One of my favorite adventure spots in Montana is Highway 43. This is a two lane road that starts (or ends) at Lost Trail pass on the Montana/Idaho border. A place where the Bitterroot National Forest, the Beaverhead National Forest and the Salmon National Forest all come together. It winds east down from the pass through The Big Hole Valley and along the Big Hole River. This 82 mile highway passes through the tiny towns of Wisdom, Wise River, Dewey and Divide where is ends at Interstate 15. There are year round recreation opportunities off this road of frost heaves and orange 15 foot tall poles to help guide you where the road is in a snow storm. Cross country skiing, snow mobiles, dog sleds, fly fishing, hunting, rafting, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, skijoring, hot springs, downhill skiing and cattle. That is what you can find via Highway 43. What you will not find is too many people, a mall, stoplights, stop signs, cell service, a fast food restaurant or even a high school.
There is also access to two forest service cabins. Hogan Cabin and May Creek Cabin.
When I used to reserve one of the two cabins, I had to wait for the “day” that the permits were open, then start calling the Wisdom Ranger Station starting promptly at 7:00 am and dial, busy signal, redial; over and over until I would get through. By 8:00 all the Friday and Saturday’s would be taken. Usually I was lucky to get a Sunday night. Now it’s all online. I’m not even sure the procedure. If I happen to think about it in the fall, I’ll go to Reservation.com and see what is available. This year I scored a Sunday night. Sunday February 2nd. It wasn’t until a week before my reservation that I realized why that Sunday was open. Super Bowl Sunday. Well. In my book; The Big Hole trumps the Super Bowl. Sleeping in a cabin with no electricity or running water, heated with a wood stove on a February night in Montana beats watching four hours of television.
With our backpacks packed, the car full of of equipment, we load the dog and head the 30 miles south to highway 43. But before going to the cabin we stop at Lost Trail Powder Mountain for some downhill turns. We stop for three reasons. One, fresh powder and still snowing, two, we have a season pass and three, it’s on the way and what we usually do on Sunday mornings. I’ve been skiing this mountain for 27 seasons. I raised my kids on this mountain, learned to snowboard on this mountain. The line for the women’s room is always a reunion of some sorts. Women hugging and catching up while waiting in line to pee. And lunch in the lodge is three tables deep of friends.
“Did you put in for the river?” Have you been over to chair four?” “Loved your blog this week.” “Lisa, I’ve got a book for you to read.”
We say hi to the owners when they walk by. They also grew up on this mountain, taking over the business from their dad.
Our legs are done with downhill by two o’clock and we head to the car. It’s too blustery to change into our cross country outfits so we get in the car and drive the 10 miles down 43 to the pull out for May Creek Cabin. It’s much nicer off the top of the mountain for a change of clothes for the next adventure. Fourteen degrees, but no wind or snow. One car passes as we get ready and put on our cross country skis.
The May Creek trail runs along the creek and in the trees for most of the two and a half miles to the cabin. Right at the end it opens up into a big beautiful meadow where you can see the small cabin tucked up next to the mountain on the edge of the meadow. Serene. So serene with the untouched white snow, the occasional glimpse of the creek flowing, the falling snow starting to slow down as dusk comes unnoticed looking so similar to an all day of snowstorm.
We arrive at the cabin, unlock the combination lock and immediately start a fire in the wood stove. The thermometer reads 10 degrees outside. The cold has already settled into the logs, nothing is sealed very tight in this historic cabin. The cabin was built by miners in the 1900’s and was restored in 1993 for recreational use (the year I moved to Montana). There is a coleman stove for cooking, pots, pans, plates and silverware. There is a shelve with games, jigsaw puzzles and a cabin journal for guest to write in. There are four bunk bed style wooden platforms for sleeping, a table with benches and about 100 yards up the mountain there is an outhouse.
After dinner and several games of cribbage we climb into our sleeping bags to read before falling asleep. Brett is up several times in the night to keep the fire going in the small, inefficient wood stove. I’m up at 6:00 am, it is still dark out. I heat up some water for tea, make some yogurt and granola and trek up to the outhouse. It is dark, in the middle of the forest and it is 10 below zero. I climb back into my sleeping bag with my tea, my breakfast, my book and my dog. Outside the dark starts to fade away. It doesn’t get any better than this. The morning brings clear skies and bright sunshine to this pristine meadow. Paradise.
The book I’m reading is about a woman mountain climber. Climbing mountains in the early 1970’s before “woman mountain climber” was a term. As I read in the cold cabin, she is on Denali, having just completed the first all women team of climbers to reach the top. But she is now just below the top with one of her climbing partners who has altitude sickness and is unable to continue as she comes in and out of consciousness. It is night and 30 below zero and they are out in the elements. Waiting. Waiting for her friend to recover. Or die. You’ll have to read the book to see how this adventure turns out. “Breaking Trail”
by Arlene Blum is the book recommendation for this post. A memoir about Arlene climbing peaks around the world, making historic first accents on many of the mountains, the group dynamics wit
h her climbing partners and the dysfunctional home life that molded her into the person she is.
I highly recommend the book “Breaking Trail” as well as May Creek Cabin and Lost Trail Powder Mountain.
More great books and adventures can be found at Wild About Books.