Friday, June 26, 2015

Second solo

Back to the same trailhead that I’d taken my first solo backpacking trip in Montana two weeks ago.  Starting out disappointed that I haven’t pushed myself harder to go somewhere new, but making peace with my decision to take baby steps in backpacking where grizzly bears are rare but present.  The Jewel Basin not only has fewer bear, but also starting off with a 3000 foot climb will allow me to relax and tune into my surroundings.  My goals are (1) to find somewhere special to watch the Summer Solstice sunset, and (2) not die.
So much snow has melted in just two weeks.  Crater Notch is almost unrecognizable.
Climbing the Crater Notch Trail, I start to relax, the fears recede.  I remember another advantage to visiting the same trail repeatedly—I can observe the sequence of wildflowers that have bloomed and gone to seed over time and at different elevations.  My understanding of Montana plant ecology grows.  Ah yes, this is why I backpack—for botany, to look at plants!  And of course to see deeply, to gain insight.
This orchid may not look like much, but I am excited to spot it.  I think it's a bog orchid but need to confirm the ID.  (Too much wind had to hold it still.)
Blueberries already!
At the pass, I cross over into the slopes that had been covered in snow just two weeks ago.  The landscape has transformed from white to lush green.  This is how spring happens in high elevations here- quickly, the plants emerging even through the snow to get a head start and then this explosion.  Spring is a verb as much as a noun.
Receding snow, exploding spring.
On the way to Big Hawk Lake, a solo backpacker heading in the opposite direction stops to talk.  When C. starts describing water sources up ahead, I want to jump for joy.  A real backpacker conversation!  The kind I took for granted on the PCT but have missed out here.  Instantly, I feel a bond, so the questions stream out of me.  Where are you from?  What other trails are there around here that you like?  Have you had any trouble being a solo backpacker?   If we were on the PCT, it would be socially acceptable for me to say hey let’s take off our packs, sit here a while together and have a snack together.  We would pick each others brains about trails, share our life stories and become friends.  I have to remind myself that the social norms on the long trails don’t apply here.  Usually I’m the one trying to assess if other people I meet on the trail are creepy, but in this case I’m the one that might be acting sketchy by wanting to be so friendly to someone I just met.  I hike on, missing the social aspects of being on a long trail. 
Rocks and scree south of Alpine Lake.
The views open up in new directions at the Wheeler Creek junction.  I’m at the edge of my map and C. told me the trail just goes down after this, so I have lunch at the pond before turning around.

The side trail to Big Hawk Lake is thick with tall brush and mosquitoes swarm me at the lakes, just like C. warned.  After a swim, I turn around again to return to Alpine Lake, which has the best likelihood for the sunset I’m looking for.  As I scramble over rocks looking for sheltered, well-spaced trees, I pause to watch a mountain goat and her baby.  I head off in the other direction away from them.  Only a while later do I round a bend and come right smack face to face with them.  Sorry, I’d forgotten to be loud.

Retreating down the trail, I run into a couple heading towards the lake to camp.  They are not discouraged about the mountain goat hanging around the campsite.  I’m still wary of mountain goats so I bushwhack to the far side of the lake, which also happens to give me a prime spot for sunset viewing.   On the rocks, I watch the mountain goats hanging around the other campers, and hear them yelling.  Glad it’s not me over there.
Hanging the bear bag on a high branch.
I struggle to stay awake until sunset (long after hiker midnight so far north), but I'm determined to celebrate the longest day of the year.  Finally, there are colors reflecting in the lake, and everything is beautiful and peaceful and my heart leaps with happiness. 
Happy Solstice from Alpine Lake.
I sleep soundly, snug in my hammock, listening to birds.
The next morning, I take the long way back to the trailhead.
Birch Lake looked completely different than it had a when I went there in early June.
Sharing the view from the Mt. Aeneas Trail of the Picnic Lakes with a furry friend.
Aptly named Switchbacks Trail, descends to the road, and then a short but dusty roadwalk gets me back to where I started.
Even though I started at the same trailhead this week, I’ve gone further than I had previously.  More important, I’ve gotten to welcome summer to the high country here in Montana.  Going solo this second time was easier--I could relax.  As much as I miss the social aspects of the long trails, being a weekend backpacker really has some advantages, especially in being able to see the changes over the season.  I can appreciate this better having had both experiences.

Trail info:
Alpine Lake Trail #7
Crater Notch Trail
Switchbacks Trail
Mount Aeneas Trail


  1. Do you ask and wonder "Why all this beauty?"

    1. YES!!! I also wonder "how can I ever hope to communicate just how awe-inspiring this place is" because some of the views literally made me cry.

  2. C. was very happy to meet you and chat. I would have loved to learn about orchids, forbs, and other greenery from you. I'm surprised there were still mosquitoes at Big Hawk as i was sure they all died from overeating me. Gluttonous bastards could work out their biological nitch/itch somewhere else. I too share your bear concerns. My previous 4 encounters have been them running by and/or away from me, probably because of my smell. At least solo we are responsible for the encounter and don't have to deal with someone else's unexpected, unasked for, unfortunate actions. I hope you enjoy an extended stay in the Swans and truely hope to see you again on the trail.
    the aforementioned C.

    1. How delightful that you posted a note here, C.! Really enjoyed meeting you too, and it was reassuring to run into another solo backpacker. Next time we meet out there, will certainly have to stop and chat some more. I took good notes about the other trailheads you recommended, so that should keep me busy for a few weeks.

      I think the mosquitoes that got you at Big Hawk called in their buddies. Sure was a good campsite though, otherwise, so I can see why you recommended it.

      Did you see the fire on Jewel Basin Road on Monday? Was right across the street from the Broken Leg Trailhead (where I parked my car), up where they do all that target practice. Crazy stuff to get back to my car and see all the firecrews out there working on it:

      Anyway, hope you are staying cool in this heat. See you on down the trail! :)

  3. you were not sketchy as your outline was quite clearly defined

    1. yes i did see about 15 FS vehicles but didn't know if it was practice or the real thing. I did look for your car hoping it was OK. Bearanoid vs bearannoyed that is the question. We had one yesterday about 100 feet from our house overturning stumps looking for delicacies. good criter that.

    2. Thanks for checking on my car at the trailhead. :) I was gonna say, how did you know which car was mine, but then it might have been obvious given that it was the only non-FS vehicle LOL.

      Cool that you had a sighting. "Turning over stumps" is so great to hear, rather than "turning over garbage cans". Several of our neighbors saw bears, but I still haven't seen one. I even went looking to see if I could see them that evening--can't believe I actually went looking for 'em but I was so curious! One of these days...