CDT 2021: Day 144, Caribou Peak to Welcome Creek

You on the side like a baked potato

Top O' and Gravity

If you read backpacking how-to books or watch similar YouTube videos, you will find they usually offer tips about selecting a campsite. They describe where to pitch your tent for the safest, most comfortable night's sleep.

Discussions about hanging a bear bag are presented in the same precise detail. They show how high the tree limb should be from the ground and how far your food should hang from the tree's trunk.

The advice in these books and videos typically has a glaring flaw. The perfect campsite and bear bag tree they describe aren't always available. Sometimes you are surrounded by dead trees. Or the ground is so rocky you can't put in tent stakes. Or the perfect tree limb for your bear rope is nowhere to be found.

DateFriday, September 3, 2021
WeatherMostly sunny and smokey; temperatures from the low-30s to mid-60s
Trail ConditionsA steep climb and long descent, then gradual elevation changes
Today's Miles19.5
Trip Miles2144.1

In these cases, you could keep walking and hope you find a better campsite farther up the trail. Or you might find yourself where Top O' and I camped last night. We had walked about as far as we cared to go. The site we picked was almost flat enough to work, and that was good enough.

The trees weren't suitable for hanging our food, but somehow we managed. We did the best we could because we were in grizzly country. What mattered most was keeping our food far enough away that it wouldn't attract a bear to our tents.

For obvious reasons, I'd prefer a hungry bear to find my food and not my tent.

Frost in a meadow

When we awoke this morning, we found our food was still hanging where we left it. We also made a surprising discovery.

Our haphazardly-chosen campsite was a few degrees warmer than the surrounding terrain. Warmer air lingered in our spot, and no frost was on our tents. We could tell the surrounding area got colder overnight because the grass in a nearby meadow was covered with frost.

As usual, I was a little slower than Top O' in my preparations to leave camp. Though that has never been intentional, it worked out in my favor today. Top O' offered to find water for both of us while I finished packing, and it wasn't easy for him to do that. He had to walk about two-tenths of a mile up a dry creek bed until he found some.

When he returned, Top O' told me he found ice near the stream.

Climbing away from Caribou Peak

Last night's campsite sat on a shelf at the foot of Caribou Peak. We were wrapped around the shoulder of the mountain and were surrounded on three sides by slopes. The mountain's peak stood 1,200 feet above us.

When we left our campsite, the trail took us up the shoulder. An 825-foot climb in the first 1.6 miles was needed to get above Caribou Peak's shadow and into the warmth of the morning sun.

The trail follows a ridge slope

There was a breeze as I continued along a slope of a ridge, though the wind was lighter than yesterday. The conditions were nothing like the day before yesterday on our gusty hike to Rogers Pass.

Looking down toward Bighorn Lake

Walking along the side of the ridge, I could see Bighorn Lake below me. I was sorry we weren't able to camp there last night. It looked so inviting. Unlike the small dry lake we camped near, this one was large and filled with water.

Unfortunately, the CDT didn't go near Bighorn Lake. The slope down to it was extremely steep, so attempting to descend directly to the lake would have been impractical. A side trail went down there, but it took an extended route that was a couple of miles out of the way.

A barren section of trail

The trail remained high above all streams and lakes for more than five miles. Though the ridge was dry, I had all the water I needed thanks to Top O'.

Monitor Mountain

The top of a distant mountain caught my attention as I continued along the ridge. I thought a structure of some kind could be standing there. It was so far away I couldn't tell for sure. Was it a fire lookout? A military or communications installation? The lair of a mad scientist? The mountain's name was Monitor Mountain (7,730 feet), and that implied some kind of communication building was there.

Later, when I had a chance to look at a satellite view of the mountain, I discovered there was no man-made object on the peak at all. What I had seen was just a large block of rock.

Looking back at the trail over a ridge

After passing the junction of the side trail that dropped to Bighorn Lake, I turned around to look at the unnamed mountain and ridge I had crossed. I could visually retrace all of the last mile I had just walked.

The trail and a valley ahead

A much farther view was ahead of me, and from here I could see where the trail would take me for the next several hours. Now I knew the trail would stay mainly on a barren ridge before dropping into a long, green valley.

The only thing I couldn't tell was the steepness of the descent. It turned out to be gradual, with many switchbacks.

My water bottle wasn't yet empty when I came upon the first water source. The Guthook app incorrectly labeled it as a creek, but it was a spring. I topped off my water bottle anyway. After being in short supply yesterday, I planned to take advantage of water whenever I found it today.

A green comma butterfly

I didn't stop for lunch until 1:30 p.m. That's when I found Top O' at East Fork Blacktail Creek. The stream was near the bottom of the valley and fed the Dearborn River. We spread out our gear to allow it to dry in the sun.

Top O' told me he caught up to Dirty Money and hiked with her a couple of miles. I didn't see any hikers. The closest I came to wildlife was the large butterfly called a green comma that sat on my tent while I ate my lunch.

Dearborn River

After lunch, we had just four-tenths of a mile more before reaching the Dearborn River. It was 3,100 feet lower in elevation than the highest part of the ridge we had just descended.

Shallow and narrow, the Dearborn didn't look much like a river. I was able to step across with the help of a few rocks and a log.

From its headwaters near Scapegoat Mountain, the river flows about 70 miles to the Missouri River. It was named to honor Henry Dearborn, who served as Thomas Jefferson's secretary of war when Lewis and Clark passed through Montana on their exploration of the Louisiana Territory.

The trail follows Dearborn River upstream

After the river crossing, the trail went upstream along its north bank for the next 8.5 miles. Top O' told me later he saw a bull moose and a female moose in this section. He wasn't far ahead of me when he saw them, but I somehow failed to see them.

Looking up to mountains

The walk through the river valley was a comfortable stroll, with only a few stream crossings to break up the long stretch. The lack of challenges allowed me to cruise without much thought or worry. The only scenery to look at was high above the trees.

There was a momentary cause for concern when I saw a poster and a map mounted on a tree near a trail junction. The Forest Service closed some area trails because of the Dry Cabin Fire. It started in July, and had grown to consume more than 3,000 acres in less than a month.

When I read the poster and studied the map, I was relieved to learn that the CDT was not one of the closed trails.

Top O' gets lost

The ease of the section along the river came to an uncomfortable conclusion when we realized we had missed a turn. We were supposed to cross the river one more time and then head north away from it.

We hadn't gone far the wrong way, and after sorting out our confusion, we backtracked to follow the trail as it went up Welcome Creek.

A ranger cabin wrapped in aluminum foil

Soon after making the correction, we came to a ranger's cabin. This was expected because it was mentioned in Guthook, but we didn't expect to see it wrapped in aluminum foil. It looked like a giant baked potato.

The Forest Service wrapped the cabin to protect it from heat and sparks in case the Dry Cabin Fire spread this far. It was surrounded by an elaborate array of water sprinklers. A pump powered by a solar panel could draw water from the creek and keep the cabin doused in water if the fire should sweep this way.

The cabin was important to the Forest Service because it contained communication equipment and was used as an outpost for maintaining this remote section of Lewis and Clark National Forest.

No one was using the cabin today, and it was locked shut. Top O' and I sat on the porch as we ate our dinner.

Shortly before we finished packing to leave, Fraggles, Guy Number 5, El Dorado, and Thirteen arrived. Other than when Top O' saw Dirty Money this morning, they were the only hikers we had seen since we left Lincoln yesterday morning.

Fading light over Welcome Creek

After our happy reunion, Top O' and I left to continue our hike up Welcome Creek. Getting to the trail was the hardest part of the departure. While I attempted to cross the creek by stepping on some rocks, one of them flipped. I landed with both feet in the water but otherwise kept my balance.

Sunset over Welcome Creek

The sun was beginning to sink below the surrounding mountains, and we didn't want to walk far. When we saw an open area about a mile from the cabin, we looked for a suitable spot to camp. That turned out to be another one that wasn't going to make it into a backpacking how-to book or video, but we were able to make it work.

Thirteen, Fraggles, Guy Number 5, and El D apparently camped at the cabin because they didn't catch up to us. Another hiker joined us, however. It was Golden, the hiker with a van we met on Day 142 at Rogers Pass.

Our options for hanging bear bags here were worse than last night. No trees were tall enough or strong enough, even if we attempted to use a method that strung a rope between two trees.

Fortunately, I didn't have to resort to sleeping with my food. I had been carrying an Ursack since Day 113. Top O' had one too. Because of its bear-resistant Kevlar fabric, it could be tied anywhere on a tree.

My Ursack hasn't always been big enough to hold all my food, so I've usually needed to hang it with another food bag. Tonight was different. With only a couple of meals remaining before our next resupply, all of my food fit in the Ursack. That allowed me to use it the way it's designed to work best.

Top O' and I hope to meet Polecat tomorrow at Benchmark Trailhead. That's nearly 20 miles away, but except for two modest climbs, the trail should be much like it was this afternoon. Assuming tomorrow goes as planned, we'll then drive to the village of Augusta.

And assuming everything else goes as planned, Augusta will be the next-to-last resupply stop for this hike that started more than 2,100 miles ago.

If the feds watch me they can see how many times I done fed people
I hit, but I can't date you, baby
You on the side like a baked potato
A lil' crazy, I don't wanna change you
If you  a car, I would candy paint you
That's a bar, that's an indicator
Deep breath, hyperventilation


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.