Day 150: Ptarmigan Tunnel & Chief Mountain. Canada

Any other night, a noisy campground would have bothered us. Last night, there was no way we would have gotten much sleep anyway. A howling wind ripped through our hiker-packed campsite. Putting our tents and our stakes to their final test. Our rain flap would catch the wind before slapping back against itself with a sudden and loud snap. We could hear the creaking and crackling of the trees that surrounded us, but we did not lay there in fear.  The down feathers of our sleeping bags compressed under the weight of our tired bodies.

Critter: Electricity felt like it was bubbling up through my blood. My legs felt jittery and I could not help rubbing my feet on one another as if they were warming up to keep walking. Thats all they knew at this point, walking. They knew the inside of my hiking shoes. They remembered the tightness of the lacing and the hug of the heel. They could tell now that the mid-sole was compressed under the weight and the miles. It was time for a new pair, my feet were the ones to tell me. My feet were mirror images, yet perfectly in sync. To love one was to love the other. And I did, I realize now how much I loved my feet.  They were my direct connection to trail. Even when my mind strayed, my feet remained focused on the rocks and roots. Sending messages to my brain. Taking notes. Learning how to step better. They are the true heroes. And to think one day when we reach the end of the trail, the trail that ends in stillness and light, they will be the ones to rot. I wish I could tell my feet that it is okay to leave my spirit here and walk my body away. But now as I laid in my sleeping bag as we had done for months, I am afraid that they didn’t know that our time out here was almost up. Relaxation had finally spread down into my toes, and my mind drifted in and out of sleep.

The sound of the other hikers breaking down camp alerted us it was time to wake up.

Today, we reach Canada. Today, we reach the end of trail.

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We didn't rush to leave camp. We packed up as we had done every morning. We put our hiking clothes on. We put on our shoes. But this time when we sat down to eat breakfast we were surrounded at the picnic table by friends. No one really talked about it being the last day. Conversation was carried on like normal, and when we all were ready to go, we left Many Glacier as a pack of seven. Trail led us into a thick grouping of pines. It was still early enough that the sunlight didn't make it through the bristles and cones. It was darker among the trees, and at a complete contrast to the night before, it was perfectly still. We started to gradually climb up towards the Ptarmigan Tunnel. We crossed over deep cuts in rock nestled with clear water and small waterfalls. As we climbed, we traded in the cushion of green for the sharp edges and marble-like faces of the mountains. We were among giants, but within our pack of hikers we felt larger than life.

We arrived at Ptarmigan Lake which began the final and steepest part of the climb up to the saddle of Ptarmigan Tunnel. Single-file we started back and forth. The narrow trail carved its way through the side of the steep rock. The leader would stop, then the next one all the way until the last person in the line would stop. The group would look back out across the valley of Many Glacier. Smoke had seemed to clear today, and we could see all the layers and shadows of the peaks and passes around us. We climbed in silence. We climbed with respect. The arete stood directly above us separating Many Glacier valley from Belly River valley. We took our time, savoring our final switchbacks of our final climb. Today, the air was crisp. The wind had died down. We were here. Aside from how different our journeys here had been, we were together for these ending miles. So, we took it all in.

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We changed our direction heading up the final switchback towards Ptarmigan Tunnel. Its heavy iron door was cracked open.  The darkness of the inside and the rich rust of the door had been camouflaged against the rock. Now, we could see it as clear as our path through it to the other side. We stopped to take a small break, sitting down our packs. We admired the view but the coldness of the approaching winter was in the air, so we moved us inside the tunnel to finish eating. Once we had all packed back up, we started down the tunnel. Everyone was reduced to a silhouette against the brightness of the opening ahead of us. As we each left the tunnel one by one, and after our eyes adjusted back to the light, we were left in awe. It felt as if we had walked right into a new world. “Holy Shit,” each exclaimed from a whisper to an excited yell.

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The colors of this new world were framed by the redness of the rocky trail surrounding us.  We could see nothing of the other side except the small light at the end of the tunnel, but our attention spanned outward into Belly River Valley. Elizabeth Lake sat far below us. Pines stretched out beyond the lake. There were glaciers nestled in the nooks of the peaks nearby. Trail was so steep that there was a beautifully stacked rock wall separating us from a very long fall. Heading down trail one by one we weaved in and out, following the natural curve of the face. The descent was steep so we all had a bit of a skip to our step. Once we hit tree line again, we started to cross over rushing streams and walking through pockets of sun beams.

There is no talk of tomorrow or yesterday. There never really is when you are out here. Conversations centered around time only make time on trail seem longer and each step shorter. There is only room for the space that you fill in the moment and your intrinsic belonging within the rock and dirt. So while different conversations were taking place as we hiked down trail towards the edges of the park, still no one talked about the end. 

 We began to hear the roar of a waterfall but did not see it until it was behind us. We stopped for a break. Confident that no one would be walking by, we just made ourselves comfortable in the middle of trail. Afterwards a few of us wanted to hike the side trail leading to the bottom of the waterfall, the rest of the group continued on. We agreed to meet at the border. 

The side trail was short. We were at the bottom of the waterfall before we knew it. The cold spray of water felt magical on our heat-ridden faces. 

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Once back on trail we were led into a field where the mountains began to taper and the valley opened up to prairie grass of gold and green. A wooden fence and a cabin stood so serene as if painted before us on canvas. Trail began to slowly climb. 

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So much of our final month on trail felt like we were running. Running to out run the fires. Running to make our projected end date. Running to beat the weather. Our bodies had hit their threshold and were starting to wear down. A faint breath of ammonia dressed the bottom of our feet. Our minds knew silence’s depth and our sun-kissed skin now looked weathered and worn.

 We understood that when we woke up tomorrow that we wouldn't have to hike, but we didn't believe it. 

As our final miles on trail whittled down to the final minutes, a wave of emotion rushed through us. Walking was all we had known.

Now we had to decide who we would emerge as, who we had become over the course of five and a half months out here. Would we walk into Canada as a significantly more worn out version of the two people who stood at Crazy Cook monument back in April? Or had we become something entirely different. Would we recognize our new selves? Or had we outgrown the shape of our old lives? Out here we just were. Back home we would be two representations of all that we encountered along the Continental Divide Trail. Would be able to share our story in a way that would do the trail justice? This trail is raw and brutal for its terrain as much as its history, but it is beautiful.

Our minds became overwhelmed with equal parts excitement and sadness. We cried and we laughed and we got really quiet. The speed and sound of our feet hitting the last part of trail elevated as we got closer and closer to the end.

Trail ended at a trailhead. Our feet hit the asphalt but continue to move us forward, skirting around cars towards the main road just ahead. There we could see the rest of the group waiting. We caught up and together turned to walk down the road towards the border crossing.

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Tucked in between the entrance and the exit of the United States sat the marble white monument.  ‘International Boundary’ was carved on the side, behind the monument a treeless row of mowed grass stretched between us and the last peaks of Glacier. 

We walked a little bit further down the road before we all stopped at a stop sign. There wasn’t a car in sight and it was oddly quiet. The buzz of our group of hikers would have drowned out the noise anyways. A group broke off and walked up to the small booth where they were granted access into Canada. Finally it was our turn, we stood alone at the white line. A single arm reached out beyond the wall of the booth and with a sharp open and close of the palm, we walk forward to the window. 

”Where are you going?” 

“Calgary.” 

”Do you know someone there?” 

”Yes, we have a friend who is picking us up.” 

”Do you have anything to declare?” 

”No.” 

”Where are you coming from?” 

”Mexico.” 

”Well, Welcome to Canada.” 

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Our time on the CDT is not easily put into words. The magnitude of the experience far surpasses the words we could have used to describe it. We can only thank you for being apart of our journey and being patient with us as we tried to figure out how to put a seemingly neat bow on a very complex package. There is so much we could have said, but we will leave it here, as we finally bring it to the end. Thank you. Happy Hiking, and until next time, Garbelly & Critter.

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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Day 144: The Decision and the Detour

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We awoke with the sun coming through the century old windows of the Bunkhouse Inn. We met Thor, Scrapbook, Drive-by and Maine Man at the cafe to eat breakfast (which definitely included huckleberry pie). We went back to the fire command center to check on the fire status. The winds over night were not good for the fires and did not look good for us hiking the next section.

We also felt very selfish. We were here wandering through the wilderness for our personal gain when these towns and ranches were losing so much. The Bob Marshall was not going anywhere. If we tried to continue hiking north, got stuck in a fire and needed to be rescued, we would be placing fire crews and rescuers in danger to come save us. We would be taking them away from slowing the spread of fire towards the nearby communities. 

Our very simple lives we had been living for the past five months seemed to come crashing in. We were worn down by trying to out run the fires. We were worn down from being on trail for this long as usual towards the end of a thru-hike. We wanted someone to tell us our solution. We looked for a big flashy sign that would show us which way to go. But everything had grown quiet in the smoke. So we made a very, very tough decision. We decided it best to walk to the end of the street where the highway divided and stick out our thumbs. We knew Glacier was shutting down, and there was no way we were going to miss hiking through Glacier. Two hours had passed and no one picked us up. Garbelly knew it was because there were five stinky guys and one Critter. After splitting up the group, we got a ride from a young woman in a small Chevy S10 and her dog. She picked up three of the guys and apologized for not having more room. We promised her that, if she did not mind, we could all fit into the bed of the truck. She allowed us to climb in and told us she was not going the entire way. Maine Man and the two of us jumped in the back with her dog and all six backpacks. Then our two hour drive towards East Glacier began.

The air was frigid. With the eighty mile per hour highway ride, it chilled our bones. The wind beat against our ears and face. Soon, we put on all of our layers, fought over whose legs the dog got to lay on and keep warm and buried our heads in our laps. At some point the woman must have agreed to take us the entire way, because we began to see the iconic snow spotted peaks of Glacier National Park. We were here. We had made it. This was in no way the ending we thought we would have, but we were here. Then the reality struck us that instead of ten days left of our journey, it was now under a week. This both elated and saddened us. This quick ending did not feel right, but we both knew that we had to make the best of the situation trail gave us. 

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We were dropped off at the Brownies Hostel and Bakery where we had reserved a room for all six of us. The good smells of the bakery counterbalanced the six of us crammed into a ten by ten bunk room. Glimmer texted us and let us know that a lot of hikers were in town and were meeting at the Mexican Restaurant in town. We headed out looking for the restaurant, which we found quickly considering the population of the small reservation town was under four hundred residents. 

Walking into the courtyard behind the restaurant was like a hiker reunion of people we had not seen in months. Dinner that night was fantastic. We had never seen anywhere close to that many hikers in one place on the CDT. Garbelly had never seen that many hikers at once even on the PCT. It felt right. Our scary decision to bypass the wildfires was confirmed by the warm feeling we received reuniting with trail friends. Some of these hikers had already completed the trail and had hitched back from the border before heading home.

Hiker Reunion!!

Hiker Reunion!!

As the night got darker, we decided to head back to the hostel and get some sleep before figuring out permits for our next few days of hiking. The rumor was that the border was closed, but we would be able to hike up to the monument, take photos, kiss the earth and then hike twenty five miles out to the nearest road. At this point, we took whatever we could get as long as we could see Glacier.