My old friend Mike stopped in a while back to catch up on events and share his latest scheme for a little bit of summer adventure. He has designs on one of those lakes high in the Beartooth Range where he thinks he just might stumble into a huge golden trout.
I happened to know of the lake he had in mind.
"How do you plan on getting in there?"
"Well, there's the long way. That would take maybe two days to get there. And then there is the short way, right up the drainage. A fellow should be able to make that in one day. I think that's the way I'll go."
"I've heard some horror stories about that route. It's supposed to be tough no matter who you are or what kind of shape you're in. Have you looked at the map yet?"
"Not the quads, just the forest map. But I think if I stay out of the stream bottom, it shouldn't be too bad," he replied.
"If I were you, I'd take a look at the quad. I'll bet there isn't much room between those contour lines and you aren't as young as you used to be."
Then we both laughed, remembering our first hike together, now 30 years ago. Both of us were fresh out of the service, and when it came to maps, we didn't know a contour line from the chow line.
On the wall of my office, I have the map we used for that trip into the Swan Range in the summer of 1971. It is sort of a collectors' item now, an official map of the Flathead National Forest, originally printed in 1916 and updated somewhat for the 1933 printing. There was no Hungry Horse Reservoir in 1933, to create a big blue body of water on the map, so with the exception of a big hunk of country in the middle, most of it has a sort of brown tint to it, due to the hair-thin contour lines that give shape to the terrain. The part in the middle, which is labeled "Spotted Bear Game Preserve" and "South Fork Primitive Area" looks almost white, or at least sort of yellow on the old oilcloth map. That's because that part in the middle that we now know as the Bob Marshal Wilderness Area was pretty much uncharted country at the time, and surveyors had not done the work necessary to show the terrain with any real accuracy.
But contour lines were not part of our vocabulary back then anyway. We looked at lakes and the trails that would get you there, or at least close. And if there was no trail, then we looked at the most direct route. The rest of that stuff, those little brown lines, didn't tell us anything, and I guess it wouldn't have mattered if they did.
We were interested in the trout we would find at the end of the day.
On that first trip together, there wasn't much trail to follow. The mountains were still filled with snow and we post-holed our way up to my secret lake by the most direct route. Most of the lake was still ice-covered when we arrived on that hot, sunny May afternoon, but we did find some open water near the inlet.
As we fondly remembered that trip, Mike reminded me that I had managed to fall right through the ice that day.
"I've never seen anyone swim or scramble so fast," he laughed.
I had forgotten all about that part. But I do remember that we caught enough fish for dinner. And on the way down, the snow was a lot soggier than it had been on the way up, so the going was mighty slow.
Thirty years changes things, and so does a little better knowledge of the information that a map can provide.
In the distant past, it may have been no big deal to spend a half a day clawing up an untracked hillside through dense alder that seemed to want to wrap its tentacles around you at every step, only to find that the way was blocked by overhanging rock. A retreat and another try at the next most likely spot was part of the challenge.
Over time, however, a more thoughtful and deliberate approach to getting from place to place in the mountains seems to have taken hold. That is surely due in part to plain old wear and tear on the body. The legs can't go forever like they once could. Knees squeak and backs ache more readily. And as the gear gets lighter with innovation after innovation, the old pack seems to get heavier anyway.
But there is also something about just being older and a little bit wiser. And there is something about knowing how to read a map.
When those contour lines get too close together, and there appears to be a more gradual choice not far down the line, I'll go for the gradual if I have my way. Besides, as I grow older, the lure of trout doesn't always grip me the way it once did, and "getting there" has really become more of the fun than it used to be.
That's not to say that Mike's little plan for a direct assault is without any appeal. The thought of casting a fly on a mirror smooth lake, and the rise of a fat golden trout might just be enough to cause even me to throw caution to the winds.
Come to think of it, there is this one lake up in the Missions that I've always been meaning to visit. There is no trail, and I hear it's a real grunt, but there are supposed to be some REAL BIG CUTTHROATS in there.
I might just have to rummage around and see if I have the right quad map for that place.
Greg Tollefson is a Missoula free-lance writer. His column appears weekly in Outdoors.