Page 2 of 3
"Is the water really that color or is it just my sunglasses?" I ask Jason, pulling off my shades.
We've just turned off Highway 93 at Ravalli. Teal-colored currents replace the chocolate milk of the Clark Fork I pass every day on my way to work in Missoula. We follow the water past small Montana towns I've heard about but never visited—Dixon, Paradise. They drift by as sparsely as the clouds above us. I wonder if the old men sitting in front of dilapidated buildings in Paradise were friends of my late grandfather, who died before I had a chance to visit him, but was a longtime resident of this town.
Then it's on to Noxon, with its one-lane bridge across the river. Small crowds of people browse myriad yard sales along a barren stretch of highway; they've apparently driven from their homes many miles away.
As we near Bull River Junction we see more than just humans. A black bear nibbles at some shrubs. A small cluster of bighorn sheep in the road surprises me after a sharp turn. Deer, chipmunks, a marten race across the highway.
Once in the town of Clark Fork, population 530, well-marked roads lead us to the trailhead for trail #65 to Scotchman Peak. Early afternoon sunshine beams through the cedar canopy. A hot, punishing climb lies ahead.
"Mother Nature is the cruelest personal trainer," I grumble good-naturedly. "She makes anything I do to my clients look nice."
The comment produces the desired effect: Jason's laugh. To distract ourselves from the sweat dripping off our faces, we keep toying with the image of Mother Nature as a leather-clad, whip-wielding dominatrix, an exercise which—who knew?—is a great way to pass the time while suffering.
The steep climb eventually breaks through the forest on an intermittently muddy and dusty trail, with sporadic views of glittering Lake Pend Oreille. About two-thirds of the way up, dripping cedars give way to bear-grassed hills. The remains of winter's snowfall cling tenaciously to the final bit of dirt before we hit the shale-covered slopes leading to the summit.
We take a lunch break next to a vertigo-inducing drop enhanced by a snowy cornice below the peak. Three preteens pass us en route to the top, leaving their parents behind and ignoring us completely.
As I munch on my cranberry and turkey wrap and Jason eats a Snickers Marathon bar, the two of us take in the views: the thickly forested hills below, the hazy blue waters of the lake, the kids picking their way up the snowy talus trail toward the jumbled summit of crumbly metamorphic rock.
"Those kids are at the top now," I note, surprised at their speed.
Then I see something above them—something with more than two legs.
"Hey! Is that a goat?"
"Where?" Jason looks up at where I point.
"Right above the kids."
"Maybe we should go up there," Jason says. He's never seen a mountain goat before and wants a better look. I have seen a mountain goat before but I also want to check it out.
We pack up quickly and head toward the summit on a surprisingly well-worn path, passing the kids on their descent. But we don't get far. After rounding a bend, we're stopped by two mountain goats standing directly in our path.