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"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.