Moving quickly now, we head west, past steel obelisks that protrude from the snow every few kilometres, marked "Canada" on one side and "United States" on the other, in black engraved letters.
Home on the ranges
Between the Ktunaxa homeland and the buffalo hunting grounds of the Great Plains rises a formidable series of mountain ranges. Crossing these peaks would normally present a serious challenge, but a string of (miraculously) low passes made it possible for elders, children and even thousands of horses at a time to follow the well-trampled Buffalo Cow Trail. Meandering back and forth across the 49th parallel, the route followed the path of least resistance.
Then, in 1861 the international border was carved across the wilderness.
"The border didn't mean anything to my people at first," Ralph told us. "My great grandparents and even my grandparents used to cross back and forth into the United States any time, anywhere they liked."
But by the 1930s authorities began cracking down and today, anyone who wanders across the line faces a real chance of jail time. Which is about to make things more difficult for us.
As the Buffalo Cow Trail approached the high ramparts of Couldrey Ridge, it veered southward and easily bypassed the obstacle by following the Weasel Creek. But today the border blocks that way. So instead, we must hoist our packs to our shoulders, strap the toboggans on top, attach climbing skins on our skis, and start grinding upwards into the clouds.
As dusk nears we discover a helicopter-landing pad hewn from the thick forest and decide to camp there. The next morning, we continue upward.
It is noon on our third day of travel when we finally stagger atop Couldrey Ridge. A sea of snowy peaks stretches at our feet. To the east lies the grand Flathead Basin, with the stark, white border line draped over every rise and undulation. Beyond rise the bunched summits of the Clarke Range and Waterton Lakes National Park.
Our immediate concern is finding a way down. It doesn't look easy. The east side of Couldrey Ridge drops into a mess of dark cliff bands. There are a few gullies breaking the face, but with avalanche conditions near extreme, these are not options. Ominous "whoomphs" emanate from the snowpack every time we shuffle forward, and cracks spread from our ski tips.
A lone spur to the north offers the only glimmer of hope. We carefully traverse to the top. Below, the narrow ridge falls away steeply and most the majority of the route is blocked from view.
Sidestepping gingerly downward, we each remain silent, hoping that this will not be a dead end: No one wants to struggle back up the heavy, loose snow.
After an hour, we reach the final drop, and thankfully, by taking our skis off, are able to down climb past it.
Below, the mountainside mellows. Entering a mature forest of whitebark pine, we float between the broad trunks, raising billows of soft snow, swooshing downward. Skiing faster and faster, it is thousands of feet below that we skitter to a stop at the head of a logging road.
After waxing the skis, we follow the recent tracks of a large lynx down the road, at last entering the great Flathead Basin, which we have travelled so far to see.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Next Week: Discover the heart of the Flathead wilderness