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.