Foot to Trail

Foot to Trail, Brush, and Rock

By Bridger Cohan:

I suppose it all began on the wall of my freshman dorm room – two maps detailing the great expanse of forests, rivers and mountains known as the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Whilst putting off my homework I would often trace out routes deep into the backcountry, cross referencing with maps, trail guides and Google Earth. Soon, I stitched together trails into a route that would take me up Blodgett canyon (arguably the most spectacular in the Bitterroots) and across in Idaho, where I could make my way downslope to the Wild and Scenic Selway River, and from there to Elk City, the closest human settlement. I dubbed my route the Westslope Trail, both for its location and for the species of Cutthroat trout that resides there, and over time it grew to monstrous size. After all, why stop at Elk City; why not keep going through the Gospel Hump Wilderness and along the Salmon River to Riggins? And after that, why not hike up over the Seven Devils, down into Hell’s Canyon, and across the Eagle Caps? I spent many days over the next four years entranced by the string of Wilderness areas that stretch like a white and green necklace across Montana, Idaho and Oregon, inviting me to wander as far as my imagination and legs could carry me.

All the goods.

‘And now I’m finally doing it’ was the thought running through my head as I savored a gulp of lukewarm water and meditatively picked the burrs out of my socks. A day before I had been loading my pack with 25 pounds of gear and another 20 pounds of food, riding with an overloaded backpack to the post office to mail more food ahead and dreaming about mountains as I went to sleep in a real bed for the last time. Then I was out the door and on the trail! This first day I hiked with a friend of mine, making our way up to a lake just on the Montana side of the border, lying in a massive bowl of exfoliated granite crowned by jagged peaks. The next morning, my friend started back towards the car and I started up the pass into Idaho, solo for the next nine days.
Strangely, the fact that I had never solo backpacked even one night before didn’t worry me as I made my way down the trail, over deadfalls and around a huge landslide to my destination, a large lake with oddly tropical looking white shores. These white sand beaches are courtesy of the Idaho batholith, a huge mass of granitic magma that cooled and crystalized under Idaho before being exposed by erosion 70 million years ago. I’m not the only one who appreciates the beach now though. That night, tucked away in my pup tent I hear the plunk…pshhhssssssss of a moose feeding in the shallows, its head plunging under to feed on the tender pondweeds before surfacing, trailing a long stream of ‘moose drool’ from its chin as it chews. When I arrive in Elk City a grizzled local will tell me the ‘dang wolfs’ have killed off all the moose, but I see or hear them nearly every time I camp in the mountains here.

The next few days were filled with miles of easy, pretty trail along creeks, up ridges and down still more creeks. As I dove down into the Selway watershed I passed from forests of subalpine fir and spruce into ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, grand fir and finally enormous stands of pure cedar. I nicknamed the forest along upper Moose creek Mirkwood, because the canopy was so dense that you could barely see the sky, and even the water was silent as it slid through groves of trees as thick across as a car. While the scenery was beautiful, it also made me realize how small and alone I really was. I found myself wondering how my mind would adapt to another week of solitude, especially in this never-ending landscape of green and brown. Once I thought I heard voices while I was resting, but no one ever came down the trail. My mind was simply looking for human speech and, finding none, was forced to improvise out of the sounds of trees, wind and water. Suddenly, towards the end of the day, I stepped out of Mirkwood and into a sunny canyon, where I pitched my tent on edge of a half-mile long chain of boulders and whitewater. A quick skinny dip in the mind-(and body) numbingly cold water renewed my spirits and even my stiff legs and sore feet couldn’t wipe the smile from my increasingly-bearded face.
The next day was even better – a long stroll down Moose creek, through the woods and finally into the Selway canyon. The sun was bright, I had seen no one but birds and deer in two days and I had just finished the fifth day – the crux, if you will, of the first leg of my trip. To quote my journal: “Set up camp on some sand at the peninsula [at the confluence] with the Selway to my right, Moose creek to my left and wilderness all around. Baptized myself in the Selway’s icy water. Beautiful.”
It is truly difficult to describe just how beautiful the Selway really is. Its waters are not glacial turquoise, nor sparkling blue, or even murky green like those of other rivers. They are instead a deep emerald, clear and inviting but incredibly cold, even though the steep canyon walls that surround it are dry and baking hot. White sand beaches alternate with impossibly huge boulders on its banks, and the river itself changes around every bend from gnarly rapids and wave chains to glassy pools so deep they look like they should harbor sea monsters, or sturgeon at the very least. Gigantic cedars and old-growth Ponderosa stand sentinel on the banks while mountains rise a mile above, sending crystalline streams tumbling down to join the main river. To sweeten the pot even more, the fishing on the Selway is some of the best in the world. Westslope cutthroat and rainbow trout were so plentiful that at times it seemed like I couldn’t go a cast without hooking one, each as strong and beautiful as the river itself.

However, the truly special thing about this river is how incredibly wild it is. Almost every other sizable waterway in the west has a road running along it, (after all, it’s easier than building over mountains) the majority of the Selway has only a single small trail for backpackers and stock. It makes the entire landscape seem bigger somehow, still quiet, rugged and defiant in the face of man’s advances. The lack of a road also keeps people out, which I verified by seeing a grand total of 3 other human beings during 9 days and 100+ miles in the Idaho side of the Bitterroots. The only things keeping me company were the deer, grouse, dippers and a rather large rattlesnake who stopped me in my tracks with a shake of his tail before slithering off into the brush. I snapped a few pictures (on maximum zoom) once his back was turned, but my hands were shaking too much for them to turn out well.

Sadly, my journey along the river was over before I knew it as I turned south into the mountains again, heading for meadow creek and then Elk City, my first resupply point. Crossing a massive suspension bridge, I took my last look at the Selway and started up a seldom-used trail towards Mink Peak. The collection of lines on my topo map really didn’t do justice to the grueling elevation gain here, which was on the order of 1000 feet per mile as the trail rose from 1900 feet along the river to over 7000 feet at the summit. To make matters worse, there was absolutely no place to pump water for the first 9 miles of trail, leaving me parched and cursing the absence of the dozens of unmarked trickles that had crossed the trail every day except the one I needed them. When the trail finally topped out a few ridgeline miles later I was about tapped out and barely managed to dog it the rest of the way to my campsite before dark.
Surprisingly, the next day was actually harder. The interior of the Idaho batholith is not a landscape to be taken lightly. Massive, oddly shaped rocks spires tower over boggy seeps, thick forests and the terrain is unrelentingly steep, extremely rocky and remote in a way that few other places can match. Unfortunately, the trails here are not to be taken lightly either. Extensive deadfall and choking brush are the norm and many sections are trenched, eroded or simply absent. This was, to my dismay, the case for a rather large section of creekside trail I had been hoping to take down out of the mountains. Searching in vain for any sign of human travel, I was forced to take an alternate route up into still more mountains. After 13 miles and another 4000’ of cumulative elevation gain I ran into yet another hurdle when the trail that I had been following reached a landmark on my map…and then turned the wrong direction. Apparently the local USFS office I had called to confirm my route was fond of playing practical jokes on people, but I was in no mood for their shenanigans. After singing a calming song to myself, I looked at my options to get to my campsite that night: Hike an extra 15 miles around a mountain and out of my way, or bushwhack 4 miles along a creek. I shouldered my backpack and plunged into the woods as the sun dipped behind the canyon walls.

In retrospect, this was a dubious choice.As bad as some of the trails had been, this was a whole new ballgame. Massive cedars lay across the creekside bench, requiring a full scale climbing operation to get over. Rockslides, marshes and dense thickets of thimbleberry and alder blocked my path and at several places massive stone outcroppings fell straight to the water, forcing me to climb up and around them, clinging to sheer faces and lowering my pack down onto narrow ledges (FYI, paracord gives some nasty rope burns). Evening came and I was still nowhere close to my destination. In the fading light I set up my tent under a Yew tree and fell fast asleep, alternately musing over how pretty this unexplored creek was and vowing that I would escape this jungle hell before the sun came over the cliffs tomorrow.
The next day I spent the better part of 3 hours brush-busting, climbing and wading my way down the final 2 miles of creek. A goshawk silently winged its way past me, gliding over waterfalls and through timber with such grace and power that I didn’t know whether to feel inspired or mocked as I slogged along. Finally, a bridge finally came into view downstream and I splashed through a final canyon to freedom, arriving at my last campsite in the Selway-Bitterroot only 16 hours later than I had intended. My legs and feet vetoed any side trips, so I wasted no time in using up my ‘rest day’ by napping, fishing and rinsing out my socks, shirts and underwear in preparation for the final hike to Elk city.

The next morning, day 10 of my trip, I rose with the sun, packed up and put foot to trail. As I climbed up the last set of buttes between me and Elk City, I wondered what it would be like to interact with people again. It had been a full week since I’d spoken with anyone, and I was genuinely stoked to talk with any random stranger, let alone calling my family. I thought about all the incredible sights I had seen and how I would describe them… and about how good hot pizza and cold beer were going to taste tonight. Finally, 10 days and 115 miles after I began, I emerged into the thriving metropolis of Elk City, population 202. I got a hotel room for the night, called my parents, ate a burger (no pizza in Elk City) and chatted with the locals at the diner. They were very friendly, but the conversation turned with annoying regularity to wolves. Had I seen any? (No) Was I packing [a gun]? (No, just pepperspray) Was I crazy? (No, I just wasn’t too scared of wolves). After picking up my food package at the post office and enjoying a greasy but delicious breakfast at the local diner, I decided I had best continue towards the Gospel hump and so, belly and backpack full I started off for the wilderness once again. There were more mountains to climb, more rivers to explore and more creatures to encounter before I would call it quits. Hell, maybe I’d even see a wolf this time.

3 thoughts on “Foot to Trail

  1. Bridger, that was awesome to read! sounds like a great adventure! I spend the summer of 2009 working in the selway bitterroot wilderness and backpacked pretty much everywhere you described. It was really great to read this and it made me remember my amazing time in the wilderness. Props for the solo backpacking tho! I would probably managed to freak myself out somehow. Have more happy trails!

    1. Thanks Mariah! Being solo is definitely an odd experience, but I at least found it mostly enjoyable. Props to you for spending the whole summer out in the bush there!

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