Day 146 and 147: Unexpected Zero and Leaving Two Medicine Lake, Pitamakan Pass

We woke up before the sun came up over Toasted Toad’s campsite. We were determined to be first in line at the ranger’s office. We didn’t pack up our belongings or eat breakfast. We simply put our clothes on and ran. When we arrived at the ranger station, we found out we were not the only ones who thought to wake up early. In the front of the line stood Thor, Scrapbook, Drive-by and Arcade (Chris). Behind them there were two small groups of backpackers and then there was us. As we were about to head into the office, Thor and crew walked out with their permits. They were heading out as soon as possible. 

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We walked into the office to find a list of all of the campsites we had planned on staying at were full every night. This curveball made us reconsider a lot of what we had talked about the night before. As we planned, the ranger let us know that we would be the last ones to receive back country permits until further notice. They were shutting down the border due to fires, and now basically the entire park. We were grateful and slightly stressed. We found out that since the spots were all full, we would have to wait a day in Two Medicine and then head back to trail the next day. The entire process of making a plan with the ranger took over an hour. We most likely stressed him out but we’re very thankful for him being patient with us.

We arrived back at the campsite and asked Toasted Toad if he wouldn’t mind if we stayed there another night. He willingly accepted and asked us if we wanted to make the ride into East Glacier to grab some more food and beer and make a phone call. The novelty of riding in a car appealed to us, and secretly we hoped to see more of our friends from trail in town.

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The first minute we arrived in town, we ran into Mac, Appa, Moist, and countless other thru hikers with whom we had spent months crossing paths. They found out we had arrived in a car, and we offered to take their packs to camp so they could run over the ridge to Two Medicine. They mostly all agreed and managed to stuff another case of  cold brews into the trunk. We continued down the main strip to a small fishing shop filled with old tying material and great tips on catching fish in Glacier. Evidently a couple miles up trail to an alpine lake and it would be difficult to not catch anything. We headed back into Two Medicine.  From the time we left to the time we returned, the smoky haze had worsened. The shadows of monolithic rocks became hidden in the thick veil of burning lodge pole pines in the western part of the park. 

When we got back to camp, we took a walk around the lake and peered out among the mountains. Though unorthodox, we were so thankful to be here. Here in a place we had dreamt about for so many miles of walking. We understood that we couldn’t relax yet. Anything could happen, and until we crossed over into Canada we needed to keep both feet on the ground. But for now, we could feel the growing content within us as the disappointment melted away. 

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That night we had a large group of thru-hikers crammed around the picnic table of Toasted Toad’s campsite. We shared stories and laughed and discussed plans for after trail. For five months we had lived along trail’s corridor with each other. Sometimes just miles behind or days behind. And here we were in our final miles and our final days. It was unreal. We were sure that if we were to wake up from this dream we would be back in the snow of Colorado or the desert of New Mexico. It felt as if all we have ever known was hiking along the divide yet at the same time it felt like we had just started. 

Blue skies did not greet us when we woke up the following morning. There were no smiling park rangers with good news. Birds were not singing and the border was certainly not open into Waterton, but it was time to march on and finish what we started. We packed up and headed to trail. A short climb led us to an isolated valley tucked away from the crowds of Two Medicine. We skirted the eastern slopes of Rising Wolf Mountain. A small bridge took us over a small stream running down the mountain. A large grizzly could be seen from trail grazing on the mountain side. We were far enough away to stand there and watch for a few moments. It was so peaceful to watch him forage swinging his large head back and forth, nose to the ground. Green grass and thimble berries and wild blueberry bushes lined the trail ahead of us. Despite our berry-loving companion nearby, we stopped to snack on a few of the remaining berries. There was just enough to pick a small handful, and they were just juicy enough to turn our hands purple. We fell over in excited, reaching deep into the prickly, bare branches, reaching for the season’s final fruit.

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Trail led us into a wooded pine forest where trail split off to head down to Oldman Lake. We crossed out of the trees into a grassy meadow when we really saw our first view of the small saddle of Pitamakan Pass. It was unreal. The pass seemed so sharp and fragile from down in the meadow. Trail was perfectly camouflaged into the rock. Behind us a deer had stepped back into trail to feed, seemingly appreciative that we only were passing through. We started our climb up well-graded switchbacks. Around each turn a beautifully made trail would appear. It felt almost as if small sections would open up to us at a time before disappearing back into the steep slope of sedimentary rock. We climbed high enough to see Oldman Lake and where he met with the edge of Flinsch Peak. The valley below felt so vast, and we felt so small. Glacier was certainly the best at rewarding us by showing us a bird’s eye view of where we had come from, what we had accomplished and where we were headed. And thus we stood between the two points on our map, neither in the past nor in the future, there we stood at the top, straddling the knife-edge ridge of Pitamakan Pass. Surrounded by smoke of a nearby fire, we could only see the closest peaks to us. Against the softness of the haze, stood the contrast of greens in the valley before us . Trail took us up along the ridge, climbing higher, before plummeting us down sharp switchbacks to Pitamakan Lake. From the ridge we could see both valleys just by looking in the direction of the ridge. In our peripherals, we could see two worlds separated by this 20-25 foot wide ridge.

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On our climb down, we could not help but stop to admire a family of bighorn sheep navigating their way across the rock. If it wasn’t for their movement their shale coloring would have left them unseen by our eyes. We could see trail from up here. It disappeared into conifer forest after circling around the edge of the lake.

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The rest of the day wove us through the valley’s forest. Trail took a left turn where we climbed slightly right up to our designated campground for the night. We had arrived with plenty of daylight, so we gave ourselves the tour of our first Glacier backcountry site. We found where we to hang our bear bags, where we were to eat and we even picked out the best campsite to set up camp, since no one else was there. We made ourselves comfortable at the wooden table provided in the eating area, and made dinner. As we were eating, two backpackers walked up but after sitting there for a few minutes decided that they wanted to hike back out to their car instead of camp for the night. Soon after they left, we here chatting coming down trail. “Hey, bear,” loud clap, loud clap, “hey, bear!” We sat there quietly. Another “hey, bear,” followed before they continued their giggling and loud chatting. The hikers walked right past us without even looking in our direction.

We went back to cleaning up our cook area. It was still light out but we could tell that the day was starting to wind down. Quietly up trail came QB and Endless. We jumped with joy, having not seen them for many miles. They cooked their dinner as we caught up. Apparently, after them no one else was getting backcountry permits. Geez. Not good news. After the cook area was completely cleaned up, QB and Endless set up camp next to ours, and we all went to sleep pretty quickly as the campground became quiet once again.

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