Location- Poia Lake
Elevation- 5,797 ft
Distance Traveled Today- 19.6 miles
Distance Traveled Total- 19.6 miles
Weather/Temp- partly cloudy, windy, light rain, 60s, 70s
Pain level- zero
Spirits/Morale- High, confident, in awe
Days without shower- 2
Hunger/craving- low, nothing
And so it began. We were up at 6am to catch our $150, 2 hour shuttle ride to the Chief Mountain Trail Head on the U.S./Canadian border. Our driver was a Native American fellow named “David Mountain Chief.” Scouts honor, that was the name he introduced himself with.
For nearly two hours, David bent my ear about the surrounding area, plus many other things(Schweppes slept the entire drive). He talked a lot about Buffalo, Grizzly Bears being the Blackfeet tribe spirit animal, growing up hunting with his father on the reservation, his time spent in the navy on a submarine during the Gulf War, his children, Native folklore, crazy local stories, movies that had been filmed in the area, and much, much more. I greatly enjoyed his narrative throughout the drive.
Finally we arrived at the trailhead/international border, and sure enough there was an American and a Canadian customs checkpoint. We decided to get our passports stamped by the Canadian customs official. It was comical because the U.S. officials were a middle aged, overweight man and woman; while the Canadian official had a lean, borderline body builder type build, with a shirt he must have stolen from his little brother, tribal tattoos down his arm (he was Caucasian as they come), mean goatee, and black shades (even though he was in a dark booth). It was like Canada was trying to “one up” us. Anyways, he looked ready to stop all of America, should they decide to storm his checkpoint. After giving us the fifth degree on what we’d be “doing” on the American side (which was really none of his business), since we weren’t actually going into Canada; he finally stamped our passports and let us walk 100 feet back to the American Customs, where the nice lady agent stamped them without fuss, bid us farewell, and “hoped we enjoyed our visit to Canada.” We didn’t.
We snapped our pictures at the only landmarks for the border we could find; and we were off.
The first ten miles of trail were through meadows, shallow streams, and lush forest thick with vegetation. All around us were towering, snow splashed mountains; mostly consisting of sediment rock with various striations and veins of different color running through them. Those first ten miles were leisurely and beautiful.
For about the last 4 days preceding the start of the hike (pretty much since we’ve been in Montana), a lot of local residents have “fear mongered” us about the Grizzlies. We each have bear mace, but even still, it was like every “Montanian” was trying their absolute hardest to make us terrified of the bears. If there is anything I’ve learned from the trails, it’s that the people who are most afraid of certain wildlife, are the people who have spent the least amount of time in the wilderness. The people who have spent time out there still give you a healthy, realistic warning, but they don’t fear monger you; unless they’re just trying to have some fun (I’m guilty of this every so often).
So anyways, Schweppes and I quickly turned the fear mongering into a joke. No sooner did we start the hike, we began to bestow names upon anything and everything we encountered. Every meadow was “Bear Attack Meadow,” or “Grizzly Killing Field.” Streams, creeks and rivers all got their own violent bear names, and even a few mountains got new names. “Grizzly Stomp Your Ass Creek.” “Bear Beware Mountain.” “Bear Lick Stream.” “You’re Gonna Die Lookout.” The list goes on and on.
We also began practicing our “quick draw” with the bear mace that we have slung on our hipbelts; sometimes having quick draw duels against each other. We’ve even tried to get fancy like Doc Holiday in Tombstone, spinning and twirling our mace cans like western outlaws before trying to smoothly holster them. If it wasn’t for the safety mechanism, I surely would have maced myself 30 times by now. Good times.
We met 4 other male thru hikers right off the bat, but they were only slated to go 5 miles today, so we only saw them for a moment; long enough to introduce ourselves. Aside from them, there were no other thru hikers, and only a handful of day hikers that we saw. This was a huge change from the other trails, which were crawling with both thru hikers and day hikers. I’m going to enjoy the lesser traffic immensely.
After our ten mile lunch, we began the nearly 3,000 ft climb up to our first mountain pass called Red Gap Pass. The average steepness off the trail was greater than the PCT, but less than the AT. My legs felt like anvils for the second half of the climb. We were required to hike nearly 20 miles to our designated camp spot; this was the furthest I’ve had to hike on a first day, plus the most elevation gained on the first day of a thru hike. We were definitely getting broken in hard for this trail.
Towards the top of Red Gap Pass I encountered a herd of mountain goats almost right on the trail, with nearly a half dozen “kidd” goats. They kept their eyes on me, but went about their grazing for the most part.
The views were like that of the Sierra Nevada on the PCT; lakes, waterfalls, streams, snow capped mountains, and other dramatic views galore. I couldn’t believe what we were being treated to on the first day. Already the beauty seemed hard to outdue.
I met back up with Schweppes at the top of the pass (which had almost no snow on it), and we continued down the southside together. About a mile down we ran into a small group of Big Horn sheep right on the trail! They also regarded us with caution, but didn’t run. Already my expectations for this trail have been exceeded. On the first day I got to add two new (sought after) species to my “on trail” wildlife encounters. I had no idea I’d get to see Big Horn sheep, and they were more impressive than I ever thought.
One thing that surprised me, but didn’t actually surprise me was the heavy presence of mosquitos. For some reason I didn’t associate them with the great north, but sure enough, they’re here with a vengeance. Aside from them bouncing off my eyeballs, I can tune out all but the thickest mosquito hordes. I plan to get some 100% Deet when the opportunity arises. I want them to die on contact with my skin. I want to make myself poisonous to the creatures I loathe most in life.
We wrapped up the twenty miles a little after 6 pm near the shores of Poia Lake (Grizzly Massacre Lake). I feel fantastic. My feet are a little sore, but I have no aches or questionable pains. I’m not in perfect hiking shape at the moment, or even great hiking shape; however I’ve done this enough to know that the endurance comes quickly when your mind is willing to endure the old familiar pains for longer than it normally would. I’m heavy now, but I’m going to look like a skeleton of my former self by the end.
It lightly rained intermittently throughout the day, so I’m tarped up in my hammock right now in case it gets worse during the night. If the locals are correct, I’ll surely be disembowled before morning; I’m sleeping with my (90% effective) bear mace…