February 5, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are, Part Two

On our third day in the wild, we awake early and gather water from an opening where Kintla Creek spills into Kintla Lake. Our goal for the day is several miles deeper into the park: Upper Kintla Lake.

There isn’t enough snow to ski, so we strap skis to packs and hike. No matter how deep the snow in the surrounding area, a strange snow shadow in this valley perennially limits depths to a few inches. It’s this consistent lack of snow that attracts deer, lots and lots of deer. This veritable venison buffet keeps the wolves here all winter and also explains the grizzlies — no need to hibernate when you can chase wolves off their kills and score free feasts all winter long.

So when we find the bottom of this avalanche path packed with delectably skiable snow, it happily waylays us for much of the afternoon.
  There are at least 40 deer feeding on the ground vegetation above and around us, while golden eagles soar through the air overhead. The tracks of my turns are visible on the left of this image.

This is where my 10th Mountains really shine. Light and efficient enough to ski the 20-plus valley-bottom miles to reach this spot, they’re still ridiculously fun carving turns down this glorious snowfield. I ski it over and over, whooping and catching air, while Ben and Travis ogle the glaciers and frozen waterfalls of the surrounding mountainscape. It’s the high point of our trip and no one wants to leave.

Eventually reaching Upper Kintla Lake shortly before sunset, we never stop looking for wolves. There tracks are always in view, but the creatures themselves stay out of sight.

Ignoring the impending onset of darkness, we ski farther and farther up the lake. We have no real reason for doing this other than to simply see.

Then we spy something in the middle of the lake-ice. Ben and Travis are nervous about straying too far from shore, so I ski out to investigate, then wave them out to see for themselves.

It’s at once gruesome and thrilling, the skull a whitetail buck with antlers reaching skyward, its fallen majesty a testament to the dominance of the wolf. I imagine they knew exactly what they were doing, too — by leaving the skull of the deer king here in the dead center of the lake for all to see, they’re leaving no mistake who rules the Kintla Valley.

Though we don’t make it back to the cabin until hours after dark that night, we’re up early the next day, our last in the park. We have a 10-mile ski out with a river crossing ahead of us, and a storm system is looming. As we close up the cabin, Travis hears wolves — swears they’re wolves — in the forest behind us.

The nail-spiked outer door of the cabin is meant to discourage grizzlies from trying to break in. One look at the claw and teeth marks on the timber posts holding up the roof out front and you understand why this isn’t overkill.

We never do actually see the wolves on this trip, though a wildlife biologist who is in a few days before us — one of the valley’s few other human visitors this winter — sees ten howling in the center of the lake under a full moon. Besides some rain and a few moose, our ski out is uneventful.

Until we reach the North Fork of the Flathead River, that is. Fording here will save us almost ten miles of skiing. We have a car parked less than a mile away, so we’re not worried about getting wet. Still, Ben and I use a trick recommended by a friend — trash bags and rubber bands around our legs. The ghetto-waders work perfectly.

Travis on the other hand uses, er, a different strategy...

When we cross the river we leave the park and return to civilization. Or at least to our car, which will lead us down a 40-mile dirt road to civilization. This is not something we relish. We already miss the Kintla Valley and the world of the wolves. We might not have seen them, or the grizzlies, this time, but we know we’ll be back. And when we come, we know the wolves will be waiting.


  1. That is just awesome - thanks for sharing - well except for the last picture ;)

    You are blessed to be able to take in that type of country in solitude!

  2. very cool too.

    maybe I need to try this ski-ing thing out...