Recap from last week: The trio has crossed the Wigwam headwaters and climbed Couldrey Ridge. At last, they enter the Flathead Basin …
Descending from the high peaks toward the wide Flathead valley, the air gets warmer, and the snow grows heavier. Soon, we are trudging with great clumps of ice packed beneath our skis.
Dropping our heavy packs, we once again tow them behind us on plastic toboggans and continue south.
A single yellow marker appears, protruding from a deep snowbank, with the number 95. It is a kilometre marker; referred to in the bush as "bar" or "board." (i.e. "Headin' south at 95 bar.") We are almost 100 kilometres from the nearest road head, which might not sound like much, but for those who travel the backcountry, anything over 30 is rare and noteworthy. And the numbers are still going up!
Late on the fourth afternoon of our journey, we reach an abandoned border post. What was once a thriving crossing, with saloons (for both passing hunters and general traffic), is now a ghost town. The U.S. still maintains a presence, but the Canadian buildings have been boarded over, and no one is allowed to cross the border here, in either direction, ever.
The north fork of the Flathead River enters the United States nearby. Its green waters rush swiftly past, splashing through rocks and riffles. We scout from the icy banks. The river is perhaps 50 metres across, and at most waist-deep. The water looks bone-chillingly cold, but to continue our journey along the Buffalo Cow Trail, we must get across.
My fellow explorers, both experienced backcountry travellers, have mixed reactions: John Bergenske is ecstatic at the chance to try Ktunaxa elder Ralph Gravelle's "Ktunaxa Gaiters" (garbage bags). Dave Quinn remains unsure. After humping river sandals this far, he feels compelled to use them.
I decide to try the garbage bags, slipping them over my ski boot liners, which then go back into their plastic shells. Duct tape holds the top of the bag tight against my thigh.
Tentatively stepping into the knee-deep water, I can feel it press against my legs and fearfully wait for the telltale tingle of a cold leak. But none comes.
Picking my way across the flow, following the shallowest sections, water comes frightfully close to the top of the garbage bags, but never over.
On the far side, instead of trying to light a fire with deadwood hands to battle off hypothermia - the normal routine after a big winter crossing - I am perfectly comfortable, and pull out my camera to shoot the next two crossing.
John is positively giddy by the time he steps ashore. "These are awesome!" he shouts, pointing to his garage-bag knee-highs. "Just awesome. Why, in all my years outdoors, have I never thought of this before?"
We holler back across the river, telling Dave that the garbage bags worked perfectly. "You gotta try 'em," John implores.
A faint reply floats back to us: "You have them all on that side."
No one is going back! So with pink bare legs and plastic sandals, Dave moves as quickly as he can, and arrives at our icy shore shivering but safe.
We are carrying a portable wood stove with us. Yes, a seven-pound, folding wood stove, complete with a roll-up stove pipe that pokes out an insulated hole in the top of the teepee. It makes cold-weather camping an absolute luxury.
With the sun falling from the sky and coldness gathering quickly, we stomp down a large flat platform in the snow with our skis. As John and I erect the teepee, Dave crashes through the undergrowth, gathering several armfuls of dry twigs.
Dry lichen gets the fire going, smoky wisps rise through dry twigs, and within minutes our small shelter is merrily warm. Despite buffeting winds outside, we strip down to thin underwear and dry our sweaty clothes as dinner cooks.
Scarred by cougars and bears
Here, in the heart of the Flathead wilderness, massive "snags" (dead, old-growth trees) and "vets" (surviving old growth trees) tower above the forest. These are survivors of countless forest fires and logging. Spotting a cluster of ancient larch, we detour to explore. There is a sense of silence, an almost cathedral-like reverence, as we approach the massive trunks, which are weathered and carry the scars of many bear and cougar claws. Craning our necks, we stare upward. It can be difficult to gauge the scale of trees so large, so the three of us wrap our arms around one trunk. Our fingertips only just touch, meaning the circumference of the trunk is roughly five and a half metres. Dave, a wildlife biologist, estimates its age to be 800 or perhaps 1,000 years old.
On and on we ski, past the remains of refrigerator-size stumps left behind by logging, and in other places through dense stands of arm-thick pine that have sprung back after recent fires.