Beartooths Backpack 2002
The Best Laid Plans...
A friend once told me, somewhat derisively, "Roger, you don't go on a vacation. You have an adventure." Probably a bit of truth to that. I have been on over 240 individual backpacking trips in the last 25 years. Up until September of 2002, there had been four occurrences when one person had become so sick or injured that we had to alter our plans in some way: every thing from bad altitude sickness to a grotesquely broken left wrist. But on all of those occasions, we have been able to handle it ourselves. This time, things were different ...........
The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness drapes like a chain of pearls over the mountains and plateaus just outside of the NE corner of Yellowstone National Park. Few people east of the Rockies seem to have heard of this near-million acre roadless playground, but such is not the case in the Montana/Wyoming/Idaho region. It is easy to see why this is the most popular backcountry in Montana, despite its notoriously wintry weather 12 months a year. The eastern side is comprised of huge, glacially carved valleys, containing long strings of trout filled lakes. The western side sports a giant plateau, filled with so many lakes that it can make the Wind Rivers seem a bit on the dry side. This was to be my third trip to the Beartooths, and the route, although not long (ca. 35 miles), was complex, comprised of about 60% cross country rambling and the rest trail hiking. We would start high, near Island Lake Campground, just off the Beartooth Scenic Highway, and within five miles or so, leave the trail and the hordes behind, stringing together Lonesome, Martin, Otter, Fossil, and Rough Lakes, spending as little time as possible on maintained trails. Or at least, that was the plan........
But first, we had to get there, by an even-more-complex-than-usual set of flight itineraries. Our friends Tim and Diane had flown to Bozeman, MT on Monday. They were exceedingly ready to get out of the heat of Tucson's summer. Immediately, they headed further north to Augusta, MT to the Ford Creek Guest Ranch, where they had spent a couple of days with a fishing guide, and Diane had managed to land (but not eat) a 24" long trout.
Susie and I left Wednesday afternoon from Knoxville. The flight was a typical Delta nail-biter to Bozeman, with a 30 minute late take off from Cincinnati, and a scheduled 35 minute connection in Salt Lake. Fortunately, the flight to Bozeman was delayed by an hour. Susie and I relaxed in the Skywest waiting area, listening to a 20 year-old guy trying to hit on an attractive young lady. He had really great lines, like: "So! Where are you from?" When she replied "Maine", he simply did not know how to respond. I told Susie, as we were walking out to catch our flight, "What a difference 30+ years makes. I could have discussed with her the LL Bean Outlet store in Ellsworth, or the lack of any sort of "dining" in Lubec, or lament that I have still not climbed Katahdin. I figure he will learn someday.
Diane had arranged for us all to stay at the lovely Alpine Lodge on the east side of Bozeman, mainly because they had cabins, which Tim claims permits him to sleep better. Since T&D would not be in town until Thursday night, we were the first to take on the Alpine Lodge. Let's just say it looked much worse from the outside in person than it did a) on the Internet and b) when you walked into the rooms. Ultimately, it proved to be a fine bargain, but it looked a bit dog-eared from the outside. (Note, with the boom in real estate in Bozeman, the Alpine Lodge was bought out and as of the summer of 2006, a several story office building was erected in its place.) Since our bodies and age locked us into Eastern time for a few days, we were up before 5:30 am and went out for a jog down Main Street. Our first "activity" was to have breakfast with our friend and internet inspiration Sarah Boomer. We had been exchanging emails before the trip and learned that we were going to overlap in Bozeman for at least 30 minutes on Thursday morning. Sarah was out there for field based discussions with her National Science Foundation project officer and folks from Montana State University regarding her extremophile research in Yellowstone. Sarah and her students were supposed to be driving back to Monmouth that day, but her students agreed to let her have 60 minutes for breakfast with us (she took 90). We had a great continental breakfast at the Harvest Bread Company and Rocky Mountain Coffee Company just down the street from where she and her crew were staying. We talked a lot about her most recent Wind Rivers trip . We were truly amazed (aghast is probably closer) that she had done most of the backpack in her sandals. One tough (or crazy) lady. She continues to be an inspiration to us, and, I am sure, to her students. What a great way to start our trip.
Next activity on our busy day was to go real estate shopping. Susie and I are giving extremely strong consideration to moving to Bozeman after we retire in a few years, and felt like we needed to spend a bit more time looking at property and sub-divisions before we met with our real estate agent, Diane Kolberg, now of Montana Realty Brokers, after lunch. We spent quite a lot of time with Diane that day. It was really clear she was trying to please, and we got a lot of great ideas from her. We will be back. (And back we did come, ultimately buying a lot through her, and building a home in 2004-5.) But we had to hurry on to the next activity: dinner with T&D who had just arrived in town. It was clear that Diane was pretty excited about having landed a 24" trout, as well she should be. But it inspired neither her nor Susie to have trout at John Bozeman's Bistro that night. Both ladies settled for the grilled chicken Caesar salad. Tim and I had something more substantial.
Friday was more jogging and real estate investigation in the morning, before it was time to pick up Andy and Sue, flying in from Austin. The plan had been to pick them up about noon time, and wait 45 minutes or so for our friends Scotty and Carolyn from Memphis, who just happened to be flying into Bozeman the same day. (The two of them own a vacation home near Big Sky, and were coming in to start a horse packing trip in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone NP on Sunday morning.) But alas, we had gotten a call from Scott early that morning, indicating that their flight from Memphis had been cancelled, and that they would meet us for dinner instead. A&S had received no food on their flights from Austin, so both were pretty hungry by the time they picked up their baggage. Sue leaped at my suggestion of stopping for lunch at a Sarah-Boomer-recommended haunt, The Mint in Belgrade MT. (Belgrade looks more like a plains town, with the grain elevators the primary architectural attraction, but it is right outside the Bozeman airport.) In short, The Mint turned out to be super: great food and a wonderful selection of beers. As usual, Sarah knows what she is talking about. Other people think the place is great too. After a stop for Coleman fuel at the local sporting goods store and the requisite lecture about not judging a book by its cover, we pulled into the Alpine Lodge, reminding Sue and Andy that if they did not like it, they only had Diane to blame. After several rounds of wine tasting and filling fuel bottles on the front porch of T&D's cabin, the guys decided to head on down to Barrel Mountaineering, which seems to be THE backpacking shop on Main Street. Andy wanted to see what additional maps might be available for the area in which we would be hiking. A young sales lady (ok, to guys in their mid-late 50's, any lady under 45 is a young lady; this one was half that) was talking to us about our planned backpack in the Beartooths. As Andy went over the cashier to check out, the gal said to me, quietly, "You know, I think it is really great that you guys are getting out and doing that kind of hiking." I said to her: "What you really mean to say is that it is great that you OLD FARTS can still backpack." "No, no," she corrected me. "My dad and I were climbing Grand Teton last weekend, and he's nearly 55!" she said with an air of astonishment that anyone could actually BE that old and still function semi-normally. Us three old farts had a good laugh as we headed back to the motel.
We knew Lance, our seventh hiker, would not be arriving in Bozeman in time for dinner. Nevertheless, we had planned a near-obligatory Friday night repast at the MacKenzie River Pizza Company on Main Street. Scotty had introduced us to the place last January, when we had stayed with them for a week of XC and downhill skiing. It has great pizza with great beer, but I do think that the Moose's Tooth Pizza in Anchorage would nudge out MacKenzie River for first place. While we were sitting outside waiting to get in, we could see the red tail of the Northwest flight from Minneapolis, and I said, "well, that must be Carolyn and Scotty. Sure enough, a little while later, Scott called the restaurant to talk to me. We don't know what Scott told them as to how to identify me, but the waitress immediately tracked me down. The two of them showed up a bit later, having placed their pizza order with me, and it was sure good to see them again. A&S had not seen them in 20 years, and it was great evening all the way around. But S&C had to head for the house they call Trailside, so we split up, and us "locals" waddled back to the motel. By the time we got back, Lance had checked in and had taken off again, trying to find some dinner on his own. So all the chicks were in the nest. I reflected that it had been a really great couple of days, and then realized that this was the type of vacation most people take: eating out with friends, light exercise, sightseeing, more wine drinking, etc. It's fun, for sure, but it doesn't get you to or into the wilderness. That was tomorrow's job.
© Roger A. Jenkins, 2002, 2007