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Vermilion Blue

Dawn spilled tentatively over Water Hill into the narrow canyon flanking the mouth of the Vermilion River. Heavy gray clouds tumbled across the sky carried by an erratic wind billowing from the west. I suspected rain wasn’t far off, but I didn’t care. A wet day on the trail was way better than a dry day anywhere else, as far as I was concerned.

Mindy arrived only a moment after I did and we headed upriver to the Cataract Creek trailhead. I left my truck there and hopped into Mindy’s spiffy new Subaru Outback and we cruised towards Vermilion Pass. A young moose guided us part of the way, but once the lonely headwaters of the Vermilion surrounded us, we were on our own.

Atop the pass the wind had sharpened to a cutting-edge gale. Mindy wished me luck and off I went behind the gate and up the start of 14 miles of trail. Off she went to an eventual flat tire. These mountain roads are hard on rubber.

Along the trail from Vermilion Pass to the Deep Creek Divide I moved logs and tossed rocks off the tread and did all I could to make the trail more hospitable to the mountain bikers that would ride this narrow track a few days later. They may have cursed me because of the 17 logs that remained across their route of travel, but if only they knew what I had moved out of the way!

Coming round the north side of Slide Rock Mountain I stood and admired a grassy ridge gently climbing toward Seven Point Mountain. Over the edge on the east side of the ridge nestled the Marmot Lakes, cradled in a magnificent basin which once harbored the largest whitetail buck I have ever seen in my life. That was several years ago when I crept upon that monarch, and though at the time I thought I was well hid, he knew I was there and in moments he vanished. His regal, ghostly image, however, still dances in my mind. Perhaps he is still there, but I’ve not seen him since.

I hunkered down out of the gusty wind on the lee side of the summit next to a clump of small trees and ate lunch. The remains of the old lookout lay scattered across the mountaintop just behind me. Spread out before me was the upper Vermilion and Miller Creek, Happy Gulch, and across the valley Snow Creek, Toboggan, Ice, Cold, Freezeout. I think someone who spent a lot of time in this drainage labeled these streams based on experience. I myself have been there when the thermometer hovered at 20 below zero. It’s a cold place.

But how beautiful the Vermilion is, even on a day when leaden clouds roll over Cataract Peak and bump into B Peak in search of the Thompson River country beyond. Reluctantly I rose, pulled my collar more tightly about my neck and began the descent into Cataract Creek. Bear Lake loomed into view on my right and I fought an urge to go to it and look for moose tracks.

The view from the north side of Seven Point is entirely different from the east. The jumble of mountains and valleys laced from there to the monumental obelisks of Snowshoe and A peaks in the heart of the wilderness looks as wild as anywhere on earth could be. Frozen in my tracks by the vastness of the world laying at my feet, I studied every ridge and every creek and every peak as if reminding myself of the names of old friends.

And as my reverie continued, a single ray of sunshine pierced the cloud cover above Canyon Peak, illuminating the forest cloaking its broad shoulders. A spot of sunlight moved with the careening clouds across Silver Butte and toward Elk Mountain, then parted and revealed a patch of sky so bright and blue I had to momentarily shield my eyes.

Transfixed by the approaching sunbeams weaving an ethereal dance of light over the mountains, I stood rigid until celestial warmth washed over me.

It was short-lived, that dollop of blue sky smiling down on the Vermilion. But it was enough to rejuvenate me and I very nearly skipped down the next seven miles of trail.

There’s something magical about the Vermilion River that draws me like a magnet attracts a paper clip. In the days and weeks that followed this hike, I returned to the Vermilion half a dozen times. A mountain lion greeted me on one occasion; mule deer snorted their welcome; a Golden Eagle escorted me into the mouth of the canyon; and always, the forest whispered its delight at the prospect of sharing its secrets if I was patient enough and calm enough to hear its voice.

My last excursion up the Vermilion was on a day wrapped wholly in blue. Its magic encompassed me and I sought for secrets. I was not disappointed.

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Author info

Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

Tagged as:

Montana, mountain biking, Vermilion River Challenge, Vermilion River

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