I grew up and have lived most my life in the northeast. That means woodlands with oaks and maples, maybe some fir here and there. It means rocks and streams. It means humid heat in summer and damp snowy cold in winter. That’s ok, seasons are good.
What I have never had the chance to experience is snow in July. Yes, I am a July snow virgin. Westerners, or those living in the southern hemisphere might not think this too extraordinary but I’m a late bloomer and despite all my travels I have never ate lunch on a snowbank while sitting in July sun, at least not until this summer.
The Flathead Valley of Montana is surrounded by mountains to the north, west and east. Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi is to the south. To the west and with peaks almost to 7,000 feet the Salish Mountains are a sea of crests and troughs that cover over 4,000 square miles of northwest Montana. Thick forests interspersed with park like mixes of evergreens and meadow, they are home to elk, deer and bear.
To the east are the Swan Mountains. Snowcapped even in July they take your breath away. Steep and rugged, the trails switchback up the mountains to places like Jewel Basin and the Twin Lakes, lakes that shine alpine blue in the summer sun. The Swan’s continue south to the Mission Mountains and the thousands of square miles of wilderness that is the Bob Marshall Wilderness. This is what early trappers saw, this is where the Salish tribe lived long before Lewis and Clark.
The Whitefish Range in the Flathead National Forest is to the North. This range borders Glacier National Park and the Livingston Range. Words don’t capture the stunning beauty of Glacier’s snowcapped mountains and deeply forested valleys. You have to see it to appreciate it. It’s like describing really good chocolate, you just have to taste it!
My initiation to snow in July came in the Swan Mountains this summer. After taking the rental car up a rugged, narrow and very dusty (sorry Hertz) dirt road we came to the Camp Misery Trailhead. I was surprised to find the trailhead crowded with cars. The road up was an adventure in itself and might very well have passed as a trail back east. I also should have figured what was coming by the name of the trailhead.
The hike up wasn’t terribly far and wasn’t the steepest Kat and I have ever climbed but it was steady. A steady climb up and up until the trees finally thinned and we were over the top looking down on two alpine lakes.
Hey Kat, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Down in a basin two small lakes shimmered in the summer sun, the surrounding hills were splashed with big patches of snow. Past the lakes the wilderness went on as far as you could see which, on this day, was almost forever. I’ve been to a lot of cool areas but this was very cool.
We explored down the trail a ways and decided it was time for lunch. Coming around a bend we entered a small valley, the valley was still covered in snow. This was our lunch spot. Little purple flowers were pushing up in the damp earth. Blankets of Bear Grass covered the slopes with the lacy bulbs of their flowers. The air was pristine pure. Scrunched sandwiches came out of our packs. They tasted better than any Gordon Ramsey meal. Lunch, Bear Grass and snow in the mountain top valley. Don’t leave home without it.
Hiking down is always easier than hiking up, but the view was just as good. Back at the trailhead a group of young hikers (OK almost every hiker is younger than me now) were starting up the trail in their short pants and skis tied to their packs.
Skiing in the wilderness on a July day, how cool.