explore. It is the healthiest thing I can do for myself right now. In the woods, I feel the most alive and restored and when I pause to consider why that is, I think it’s not only because I feel especially attuned to my surroundings, but also because there’s a sense of accomplishment in being self-sufficient enough to sincerely bear out the conditions with a grin. But I digressed, first I made a warming fire with wood I brought with me, unapologetically dowsing it with lighter fluid to get it going quickly. Even with the sun high up, the temperature hovered around 20, and I didn’t feel like spending much time finessing a fire together with frozen fingers. Although maybe I will work on that later.
Once I got the fire going, I set to work on my shelter-- a canvas Lavvu made by Northern Lavvu out of Minnesota. A Lavvu is a squat tipi-like tent, originally used by the indigineous people of Northern Europe. I bought it after working my first fire season in the Salmon-Challis, and for the past 3 years it has mostly sat in our backyard, as a kind of decoration. I just never had time to try it out, but now I did, and I went to work laying out the poles and attempting to raise them. This turned out to be a frustrating experience however. I had not set up the tipi for a while, and I must have forgotten how I originally did. I fumbled and cursed and just when I wanted to give up, I figured out a method that got the thing raised. Hell yea!
The Sami tent was up, I put a wood burning stove inside it, and I laid out my sleeping bag onto a cold-weather ground pad, and then I went to work assembling the kitchen. No problem...canned chili for my evening meal, which while satiating enough, cooking a proper uncanned outdoor meal is another skill I’d like to perfect. Right before the sun set, I sawed up some more logs from around the campsite for the wood burning stove inside the lavvu, and I relaxed next to the fire outside it with plenty of time to sip Montana’s Highlander Scottish Ale and let my mind flow with the rush of the river and crackle of pine. I don’t think anything could be more soothing.
Around 7, I made my way into my shelter and sparked up the stove in there. A crazy creek camp chair made the perfect back rest to stay propped up to stoke the fire and read. I began Part two of White Fang and again found more resonance. The reader is taken into the viewpoint of a wolf and led through the intricate ecological balance its life hinges on. Ptarmigans, lynx, weasels, and moose all fight to impose their will on nature so that their offspring may survive. Out of the struggle, a pup is born, emerging from a dark den where his siblings have all perished to persist in a brave new world.
The wolf, I believe, symbolizes something of the wild in Jack London and in all people however removed we become from in the distractions of our modern age. Imposing my own will on a hostile environment, albeit with less an impact than an average person does in commuting daily to work and flipping on a power switch, makes me feel powerful in a way I don’t think anyone should have to apologize for. And besides there is so much wonder to behold.
I woke up the next morning, Sunday, around 5 am. The sun had not yet risen, and I made coffee on the top of the camp stove still half tucked into my sleeping bag and my top half layered in wools. I continued to read some and sip my hot beverage and dose. Then, around 8, I broke down camp to head home and complete my final task--journal my experiences to learn from the reflection and continue to grow.
Camping out of your truck's camper shell is a simple and effective means to enjoy the outdoors without the time consuming task of setting up shelter outside your vehicle, while allowing for an increased level of comfort and security compared to more traditional methods. The truck bed provides an excellent platform for a cot or blow up mattress, and you can sleep all the sounder without the fear of a bear ripping through the walls of a nylon tent. This is especially true when camping off a forest service road or alongside a river in a remote area. And, as opposed to camping out of large RV, you’ll have a much easier time accessing those areas, for often it is there you’ll find the best fishing and hunting opportunities, not to mention some real peace in solitude. For all these reasons, I’ve often found myself settled in the comfort of my truck’s shell throughout the summer or after a long week at work, that is, those times that I’m not looking to set up a back country camp; I’m just looking for a quick escape. Here I will describe what I’ve learned through those experiences knowing there are numerous methods and vehicles that can be used to achieve the same end, and that, moreover, this is the just way that works best for me.
My truck is a 2008 Ford Ranger. The shell is an ARE. There are several truck models and shells that would suffice, and of course, a larger bed will give you more room, but I couldn’t imagine using one any shorter than six feet.
A six foot bed gives you just enough length for most cots. The cot I use is made by Alps Mountaineering. It’s actually just over six feet and prevents me from raising the tailgate while I sleep, but I don’t mind the extra air circulation. Also, at seven inches in height it gives me enough clearance from the top of the shell to prevent feeling claustrophobic, and at two and a half feet in width, it gives me just enough room to squeeze in my camp boxes on the other side.
My sleeping roll is composed of an air mattress, whatever sleeping bag is appropriate for the weather, and bivy sack, which I use even in the shell, because I’m often crawling in and out with wet or dirty clothes, and a wet or dirty sleeping bag is not very accommodating at the end of the day.
The boxes I use are as follows: one small cardboard box with jumper cables, tow cables, rags, and other sundries for the maintenance of my truck, a RubberMaid Action Packer box with everything for my kitchen, and a Gorilla box with every other camp item I should need, not only if I remain near my truck, but also if I get a wild hair and decide I want to backpack and camp further in the mountains. Finally, I should note that, in my bed, I also store extra firewood and water.
In the cab of my truck, I store my food and extra clothes. It is also where my dog sleeps after we’ve arrived and night has fallen. In a Ford Ranger, the area behind the driver and passenger seats provides the perfect space for her to settle in.
If ever I want to relocate, it’s as easy as closing all the doors, tilting my cot up, and closing the bed. Also, I always try to keep my gear ready, and especially so the night before I plan to camp somewhere, so in a matter of minutes, I can pack up and go. All of this induces a feeling of mobility and freedom limited only by the cost of gas, because even if the drive is long, cruising down the road with your favorite band playing as you put all your weekday worries out of your mind is a reward all on its own.
After a week in and around my place, I was starting to feel cooped up, which is a sure signal to make a journey of the day and venture into the woods. So, I packed a daypack and booked it to the Granite Creek trailhead. There’s Nika ahead of me, all ready to go.
For the first time, Nika wore her doggy-pack, the Ruffwear Approach. There was some initial hesitation, but soon, she almost seemed excited by this cool new thing and pranced around with it on, like a bona-fide trail dog. Here she is again striking a characteristic trail pose.
Wildflower season is in full effect, and I felt like it would have been an insult to not admire them, so admire them I did, as well as ID ones I wasn’t familiar with. The top is a woods Rose (which I knew), the bottom a Mariposa Lilly (which I didn’t).
Here is an Aster among Arnica. Arnica, btw, have very tasty stalks if you peel them back, and they are also said to have many curative properties.
Before long the trail enters the Great Bear Wilderness, which was created in 1978 to provide a wildlife corridor between Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
The wilderness seems to be doing its job quiet well, because right after entering it, I saw my first fresh bear sign of the season…a big ol’ pile of poopy. Also, some tracks and torn up stumps.
Seeing such sign certainly does elevate the senses. It actually feels good. I found myself almost wanting to see a griz towering over the underbrush. But I didn’t see one and strolled along affably, occasionally letting out a “hey oh,” in the same assertive tone I might use in front of 20 seniors who’ve all decided they’ve got somewhere better to be.
Anyway, beautiful rock formations in this canyon. Granite maybe..?
Six miles down the trail I reached Granite Creek’s confluence with the Middle Fork of the Flathead. Definitely some future camping spots down here.
I turned around at the Flathead, because I wanted to get back before dark. I had a steak to attend to, and I wanted to get in a game of pool at the local bar in East Glacier. It was Friday night afterall. So, I double timed it, and in my haste, accidently interrupted what looked like a courtship between two grouse. But the male grouse was a funny bird and hopped onto a branch in plain view, from which, he tufted himself up and strutted around like a model on display.
I told the grouse incident to my girlfriend and she said, “you found a kindred spirit.” And maybe, that is why we took so well to eachother. I thanked him for his kindness, made it to the trail head, and went along my way, but not before catching this selfie in my truck window, tufted up and feeling much finer after a lovely afternoon.
On Saturday I received a phone call right when I woke up. It was my buddy, Lewis, who said he’d been pounding on my door all morning. I slept in late and didn’t hear a thing. He asked if I want to go camping. I said “heck yea,” and he said, “Okay, I’ll be down in thirty minutes.”
I have all my camping gear ready to go for alarms like these,so I just have to slide down the fire pole and throw it in the engine, that is my Ford Ranger. Sure enough Lewis was down in thirty, and we took off to a place on the reservation I’ve never been, Cooper Lake, with another friend, Juan, and his two kids. The spot was beautiful to say the least.
Here’s Lewis and one tenacious little firebuilder and feeder of Magpies--the girl. A magpie is what's sitting on Lewis's shoulder.
Baby magpies. They poop a lot.
Camp all set up, I decided to scout out the ridgeline and scare off all the grizzlies. I didn’t find any of them, although I did hear a long, lone howl of a mother wolf, probably reminding me that I was visitor there, and I best behave. Then, after that stopped me dead in my tracks in awe, her pups started up, which I was able to catch on my camera. Check it out.
When I got back to camp, I found Lewis had made a real rib-stickin, mountain man meal. It was delicious!
These two sure thought so too.
Then, when the light was good for photos, I took another short walk and snapped this one of our camp in the background and, in the foreground, Jax, who could have responded to his fellows had he accompanied me on my hike earlier, half wolf that he is
That night the wind died down, and I got a great sleep on my cot outside my truck. The stars even made an appearance, the milky way and all, and we all woke almost simultaneously in the middle of the night to admire them. The next morning, Lewis cooked us up another mountain meal, and we struck camp, heading out the same way in which we came.
Here’s Lewis’s salty little Toyota. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do anything with a vehicle like I’ve seen him do in this truck… like stuff on a 30 degree incline and the only way up, driving 100 yards with one tire in a muddy, two-foot rut sloping toward a thousand foot drop, at least. I was hanging out the passenger window the whole time ready to bail away from the drop, until we got stuck. Then, I did bail, because the next thing the crazy man did, after his winch burned out, was gun his motor, rocking back and forth till he shot out of there and to the top like a rocket. But that’s Lewis, and according to him, that little adventure was “nothing to sweat,” and no worries, on this drive, these kids had it easy.
Juan and the magpies. The gate to main road and back home. Thanks for reading!
This outdoor thing I’m trying harder to do on the cheap, so this go around-- as I planned to hike a trail about an hour away from me and wanted to get an early start-- I forewent a 10 dollar campground fee, and instead, chose to camp off a Forest Service road, and I’m glad I did. I just rolled right off there in my truck with a can of Dinty Moore beef stew, a bag of Fritos, a can of bean dip, and my most luxuriant purchase, a six pack of Lewis and Clark Prickly Pear Pale Ale, aka God’s summertime nectar. Also, I had the company of man’s greatest novel, Moby-Dick, which felt even more apt, as 30 mile per hour winds blew in, beating my truck like the Pequod at sea.
But I felt good all tucked in there, and the winds shaped the most phenomenal clouds, and I jumped out and took pictures of them, thinking the whole time, these cloud are going to look even more outstanding when the sun sets, because they were directly to the east. But as the sun started to set, the temp dropped, the Prickly Pears got ahold of me, and I felt like crap after eating all the crap I did, that is the entire can of bean dip and a three portions can of Dinty Moore. So, I was tucked in my sleeping bag, contented to watch the sun set from there, but as it became more brilliant, I realized I would be a bum if I didn’t hop out. So, I hopped out, and I snapped this…
The next morning, I woke up, ate my morning oatmeal, drank my morning coffee, and drove 10 minutes to the trailhead versus the hour it would have otherwise been, and I got a good early start like I planned. I wanted to hike 16 miles that day. First 8 to moose lake, and then 8 back. Instead I made it 3 miles up, then I encountered a river crossing I wasn’t feeling near GI Joe enough to make, especially dragging the dog across too.
I might also chalk my lack of will up to the crap sitting in my gut from the night before. After all there was nothing insurmountable about this obstacle. But if anything, I think it goes to show the importance of holistically embracing the outdoor life, that is, preparing oneself mentally and physically each and every day, so nothing keeps you from reaching your goal when an obstacle does arise.
….Or maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
On a side note: Nika is totally stoked about her new backpack! Can’t you tell?
So, I wanted to get back into the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark Wilderness. For thousands of years, the Blackfeet have used this area for vision quests and prayers. They believe it is sacred and have protected it, in lengthy court battles, against exploitation from oil and gas companies.
"Overlooking Two Medicine River, 1806" by Z. S. Liang
First, I planned to enter the area through the Blackfeet Reservation. There are many back roads here, and on my map, I noticed a Forest Service trail that began on one of these back roads and went way back into the mountains, near a lake I intended to fish. Before reaching the trail however, I was continually warned about Grizzlies in this area, once from an old fellow who’d been chased on horseback by one, another from a young fellow who’d actually been mauled by one, and finally, on the back road, from an aged hippy who, in the 70’s, had come from California to live with Indians, ended up marrying one and settled there. He just told me they were “bad,” and that I was “going the wrong way.” I never did find the road to lead me where I originally wanted to go, and I suppose, after the three warnings, that was okay with me. I chose a different route.
The second route I chose was just south of East Glacier National Park. It started at a landmark called Summit, but I was too eager to get started to actually read the landmark placard and too lazy after I got back. So, I don’t know what it’s all about. I just know the trail from Summit sucks. On what should have been a relatively easy hike to the Two-Medicine River, I took one non-trail to another, until I gave over my life completely to my Garmin Foretrex and bushwhacked two miles over deadfall to a point I’d previously plotted. The upshot was I saw all kinds of deer and elk signs, and it looked like it’d be a great place to stalk during bow hunting season.
After I hit finally hit the river, I crossed and picked up on a wide and mushy horsetrail, which looped me back around to beautiful meadow, apparently called Sawmill Flats according to a big sign posted there. This was where I was supposed to be!
By the time I arrived it was only around 6’ o’clock and I had plenty of time to set up a nice, little camp. Tent, fire, and all.
…What you don’t see in this photo is a dog in stealth mode. Nika accompanied me on this trip, too, but somehow she managed to evade all my photos.
Cooking rice and chicken. I keep it spartan, just dump the canned stuff into minute rice and stir in lots of Lowry's Seasoning Salt. Salt is important.
My newest piece of kit—a Ruger 10/.22 compact.
Paintbrush and Bear grass.
Wildflowers everywhere! Also, the river
I tried fishing some in the morning but came up empty. I did, however, forage some Camas bulbs and will be cooking them up with my steak tonight.
The hike back was much easier, knowing where I blundered previously. I totaled just over 8 miles.
I just woke up from a 12 hour death like sleep after returning from one of the most strenuous hikes I’ve ever done. My heels are popping and my legs and back are aching to the point I’m damn near immobile. But I consider these the marks of the best kind of time, that is, overcoming a true challenge. Moreover, I witnessed some awesome country and gained invaluable experience along the way.
I took my dog, Nika, with me so there are, needless to say, lots of pictures with her in them. You can spot her in the one below just up the trail. This is right after we went over Swift Dam. The mountains are both awe-inspiring and a little intimidating. After all, that’s the direction you’re hiking toward.
Nika, who is an otherwise sleepy, mopey indoor dog, really comes to life in the woods and is fun to watch. Here she is taking a soak in a pool moments after trying to intimidate the only large fauna I found on the trail, a cow moose. Standing about 25 feet away from us, it casually sized us up and sauntered back into the woods.
I do realize Nika may be a liability when it comes to bears, especially grizzlies. The problem is she could run after one barking until the bear turns on her and she comes running back to me for protection, which even my bear spray or timeliness firing the handgun I carry may not provide. Regardless, I consider her a net benefit on the trail for the companionship and enjoyment added. Although, I already have a doggy backpack queued in Amazon, because next time she is carrying her own damn food—about 5 to 8 pounds of it!
The most rewarding views are the ones you work for. This was after a difficult 1,000 foot climb.
Here’s another. The northernmost edge of Walling Reef, looking south. .
Having hiked 7 miles since noon and being pretty smoked from the climb, I dropped into the canyon and started setting up camp near a creek. I knew a storm was blowing in too and if I wanted a hot meal I’d have to get moving quick. So, first thing, I found some nice shrubby pine to throw my bed roll under.
Lodging taken care of, I fed Nika, cooked myself up some rice and left over chicken, gobbled that down, hung up my bear bag, and that was about all the time I had. The storm set in. I crawled under that pine, Nika next to me, and there we rode it out, 30 mile per hour winds blowing in and all. At one point lighting struck so low and close that I was temporarily blinded. I wouldn’t say that it was the most restful night sleep I ever had, but I survived.
Early the next morning I woke, had some oatmeal and a wonderful, steaming cup of Folger’s instant coffee, and I prepared to move on, but not before taking a picture of my gear. That’s the Bullpak frame, ALICE attached, and a bedroll, Hudson Bay knife, and rope lashed to the outside. The rope would come in very handy later.
Looking north after climbing out of Sheep Creek Canyon.
Some beautiful trail.
So I mentioned the rope. Here’s why. When I was looking at the route before I left, I worried I might encounter one of the river crossings toward the end, and because of the early season run off, not be able to cross, which would leave me in a real bind. I would have to go all the way back! Well, my intuition paid off. This is Post Creek, I believe. It was narrow but thigh-high, and it roared about 25 yards down, off a waterfall into a gorge. One slip and that was it. No bank for either me or the dog to grab hold of.
The drop off.
So here’s what I did. I leashed Nika to a tree, so she wouldn’t try following me into the river. Then, I took out my rope and secured it to another tree along the bank with a bowline knot-- something I conjured up from the ghost of boy scouts past. I ran the rope’s working end through my Bullpak frame and through my belt. I left the Bullpak sitting on the bank with the dog, and I made my way into the water, holding the rope and balancing myself with the tension.
When I got to the other side of the bank, I pulled the line taut and wrapped it around a tree there until it wouldn’t slip. This finished, I made my way back across the river, again balancing myself with the line. Once back, I unleashed Nika, looped the leash around her chest and snapped it to the rope in front of the Bullpak. Then I shouldered the Bullpak and grabbed the leash and waded back into the river, keeping the dog upstream of my legs. This way water pushed her against me and she was better able to swim.
This picture is after we made it.
I had to cross the river two more times to get my rope back and was soaked from the waist down, but it was worth not dying. Now, somewhere just before these river crossings, I had made up my mind that I was going to march my way out that night, head to this place in Dupuyer before it closed, and order an IPA and a fat steak. This mission became, in my mind, sacred.
But, I soon realized it was not to be. There was no way, with each succeeding crossing, me soaked, nighttime coming on and temps dropping, that I was going to make it. So, I was slightly demoralized, that is, until a great thing happened. God offered up a consolation prize… As I was clomping down the trail with my squishy boots, I found this, an unopened bottle of Glacier Freeze Gatorade, and everything was alright.
Right as the sun dipped beneath the mountains, I made the last crossing across Birch Creek. It was wide and fast and perilous, but I was determined to make it, so I didn’t have to get all wet again in the morning. And I did make it. Then, I quickly got a fire going to dry my boots and cooked more rice and beans. Although, it wasn’t an IPA and steak, it was warm and tasted fine, and it was a nice evening besides. I laid my bedroll out under the stars, popped an Aleve, a sleeping pill, and put earplugs in, and I slept until sunrise. That day, I had hiked over twenty miles.
The final day I hike the remaining three miles. The way there, Nika was buoyant, bouncing ahead of me through meadows filled with wildflowers, chasing after every chipmunk. It was a beautiful, sunny day. When we got to my truck though, I opened the jumper seat door and she curled up behind the passenger seat. I collapsed with my gear in the bed and took a breather. Did I have to push the pace like I did and subject myself to such a rigorous experience? No. I could have started earlier the first day and broken up the miles or made it a three day trip. Or I could have dropped some gear from my 50 plus pound pack (though I mostly used it all). Or I could have trained better during the winter, so I was in better shape. Or I could have not gone all at. But I’m glad I did, and I look forward to the next adventure.
I wouldn't say this is the easiest method, but it's definitely very enjoyable, especially on a beautiful evening.
Asparagus, Chicken, and Beans.
Jess is visiting her parents the next couple weeks out of state, so this one got all the leftovers. There's cockle burrs all over her fur from swimming in the swamp near my place. I guess you could say she had a good day.
I wouldn't say this is the easiest method, but it's definitely very enjoyable, especially on a beautiful evening.
Asparagus, Chicken, and Beans. The coals are pine that I burned in the barrel.
The lady is visiting her parents the next couple weeks out of state, so this one got all the leftovers. There's cockle burrs all over her fur from swimming in the swamp near my place. I guess you could say she had a good day.