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The Scenic Route

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Wilderness is a sustaining dish

For not getting far out of my back yard, my friend Bonnie and I had a monster of an adventure not long ago, replete with bears, bruises, bushels of huckleberries, buckets of rain, battles with brush, punctures, abrasions, contusions and several temporary confusions; in other words, a typical Compton backcountry trip.

What can I say? It was wonderful.

We planned a trip to St. Paul Lake in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness; an "easy" hike, if there is such a thing, that begins and ends upon a well-defined, Forest Service trail.

That was the plan.

We were actually headed that direction when a niggling notion that had been dancing in my head quit whispering and began speaking plainly. It was a thought from my grandfather on his first trip to this neighborhood; penciled into a journal in 1916, near where he and his family would come to build a life for themselves the next year.

"August 20," he wrote. "Looked over land for sale. Took a walk up the Blue Creek Canyon." That was what was stuck in my head; that and the date. It was August 20.

So, rather than driving to the St. Paul Lake trail head, we bounced to the end of Road 409, got out of the car, hefted our packs and plodded up the brush-studded, boulder-strewn remains of a road used in the early 20th century by cedar loggers. When the road ended, we got in the creek and waded a few hundred yards upstream, then ducked into tag alder, nettles, devils club and mountain ash to begin fighting our way into the wilderness.

Trail? We don't need no stinking trail.

I had the good sense not to ask Bonnie if she was having fun, and we eventually made our way to the upper reaches of the canyon my grandpa took a walk into 88 years ago. It is not a hospitable place, though it seems to be of two minds. It tries to keep out anyone who dares to enter, then it does its worst to keep anyone who is trying to get out, in.

Being in that place forces me into deliberate living. Watching where and how and even for how long I put a foot down becomes necessary. No step should be taken for granted. To do so risks a long hobble home, or worse.

There are rock slides to deal with; steep mountainsides covered with slick bear grass and spots where the first step is 900 feet. It is a place in which to pay attention, one in which to strive to keep up with the man in front; not for pride or for fear of being left behind, but because I want to go where he's going—up there, to where the world lays open at my feet and I can count the ribs of the planet scraped clean by the ice 120 centuries ago.

For all of the time I am in that place, I am completely alive. It calls me to be so, and reminds me constantly that to not be so is to risk being completely dead.

On our second day there, even leaving our packs in camp, it took Bonnie and I nine-and-a-half hours to go seven miles. I admit, we didn't try to go fast. We couldn't have if we'd wanted to. Instead, we said good morning (and good evening) to a bear, picked huckleberries, drank stone-filtered water as clear and cold as space itself, ate wild chives, scented (and saw) elk, watched coyotes trot by, climbed cliffs, pushed through tag alder and vine maple jungles, took our chances on thin hints of trails that sometimes ended up going nowhere. For all of that day, and for good portions of the ones on each side of it, we were completely alive, part of a world so different from that in which we usually live that it is stunning.

Though it is part of the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, the place we clambered and clawed and cursed (that was me, not Bonnie) our way into August 20th isn't designated as wilderness by an act of Congress. There is no doubt, though, that it is; more so, perhaps, than the one we opted out of when we chose the hawthorn-choked water chutes and tenuous leadings of elk trails in the Blue Creek canyon over a well-marked track in to St. Paul Lake.

Wilderness is a deliciously spiced and, ultimately, sustaining dish. That does not mean it is easy to eat, nor does it mean we can gorge on it. It should be consumed with care. A little will go a long way. Perhaps this bite will last me until the next August 20.

But I doubt it.

More of The Scenic Route can be read online. Sandy Compton's book, Jason's Passage, can be purchased online or by sending $10 to Jason's Passage, c/o Blue Creek Press, Box 110, Heron, MT 59844.    The Scenic Route is © 2004 M. R. Compton, Jr.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

hiking, St. Paul Lake, backcountry, Road 409, off-trail, Blue Creek Canyon, Scotchman Peak Wilderness

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