December 7, 2010

Winter descends on Kishenehn, Glacier Park's lost corner

Deep in the far northwest corner of Glacier National Park, wedged between the Canadian border and the North Fork of the Flathead River, sits a pocket of rarely visited wild country known as Kishenehn. If you look at a park map you will see no official trails here, though old maps will reveal a forgotten ranger station a few miles from the Canadian border. There used to be an old Kootenai Indian trail along Kishenehn Creek, and in later years a narrow dirt road followed the river, but they, like everything else in this wilderness, were eventually abandoned and lost to the forest.

The old ranger station is still used by the occasional researcher or ranger who come here to examine the wildlife and ancient forests. My friend Ben goes there too. Every fall he's stationed at the cabin for several weeks to keep an eye out for poachers (hunting isn't allowed in the park). So Ben gets to hike around and watch for anyone with a rifle who might ford the river. He hasn't seen any hunters yet, but he's seen wolves run by the cabin and grizzly bears standing atop freshly killed elk. It's wild in there.

Naturally, I join him whenever I can.

So it was that a couple of weeks ago I found myself in a Park Service ranger truck motoring through deepening snow on my way to hike into Kishenehn. It was the end of Ben's annual stint and we'd made plans, as we do every year, for me to hike in and join him for a few days of hiking, wildlife tracking, and exploration. Except this year winter came early.

There's only one road that goes anywhere near Kishenehn — a rough, dirt track that stops about 5 miles from the cabin — and the park had just closed it for the season because of ice and snow. I was in Missoula packing up and giddy at the prospect of escaping civilization for a few delicious days when word arrived about the closure. I was crestfallen.

Then the rangers offered to give me a ride in — the forecast called for more snow and subzero temperatures, and they figured Ben would be safer back there with a partner. They didn't have to ask twice. I jumped in the Subaru and drove four hours through the storm to the Polebridge Ranger Station where ranger Regi Altop fired up his truck and sped me north to Kishenehn.

It was about 4:30 when I started hiking. It gets dark at 5:00. But I'd done the hike before, had a headlamp, and wasn't too concerned.

"I didn't even bring a map," I told Regi on the drive. "I know this area so well I don't think I could even get lost."

You should never say something like this. Especially when you're about to hike into a dark, remote wilderness in a snowstorm. I'm certain this is what jinxed me.

As the light faded and shadows grew out of the forest, I walked into the night alongside the indistinct tracks of an unnervingly large carnivore. Then, as darkness settled, something I didn't expect happened: my blithe confidence ebbed. Noises in the surrounding forest became louder. My head jerked around suddenly to the sound of my pants brushing a branch. Everywhere was blackness. It seemed inevitable that the bobbing light of my headlamp would suddenly illuminate some variety of toothy creature.

It occurred to me that what I was doing went against every primal instinct we humans have been developing since we were monkeys. I was alone, in the dark, walking through a carnivore-packed forest. No wonder my nerves were on high alert.

I flashed back to what Regi said to me when he dropped me off, "Don't get eaten by a bear, but if you do, do it on the national forest side of the river."

We'd laughed, because the national forest on the other side of the river was out of Regi's jurisdiction. He wouldn't have to pick up whatever pieces of me were left if I got eaten over there.

I checked the pepper spray canister in my pack's side pocket that I always keep handy in the backcountry. Good, still there. A moment later I remembered that the propellant in pepper spray doesn't work in temperatures below freezing. It was about 20 degrees.

"Well, this is exciting," I thought to myself.

Then came the first creek crossing. Fortunately, there were downed trees over it, meaning I wouldn't have to ford. Unfortunately, the trees were covered with snow, which didn't exactly offer secure footing.

There's only one way to navigate a snow-covered log over an icy creek in the dark: damn slowly.

The picture to the right was taken about halfway across. I have no idea why I thought it was a good idea to take my camera out at this point.

From there things got slower. Snow concealed the old trail I was following and the falling flakes obscured my headlamp-beam. By the time I reached the second creek crossing it was getting late.

Kishenehn Creek didn't have any conveniently fallen trees, so after a moment to steel myself, I took my boots off and walked in. I know some people love caffeine, but for my money there's no pick-me-up like fording a creek on a cold winter night.

The only problem, as I soon learned, was that I forded in the wrong place — between the darkness and the falling snow I'd misidentified my position by about 100 yards. This was a problem, because it meant I couldn't find the old trail that would deliver me to the ranger cabin. Now you might be thinking it should have been easy to find the trail since I only missed it by 100 yards, to which I say go give it a try yourself some snowy night and see how you do.

So I began bushwacking through the black unknown. Owls took flight from the darkness, uncrossable beaver channels appeared in my path, and I finally came to the North Fork River itself. This was an interesting time — I was tired, mildly disoriented (or quasi-lost, take your pick), and groping through the night trying to find my way. If you're like me, you always wonder how you'll respond in these situations, but you can never know for sure until you're in them. Being disoriented in a dark forest is a sure way to raise your blood pressure, but I'm happy to say that I never got nervous or anxious, just focused on thinking things through and making good decisions.

I had a fairly heavy pack on and was getting tired. I knew that if I somehow couldn't find the cabin I could grab my 40-degree sleeping bag and space-blanket bivy sack and survive the night. But I also knew, or at least really hoped, that wouldn't be necessary — I may have been off course, but I more or less knew where I was, even without a map.

Finally, at 9:30, I reached the cabin. Ben wasn't there of course, he was out looking for me. He'd also radioed the rangers, who were geared up and driving back up the road for a night search. Regi would tell me later they figured one of three things had happened — I'd either gotten lost, injured, or been attacked by a bear. They even had a stretcher with them.

Fortunately, I saw the light from Ben's headlamp through the cabin window about fifteen minutes after I arrived.

"Fancy meeting you here!" I boomed from the front porch as he walked up.

Ben shook his head and laughed, deeply relieved to see me. And a little grumpy that he'd had to wander through the dark forest. "I don't walk around out here at night," he said. Those primal instincts again.

He also told me that he'd seen fresh wolf tracks heading towards the river, or right where I was quasi-lost. It's likely the wolf came across me there, as I was wondering what creatures would appear in my path. But wolves and other animals of the wild are much stealthier than us clumsy, modern humans, and I never knew it was there.

It kept dumping all that night and we woke to a knee-deep snow field in front of the cabin (and, yes, the outhouse toilet-seat was a bit chilly — see the third image down).


We spent the next two days tromping around following animal tracks and marveling at the beauty of a freshly blanketed forest. Blizzards of migrating snow geese passed overhead in great honking vees while small flocks of chickadees enlivened the forest with their usual good cheer... 

We were also sure to leave the cabin stocked with water, gathered here from a spring, for the next human visitors...

It's easy to underestimate just how heavy water is until you have to carry it. This may not look like much, but Ben's got 40 pounds of water on his back and another 40 in his arms. It was a half-mile back to the cabin.

Back in the cabin we kept the wood stove blazing, made lots of hot tea, and read Barry Lopez and Jim Harrison by lantern and candlelight (the metal grates over the windows keep out curious beasts)...

On our last night I stepped out to wander through forest and meadow under the nearly full moon. I'll never, ever get tired of walking through a wintry wilderness bathed in moonlight. Though I hadn't carried in a tripod, I experimented with a few hand-held shots...

The hike out, while less eventful than the hike in, still featured a profoundly frigid, caffeine-substitute creek fording...

There are several trees in the area sporting barbed wire for a regional grizzly bear study. Grizzlies love rubbing their backs on trees, and when they rub on these the barbs snag a little of their hair which biologists can then gather and study for their DNA. From this they can make all sorts of conclusions about population and genetic health. As we hiked, I couldn't help but notice this big tuft of hair that Ben swore hadn't been there a week before...

The drive out, through nearly two feet of snow, presented its own intrigue...

All of which is to say that Kishenehn is not an easy place to get to. It's just you and the wilderness up there. Which is exactly why Ben and I will be back next year — and I'm still not bringing a map.


  1. Great post! I love seeing new updates to your blog--keep 'em comin'!

  2. For all of us stuck in suburban office parks, keep these posts coming! Great read, and great photographs, as always.

  3. I wonder if you wanted to end up "mildly disoriented".

  4. Thanks guys. Glad you enjoyed it.

    And Eriki, you're comment made me laugh out loud. It definitely wasn't my plan, but I didn't mind it. It's something I've only experienced a handful of times, so I kind of enjoyed the challenge.

  5. Nice one. Those creeks are deeper than you think, eh? Gotta check 'em out with the packraft this summer.

  6. Damn, that first river crossing looks sketchy! Fantastic post Aaron. Keep up the good work.

  7. Thanks for telling your story. It's very entertaining. The photos are great too!

  8. I'm not adventurous at all, but I love living vicariously through the adventures of others. The prospect of being lost in the snowy woods at night with monsters lurking is my worst nightmare, but I enjoy reading about others such harrowing tales. Thanks.

  9. Incredible story! the writing and the pictures. Incredible. It hasn't quite replaced your Switzerland trail posts as my favorite, but close. I was surprised that you didn't take your skis with you..

  10. I'm glad you made it safely. I loved the beautiful photos and the story.

  11. Aaron would you be interested in writing a short piece on essential tips to teach kids about winter survival for

    Heidi Ahrens

  12. great great read and ace photos. Also nice to see someone not afraid to say they were a bit afraid, too, how very refreshing - all in all, a killer post!

  13. Hey Aaron, might want to steal this story for my "Survive" column in Sierra. Let's talk.

  14. Just wanted to say thanks for a wonderfully evocative story. I recently wrote an article about Kishenehn for the Montana Historical Society's journal, so I'm in love with the place ... but I've never gotten to stay there. I'm jealous!

  15. Hola Aaron - just making sure all was well. It's been a long time since your last post.

  16. I'm busy posting a blog of the Kishenehn Trails when I hiked them last fall and stumbled across your post. Having walked these trails, I felt your pain and that Kishenehn crossing is tricky. Nice work making it out! (loved the writing)

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