This “Voices in the Wilderness” first appeared in the Western News, December 17.
By Kelly Palmer, Troy, Montana
I’ve had the privilege of living in a drift boat on the Kootenai River for seventeen summers. I’ve spent 550-575 days guiding fishermen–some of whom have become good friends, others who are fond memories and a small handful who need to expire so I can write the book.
I’ve come to realize you can have too much of a good thing. Guiding is like having chocolate cake every day for dessert–it can be awesome cake, but it gets old day after day. I needed a change.
I found myself looking to the mountains more often and realizing that I’d spent very little time “up there.” Combined with the realization that I wasn’t getting any younger and the ”chocolate cake every day” syndrome, it proved to be the mystical amalgamation of elements required to pull the backpacking gear out of the garage where it has been resting for too many years.
To borrow from John Muir, the mountains were calling, and it was time for me to go. Go fishing, that is.
My bride was worried. I left my National Forest map with her with my route highlighted. I knew where I was going, and had my Garmin eTrex with me. While the GPS is pretty handy in the field, it’s not as good for the bigger picture. I knew I was looking for Forest Service road 455 (not the real number). What I didn’t know is that there is more than one Forest Service road 455.
I’ll tell you –455D is not the one you want. It dead-ends in some guy’s driveway. Thankfully, he wasn’t the shootin’ type. When I explained what I was doing, he looked at me with concern and asked if I wanted to call my wife.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, you know, so she knows where you were last seen in case they need to find your remains.”
I kid you not–that’s what he said.
“No, I think I’m good,” I replied. He gave me another map that made it easy to find the correct version of that elusive road 455.
Forty-five minutes later, I parked the truck. I found the thinnest spot in the dog-hair tangle alder and initiated the hardest hike of my life.
My parking spot was at 4391 feet. I would crest the ridge almost exactly one mile later at 7120 feet. That’s right: the slope averaged more than 45 degrees.
It took me five hours.
Initially, the landscape was dominated by western red cedar, hemlock, devil’s club and ferns. After a bit, lodgepole pine interspersed with huckleberries and other shrubs prevailed. Eventually, alpine fir and rock defined the hillside.
My “hike” wound up with a fair amount of mountaineering to it. On the ridge I was only 400 yards from the lake. However, it was 800 vertical feet below me. My legs were unsteady. My pack had doubled in weight. With no water, I couldn’t stay on the ridge and I couldn’t go back. Against my best judgment, I headed down toward the lake.
A hard hour later I arrived.
It’s an amazing sensation to be alone in the wilderness. I become keenly aware that an inconvenience in town–sprained ankle, forgotten rain coat, no pocketknife–can be a life-threatening problem in the wild. I realize that I am smaller in the grand scheme of things than I generally acknowledge, and being at the top of the food chain is an artificial construct.
I made camp. The weather was simply perfect. I enjoyed a meal of dehydrated kung pow chicken washed down with Gatorade and five ibuprofen for dessert. Sleep came easily and uninterrupted.
The next morning I enjoyed a breakfast of hot granola with blueberries and military surplus Irish cream coffee surrogate and five more ibuprofen.
After breakfast, I strung up my fly rod. There were sporadic rises, although I couldn’t see what they were eating. I’d seen grasshoppers and yellow jackets around camp, so I tried patterns to match. No luck.
I stood awestruck at the beauty of the first golden trout I’ve ever touched. I snapped a quick photo and slipped her back into the water. It sounds simple, and it is: I was completely happy in that moment.
I find comfort in the solitude and beauty of the high places. When there, my thoughts wander to everything and nothing, all at once. Life is put in perspective, and I am at peace.
Kelly Palmer moved to Montana in 1985 to accept a graduate teaching assistantship at Montana State University. He had other offers, but realized “when that plane banked over the Bridger Range, I’d take anything they offered me.” He and his wife have raised four children under the Big Sky, and now live in Troy where she is the 7-12 grade art teacher and he has been the school counselor for the past 19 years. For seventeen seasons, Kelly guided fly fishermen, but now prefers to spend his summers backpacking into high lonely places.