Back 90 years ago, a young Forest Service employee named Bob Marshall started out from the Black Bear Ranger Station in the South Fork of the Flathead, went up Helen Creek to Pagoda Pass, down to Brushy Park along the White River and then bushwhacked up the backside of the Chinese Wall and climbed the ridge to Salt Mountain.
He then turned around and traced his route back to Black Bear, an epic day of 42 miles.
I got the bright idea to retrace that single day, but the best laid plans... well, you know how they can work out.
Bob was 28 years old at the time and by today’s standards, would be considered an ultramarathoner.
I am not an ultramarathoner. I am a couple months removed from 51. We camped the first night at Black Bear and then hauled up Helen Creek the next day. When I got to Pagoda Pass in what is now the namesake Bob Marshall Wilderness last week, I took one look at the backside of the Chinese Wall and said to myself, “no way. It’s not happening. I’m not going up the backside of that wall. Not today, at any rate.”
The temperatures were hovering around 90 degrees, and it had just taken us five hours to cover eight miles up Helen Creek to the pass. Probably a hundred trees down over the trail, maybe a few more. My feet were literally turning to mush. Wet feet on a hot day equal silver-dollar blisters.
To add insult to injury, we ran into a grizzly along the last switchback and he zoomed up the ridge at the speed of a horse, gobbling up the same elevation that had just been a 15-minute slog for us, in about 30 seconds.
Pagoda Pass is a lovely place, with expansive views of the Bob. It was a great place to take a break. There was still several snowfields, which meant we had water. So we made camp, taking pains to find spots that were barren ground, as not to impact the fragile environment at the pass.
The sun baked us. No matter, we still took naps in our tents. Snowfields may mean water, but they also mean hordes of mosquitoes.
That evening we climbed up Pagoda Mountain, which years ago had a lookout on top. We then climbed another unnamed peak behind it. A merciful breeze blew away the bugs. A pika called from the rocks.
The mountain formations are dramatic here, with gentle sloping “backsides” and dramatic cliffs called “reefs” where the ancient rock was thrust to the surface.
The Chinese Wall is the longest of the reefs in the wilderness, but certainly not the only one.
You can take a single step off the west face of Pagoda Mountain and fall nearly a thousand feet to your death,
After a night at Pagoda Pass, we turned around, went back down Helen Creek to the South Fork of Flathead and made camp at Kelly Point. I bought a fishing license but then forgot the fly rod, so no fish.
The next morning we were greeted by a pack string of mules. Not sure which camp they had escaped from, but they wanted nothing to do with us and they walked all the way back to the Meadow Creek Trailhead alone.
It was a pleasant walk back. The wilderness rarely disappoints, as Marshall, on the run or not, knew all too well.