montana

Wild Sage Summit / Women Backpacking in the Bitterroot Mountains / Part I

PART I

Jaymie whispered "Liz!" while nudging me awake. I could hear the fear in her voice even through my ear plugs. As I removed them, sound oozed back into my ears, and I realized everyone was awake through the eerily palpable silence. 

Then I heard it too and I froze. It was 5:56am on our final morning of Wild Sage Summit and I had naively thought: Finally we would have an easy day. How could this trip possibly get any harder?

...

 Everyone was sent wild Montana sage with a question to reflect on prior to coming.

Everyone was sent wild Montana sage with a question to reflect on prior to coming.

When Alyx and I began dreaming up the first ever Wild Sage Summit, we thought, "Gosh, wouldn't it be awesome to gather a group of women to backpack through the rugged Montana wilderness?" I remember throwing in that word "rugged" because it felt appropriate for the kind of wilderness you find out here. But I didn't really think it would be RUGGED, like "full of hardship and trouble; severe; hard; trying." I guess that's exactly why every time I think of the Wild Sage Summit, a huge smile still forms on my face and I feel seated in contentment. Because overcoming hardship with people (in the flesh) bonds them. It does to our connection what digital double-taps and emojis can't.

So we came together to spend a few days steeped in the Bitterroot Wilderness. We had no idea what would unfold. We were simply journeywomen saying "YES" to an invitation, allowing our curiosity and passion guide us. 

Five women connected through our love of the outdoors met together for first time in Missoula, Montana. We knew each other through social media, but we had lacked the experience of meeting face-to-face. That kind of in-person connection really forges something that's impossible to create through screens. 

I remember picking Jaymie and Korrin up at the airport, our energy abuzz with excitement and the slightly awkward feeling that comes with meeting someone for the first time. Then Steph arrived, better known as @thedancingwind, fresh off her six hour drive from Idaho. Then Alyx. We were complete and the packing could begin!

 At the trailhead.

At the trailhead.

We packed our new ultralight Gossamer Gear packs with our sleeping bags, pads and tents and shared what we'd be taking or not (like how many pairs of underwear we need for a 3-day trip). I shared that I only take two and trade off between the two and how eager I was to try a new pair of Dear Kates. Then there are all of our cameras. I latched on my new backpacking camera clip and hoped it would keep my camera secure. And of course, the food. We split up our Good To-Go meals, salami/cheese/pitas lunches, made our oatmeal selections and threw in a variety of Epic and Rise bars. Around midnight, we finally went to bed to get some rest before our journey the next morning.

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Our first day was spent climbing, and then climbing some more. We stopped to take an snack break underneath some aspen and pee in the woods. For some of the ladies, it was first pee-rag experience. (Yes! It's a game-changer ladies.) The rest of day felt particularly long as we hiked along an exposed mountainside, the sun beating on our bodies. And when it felt like "we should be there already"...we realized we finally were. All we had left was to crest the dam and find a campsite.

After seeing Bass Lake with first eyes, I sighed in relief. It always feels so good to arrive, doesn't it? Every time, it's the same feeling of a day well spent, of a weary body ready to rest. It's that feeling of coming home.

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We washed up at the lake, devoured our mushroom risotto, marinara pasta, and thai curry and made camp. Not before sitting around a fire and sipping hot chocolate. Of course. (It's a small luxury no group of women should go without on a cold night if they can help it!) Our site was fairly small so we decided to cowgirl camp and let the star-filled sky blanket us.

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In the morning, we realized the millions of stars evolved into a million drops of dew. My cold soggy sleeping bag woke me up earlier than I would've liked, but between my long blinks, I caught a glimpse of this early morning light. Thankfully sunshine dries wet things and all things are forgiven when you get to wake up to exquisite natural glory! We were looking forward to getting to our next destination (Kootenai Lakes) to swim and relax lakeside. The plan was to arrive while it was still nice and warm so that a jump into the alpine lake would be welcome. Ahhh....I was SO looking forward to our chillaxin time. With that hope in mind, we ate, made sure to pick up all of our trash (and micro-trash!) and started the trek. The views looking back at Bass Lake were fantastic and my heart kept yelping, "Wow!" I was feeling so grateful to be on this journey with these women. 

 Jaymie is sporting her Gossamer pack with the  Goal Zero solar charger . 

Jaymie is sporting her Gossamer pack with the Goal Zero solar charger

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Our route was to be a short climb up to the pass, long hike down the valley and another short climb up to the lake. I knew this trail wasn't going to be as clear as the one we took up to Bass Lake, but the book I read made it seem straight-forward enough. We made it to the pass and took a moment to soak in the view. I remember saying, "If you had any doubt we were in the wilderness, we most certainly are" as I looked out into the expanse. 

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In that moment, I felt so grateful to be in the company of new friends standing thick in the wilderness.

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And when it wasn't all "oohs and awws," Jaymie stood on her head, on a rock! (That girl!)
(PS. If you like her shorts, use WildSageSummit30 for 30% off at Dear Kate!)

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On our way down the valley, the trail became more narrow, steep, and challenging to follow. Our trust grounded in the next cairn, well, until there were no more cairns. "Uh oh." I remember this exact moment looking south and knowing that was the direction we needed to go, but all I could see was a 7-foot wall of brush we'd have to get through. Could we really be in this predicament? 

Wild Sage Summit / Women Backpacking in the Bitterroot Mountains / Part II

This is a 3-part series. If you haven't yet, here's Part I. Enjoy!

PART II
"Here, take two," I said.

I offered some magic beans to each person. They're really just caffeinated Jelly Belly's, but they work wonders for when you're stuck deep in a forest and getting to be really low energy. (You know, the usual.)

After everyone took their share there were none left for me, but I didn't care. I was already heavily adrenalized and I didn't need an energy boost. I just wanted all of us to make it out without being too horribly traumatized from this hike-turned-bushwhacking expedition. 

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 There were all sorts of terrain we had to navigate through. Going over deadfall was among the top. Korrin is leading the charge here. 

There were all sorts of terrain we had to navigate through. Going over deadfall was among the top. Korrin is leading the charge here. 

 No kidding. We were making our way through stuff like this.

No kidding. We were making our way through stuff like this.

While the ladies were finishing up filtering water, I scouted out a "path" and lead the ladies over a really large boulder, deeper into the brush. Hours passed of this cycle of ducking under branches, stepping over deadfall and having our legs cut by a thousand dry branches. Then we finally saw it. One single cairn. Huh...??? I wish I took a photo of it. 

I was 100% perplexed. Aren't cairns supposed exist as a string of them? 

Steph cracked a joke about how someone was like, "Yeah, I'd take this trail again" and decided to build that single cairn in the middle of nowhere. We all bursted into laughter as we continued on. Humor has such a way of diffusing heaviness and lifting our spirits, doesn't it? I felt so grateful for the gift of laughter and the extraordinary attitudes each lady had through all of these uncertain hours.

 Taking a break.

The joke(s) and positive attitude of each person gave us the boost we needed to keep marching onward even through the roller coaster of a false bridge sighting, super rugged terrain, and a bear (OMG!) that was probably more alarmed by our presence than we were by his. Until finally. FINALLY, after about 10+ hours of bushwhacking, we arrived at the intersection of Kootenai Creek trail.

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I finally felt like I could let my ultra-heightened guard down for a moment, while recognizing we weren't finished. We still hadn't arrived yet. The sun was setting and we had 1.6 miles uphill to get to the Middle Fork Lake. Maybe one more hour or so to go I imagined. 

Up, up, up we hiked while learning new cheers, singing call-and-response songs, and playing a storytelling improv game. All of us contributed to that sense of play and positivity those last couple miles. Meanwhile, I was just relieved no one was badly injured.

It was pitch black and five headlamps illuminated our path when we finally reached our campsite after 10pm. (I'm usually asleep by 8:30 in the backcountry, so this was a record late arrival.) We put down our packs and someone called, "Group Hug!" Like magnets our bodies drew together, arms wrapped tightly, my head touched another head and immediately my eyes welled with tears.

We did it. A five or six hour (max) hike turned a whopping 12 hours through the most rugged terrain I've had to navigate. But we made it home. Safe at last. 

I thought we would crawl into our tents and pass out with empty stomachs, but to my surprise, Jaymie, Alyx, Korrin, Steph and I all sat around eating dinner and recounting the day. Our achey feet and weary bodies didn't stop us from re-living our journey. We laughed and laughed at what we had just overcome and I finally felt like I could sigh in relief. This late night time together was salve for my previously fear-ladened soul. 

 If you turn on your red light on your headlamp, and point it at the  Good To-Go Thai Curry  pouch, the white text disappears and you get this. HAHA, Very clever and fun to find! It's also the best backcountry meal currently on the market.

If you turn on your red light on your headlamp, and point it at the Good To-Go Thai Curry pouch, the white text disappears and you get this. HAHA, Very clever and fun to find! It's also the best backcountry meal currently on the market.

My eyes grew heavy as we sat looking at the stars reflecting in the blackness of the lake. It was time to finally lay my weary head to rest. It felt EXTRA GOOD to be horizontal! 

I fell asleep to the thought of being only 10 easy miles from the trailhead. Then we would be home. 

"Good night everyone!," I said cheerily through my thin tent walls. It was the deepest slumber I'd fallen into in the wilderness, ever, when I suddenly felt a nudge. 

Wild Sage Summit / Women Backpacking in the Bitterroot Mountains / Part III

This is a 3-part series. If you haven't yet, here's Part I and Part II

PART III
You could slice through our collective fear. It wasn't quite 6am, the light barely able to break through the forest. We had only one idea what that very large wild animal sound could be. Well obviously,...A BEAR!

I cued, "1, 2, 3, XENA!" and we all shouted our loudest, sharpest Xena call we could muster.

Silence. It must be gone...

It started again. Thumping and huffing.

I cued, "1, 2, 3, HEY BEAR!" followed by our collective "HEY BEAR!!!!""

Silence. 

Thumping and huffing continued. 

If there was any part of me still asleep, I was now sitting up wide awake. I could feel my tent mate Jaymie's heart thumping out of her chest. We Xena and "Hey bear-ed" a few more times, but this mysterious creature was never phased. (Why is everything so much louder and scarier inside a tent?! It's just a thin piece of fabric!)

Of course by this point, I had run through my mind the scenario of me jumping out of the tent and confronting the grizzly face-to-face before it could attack the ladies. It went something like: I jump out of the tent (you know that this is impossible to do from inside a small backpacking tent with any sort of ease), spray it with bear spray, then it bites off my arm. The bear eventually goes away and I'm bleeding profusely, talking the ladies through how to bandage me to stop the life-threatening bleed. We then calmly proceed to develop an evacuation plan.

:) Totally ridiculous, right?

I rehearsed it over and over during those moments of silence while IT huffed and thumped around. It helped me build the courage I would need if I actually had to act.

 The forest waking up.

The forest waking up.

It seemed time wouldn't move fast enough, or more accurately, that the creature wouldn't move on fast enough. In the silence, there was finally a voice. She said to me, "I have to pee." (Really? Right now?) LOL. (I wasn't laughing in the moment.)

Jaymie and I crawled out of the tent and while she peed, I stood guard with bear spray in hand. Then Alyx and Korrin crawled out of the tent to go pee too. I guess everyone had been holding it during our "bear" episode or triggered by it. Either way, everyone was now relieved and the light began to illuminate the place we couldn't see before, the place that held such frightening mystery. It was actually quite calm and beautiful, full of stillness, an obvious contrast to the wild chaotic story of my mind.

As the wilderness woke up, I sat wrapped in my sleeping bag outside, unable to shake the early morning adrenaline rush. Everyone else rolled back into their tents. The episode was over. That big scary creature was gone and we could sleep in peace.

[Side note: If you're wondering what the "bear" actually was - thanks to YouTube - we learned it was actually a moose. Moose are still quite a threat in the wilderness. (In fact, more deaths are caused by moose than bears and wolves combined).]

The hike out felt easy. The trail, clear -- perhaps a bit too clear, too obvious. It was a welcomed respite from the day before, but my spirit didn't feel as alive as it did when we weren't sure where we were...when we had to pave our own way. Could it be that I actually preferred the wild bushwhacking adventure from the day before?

...

A journey like that doesn't just end when we all say our goodbyes. All it does is illuminate our deepest desire for community, depth of relationship and experiences, and our longing to meet again.

Now when branches reach out and brush against my legs (which still makes me cringe a bit, by the way), I'll remember those hours we bushwhacked, and I'll remember the way I felt in the company of new friends, of my trail sisters.

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All my love to the women of Wild Sage Summit!
Lizzy


Backcountry Toilets / Views from the bathroom

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What a view! Jack Creek Preserve, Montana

When you go to the bathroom on a normal day, you're likely to be looking at the bottom half of a blank wall. If you're lucky, you're looking at the design of your shower curtain. Most bathrooms aren't particularly noteworthy. Sit down > peepoop > wipe > wash hands > exit. Typical. 

In the backcountry, you'll have some of THE BEST views of your life while doing the mundane task of peepooping. (Pst. "peepoop" is a term I made up during a bike tour to capture urgent peeing and pooping. Most of us pee when we poop, don't we? (Ok, I digress.) 

Well yesterday, I was working on a quick blog resource to find gear for free or cheap and in a split second, two hours of work was gone! (I'll recreate it soon!) Anyway, I felt pretty bummed about it so hopped on a bike and went mountain biking in the woods instead. Today, it seemed most relevant to share the beauty of a shit hole (literally). Enjoy!

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Glacier National Park

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This is one of the fanciest toilets I've ever seen in the backcountry! Glacier National Park

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Pit toilet at 8,868'. Bob Marshall Wilderness 

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View from the toilet above. Bob Marshall Wilderness

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Don't worry, I'm only pretending to poop here. Glacier National Park 

#100daysofwilderness / Day 29 / Overnight the Sweeney Creek Trail

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Sometimes the best adventures are ones that come up spontaneously. On Sunday morning, we (my husband Samuel and our friend Vlad) decided to go on a quick overnighter in the Bitterroot Mountains. The Bitterroots are just south of Missoula and they're not well known to most people outside of Montana, but they're absolutely spectacular. You could probably explore them for a lifetime and still be enamored by their presence.

We went to the Sweeney Creek Trailhead, located about 45 minutes away from our home. The dirt road was bumpy but still doable even in a sedan (although we were in a large truck with big wheels and big everythings). The drive up gave me a huge expansive view of the Bitterroot valley, which was wow number one (of 1,843). 

We had most of our food and snacks on hand because of a recent snack splurge, and because PB&J sandwiches are my go-to for quick eats on the trail. The only thing I did stop to buy was a Good To-Go meal because that's been on my radar to try. (Side note: If you're looking for a quality meal, the Thai Curry was delicious! I can't wait to try their other flavors.) In fact, it was so good I didn't even get a picture because we were so focused on eating it. That's the nice thing about having all your gear; you can simply pack it up and go.

As a beginner, backpacking might feel like a huge event where you plan for weeks or months. It's going to feel like this big expedition. And it is. Those feelings are awesome and they should be savored. 

As you get more experience, it will feel easier and more like a lifestyle. The "wows" will still be with you, but it won't feel as daunting or unknown. You will develop a system, preferences, and style.

Anyway, I want to acknowledge that if you don't have all your gear, it would've been challenging to go on a spontaneous trip. If you don't have all your backpacking gear and you're reading this...your day will come. I'm determined to make this site more clear to help fill that gap. But back to the story. 

Going away for just one night can feel rejuvenating without feeling like you have to commit a ton of time. It's a great way to test out your gear, try new things, and maybe take nice luxuries. This time, I splurged and took my swell bottle with whole milk so I could have fresh cold milk with my coffee. OMG, it was so nice. (I wouldn't take that bottle on a longer trip, but I definitely wanted to endure the extra weight for this trip.)

I thought the hike one way was about 6 miles, but the GPS is telling us 7.5. Well, it doesn't matter really. It was a wonderful hike, definitely harder than I had expected. This is a case of not studying the topo map and the grade hard enough. I sort of got a sense of it without really looking, so got my but kicked when we started climbing climbing climbing. Lesson to be learned: Set your expectations. If you think a trip's going to be "eh, pretty easy," be warned that it may not. Know thy map; know thy self. 

 Photo Credit: Samuel Mandell

Regardless of the hike being tougher, what energized me along the way were the spectacular views. I can't put it into words, but there were a lot of "wows" along the way. This is the effect of nature. We're silenced as in stand in awe, the moment asking us to just be present. These moments are rare these days aren't they?

Our other hurdle was the amount of snow we encountered near the end of the hike. The higher we got up in elevation, the more it felt like we were transported back into those winter days. Frozen lakes, snow, and dropping temps. The beauty of this circumstance is that we're presented with an opportunity to learn, adapt and overcome. Each time we can do this, we realize more and more how capable we are. 

Not a shabby place to fill up our water bottles.

We even found some morel mushrooms on the trail!

HIKE SPECS

THE WAY IN
Distance: 7.5 miles
Ascent: 2612ft
Descent: 1181ft

THE WAY OUT
Distance: 7.5 miles
Ascent: 1138ft
Descent: 2523ft (Ouch! My knees took a beating during all this downhill.)

ELEVATION MAP

DIRECTIONS

  • Check out the map here.
    1. From Missoula, take the Bitterroot Hwy (93) to Sweeney Creek Loop and turn (R)
    2. Veer (R) at Sweeney Creek Trail (1315) and drive up for 6 miles to the trailhead
    3. Park and the trailhead is obvious; it's the only one

WHAT TO TAKE

  • Check out my gear checklist here.  
  • It turned out to be pretty cold at night, dipping into the freezing temps. I was glad to have my warm down puffy jacket, long johns, and wool base layer.

THE CONCERN FACTOR FOR May 24-25, 2015

  • Bears: Didn't see any
  • Moose: None that we could see
  • Mosquitos: I think I saw one
  • Ticks: I got two on my back, one crawling and one grabbing on but its head wasn't in yet.
  • Water: Plenty of streams and eventually lakes
  • Creepy men: Didn't see any. Actually, there were a number of people on day hikes and many of them were women.
  • Elevation gain/loss: The descent can be tough on the knees. Be aware. 

This backpacking trip has a huge payoff for such a short distance. The views, the flowers, the diversity of terrain.....I highly recommend it to anyone interested in having a somewhat challenging (but very doable) overnighter near Missoula.