Coal Creek

  • November 08, 2019
  • Posted by Guest Blogger

Glacier bound and, as usual, we were obliged to have an early start, rising at 4:30 am for the procrastinated packing for our hitch.  We were rewarded with a morning drive toward the beautiful oranges and blues provided by the backlight Lewis Range.  Although this was only our second hitch of the fall season, for me it felt like the culmination of my two years of trail work.  Assisted by mules, we would set up a backcountry base camp in the Coal-Nyack drainage basin.  And while a Park Service wrangler and trail worker would facilitate our pack in and pack out, we would be on our own for the seven-day hitch.  As we approached Glacier National Park, my mind wandered.  At this point in the season, I felt strong and confident.  However, in acknowledgment of the National Park Service’s high expectations and the trust we had built over the past five hitches, I felt butterflies in my stomach.

A brisk crossing of the Flathead River left us all cold and shaking but our duress was soon remedied by sunning ourselves on the smooth river rocks of the opposite bank. Clear skies promised us a sunny and warm day.  A welcome change from what had been an unusually wet summer. The mules’ assistance left us unburdened with nine days of food and gear.  Within minutes we had found a happy rhythm and were covering ground quickly.  Along the way, several of us excitedly berated our trail liaison for his favorite hikes in the park, and for anything doable from our camp.  As we hiked my imagination was filled with visions of long ridge walks, bushwhacks, and deep valleys.  These visions were only intensified by the dramatic conical peaks of Mount St. Nicholas and Doody Mountain in the foreground. 

Our camp included a tiny one-room cabin built in the 1920’s which we encircled with our tents.  The cabin itself resembled a small wooden fortress with thick window shutters, a robust door, and a giant elk shed mounted on the front awning.  The cabin’s fortitude was quickly deemed appropriate when we noticed the deep claw marks on the walls and roof.  50 yards west of the cabin, Coal Creek pooled and flowed.  Coal Creek would soon serve as our oasis and swimming hole.

We could not have asked for a better work assignment.  Our tasks included new drains, checks, brand new tread, rehab of old tread, and a new mule hitching rail.  Although some of these tasks were new to us, our efficiency and effectiveness grew throughout the week.  It was not unusual to see us dripping in sweat, sleeves rolled back to catch more sun, and pick swinging hard to dig through rock and clay. Our evenings were filled with runs, swims, and a twilight escapade to some hillside waterfalls. 

Halfway through the week, the lush undergrowth, ferns, and massive trees revealed their propellant.  Four straight days of cold rain ensued.  Our sanity was preserved only by our newfound adeptness at lighting the kerosene lamps and the wood stove in the cabin. These evenings were filled with cards, books, and movies. 

The end of the week was spent developing our “trail eyes”; noticing and correcting every detail of our work, that we could.  When the ninth day finally arrived, twelve mules came to teach us one more lesson.  The very hooves hired to hoof us out, cut into and destroyed our careful work.  We repaired what we could, knowing that only the annual hardening over winter could fortify our work against the mules. 


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