Blodgett Creek Trail
Bitterroot National Forest
January 3-4, 2015
Shortly before noon on the first Saturday of the new year I found myself at the trailhead for Blodgett Creek Trail. Unlike my last trip, I wasn’t skiing in to a luxuriously rustic cabin for the night. Instead, I was hiking into the mouth of a canyon that stretched over a dozen miles to the Continental Divide. This would be my first time camping in such a large amount of snow, so I came prepared. Snowshoes strapped to the pack, snow shovel stowed inside, extra-thick top and bottom wool layers for camp in addition to my usual mid-weight wool baselayer, thin fleece pull-over, hooded down jacket, liquid-fuel stove and a back-up canister stove, water filter and extra fuel to melt snow . . . you get the picture. So much for “lightweight”.
So, over-prepared and adequately confident, or perhaps vice-versa, I headed down the trail — which had maybe five inches of well-trodden snow on it. No snowshoes needed here, nope. Crocs would’ve been sufficient. The first three miles of the trail featured stunning views of the snow-dusted granite cliffs lining the canyon. A partially frozen stream and coniferous forest rounded out the landscape. Just before the three-mile mark and a bridge over Blodgett Creek a natural arch on the ridgecrest was visible. As an “arch nerd” who’s visited many of the superlative natural arches in Kentucky (which, interestingly, has more documented arches than any other state except Utah, and possibly Arizona) it was rather charming, and I suppose even a good omen, to see a familiar landform in such a stunning yet unfamiliar landscape.
After crossing the bridge the snow deepened, tracks from other hikers disappeared (the bridge is a popular turn-around spot for day hikers) and I began postholing into knee-high drifts of snow. I decided that transferring the snowshoes from my pack to my feet would probably be the prudent thing to do. Once the snowshoes were strapped to my feet I moved much more efficiently over the snow and along the trail, alternating between dense patches of forest and the edges of talus slopes for approximately two miles.
Not only were the open views and towering granite cliffs new sights to my eyes, but the smell of the forest was a novel sensation as well. The particular fragrance of the forest was most noticeable when I would hit a tree limb overhanging the trail with my trekking pole to knock the snow off it before passing under it so that it didn’t fall on me. The snow would fall and the tree (typically fir, but I might be mistaken) seemed to release an aroma into the air as a result of the disturbance.
A co-worker had recommended a nice campsite at roughly the five-mile mark and when I arrived at the location, marked by a small but rugged waterfall in the creek, I was awestruck. The campsite was unlike anywhere I’d ever camped before and was simply divine. Two feet of snow covered every possible surface, cliffs dominated the viewscape directly behind the campsite, and a view of the arch and southern ridge of the canyon were what your eyes rested on when looking across the canyon from the campsite.
I flattened out an area for my tent and cooking area upon arriving, set down my pack, and then explored the waterfall and filtered water. The snow had consolidated considerably upon my return and I went ahead and set up my tent and began the important process of organizing camp. I’ve done enough cold weather camping (although without two feet of snow on the ground) to know that everything takes longer in winter and that organization and good habits for even simple tasks are paramount. Goof-ups that would be minor in summer can snowball (no pun intended) in winter conditions and result in having an unnecessarily difficult, and at times even truly miserable, experience. So I did everything I could think of to make things as efficient and straightforward as possible and, in my opinion, the work paid off because I was able to enjoy a relatively hassle-free evening consisting of journalling, cooking, drinking hot chocolate and tea, listening to NPR, and reading the classic Herman Melville novella “Billy Budd, Sailor”.
It was a cloudy night, but the moon sporadically shone through the clouds, illuminating the terrifically rugged sceneryin a monochromatic glow that seemed to simultaneously saturate and reflect off the snow that covered — in whole or in part — almost every feature of the landscape. The sound of the partially frozen creek tumbling across and through rock and ice was the only auditory feature present, at least to my ears. As much as I wanted to soak up the sensory feast of a moonlit winter’s night in the mountains, my tired body drew me into my tent much earlier than I would have liked and I was asleep by 9 p.m., feeling like a child who wasn’t able to stay up long enough to watch a much-anticipated TV show. A light snow fell overnight and drifted through the air in the morning as I drank coffee, ate oatmeal, and packed up camp. The snow added even more charm to an already enchanting piece of the planet. I took one last glimpse at the frozen waterfall through falling snowflakes — especially captivating was the fact that the façade of the waterfall was frozen, but water behind the ice continued to pour and echo off the walls of the small chasm in the creekbed — before heading back toward to the trailhead.
The hike back was beautiful but uneventful as I simply re-traced my tracks, at least what hadn’t been covered by the freshly fallen snow, to the trailhead. The views of the cliffs on the hike back were perhaps even more impressive than when viewed on the hike in, and the falling snow provided a continuous and subtle beauty to the scene.
Not a bad way to spend the first weekend of the new year!