Monday, August 25, 2014

Across the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area: East to West, 90-miles in 6 days

At the base of the Chinese Wall on Day 2
Thirty years ago I used a solo trip across the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area from Headquarters Pass to Holland Lake to sort out my life after my first marriage fell apart.
This past week I did that trip again, with some variation, as a celebration of how well those 30 years have turned out.
It was my third East to West trip across the Bob, one that I needed as an affirmation that at old age, 66 and counting, that I could still do something like this.
With friend Mark Hertenstein, we started out from the South Fork Teton Trailhead on Aug. 19, and came out 90 miles later at the Holland Lake Trailhead on Aug. 24.
On Day 1 we crossed Headquarters Pass and dropped into the North Fork of the Sun River, passed Gates Park and progressed through the 1988 burn to Rock Creek and a Miner's Creek camp:  Click on this link for map, photos and details:  First Day
On Day 2, we walked up Rock Creek to Larch Hill, past My Lake and to the Chinese Wall: Click on this link for map, photos and details: Day 2
On Day 3, we left the Chinese Wall down Burnt Creek to the White River Pass cutoff trail, camping just below the pass: Click on this link for map, photos and details: Day 3
On Day 4, we walked through the pass and down Molly Creek and the South Fork White River to the junction with the North Fork White River, down White River, crossed the fork and the river and then to the South Fork Flathead, which we crossed to camp: Click on this link for map, photos and details: Day 4
On Day 5, we slogged through steady rain from South Fork Flathead up Holbrook Creek to Pendant Cabin,  watching an interesting progression in forest types --- from burn to rain forest.  I found Scarface Mountain and its large, visible cave on its flank most interesting: Click on this link for map, photos and details: Day 5
On the Final Day, we went from Pendant Cabin to Holland Lake via the Pendant Lakes, Pendant Pass and down the spectacular trail to Holland Lake past Upper Holland Lake and too many waterfalls of many kinds to our car: Click on this link for map, photos and details: Final Day
We found the entry and exit points to the Bob, some of the most scenic parts of the hike, like the Front (above)
We knew going into this trip that the "change of weather" storm was on its way, and we walked right into it.  During this period Great Falls got more than 3 inches of rain, nearly a quarter of a yearly total.  I don't think this area got quite as much, but we had rain on Days 3, 4, and 5, with the most steady on Day 5.
Through luck and circumstance we were able to dry out and stay warm and dry at night and had a great trip.
No one could properly prepare for the mountains of mud we encountered on trails that had been gouged and muddied by packers' horse strings hauling dudes.
I am dismayed by the mess many of the horse camps are in.  Horse crap is everywhere.  There is considerable litter. Horses braid and widen trails and create new paths around downed trees. Grass is sheared to nubbings. I understand the need to deliver tourists to the backcountry, but wonder if large outfitter camps that I saw, like the one at the bottom of Holbrook Creek or at the forks of the White River, are in concert with the spirit of wilderness.
Miles of muddy trails, gouged by horse packs, made for miserable travel
There seemed to be a surprise around every corner.  I had seen the North Fork White River on previous trips, but had never seen the rest of the White River country.  I saw the rest, from top to bottom, on this trip;  the white rock, which gives this area its name, is ubiquitous.   It is in sharp contrast to the bright reds and greens  in the South Fork Flathead.  There were stretches of some of the biggest trees I've ever seen in the Bob.  Some areas were reminiscent of the redwoods.  The area below White River Pass to the north, in the Red Butte area, is as pretty as any Glacier Park.
This was my fourth time to the Chinese Wall, but it never fails to thrill.
I believe I finally found the "Trick Pass" to the top of the Wall to climb its high point, Cliff Mountain, but didn't have the time or energy check it through.
My biggest dread on this East-West trip are the river crossings, particularly the South Fork Flathead.  We had little trouble with the crotch deep (on little me) White River, but when we missed the designated crossing of the South Fork when we got disoriented, this caused me real grief.  We found an adequate crossing, but it was deep and swift and I was glad to be done with it.
Two Canadian Continental Divide through hikers at Rock Creek Cabin

A solo Walt Whitman look-alike appeared near Larch Hill Pass

Below White River Pass on the East side we found a wilderness paradise

Approaching White River Pass in fog and rain

Above the glorious White River

Crossing the White River near its junction with South Fork Flathead

Very large larch tree

One of the Pendant Lakes
As I discovered in previous Bob trips, many signs have been removed and there's lots of educated guess work to be done.  We lost a couple of hours wandering around between the White River and South
Fork because we took a bad turn.
Entering and exiting where we did, I remain as convinced as ever that the Rocky Mountain Front and the Swan Front portions abutting the Bob deserve wilderness designation.  I could not fathom what architects of the Bob were thinking when they left those portions out of wilderness designation.
The wilderness area was as empty as can be given that we traveled through a prime week in the best month of summer.
On the first day we saw two small pack strings going into Gates Park.
On the second day we encountered two young Canadian Continental Divide through-hikers who had started at Jasper National Park and were heading south to Mexico.  We met an elderly (73) bearded hiker near Larch Hill Pass, a former Missoula smokejumper now living in Bonners Ferry, who looked like the reincarnation of Walt Whitman.  We saw no one along the Chinese Wall the two days we took to cross it.
On the third day, we met two horsemen coming from the White River, just before dark.
We saw no one else on the fourth day.
It wasn't until late afternoon that we met two horse packers with four horses heading to the South Fork Flathead.
Huckleberries were plentiful, tasty and a time-waster

Horses, horses, horses seems to be the essence of the Bob experience for most
Around noon, after we had crested Pendant Pass and were descending to Upper Holland Lake, we met our crowds ---- several pack strings and dudes and three young day-runners from Missoula on a long loop jaunt.  As we neared Holland Lake there were two families.
In six days, three backpackers and horse strings at the beginnings and ends, that's not exactly what I'd call a crowd in this small slice of this immense outdoors spectacle.
I'm not sure Montanans know what a treasure they have in their backyard.
We made the 270 mile drive around to the South Fork Teton Trailhead to pick up Mark's car after we had completed our journey and found that the top 500 feet of Rocky Mountain Peak on the Front, had been plastered with snow!  We had endured lots of rain, but had dodged that bullet.

Views of Holland Lake and the snow-capped Mission Mountains put an exclamation mark on the end of the hike!


Kroggy said...

I glad you made the trip safely and had a great time.

Anonymous said...

If 'Walt Whitman' is 73 YO and out there, you have at least 7 years left in you!

Joseph Jewett said...

Tom. love this piece. Your writing, which I know well from more than a decade of reading the Trib is top-notch.