The Joy of Walking Montana Wilderness
July in northwest Montana is a time for exploration. Cool mornings and hot afternoons mirror the stark contrast in topography one can find by simply hiking for a few hours into the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area. The slow meanders of the Bull River are quickly replaced with the waterfalls and pools of Rock Creek. My father and I decided it was time for a change from the warm waters and Large-Mouth Bass of Bull Lake, to snow fed Rock Creek, as well as Rock Lake, and some West-slope Cutthroat.
Family conversation around the evening camp fire at “the Lake” is a way to let the body and mind unwind from the days’ activities, as well as an opportunity for the older family members to tell stories about various adventures they have had. It was in this format that the Rock Lake hike for my dad and me came about. Cabinet Mountain Wilderness maps were brought out from the glove box of the pickup and through the yellow light of the Coleman lantern, the decision was made to hike to Rock Lake and up to St. Paul Pass. Here we would spend the night, and if we were up for it the next morning, we would try for Libby Lakes. Our exit route from the wilderness would be the St. Paul Peak trail, where my grandfather would be waiting for us.
The excitement built the entire day as all the details of the trip were planned. Food, tents, sleeping bags, fishing gear, bear spray, mosquito repellant, and cooking gear found their way into the packs. As we got ready to go, my dad used phrases and words like “minimalist” when referring to our pack load, and “leave no trace” that we had visited the wilderness. He told me that hiking and fishing and using the “wilderness” invoked a level of land use responsibility and practices that needed to be followed, so other people and generations could have experiences like the one we were about to have.
My grandpa drove us to the trail head. We started hiking up the trail, looking at all the trees and how the sunlight seemed to dance off the limbs. As we were hiking, we heard Rock Creek running below us and went down to fish. In the crystal clear water we could see fish and caught ten in a short amount of time. It was great. Once we were finished there, we kept hiking to the lake. We ate huckleberries as we enjoyed the beauty of the hike and the fresh air of the mountains. As soon as we got to Rock Lake, we fished and caught a few in the blue water. St. Paul Pass was around the backside of the lake, so we began to work our way around. There was no trail; we had to try to pick the best route. Sometimes we were in boulder fields above the tree line, and at times we right at the edge of the lake. At one point, we went close to the water because that was the best route. We ended up falling into the water, but it was all part of the fun. Once we got around the lake, we went up toward the pass to our camping spot. We set up camp and ate in the pass and talked about the day. At twilight, we saw mule deer and elk and heard a bull elk bugle. It was a crystal clear night and the sheer rock face of Ojibway Peak glowed in the moonlight. It was awesome! Then next morning, we woke up and went down the back side of Saint Paul Pass. We rock hopped down the pass to Saint Paul Lake, where we fished again. After fishing and examining the back side of Saint Paul Peak, which is breathtaking, we went down the trail and eventually back home.
Hiking into Rock Lake with my dad was an experience that I will never forget. The fishing, huckleberries, mountains, bugling elk, and fresh air all made the experience one I want to repeat. The wilderness is a place where I want to someday take my children. This year, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we are planning a hike to Wanless Lake. It is here that we will continue the father and son tradition we started and immensely enjoyed – an overnight hike in the wilderness.
Jared Winslow is a Lincoln County graduating senior and the 2014 winner of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness essay competition for Libby High School. Congratulations Jared! His essay also appeared in the May 30, 2013 Western News.