A red dotted line squiggled its way over Bear Creek Pass from Idaho into Montana—at least on some maps. The line remained conspicuously and uncomfortably absent on others. Agonizingly familiar with soul-sucking, energy-draining Bitterroot bushwhacks, I knew dotted lines on a map did not guarantee the existence of a trail. Yet, I clung to the wiggling red marks I had seen with unrelenting tenacity. I insisted upon the trail's presence.
Last year, my friend Greg Peters and I initiated an annual rite of completing a long, single-day trek by making a 28-mile loop hike of the Fred Burr drainage and Mill Creek in the Bitterroots. For this year's outing, the teasing red line inspired an even more lofty goal: 30 miles through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness over two passes, with the questionable existence of a trail. I managed to convince Greg that a track climbed the northwestern aspect of Bear Creek Pass, connecting Big Creek with Bear Creek. My husband Joshua, on the other hand, was not a believer.
"There's not going to be a trail back there," he warned.
"Yes, there is," I said.
"No, there's not. It's going to be a bushwhack—deadfall everywhere. You're only planning one day for this?"
My husband's skepticism registered clearly and threatened to shake my cheerful optimism. I delivered the only rebuttal possible.
"Well ... I choose to think positively." My chin jutted forward in defiance.
"Thinking positively doesn't change reality. There's not going to be a trail."
I tried to ignore my husband, but the idea of a monstrous bushwhack lying in wait 16 miles into the wilderness caused my stomach to churn and my palms to sweat, so Greg and I planned on leaving the Big Creek trailhead early enough to allow for the possibility of a death march. And because attitude means everything, we armed ourselves with the hope that at least one cartographer knew his trade.
After a groggy, barely-lucid breakfast in Hamilton at a time of day I would normally refer to as "night," Greg and I drove up an uncharacteristically empty Highway 93 toward the trailhead. With a final check to ensure the car keys found their way safely into my pack, I took the lead down the trail. It's not that I was dying to get out front, but Greg, less cautious than I, did not bother to pack a light.
To travel by headlamp is to enter an unearthly world—to tumble down the rabbit hole. Within the fuzzy blue circle of light, colors disappear into a muted palette of grays and silvers. Shadows merge into incongruous shapes and sizes, and familiar objects take on an unrecognizable character. Outside of the bubble, the darkness pressed against us, while the loamy, fragrant smells of the ancient forest saturated our nostrils.
Our stumbling footsteps concerned me. I wondered how rough miles 10 and 20 might become if we were already tripping over roots this early in the game. I attempted to voice my concern, but I was too tired to say anything. Half of me remained nestled in bed.
Gradually, the black sky gave way to a gray dawn and a single, resounding trill from a bird sounded the morning's reveille. Angry chatter from a squirrel answered the bird's call, and like a Marine barracks, the forest awoke at once. Our steps quickened as we shook away the last tendrils of darkness. We then began the sticky task of removing the cobwebs that covered us as we rushed up the trail toward Big Creek Lake.
"We're here already?" I asked Greg as we crested a steep hill.
We had blitzed the first nine miles to the lake in three hours—good time. After a quick stop to filter water and greet a party of horse packers, we made our way toward Packbox Pass. Our rapid pace slowed as we climbed the four miles to the Bitterroot Divide.
"You know it's going to be steeper than this getting back into Montana?" It was the sort of comment no one likes to hear when grinding up a punishing climb, but I said it anyway.
"Really?" Greg asked.
"Yep. Much steeper."
Greg's quiet, grunting response betrayed some apprehension, but we both returned our attention to the path. Heavily-laden huckleberry bushes along the trail added a happy distraction and helped us slow the pace to a comfortable plod.
The berries soon gave way to gleaming white granite slopes as we approached Packbox Pass. The summit of the divide revealed impressive, jagged spires to the south of the canyon and the lengthy span of Big Creek Lake below us. But even with 13 miles now complete, we had not yet covered half the distance we planned. After a quick look at the map, we plunged down the thickly-timbered Idaho side of the mountains. According to the red dotted lines, the path would switchback three miles down to Packbox Creek, past a detour to White Sand Lake and then lead to a junction a quarter mile later with a trail that promised to take us up to Bear Creek Pass. It was that last section—the trail to the pass—which led a doubtful existence, appearing on some maps, but not on others. Was it nothing more than a rendering on paper?
Still armed with wishful thinking, we descended through dense forest, past corridors of whortleberries, over avalanche-scarred meadows covered with startling blue gentians, and across brushy bogs that sucked noisily at our feet. Three miles from the pass, at the junction with the trail to White Sand Lake, we actually considered the merits of the four-mile side trip to dip our toes in the water. But, uncertain of what lay ahead, neither of us wanted to add additional distance to the 30 clicks already on the itinerary. A quarter mile now separated us from the questionable trail to Bear Creek Pass and the possibility of a heinous bushwhack. My stomach started churning again. I anxiously watched the minutes tick by on my watch as I attempted to judge the passage of a quarter of a mile. One minute ... three minutes ... five ... seven ...
Greg's shout of joy triggered an exultant yelp from my own lips. A wooden sign bearing the words "Bear Creek Pass" with an arrow pointing the way hung from a tree where a distinctive, freshly-cleared boulevard branched eastward off the main thoroughfare. We high-fived, laughed and practically skipped up the trail.
The wide, wonderful, thank-God-it-was-there path followed Garnet Creek before traversing the mountainside. Three and a half miles of beautiful, clear trail now separated us from Bear Creek Pass.
"Hey, Greg—this trail was just recently cleared," I noted.
Above us came the unexpected chink of hammer on rock. We realized then how lucky we were. A trail crew of three dusty guys and their dog appeared around a bend. A day earlier and our route might have been buried under alder and deadfall.
"We love you guys!" I called as we passed.
Once again in alpine terrain, the trail, although slightly overgrown, remained visible. A final, quad-burning half-mile climb up a gully of white boulders brought us to the summit of Bear Creek Pass, where Bryan Lake, nestled in a steeply-walled canyon, welcomed us back to Montana. A mere eight and a half miles to go—all downhill.
But the miles had started to take their toll. As we descended the well-traveled Bear Creek trail, our limited conversation focused on fantasies of pizza toppings and the hot tub awaiting us, punctuated by reports on my aching knee and our tired feet. Neither of us had the energy we'd enjoyed at the end of the previous year's trek, when we hiked the final distance to the car in a slap-happy ecstasy, singing rap songs in full voice without a hint of embarrassment. This time, we were almost silent.
The last few miles became a blur: an icy but welcome creek crossing; protesting feet shoved back into shoes; advancing on auto-pilot until the rooftops of several cars finally appeared. Thirteen hours and 30 miles from Big Creek, we wearily dropped our packs and took a final photo. We were exhausted. My knee was screaming and we still had the irksome chore of returning to the car parked at Big Creek. But we had done it! We'd conquered 30 miles of rugged Bitterroot country in a day.
As my foot pressed down on my car's clutch and I massaged my throbbing knee, a single thought filtered its way through my pizza dreams: I can't wait to tell my husband. Moments later, as we drove toward Big Creek, the view through my rose-colored glasses blurring by, I started wondering if we could do 35 next year.