|Where Lick Creek spills into North Fork Sun is where I got dunked and lost a ski|
|Mark Hertenstein makes his way through deadfall debris|
|Yes, the going was really this tough!|
|We caught a break near Lick Creek|
There was such scant snow that it became more of a horse trip than ski trip.
But that was balanced by adventures including runaway stock, a dunking in a creek, the loss of a ski, a long hike in plastic ski boots, the climbing of numerous windfalls across the trails, plentiful wildlife sightings and incomparable scenery.
Three months per year --- February, March and April --- Kraig Lang, Lewis and Clark National Forest backcountry ranger out of the Choteau Rocky Mountain Ranger District --- travels this 64-mile roundtrip snow course he calls the “milk run” that begins at the Mortimer Gulch trailhead, goes around the north shore of Gibson Reservoir and straight up the North Fork to the Wrong Creek cabin.
Along the way there are stops at data collection sites up Sheep Mountain (Goat Mountain site), Cabin Creek, Wrong Creek and Wrong Ridge.
This data is important to stream flow predictions for downstream dams on the Missouri River. It is used to regulate release of water for irrigation and for dams that affects barge traffic and the well being of fish and wildlife along the river system.
Because these four sites are located within federal wilderness they can’t be mechanized as other snow collection sites in Montana are, and Lang must go in by foot (on ski or snowshoe) or horse. Machine operated transport is out of the question.
We stayed at the Fish and Game cabin at the head of Gibson, and Forest Service cabins at Cabin Creek, Gates Park and Wrong Creek.
|Crossing the North Fork Sun was wet and cold|
It closely resembles valleys in Yellowstone National Park, with its sweeping grasslands that rise to snow covered peaks, along with the timber scorched in a series of fires beginning in the mid-80s that has progressed up the drainage. Healthy regeneration, as in Yellowstone, has followed.
Anticipating the short snow, Lang arranged for three horses, three mules and the expert wrangling of Tad Wehunt, a backcountry ranger in the Bob’s Big Prairie who came over from Fortine to assist such greenhorn dudes as me and ski-partner Mark Hertenstein.
The plan was to ride to Gates Park where we’d ski to Wrong Creek and back to Gates where we’d re-saddle and ride out.
Both Mark and I had been looking forward to a long ski, so we didn’t know what to expect when we found ourselves on a full-blown horse trip where our skis were loaded on mules rather than on our plastic Scarpa T-3 backcountry ski boots.
Before the trip Lang had described to me previous trips where he had been able to ski the whole run, traveling on the reservoir and even using the North Fork as a ski-highway, where the snow was deep enough to ski over the windfall and the snow bridges solid enough to glide across the North Fork.
What snow we could see at the beginning of the trip was in the high country of the Continental Divide.
The main North Fork trail was only dotted with small snow patches.
As we horsed around Gibson Reservoir’s north shore we were welcomed by a rainbow that spanned the lake, a hopeful sign of the adventure ahead.
Lang’s plan was to ride to the head of the lake, continue on horse to a drainage below Sheep Mountain, where we would climb about 1,500 feet to the first snow survey site, on a ridge called Goat Mountain.
We were prepared to skin up to the site, but the snow was so sparse that it was unnecessary. We hopped off the horses and hiked up the mountain where we finally discovered snow at the site itself.
Lang got out his measurement tools, bored a hole in the snow, taking readings on its depth, weight and density. If calibrations were not within allowable tolerances, he was forced to rebore, reweigh, and refigure. He repeated this 10 times up this course before we headed back down, got on the horses and rode into the Fish and Game cabin for the night.
I had gotten a taste for most of the trip already --- the demand for precision, the drive to stay on schedule and the meticulous ritual that experienced horsemen, Lang and Wehunt, performed at each stop, unpacking, unsaddling and caring for the stock. Once a ride was over, the work was just beginning. After the horses, it was setting up in the cabin, and dealing with food. These two worked hard 12-14 hours per day to make the snow survey possible.
At about 5:15 a.m. I was awakened by the sound of a wooden match lighting a Coleman lantern and we were ready to do it all over again.
Lang was a ranger on a mission. His goal was to make Gates Park, some 16 miles north, doing a snow survey at Cabin Creek (sparse snow with same multiple readings drill) along the way. He hoped that he could get the horses into Gates, but was prepared to put on skis there and send the horses back to Cabin Creek with Wehunt anywhere the snow was too deep.
What we found was clear sailing, the ground relatively bare, and once across the North Fork bridge about a mile from Gates, the snow was passable to the horses.
Our worry was more that we’d have enough snow to ski to our final destination --- Wrong Creek and that there might be snow bridges to cross Lick Creek and the North Fork on the way there.
I found myself saddle sore and achy from hanging on to my horse from the Fish and Game cabin to Gates jaunt.
|Kraig Lang takes measurement on North Fork Sun snow course|
But this is where the trip’s high adventure was to begin.
As were settling into the dinner time routine, Wehunt discovered that the stock had knocked down a gate and escaped and were probably headed back to the trailhead some 24 miles away. Speculation was that it was Frenchy, the powerful mule who had made wilderness breaks before, was the culprit ringleader. Dark was descending and we were aware that the weather forecast was calling for wind and snow.
Just as he finished pulling his last steak from the grill, Lang started to throw a pack together intent on chasing the stock, hoping to catch them, perhaps before they got past Cabin Creek, our previous stop. He radioed the district ranger to let him know there was a possibility the horses might be headed for the trailhead, and that he might need some help to re-direct the trip. The last thing in the pack was a bucket for treats to entice the animals, should he be so lucky as to catch them.
We finished our meal, cleaned up, watched the sun set and waited for word from Lang. It was pitch black by the time he reached Biggs Flats, about half-way to Cabin Creek cabin where he planned to spend the night regardless. When he reached the cabin there were no horses. But he listened and to his great relief he heard the bells he had fastened around the necks of the stock. To his greater relief, they came as he called out to them, and he was able to corral them. The 16 mile ride, followed by the 8 mile walk, had so exhausted Lang that he dropped into bed without a meal, although he later admitted that he wished he had eaten that steak before he set out. It was about 9 p.m. when he radioed the good news to us.
The next morning Wehunt hit the trail on foot with halters and ropes in hand to meet Lang half way.
Lang was able to tie two of the horses together and the rest of the stock, including old Frenchy, followed behind.
He had informed us by radio that once he arrived with the horses that he planned to head for Wrong Creek by skis to keep to his schedule.
We were happy when Wehunt and Lang showed up about 11:30 a.m. with the horses and mules. The walk back had been long, but uneventful. Lang had even been able to cover some of the distance on one of the animals bareback.
As he settled into the cabin after his ordeal, Lang suggested that we might put off the Wrong Creek ski for the next day.
We were still sore from our ride the day before and were delighted with the prospect of being able to explore some of the terrain around Gates, which we did until supper, allowing Lang to get some well-deserved rest.
From a high point uptrail we could see that there was some snow, if sparse, but that there was timber down across the path everywhere in the direction in which we were headed.
Over the windfalls
At 5:15 a.m. Wednesday morning, just as though nothing had happened, Lang stuck his wooden match to light the lantern, and our next long day and next adventure began.
We packed extra carefully because we knew we wouldn’t have the luxury of horses at our Wrong Creek cabin destination up ahead 8 miles.
After walking through a mile of water saturated lowlands and downed trees we got to skiable snow where we finally put on our skis.
I was surprised at how easy it was to ski this crusty stuff that had been laminated with about an inch of new snow.
However, that easy turned to hard as we encountered tangle after tangle of windblown fallen trees across the trail, some which could be skied across, but many which required removal of skis to climb to the other side. This didn’t let up for more than 4 miles, and was quite tiring.
Hertenstein and I were both amazed at Lang’s abilities to ski up and over blowdown as if it were no obstacle in his path. He later told us that in February the snow had been deep enough that he could ski over the top of most of this stuff because it was covered.
Finally we reached some terrain where the fire hadn’t reached and the skiing became more tolerable as we dropped toward the North Fork.
Our hope was that it had been cold enough that there might be a snow bridge left to cross so we wouldn’t have to strip and wade.
At this point the weather began to clear, the sun came out and we were able to enjoy full views of the Continental Divide to our west and the back side of Wapiti ridge to the east.
Then it was down to our first crossing at Lick Creek near where it dumps into the North Fork.
|Scenic, if cramped Wrong Creek cabin, where I dried off|
To our dismay it was open and flowing with snowmelt.
That meant stripping down to our underwear, taking off our boots and slipping into our water socks.
There was no sign of Lang. He had beaten us there, crossed Lick Creek on a slippery log, stripped down and waded the larger North Fork.
As apprehensive as I was to get in the frigid water, I was anxious to reach the Wrong Creek cabin, so with my skis on the side of my pack and my boots strapped around my neck, I plunged in, hoping for a quick crossing.
About four steps in, to my horror, my foot slipped on a rock and down I went. Icy water flowed over my head, filling my ski boots and linings as I quickly popped up and made my way to the other side.
I felt more numbed by the cold than shocked by the dunking.
I knew there that the larger North Fork was about 100 feet away around the corner and that had to be crossed, so I moved across the snow, ignoring my waterlogged boots, coat and pack.
Hertenstein got across Lick Creek quickly and headed for the North Fork. For the last few yards I watched as he pulled out his skis and put his water sock-clad feet in them and headed for the final crossing.
Thinking this was a good idea, I pulled my skis out my pack, too, and then watched in disbelief as they slid down the snowbank upon which I was sitting and plunged directly into the raging North Fork.
One ski dived straight down where it came to rest, but the other vanished downstream out of sight.
At this point I was more intent on checking my pack for dry clothing and assessing what might be next.
I started across the North Fork, picked up the ski I could see, looked downstream for the ski that had disappeared and headed for the snowbank on the other side.
Despairing of finding the lost ski, I busied myself with getting dry and warm. My pack had repelled most of the water and was mostly dry, and my shell jacket, though wet, had kept the clothing against my body somewhat dry.
Lang and Hertenstein immediately began scouring the water with their eyes for the missing ski.
The prospect of getting back to Gates Park and horses across soft snow and innumerable snags across the trail was not heartening. However, the next cabin at Wrong Creek, was about a mile and a half up hill, where I could dry out and regroup to figure what to do.
To my great surprise and Hertenstein’s concern for his safety, Lang stripped down and waded into the North Fork where he spent the next half hour selflessly searching for my ski.
I had been numbed to unfeeling by my brief time in the water. How he stayed in there, much less how he managed to stay upright against the powerful flow, is beyond me. Hertenstein walked the shore checking for any possible trace of the ski.
That meant I would have to climb out to the trail above and then post-hole back to the cabin in waist deep soft snow, a daunting task.
Everyone dressed, and off we went to Wrong Creek cabin, Hertenstein and Lang on skis and me post-holing one step at a time in cold, water-logged boots.
I had covered about three-quarters of a mile in about two hours, sometimes panting from exhaustion, other times crawling on all fours atop the ski tracks, when Hertenstein appeared with two 20-inch square pieces of plywood. He found the wood at the cabin and used a hammer and nails to punch holes in the plywood where he strung twine to create laces that I could affix the plywood to my boots as a sort of snowshoe. To our glee they worked moderately well, if slowly in the snow. He then left to join Lang on the scheduled steeply uphill Wrong Ridge snow survey, which would take them 3 hours to complete.
It took me another 45 minutes to get to the cabin where I got busy pulling things from my pack to dry over the fire Lang had started in the stove, although I really wanted to collapse from the exhaustion of the post-holing.
When the two returned after 8 p.m. from the survey, where Lang had broken one of his ski poles, we began to assess our options.
I proposed that we could return on a relay where those two could ski ahead and one return with a ski that I could use with my ski and we could ski back to the waiting skier, and then repeat this jump-frog to where Wehunt would be waiting with the packed horses ready to take us to Cabin Creek.
Luck is finally with us
Lang hoped that good fortune would smile upon us and we’d have a clear, cold night which would harden the snow and I could simply walk out atop the snow.
The night broke cold and clear and we were in luck.
When that 5:15 a.m. wake-up match was struck, it was only 4 degrees outside and the snow was bomb proof.
We worked double-time to eat, clean up and close the cabin to take advantage of that cold snow and meet the pack horses at the North Fork Bridge some 12 miles away at the appointed noon hour.
How wonderful it felt to walk atop that concrete-like snow. I didn’t have much trouble walking nearly as quickly as the other two skied.
First, though, we had to stop at do the Wrong Creek survey about a half mile below the cabin, which took about a half hour. The snow was crusty and hard.
Then we sprinted off, stopped only by the occasional tree across the path.
In about two hours we reached Route Creek where I would have been inclined to stop for a water break. However, Lang got there first, crossed on a snow bridge and told me that if I had ever hurried this would be the time to do it. I walked on, thoroughly enjoying the deep forest and the rim views from the North Fork trail.
I figure that Hertenstein and Lang skied roughly half the trail and like me, walked the rest.
I was surprised by how comfortable my plastic ski boots were. Hertenstein, who has the same kind, disagreed.
With only 4 miles to go the trail was mostly melted, except in the north facing draws, and there the snow remained hard enough to walk on.
The sun came out and I enjoyed the walk even more and even took time to shoot photos of the North Fork winding below.
At about 12:30 p.m., we reached Headquarters Creek where Wehunt had parked the horses and was ready to pack our gear for the 8 mile ride out to Cabin Creek.
After a short pack break, we mounted and were off on the horses, weary from our adventure and hike. It was nice to get into hiking boots and take off the heavy, mud-caked ski boots.
The stock seemed jubilant to be heading back.
By the time we got to Cabin Creek, I was thoroughly exhausted and dreaded the unpacking and cabin set up, but was rewarded by a warm spring sun that hung above Slategoat peak that dominated the western horizon.
We all lounged on the cabin porch until the sunset after making sure the horses were corralled and Frenchy properly hobbled for the night.
Lang had promised to “sleep in” on our final day out, but Wehunt awakened us at 5:45 a.m. with the smells of coffee and the sounds of sizzling pork and eggs he fashioned into a breakfast sandwich.
By 8 a.m. the cabin was cleaned and closed and we were atop our saddled horses ready to ride the 16 miles out.
For half of those miles we rode in the cold shade of the mountains, but Friday proved to be a clear, warm day as well.
I was put on Sparky, a more gentle horse than Angus McGaskill, who liked to play in water and jump anything in sight on the three previous days I rode him.
I got to enjoy the scenery on this glorious ride out and think about our adventures and close calls.
Assessing the trip
The trip made me realize how hard Lang has to work to get those precious snow samples.
He is skilled on so many levels: an expert horseman, outdoorsman, skier. The taxpayer is well-served to have him on the payroll.
He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy who has a job to do, and works hard and long doing it.
He is someone you feel safe around in this wild country full of dangers and unexpected turns.
It was humbling for someone like me who has spent so many years playing in the backcountry to be around folks like Lang and Wehunt.
I would have preferred to ski the entire route, but am appreciative of the efforts they made to get the job done despite the numerous obstacles.
The trip was a success because of their perseverance, although the snow conditions were the worst Lang has seen in his seven years of making this run.
I don’t know if I’ll ever make this “milk run” again, but I know that because my ski is at the bottom of the North Fork, I’ll be taking my own “milk run” up there this summer to hunt for it.
|Gates Park cabin|
|Our ski gear on horses|
|Fish and Game Cabin on Sun River|
|Cabin Creek Cabin|