Bear Grass, Ursa Major, and Going Home

Bear Grass in the Northern Rockies. Photo: Wilderness Watch.

I was off work and at the trailhead by 6:00 p.m. I estimated that I had about three-and-a-half hours of daylight to hike the eight miles to Bass Lake on the Montana side of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I wasn’t in the best backpacking shape, but I figured I could still knock out the miles and the 3,500 ft. elevation gain before it was completely dark. I hadn’t backpacked into the Selway-Bitterroot, my favorite Wilderness, since last autumn.

It didn’t take long before the boisterous sound of the creek pervaded all my thoughts and wonders. It had been a cool and wet spring, and the combined runoff with last winter’s snowpack meant the creeks and rivers in the Wilderness would be running fast. The thick forest canopy in the lower section of the canyon consisted of fir, pine, maple, birch, and Pacific yew. The forest was lush this time of year.

A few hours up the trail, with my shirt fairly soaked in sweat, I came upon some stands of aspen. They were growing intermittently in a rock slide. Aspens are quite the opportunist and always seem to grow in areas that have been recently disturbed. I also observed Western larch and Englemann spruce growing at this elevation.

With darkness marching across the evening sky, I hastily set up my tent in a skinny meadow just below the lake. The lake’s outlet would be an ideal water source for the weekend. Other than the sound of the creek, all was quiet, and the stars were just beginning to dance overhead. The Big Dipper was right on top of me. Ursa Major pointed the way north.

I awoke from a deep sleep with the sound of approaching horses. I quickly got up and greeted the two women who had just dismounted. They were very friendly, and one of them poured me some coffee from a thermos that she was carrying. We talked about the spectacular beargrass bloom that was in full display a few miles below the lake and the waterfalls cascading down the canyon walls. Everything was vibrant, and it was a beautiful time to be in the Wilderness.

With a full day at my leisure, I decided to grab my day pack and head out for Bass Peak, which lies at 8,900 ft. in elevation. As I descended up the smooth face of the ridge, glacier lillies came into view, along with skinny ribbons of water (snow melt) gently descending towards the lake. Soon I could see that the peak still had too much snow for an ascent, so I aimed for a notch in the ridgeline for lunch. Upon reaching the saddle, I threw down my pack and gazed west out across the vast, intact landscape. What a peaceful place for a sandwich and a nap.

With the first sound of thunder, I packed up my bag and headed back down the slope towards Bass Lake. Within minutes, rain began to fall, followed by hail. Fortunately, there wasn’t any lightning in the area, and so I took my time with the descent. Within a half hour, I was back on the lake’s shoreline, and the clouds overhead were beginning to dissipate. Like a typical summer thunderstorm in the mountains, it was here one minute and gone the next.

When I got back to camp, I began collecting firewood. I didn’t need much—just enough to warm my body a little when the sun dropped below the horizon. I washed up for dinner, which consisted of a hearty bowl of soup and crackers, along with a big piece of my favorite dark chocolate. With a small fire crackling at my feet and another bed of stars slowly stretching across the evening’s sky, I tilted my head back and let out a big sigh. All was well in the world once again. It was good to be home.

This was first published by WildernessWatch.

Brett Haverstick is is the Membership and Development Director for Wilderness Watch in Missoula, Montana.