Hiking the Bear Trap Canyon near Norris, MT (April 2016)

I said it elsewhere, but this was probably the most physically demanding thing I've done in 20 years. For the time of year, early April, it was unseasonable hot. Officially only in the mid-70s °F, the sunshine was very intense. For the first time in a very long time, I actually wore sunglasses to protect my eyes. People who know me know that I almost never wear sunglasses.

Thanks to a ride from my friend Marie, we arrived at the trailhead, just off MT Highway 84, just after 3.00 pm. My backpack weighed 33 lbs (15 kg) which felt a lot heavier to me than any of the previous times I had filled it with that much weight. Still, the benefit of a proper pack is that you can use the hip belt to carry the load through your hips instead of your shoulders or elsewhere. I noticed already that I was able to cinch the hip belt tighter than I had before.

With the benefit of hindsight, I know now that I should have been wearing a long-sleeved shirt. The only ones I have are made of cotton and soak up sweat too easily. I have a polyester/spandex top arriving on Monday which I'll be trying out before the next big adventure, in Utah in just under two weeks time. I expect it won't make me look glamorous, but it should be highly functional.

The first part of the trail was gentle enough, with the walking surface being reasonably firm and flat. There were a few small rocks embedded, but nothing too terrible. At one point there was a sturdy but narrow plank of thick wood that formed a small bridge over a tiny stream - and by tiny, I mean no more than two feet across. It was very shallow and slow-moving. No big deal, right? That was just a foretaste of what was to come.

At about the middle of the hike came Bear Trap Creek. Compared to the tiny stream from earlier, Bear Trap Creek was a gusher. Deep and fast-flowing, the distance between safety on one side and the other was much closer to 15 feet (5 m). And the only way across - a fallen tree trunk!

A fallen tree trunk was the only was over a 15' wide stream
After the creek, that's when the fun began. The trail became rougher, more rugged. The undergrowth and shrubbery was more bothersome, the path itself narrowed a lot in places. Sometimes it was barely wide enough for the width of a foot. One slip and you could end up at the bottom of the ravine. If it had been raining recently, it would have been too slippery and dangerous to go on. There were a couple of other creeks to jump over, although they weren't as deep of fast-moving as the Bear Trap Creek (maybe only 2 feet across). Still, with a 33 lb pack on, jumping 2 feet is quite a feat.

Then there were the rock slides and fallen tree trunks and branches. They were everywhere.
Not an uncommon sight

Sometimes 100 yards long, fallen rocks and boulders
Eventually, it got too dark to carry on, and there was nowhere suitable to hang my hammock. There were trees, sure. But they were either too far apart, or the ground underneath was too steep. I needed somewhere to cook a meal or two, and somewhere to get drinking water (I'm right next to the Madison River, after all). There was nothing. So I ended up putting my hammock/sleeping pad on the ground, wrapping myself up in my down quilt, and going to 'sleep' early.

In the morning, I would deal with the dilemma of wanting to push on toward the power house (less than a mile away) which, theoretically, wouldn't allow me to pass over to the other side of the river, or simply turning around and going back the way I came. Neither alternative appealed. Given the difficulties so far, I figured it would be better to go back immediately, rather than risk walking another mile in difficult conditions AND THEN still have to go back.

No water, not hungry, no dinner   (expand this)

I had a min/max digital thermometer with me, so I could keep an eye on how cold it was. Much of the night it was down to 39 °F, although the minimum (probably not for long) was 36 °F. Most of the night there was no wind at all, although a couple of times it did pick up a bit, which added to the feeling of cold. The down quilt worked pretty well. It was only at about 4.00 am that I had to put a second shirt on for extra comfort.

At about 6.30 am, it was finally light enough to get up and start heading back to safety. I could finally see well enough to fill my hydration bladder. The Sawyer Squeeze 16 oz flexible bottle/pouch was a lot less useful than I had expected. Without any rigidity, it simply didn't fill up - and the river was very cold! So I ended up sacrificing my "clean" Gatorade bottle for the sake of filling the 3 liter bladder. ... Except for one problem. The Gatorade bottle's neck was wider than the Sawyer Mini filter, so I ended up decanting the gathered water from one container to another, and squeezing it from there into the bladder. One of several lessons learned.

I made sure to have a little bit of extra filtered water so that I could at least make myself a cup of hot coffee. I had forgotten my dried milk (it's nasty non-fat milk anyway, so I wasn't too sad), but it would have been nice to have had milk to make a cup of tea with.

I had packed blueberry oatmeal for breakfast (as well as the two different Mountain House freeze-dried meals for dinner the night before) but I still wasn't hungry. I made sure to have my two granola-type bars handy for later. At this stage, I was so mad with myself for having failed to reach 'camp' before dark, and for not getting a good night's sleep. All I wanted to do was get out of there. I packed my backpack, made sure I left no trace of having been there, then set off at about 7.20 am.

Dolor brevis, victoria aeterna

"Pain is temporary, victory is forever". It's a made-up Latin phrase, very similar to those attributed to a number of people (Lance Armstrong, Evel Knievel, Bart Simpson, et al.), where they sometimes use the word for Glory instead of Victory. It's something that I've thought about for a little while now. I knew that I would learn some great lessons and have some good stories to tell, once I'd pushed the pain barrier (both physical and mental 'pain', although pain is a bit of a strong word to describe it).

The light was much better after 7.20 am than it had been the previous evening at 8.30 pm. I could see so much better. And I could mostly recall passing all the same landmarks as on my way down the canyon. There were a couple of spots where I thought to myself, "Huh, I'm sure that rock slide (or fallen tree) wasn't there yesterday!?" I imagine, if there really had been fresh rock slides, I would have heard them.

Surprisingly, there really weren't that many perceptible animal noises - not as many as I had anticipated, anyway. I didn't see any bears or mountain lions or rattlesnakes (thank goodness); although I was prepared, with my ear-splitting 130 dB Storm whistle and my bear spray, which were always to hand. A few times, I heard birds on or by the river, but not as many as I thought I might.

There were some creatures that got a bit too friendly and wanted to come home with me - ticks. I found one on my arm when I was at the trailhead, waiting for my ride home. It was quickly and easily removed. When I got home, I took all my clothes and dumped them in the dry bathtub overnight until I had the energy to look for more. I checked myself for more ticks, as much as I could.
A tick (this one was tired, so it was lying on its
back! Not really, it couldn't run away from the
camera when it was on its back)
Allegedly, they like the color white, and they can't crawl up the side of the tub, so, this morning there was the one above, sitting there. I had to play de-tick-tive and look through the rest of my clothing and gear, inside and out and along all the seams. This was the only other one. ** UPDATE - there was a second one which found its way onto my shoulder but didn't bite me, possibly via my backpack **

TickEncounter Resource CenterThe University of Rhode Island has a most authoritative TickEncounter Resource Center at http://www.tickencounter.org. You should check it out.

There were some lessons learned (about collecting water for filtering and drinking, for example), and one or two missed (like how to hang a hammock and tie knots for a ridgeline). Overall (now that I'm out of there alive) it was a good experience. Evidently, it was good enough that I lost 4.5 lbs in the last couple of days, yay!

Would I go back to that particular canyon any time soon? No! Will it put me off hiking and backpacking at all? No way! The next adventure is in Arches and Canyonlands national parks in 10 days time. That'll be in totally different conditions (different climate, different terrain, not having to carry everything in and out on my back/hips). I'm looking forward to it!

Photos (with comments) at https://goo.gl/photos/G1otMviU5kwRpGJP8.


Deborah said...

Awesome photos and great descriptions!

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