Sunshine soldiers

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A classic George Ostrom column, from June, 1989...

I have never said I like to hike with ice water running down my neck. I never found even a thimble of joy in sloshing through mud and snow up to my buns. At no time, no where, have I extolled the pleasures of walking and climbing mountains when you can’t see the distant scenery, let along rocks only 50 feet away. There are members of my hiking group who would have me believe that brand of insanity. When I missed a couple of their “treading water” adventures three summers back, one of them wrote a letter to this newspaper outlining personal traits he felt qualified me for “Sissy of the Year.” For a man with no ruffled on his boxers, that sort of thing is not easy to live with.

Last Thursday morning was super soggy. When I went to work at 5:30, Columbia Mountain and Bad Rock Canyon were socked in and there were signs of new fallen rain and snow in every direction. It didn’t look like a day I would enjoy hiking with the Centerfold of the Year, let alone a bunch of over the hillers; but I gathered foul weather gear and caught up with them at the Highland Café in West Glacier. I planned on making an appearance to show good faith and then thinking of some reason to bug out at the last minute. They had just finished big warm breakfasts, while I was coasting on a hunk of dry toast eaten three hours earlier.

“Gee George! We didn’t expect you in weather like this.” Another remarked, “Did you lose your glasses again Ostrom? It’s raining in the hills.” “Does you mother know you’re out on a day like this?” That did it.

Three cars drove over Marias Pass to the East Glacier Ranger Station. The mountain weather didn’t look any better from that side, so when the others weren’t listening, I did everything but lick his hand, trying to get a ranger to loan me his key to the gate on Cutbank Creek Road so I wouldn’t have to walk those extra two miles to the trailhead. It didn’t work. Autos were left at the gate. Someone cheerily pointed out that the rain and snow there “wasn’t too bad” and “the worst of the stuff seemed to be way up the valley” around Pitamakan Pass and Medicine Grizzly Peak.

Within a mile, there was either mud or slushy snow up to two feet deep in the trail. In some places we could avoid the snow by wading in creeks and swamps where it had melted. I pretended we were all six years old again. The off-trail slogging made us less aware of howling winds that brought sleet, rain or snow down from Triple Divide Pass and other high notches in the Continental Divide above us. I noticed all my companions were bundled up like Hillary’s Mount Everest expedition, but no one would admit this wasn’t really swell fun. The expression, “wilderness experience,” might have been over used.

About four miles up, we began seeing more frequent piles of scat, sign, or poo poo with grizzly bear tracks around. Fresh ones. I was quick to explain that the scat was green, indicating the griz were still eating grass and hadn’t started on hikers, yet. Nevertheless, three of the remaining six members reported that they had to get back to town early and left. Three others were behind and I didn’t know their fate. George Tolman, interim pastor at the Kalispell Christian Church, has been hiking with us lately and he said he’d keep going. My son, Shannon, felt he had to stay because his Pa did.

I was starting to gloat, “So, this is what those turkeys do when I’m not here on their lousy weather hikes.” The snow squalls were staying tolerable, the sun would peep out for a moment now and then. The only bad part was the snow in the trail was getting deeper and we were sinking in further, more often “postholing.” Soon, we hit the junction to Medicine Grizzly Lake and a park ranger was there on a trail-checking trip. He too was headed back. We pushed onward and upward. It was slow going.

At Two Ocean Falls, the cliffs were bare and Shannon climbed up on top for George and I to take pictures. We waited around enjoying the scenes revealed when the clouds moved in and out. No one else showed up, so after a while we headed back for the cars. The last stretch out from the trailhead to the gate was slow and when we arrived at the car, all out friends had gone.

Were they slurping hot chocolate in front of the fireplace at the Izaak Walton Inn? Downing a hot toddy? Where did they go? I’m patiently waiting for the subject to come up so I can deliver a casual remark, “Gee I hated it when all you guys had to go back so early. I was hoping against hope we could do that other five miles on up to Pitamakan Pass.”

They’ll know I’m lyin’, but they’ll never be sure how much.

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