The RocketDog

The RocketDog

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Choice, Chance and Change: Sky Lakes/Hanging Valley Cabinet Wilderness,Montana June 8-10, 2015

     "You've got to make the choice to take a chance if you want your life to change."  A quote I've seen recently on the 'net.  No credit, but whoever said it was speaking truth. After 11 seasons at a job in which I loved what I was doing, I left.  I had no real plan at the time, I just knew it was time for a change.  I applied at a company that is known for it's positive, amazing energy and a real work/life balance walk, not just a talk-the-talk.  That company was REI.  It was a leap of faith, and I was not disappointed.  Instead, it was as rewarding as a spring rain in an Arizona desert.  It inspires you to get outside.  Don't just exist, but live.  A match made in heaven for me. It didn't hurt that there isn't one employee there that I don't like, that isn't an inspiration in their own way, that isn't vibrant and full of knowledge about their own love of the outdoors, be it climbing, biking, kayaking, hiking. Suddenly, everything was glorious and full of life and I waited for the awakening, only to find out it was a dream.  But if it is, I'm still asleep and dreaming.  And loving every minute still.    
     It's difficult to change in many ways; it can be intimidating, daunting, exhausting, but to use another recently seen quote, life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change.  Change only we can wrought.  And the reward can be so  wonderful, you wonder what in the hell took you so long.  It's like being so incredibly thirsty but not knowing how much until someone hands you a pitcher of cool, clear water.  Coincidentally, I was not the only one who made a rather significant career change.  My husband left his ladder truck, his station, and his crew that he worked with for close to (if not all of) 10 years for a new truck and crew.  He went from the biggest firetruck on the dept to the smallest, but yet he too, felt called to decide his future, instead of waiting and existing. A season of change in the Martin House, was spring.
     As difficult as change is, it inspires growth and knowledge about ourselves.  It also makes you realize how tight your shoes were when you finally get to take them off. Both Scott and I had been living under so much stress but didn't know it until it was gone.  I had been so busy listening to what people told me I 'was', I had stopped actually 'being' who I was.  Both of us are excited in these new paths. 
     In an offshoot, for the first time in almost 12 years, I had time off in June.  This spring has been the most incredibly warm, dry spring in over a decade.  (Whether this is a good thing is another post, but for human comfort, it's hard to beat.)   I was given three days off during a 90 degree spell-- the mountains practically begged for a backpacking trip, given the dismal snowfall of the winter.  Unfortunately, Scott was unable to manage the time off, so I decided Rocket and I would head over solo.  I am not afraid of those mountains; I could never be lost up there, they are like home to me.  And so, with a few phone calls to scout out trails, we decided on Hanging Valley trail #135, which is an offshoot of Sky Lakes/Flower Creek trail #137.  It is rated as "strenuous, not maintained for the average hiker".  Hmmm.  Scott was encouraging, as was the ranger.  HA.  Boy do I have them fooled.  Anyhow, we packed, we weighed, I ended up at 40.5lbs for my pack.  Now, here's the thing: lots of people can and do with less.  I like to be comfortable though, and don't even get in the way of my food.  BACK AWAY FROM MY FOOD.  One of my greatest pleasures is eating well in the backcountry.  Plus, as a soloist, I like to be prepared.  :shrug:  YMMV.  I took everything out when I got home that I didn't use, and weighed it, and it came to about 5.9 lbs.  Plus, my tent was rather heavy, at over 4lbs, but it's big enough for the dog and I to comfortably hang out and sleep.  Add in the fact that my pack itself weighs around 6lbs, and well, 40 it was.  We loaded up on a gorgeous blue sky Monday and left at noon.

     We made a few stops, and the directions to the trailhead are rather confusing, but with the help of a friendly local from Libby, a smile and a handshake, we parked and hit the trail about 4:30 Montana time.  The hike started out beautifully in the golden afternoon light.

  It was 3 miles to the junction of trails 135 and 137, and I planned to camp there for the night and head up 135 early in the morning to beat the heat.  It is supposed to gain 800+ feet in about half mile and I wanted to have plenty of time to rest too.  We made fast work of it and just under 90 minutes later, we were there.  I was dismayed to see a raging creek and some dubious-looking logs, which were blocking a rather abrupt waterfall that dropped about 15-20 ft sharply, with raging white water.  It appeared to me that there were several ravines on the other side, with no clear indication of which one to try to cross to, to pick up the trail.  I dropped my pack, poked around, decided to venture out onto one of the main logs and quickly found it was not very wide, and extremely slick.  With the side view of the waterfall making me a bit nervous, I retreated.  Ok, well it was mostly the dog.  He started to come out onto the log with me but his pack was still on and he's not the most graceful with it.  I was thirsty and realized I hadn't eaten since lunch so quickly set up the tent and ate some green olives seasoned with basil and garlic.  Seriously.  They're in these little foil pouches and OMG.  Heaven.  Set about making dinner while staring at the other side of the creek and still not seeing which way to attempt to cross.  Now, I'm not scared of animals.  I'm not scared of being alone.  But I started to get a little stressed about this crossing.  Then suddenly, I remembered I can CHANGE plans.  I decided that if, in the morning, I still couldn't find a clear path or way across, I would simply take trail 137 to Sky Lakes.  I finished a VERY disappointing dehydrated chicken, stuffing and gravy dinner (see what I get for trying to dump weight) and went to hang my bear bag.

     The first of the guilt creeped in.  I admit.  I started to feel guilty about going by myself.  Partly because Scott is not only the person I'm married to, he's my best friend, and he loves to backpack as much (or very close to it) as I do.  And partly because, well, kids.  Yeah.  They're teens.  But that doesn't mean they don't need me. And it would take me at least 4-5 hours from that spot let alone farther in to get home if something happened.  So on this trip, I brought something brand new to Scott and I, a type of GPS texting device called a Delorme InReach Explorer.  It allows limited texting and location services on a map.  I sent a pre-set text saying I'd arrived to Scott.  Then I sent another detailing my potential plan of Sky Lakes and mentioning that I felt guilty.  Nothing back, but Scott was working so I focused on listening to the birds sing themselves to sleep and soon we were too. I then received a text from him saying "Go for it and enjoy yourself".
     The next morning was gorgeous and soon we were off on the trail to Sky Lakes, after another venture out onto the log far enough to tell me I didn't want to risk it.  The other crossing logs were mostly submerged and the creek was deeper than it looked.  Typical June snowmelt. The trail started off nice and sweat-inducing, but not too bad.  A few difficult trees, but hey.  Early season. I stopped for lots of pics.

      We came to a few very big spruces down on the trail.  There is always the smaller trees down on any trail.  These were clearly new downs from either winter or this spring.  Ugh.  Some were so big I couldn't get over them, but they were so branchy I had to belly crawl under and contort myself.  Some I had to take my pack off to get over, some I had to help lift Rocket over because of his pack.  We broke out into some lovely meadows, though and all was forgiven.

The trail then dropped down by the creek again, and there were some more aggravating downs.  I swear to god I've never fought so many downed trees.  I was hot and sweaty and the spruce and hemlock needles were sticking everywhere, getting down between my pack and my tank.  I was getting irritated at this point.  We came across a rather interesting print of a big cat in the mud.  I saw Rocket step and I believe the smaller footbprint is his back foot.  The larger I'm pretty sure is a coug.

Then another stunning alpine meadow that looked like there was no way out.  I'd kind of forgotten about the Delorme and I could have checked my mileage to see I was less than a mile to the lake but...who thinks about technology in the face of this kind of beauty?

     The guide books, admittedly 20 years old, said no significant stream crossings. I decided, while packing, to leave my new stream shoes at home.  Le Sigh.  This would bite me later.  Note to self: guide books are not always right, especially given times of year.  There were two I had to cross on logs, which I've always hated doing.  Onward we went.  MORE FREAKING TREES.  I'm starting to get fatigued but don't really realize it. I swear you'd no more than get over one than BOOM. OH LOOK.  A DOWNED TREE.  I did not stop to take pictures, really, because I just wanted to get to the lake.  But I did get one or two.

     Trust me, they're bigger than they look.  Anyhow, finally, there's one that is so thick with branches I really wonder how we're going to get over.  I take my pack off and manage to heave it over (luckily on the uphill side of the slope, good thinking Aimee) and wrangle through but Rocket lands directly on a sharp staub and starts to yelp.  I lift my 85lb dog up by his pack handle, I'm so freaked out and still he's stuck.  I think he is impaled and going to bleed out right there in front of me.  I yank and he is free and turns around on the other side.  I scramble back over and feel him and he is ok.  I go BACK over again, retrieve my pack, throw it over again, and for the 4th time squeeze through the tree and sit down with the dog, exhausted.  I get the Delorme out and send a text to Scott, saying I don't think we're going to make it over that one, it's too branchy for the dog and we're going to have to turn around and hike back out.  He texts back "You're almost there!  You're literally right around the bend.  You're like 3/10ths of a mile!"  I drink some water, eat a pro-bar and rest.  I feel no shame in admitting it was nice to see encouraging words and he was right:  I paired the Delorme with the map app on my phone and I was sooooo close.   I decide he's right, we're fucking going through that fucking tree and I get up and go attack the branches with the strength of anger.  I break a couple key ones and we're through.  WHEW.  It's muddy and slippery and we're both exhausted.  The last bit is of course steep and overgrown and terribly slick, but we soon see the basin cradling the lake.  The trail leads us to the outlet, swollen from snowmelt and I see.....water about mid-thigh high, with a bottom covered in slick logs.  Now, some of you might be brave enough to go barefoot over logs like that in icy cold snowmelt at 6300'.  But I wasn't.  The thing is, by yourself, you have to make decisions based on what will keep you on two feet, able to hike out number 1, and number 2, what will compromise the trip, even if it's just soaking everything in your pack because you submerged it being an idiot?  I knew the dog could swim over and it looked like there might be some logs (DAMNED LOGS) I could cross.  But as I started over, intending to call him from the trail across, where he could swim, he broke his stay and started up the log.  The crossing would've required a jump to a submerged log which I didn't think he would handle well with his full pack, and I hadn't taken it off.  I yelled 'BACK' and leapt off and decided I would look around on the north side of the lake.  We climbed a bench and found a nice campsite that would work, and rested. I then pitched the tent and got my chair and ate a jalepeno cheddar bagel with cream cheese for lunch, simply glad to rest.

Little bit of snow of course the dog would find:

OMFG.  I think we've made it!

 Logs in outlet:

 Yeah, I know it looks benign.  Trust me.  It was much deeper and swifter than it looks, and I know how slippery those logs are on bare feet. Part of success is making good decisions.  Had I not been alone, it would've been different. Had I brought those damn new expensive water shoes, with the grippy sole and the drains.....which weighed like an OUNCE each....  Le Sigh Deux. 


      The dog was clearly tired too, so we took a nap in the shade of the tent. Afterward, I made a cup of coffee and then we went exploring. Some very nice pictures to be had.

     After checking out the basin, looking for a supposed Englemann Spruce reputed to be over 5 ft in diameter (and that was 20+ years ago), we gave up and went back to some delicious grown-up mac n cheese.  Dinner with a view:

     So, as the afternoon wore into evening, my guilt returned.  It grew heavier and I couldn't figure out why, but discovered that I had cell service on that bench!  The first time ever, in any trip, I've had it.  I felt it was meant to be.  I texted Scott and told him while I was ok being by myself, frankly---- it was kind of boring without my 'other' best friend.  I know I can do this alone, but honestly, I like doing it with him more.  I felt selfish to leave him behind.  It's hard to explain but it felt wrong.   He of course did not feel that way, but I guess it's a version of 'mommy guilt'.   Or is it just female guilt in general?   Anyhow, Rocket was too tired to accompany me (THANKS, GERMAN SHEPHERD) but I got our bear bag set up  (he at least had the courtesy to watch from his vantage point) and all the while the thought of all those trees was in the back of my mind for tomorrow's return trip.  We settled into the tent for the night, to a perfectly calm, still night.  I lay there, listening again to the birds and the sounds of the forest quieting, the feeling of guilt preventing me from sleeping easily.  After I finally drifted off, I remembered again why I hated this tent, because of the condensation issues-- when Rocket dripped water onto my face.  Also, my Thermarest really DID have a leak, it wasn't just elevation the prior night.  Twice I had to blow it back up in the middle of the night.  Dawn came and we ate a quick breakfast and packed up.  I was determined to haul ass out so I could spend at least the afternoon with Scott and the kids before work the next day.  I got to the first big tree, and decided to count.  SEVENTEEN FUCKING TREES, 5 in the last half mile to the lake, 12 total in the last two  or miles approaching the lake, 15 in the last three (I'm going backwards here) and I'd forgotten about the big one before camp the first night.  Call me a wimp, but I didn't count the small trees, or even the trees you could go around or hop over.  So, inadvertently, I set myself up for one of the most fatiguing hikes I've done.  Only six miles in, roughly 3700+ feet of gain, about 13 miles round trip.  Not the longest, not the most elevation change, but it was tough in spots and those trees kicked my ass.
     I had a lot of time to reflect on the choices, challenges and changes I've made in the last few months.  To say I'm happy that I set myself upon that path, even though it was uncertain, chancy, totally out of my comfort zone is an understatement.  The hike had some challenges while solo a bit out of my comfort zone too, but they got handled.  I did feel slightly validated when the dog looked with some angst at his pack the morning we left; it was as if he, too, were dreading the trees.
     It's easy for us to stay in familiar surroundings, that may even seem comfortable even though they are not where we should be, nor developing us to our full potential.  It's difficult to break out of that comfort.  After all, the known is better than the unknown, right?  Except it's not always.  Making sound decisions out by yourself in the backcountry keeps you safe and gets you back out.  But making the decision to go out by yourself keeps you alive in an entirely different but no less important way.  Challenge yourself to choose to chance change.  Do more than just exist.  Thrive.  Learn.  Live. 

Once again, although it's hard to believe, there are yet pictures that did not make this post.  Full photostream Here



  1. I love the photos, especially the B&W one of you!

    Cat footprints are round, in general. Not sure if there is distortion in your photo or it's something else.

    I HATE DOWNED TREES, too. Also river crossings. And my pack for last week's backpack was 39.8, so pretty close. I like my luxury chair and my yummy food!

  2. I just saw this! :) I said almost the exact same thing just now on your trip, lmao! The cat print is the oval one that the dog stepped in-- I got a taxidermist to check out the photo and he's pretty in agreement that the print Rocket stepped in is a cat. Yikes!

  3. This is a really interesting post! Two of my brothers and I are going backpacking (just a 2-night, one-way trip) up in the Big Snowies a few days from now so I decided to check out your blog again. I don't know how you do it but you always seem to find the most gorgeous places to hike. Even with the downed trees, the majesty of Sky Lakes makes me want to go backpacking there. :)

    And aw, yeah. Teens do need their parents. I feel too many parents don't take the time to realize that.

    Hope you and everyone's doing well. :)

    1. Thank you honey! Same to you, miss you!