When your toes are numb with cold, and your Nalgene is frozen shut, it becomes hard to believe that only a couple of days ago it was seventy degrees and you were swimming in the blue waters of Mystic Lake. October third, our second day in the Absaroka- Beartooth Wilderness of Custer National Forest I awoke to the first snow flakes of the season. That cheery feeling of Christmas morning (or Hanukkah eve) filled the air. We spent the morning sipping coffee and hot chocolate while the snow continued to pile up. By the time afternoon rolled around I measured two and a half inches of snowfall. It was time to explore this winter wonderland and we geared up for a two-mile hike to the end of Mystic Lake.
The cold was beginning to sink in but walking helped to warm up my feet. We padded silently through the forest as the snow fell in slow motion, eventually settling perfectly on the drooping branches of the Englemann Spruce tress that lined the trail. The tracks of deer hooves and Snow-Shoe Hare paws were already imprinted in the freshly fallen snow. The air was crisp and still; the forest was alive. That night I fell asleep toasty in my Marmot zero degree sleeping bag with thoughts of amazement at how suddenly the seasons had changed.
The next morning the mood of the Mountains had not changed and the mood of in our group was about to be put to the test. The snow had not stopped falling and the temperature dropped dramatically overnight. The snow no longer seemed like a novelty, but more like a new friend who was overstaying his or her welcome. To move camp, or not to move camp? was the question. The group’s feelings were split, half wanted to hunker down and wait out the storm. While the others wanted to continue backpacking on our planned route. As the Leader-of-the-day (LOD) I made the decision, in the name of adventure and staying warm, to forge onwards. I led the team on a grueling four mile bushwhack through dense riparian brush, over slippery rocks, and onto our final destination at the edge of Island Lake. Tired, cold, and hungry we set up cam in the trees where we would be protected from the whipping wind coming of the lake.
Over the next day and a half I learned a valuable lesson about the power of mountains as well as the power of indoor heating…
With a forest-wide fire wide ban in effect there was nowhere to dry off our wet bones. Staying warm became a full time job. The clouds didn’t lift for another full day, and goup moral reached an all time low. With no weather channel to check there was no end in sight. I began to understand how much we depend on the sun for not only heat, but really for the hope of a new day.
“Survival” was the new buzz word around camp. Jumping-jacks, emergency blankets, and long dancing games of “Big-Booty” helped us fight the cold and keep spirits high. Unable to sit outside for long enough, class was held in one three-person tent. Only there were ten of us, and even huddled all together in the tent, the cold found us.
Finally, on the morning of October sixth the sky was blue and the sun smiled down on us. However, this did not mean the cold was over. Any warm air that had previously been trapped by the clouds was now free to rise, allowing even colder air to sink down and test us. Nonetheless, the mountain’s mood had changed and so had ours. We left camp, hiking fast and strong with new vigor. Island Lake was now completely frozen! Even more impressive were the, now visible, Beartooth Mountains that surrounded the Lake and were covered in snow.
Lunch that day was nothing short of magical. On the beach of Island Lake the sun beat down on us as if making up for lost time. Our laughter rang loud across the lake; at last we were totally warm and dry!! In modern society we heat our houses and cars allowing us to remain at the same dull temperature year-round. But how can you truly appreciate being warm, if you’ve never gone to sleep cold? Excuse the catchphrase but, “You don’t know what you got till’ its gone.” For this reason I will never take our mighty sun for granted again.
Keep in mind our backpack trip was only seven days. Throughout this course we have learned about and spoken with Native Americans who have endured Montana’s harsh winters for centuries. Natives believe people and the environment are one and the same. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or T.E.K., is the indigenous was of knowing and it has nothing to do with Western Science. TEK consists of ever changing knowledge, acquired directly from the land. The deep internalized respect I gained in just seven days for something as simple as sunshine, is minuscule when compared with the environmental understanding Native’s have acquired over a lifetime.
While visiting the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, MT we met with a Native herbalist; Pauline Matt. Pauline has dedicated her life to raising awareness about the negative human and environmental impacts from oil fracking. Pauline spoke of her childhood, and sixteen brothers and sisters. She told us about how when she was young her father would send her and all her siblings out into the meadows saying, “the mountains will take care of them.”
This is the type of knowledge that needs to be accepted and applied to seeking solutions to our modern ecological crisis.