When you have old dogs who still love to log the miles, backpacking in August can be tricky. Heat is not the friend of your furry buddies, (nor my northern girl blood). On the fringe of The Great Burn, however, there is an oasis that suits the old dogs and the busy Montana girl.
Heart Lake is a cruiser of a day hike and yes, on weekends, it experiences a fair amount of foot and hoof traffic. Yet, it is easy to see why, when you wander up to its jade shore and feel the remnants of winter breath settle in on you in silence. It’s also a great way to start a two-night backpack when you can’t hit the trail until later in the day.
We spent the evening on the far shore of Heart Lake and watched the line of gold light creep away from us, as the sun dropped. Columbine, fireweed and paintbrush lined our campsite. Even with several other parties in the area, we didn’t feel crowded and our old dogs felt no need to stand guard.
Early the next morning, we attempted to ascend to Pearl Lake, via a game trail that runs along the small waterfall, which trickles over rock and through thick floral vegetation to the Heart. That is not the ideal way to go, and we soon re-routed and crossed below the waterfall—looping up around to the looker’s right of it; which was somewhat better, but still not the road more traveled.
We found Pearl Lake aptly named, in the midst of bright morning light that illuminated its clear water. Already hot, we took a refreshing swim and lingered, chasing frogs along the shoreline, fishing and catching glistening trout, and watching a lone mountain goat drink on the opposite shore.
Half hesitantly, we left the jewel behind and followed a dusty trail up a steep incline, towards the ridge that wrapped away and to the east. Dalton Lake, on the other side of the saddle, was an emerald bauble nestled far below us at the bottom of a slope covered in bear grass and pine. It was a tempting stop, but our goal was to bypass it and take a ridgeline out to the west, where an unnamed lake awaited us.
As we scrambled up a faint game trail towards the ridge, all moisture burned off and the dust start absorbing heat. It became apparent that our dogs were not enjoying themselves and after a few false starts, we resigned ourselves to a downhill slide to Dalton. Slipping over mounds of bear grass, frequently landing my derriere on rocks, I was the last to make it to the lake, where the dogs had all plunged in already. We claimed a well-used campsite, nestled among the trees and in front of an outcrop of rocks that jutted into the pristine water.
While setting up, a mother goat and her kid came to the water’s edge to drink—bright white matched in their shimmering reflections. Fish fed and leapt all along the edge of the lake and we ate well that night.
In the morning, we lingered; fishing more and swimming until we decided to beat the great heat of the day on the way out. That was the plan until we found a cache of huckleberries and picked for a while; the dogs lolling about in the cool shade beneath the trees and glossy huckleberry leaves. We followed the people trail on the way out and reluctantly made quick time back to the trailhead.
Old dogs were happy and so were we.