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A Backpacker's Reward: An Essay by cam

Updated on September 6, 2017
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Chris practices free writing which often produces humorous or introspective results with practical applications to living life more fully.

East of Bass Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Big Agnes Fly Creek UI 2 Tent

Big Agnes - Fly Creek Ul 2 Person Tent
Big Agnes - Fly Creek Ul 2 Person Tent

This is the tent I use now. In my opinion, the super-light-weight Big Agnes Fly Creek UI 2 is one of the best backpacking tents available.

 

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.

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

Rocky Peninsula campsite
Rocky Peninsula campsite | Source

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

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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.

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    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 2 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Deb, it was a highlight of my life. My whole time in Montana was that way. Thanks for reading.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Sounds like a great ending to a great day--pan fried fish that you caught yourself and the scenery that will last a lifetime.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Jennifer, life lessons are everywhere if we are willing to watch and wait. Thanks for reading this story and letting me know you enjoyed it.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      AngeShearer, I'm so glad you enjoyed this article. There was never a more special place for me than this lake. I'm glad you could join me for this adventure.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Lovely ending to your story. You touched on some important life lessons. The reward makes the journey worthwhile. We toil so hard for just a few minutes of bliss, but it is all worthwhile because of the journey. Happy trails.

    • AngeShearer profile image

      Angie Shearer 3 years ago from Whangarei, Northland

      Wow Cam what a fantastic hub I enjoyed walking through your journey with you.Absolutely beautiful photos made my journey even more special.....great writing

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Hello BlossomSB, nice to see you. Thank you for the kind words.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Great photos and a good story.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Cam, this was a fun read. I enjoyed your trek, although I felt your pain the first night. The lake and mountains were magnificent. Thank you for sharing this..

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Lorenzo, thanks for reading and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed the writing and the photos.

    • Loreva13 profile image

      Lorenzo M Vasquez III 3 years ago from El Paso, TX

      Fantastic account of your backpacking journey! Felt like I was with you every step the way. Your 'lessons learned" are lessons everyone should take home and apply to all areas of life.

      There's nothing like reaching that goal on a hiking or backpacking expedition and finding the solace only nature can provide. By the way, excellent photos!

      Lorenzo

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Ann, fortunately I have found Pennsylvania to have a beauty all its own. So I'm not always regretting what I left behind in montana. Pennsylvania is a great kayak state. And this winter I'll be doing some spelunking. :)

    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Bill, I took a lifetime of lessons and memories with me when I left Montana. When I write like this, I have the opportunity to relive some very special times.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      A charming account of your travels and the lessons well learned. Your photos are exquisite! What an awe-inspiring place that is; you were so lucky to have that on your doorstep, Chris.

      It's true what they say, 'No pain, no gain!'

      Hope you have a great weekend.

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love your lessons learned, buddy. I love that country; been in that area many times. Thanks for taking us along on a great hike and fishing expedition.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Hello, Eric. This was a highlight of my backpacking in Montana. I would love to go back some day. Thanks for visiting this morning.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Oh Lordy I could just feel your pain. And yet it sure was worth it. You really caught the essence of a good back packing trip here. And thank you for the pictures.