A Backpacker's Reward: An Essay by cam
East of Bass Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana
I was a kid again, and the Big Sky State of Montana was my playground. Every week for six months, when 1:30 on Friday afternoon came around, I grabbed my backpacking gear and headed out for another engagement with the wild country.
The possibilities seemed endless. If I drove five blocks west of the house I was renting and turned south, I was on highway 93 that ran along the Bitterroot River to the east. The Bitterroot Mountains and the best backpacking trails on the planet...In my opinion, were to the west.
And other fantastic possibilities lay to the north, in and around Glacier National Park. Jewel Basin will always be synonymous with heaven in my mind. And close at hand, the Rattlesnake Wilderness defines the word rugged.
South Side of Bass Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana
Making New Friends Along the Way
Bass Lake lay at the end of Bass Creek Trail in the Bitterroot Mountains. I pulled into the trailhead parking lot, grabbed my bag, tightened my shoelaces and hit the trail. The elevation gain over the nine mile hike would be about 3,000 feet. I covered the first three miles in about an hour and was feeling fantastic. The trail was wide, straight and really didn’t seem to be climbing all that much. I stopped for a snack and a few minutes of rest.
Two men about my age were doing the same except they were on their way down. When they heard I was going all the way to the Lake, they got excited. This was their trail, a place they returned to time and time again over the years. I learned from them about a rocky peninsula that jutted out into Bass Lake and was the prime location for me to set up camp.
In my mind, I visualized the place, a little patch of heaven on earth. So I strapped my pack on again and bade my new friends farewell. I was only a mile and a half from the waterfalls on Bass Creek, which marked the halfway point to the Lake. As I approached the falls, I saw a group of people making their way toward me on the trail. I stopped and spoke to these folks.
West End of Bass Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana
There was a man and his wife, about fifty years old. There was another couple as well. They were the fifty year old man’s parents. Here we were, four and a half miles into a mountain canyon, and this seventy something Montana couple were hiking with walking sticks in hand and smiles on their faces. They were halfway through their own 9 mile hike.
The older man stepped forward. He looked up toward where my path would lead and told me about the snow that used to crown the peaks around the lake when he was younger and could make the trek. He hoped I would find snow today, but had heard that in the last few springs, most of the snow had disappeared.
I took my leave and resumed my hike.
North side of Bass Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana
The First Snow Drift
As I said before, the trail had not been climbing much up to the falls. Most of the 3000 foot elevation gain was still ahead. Soon, the switchbacks began, and the climb truly started. I had the option of camping on the way up, but I was too excited to stop. But the trail kept climbing, getting ever steeper. I finally got a glimpse of a mountain ridge. That’s where I was headed and the lake was just beyond it according to the map.
My legs were beyond tired, but I only had a couple of miles to go, so I pushed my way onward. The trail changed, so that instead of a well worn, dirt footpath, I was hiking over jagged rocks. I was nearly to the pass, when I came upon a snow drift that covered the trail ahead. There were no footprints, so I was truly alone. I crossed the snow and ice and kept climbing until I gained the ridge.
Northeast of Bass Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana
Bass Lake, A Jewel in the Crown of the Mountain Peaks
Bass Lake spread out before me, a jewel in the crown of mountain peaks that rose above her. The sun had already sunk below the western rim, and I still had to find the campsite the two men had mentioned. I hiked another mile along the slope bordering the lake and finally had to call it quits. My legs would go no further even though I was so close to my destination. I began searching for a place to set up my tent. Snow covered most of the open area, so I ventured in among the firs until I found a relatively level spot. I struggled with exhaustion as I set up camp in a space barely large enough for my tent, a . Big Agnes, Fly Creek II
Finding firewood robbed me of any remaining reserves of strength, yet I still had to descend to the lake for cooking water and hang my food bag ten feet up on a tree branch so no bear would steal it. Finally I crawled into my tent. The climb to Bass Lake had taken a tremendous toll on my body, and I slept the sleep of utter exhaustion.
I woke the next morning, sore, worn down to a point I had never known before and overcome with awe at the sight of Bass Lake in the early morning light. I broke camp with only a Cliff Bar for breakfast and began my search for that little bit of heaven on earth, the rocky peninsula prophesied by my friends on the trail.
From the Rocky Peninsula in Bass Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana
A Little Heaven on Earth
The trail climbed high up the side of the mountain peak and at this point I began to be concerned for my wellbeing. Where was this place I could call home for the next two days, the place where I could lay down my burden and my own body and rest? Finally, through the fir green veil, I could see grey stone protruding into a blue pool.
I walked out onto the point, loosened the straps on my backpack and dropped it onto solid rock. I fell to my knees and rolled onto my back.
At around noon, I woke up and took in the scene around me. I visually retraced my steps to the ridge, across the end of the lake and along the shore beneath the peaks towered over my sanctuary. The water was a mirror, indistinguishable from the scenery around and above me. A trout struck the surface, momentarily disturbing the sky, mountains and trees. I suddenly found the energy to go on.
A few minutes later I was fighting the first of 23 cutthroat trout I would pull from the unspoiled water with my fly rod.
Trees where I camped the First Night Along Bass Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana
Lessons to Learn and Fish to Catch
They say it's all about the journey, not the destination. But in this case, the promise of the little peninsula on the lake gave me the determination to go on in spite of my own limitations and the challenges of the terrain.
What did this journey teach me? On one hand, that a difficult path is made more endurable by a worthy goal; and that the goal achieved would not be so special had the trail been flat, the terrain even and the distance short.
And one more lesson learned; There isn't a trail so long and exhausting or a hill so steep and torturous that a few minutes with a fly rod won't completely erase from one's memory.