When I was younger, my family would often go on camping trips, day hikes, road trips. There was a large priority placed on making sure we got to get outside and experience as much nature as we could. I have fond memories of sitting by the campfire and roasting mallows with my family, going on hikes with friends, watching the stars all night, and shivering in my sleeping bag, terrified by the idea of wild animals roaming around my flimsy tent in the woods of Cle Elum, WA.
All of these experiences throughout my childhood and the rest of my life thus far have left me with an insatiable desire to get out and explore more. I have a need I can feel in my heart to be out there as far as I can get, and to see things you can only see when you commit to truly spending time in the wilderness. Coming to little Trout Creek, Montana, I was not at all prepared for how deeply I would fall in love with the rugged mountains and rolling horizons you can see from their peaks, or with the feeling of being truly alone with the woods, nothing in the moment connecting me to anything in the outside world except a radio. The wilderness out here in Western Montana has a lot of similarities to the wilderness at home in Western Washington, but it still feels completely its own thing. At the beginning of this summer, I was genuinely terrified by the idea of going up these mountains alone, and now I long for the chance to come back and do it again before I’ve even left. There is one experience in particular that stands out in my memories of the wilderness here, and that is the memory of my first-ever backpacking trip, to Wanless Lake.
Tuesday, August 9th, 2022, I woke up at 5am, got dressed, put on my ~60lb pack, and left for the trailhead. I was hiking out a day later than the trail crew, so I would meet them at the campsite by the lake whenever I got there. This being my first time backpacking, I had no idea what to expect, nor really an accurate idea of how far I had to go. I didn’t realize how much the heavier pack would slow me down, and hurt me to carry, which left me disappointed with how slow I was going. Because of this, any time I wanted to stop, I did my best to make myself go just a little bit farther and only allowed short breaks standing in the trail. If I sat, it was too hard to stand back up with the pack on, and nearly impossible to put the pack on standing up. Eventually, after four of the most demanding hours of my life, I made it to the wilderness boundary. I radioed the crew and headed down into the basin to meet them, excited to get to camp and take my pack off.
There were moments on the hike up where I genuinely questioned why I had volunteered to go on this trip, if it would be worth it. But then once I stopped and looked out at the sea of mountains surrounding me, when I sat by the lake quietly filtering water, when I woke up in my hammock watching the final stars disappear above the mountains until a squirrel decided to be my alarm clock, I knew that I would do it all over again in a heartbeat, and that I would carry this experience with me throughout the rest of my life.
The last day, hiking out, I wanted nothing more than to never be there again, not if it meant carrying that pack and hiking in those boots for what felt like an entire day. But blisters aside, as we drove away from the trailhead back to the Ranger Station, I was sad, and I knew I would need to get back there some day. The feeling of being so surrounded by nature, completely isolated from the pressures of everyday life, it is what I have been chasing since my childhood, and to have found it here in Montana is such a gift, I will not be able to stay away for long, no matter where else my life takes me.
Rachel Torgerson is this summer’s Back Country Ranger for the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, from Bellingham, WA. She is majoring in Recreation Management and Leadership at WWU, and is looking forward to visiting Montana again next year.