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Little Ibex

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It was a day that screamed “Blue!” The sky, from horizon to horizon, was one color only – except where the fiery sun’s reddish orb hung suspended in that sea of blue. A more perfect day for a hike into the Cabinet Mountains could not have been written into a script.

In fact, a more perfect and unexpected opportunity to go on a hike could not have been imagined. In the shadow of Ibex Peak, on the shores of the lake cradled in its bosom, one of a party of seven hearty hikers, I thanked my lucky stars that I had taken a break at Trish’s house the day before. 

I had heard Trish say into the telephone that evening, “You want me to tell you how to get to Little Ibex Lake? Ha!” she laughed. “I’ve never been there, but it just so happens there’s someone here who has.” Still catching my breath and wiping the sweat from my forehead, I was sprawled on the couch sipping a Kokanee. After pedaling from Sandpoint to Clark Fork, I had stopped at Trish’s house for a breather and to swipe a cold beverage from her fridge. 

The phone had rung and it was Brenda Haase looking for information about Little Ibex. Yes, I had been there and sure I can try and explain how to get to the trailhead by turning this way and that and how to find the obscure junction of the no-longer-maintained trail to the lake with the Middle Fork Bull River trail, and good luck on hiking to such a fine destination, I had exclaimed.

And I returned to the couch and my sipping, thinking, “Little Ibex Lake; what an idyllic place to go for a Monday hike.”

Then it struck me, as Trish continued to visit with Brenda on the phone, maybe I could go along if Brenda and her band of 4-H kids and other adults wanted a guide. I said as much to Trish, thinking she’d put me back on the phone to make arrangements. Instead, she hung up and said, “Meet them at 10:30 in the morning in Montana.”

I did, beneath an expansive blue sky, and there they were – the kids: Michelle, Jesse and Stephen, and the grownups: Brenda, Pam and Sherry.

The teenagers were off up the trail as soon as we negotiated the first two logs crossing the forks of the Bull River. We walked mile after mile, further into the mountains, passing into wilderness, that magical land less trammeled by man, a domain where bears, lions, deer elk and other wildlife live and where we're the visitors.

The kids led the way, the ladies brought up the rear and I meandered in the middle, observing whatever caught my eye. Stagshorn, those beautiful pinkish flowers with the oddly shaped petals, were in full bloom in stony openings and in a niche next to the stream I found one of my favorite flowers in all the woods – the Wood Nymph, the only single-flowered wintergreen in the Rockies. I was dismayed to find Orange Hawkweed so far up the trail, like an invading regiment of thin hairy soldiers wearing brilliantly orange helmets, pioneering the narrow trail for the hordes that would follow.

I found the kids laying an ambush behind a large rock well up the trail, apparently hoping to terrify the women in a surprise attack. I continued on, not wanting to give away their hiding place. But the ladies were so obviously enjoying the hike they were taking their time and the kids tired of waiting. They caught up to me at the rock cairn marking the junction of the trail to the lake, and there we waited a bit more for the women.

We had rounded the shoulder of Ibex Peak and looming beyond and above the forest surrounding us was the basin harboring one of the most precious gems in the Cabinet Mountains. The climb up the steeply ascending slope to the lip of the basin was a test, but the rewards at the edge of Little Ibex Lake made every step worth the effort. West, south and east of the lake are cliffs, peaks, snowfields and even the remnants of a glacier. Tucked into every shadow and cirque around the lake, winter’s residue clung tenaciously to bedrock.

The lake shimmered blue beneath the bluer sky. The kids had already found a sunny rock at the water’s edge – a great place for lunch and lounging. Afterwards, I explored the boulder field above the lake, the kids skipped stones and the ladies soaked up the abundant sunshine and the encircling scenery.

When it finally came time to leave, Stephen led the way down and in moments, he and Jesse and Michelle were gone from sight. They ended up at the truck 47 minutes ahead of us adults. Every step back down into the lowlands just reinforced in me the sense of how lucky we are to live in an area with such magnificent country right out our backdoors, and what a treat it was to share a day up there with the folks from Clark Fork.

For information about Little Ibex Lake and other hiking destinations in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, stop by or call the Cabinet Ranger Station on Hwy. 200. Their number is 406-827-3533

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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.

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hiking, wilderness, Little Ibex, Cabinet Mountains

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