Straddling the summits and flanks of northwest Montana’s Cabinet Mountains lies the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area (CMWA). Over 94,000 acres of primitive, rugged, and pristine Montana landscape that welcome exploration by hikers, mountain climbers, hunters, fisherman, and all those individuals that want to see part of our state as it has been for millenia. It is here that my story unfolds.
Summers in northwest Montana usually create conflict within my family. Not your normal family discussions, mind you, but somewhat heated discussions regarding allocation of time. With so many wild places to explore and such limited time in which to do it, tough decisions have to be made. “What do you want to do today?” is the question. Float the Bull River, explore the South Fork of Ross Creek, hike the Pillick Ridge Trail, go see the Berray Mountain Lookout, and this list goes on and on.
After much discussion and consideration for the members of the excursion, we decided to hike to Cliff Lake, and perhaps, for some, to the summit of Chicago or St. Paul Peaks in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area. This particular adventure appealed to all members of the group, as our ages and fitness levels varied greatly. The initial trek into the meadow below the peaks is an easy hike, whereas the summits of Chicago and St. Paul Peaks are somewhat more challenging. The preparation for the hike builds excitement. Daypacks are filled with snacks, drinking water, mosquito repellent, cameras, and first aid kits are stocked, checked, restocked and checked for a final time. Children and parents alike will share the load, although not equally. A quick check of the map for the directions and into the truck we go.
Driving south on Highway 56 provides some very dramatic vistas of the Cabinet Mountains. At one point, Chicago and St. Paul Peaks are clearly visible, and they seem very far away. It is hard to imagine that we will arrive there later in the day. They seem so remote and far away. The trail head to Cliff Lake lies at the end of a rough, rocky road high in the Cabinets. It doesn’t take long to remove ourselves from the valley of the Clark Fork River, as we make our way up, and up, and up to the trailhead.
The Cliff Lake trailhead is very close to the wilderness boundary, which is different than most trails in the area. This trailhead provides easy access to wilderness. The value of such access has been debated often by my family. On one hand, this access point allows people of various fitness levels to experience wilderness, and perhaps come to value all that it has to offer, and spread the word to others. Some feel that a true wilderness experience can only be obtained through arduous and difficult access, thereby keeping the solitude and remoteness of wilderness intact.
Arriving at the trailhead, packs and walking sticks are removed from bed of the truck, and the hike begins. We progress single file, ascending, then flat, views obscured by alpine fir and rock outcroppings. Descending, then flat. No signs of people. Perhaps the “leave no trace” practices that my father preaches are being heeded. Soon we emerge from the timber to the meadow below Chicago Peak, and the shoulder of St. Paul to the north and east. Bear grass is in bloom speckling the meadows and flanks of the peaks. Lunch time. Looking for mountain goats time. Conversation time. Reflection time. The day warms and Cliff Lake calls us. Enthusiastically, we cross the meadow and drop down to the frigidly refreshing water. Laughs echo through the small basin as the lake gives us new energy. The time passes quickly, and soon we gather our gear and begin the hike back. As we leave the basin of Cliff Lake, we spot a nanny goat and a kid on a ledge above the lake. They seem to watch us. Perhaps wondering if we will return to this place. We will return to this place, and it will be then as it is today, as it has been for millennia.
Jayden Winslow’s excellent essay was submitted to the 2019 Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness scholarship competition. Hers was one of the top two from Libby High School.
Voices in the Wilderness is a monthly column written by your neighbors, friends and visitors in the vicinity of the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Voices features memorable personal experiences in wild places. If you have an adventure tale based in untamed country (it doesn’t have to be local), write to firstname.lastname@example.org for guidelines, or just send it along.