Dodging Fires Through Montana


They say this trail is cold, and they were right. We haven’t really had a hot day since New Mexico, but that all changed in Darby, MT. It was hot and muggy, with temperatures in the high 90s and possibly even getting over 100F. Being this far north, the summer heat wave only lasted a week or so before the cold returned with a vengeance. In the meantime, it helped accelerate countless fires throughout Montana and the West.



Hot Days

The day after leaving Darby, we walked through hazy skies and a burn area from years past in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Planes were circling overhead, and it took us a moment to realize a new fire was smoldering less than a mile from us. We’re grateful that yet again we made it through before the trail closed (it closed just days later). A few mountain passes later we were back in clear skies and the scenery really started to improve.


We passed lakes, streams, berries and wildflowers as we climbed high passes with panoramic views. The skies cleared up just in time for us to enjoy cowboy camping under the Perseid meteor shower.


The Butte Route

By the time we made it to Butte the weather cooled off ever so slightly. We resupplied and headed to Pizza Ranch with Yoda and Enigma to stuff our faces and charge our electronics. We stayed until we sensed our welcome was wearing off, about five  hours. It was truly a hiker trash kind of day! We saw several hikers in town who got caught in the fires behind us and skipped ahead. We’re really grateful to have been able to keep a continuous footpath so far.



We headed back out toward Helena, where another fire closure was waiting ahead of us. We hoped that taking the longer Butte route and not the shorter Anaconda cutoff might buy us some time for the closure to reopen. This turned out to work in our favor. It started to rain on us the first night out of town, and continued for the next few days. Summer seemed to end overnight as the weather quickly turned back to cold. In addition, we’re losing about three minutes of light each day. Although not noticeable one day to the next, by the end of a week the days are noticeably shorter.



Rain and Cold

The remainder of the way into Helena was reminiscent of the Appalachian Trail. Misty mornings, foggy overlooks, wet roots and rocks and grass. Our gear would be damp in the morning and we’d never get the chance to dry it out during the day, so we’d set up a damp tent at night. There were probably some nice views, but we couldn’t really see them for the fog. Very AT-like indeed. On the morning into Helena, we were so damp and cold we basically ran to town, eager to dry out in a warm bed. Being a big town, it was too spread out to be very hiker friendly, but there is a great network of trail angels, so we were able to get shuttled around town to get our errands done. Then we got pizza delivered and didn’t leave the hotel again. I call that a successful town day.



Our timing turned out great for the fire north of Helena, and the trail reopened the day we were in town. The weather continued to be overcast and cold as we walked on roads and trails among the cows, our ever-present companions on the Cowtinental Divide Trail. In the evening our friend Z caught up to us after getting off trail for a week back in Lima, so we had a fun reunion and he has hiked with us and Yoda ever since. As we continued toward Lincoln, we had a lot of dirt road walks, so to pass the time Yoda downloaded some situational riddles and we worked on them as we walked. It was a great way to pass the time.



In Lincoln we learned of more fires ahead, in the worst areas imaginable: The Bob Marshall Wilderness and in Waterton. Fortunately, both have hikeable alternates, but it still meant we’d miss some of the highlights of the trail, and would have to walk to the alternate terminus rather than end at Waterton Lake. It was pretty disappointing news, and definitely motivated us to get this trail finished as soon as possible. Fires are a part of thru-hiking, so we have to be grateful to be here, suck it up, and keep hiking.


The Bob Marshall Wilderness

Our alternate through the Bob was a lower elevation route that followed a river. Although we didn’t get to walk near the Chinese Wall, the scenery was still very nice. The weather stayed cold and misty and autumn-like, and the higher elevations even got some snow. Fortunately for us, we only got rained on down low, but it was still cold. We came upon a ranger station with a respectably dirty ranger inside. He had a fire going and a pot of coffee on, so we invaded his cabin and took over his picnic table for lunch and drank all his coffee. It was so toasty and warm inside, it was hard to leave, but eventually we had to move on.


The terrain was flat and easy for the remainder of the alternate, and by the time we rejoined the official CDT, the weather started to clear up and offer some beautiful views. We hiked our way quickly into East Glacier, our final resupply before Canada. It’s hard to believe the end is so near! While we are ready to get this trail finished, it’s bittersweet that this great adventure will soon be over.


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