Plans versus Reality

  • September 04, 2015
  • Posted by Jedd Sankar-Gorton

The plan was simple: hike a crew member 15 miles into the Great Bear Wilderness and meet up with her crew. The reality played out a little differently.
A dental appointment had kept her from making the hike into Flotilla Lake and now she was ready to get in and do some work. We made plans for the trip the day before. Having never hiked to this lake, we consulted a map and analyzed the possible routes. We selected a shorter but slightly more complex route to save time on the trail. By we, I, of course, mean Maeve, crewmember extraordinaire, and myself. The next morning we drove the two and a half hours to the Granite Creek trailhead on the north end of the Hungry Horse ranger district. Along the way, I had picked up a 15 pound watermelon to hike into the, I assumed, desperately watermelon deprived crew. As we departed the trailhead later than hoped, Maeve announced that this was the heaviest pack she’d ever carried. Good things.
We settled in and the miles started grinding on by. We hit our first junction, found the barely there trail, and made the turn. By then it was getting hot and would soon reach into the mid-90s. Both Maeve and I were beginning to slow down a bit and really feel it. I was also beginning to hear that little voice in my head wondering if the unmarked turn we had just made was really the right one. The map I carried, the last Bob Marshall Complex map we had in the office, was of the whole Wilderness and, thus, had a scale that made careful reading of the map quite challenging. These thoughts and the reality of the heat began to add up. Still, we were making good progress and soon had our fears quelled when we ran into Patrick, head of trails at Schafer Ranger Station. He assured us that we were on the right path and agreed that it was too damn hot. Down the trail we went.
Our next major step on the horizon was a confusing river crossing and junction squeezed together into a quarter mile. I played out in my head what the map was indicating and what I was seeing on the ground. They weren’t really matching up but I knew we were in the right place. Soon, it seemed, we had found the spot; a right-ish turn and then a nice big crossing of the middle fork of the Flathead River. It suddenly looked like all of my fears had been for naught. We had made the right turn and crossed the river and found the trail. All was well OR SO IT SEEMED.
After we made the crossing and started on the trail again, Maeve and I really started to feel the heat. We were five hours into the hike by now and should have been closer to our goal then we actually were, if not already to the lake. As we continued hiking, I couldn’t help but notice that we were gaining much more elevation than the map seemed to indicate we should be. The sense that something was wrong grew in me but I still could not place it. I whipped the map out and took a long good look at it. We had made the requisite number of turns and seemed to have passed the correct number of offshoot trails, though their lack of signage did little to completely quell my concerns and actually prevented me from seeing my error sooner. (Side note: the lack of signage in much of the Bob Marshall adds an air of romanticism and that feeling of days-long-past when YOU HAVE BEEN THERE BEFORE AND KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING. In our case, though, when YOU HAVE NOT BEEN THERE BEFORE AND YOU DO NOT KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING the lack of signage forces you to be really on the top of your map-and-landscape-reading-game and sometimes gets you lost.) After staring at my map as closely as one could and orienting it and replaying our earlier junction decisions in my minds-eye, I still could not find our error or assuage my feelings that we were in the wrong place. So, on we went.
Soon enough, Maeve had run out of water and I was rationing my remaining supply cautiously. At first, the water situation really freaked me out, as we had been in 90+ degree heat for around 6 hours, but then I remembered that I was carrying a 15 pound watermelon. (Knew I had brought that for a reason.) We were not going to actually run out of water for awhile. As Maeve, who really had done a great job with the heaviest pack she’d ever carried, finally slowed down in earnest, I saw another offshoot trail approaching. Finally, this one was signed. It read #338 Lodgepole Mountain. Hmm, that’s odd, I thought. I opened the map and located a #337 Lodgepole Mountain and realized immediately and with a sigh of relief where we were; about 3 miles from the wonderful Schafer Meadows backcountry ranger station. I had been in this spot many times before and everything came together. Aside from the hilarious mis-numbering between the signpost and the map and the fact that we were on the wrong trail and not going to reach the crew tonight, things had just taken a turn for the best. Tucked into the woods below a set of admirable mountains, Schafer is a bucolic and comforting place. Cool, I thought.
In another grinding hour, Maeve and I cruised up to Schafer and limply deposited ourselves on the picnic table. I went and stood in the sprinkler set-up nearby. Schafer trail-dog packer and MCC alum, Adam, stuck his head out of the cookhouse and inquired as to our presence. “Weren’t you headed into Flotilla, Jedd?” “Well, yes, Adam, but we are here, instead,” I noted. Our dilemma quickly explained, Adam let out his high yelping laugh and was soon offering us some Gatorade. We smiled, as all three of us knew that there was nothing more in the world that we wanted. While downing several jugs of delicious Gatorade, Adam and I talked out what had gone wrong. Seems that the crossing we had made at that big junction had not actually been the middle fork and that we, thinking it had been, had missed our actual right turn soon afterwards. Apparently, the trail cuts back to your right and pretty much isn’t noticeable unless you are closely looking for it, which we were not. Instead, we had stayed on the Big River trail and unknowingly set our sights on the farther away Schafer. We had hiked 20 miles in seven hours instead of 15 in, probably, five hours. Woof.
Soon after, the volunteer station guards came in and introduced themselves. They asked “will you be staying for dinner?” “Oh my, yes,” We replied greedily. “Well, the pork chops should be ready in a half hour.” “OMG, are you like serious because we are both like about to keel over and that sounds even better than we could have like ever imagined,” Maeve and I both thought in our heads. Within the hour, we were eating pork chops and mashed potatoes and salad from the little garden and life was GOOD. After dinner, Adam mentioned that he was heading to the crew at Flotilla the next day and could take both Maeve and my godforsaken watermelon. After dinner I whispered to Maeve that I had done it all on purpose.
A moment to reflect: there are only a few places that I know of where you can make mistakes like I did that day under those circumstances and come out ahead, like a whole pork chop dinner ahead. I mean really, 12 miles into a Wilderness hike, we had made a wrong turn without sufficient supplies for a more than bare-bones night in woods. Instead of this going badly at all, we in fact ended up being coddled by a retired couple and got to hang out with a friend at a beloved and storied spot. Only in the Bob.
The next morning I stuck around for french toast and bacon, obviously. Then, now that I was at Schafer, I hiked a shorter route back out to the rig. Adam and Maeve headed for the crew. As I made it out and headed home I couldn’t help reflecting that trips like that are one of the main reasons that I keep doing this job.

In the end, it was just another one of those classic dog days of August; when you’re still too deep into the season to see the finish line but the sound of squirrels knocking pine cones to the forest floor as you hike and the fireweed beginning to go to seed tells you that this year too has inexplicably peaked and that we are closer to the end than to the beginning. Funny how that keeps happening. As long as adventures like these keep coming down the pipeline, I don’t mind that it does.


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