This past weekend, Keith and I hiked the Dawson-Pitamakan, an eighteen-mile loop that takes you over two passes the trail is named after. We planned on meeting Joey, who was already out in the park on a journey spanning eleven days, covering eighty-eight miles, and accumulating eighteen thousand feet of elevation along the way. We added our names to his backcountry permit for a stay at Old Man Lake, where Keith and I would spend the night with him and part ways the next morning.
In order to get to the trailhead, located in the Two Medicine area of the park, we had to exit the park and drive along the Great Northern Railway, which tunnels and snakes its way alongside the shores of the Big Fork River, mountains towering over it all. We were out west underneath the “Big Sky.”
We had an easy day of hiking ahead of us, with only seven miles of trail until our campground at Old Man Lake. We set out from the parking lot and its conjoined campsite at 12:30, hastening to distance ourselves from the RVs’ buzzing generators. We started through forest until climbing into a large arid clearing with sparse vegetation and a dwindled stream flowing its way down the middle. The surrounding valley increasingly imposed itself the farther we walked. Keith, when not hungover, keeps his head down and doesn’t stop moving, so we were making good time. We crossed over a waterfall skirting sleek green boulders, and were back within forest, closing in our destination. The sun was breaking through a partly clouded sky and permeating the pined forest, dotting the floor with rays of light.
Arriving to our campsite at 3:00, Keith and I had a lot of downtime ahead of us before sleep. Wind was rippling the surface of Old Man Lake, which was glistening under the late afternoon sun settling behind the water’s enclosing bowl of cliffs. We thought that Joey would already be waiting for us. He wasn’t, so I talked with Keith about his writing, getting to hear the plot for his current novel, which he has only twenty-something pages left to finish. He also talked about the whereabouts and accomplishments by his teachers and peers from his creative writing masters program. The conversation lasted several hours, and I was enlightened to hearing the discipline and determination he exercises in trying to make it as a writer. Published by the likes of Shenandoah and founder of his own literary journal, he’s precise with his written word. Check out his blog/website at keithrebec.com.
It was soon 7:00, with still no sign of Joey. Knowing he’s more than suitable for his sorts of adventures, we also know that by scaling peaks and hiking off-trail, only one little thing needs to go wrong – whether in his control or not – and he could easily find trouble. Also, we only had one tent – mine – and although it’s built for two, it only fits one of me. I was most concerned over Joey’s safety, however, not a comfortable sleep that night.
The other campers who were staying at Old Man Lake started arriving to the dish pit area to cook their meals. There were seven in total: a young couple from Paris; two young cousins – one male, one female – from Michigan; and two flamboyant Colombians with their female accomplice, who was from Massachusetts.
At about 7:15, I saw a flash of orange in the distance, so I stood up from my bench for a clearer view and realized it was Joey – and his tent – lightly stepping his way down the trail towards us. He took a seat on one of the benches and immediately had everyone listening to his stories about his shenanigans in the backcountry. Captivated, the cousins invited him along for a hike the following week through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Joey, who’s sitting across from them, looks like a bat-shit, homeless grizzly-man, especially this far into his trip. The invite, which he accepts, goes to show how welcoming of a personality he is. Also enlightening, his thoughts concerning others are very rational and thoroughly considerate. I don’t know if it’s the wild that has made him this way, or if it’s innate and how he’s out there in the first place.
Darkness was settling when I took a few photos of the moonrise over the top of the lake. Later, while lying down in my tent, I began talking with Joey before nodding off. I was inquisitive about the rest of the country’s national parks, and he had all the answers. Plenty of trips or jobs were added to my bucket-list — Denali, Canyon Lands, Zion, Reiner, and Yellowstone, among others; moreover, there’s so much I must now see in Canada as well.
We woke at 9:00 the following morning and didn’t leave until well past 11:00. Light showers hit us before fifteen minutes of walking. With plenty of ascent left until Dawson pass, the first of two we were crossing that day, feelings of regret for sleeping in began to settle within us. Keith, who’s usually as stoic as they come, was even bitching over the conditions – not because he had to hike in the rain, but over the fact his photos weren’t going to look as good. Anything short of clear conditions is unacceptable, for his views must be “dynamite,” so that the photos he broadcasts on the web are as well. I was more worried about the cold. We were still more than ten miles away from my car, and hiking wet through the wind can be a real drag.
Joey split from us at the top of Dawson pass, continuing his journey north. Later, we watched him, far off descending a steep slope, veering off-trail, breaking switchbacks to cut distance. “Crazy fucker,” Keith said.
Already mesmerized by the scenery at the pass, we began to hook left around the mountain, maintaining roughly the same elevation along the way. Several miles long, this portion of the trail connects the two passes and is very narrow and carved from sheer mountainside, presenting dazzling views along the way. Luckily, the wind subsided, allowing us to quickly walk along through the light rain. The skies were dark grey, and several of the summits were fogged in, but the mountains, due to their unfathomable size, still left me awestruck and feeling belittled. We stopped to take it all in. An immense valley falls away from my feet, gathering itself far below and building upward into several glacier-laden mountains across the way. Distant scattered peaks fill the remaining horizon. I’m humbled by such a scene, which now sooths my mind wrought by the trivial.
Showers faded in and out the rest of our way around the mountain and over Pitamakan Pass. The rock was slippery, under which conditions you must come to complete stops for photography, for you hear those stories of distracted souls walking straight over into oblivion.
Keith and I, sick of getting rained on, maintained a quick pace, passing most of whom had left the campsite before us. The trail seemed to keep dragging on, the last few miles the toughest of the trip even amid a flat slope. After finishing, we grabbed a beer with dinner inside the Indian Reservation running along side the park’s east-side, and then headed back to the lodge, driving through scattered showers along the way.
The following night I joined two of my friends, Josh, who waits tables and hiked to Iceberg Lake with me earlier this summer, and KJ, who is a bartender in the lodge’s lounge, for dinner and drinks at a barbecue joint in Polebridge, which is an hour’s drive along a dirt road north of Lake McDonald. Off the power-grid, in the middle of nowhere, the town is known for its savory pastries and live music. I stopped here with my buddy Joe earlier this summer in route to the Quartz Lake Loop.
The food was good, all cooked by propane-fueled appliances. I had a pulled-pork sandwich, and a side of slaw – with no fries because there is no electricity for the fryer. They have IPA on draft, which I enjoyed a few of along with a shot of their house-made huckleberry moonshine. It was good bonding time with Josh, and KJ. We sat outside as dusk settled in and watched the moonrise in the distance. My weekend was coming to an end, and this was a great way to finish.