A downpour so long that it didn’t stop during the entire four-hour drive to the trailhead.
Rain so heavy that oncoming headlights blindingly reflected off the highway.
A deluge so intense that it sounded as if the drops would soon pierce the car’s metal roof.
Rain so drenching that a red fox appeared ashamed that its usually fluffy coat had been flattened.
And then, finally, in the wee hours of the morning, silence. What had seemed like a drought-quenching storm halted long enough for us to boil water for coffee, choke down a quick breakfast burrito, arrange our backpacks and set off down the trail. Surprisingly, the path into the Lionhead Mountains of southwestern Montana was incredibly dry considering the storm, the earth so parched it had sucked up every last drop except for in the deepest of puddles.
Which brings me to the usefulness of umbrellas when backpacking. I know it looks Mary Poppins-ish, and can be unwieldy if branches crowd the trail, but otherwise a wide parasol can keep a pack and hiker incredibly dry.
I was dismissive at first when my hiking partner insisted on packing one, but a half hour into a steady drizzle it seemed like I was the foolish one, or at least the one who was soggier. There’s nothing like being wet in the first hour of a three-day backpacking trip to dampen your spirits. My hiking partner pointed out that I had ignored the option of turning around and rescheduling the trip for a different, drier time.
I was operating under the illusion that, like most other Montana summer storms, it would rain for an hour, maybe two, and then the gray clouds would skate past followed by blue sky and sunshine. Silly me. The weather, I should know by now, is hell bent on consistently proving my predictions wrong.
I joke about a black cloud following me when I go on outings, based on the fact that sometimes my adventures go wrong. This time, the cloud turned out to be an actual cloud, or more correctly many of them in an unending march across the mountain trail.
Luckily, the clouds parted, the sun shone and blue skies appeared just as we arrived at our destination – five miles, 20 switchbacks and 1,800 feet above our starting point. Tan rock cliffs across the lake seemed to glow from within, basking in the sun’s warmth, and barely a whisper of wind rippled the cool green waters as trout broke the surface chasing flies.
It was darn near idyllic. Then the clouds rolled in again, their advance foretold by a sharp drop in the temperature. We snarfed down our freeze-dried dinner and quickly retreated to the tent. It was only 7:30 p.m. Huddling in a tent in a scenic mountain cirque is contradictory to the whole reason for the trip – to be outdoors, enjoying nature. But being dry seemed more important at this point in the outing, and “if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise,” tomorrow would be a better day.
The storm that was forecast for that evening didn’t appear, instead the clouds just hung low as if we’d chosen the Pacific Northwest for an outing. The following morning fog drifted across the lake, proving that the cool water was actually warmer than the air.
With a whole day to fill, we defied the gray sky and set out for a short hike to an upper lake. The rain waited until we had reached our destination before deciding to start up again, chasing us slipping and sliding downhill back to camp. Tucking into the tent again we played three rounds of cribbage before the rain halted long enough to allow me a dry exit. I fired up the stove to warm up water for another dehydrated dinner just shortly before another cloudburst rolled in, the one forecast for the previous night. This downpour hammered the tent so loudly that sleep came only after exhaustion set in. And the creek did rise.
By morning, it seemed like a good idea to break camp as soon as possible and get out before snow fell. The air was so damp my lighter and backup lighter wouldn’t ignite. The fourth match I struck barely burned long enough to spark the small gas stove, its predecessors quickly flaring out. Stowing the soaked tent into our packs as the water heated we gulped down our coffee, ate a fast breakfast and ambled back down the trail.
The rain teased again, as if nature was having a last laugh, before finally stopping when we were about halfway down the mountain. The sun broke out. I dropped my pack, sat and basked like a turtle on a riverside log, soaking up the warmth, encouraging feeling back into my cold, damp toes.
One of the highlights of outings like this wet trek is the appreciation it gives me for things like a home with a roof, four walls and central heat. A place sheltered from wind and cold where a hearty meal can be prepared is pretty cushy. Perspective is everything.
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