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June 27, 2010

Local Advice With A Bear’s Tooth

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How often do we look back at a series of events and think, “I really liked this part, but why did this have to happen too?”  Is it simply that they are all tied together?  The yin and the yang.  In this case I don’t think so.  It was simply part of the journey and another learning experience for me.

I crossed over Bear’s Tooth pass at 10,940 feet.  The literal highpoint of the trip (so far).  Hairpin switchbacks led the way a snow walls grew along the shoulders towering over me.  I’d chased an open break in the clouds all day, but the climb let it slip away bringing rain briefly then snow as it overtook me.  Visibility was sketchy at the summit as snow collected on my windshield and visor.  I wiped the visor clean as each car approached, further dampening my gloves as I vowed to upgraded them.  A task I fulfilled in Missoula.

Heading downhill the situation soon improved as the temperature rose and the rain abated.  After six days in Yellowstone I stopped to restock on groceries in Red Lodge Montana finishing to discover the snow caught back up to me and turned into a heavy rain.  I waited out most of it deciding to look for a place to camp nearby and get setup before it returned.

Riding north on 78 led to some of the prettiest country I’ve been in.  Rolling, Montana sized, hills blanketed in vivid green extended in all directions.  Cows grazed on the grass between the farmhouses.  I saw a National Forest access sign at a turn off to Luther and went down the dirt road.  Ascending a slick rise I grabbed the first site I saw planning to get on the road early the next morning.

Before I’d even laid out my tent a jeep drove by turning towards a stream crossing that I’d decided not to attempt.  That was on more car than I’d expected to see this evening.  Setting up my tent I noticed that the jeep didn’t try the crossing either.  Good decision on my part I thought.

I just put the fly on the tent and had one stake in the ground when the jeep came back and stopped.  Turns out he was a local and I’d parked next to his morel mushroom hotspot.  Greg went on to tell me about a better campsite with cut wood stacked out nearby and that there was a great hike nearby as well.

I was conflicted about moving having a dry tent setup and thinking about the slick road I’d hit already.  In the end he convinced me to move mentioning that if he didn’t already have company I’d be welcome to stay at his place.  I didn’t doubt his offer at all.

I saw a dozen big whitetail deer as I looked for the landmarks Greg gave me.  Go down a  hill and when it turns 90 degrees pull over to the other side and walk perpendicular to where you parked.  Kind of vague, but it sounded worth it.  My first stop and exploration yielded nothing.  At the second stop the description seemed right, but I didn’t see an obvious trail.  About this time the rain returned as I found a third spot which wasn’t it either

I began feeling that #2 was right and looked for a place to turn around.  Rounding a sharp corner ruts where in front of me and I aimed for the other side of the road.  BAM!  The road was super slick and the bike went down on its left side obliterating all of the turn signal except the bulb somehow.  I too was covered in mud and it was an inch thick on the soles of my boots.  It took 15 minutes to get the motorcycle back upright as I fought for footing.

Creeping around the corner a long straight downhill awaited.  A third of the way down I decided to coast a bit faster and off I went to the right busting the that compression clamp for the pannier again.  Straddling the bike I walked it the rest of the way down the mudslick.

I sat on top of the next rise wet, muddy, and pissed.  Go forward and loop back to the original camp, get the hell out of there, or go back and investigate stop #2?  Somehow returning to stop #2 won out.  Thankfully going up the slick was easier than down.  I found the campsite and was underwhelmed from the description I’d been given.  Of course I was also setting up a wet tent I had quickly balled up in the rain and had busted two parts of the bike.  A free camp isn’t always free after all….

Moping as the rain continued the rest of the evening and morning I finally accepted what wasn’t going to change no matter how much second guessing I did and went to find the trailhead.  It was a beautiful hike and I was the only person in the forest.  Greg had said that the black bears were at lower elevations and the grizzly lived a few draws away so I didn’t have to overly worry about that.

Crossing over a few marginal stream crossings I took my time finding plenty of photo ops.  I kept thinking that this was the experience I had missed in Yellowstone and was glad to have a 2nd chance.  Despite the solitude and signs of animals all around I only ran into a comical squirrel and marmot.

Reaching a stream where I couldn’t find a dry crossing I got ready to ford it.  After a lot of flip-flopping staying dry won out and I turned back.  Reaching camp I tested my fire skills and got a hardearned one going despite the damp wood.  Good enough to cook on and dry my boots out a little bit at least.

I slept like a baby when the rains returned that night, though the tent continues to let water in.  Leaving the next morning I have no doubt that the two spots that did me in 2 days before would have done it again if I hadn’t been ready.  That knowledge was a small consolation though as frustration still dominated my mind.

I wondered if I was better off with or without my chance encounter or the best case – leaving my camp where it was and doing the hike the next day.  You’re never going to win them all and now I may end up taking the cautious route next time, missing out on something grand.  I’m not ready to give up on my judgement yet though, it’s gotten me this far.

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