Continued from PART I
In the few days before I departed my journey, it seemed as if everyone’s favorite questions to ask me were:
“Are you getting nervous?” “Are you scared?” “Are you starting to get worried?”
This upset me, yet I understood their worry, knowing that I truly had very little wilderness experience, and none of it solo.
My response to these well meaning questioners was simply:
“I’m trying not to think about that. All I can do is consider how I need to be prepared and how I can previsualize my trip. If I walk into this journey with the mindset of being nervous, scared and worried- I’m not going to enjoy myself at all- and in fact, I will hate this trip. My plan is to educate myself about my route and the potential events I may encounter. I will take one day at a time. One mile at a time.”
The day before I started hiking, I spent the entire afternoon making a checklist, checking it twice, and checking it again. I laid out all my gear on the living room floor so I could see everything at once. I made one final shopping trip to pick up some dinner to eat on the way to the trailhead that night, then headed to Bigfork.
Arriving at my in-laws house, I proceeded to add a few more borrowed essentials to my cache. When everything was checked off of my list, I then packaged everything up into bundles of like goods that could be easily balanced and packed on the horse. After weighing everything, I concluded that Ben would be carrying approximately 150 lbs of gear, including saddle and pads. He would be eating some of that weight as we went along.
I insisted on carrying a 28 lb personal pack of survival essentials. There was a possibility that Ben could become spooked and run off away from me with all of my gear. If that was to happen, I needed to be prepared to spend the night alone. Among the essentials I carried were lightweight warm clothes including hat and gloves, waterproof shells, an emergency bivy, headlamp, lighters, SPOT Beacon (to notify my husband of an emergency), maps (Ben can’t read), food for a day, Hydro Flask, bear spray, and a loaded pistol.
Once everything was organized, checked off the list, weighed and packed in the truck, it was time to load Ben. If only he knew what he was getting into. He might not have stepped into that trailer so readily…
With that, Josh and I headed towards the Silvertip Trailhead with Ben in tow. Driving up the Hungry Horse Reservoir road, and then an additional 16 miles past the Hungry Horse Ranger station took considerably longer than I had originally anticipated. The washboard gravel road had us traveling at a pace of about 25 miles an hour. At one point the road conditions were so bad I had to get out of the truck and guide Josh with a headlamp to make sure the truck and trailer would safely make it through rubble and construction. It took us more than 4 hours to reach the trailhead that night.
We arrived at the trailhead in darkness. I promptly removed Ben from the trailer, feeling bad for him. I could only imagine what it felt like for him to be drug over washboard roads for several hours. I wanted to relieve him as soon as possible. There was some hay on the ground by the hitching posts that had been left behind by previous packers. I gathered everything I could find into a nice big pile and positioned him in front of it at the rail.
For the sake of saving time and maximizing our hours of sleep, Josh and I laid out our ground pads and sleeping bags in the bed of the truck rather than pitching a tent. We both slept restlessly that night. I couldn’t help but run through map points and checklists in my mind.
At about 4am we woke to the brisk morning air. I was exhausted but buzzing, filled with nervous excitement and anticipation of the unknown I was about to meet. We laid out my blue tarp and began unloading all of my gear into a big pile on the ground.
Josh brewed a quick cup of JetBoil coffee from my packed rations. Together we sat quietly for a moment- leaning side by side against the fender of the trailer- contemplating the pile of gear on the ground. Although I was eager to get started on my solo adventure, I equally dreaded Josh’s departure.
After we savored the last drops of our morning coffee, Josh stood boldly, walked over to Ben, gave him a few brisk pats on the neck, running his hands along his mane and muzzle and whispered “Keep her safe.” Josh turned to me and we embraced tightly - the last time for several days. He kissed me and said, “Be careful. Be safe. I love you.”
He stepped quickly into the truck, not letting our farewell linger. I watched silently as the tail lights of the horse trailer disappeared around the corner. I stood there for several minutes, knowing I had just officially committed to this adventure. No longer did I have a ride out of there. It was just me, Ben and 178 lbs of supplies.
Wanting to take advantage of my early start, I began to prep Ben and reorganize my gear. I quickly saddled him, added the packs, and balanced his load. I learned immediately that I could not leave my hiking poles anywhere near Ben. He would knock them over and step on them.
I took one last glance at my trail map- confirming that I was indeed in the correct location and embarking on the appropriate path.
As we set out on the trail, I adopted a fairly brisk pace. There were 10 miles to cover before we reached the Pentagon Cabin, and I had no idea what sort of epics we might encounter. The morning dew still clung to the forest foliage and quickly wet through my gaiters and boots. I made the occasional stop to pick ripe huckleberries that were sweet and swollen. However, I had to exercise some restraint to maintain reasonable progress. It took a few miles for Ben and I to get our hiking goals in sync, where I wasn't dragging him along, and he wasn't crowding my heels.
The morning light was beautiful and shimmering through the dewy trees. My spirits were high, the trail was easy, we were off to a great start.
I came upon the beautiful Blue Lakes quite quickly. It felt great to reach destinations on my map and to be making progress so soon. Unfortunately, I was again reluctant to linger at this gorgeous spot, uncertain of what I might be encountering further up the road.
Just a bit down the trail I encountered the first of several burns. I have always loved the look of burned out forests. Its a rare opportunity to be at a low vantage point in the woods and still have a great field of view. It was nice to be out of the shade and have the warm morning sun on my skin.
I was delighted that despite being in a burn, the trail was cleared very well. If there was a tree down- it was something that Ben and I could both step over easily. I had called the Forest Service Headquarters in advance to check on the trail conditions- and they assured me that my route had been managed and I should be good to go.
Everything was going great! I was making good time, the trail was open, the sun was shining.... and then I rounded the corner to this monstrosity:
It took me several minutes to fully assess what I was looking at and the seriousness of the situation. The location I was hiking in was shaded and the trail slightly damp. I could see the tracks of horses or mules continuing on either side of this tree. Were other packers able to cross over? Or did this happen recently? It looked like a very fresh downfall to me.
This fallen tree was not only across the trail- it fell diagonally and lengthwise, creating an obstacle for about 20 feet. This was a mature tree with some branches being as big around as my forearm. Some of those branches were suspending the tree off the ground, making it an even taller obstacle. Additionally, the trail was raised- with a dirt fill between two logs. Even if I could get Ben to step over the down tree where it was closest to the ground, he would then have to step downhill off the trail, which was snaggled up with branches and debris. It looked like a leg breaker situation to me, and I didn't want to risk an injury to Ben.
My first attempt at a solution was to tie Ben to a tree behind me while I attacked limbs with a hatchet. I needed to make a clear path over the log and straight onto the trail. After 20 minutes of chopping, I untied Ben and led him to the portion of log that I had cleared. Unfortunately, it was too tall for him to step over AT ALL. I even tried picking up his leg -hoping to set his hoof on the tree- so he could step on it, then over.... but his leg simply couldn't bend that far. Boo. That's not going to work.
I tied Ben again and reassessed the possibility of him stepping over the lower portion off the raised trail. Again, no. This did not look like a safe option. I scanned the terrain around me to see if there was an easy path off trail to bypass the obstacle. There must have been a significant wind gust through the area- because there were trees down in all directions- some with giant 8 foot root wads exposed. The off-trail terrain was thick and tangled, with low pits that had logs strung across- completely impassable for Ben.
I began to get frustrated. Was I going to get turned around this easily? This couldn't be the thing that defeats me! On day one! I looked at my trail map, to see if there was another option that I was missing. About a quarter mile back, there was a trail veering left off the main trail that ascended Pivot Mountain, and then took a different path to my destination, Pentagon Cabin.
Wait...no. I was NOT going to TURN AROUND, and CLIMB A MOUNTAIN to get around this tree. There MUST be an easier way.
While Ben was still tied- I decide to attempt a bushwhack around the log, back around to the main trail. If I could get through by myself, there was a good chance I could get through with Ben. My first attempt at finding a reasonable path that I could lead Ben through- fully loaded- did not look good. I was almost to the point of freaking out.
Finally, I untied Ben and committed to finding a path through the thicket. I went slowly and heavily considering each path decision I made. There were places where I had to take out my saw, cut through bent down trees and remove them.
After an hour and a half, Ben and I reached the cleared portion of trail on the opposite side of the giant downed tree. EUREKA!!! Thankfully this wasn't going to be a "there-and-back" trip!!
If I had been by myself (without a horse), that obstacle would have been very easy for me to clamber over on my own. I learned right away that I had to make special accommodations for Ben. I needed to consider not only his anatomy and physical capabilities, but also the load he was carrying.
First day, already humbled. I was too frustrated to continue gathering footage for the rest of the afternoon. I had consumed so much time on that epic, my only concern was to get to the cabin and make camp.
As I hiked on, I would play a game with myself where I would consider what time of day it was, how long I had been hiking, and guess how many miles I had traveled based on my approximate pace.
While in one of these math trances, I glimpsed a golden flash of fur that jumped across the trail in front of me and darted into the woods. It was so sudden, that I wasn't absolutely certain what I saw. However, based on the size of the body, its movement, and the abundance of "barefoot tracks" on the trail, I'm pretty sure it was a bear.
I stopped dead in my tracks and my hands instinctively moved to my hips- touching my pepper spray canister and loaded pistol- confirming that they were still there.
"Heeeey Bear." "Heeeeey Bear." I felt silly saying it- but figured it was worth announcing my presence.
I walked briskly, knowing that I must be nearing my destination. It was getting later in the day, and the sun beat hot on my arms. The trail had dropped down to the flats near the river. The cabin should be around the corner at any moment.
As I walked into a wooded clearing, I saw the beautiful Pentagon cabin. My heart leapt with joy! I had reached my first destination! Success! I quickly tied Ben to the hitching rail up front, unloading his gear onto the front porch as hastily as possible. I led him into the gated corral behind the cabin so he could run around freely while I sorted through gear and investigated my home for the night.
There was an easy access to the river just down the bank behind the cabin. The water was brisk and refreshing. I sat for awhile, pumping water into all of my available containers. I rinsed and wrung out my muddy socks then laid them on the hot rocks to dry in the sun. I filled the Sun Shower that I had brought along and laid it out on the rocks to get warm.
While my shower was warming, I headed back to the cabin to check in with my SPOT beacon. I brought this along so I would be able to notify Josh or emergency services in case of an accident. Additionally, it allowed me to do a GPS check in, so that Josh could confirm I was indeed making the daily progress I had intended. I sent out a pre-programmed custom message that said "Stop worrying, all is well. I love you."
Because I had such an early start that morning, even despite the tree epic, it was still quite early in the day. It was a rare chance for me to leisurely explore my surroundings, organize my gear, set up camp, prepare dinner, wash dishes, and recline next to a crackling fire while sipping hot tea.
Once I had committed to be finished eating for the day, I went about preparing my food and stove to be hung in a tree. I washed my dishes with moss, sand, and cool running water from the river. After brushing my teeth, I packed everything into my giant food bag and prepared to tie it up in a tree. I tied my paracord first around the top of the bag, and then the other end around a fist sized stone. After a few attempts, I was able to successfully sling my cord over a thick branch about 20 feet up. Being the first day of my journey, my food bag was EXTREMELY heavy, and I couldn't budge it off the ground with the paracord. The only solution was to first pick up the bag and hoist it from below while pulling it up with the cord. Rather than hang additional weight in my already heaving food bag, I decided to chuck Ben's compressed hay pellets on top of the roof of the outhouse. I didn't think they would be a bear attractant- but it would certainly keep the deer out of his stash. Up there I also placed a tupperware that contained the next days pre-soaking dehydrated dinner and a bag of cooling jello for breakfast.
Before I settled into my tent for the night, I refilled my collapsible bucket with water and offered it to Ben. He drank most of it, and then happily dumped the rest on the ground when he was finished. I scooped up left over hay that had been tossed out of the corral, and placed it in the feed trough for Ben to munch on overnight.
Finally content with the completion of my chores, I settled into my tent which I set up near the corral next to Ben so I could hear him alert me to any shenanigans that might happen during the night. I was comfortable, yet tired, and a little anxious because my adventure was still new.
To be continued.... PART 3 : SWITCHBACK PASS
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