STRAIGHT CREEK – “Did you say run?”
From the horseman’s perspective it was a reasonable question, having encountered our group fording this stream in the Scapegoat Wilderness just after sunrise, carrying little more than hydration packs.
Yes, one among us replied, from the Benchmark area to the North Fork of the Blackfoot River – roughly 43 miles for some, 51 for others who would climb Scapegoat Mountain along the way.
The horseman we met a little more than 11 miles into the “Run Across The Bob” was one of only a few people we would encounter all day.
RATBOB isn’t a race – it’s a loosely organized run through the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
It was the idea of Missoula environmental, natural resources and energy attorney Steve Brown, an accomplished ultramarathoner.
After completing a couple of shorter runs in The Bob, Brown said he examined his maps one winter to see if there was a way to cross it – and the Continental Divide – from east to west in 50 miles.
There was, and several friends were interested in going along.
“It was kind of intriguing to see if we could run from one side of The Bob to the other in one day,” said Brown, who has plotted a different 50-mile route the past four summers.
The distance isn’t for everyone, but it brings together a diverse group of trail enthusiasts.
“It’s been a different mix of people every year, which makes it really fun,” Brown said, adding that only four people, including him, have participated in every run.
This year’s RATBOB included physical therapists, medical residents, university students, military veterans, a teacher, a legislator, a photographer, a former journalist and more ranging in age from their 20s to late 60s.
The distance also brings tranquility deep in the wilderness, Brown said.
“Just about every (run) we’ve done, when I look in the book, it’s generally is a four- to five-day backpack,” Brown said, limiting the number of people seen.
While the route is different every year, RATBOB weekend is roughly the same.
We depart Missoula, drive around The Bob to the Rocky Mountain Front and camp Friday night. As has become tradition, we stop in Augusta for dinner, filling the Buckhorn Bar.
On Saturday, we split into small groups to adhere to wilderness rules and set out, staggering our start times.
“They have those rules for a reason – to preserve what the wilderness is all about,” Brown said.
The run is one-way and entirely self-supported. There’s no turning back and there are no aid stations.
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We carry our own food and water, some filtering first while others refill their bottles and packs directly from cold, clear streams we cross. Despite its bulk, many bring bear spray, too.
Such an undertaking isn’t possible without the support of shuttle drivers – friends and significant others who ferry our tents and packs back around The Bob, setting up camp and preparing a feast to greet us at the end.
Usually, a couple of shuttle drivers will also run in from the end with extra food and water.
“It’s pretty amazing that we’ve had that many people (over the years) willing to give up their weekend to do that,” Brown said.
On Sunday morning, we clean our campsite and head home, some of us stopping to eat breakfast at a small-town cafe.
For the first time this year, there was enough left from our pooled food and gas money to make a small donation to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation – a gesture of appreciation for the trail work the run benefits from.
This year’s RATBOB route took us generally northeast to southwest, starting along the South Fork of the Sun River, over Elbow Pass and up the Green Fork.
Running among gray snags left by wildfires, we warmed as the sun rose in the sky.
At the foot of Scapegoat Mountain, several continued on while the rest of us made our way to the summit.
Climbing through a band of cliffs, we reached an open plateau west of the 9,202-foot peak. From there, we walked the rest of the way to the top, finding 360-degree views and the skull of a bighorn ram.
After backtracking down the plateau, we took a quick swim in a turquoise lake to cool off from the heat of the day, then rounded Scapegoat’s imposing rock walls into Halfmoon Park.
South of Scapegoat, we switchbacked down from a pass into the North Fork drainage for the final dusty miles.
As daylight turned to dusk then dark, the last of us arrived at the end to plates of pasta and conversation around the campfire.
For Missoula physical therapist Anya Gue, on her second RATBOB, part of the allure of the run is spending the day with friends old and new.
“You just build bonds when you do something like that with people,” she said, adding that her bigger pack allowed her to help another runner by carrying his food.
Missoula attorney and state Rep. Andrew Person, a first-time participant, said the view from the summit of Scapegoat was a high point.
“As soon as you got on top, you had that panorama of the area and it’s so open – in The Bob you can see so far,” he said.
Gue agreed: “I kept on saying, ‘There are mountains forever.’”
And while Person has backpacked in The Bob before, he found the same tranquility Brown did during the run.
“It’s kind of an amazing experience – you're not surrounded by all this stuff you packed in, it’s just you,” Person said.