When people talk about the highlight of an outdoor adventure, it almost always involves reaching the top of a mountain or a carefree leap into an alpine lake. It could easily include spying a moose (always just a little too close for comfort) or fording a treacherous river to reach the best campsite. The highlight of an outdoor adventure is never something so sorry and mundane as a group of grown-ups eating chips and salsa in the rain while three grubby toddlers crawl around in the grass underfoot. At least that’s what I used to think.
Our trip to Schnaus Cabin, a Forest Service rental near the North Fork of the Flathead River at the edge of Glacier National Park, was meant to be a vacation, though we all knew that didn’t mean we’d be able to relax. We were three couples, each with a toddler under the age of 2, all of us adjusting to the new and sometimes alarming identity of “parent.” As late 30- and early 40-somethings who spent the last few decades playing in the outdoors—snowboarding, hiking, camping—we had grown accustomed to our free time. Sure, we had partners to compromise with and jobs to show up to, but in our pre-kid days we could still do basically whatever the hell we wanted. And bugging out to a Forest Service cabin for the weekend was always the very definition of leisure. Once there, we could toss our sparse gear through the cabin door, whip up a campfire and crack open our beers without a care. Time was ours to while away: late to bed, late to rise. Now, with kids, the concept of leisure time has been relegated to cobwebbed memory.
Schnaus Cabin is hidden in the woods 42 miles north of Columbia Falls on the North Fork Road. The drive’s final 45 minutes are mostly on dirt road, which makes the destination feel even more secluded. We arrived on a warm Friday evening. I unpacked the car while my husband kept an eye on our 1-year-old daughter as she stumbled toward the rickety porch stairs. Our backpacks of clothing were dwarfed by the baby’s bag, full of too many onesies and a year’s worth of diapers and wipes, just in case. I pulled out a sippy cup, Pack ’n Play, three blankets, a stuffed sheep and a laundry basket full of toys. I was simultaneously panicked that I’d forgotten something and disgusted with myself for bringing so much.
In my distraction I almost didn’t notice the view, but then there it was: Glacier’s Livingston Range, spread out as far as the eye could see, 10,106-foot Kintla Peak piercing the thin swirls of cloud. We all stood breathless for a long moment, forgetting everything else. Here was a panorama that seemed almost unreal, an exaggeration of a Montana landscape. “What a show-off,” someone said. We laughed. We had been so focused on planning, packing and then driving the four hours from Missoula with as few en route tantrums as possible that it registered as relief to actually arrive in one piece. The mountains looked like a reward.
Schnaus Cabin is one of 144 Forest Service cabins and fire lookouts available for public rental in Montana. Most were built by Forest Service workers between 1930 and 1950, when rangers on horseback used them as base camps. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a program of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, helped build many of the cabins and lookouts, and CCC workers spent time in them while maintaining trails. Now reserved for public use, the structures are a popular resource among those who know about them. They cost very little—typically $20 to $30 a night, which can often be split among groups of four to 12, which makes them five times cheaper than a downtown Missoula hotel room, with scenery that’s five times as spectacular.
I’ve stayed at dozens of Forest Service cabins and lookouts, starting as a young kid. My parents would set my brother and me free to wander nearby fields and forests, presumably just within sight, though boundaries never concerned us. As for what they were doing that whole time? Who knows. Boring grown-up stuff, probably. We’d return to the cabin by dusk and Dad would start the fire as Mom put dinner on the table. We’d eat and then explore our indoor digs, each old cabin providing a new setting for the pioneer lives we imagined.
A lot of Forest Service cabins are truly bare bones; others aren’t too different from a furnished vacation rental, complete with refrigerator and coffee pot. As I’ve gotten older, my favorites have been rustic and well stocked with character, like the Hogback and Morgan-Case homestead cabins, both up Rock Creek near Philipsburg. Morgan-Case has a water pump, electricity and vintage furniture that gives it a romantic feel. If I needed a retreat to go write the Great American Novel, Morgan-Case would be it.
Schnaus Cabin doesn’t have the Hemingway vibe. It’s furnished with a couple of couches that look like they were designed by Bill Cosby’s sweater maker circa 1985. There’s no electricity, no running water and no indoor bathroom, which means that if you forget your flashlight (like I did), it’s a dark, middle-of-the-night stumble to the outhouse. The cabin could conceivably sleep 12 people, though most of the beds—one double and four twins—are crammed into the loft like an old-fashioned summer camp or an orphanage. On the main floor, two bedrooms house a double bed and two twins, respectively. We divvied up the space, one couple in each bedroom, my husband and I in the loft overlooking the common space. We set up our Pack ’n Plays and I started dinner—white bean chili with pork—while everyone else started in on the IPA.
Within 30 minutes of our arrival, one of the toddlers stepped backward off the porch and split her chin on its jagged wood planks. The blood soaking the neck of her white shirt and the silent, open-mouthed cry that precedes ear-piercing screaming made us all shiver in horror. Was this the first of many disasters? Everyone had brought a first-aid kit, so there were plenty of bandages and gauze, but it was hard to tell if the gash needed stitches. Stitches would mean a drive back to Columbia Falls and, perhaps, a quick end to the weekend for the little girl and her parents.
After a short while it became clear that the wound was minor, that everything was going to be okay, and after drying some toddler tears we ate dinner in the staggered fashion in which one eats dinner with kids, and then wandered back outside to enjoy the view. The little ones seemed only mildly interested in the toys we’d brought. They clambered around in the grass, finding pebbles and dirt clods which they happily swapped with one other. They squealed delightedly at insects on wildflowers and birds sailing in the breeze, softly petting tree bark as if it were an exotic textile. We watched them with an edgy casualness to make sure rocks and bugs—at least the stinging kind—didn’t enter their mouths, and that their feet didn’t tread too close to the part of the yard where the ground slopes and then plummets to the forested valley below. Within a few hours the children were rubbing their eyes and staring off into space—telltale signs.
If you don’t have kids, it’s easy to be like, “Relax! Just let the kids fall asleep around the campfire and toss them into bed. Be cool, man.” That’ll work if you’re lucky, but most toddlers will stay up as late as you’ll let them, to the point of delirium. When they get that tired they’ll act like emotional drunks, laugh-crying and pushing you away when you try to help them. We decided to put the three of them to bed at the same time—8 p.m.—so that if they cried they could cry together until they couldn’t fight sleep any longer. When silence finally fell it felt like the last note of an orchestral performance fading away; we waited, then smiled, then applauded ourselves.
It would have been impossible to lounge inside such a small cabin without waking the babies, so we turned off the propane-powered interior lights, pulled the beer coolers outside next to the fire pit, and lit the kindling. We talked around the campfire for a few hours. We were determined to make as much of this time as we could, though all of us were drowsy from the drive and the kid wrangling. When I finally went to bed at midnight (in my pre-parental days I would have stayed up until at least 2 a.m.), I sneaked inside, being careful not to wake the baby even as the plastic mattress covers crackled and the frame squeaked. I laid there tired but awake, thinking about time.
In describing the General Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour.” Parents experience a similar change in their perception of time. Days are chopped up into little activities: preparing bottles, changing diapers, wiping faces, comforting children, playing with them, performing the rituals of bedtime. Even after they’re in bed, the mind brims with to-do lists. Time flies, but not always in the fun way. On adventures past, we could sit around a table and finish a board game during the afternoon, sit in the sun and read a sizable chunk of a novel, make dinner at our leisure. It’s not that we got more done, it’s just that time felt like one, long, continuous stretch.
But what if this perception shift isn’t just about having kids? Neuroscientists have shown that time seems to speed up for all adults as they age, that experience and repetition make us less patient with living in the moment—the directive that every self-help book implores us to follow. Children don’t perceive time passing. They just live in it.
My husband crawled into bed next to me and soon began to softly snore. Minutes ticked by. If time is so subjective, I thought, there’s no better place than a cabin in the North Fork to slow it down.
We rose at 6 a.m., the children bright-eyed, adults a bit bleary. We boiled water and made coffee and ate a delicious one-pot meal of scrambled eggs, salsa, bacon and potatoes. We packed the kids into backpacks and headed off down a ravine that leads to the North Fork of the Flathead River. It was a beautiful sunny morning. The aspen and pine forest provided just the right shade, even as the sun dappled the lush ground. Within minutes the children were asleep, as if under a spell, and we talked quietly at first, then louder as we realized that nothing was going to wake them—and that being quiet in grizzly country isn’t exactly the smartest strategy. At the bottom of our first steep hill we emerged into a swampy area full of mosquitoes, so we hiked back out and meandered from one trail to the next until we ended up back at the cabin. It was a short but sweet trip, and at first we felt guilty for not taking on a day-long hike, but then we reminded ourselves that we were here to relax. We put the sleeping kids down to finish their naps, sat on the porch sipping lemonade-and-PBR cocktails, and gaped at the mountains.
There’s no cell service at Schnaus, which is true of many Forest Service cabins. Forced to stay off Twitter and away from email, we had fewer intrusions to fracture our thoughts. In a world where busyness is a virtue, the cabin gave us permission to be lazy.
Still, if you wanted to fill your day with activity, most Forest Service cabins are close enough to trails, lakes and even small towns that can serve as entertaining excursions. From Schnaus Cabin you can take a day to kayak secluded Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park. The dirt road there, like so many around the North Fork, can’t accommodate RVs, and visitors are usually locals, so it’s a peaceful place to visit. If you’re into fishing or canoeing, the North Fork of the Flathead River has some of the best stretches in the state. If, on the other hand, you’re a sucker for huckleberry bear claws, just drive seven miles from the cabin to Polebridge and sate your appetite at the Mercantile—which is exactly what we did.
Just say “Polebridge” to anyone who’s been there and you’ll see their eyes light up. The Mercantile presents an old-fashioned storefront and a porch stocked with firewood where you can lounge on wooden benches and chairs. Inside, the high-ceilinged space offers shelves of goods. There are touristy knick-knacks (a mug featuring a photo of the Merc will cost you $18), but there are also cool hand-knitted hats and berry preserves, homemade soaps and dried soups, plus general-store necessities like brake fluid and bug spray. But the best part is the bakery counter, where you can browse the bear claws, savory breads and sticky buns. Even in this remote town, there’s always a line waiting to buy the baked goods.
Next door is the Northern Lights Saloon, known for its cooked-from-scratch dinner menu, and as the only place for miles where you can sit and drink a draft beer. It’s a tiny place, cozy like a hobbit tavern. On the night we stop in the special is prime rib and garlic mashed potatoes. We’re looking for something quick and light before we go back to the cabin and cook our own meal, so we order beers and chips and salsa and take it all outside to the large yard full of picnic tables.
As we munch, watching the toddlers running in the grass, it begins to rain, and those first few drops feel shockingly cold. I think, like a reasonable adult, “We should go inside.” And then, “Should we go inside?” My daughter puts her little hand out, catching big droplets without flinching. Those gigantic mountains are still so striking, no matter how many times we look at them, and though we don’t state our decision aloud, we stay where we are, letting ourselves get soaked, not letting ourselves interrupt the moment.
Later that night, after the kids are in bed, we stand around the campfire again. We’re free to cut loose, but what do we do? We talk about kids. What are the worst parts of being a parent? Not being able to sleep in. Not being able to easily travel to exotic places. Not being able to stop thinking about all the things that need to be done in a day. What is the best part? They’re funny—bottomless wells of entertainment. Also, the weird, inexplicable and adamant feeling that despite all the things we might miss about being kid-less, we wouldn’t go back. We still want to do the things we always wanted to do, we just have to relearn how to do them—and do them better.
We watch the moon rise over Glacier and try to recall the constellations we learned when we were kids in science class. We can locate only the Big Dipper. We take our time. It’s a good place to start.
Choosing the right cabin for you
There are 144 Forest Service rentals in Montana, but in such a big state, it takes a little Internet searching and savvy to figure out which ones suit your needs.
The most popular cabins in western Montana include the Morgan-Case Homestead and Hogback Cabin on Rock Creek, which are each nestled in secluded meadows. Both have a cool vintage style that puts them a notch above so many of the basic cabins found elsewhere. Woods Cabin, another popular destination, doesn’t have the same quaint aesthetic, but it makes up for it with a large deck overlooking the Bitterroot Valley’s Lake Como and a beach where you can host an evening bonfire.
Any cabin located near or in Glacier National Park is bound to get snatched up quickly, as are favorite cross-country skiing cabins like Hogan Cabin near the Anaconda Mountains and Gordon Reese, which serves as a warming hut and rental for skiers enjoying the Chief Joseph Pass trails at the southern end of the Bitterroot. Most of these cabins get booked six months out, which is the maximum amount of time you can rent them in advance.
To find a cabin rental at the last minute, look for some under-the-radar abodes such as Stony Cabin,— a primitive but cozy spot also on Rock Creek, —or one of the many fire lookouts, such as the West Fork Butte Lookout, which offers a 360-degree view of the Bitterroot mountains and Lolo Peak drainage, and the Missoula Lookout that oversees the breathtaking Missions and Swans.
When you decide to book a reservation, go to the Forest Service website (fs.fed.us/recreation/reservations) or recreation.gov to search the descriptions of available cabins and lookouts. The websites will give you a list of rules, amenities, number of people the cabin can accommodate, nearby attractions and tell you what to bring such as your own water or coolers for perishable foods. Note that some spots aren’t available year-round and even those that are available in winter may require you to ski or snowmobile in. The sites cover all of this, and will also tell you how to best keep yourself safe from potentially dangerous run-ins with wildlife. (They will not, however, tell you what to pack for your toddlers. That’s your burden.)