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John Bergenske and Dave Quinn (behind) slice through the March snow in Flathead Valley.

bruce kirkby The Globe and Mail

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Eventually we stumble onto a seismic line, a sidewalk-width slash through the forest heading in exactly the direction we need to go. The abundance of fresh animal tracks is staggering. Lynx, rabbit, marten and fisher have all been here recently. Most prevalent are moose tracks. The big, deep prints are so numerous in places, and the snow so flattened, that it appears as if an entire stadium of people has stampeded through the cut.

We near the confluence of the Flathead Valley with the Akamina-Kishinena drainage, where our route will veer east. Before we left, Ralph, the Ktunaxa elder, told us of the special "energy" at this corner, which is a thoroughfare for animals.

"I always see a bear there," Ralph mused. "Always. Rubbing on them little trees."

We clamber up to a logging road, and find it has been used by a wolf pack. The number of paw prints is impossible to count. Twenty? Thirty? Or it could be just five animals, running back and forth? One enormous pad is nearly the size of my ski boot, while two young pups have left delicate, dog-like marks.

The pack swerved from the road right at Ralph's corner, and we follow their well-used trail, which is trampled deep into the snow. Passing "bear rub" trees, with bark gone and polished wood covered in sap and fine hair, we stumble unexpectedly into a clearing - the border once again, its sheer line cut to both horizons.

Turning eastward, I freeze. The view is staggering. The peaks on this flank of the Flathead are unlike any we have seen on the journey. Soaring into a blue sky, and plastered with snow from recent storms, they appear Himalayan in stature.

Right through the midst of the peaks runs the stark border cut. Everything to the right of the cut lies within United States Glacier National Park. Everything to the left remains undeveloped provincial Crown land. The wolf trail continues onward, oblivious to international politics, disappearing into a lichen-draped larch forest: the most remote, difficult-to-access corner of the park.

At our feet lies a scattering of fluffy down and large feathers; the remains of a bald eagle within metres of the international border. It is ironic to think that had the wind blown these feathers southward, it would have been illegal to pick them up. But here in Canada we can stoop to gather a few keepsakes of the magic spot.

Lush biological riches

These high stunning peaks, the great walls of rock and ice, are often the first images one conjures up of the Flathead. But it is the quiet basin behind us - its biological richness and diversity said to be on par with the Okavango Delta or the Serengeti plains - that makes the Flathead wilderness unique. It is the only valley of its size in southern Canada to have never been settled. The scale of the wilderness we have passed through reminds me of the Yukon, yet we are just a few hours drive from Calgary.

Pressing deeper into the Clark Range (which runs along the border between Alberta and British Columbia), we stop to explore Rose's Canyon, a narrow slot carved into the region's distinctive red rock by a small stream. Farther on, we pass an abandoned well site where Shell Oil drilled an exploration hole decades ago.

Up and up the trail leads, taking us through a lush valley. In the time of the buffalo, travelling hunters had to avoid this boggy land during spring and fall, and stayed to the ridges high above. But during winter, with the soft ground frozen, large Ktunaxa parties (up to 500 strong) marched straight up the narrow valley we are in.

Less than four kilometres from the Alberta border, we enter the remote Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park, and then finally, over a wooded pass and into Waterton Lakes National Park.

For the first time in a week there are ski and snowshoe tracks to follow. After reaching the plowed road at Cameron Lake, we hitchhike to Waterton townsite (a tourist hot spot in summer; ghost town in winter) and cram into John's rusty Toyota 4x4.

Later that day, at a dusty canteen on Highway 3, we savour cold fruit juice and bask in the unseasonably warm March sun. A steady stream of eighteen-wheelers thunders past in both directions. Wearing a fresh T-shirt, I stretch across the Toyota's warm hood and gaze upward at snow-capped peaks to the south. With a start I realize the headwaters of the Flathead lie on their far flanks. It seems a million miles away already, and I am reminded how the line between wilderness and our modern world is often so very thin.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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