Contributing editor Jeff Kish is hiking the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail this summer. This is his second report from the trail. See Kish’s full collection of trip reports and gear reviews at GearJunkie.com/PNT.
I hiked out of Eureka, Mont., along a decommissioned rail grade that followed the Tobacco River downstream to Lake Koocanusa. A bow wave of a thousand fleeing grasshoppers welled from my shins as I pushed through the tall grass. Ospreys called from lofty nests atop the conifers that lined the bank of the river and shaded the RVs parked in the campsites below.
Fawns played on the opposite bank, and a bald eagle circled high overhead. The blue skies offered no forewarning of what was to come to this riparian paradise.
The path led to Highway 37, where I turned and began to tramp the southbound shoulder toward the Koocanusa bridge. The guardrails popped and whined as they contracted in the cooling evening air. The rhythm of the walk was hypnotic and my thoughts turned increasingly inward with every mile. Then, like smelling salts, the sweet scent of ozone snapped me back to the present.
The horizon beyond the Purcells had gone dark, and the nefarious fingers of a storm had begun to creep over the western ridge as the first heavy drops of rain splashed on the warm asphalt ahead.
I stopped to stow my camera and pull on my rain gear as darkness consumed the valley. Flashes of lightening strobed behind Webb mountain with a distant rumble. Soon, crooked bolts sliced through the atmosphere all around me and the valley filled with the cacophony of their thunderous report.
It was time to hunker down. I pitched my tent alongside the highway and slid inside to escape the deluge. Outside, the rain pounded, the wind lashed, and the thunder echoed off the hillsides. A total of 15 ounces of cuben fiber fabric that comprised the tent was all that separated me from the torrent, but I felt like I was a world away.
Cozy in my dry base layers, on a cushy pad, under a quilt of down, I listened as the storm raged on. Then, when it eased to a calming patter, I drifted off to sleep.
In the morning, the sun was peeking through the clouds and I continued my walk in high spirits. Cyclist after cyclist passed me on a “Bike The U.S. For M.S.” ride, and we shouted back and forth to one another. We were on different journeys, but there was camaraderie. We were outside, doing something big, in this lonely and desolate place.
I crossed Koocanusa on Montana’s longest and tallest bridge. The struts wailed like a hundred sullen banshees as the wind twisted around them under the concrete deck.
After passing a sign warning of grizzlies on the far side, I immediately began my ascent of Webb mountain, switching back and forth around blind turns through thick bushes of ripe huckleberries. I stained my hands purple picking the fruit as I climbed, and still I saw no bears.
Over the next few days, I’d realize the full impact of the storm. Blown-down trees littered the trail and slowed my pace to a crawl, and the scent of fresh snapped timber hung in the air. When I came to road crossings, chainsaws wailed to clear fallen trees, and the locals took a break from their lectures about bears to ask where I was during the storm.
If the trails were bad, the bushwhacks were worse. In one section, I had to traverse a heavily wooded area with dense undergrowth to find a forest service road. I climbed over downed logs, and through tangles of branches, and when I stepped down onto one particular trunk, my foot sank through to its rotten core and into a nest of bees.
My legs were on fire with countless stings. I frantically scrambled to free myself from the snarl. I’d be red, swollen, and welted for days after.
A few miles from the Idaho border I heard a voice and looked up to see a guy hiking toward me with the aid of long wooden walking stick. “In three years working out here, you are the FIRST person I’ve ever encountered hiking across the Yaak!” he said. “I thought it was just me using these trails.”
His name was Dustin, and he was a bear biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. His job was to place strips of barbed wire on bear rubs, and then check on them routinely to collect fur samples for genetic testing. He knew of every grizzly in the area, and how they were related. His enthusiasm for conversation suggested that it was lonely work.
“Hey, where are you camping tonight?” he asked. “There’s an old trapper camp up ahead, I can show you exactly where it is on the map. I have a growler of home brew stashed there if you want to hang out!”
I had to push on, and we parted ways at a fork in the trail. His route returned him to his truck, and mine climbed back up into the hills. I’d find chocolate and a granola bar waiting for me at my next two road crossings.
On the final night before reaching Bonners Ferry, Idaho, I camped on a rocky butte just under the summit of Bussard Mountain. After clearing a spot, I laid down to sleep under the stars, and for the first time, as I lay still, I realized just how quiet it was.
There were no winds rustling the grasses and no crickets chirping. Just total silence. The kind that you can hear your own pulse in. I laid awake for some time, staring into the cloudless sky. The stars were magnificent! I watched satellites orbit and counted the meteors like sheep as I slipped into a slumber.
Early in the morning, the wings of a single mosquito cut through the silence and stirred me awake. I rolled over to see the most brilliant sunrise of my life, and I scrambled for my camera to take a few photos before it rose a little more and the colors faded.
I’ve never been so thankful to share a moment with one of those bloodsuckers.
As the sun continued to rise, I packed up my things, jogged to the highway, and caught a hitch down to the town of Bonners Ferry.
—Contributing editor Jeff Kish is hiking the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail this summer. He will be making regular trip reports and gear reviews from the trail. Follow the whole journey at GearJunkie.com/PNT.