Garbelly opened his eyes to dim rays of sunshine that were entering through the trees. The light had not quite made it to the valley floor, but was hovering in a blanket of thin smoke overhead. He snuck out of the tent, thankful to see that the fires had not gotten any closer overnight, then proceeded to take down the bear bags he had hung the night before. On his walk back to the tent, he noticed Maine Man’s tent was gone. This was not too surprising, since he was an early riser and the noise of the nearby river would have deafened any noises from our tent.
After Critter woke up, the day began as always, packing our gear and beginning our walk. Surprisingly as we looked above, we saw a hue of blue that we had not been able to see in quite some time. We were filled with warm optimism as we headed toward Benchmark Ranch.
The trail meandered along Straight Creek. Above us, a fire tower on Patrol Mountain made us wonder what we would see from those windows. Had the fires all around us grown larger with the heat or for some lucky reason subsided as they approached previous burn areas? We walked quietly, smiling at each other as we ate thimble berries that grew along the trail. After about eleven miles, we approached a Bob Marshall Wilderness sign and trailhead parking lot. There, a bulletin board alerted us of new fires ahead of us that had popped up since we had left Lincoln. We decided to book it to Benchmark Ranch in hopes of catching Maine Man or even a ranger to talk to about the section of trail ahead of us.
The scene we arrived to at Benchmark Ranch made our hearts drop. Besides one family and Maine Man, the ranch was deserted. We found our resupply boxes in a storage bin behind one building and a hiker log letting us know that we were two days behind Mac, Appa, QB and Endless. In the log, there was a detailed detour to Glacier, but after looking closer, we realized that the fires had already compromised the plan that had just been made yesterday.
After a couple hour long discussion with the family and Maine Man, we realized that the smartest decision would be to hitch down into Augusta and find out more with access to cell signal and a Ranger Station. We wanted to keep hiking, the Chinese Wall we had heard so much about was only a day away. However, we realized town would be the best to determine how we should proceed. We walked to the end of the drive, boxes in hand. The sign which had welcomed us to Benchmark just hours ago was now engulfed with extremely thick smoke and the tree line how disappeared into shades of amber. It was ominous.
We had not been waiting long when one of the family members decided to drive us the thirty dirt-road miles to town. The three of us were extremely grateful, considering no one else seemed to be on the mountain. As we rode, we found out his family had stayed at Benchmark every summer for thirty years. They said they had never seen smoke like this. Even though it was hard to hear, it solidified our decision to go into Augusta.
Upon arriving, we stopped at Mel’s Diner to get a bite to eat. A table next to us was made up of four firefighters on break. Their faces did not light up as much as ours did when our food was brought out to us. We later found out that they had been eating at this same place for almost every meal for 10 days. They had also, like many of the firefighters, had been brought in from another part of the country. They told us that there was a fire command center at the local fairgrounds. Critter and Maine Man headed to the Fire Command while Garbelly stayed with the Huckleberry milkshakes. When they came back, they let Garbelly know that the fires had gotten a lot worse. According to the fire maps, they were currently impassible. We asked the Fire Marshall’s opinion on what we should do, and in so few words, he told us to stay out of their way.
We found out that the section we had just hiked was closed due to the fires near Rogers Pass exploding after a change in wind direction. Hikers behind us were now road walking. A couple people we knew behind us had to road walk all the way from Anaconda due to closures. Garbelly had been dreaming about the Chinese Wall the entire hike and was having a hard time letting it go. As we were talking, Thor, Scavenger and Drive-By rolled into town and told us they had come into town due to the intense smoke just as we had. We all decided it would be best to sleep on any big decision.
The three of us split a room at a local bed and breakfast and decided to make a decision at Mel’s Diner the next morning. As the sun set over Augusta, smoke continued to roll into town.