THIS PAST WEEK I went camping in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana with my uncle, who recently retired from a career managing forests there and two friends of his who are ranch owners and have known and loved the Bitterroot their whole lives. We hiked up Chaffin Creek Canyon, following the stream to its source, 9000 feet high in the snow-filled peaks. As the journey progressed, I kept finding lessons everywhere: losing the trail but finding it again when you realize you just have to listen for the sound of water. Remembering how important it is to keep focus so you don’t lose your footing and injure yourself or send a loose rock down on your friend. Finding an amazing spot but not settling there because you know there is more beyond.
The prize of this hike was a series of mountain lakes called the String of Sapphires because of their shimmering crystal blue hues. Hardly anyone goes there. To get to them you have to scale a nearly thousand-foot cliff where a waterfall cascades over the side, and by this time you are already far up into the canyon and have been enjoying three beautiful lakes that are themselves worthy destinations (and that in our case captivated us for two days and nights before we set our sights beyond). I looked up at what seemed to be the canyon’s rim wondering, where is all that water coming from?
Only one way to find out, and once up there you realize there is much, much more than what you saw from below. After a precarious ascent using any bit of rock, tuft of grass or shrub you can find for leverage, you breathe a sigh of relief to find more certain ground. You discover a skinny path to the waterfall behind waist-high snow sheets slowly detaching from the mountain. You get as close to the edge of the falls as your adrenaline allows and take in the view before following the stream up from there through lush, mossy meadows as it meanders from one small lake to the next. The air feels crisp and clean in your nostrils and lungs.
Each lake stair-steps a little higher than the last, and is fed by a charming waterfall you feel you could sit beside for hours. I knew I had to dive into one of those lakes, and I chose the third one, because it was deeper than the others and tantalizingly blue. I could hang out for about a minute in the lakes below, but these waters were fed directly from the snow pack, and I lasted all of about 5 seconds here. Lake #4 is big, and you think it’s the end, but then you notice more water coming over the 300-foot ridge behind it. Tired as you are, you dig a little deeper and continue up. You figure out a way around boulders the size of small houses and traverse large, open slopes of snow, planting your feet heel-first so you don’t go sliding down. There are no real trails here. You reach an open spot at 9000 feet above all but the scrubbiest vegetation. You’re standing on solid granite and quartz, kicking chunks of rock broken off by the freeze-thaw cycle at work for centuries in the crevices and cavities. The wind whips against your face like winter and tries to throw you off balance. You steady yourself. You’re breathing hard but feel exhilaration in the views that go for miles to the left and right. Down in front of you, at last, there it is–the creek’s source. A big, blue alpine lake with no name, surrounded by a round, sloping, snow-filled granite bowl.
Beyond is yet another ridge. It’s the final one. Precipitous and jagged, it’s called “The Shard,” and it looms up another 800 feet, close to another mile away. Nothing grows there, and its stacks of rocks look like they could come crashing down if the mood hit. We want to go to its very top, where you can peer over into the next canyon, all the way into Idaho. But we are getting nervous about the time. The afternoon clouds are coming in, and we saw countless lightning-struck trees on the way up. And we could only imagine retracing our path down that cliff in the wet. So we’ll save the final ascent for another day, and in the meantime savor rich memories of amazing sights, great companionship, and an unforgettable adventure.