WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER. OKAY, SOMETIMES IT KILLS YOU.
We started the day with oversized omelets and stuffed French toast at the Whistestop Restaurant.
Okay, I know what you are thinking. This trip has been really boring so far. French toast? Cute restaurants?
Where is the excitement? Where is the adventure? Where are the inevitable mishaps that lead to events like nearly crapping in a shopkeeper’s basket in the crowded streets of Oia, Greece or finding oneself trapped at the end of a long dead-end alley in the slums of Rome? Where is the catastrophic food poisoning on the way home from Honduras?
Apparently, I had saved it all up for one glorious disaster.
An epic fail.
And it was called the Firebrand Pass Trail.
On every trip, I like to do some hikes we’ve never done. The Siyeh Pass hike had been new, but that had been a day hike. I needed a new overnight trip to notch into my hiking belt.
I had settled on the Firebrand Pass hike, a 9 mile journey to a remote backcountry campground with some serious uphill and downhill to tackle along the way.
Our first hint that maybe I hadn’t done enough research was at the trailhead.
Steve and Al pulled up to the railroad tracks in The Middle of Nowhere, MT and looked at us dubiously as we pulled our packs out of the vehicle and strapped them on.
The location was so unremarkable and poorly designated that we drove past it three times before we finally pulled over and decided this must be it.
“Are you SURE?” she asked. “This doesn’t look like a trail head. There aren’t any signs.”
Matt and I looked across the tracks at a rickety old fence with a paper sign on it and no sign of a trail.
“I’m sure,” I said, waving them off like this was all part of the plan, although I was sweating bullets on the inside. This looked like a place to get lost and poop yourself to death after becoming paralyzed from eating poisonous berries, not a place to hike into the backcountry toward an awesome night at an amazing campground.
“You guys go on and have fun, we’ll see you tomorrow,” I said with more confidence than I actually possessed.
Why had I picked this hike again?
Information on this hike had been hard to come by. It was located in a remote area, far from all of the other trails. It didn’t seem very popular. Yet I had read descriptions of “outstanding views,” “a hike to escape the crowds,” “lightly trafficked,” “a long way away from civilizations,” and “hiking in extraordinary isolated seclusion.”
I was drawn to the Firebrand Pass hike by its promise of beauty and solitude, the two things Matt and I crave most on a backcountry hike. Now I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake and simply put us on a dirt trail in the middle of nowhere on the way toward nothing.
Because this hike was far outside the “typical” boundaries of the park for most visitors, it doesn’t get much traffic despite its epic scenery. It also requires a steep 2100 foot ascent to the pass, which can experience wind gusts up to 50 mph. Then there is the matter of a heavy pack required if one intends to make one’s way all the way to the lake to camp overnight.
But none of those are the real reason most visitors skip the hike beyond the pass to go all the way back to Ole Lake.
It’s the descent from Firebrand Pass to the lake that gets them. Apparently, not many people are interested in a steep, 2680 foot descent in just a couple of miles on a narrow ridge trail comprised completely of ankle deep, loose scree.
I knew this going in, but felt Matt and I were up to the challenge.
I really should have read the fine print.
The hike started off fine. The first few miles were very pleasant, passing through valleys, meadows, fields of late season wildflowers, and traversing aspen groves. A little way in, we found the sign so we knew we were headed the right way.
The day was overcast, which kept the heat at bay, which was nice because most of the hike afforded very little shade.
As the trail started to ascend, we passed 2 of the only 3 people we would see on this hike. They were coming toward us, headed out, as they had only hiked as far as the pass early that morning and turned around.
It was two 50-something women on a day hike and they stopped to ask us a strange favor.
Apparently, they had passed a very young woman, hiking alone, with no gear, no water, only a dirty jacket and a book in her hands. As Firebrand Pass is a long hike with no water sources, this struck them as odd. She handed them her phone and asked them to take her photo. As they passed her, they became increasingly worried about her lack of proper clothing and water.
We promised to watch for her if we passed her along our route. Surely she wasn’t headed all the way to the campground.
Who hikes alone on a remote trail with no water and a book?
We continued on and at a little over 4 miles we reached the basin below Firebrand Pass. The views were stunning. We could see the route to the pass above and took a moment to enjoy the scenery before heading up.
It was here that we encountered the young woman, about 18 years old by my best guess. She was out of shape and inappropriately dressed. She was indeed hiking alone with no pack, no food, and no water. She carried a filthy puffer jacket in one hand and a ratty paperback in the other.
We had only a moment to make a tough decision. We still had a 1.5 mile steep climb to the pass in the August heat followed by about 4 miles of steep descent before reaching the lake. There were no water sources that we knew of before reaching the lake, so the only water we had were the 2 bottles that we had in our pack….bottles we had counted on having with us until we reached the lake. One was full and one wasn’t.
And there was this young woman, so ill prepared with absolutely no business being out here.
We gave her the full bottle.
I could only hope that God would reward me for my giving spirit by not letting me die of dehydration before finding more water.
I still wonder if she made it out okay and what her story was. In my dream, she met up with Mister Fabulous on her way out and he threw her dirty jacket aside, wrapped her in his billowy scarf, and they hiked off into the sunset, taking selfies and drinking my water.
We will never know.
It was time to make the long slog up to the pass.
When we finally reached the top, we only paused for a second. The wind was so fierce it was hard to stand upright. All we could do was immediately start the hike down the other side.
Which turned out to be absolutely HORRIFIC.
I don’t consider myself a wimp. I’m no sissy. I have slept in the snow with wet feet, hiked 7 miles down a rugged mountain face in flip flops because my heels were too blistered for boots, pushed a golf cart out of the sand with my bare hands because it was stuck and I was alone with my girlfriend who wasn’t any stronger than I was, and spent several days on a deserted island in nothing more than a glorified tent.
I can endure a certain amount of adversity.
That scree slope, however, was my undoing.
First, it was crazy steep. That’s bad enough if you have firm ground beneath you, as opposed to loose gravel so deep it’s like walking in quicksand. Second, the trail was narrow and dropped off on one side. One misplaced step and you’d fall off the edge and plunge several hundred feet below. Third, a trail in loose scree is hard to see. There were countless animal trails that crisscrossed the mountain going every which way and, at times, I wasn’t even sure which trail was THE trial.
And it went on FOREVER.
It was like a small planet. A planet filled with nothing but loose, shifting rock. It was certain death.
I WAS SCARED, PEOPLE? OKAY?
And then I fell.
Oh, dear sweet baby Jesus in a manger, I FELL.
My feet literally slid straight out from under me, like I was trying to walk down a slope of ice or snow, rather than gravel. I landed on my butt and slid for what felt like an eternity, but that was probably about 1.6 seconds in reality, and managed to grab onto a small branch to stop my descent.
I was so shaken up by this point that I took itty bitty baby steps the rest of the way down.
By the time we reached the bottom, my legs were a quivering pile of overcooked spaghetti and my nerves were shot.
Certainly that had to be the worst of it, no?
We started trudging through the woods.
And we trudged.
It was supposed to be a mile to the lake but we walked well over a mile and still found ourselves deep in the woods.
It was getting late. I had jelly legs And I was pretty sure we were lost.
We stopped to pull out the map and, as best we could tell, we were still on the right trail, but it was much farther to the lake than the map showed.
We had no choice but to keep walking.
We were seriously contemplating simply pitching our tent in the woods and turning around to go back the way we had come the next morning when the trees broke and I saw the lake.
And then the sign for the campground.
I nearly cried.
I was so relieved. The day was over. We had a couple of hours of daylight left to enjoy the lake, have a nice camp dinner, and cozy into our tent for the night.
My sigh of relief might have been premature.
As we unloaded our backpacks onto the dirt, we realized one significant item was conspicuously missing.
I hadn’t packed the tent.
We literally stood there in silence and stared, as though we could force the tent to materialize before us. Just maybe, if I stared at that bag of beef jerky long enough, it would become a tent.
On every trip with me, there is at least one moment that earns Matt yet another gold star in his “He Didn’t Kill Her Yet” book.
As Matt simply shook his head in disbelief, I spoke up, “At least I packed the fly.” I shrugged. I was struggling to find something that would make this horrible situation less horrible.
See, there is the tent, your wonderful enclosed capsule of nylon that separates you from the “outside.” Then, there is the fly, a thick cover that spreads over the top and sides of the tent in inclement weather conditions.
Do not make the mistake of thinking the fly is in any way an actual tent. It is essentially a domed tarp.
I had also managed to bring the tent poles and stakes. Just not the ACTUAL TENT.
“Isn’t this the point of camping?” I asked, “Adventure?”
Matt ignored me as he stared at the tent poles, a bag of clothes pins, some rope and a tarp and tried to figure out how to make them into a proper shelter.
Our first attempt was an utter failure.
It stood for a few minutes before starting to deflate, like a sad little balloon, until it was nothing more than a pile of blue and yellow plastic on the ground.
That’s when Matt figured out that there were loops inside the fly and hooks on the ends that would actually hold the tent poles. What he constructed was a giant shell with no floor that we tied down with rope.
It would have to do.
While it allowed us to feel like we had shelter, the reality was that it would not keep us warm and that anything with 4 legs ….or eight….or NONE….could scamper, crawl, or slither inside during the night.
At least we were alone at the campground that night. It was a small victory that our calamity could remain a private shame.
The other positive was that the forecast didn’t call for rain.
Now THAT would be a calamity!
We spent the evening enjoying the solitude of the small lake, having a simple dinner, and drinking enough wine to ensure we wouldn’t even know we were sleeping in the open woods without a tent.
Sure, to many this toilet simply screams, “Hell no,” but when you have just hiked for 10 hours without a bathroom break while consuming approximately 3 months’ worth of water, this is practically heaven. An actual TOILET in the woods is a miracle. It eliminates the problems of the butt hover or the half-squat, both of which are completely ineffective at avoiding getting pee into your pants which will be around your ankles unless you take the time to remove your boots and take your pants completely off, which you won’t BECAUSE YOU’RE ON A TRAIL IN THE WOODS. Even better, there is a spectacular view and actual toilet paper (provided you remembered to put it in your pocket).
Granted, there is the lack of privacy to deal with. You never know who is going to be watching.
And, thoughtful as it was, this toilet brush seemed quite pointless.
Finally, the sun dipped behind the mountains, leaving behind a glowing sky that would quickly turn to pitch black.
It was time to head to our “tent.”
We had barely placed our heads on our pillows when I heard something LARGE moving around in the woods, just feet away. Maybe it was just that deer. But what if it wasn’t???
We both shouted and flipped on our flashlights, only to hear whatever it was moving away in the darkness.
And that’s when the storm started.
Bolts of electricity from the sky immediately replaced bears in the dark as the scariest thing in Montana.
When referring to “things that pucker your butthole”, the fury of Zeus takes a big poop all over the lowly bear.
We could hear the wind blowing the trees above us harshly, as the thunder cracked and lightning bolted through the sky.
“Really??” I said to Matt, “After everything else today….THIS??? Really???”
“It will be fine,” Matt said, “As long as the wind doesn’t blow our tarp away.”
I immediately reminded him that we were far more likely to die by lightning strike than by being attacked by a bear.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's website, YOU ARE NOT SAFE ANYWHERE OUTSIDE DURING A THUNDERSTORM. Being under a tarp on the dirt does not qualify as being inside.
We held onto the edges of our tarp and suffered through the night.
SPAM: THE OTHER WHITE RED PINK MEAT.
Weary, we decamped and had a breakfast of cheese grits and Spam. Perhaps a breakfast made from a giant vat of whipped pig that has been pummeled and poured into an inorganic geometric shape seems unappetizing, and just a little creepy, but after our long night, being alive and eating Spam seemed amazing.
It had been, of course, a miserable way to spend the night, but when we had some time to dry out (and eat some mysteriously cubed meat), we couldn’t stop laughing.
The truth is, it’s not the pleasant nights we spend under the stars that we remember for years to come. Instead, we’ll reminisce about that time we almost died under a tarp in the woods during a thunderstorm. Sure, it’s miserable and hateful while it’s happening, but it’s legendary when it’s over. It’s the experience that sticks with you. Getting lost, getting cold, getting hungry, getting wet, getting scared, and coming out on top; that’s the stuff that makes life worth living.
That’s the stuff we’ll remember.
I’d like to say that, once the night was over, the worst had passed.
In the past 12 hours, I had feared death by falling off a mountain, death by random bear, and death by lightning.
But they were not the worst of it.
In reality, my most terrifying, life-threatening, wildlife event turned out to be the hike back up the scree slope to Firebrand Pass.
I realized I shouldn’t have worried about bears and sleeping in the open during a thunderstorm. I should have been worried about that piece of pie I ate and trying to haul it along with a stuffed French toast belly and that extra glass of wine up a steep gravel slope. It wasn’t a bear encounter that was going to kill me.
No, I was going to die by sliding painfully down a mountain of gravel into a tree that was waiting 400 feet below me.
All because I ate that extra pancake.
I literally did a death march up the mountain, bent at a 90 degree angle, hands on my thighs, backpack parallel to the ground like a turtle shell, pausing every 90 seconds to gasp for breath, curse, and cry.
Periodically, I would simply stand and groan loudly, so much so that Matt said I sounded like an elephant giving birth. Matt ,naturally, was practically dancing up the mountain.
For the first stretch, I was cranky. By the middle, I was wretched. Before we reached the top, I wanted to punch Matt in the nose. I probably would have if I could have caught up to him.
The word “miserable” took on a whole new meaning for me. This was not the Firebrand Pass trail, it was the Mount Misery trail. The only reason I didn’t cry is because I couldn’t get enough oxygen.
I should have stayed at home, binge-watching the Real Housewives of Orange County in my sweat pants with my dogs.
I consumed more water on the way up that mountain than I have the rest of this calendar year. Sad, but true.
Somehow, by a combination of stubbornness, the grace of God, and guttural screaming, I made it to the top.
I would have stopped to revel in it, but couldn’t for fear of being blown back down by the 50 mph winds.
We made our way through the golden fields back toward the trailhead.
Yes - even in the wilderness, Matt checks his cell phone.
He was probably sending a message to Steve and Al to bring the car fortified with alcohol and painkillers.
I’m sure Steve and Al were surprised to see us climb out of the woods intact. After dropping us off, I am pretty sure they expected to come back to find us dismembered beside the tracks, everything stolen except our packet of Spam.
And you know you have great friends when they immediately open the back of the SUV to pull out cups, champagne, and OJ.
God bless ‘em.
Friends show up to give you a ride from the trailhead. Real friends show up with mimosas.
They had no idea how much I needed it.
We made a short drive and stopped at Johnson’s KOA for a hearty lunch. The mile high huckleberry ice cream pie was amazing.
As we started our drive back across the park, we noticed that, in just the few days we had been here, the smoke had grown so thick that if we hadn’t been many times before, we wouldn’t have known any of the magnificent peaks were even there.
It was about that time that I received a phone call from the Lake McDonald Lodge to tell us that they were closing due to the fire.
Understand that they are only a few lodges in the park with limited rooms. We had booked almost a year in advance to even have rooms. Now, we had to find rooms for THAT NIGHT? Impossible.
As luck would have it, the Village Inn at Apgar had a cancellation.
For one room.
While it wasn’t exactly the 2 deluxe queen cabins that we had reserved at Lake McDonald, it was the only room left in a 60 mile radius and we took it. Besides, it was a definite step up from the previous night.
We spent a beautiful, if slightly hazy, night on the shores of Lake McDonald at the Village Inn with a spectacular dinner at Belton Chalet.
Steamed PEI mussels with verde chorizo broth, burrata and heirloom tomato salad, spicy bisque, rich porcini and ricotta mac and cheese with bacon, and bison meatloaf followed by a delightful little jar of banana pudding.
It was almost good enough to make us forget about the awkward sleeping arrangements.
We enjoyed the sunrise at Lake McDonald followed by a fat loaded breakfast at Eddie’s of Apgar.
The guys really wanted to do some fly fishing, and we were all exhausted, so instead of hiking up a mountain, we did nothing more than hike the shores of the Flathead River.
It was a beautiful day to do a whole lot of nothing.
Fishing was a hardship for Al and I, but we endured somehow.
I am happy to report that no life threatening events occurred that day.
Our final night in the park was at Belton Chalet. I love the vintage rustic rooms. It’s like stepping back to a gentler, quieter time.
A time without tents and Spam.
We cleaned up and made the long drive down a mostly dirt road through miles and miles of nothing to have dinner at the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge.
Polebridge is an electricity-free community cradled between the Continental Divide and Whitefish Mountain Range. It’s 27 miles from the entrance at West Glacier, with 13 of those miles on dirt road. Made up of a handful of houses, cabins, a hostel and a few small ranches along the North Fork Road, Polebridge is mostly made up of rustic locals and a scattering of hardy visitors. The hub of the area is the historic Polebridge Mercantile (the Merc) and the Northern Lights Saloon—both powered by generators. It’s a haven for hippies and random dogs, and isthe best place to find freshly baked pastries as big as your head.
I can’t come to GNP without making the long, arduous trip to Polebridge.
You know that dream you have about living way out in the woods? You have that dream, right? Don’t we all have that dream?
Every time I drive out to Polebridge, the dream is alive. In it, I live in a cozy farmhouse where all of the furniture is made out of logs and planks that look like they were wrenched off the side of an old barn. I grow my own food and even MAKE PIE CRUST FROM SCRATCH. I wear flannel shirts and have a golden retriever. In it, I raise fat chickens and goats, even though my parents live on a farm and have that stuff and I know better because that shizz requires a lot of hard work and is full of perpetual animal poop. But in my dream, the animals are self-feeding and cleaning and simply look cuddly and give me eggs and cheese.
Polebridge can do that to you. You can see yourself getting “off the grid” and living in simplicity with a 3 legged dog and a wood burning stove, making your own clothing out of hemp and brewing beer on your back porch.
It’s deliciously authentic.
Speaking of delicious, it was pizza night at the saloon.
And I’ll have a piece of pie with a blue eyed cat on the side.
A huckleberry bear claw to go? Why not?
SHOPPING: FISHING FOR GIRLS, EXCEPT THAT WE ACTUALLY COME HOME WITH THINGS.
It was our day to leave the park, but it was good timing, as the Sprague Fire had grown in the past couple of days, covering much of the park in a thick haze and forcing several early closures.
We were heartbroken to hear that the historic Sperry Chalet, a hike-in only lodge high in the mountains above Lake McDonald that we had visited many times, had been lost to the fire the night before.
The guys has a fishing trip planned and Al and I had a date with some shopping in Whitefish, so we fueled up at Montana Coffee Traders before going our separate ways.
Whitefish is the quintessential mountain town, replete with rough-hewn logs, fur throws, and lots of plaid things. We managed to do some credit card damage before the guys called to be picked up.
We grabbed lunch at Backslope Brewing before heading in for the afternoon to tackle the laborious task of taking an SUV full of dirty clothes and camping gear and trying to fit it into a few suitcases.
It literally took all afternoon and involved an inordinate amount of swearing.
Finally finished, we rewarded our hard work with cocktails in the rustic bar of the Tamarack Lodge.
Because this only whetted our appetite for small glasses filled with brown liquid, we made a trip to the Glacier Distilling Company before dinner. Glacier Distilling is a locally owned, small batch distillery where all of the spirits are hand crafted and hand bottled in their adorable red Whiskey Barn.
Then it was time for dinner. I was super excited.
While I was planning our trip, I ran across an article titled, “The Most Romantic Restaurants in Every State.” Montana’s Whitefish Lake Restaurant was listed and we were staying only a short drive down the road.
Built in 1936, the 75 year old restaurant is considered by many to be the best in the Flathead Valley. Housed in an original tamarack log building with cathedral ceilings and fireplaces, it promised to be as romantic as it was delicious.
Not that we would ever know.
I Google Mapped us to the Lodge at Whitefish Lake, where we promptly entered the restaurant and provided the name for our reservation.
The hostess gave us an odd look, but showed us to a table immediately.
The room was sleek and stylish and had a spectacular view of the lake, but it didn’t exude the historic atmosphere that I had expected. No matter, the menu looked amazing and the place smelled divine.
We dove enthusiastically into the duck nachos and ordered a bottle of red wine.
Everything was delicious. Maybe not quite as romantic as I expected, but the sunset view over the lake was a nice touch.
It was about halfway through my crispy fried quail over butternut squash and fingerling potatoes that I got the phone call.
From the Whitefish Lake Restaurant.
Asking me where I was.
“I’m here,” I said, stupidly.
“You’re where, exactly?” the gentleman on the phone asked.
“At the restaurant. At the Lodge. On Whitefish Lake.”
He sighed. “We aren’t on Whitefish Lake. You are at the Boathouse. No worries. It happens all the time.”
We were at the wrong restaurant.
Sometimes, even I am amazed at how stupid I am.
In my defense….who names their restaurant the Whitefish Lake Restaurant when there is only ONE restaurant on Whitefish Lake and YOU ARE NOT IT?????
Apparently, the Whitefish Lake Restaurant is not on Whitefish Lake, but is at the Whitefish Lake Golf Club, in which case it should have been named the Whitefish Golf Club Restaurant.
So close to eating at the most romantic restaurant, but….NO.
As we dove into the giant slab of huckleberry cheesecake, we felt we had made a good mistake.
There was nothing left to do but catch a few hours of sleep before our 3:00 a.m. wake up call to head to the airport.
We were dusty and tired. We had blisters and back pain. I love the backcountry and leaving the wilderness, with all its untouched and pristine beauty, is hard every time. It’s a vacation that is intensely challenging at times and it isn’t always comfortable, but being alone with your thoughts, being alone with your spouse, and being one with the big wide world is indescribable. You solve all of the world’s problems on a dirt trail. You come out a new person. A better person.
The Sprague Fire that burned while we were there ended up burning about 18,000 acres of the park. As a lightning fire (SEE HOW DANGEROUS LIGHTNING IS????) I realize that it is simply part of nature’s cycle and it must happen, but it is still a devastating loss to someone that visits the park to see that natural beauty.
As much as we love it, we’ll probably look to new mountains for our future adventures. In addition to the ravaged landscape, the popularity of the park has exploded. When we first visited, annual visitation was about 1.6 million people. While that sounds like a lot, the park felt vast and empty when we were there. Now, with over 3.2 million visitors per year, it’s just too crowded for us.
I think we plan to step away for a while and let her heal. In the meantime, there are new mountains to climb, new trails to conquer, new tents to forget.
“And into the forest we’ll go, to lose our minds and find our souls.”