The RocketDog

The RocketDog

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Angst and Ass-kicking: Cabin Lake, Thompson River Range, Thompson Falls, MT August, 2013

  "I'm going to ask you something and you're going to get mad but I don't care".  These are the words my sister said to me, as I stood in the door, Scott impatiently waiting, ready to leave.  I braced myself for the inevitable disapprovement of my backpacking that I endure every time I go.  "How can you leave your kids, especially when you know DD1 is still afraid to stay alone at night?"  (My oldest does not like to spend multiple nights as the only adult in charge here; she is fine if someone her age or older is with her though, so usually --and was the case this time too--one of my nephews, who are both older, graciously offers to stay here as well).  I endure this interrogation every single time I go anywhere.  My sister and parents, actually.  Not so with my brothers.  My sister went on to inform me how 'dangerous' my backpacking off to BFE is, while despite my best resolution to not bite from last time, I responded with how skiing and boating on a crowded lake in the summer or just driving down the hill to the store are in fact more dangerous than hiking in the mountains.  Scott and I are not n00bs, nor are we stupid.  That area is where I grew up driving and traipsing around.  I could never be lost there.  Leaving your kids though, is something that every parent struggles with.  You do worry about 'something happening', to either you or more so, them.  For us, we worry about not being reachable.  I mean, obviously there is no cell service where we are.  It's spotty on the main highway through that part of Montana itself, let alone deep in the mountains, high elevation be damned.  I think it's an important part of helping kids learn they can separate someday though; that they WILL be able to move out and survive on their own.  That they can handle responsibility.  Where better to practice?  Besides, how do epic movies like House Party get made if the parents are home all the time?  I KID, CHILDREN, I KID.  Seriously though--do I want my kids to think their lives will end for 20+ years if they have children? Is parenting a prison sentence or a deep experience that adds to one's life? My parents traveled, albeit by plane to foreign countries for a couple weeks at a time, when I was at home.  They may not have done several trips a year, but if you want to be stupid technical, they were gone more days by numbers than my measly 2-3 nights a couple times.  And they didn't have cell phones back then either.  We *gasp* didn't talk to them for TWO WHOLE WEEKS AT A TIME!  Funny enough, my grandparents were the ones who actually stayed with us! They didn't give my parents (I don't believe) a guilt trip everytime they left either. It's such a lovely expression of familial support when you walk out the door feeling like you're the worst parent in the world, even though your kids seem to be thriving and are quite responsible themselves.  More drama to ensue regarding this later, though....

     Cabin Lake sits at almost 5900' in the Thompson River range, just east of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness.  You can drive in from the east to 4700' and hike about 2.5 miles, or do what we did, start on the west side at Winniemuck Trail and hike 6+ miles in.  It's not a written up trail, scanty info on it, but the one guide book said about 3700' of elevation gain.  After getting home, Scott and I double checked to make sure we weren't batshit crazy and sure enough, Google Earth came to our defense.  The trailhead starts at 2700'--the saddle above Winniemuck Lake is just over 6700'.  That makes 4000'.  And in 5 miles.  This might not sound too bad, but this is not a switchback trail....this is straight up.  Unmaintained.  Rockier than hell.  Overgrown, slippery, full of shale and steep sides you don't want to mis-step on.  We were unaware when we left, however.....


We arrived at the trailhead around 8pm Montana time. No parking so we drove down a mile or so and found a little camp spot that looked perfect.  Got out and let the dog out to investigate and we walked a ways towards the sound of a rushing creek.  Thank god he is a sensible dog.  The creek was actually a high, deep waterfall into a gorge.  I mean, yes, there was a creek, but it was a scary one especially considering the drop-off right at the trail.

(Disclaimer:  Ima just say right now, I'm not the greatest at taking Panorama shots with my iPhone. So shove your criticisms up your nose, please.  Mama always said to be polite)

These were taken in the morning, so by night, this was quite a surprise to discover.  Rocket was LOUDLY instructed to stay back.    We set up our little car camp and cracked a beer and sat back to watch the Perseid Meteor showers.  This is a fond tradition for us, since the very first "date" I had with Scott was to watch these.  There is a very funny story that goes with this--well, funny to me but not so much him, heh--but that's another post.  Instead, we saw lots of lightning and the thunder started.  We saw one meteor before the clouds rolled in.


In the am, we scarfed down a quick cup of coffee, a packet of instant oatmeal and a hard boiled egg each.  Scott had two packets, I had one.  In retrospect, this was completely ridiculous, especially given the terrain ahead.  Hindsight....

This second one advises this trail is a bear research area.  Great.

Beginning of trail...and it just kept up.

And up:

We had to cross the creek twice, very pretty:

Seriously, from the very beginning, we felt our asses being handed to us.  We were lucky enough to have some cloud cover, and the trail was soaking wet from the massive thunderstorm of the night before.  The trail was unrelenting, and not maintained well.

Here was a cool fern on a rock, though--you pushed your hand into it (well, I did because I'm a touchy feely freak about stuff like that, just not people) and it sunk a foot deep. If only this kind of stuff grew conveniently on rocks you could sit on.  Ahhhh...

Lots of huckleberries start to appear....we did partake, as we frankly needed the rest and the carbs.

And where there be Huckleberry, there be BEAR.

We finally break into some high alpine country, but so does the sun break out too.  How I wish we could've seen the bear grass in bloom!  About here, Scott again, like last year's Wanless episode, (which would eerily come back to haunt us on this hike) his lower quads, right above his knees, start cramping horribly.  Now, since Wanless was such a nightmare for him, he has been working hard to keep in shape.  I suspect it is due to his bowlegged-ness.  He scoffs at my theory, but I can't otherwise explain it.  I never suffer from quad cramping, ever.  I comfort him by pointing out the dog is stopping a lot, too.

This is seriously the trail now:

We are stopping quite a bit for my poor DH.  He's drinking well, eating well, nothing he can do.  I offer to rub him out-- HIS QUADS, PEOPLE--but he declines and pounds and rubs the spots himself.  Rocket is concerned.

We FINALLY make Winniemuck Lake, Elevation 6200'.  The dog is glad of the break for lunch.

This is not quite 5 miles in, and we briefly consider camping here, because we KNOW there's going to be no people here.  It's quite beautiful and tempting.  Nice little spot too for tent.  But we decide to keep going.  The trail is a bit easier here, but we are reminded once again to take trail guides at face value; the guide talks about how the trail is at times actually in the creek.  But there IS no creek.  We've had such dry winters, springs and summers lately (comparatively) that it is all  dried up.  Plus, the guide was written 20+ years ago.  We can discern where the creek is supposed to be, but we are glad we didn't depend on it for water supply.

After what seems an eternity, we finally make the saddle--6700+ feet, and it is a relief.

It is narrow, and I take the opportunity to soak in the sight of my favorite high elevation tree, mountain Hemlock with it's Dr. Seuss top. 

Our view climbing out, and the trail down:

We can't see the lake, but we know it's only a mile away.  This becomes a very long mile, however.

This basin is entirely Alpine Fir and Mountain Hemlock.  There is quite a bit of dead, which is disappointing.  How glorious and breathtaking it must've been when it was thriving.  Lots of awesome wildflowers, including mountain penstemon.

Cool knarls on many firs:


Finally! We are immediately rewarded with the sounds and sights of an enormous bull moose, standing in the lake eating underwater.  When he would lift his head, the water would stream off his rack and cascade into the water.  Incredible.  DH has not downloaded his pictures, or I would post them.  ARGH.

We were so hot and sweaty, dog included, we head to the lake for a skinny dip and to wash out our clothes.  Of course, as we are standing on the edge, DH in his birthday suit and me close to mine, on a Monday afternoon mind you (low traffic supposedly) we hear shouting and laughing.  They sound like younger guys to us--we look at each other, and DH says "Screw em.  I'm too fucking hot to care".  He is facing me, so they can only see his backside, which is lily white and rivals the New Blue Moon.  We get in anyway (total mud here, uck!), Rocket is swimming gratefully and we hear some shouting to the tune of "WE SEE YOU!"  Duh.  We just smile and wave and yell back "ENJOY THE SHOW!"  They made off around the lake and up towards another saddle south of us.

We devour some hot spicy sausages and cheddar mashed potatoes, open the Pendleton 1910 and enjoy the lake.  We retire early, and around 12am I become aware of an incredible thunderstorm taking place.  For the next two hours we're treated to non-stop (seriously) lightning, massive thunder and pelting, hard rain.  This is where I'm incredibly grateful to have a dog that is completely unbothered by thunderstorms.  He lay and slept unconcernedly throughout the entire storm.  I don't know what we would've done if he were a dog who was terrified.  The tent would probably have been destroyed as well as our pads and sleeping bags.  I can honestly say it was one of the best storms I've ever been in.  Truly amazing.  Not much sleep, though.

Morning comes, and as I'm down at the lake an old man (who reminds Scott and I of the dad on Gold Rush) appears with a weimaraner  who rushes Rocket but clearly is afraid and snarky. I make Rocket back off (to his dismay) and we make small talk.  The old man asks if we came in on the Cabin Lake trail and I explain we came from Winniemuck Trailhead.  He doubletakes and says "The Hell ya say!  That's a Helluva hike!  No one comes in that way!"  I concur and add now we know why.  He mentions that his son and two daughters are doing a little fishing at the lake and they move off.

 I want to do a 6 mile loop that takes us to Cube Iron Mountain, 7100'.  The trail passes several small lakes.  Scott is worried about his quads and possibly afternoon thunderstorms on an exposed ridge.  After discussion where we cannot reach a conclusion, we start off, agreeing to go for a while and reassess.


The other side of the lake, where the trailhead from the East ends, is gorgeous.  Several nice campsites.  Upon reaching the south side, we are treated to the view of the route we must take to bridge the saddle. 

The fauna is so gorgeous I can't stand it.

We don't have full packs though, so I convince him it will be fine. We are rewarded with stunning views of the other side.

We make Porcupine Lake and stop for lunch.  This is one of the best pictures, IMHO.  With DH off to the side, it reminds me of a magazine article photo.

The alpines here are absolutely heart-stopping for me.  25 feet high and 2 feet wide....does it get better than that?

Scott is still uneasy about heading up the trail because of the look of the sky.  I, of course, am bouncing and pressing to go forward.  We go farther on, through some gorgeous wet meadows and pass another unnamed "pothole" and climb a ridge, looking down upon yet another small lake,  where Scott looks at the topo map and decides  the trail bypasses the summit of Cube Iron anyway, and I reluctantly agree to turn around.  We stop on the ridge, where the edge falls sharply away. I was quite nervous with the dog and held him by his pack strap.  Luckily he seems to have a decent self-preservation instinct.  I wonder what dogs actually they sense cliffs?  Do they understand drops?  He seems to stop at the edges of ravines, etc, when we're bushwhacking.  I wish I could know.

We head back, and I later discover the trail DOES attain the summit.  I am disagreeable about this of course.  I grew up where vacations meant you went, you did, you saw.  You got your ass up early and were fed, packed, and on the road by 7am.  I might not ever --highly likely in fact-- get back this way. I will never see the summit now.  I do respect DH's feelings and cautions about the weather, however.  We agree that discussions will be respected and opinions and gut feelings honored.  On the way back, we find an old trailhead marker signed by the man who wrote the definitive guidebook for the Cabinets.  Well, him and his brother.  There is a story behind him, one that haunts and taints every trail we take there.  It's too long to post here, but I will discuss in another post.

As we approach the lake, I get the bright idea to bushwhack around the other side.  All I can say is, well, we made it.  I was a little worried about moose, as an afterthought, since it was afternoon and about the time we saw the two moose yesterday, but I decide to keep this to myself.  We eat, and the clouds roll in and rain starts to fall.  We make a nice fire and enjoy some peace.

So---wildlife.  On the very beginning of the trail, Rocket started up a massive bull Elk that was a pleasure to watch and hear.  Frustrating for Rocket, as he had to stay instead  of CHASE!, but fun for us.  Then we saw about 4 moose, eating and drinking in the lake.  Moose are the ones I watch out for.  They don't give a whit about anything else, any other creature, or where they step, so tenting is a bit sketchy, as they'll just walk right through it if it's in the way.  However, Scott is off to the side pounding some rocks into an old log to split it, and suddenly there is a massive crashing sound.  I see three Elk heading straight for us--a bull and a cow with a calf.  They suddenly (thankfully) see us, and after a moment's hesitation, the bull leaves, with the cow and calf lingering.  Finally they too retreat.  Exciting for sure.  The rain goes on and off, but overall not bad and we enjoy the evening. I hit the sack, leaving Scott to enjoy his own alone time.  I leave him with a parting observation, of "What if I went off to use the bathroom and I just never came back?  What would you do?"  He looks at me and says "JESUS AIMEE!  WTF do you think I'd do?!  I look for you for an hour or so and then I'd grab some essentials and hit the shorter trailhead down to get help!  Why the fuck do you put these things into my head?!"  I can't help it.  I always have these kinds of thoughts.  I mean, the recent kidnapping of the young teen girl who's abductor took her to the Frank Church River-of-No-Return Wilderness affected me.  What if I stand up from a squat and there's a madman staring me in the eye?  I do pack my bear spray with me on the missions for just this reason, but still.....

I break out my new candle lantern to try it and see how it works:


Morning comes, and for some reason we are late heading out.  We think the trail down is going to be a breeze, since it's mostly all downhill.  Boy, were we wrong.

We know downhills aren't that easy.  But they are, if they're nice switchbacks.  Notsomuch if they're straight down mountainsides with barely discernible trails that are more accurately man-ways.

One of the few "flat" spots with good trail:

It was my turn to eat some humble pie.  My knees don't actually ever hurt me, but my feet always do.  Running is fabulous for my arthritis except for my feet.  They are constantly inflammed.  Going downhill on them in boots that have proven to be more suited to dayhikes than strenuous backpacks was a lesson in pain.  Plus, it was such a shitty trail 85% of the time, I rolled my knee and every step on my right knee was excruciating.  I just wanted to get down, so I only made Scott stop twice.  Once for aspirin, and once just because I simply couldn't take another jolt on the knee right then.  My nursemaid was at my side constantly.  In fact, at one  point where I did slip on some sticks, if it weren't for him and his rock-steady plant, I would've tumbled off the mountainside.  Raw bones at home!!

The mossy rock at the creek crossing was heaven to sit on.  This time, we were not graced with cloud cover.  It was sun, and sun, and more sun.  HOT.  The breeze blowing down the creek was heavenly.  Scott and I noticed Rocket was feeling it too.  A few times, he simply stopped and laid down for a few.  I'm not sure if his feet were sore from the shitty trail, or if he was just hot from his fur.  He would go as soon as we said "UP!", but he was definitely not quite the same.  His pack only had a little water and the garbage, so I don't think it was weight.  Not quite sure, but that trail was rated strenuous and know we know why.  It totally was an ass kicker.  The shale crossing, which signified the end was near, was a welcome sight.

We hit the car, soaked with sweat and collapsed.  Unfortunately, we didn't enjoy the ride home as much as Rocket did.

We were going to stop at The Rimrock for dinner, right west of Thompson Falls, but they wouldn't allow Rocket inside and the patio was too sunny.  We made for Trout Creek, and The Naughty Pine (which warms my insides every time just for the name alone) where we knew they would let him in, plus the food is damn good.  They did, and we appreciated.  THE NAUGHTY PINE, people.  Stop. Eat. Drink.  Be Merry.

All in all, a good hike, but every time we tell ourselves the next one will be easier.  It doesn't sound like it should be that hard.  Maybe we're just wussies.  I don't think so, though.  I think all things combined to make it so.  The old-timer made us feel better.  Even my dad, when I brought it up originally, said "Hell, Aimee.  You're a glutton for punishment".   But then something irresistible comes along, and the memory fades, much like childbirth.

     As for my family, upon arriving home I discover there has been some drama instigated by my mother and my sister.   I listen to my 17 year old tell me her response, and I'm grateful she has learned some grace under pressure and am proud that she has acted with maturity to adults who unfortunately did not return the same favor.  I hope she, and the other two as well, also absorb the lessons of living life each day, instead of "waiting for when....".  I want them to remember, when they're my age, that age doesn't mean "unfit" or "incapable".  That when they're in their 40's, they feel young and in their prime, instead of "old" and "over the hill".  After this "helluva hike", how can I be sure I will still be able to do it in 10 years?  I think so, I plan on it, I stay in shape in order to do everything I can to prepare, but in reality, we don't know what the future holds.  I may not even be here in 10 years.  I may be in a wheelchair.  Incapacitated.  Brain-injured.  Who knows.  I want my kids to know that life is about living, not about sacrificing every little part of yourself for others.  Of course, parenting is mostly sacrifice.  But not of the spirit.  Not of the  heart of one's self.  Not of living life. It's about making life.  One day at a time, one hike at a time.

Amazingly, there are still photos that did not make this post.  You can view the full stream here:



  1. I enjoyed your post and your pictures of the hike. I took my wife and my 10 and 12 year old girls up there in June. We hiked straight up to Cabin Lake and didn't take the long way around. I found your blog by searching for "Thompson River, Montana" in Google Images. I grew up in that area and my Grandfather cut the roads you drove on to get to the trail heads. I have a house on Thompson River and we cannot wait to get back in the Spring to explore and fish some more.

    1. Thanks! My dad grew up in many places in Montana, but mostly in Noxon. He too worked on roads there, most notably Hwy 56. :) My favorite place in the world. Thanks for reading.

  2. Aimee, I am so glad you went and did this with your hubby! Marriages are so much stronger when couples take time together for some adventure. I like your attitude about parenting. I agree completely!

    What can I say? The photos are stunning!!! It makes me want to pack up and go with my hubby. The water is so clear!
    Thanks for posting about your trip. Glad to be able to see what you've been up to :)

    1. Thanks for the support, Raina. Anytime you and DH want to plan a trip, come over here and we'll head out. :)

  3. Fastidiοus replies in rеturn of this ԁifficulty ωith genuine аrguments
    аnd telling everything conсегning that.

    Feel free to visit my blog - how do i get followers on instagram yahoo

  4. I never made my dog carry his food and water because I didn't want him bogged down. His services as scout and protector were far too valuable to turn him into a pack mule.

    1. You clearly don't have a working dog. :) My dog loves to carry his pack, which consists of his food and water. It's very appropriate, even light in relation to what he weighs. He is not 'bogged down' in the least. His breed is bred for work, not laps. Also, I am the scout, not the dog.