The hike to Lake Mountain in the Scapegoat Wilderness looks short on the map, but on the hottest September day seen around these parts in years, the 4,250-feet climb had me totally wrung out by the end of the 9.5-mile round trip.
It was already hot when we set out around 10:30 from the popular trailhead on the North Fork of the Blackfoot. By 11:00, we were grinding up the southeast ridge of the mountain and baking under relentless sun. The often steep, rugged tread stays right on top of the airy ridgeline almost the entire way up, providing an impressive perspective on the North Fork and stark Mineral Hill across the canyon. But there's almost no shade anywhere along the route until you reach a small copse near the summit. There's no water either, and that proved to be a problem.
My wife, Renie, and I set out carrying two liters of drinking water apeice, normally enough for a moderate day out. But the 95-degree temps on September 1 were hardly moderate, and neither was the climb. By the time we reached 7,000 feet, Renie was down to perhaps half a liter and decided she'd had enough. I continued on, carrying perhaps three-quarters of a liter, hoping that would be sufficient to get me to the 8,300-foot summit and then back to the car.
At 7,500 feet, the trail reaches the eastern shoulder of the mountain, and looking north beyond the expansive Dry Fork valley I laid eyes on the Scapegoat Massif for the first time. For the next half-mile or so, the relatively flat terrain, comforting breeze and awesome views had me feeling quite comfortable. The final push up the summit cone turned the tables though, and almost wrecked me. Dehydration took its toll, and by the time I reached the peak, I was suffering tunnel vision, everything in my periphery gray and cloudy.
Worried that I might pass out, I sat and tried to collect myself, wolfing down a PowerBar and quickly snapping few pics. Once I'd regrouped, I started down with my Nalgene perhaps one-quarter full. I had 4.5 miles to walk.
Luckily, the descent went smoothly. I collected Renie about halfway along, and we made a determined march for the trailhead, where we knew we'd find water. But with perhaps a mile to go, I started to wilt. The few swallows left in my bottle had reached the temperature of bathwater. I became concerned about my ability to keep my feet. Then just a quarter-mile from the trailhead, not a moment too soon, we heard the trickling of water perhaps 30 yards to our right. We stumbled across deadfall and down an embankment to tiny Madison Creek. In seconds, we had both soaked ourselves from head to toe, splashing handfuls of creekwater over our hair, arms and legs. We filled a bottle and zapped it with a SteriPen. And we drank, saving the day. The rest was easy.
Feeling crusty after our long, sweaty bake on the mountainside, we drove to nearby Cooper's Lake for a swim at Big Nelson campground. With just a handful of cramped campsites and a boat ramp, Big Nelson didn't have many visitors, even on Labor Day weekend, and we found an empty site with picnic table right on the gravel beach. We hadn't thought to bring suits, so Renie swam in her clothes and I stripped down to my skivvies. The cool, refreshing water felt perfect. We enjoyed a snack and drank some more water while we were drying off, the suffering of just an hour earlier already fading away.
If you're inclined to give Lake Mountain a try, don't do what we did. Take plenty of water. On a broiling summer day like we had, four liters would be about right. Three would be the minimum any other time. If you're willing to carry the water, the walk will be worth your while. The ridgeline route is spectacular, and it's a great place to sample the enormous Bob Marshall wilderness country.