A Case of Deja Vu

It’s not a great idea to begin a long hike while recovering from an overuse injury. That’s how I started the PCT in July ’21, and it’s how I started the CDT in June ’23. A few weeks before hitting the trail, I tore the soleus muscle in my left calf. And just like last time, I kept trying to run before the injury had fully healed. The tear itself was about 1.5 inches long, a quarter-inch wide, and a quarter-inch deep. Fortunately, after the initial swelling went down, I was able to use my mountain bike to keep fit without making things worse.

For the next six weeks, my longest walk was a weekly stroll around the grocery store. Then, the day before I was due to leave for the CDT, a thought hit me. I’d assumed that walking wouldn’t exacerbate the injury. What if I was wrong? A few days earlier, my latest running attempt had been unsuccessful. Now, with my pre-trail nerves mounting, I started to worry that I might not be able to hike either.

That evening, I walked eight miles. Apart from an intense itch within the damaged tissue, the only consequences were a pair of blisters. I decided to proceed as planned. Mid-afternoon the next day, by way of an Uber and a Greyhound bus, I arrived in Spokane, Washington. With a few hours to kill, I wandered around Riverfront Park, and counted more marmots than I saw during my entire time on the PCT. Then I ate dinner, and waited for the 1:15 AM Amtrak that would take me to East Glacier Park, Montana.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

It wasn’t a restful night. Several times per hour, the train rocked side-to-side vigorously enough to wake me up. By the time I reached my stop, just after 9:30 the next morning, I’d slept about four hours out of the last 48. I felt slightly drunk.

The train was too long for the platform, so passengers in the front coaches disembarked first. While I waited for the train to pull forward, I chatted to a pair of thru-hikers. All three of us failed to notice that the train had moved, and were startled to hear the “last call” announcement. We hurriedly grabbed our packs, stumbled down the stairs, and out into the sunshine.

“Ty” and “Classic” had managed to arrange a backcountry permit for Glacier National Park, and they left to meet up with two other hikers. It was June 20th, and the most popular SOBO start-date (per HalfwayAnywhere) was only four days away. Even though thru-hiker demand would be close to its historical peak, I was hopeful I’d get a permit, even if I had to wait a day or two. And if that didn’t happen, my plan would be simple to update.

I’d sent my first resupply box so that it would already be waiting at the post office. In the event I had to come straight back to East Glacier, walking the 11 miles to Two Medicine was a better option than hitching. I left the station, passed the lodge, and set off into Grizzly territory.

Name that tune

The last time I visited Glacier National Park, I wasn’t alone. I hiked a short section of the CDT from Two Medicine to Morning Star Lake with my friend, Nick. Neither of us carried bear spray, which we realized was a mistake after about three miles.

We were standing in a clearing with a clear view up and down the valley, less than 100 yards from the tree-line. We would soon be following the trail uphill into the trees, and that’s where the Grizzly bear emerged. It was using the trail to move down the valley in our direction, completely preoccupied with the vegetation directly under its nose. It obviously hadn’t seen us yet, we were downwind of it, and there was loud, rushing water nearby. As the bear continued to forage in our direction, I decided to shout before it wandered too close.

It briefly looked us over, and decided we were neither food nor threat. There was no change in its body language, but it did subtly change direction. Nick and I both stood, transfixed, as it casually made its way across the hillside. It disappeared behind a tree, and for several seconds the tree shook violently. Then, presumably having scratched an itch, the bear appeared from behind the tree and continued to amble away.

For the rest of the day, we went out of our way to make noise. We settled on a game where one of us would sing a lyric and the other would try to guess the song. We didn’t see any other bears but we did encounter some bemused hikers.

Day O

This time around, I carried bear spray and I made noise anywhere a Grizzly might be lurking. My apologies to SOBOs “Lazy Boy” and “Dread Pirate Roberts”, who were startled by some idiot singing random lines from the “Banana Boat Song”.

A lake in a steep-sided valley under an overcast sky.

Two Medicine Lake.

The final descent to Two Medicine was steep, rocky, stair-steppy, and the first real test of my dodgy leg. It would have been embarrassing if my hike ended there, but I made it safely to the valley floor. My visit to the ranger station was less successful. There were no campsites available within reach of the CDT for the next six, or in some places seven, nights. I didn’t want to wait a week, and there were no hikers at the campground who had space on their permit. So, after the best night’s sleep ever, I took the 8:45 AM shuttle back to Glacier Park Lodge.

My box had arrived in time, and was waiting at the post office. It contained the food I originally intended to eat on the way to Benchmark Wilderness Ranch. Now that my plans had changed, I forwarded the box to Anaconda, and bought a day’s worth of food at the General Store. Then I finished my ice cream, made my way back to the CDT, and headed in the direction of Mexico.

Over the next few days, I began the process of adjusting to life on trail. As on previous thru-hikes, I quickly realized that an alarm clock wasn’t necessary. Going to bed at nine each night, and falling asleep within five minutes, I was completely rested and ready by the time 5:20 AM arrived. Half an hour after that – sunrise. Less than half an hour later, I was on trail.

The Bob

Most nights in Grizzly territory, I camped out of sight of the trail, and away from established sites. A good way to reduce the chances of a bear encounter, I figured. But perhaps not good enough, I wondered, at 2 AM on day four. I woke to the sound of a large animal prancing around, not far from my tent. It wasn’t stealthy, and it definitely wasn’t quiet. It seemed to be frolicking rather than browsing or hunting, but I kept my mouth shut. Better to play dead than shout, “Hey – I’m trying to sleep here!”

Camping among the trees was warmer and drier than camping in meadows, which were often frosty until the sun came up. The CDT followed creeks and rivers, and the vegetation was wet and overgrown. Keeping my feet dry, in an effort to minimize foot problems during the first few days, was difficult. I swapped my boots for flip-flops at several water crossings, but sometimes it just wasn’t practical. If the crossings were deep or swift or required a sure footing, or if they were just too frequent, the boots had to stay on.

The only people I saw in the Bob Marshall Wilderness were a trio of SOBOs who leapfrogged me a few times. They weren’t chatty, so I didn’t spend much time around them. My progress was slower than anticipated, mostly due to rough trail and extensive fire damage. Whenever I started to make good progress, another section of blowdown was never far away.

Pitstop number one

After taking the junction for the Spotted Bear alternate, it was nice to gain some elevation and leave the valley floor behind. As an added benefit, there were fewer mosquito squadrons up there. I rejoined the CDT under overcast skies, and enjoyed spectacular views as I crossed the meadows at the base of the Chinese Wall.

A steep, rocky slope with trees at its base, under a cloudy sky.

Switchback Pass, on the Spotted Bear alternate.

For my first resupply, I arrived at Benchmark Trailhead at 1 PM. Plenty of cars were parked there and at the nearby campground, but nobody was driving anywhere. I started walking along the dirt road, and arrived at Benchmark Wilderness Ranch an hour later. It was deserted, and obviously not yet open for the season. I checked the big metal box on the porch, and found that my package had arrived safely. While I transferred the contents to my bear canister, a distant rumble of thunder started moving closer. Pretty soon, the rain arrived, and I waited for it to pass before leaving.

Just after four o’clock, as I hurried back the way I came, there were still no cars on the road. I could see more bad weather approaching from the west, and I was determined to reach the campground before it arrived.

Nice weather for ducks

Many afternoons on the CDT turned into a race against an incoming thunderstorm. They typically hit around the time I intended to camp, with three potential outcomes.

  1. The best result: getting to camp with enough time to pitch my tent. Safely inside, I felt snug and smug as the heavens opened.
  2. The typical result: the storm arrived while I was still hiking. At which point, the rain gods dictated my schedule. I had to keep moving to stay warm, and once the storm passed, walking for another half hour gave my rain jacket chance to dry.
  3. The worst result was also pretty common. I’d breathlessly stumble into camp and then get drenched, with my tent half-pitched, in a cold mix of rain and hail. Several puddles greeted me once I was inside.

That day at South Fork Campground, it was outcome number three.

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