Thru-Hiking The CDT: Darby to Waterton

CDT to GDT Thru-Hike

Not two miles out from the highway at Chief Joseph Pass, my subconscious detected a rising procession of muted thumps reverberating up into my feet.

Bear encounters happen so rarely on the trail, and never am I prepared for them. Before I could unzip the side pocket of my convertible pants for my camera, or reach for my bear spray tucked behind my water bottle in the right mesh side pocket of my backpack, the large black juvenile galloped ahead of us, cutting a line across the trail fifteen yards in front of us, and off into the trees, never-taking a second glance.

This is only the third bear I have seen in the wilderness and it never ceases to amaze me how agile and fast these animals move through the forest. From this point on I decide that it is wise to find a way to affix my bear spray canister to the chest strap on my pack, allowing quicker access. If I have any chance of stopping a bear in full charge, that few seconds I save could make all the difference in the world.

Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

North of Darby we are in the trees and lakes and meadows that characterize this section of the trail throughout the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. The Beargrass was especially abundant here, as they were in the last section, and often entire hillsides were bursting with their white flowering stalks.

CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 12th – Bear Grass, Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 12th – Warren Lake, Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, Montana
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 13th – Rainbow Pass, Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, Montana

Throughout our hike from Darby to Anaconda the ominous rainclouds kept constant watch over us, sometimes spitting at us and sometimes opening up with thunder, lightning and hail-storms. On August 13th we left the official CDT (the Butte Route) and cut north on the Anaconda Route which led us across Storm Lake Pass and down to the shores of Storm Lake before winding along a dirt road and eventually, along the shoulder of a paved highway into the town of Anaconda.

CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 13th – Storm Lake Pass, Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

Taking the Anaconda alternate would effectively cut off seventy miles of trail that circled around to the east toward Butte, avoiding a section of trail we had heard described as “nothing special,” and giving me a better chance of finishing at the Canadian Border by Sept. 1st.

In Anaconda we found a familiar face at the post office. Jeremy (no trail name), whom I had first met on that other CDT alternate through Creede, had caught up and passed Stryder and I somewhere in Montana. He is one of only three other thru-hikers I had hiked with on the CDT; the others being Stryder, Rainer and very briefly with Wolverine. It was nice to see a familiar face.

Deerlodge National Forest

The hike out of Anaconda began with a long road walk alongside a busy highway. To get back into national forest we headed east out of town along HWY 1 and then turned northeast on HWY 48 toward Warm Springs and Interstate 90.

After nine miles we stopped at Uncle Bucks, a roadside saloon that served up a very greasy deep-fried pork chop sandwich. This consisted of a tiny bit of pseudo-meat sandwiched between thick breading and deep fried, and then served on a dry and crumbling white-bread hamburger bun. The meal came with no vegetables, just ketchup and mustard and a couple slices of pickle. Though I have had better meals, the food was very much appreciated. Before leaving we purchased a couple of locally brewed tall-boy Porters from behind the bar to carry to camp later that night.

After Uncle Bucks, we began a slow march along private property lines until we reached the boundary to Deerlodge National Forest. We crossed the boundary line just as a threatening storm we had been keeping an eye on opened up and deluged us with a downpour. I believe if I had been timed, I would have determined that I set a record for the quickest set-up of my Tarptent Notch, tightening the stakeout lines and diving inside with my pack in tow just as the downpour reached fervent status. Stryder faired a little less well with his minimalist cuban-fibre tarp, but still managed to keep his sleeping bag and his warm gear mostly dry.

The next morning Stryder hiked out as I stirred sleepily in my tent, awakened by the crinkle of his plastic ground cloth being stuffed into his pack. Thirty minutes later, as I began laying my own tracks over his size fifteen Altra prints, I see Stryder doubling-back down the trail toward me, a slight limp in his right leg, his expression twisting with each painful step.

“That’s it. I’m done, I can’t go on.” I see it in his pained expression and his welled up eyes. “There is no way I can make it.”

After a thousand miles since Salida, in southern Colorado, we part ways for the last time. Stryder hiked back to the highway and then hitched back in to town to nurse his shin splints. I continued north, knowing that the rest of this journey is mine alone. I started alone and I will finish alone. This is the CDT after-all, and I have already learned the art of being self-reliant.

The following two days pass quickly; Champion Pass, Cottonwood Lake, Thunderbolt Mountain, MacDonald Pass. During this stretch, Jeremy had caught me again and we had both met Wolverine for the first time on the trail. All at once I was hiking with two others for the first and only time on this journey, and this would be a brief reminder of the camaraderie I had been missing from my experience on another long-distance trail. For a dozen miles the three of us hiked lockstep down the dirt road. A small pipe was passed around…

We reached Helena the following morning and took a full zero there. The No Sweat Cafe served up an especially delicious blueberry pancake breakfast. Everything on the menu is prepared from scratch and with organic ingredients “as often as possible.” The Blackfoot River Brewery was also a favorite spot, but I am no fan of the state law limiting beer consumption at a brewery to 48 oz per person per day! Overall, Helena provided exactly what I needed in a trail town, and I was soon ready to tackle northern Montana.

Scapegoat Wilderness

Stemple Pass, Flesher Pass, Roger’s Pass, Lewis & Clark Pass…I know I hiked over these passes because I have pictures of the USFS billboards marking their locations on the trail, but my memory of the trail in between is a little foggy.

Leaving Flesher Pass, I could see the fog begin to envelop the hills and peaks around me. The temperature dropped dramatically as I hiked up through the trees and came out above tree-line to a landscape suffused in the eerie soft glow of dispersed sunlight.  My view extended a mere twenty yards in all directions. Beyond this, only the hulking black shapes of trees and boulders interrupted the blanket of dense fog which revealed nothing of the dramatic peaks and valleys I had glimpsed from Flesher Pass.

I was careful to conserve the precious battery power of my smart phone. I knew all too well the tendency of the tread on these unmaintained trails to simply disappear into the dirt. In case I lost the trail, I would have to walk blindly cross-country with only a compass and map in the event that my GPS went offline.

Walking from rock cairn to rock cairn in this way, I made my way through this landscape with a surprising easiness. Only a light wind disturbed the sound of my shoes’ regular cadence across the gravel trail. The curled hairs of my beard accumulated with beads of moisture and occasionally I would brush down my beard with the palm of my hand and use the water to wet and cool the back of my neck.

CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 20th – Following rock cairns on the CDT in the Scapegoat Wilderness
CDT to GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 20th – Wildflowers dripping with dew
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 20th – Male Spruce Grouse

The long march into Benchmark on August 22nd ended the wettest three-day stretch of hiking I had ever experienced. The weather system that blew in at Flescher Pass did not lift in the late afternoon as I had expected, but was instead intensified by rain and wind on the ridges, and muddy trail down in the valleys.

For several mornings I woke up to the pitter-patter of rain on my tent and condensation dripping through my bug net. After much procrastination I reluctantly unzipped my sleeping bag and began the process of dressing in my wet pants, shoes and socks while fighting against the involuntary muscle spasms from a body just exposed to the cold morning air. The shivering continued as I rolled up a wet tent, packed my sleeping bag and dry clothes into the compactor bag lining the inside of my backpack, and hiked down the muddy trail anxious to get my heart rate up and warm the blood rushing through my extremities.

The final morning of this section left me desperate for sustained warmth, and when I reached Benchmark Ranch that warmth came in the form of a wood-stove-heated cabin and a hot shower. With my core temperature finally back up and clothes and gear drying in the cabin, I raided my resupply box, my only source of food at the ranch, and rested in anticipation of the trail ahead through the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness

On the morning of the second day out of Benchmark the sun made a dramatic appearance. I woke up early just a few miles south of the Chinese Wall, and as I emerged from the trees in the early morning hours, I paused and bathed my eyes in direct sunlight for the first time in four days as it crested over the eastern horizon and lit up the wall behind me. I felt as if I had just woken up from a foggy dream.

North of the wallI I crossed over Spotted Bear Pass and descended down along Spotted Bear Creek where huckleberries and thimbleberries were abundant and tempting me with each step. Although the sun was out and the sky clear, the overgrowth of plants and grasses on the trail meant that I would be walking with wet legs and feet for the remainder of the day.

After fourteen miles the trail began a long switchbacking ascent up 3,000 feet of elevation in over 5.3 miles to reach the top of aptly named Switchback Pass. I camped that night on the shores of Dean Lake, a small alpine lake about a mile north of the pass, made a fire from wood gathered near the lake, and dried my shoes and socks near the coals.

Reflecting on my journey that night at Dean Lake, I decided that I had accomplished what I had set out to do almost five months ago.

I sat there in the soft dirt reclining on a log at the edge of the water, more comfortable than I can imagine being slouched on any cushioned sofa back home, looking at the stars and feeling the immensity of my surroundings. I felt an inner peace that can only come from persevering through extreme hardship, in a struggle so daunting in scope that even I sometimes had a hard time comprehending what I had accomplished.

That night I decided that I would finish at the Canadian border. The Great Divide Trail will have to wait until next year when I will take more time to enjoy the trail without feeling rushed to reach the terminus before winter bears down in those northern latitudes, and a new camera to properly capture and share the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies.

North of the pass, along Pentagon and Strawberry Creeks, I was deep in bear country. Grizzly tracks and claw markings were ever present on the trail, which was at times blanketed in some animal marking or other across every square inch of mud. Of course this concerned me, for I had no idea how fresh some of these markings were.

For several miles one evening I felt that I was very close to a large grizzly, who’s tracks I had followed for several miles on the trail. I clicked my poles incessantly and talked loud gibberish in an attempt to warn the bear that I was near, but despite the occasional snapping of large branches in the forest and the common sighting of prints and tree markings, I never encountered a grizzly bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

CDT to GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 23rd – Entering the Bob Marshall Wilderness
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 24th – The Chinese Wall, Bob Marshall Wilderness
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 26th – Grizzly Tracks in The Bob
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 27th – Bear Markings In The Bob

Glacier National Park

Glacier, which gained national park status in 1910, was the perfect ending to rugged and remote trail like the CDT. Along with The Wind River Range, Glacier is some of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness I have ever traversed. The dramatic scenery is second to none.

After resting in the small town of East Glacier on the southeast border of the park, and securing my backcountry camping permits for the next three nights of my itinerary, the final nights of my journey, I headed into the park toward Two Medicine Lake and was quickly overwhelmed by the dramatic beauty of the mountains, lakes and passes.

For three nights I camped early, having only twenty-five miles to complete between reserved sites, and socialized with other hikers in the group camp sites, an experience I had been denied for most of the CDT. I enjoyed sharing my story with my campmates and learning about their experiences in the wilderness. Most had luxuries like camp chairs, fishing poles and even a large frying pan to cook up trout. Most also hiked only 10-12 miles per day.

The weather cooperated for the first two days as I hiked over Pitamakan Pass and Triple Divide Pass. North of the Going To The Sun Road I climbed up to the scenic Piegan Pass and descended down the valley toward Morning Eagle Falls and finally, to Swiftcurrent Lake and Many Glacier.

On August 31st, my final night on the trail, I climbed once again into the fog at SwiftCurrent Pass and came out again near the Granite Park Chalet just a mile from Granite Park Campsite where I would spend my last night in the park. The chalet manager invited me to a “coffee hour” and I spent the evening listening to an author and bear expert give a talk about the unique wildlife habitat that comprises Glacier National Park.

When it was my turn to introduce myself to the group, I told them how honored I was to be spending the last night of my five-month journey to Canada with them. It was a memorable way to finish a long solo journey…sharing the company of thirty others committed to protecting and preserving our sacred wilderness.

CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 30th – Piegan Glacier on the SE Slope of Piegan Mountain in Glacier National Park
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 30th – Mount Gould from Pigeon Pass, Glacier National Park
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug 31st – A Moose and her Calf at Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Aug. 31st – Bullhead Lake and Redrock Lake from Swiftcurrent Pass. Swiftcurrent Lake in the distance.

My walk along the three miles of Waterton Lake to the border monument ended not with a cheer and high-fives, but with the same solitude that I had upon embarking on this journey at the US/Mexico border five months earlier.

After a few pictures at the monument I walked north toward the Waterton Townsite. Behind me, dark clouds moved in and obscured Glacier’s peaks to the south. To the north, the sun reflected brightly through just a few patches of clouds. I was ready to see where the trail would lead me next.

Thank you for following along on my journey along the Continental Divide Trail. I look forward to sharing another adventure with you next year as I explore our neighbor to the north on The Great Divide Trail.


CDT To GDT Thru-Hike
Sept. 1st – US/Canada Border at Waterton Lakes National Park


Unconventional Life. Live It. Own It. Quit Worrying About It.

HI! My name is Russell Mease. I am on a mission to challenge conventional wisdom and question existing paradigms, while stumbling my way toward a more balanced, lifestyle. Thank you for reading.

4 responses on “Thru-Hiking The CDT: Darby to Waterton

  1. Nancy

    Thanks for taking the time to post a journal and great photos. I have enjoyed following along. Look forward to seeing pictures of the Canadian Rockies next year:)

  2. John

    Having just got out of the office life, I can’t tell you how much I am jealous of your photos, and some of your travels. I am starting to get it back in to and posting about the huckleberries that we are finding in the northwest. Depending on when you got you might be able to find a couple of them fresh off the bush! Keep updating your blog, and posting more pictures.

    If you need some details / pictures of some huckleberries check us out.

    Whatever you do, stay out of the cubicle! You don’t need to go back!
    John recently posted…Picking and Cleaning HuckleberriesMy Profile

    1. Russell Mease Post author

      John, I found SOOOO many huckleberries in Wyoming and Montana during my CDT Hike last year. What a treat it was to be able to take a 5 minute break and start walking again with a big handful of the juicy berries. I am pretty sure I will find many of the berries on my hike in the Canadian Rockies this coming Aug/Setp. Congrats on getting out of the office!

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