Five days in the wilderness. Forty pounds on my back. Thirty-five memorable miles. One priceless trip with my beloved. The following chronicles our trip to the Beartooth Wilderness in southern Montana – the good, the bad, the beautiful…and the raw. Consider yourself warned.
We arrive in Cody, Wyoming!
After checking in to the hotel for what will be our last night of creature comforts for a while, we head toward Yellowstone to do some exploring.
Meandering through tunnels carved out of the rocky cliffs, we find ourselves at the Buffalo Bill Dam and Reservoir. When the “damn dam” – as it was not-so-affectionately called, due to its trouble-ridden construction – was completed in 1910, it was the tallest dam in the world, standing taller than the U.S. Capitol!
Over a dinner of pulled-pork barbecue, Jeff and I toast to our upcoming adventure with sweet tea (you don’t drink alcohol before a prolonged, high-octane activity like this…unless you’re an idiot). I’m a little nervous. Technically, this isn’t my first backpacking trip, but it is the longest and most difficult.
After two and a half hours and a long stretch of gnarly, pot-holed gravel roads, we get to the East Rosebud Lake Trailhead. The view is jaw-dropping from the get-go, with beautiful East Rosebud Lake, the creek rushing into it, and of course, the mountains beckoning to us in the distance.
Time to do this thing!
We shrug into our packs, bear spray at our hips, and start our steady climb into the towering mountains. Rocky passes, gold and auburn vegetation, sheer cliffs, and rushing rapids all vie for our attention.
And the scents! Shrubs with leaves that look like bay leaves envelope us in a sweet-spicy aroma, and as we pass stands of spruce, fir, and pines, it’s like Christmas! The bear bell jingling from the back of my pack completes the image. Its purpose is to alert bears of our approach so they are not caught off guard, but I call it my goat bell because, for the most part, I’m following behind Jeff like his trusty, burden-laden goat.
Lunch is a bagel with peanut butter at sky-blue Elk Lake.
Jeff warns me that it’s going to be a bitch of a climb up to the next lake, Rim Rock Lake, but I just smile and channel my inner goat. I got this. Ain’t nothing but a thing.
Eight miles of “up” later, I realize I am not a goat. I am, in fact, feeling every second of my forty-five years. And every pound of my forty-pound pack. Oddly enough, my feet and back are fine. It’s my hip flexors that are threatening to split my skin open and fall out on the trail. They hurt less when I was pregnant.
We reach our destination for the day: Rainbow Lake. With glazed eyes, I watch Jeff rifle through our packs. I should help. I want to help. No, what I really want to do is curl up in a fetal position and cry. I am tired, stiff, cold, and hungry. And I have five more days ahead of me.
Turns out, Jeff doesn’t need my help. As I stand here stupidly, he puts both tents up and is working on our dinner of noodles and chicken – with a smile. He’s watching me warily. I know he wants me to enjoy this trip, to enjoy backpacking. I do, too. I’m just not sure I can.
We meet Ranger Jenny, who carries a full-size shovel, as well as a full pack. She asks us how long we will be in the woods and if we know how to properly store our food. Noticing our bear canisters, she nods her head approvingly. She almost glows when we tell her we don’t intend to have any campfires. Then comes the poop discussion. Do we know that we are supposed to bury our poop? (Yes.) Ranger Jenny nearly shivers with glee, and it’s no wonder. Five days a week, for the past five years, she’s carried that shovel so she can bury other people’s poop. How’s that for a shitty job? Before she leaves, Ranger Jenny hands me a little pamphlet, on the back of which, under the subtitle Poop, is the following:
Dig a hole in the dirt 6 to 8 inches deep (or deeper if you know you’re going to fill it up.) Bringing a trowel makes this a lot easier, and if you don’t have one you are going to need extra time to dig with a rock or stick. Do your business in the hole, and then bury it with dirt (don’t just stick a rock on it.) If you have a very small amount of toilet paper, you can bury it in the hole too, but don’t try to bury mounds of tp. Animals love to dig it up and spread it everywhere. Burn it or pack it out with you. It might seem gross to have to carry out toilet paper, but it’s a lot grosser to come across someone else’s on the ground.
Rock on, Ranger Jenny.
Night falls fast and I clamber into my tent. For the first time in years, I have no interest in reading. I just want to close my eyes, click my heels three times, and …you get the picture. Instead, I burrow into my sleeping bag and will myself to sleep. Like that’s ever worked for anyone, ever.
Hours go by, and I’m still staring up at the darkness. The waterfall at Rainbow Lakes sounds like Highway 41 at home. I keep reminding myself that it’s a waterfall, and before long, I have to pee. This is not going to happen, of course. It’s not. I am not leaving this tent until the sun comes up.
Another hour goes by, and I try to think of anything but waterfalls. Finally, I give in and slide my head lamp over my forehead. The silent night is dashed by my tent zipper. I scamper as far away as my nerves will allow to make my peace with Mother Nature.
Safely back in the tent, I zip the sleeping bag all the way up. How can I possibly make it through the rest of the week? Because I’m a goat, I tell myself half-heartedly, as a single tear slips down my cheek.
I open my eyes and it’s light outside! I made it! Not everyone is impressed, however. Three feet from my tent, a squirrel chatters its disgust at my presence.
“Really?” I hurl back. We’re not on good terms after it pelted me with pinecones while I was trying to follow Ranger Jenny’s instructions the night before.
Unzipping my tent, I find Jeff smiling down at me. He searches my face as he pulls me to my feet. “This is fun, why?” I grunt. His face falls ever so slightly. “I’m just kidding,” I assure him. We both know I’m not.
I notice a wet spot on the ground near the back of my tent. Apparently my “nerves” hadn’t let me scamper as far as I’d thought they had last night. Jeff graciously explains that it’s generally not a good idea to pee uphill from one’s tent. Duly noted.
Time for breakfast. Jeff makes oatmeal, and possibly the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. By the time I put my contacts in, he has everything cleaned and nearly packed up. I feel so damn useless, but at the same time, I’m in awe. Twenty years of marriage and I’m now seeing my husband with fresh eyes. Underneath that simple, non-pretentious style of his, he’s deeply thoughtful, solid, and sagacious. The real deal. And the only person who knows me better than myself.
With our packs back on, we set off up the trail again, my little goat bell tinkling behind me. I’m stiff and cold, but within five minutes, I have my hiking legs back. I am Goat Woman, hear me bleat.
Before long, we’re looking down on Rainbow Lake.
It looks like a picture in a magazine with its sapphire-blue water. And the climb continues. Jeff warned me yesterday that we’d be facing a bitch of a climb (again) from the get-go. I power through it like a boss (or goat), thinking that we’ve come through the worst of our day’s climb. I am about to learn that topo (topographic) maps are bullshit.
We reach Lake at Falls about an hour later, and it’s every bit as breathtaking as Rainbow Lake.
Next up, Big Park Lake – an emerald green lake where we take a GORP (Good Ole Raisins & Peanuts) break.
I feel strangely worse after the break, though. Not sure why, but I suspect it’s because after the “bitch” of a climb that really wasn’t, I was not prepared for the real bitch of a climb that followed. Still, I “goat through” to Duggan Lake, where we drop our packs and eat lunch (another bagel with peanut butter). Impasse Falls pours into Duggan Lake, providing just the right ambience as I snooze on a rock. Jeff rock-hops over to the falls to take pics.
After a little rest and a slight adjustment to my shoulder straps, I’ve got my goat on again and we plow through to Twin Outlets Lake, where we are rewarded with even more waterfalls.
Jeff stops every few minutes to snap pics of them. “I can’t stop taking pictures of waterfalls!” he laughs.
We pass through an amazing wildflower meadow splashed with gold, pink, purple, and flame red, to get to our home for the next two nights – Dewey Lake. I’m exhausted, but still able to gape up at the glacier-peppered mountains surrounding us.
Still not sleeping, but the upside is that I am awake in plenty of time to see the sunrise over Dewey Lake – and it is magnificent!
Today, we’re using Dewey Lake as our base camp and day-hiking up to Fossil Lake. My hips and shoulders aren’t screaming quite so loudly, but I did find some new blisters forming on my toes this morning, so now I’m taping up seven of the ten.
I’m starting to learn the order in which Jeff does everything, and try to help out as much as I can. For example, I set out everything for breakfast this morning. Hey, it’s a start. I’m still cold, stiff, and sore in the mornings, but I’m trying to goat through it.
Heading toward Fossil Lake, we walk through a traditional alpine meadow, complete with boulders, trees, bubbling brooks, wildflowers, and glacier-covered mountains in the background. There is one glacier in particular that we see all the time, but from different angles. We decide to call it Krivo Glacier.
The land is other-worldly as we climb above treeline. Huge rocks and boulders litter the ground surrounding Fossil Lake, the source of all those amazing waterfalls we saw.
Next stop, the cairn at the apex of the trail.
We are now standing at 10,000 feet above sea level. Making our way to the other side of a hill (and a rare instance of shade), we sit down to dine on yet another bagel with peanut butter. An inquisitive chipmunk checks out our packs, chittering his disappointment when he doesn’t find anything edible.
We pass Fizzle Lake and are forging our way toward Skull Lake, when Jeff makes an executive decision to turn back. I worry that he’s dumbing down the route because of me, but he makes a good case for doing so: we are fully exposed above treeline, it’s already hotter than hell, and we were kind of hoping to wash some clothes in the lake before dinner. (Admittedly, the last part was the clincher for me, as I’d managed to pee on my pant leg the night before.) So we turn around. And we wash clothes! How glorious it is to have pee-free pants!
Noodles for dinner again. I tell Jeff I will never make any kind of pasta immediately after his backpacking trips again. At this point, I’m not sure I will ever eat pasta again. Or bagels.
I am journaling just before bed when a female mule deer shows up to check us out. Those ears are huge! She steps daintily around the perimeter of our campsite, then disappears as quietly as she came.
Tonight I learned not to pee on rocks. Let’s just say I need to dunk my pants in the lake again.
I finally slept! With dreams and everything! And I’m getting the hang of things, too! I stuff my sleeping bag into its stuff sack and empty the air mattress before I even emerge from my tent. Jeff will be so impressed! After breakfast, I’m feeling so badass, I cut loose a man-sized belch. The goat is back, bitches!
Heading back down to Rainbow Lake today, and judging by all the downhill, we sure did some climbing those first few days! According to Jeff, it was a “shit-ton.” He keeps telling me how proud I should be of myself. I am. But what I really want is for him to be proud of me…and I think he is.
Five miles are done and gone before our daily bagel! We’re camping at Rainbow Lake again tonight, and when we get there, it’s a ghost town. No Ranger Jenny. No other campers. Jeff and I have the whole lake to ourselves! We strip down and wash off, dunk some clothes (pee-free and proud to be!), filter water, eat, laugh, talk, soak our blistered feet in the frigid water, and talk some more. I point out faces of animals and people I “see” in the cliffs around us (kind of like cloud-watching, only rockier) and Jeff laughs. I am in heaven.
I am up at daybreak, stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack, emptying out the air mattress, and folding it up to go in its bag. That’s progress, people!
My hips are still a little weird and I’m now wrapping nine of my ten toes, but the rest of me is good!
The cold really isn’t so bad, especially when there’s hot chocolate to look forward to! Our gas runs out with breakfast this morning, though, so this will be the last hot meal. To tell the truth, I’m kind of glad. No gas means no noodles for dinner! We’ll be noshing on crackers and GORP, which sounds divine at the moment.
We get all the way back to Elk Lake by noon.
I eat my last bagel. Jeff can’t stomach his, so he starts in on the crackers and GORP early. Technically, we could easily throw down the last 3 ½ miles to the trailhead, but we don’t have reservations back in Cody until the following night and Cody is on the doorstep of Yellowstone…and it’s Labor Day weekend. Fat chance we’d get a hotel room. Besides, we’re used to each other’s stink by now. Plus, I think we both kind of want another night like this – just us and the mountains and a lake. Because, wouldn’t you know it, we have Elk Lake all to ourselves tonight.
After lunch, we lay out a tarp and cloud-watch until an ominous cloud creeps over the rim of the canyon. Jeff determines we should put up the rain tarp, and it’s a good thing – not ten minutes later, we are sitting under it waiting out a five-minute hail storm!
The sun dries everything in minutes and we decide it’s safe to set up our tents. Feeling a little plucky, I insist on setting mine up by myself. Jeff cooperates, mostly.
Then we set out to explore the area around the lake. After a non-noodle dinner, we walk back to the shore for a little more cloud-watching, followed by a spectacular, grand-finale-to-the-trip sunset.
Only, it’s not the end. A buck visits our campsite at dusk.
Then, around 9:30, something very large tears through the brush and flings itself into the lake. Jeff is peering out from his tent, bear spray at the ready. And you know what I’m doing? Sleeping.
I don’t sleep very long. Violent wind gusts sweep through the canyon, rattling the flies of our tents. By daybreak, the wind subsides, and Jeff tells me about the large animal encounter I missed the night before. “It was a B.F.A.,” he tells me. Big Fucking Animal. Once we eat and get our packs ready, we visit the shoreline to look for tracks. We find huge hoof prints, which is preferable to the huge pawprints with claws we expected to see. Definitely a B.F.A., but thankfully not a grizzly.
We finish the last 3 ½ miles to the trailhead, my goat bell tinkling happily on my pack. I use the time to reflect on the whole experience, sad that it’s almost over, amused that only days before I wanted nothing more than for it to be over.
Back at the parking lot, Jeff snaps my picture in front of the trailhead sign. We pause to write our comments in the trail log, then head to the car. We drop our packs and my goat bell falls silent. As we’re changing into somewhat clean (read: pee-free) clothes for the ride back to Cody, Jeff grins, gives me a high-five, and tells me how proud he is of me.
I smile, as a single tear slips down my cheek.
When you’re in the woods, your standards of social acceptance are lowered substantially. That said, Jeff and I are finding it somewhat of a challenge to re-acclimate ourselves. For example, we stop at the first convenience store we find, and while I’m treating myself to a warm-water hand-washing in the restroom, Jeff pops open a Mountain Dew and takes a swig as he’s paying. I hear the belch from the back of the store. He usually waits for me, but this time I find him in the car wearing a sheepish grin.
It gets better.
McDonald’s seems like a good place to stop for food (did I mention our standards are lower?), so we go inside, wearing our stink like a badge. As we get up to leave, I bark-belch from the table. I’m momentarily stunned, as are most of the other patrons. I look at Jeff. “See you in the car?” I whisper apologetically.
“Yep,” he says, already making for the door.
I am happy to report that my inner goat was safely stowed on the plane ride home. But I don’t think it’ll ever be far from the surface. What can I say? It’s a badass thing.