November 1, 2012

Finding Kishenehn

November’s wan light drained from the sky as I walked alone into a forgotten corner of Glacier National Park. As night grew from the shadows, noises in the forest grew louder. My head jerked at the sound of a branch brushing my pants. A foot of fresh snow obscured the tracks of an oversized carnivore on the trail that led me into dark timber. Everywhere was blackness, the world reduced to my headlamp’s bobbing orb of light. It seemed inevitable it would suddenly be filled by some variety of toothy creature.

I checked the pepper spray canister in my pack’s side pocket. Then I remembered the propellant in pepper spray doesn't work in temperatures below freezing. It was 20 degrees.

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

I’d gotten a late start but was determined to reach the old Kishenehn ranger cabin where my friend Benjamin Polley was waiting. Though I’d navigated the faint trail many times, the deepening snow made route-finding a challenge. By the time I reached Kishenehn Creek its icy flow was being swallowed by the night and thickly falling snowflakes clouded my headlamp beam. I took a moment to steel myself and then forded. But in the chaos of snow and darkness, I picked the wrong spot and couldn’t find the trail on the other side.

This was the point at which I became quasi-lost. Not lost-lost, mind you — I knew where I was, more or less. But I had no trail and the darkness was closing in around me. As I bushwhacked through the black unknown an owl took flight from the night and took a couple of my heartbeats with it.

I was reminded of the writer who said fear is an essential part of the wilderness experience. This is why I come here to this unruly, forgotten forest in the far northwest corner of Glacier. To be wild again, the way we used to be.

The night before, as I lay in bed in the civilized confines of Missoula, I thought about how I would be completely off the human grid on this hike — no phone, no people, no contact with the modern world — and how rare that’s become. I like that feeling. With no safety net between myself and the wild, everything seems more alive.

The first time I attempted this trail was over a decade ago, after discovering it on a yellowing map that showed it leading to a mysterious ranger station. Current park maps show no trails or ranger stations here, and it felt like I was the first person in years to follow the indistinct path. Eventually I reached that same Kishenehn Creek crossing where the trail simply disappeared. At the time, I figured that was it — the area had been abandoned to wilderness.

Five years ago I learned this was only partly true. The area had indeed returned to wilderness, if it had ever been anything else, but the Kishenehn Ranger Station was still there, hidden in thick timber near the North Fork of the Flathead River. More importantly, my friend Ben, a long-time park employee, had been invited to man it during hunting season. His job was to patrol for poachers, the original reason this outpost is here at all.

The first cabin was built at Kishenehn in 1913, three years after Glacier's creation, as the northernmost link in a chain of log-cabin ranger stations encircling the park. A wilderness park where nature had primacy was a new concept, and park managers wanted to shield it from neighboring homesteaders who bristled at the notion of a place where they couldn’t hunt, trap, graze and log. To protect it, the Kishenehn ranger was tasked with patrolling the area’s scattering of trails.

Local residents eventually accepted the park, but tourists never arrived at Kishenehn due to its inaccessible location, lack of amenities and mountain-obscuring forest, and the rangers were removed. Except for rare visits by rangers or wildlife researchers, the cabin, woodshed, and log barn sat unused for decades, vestiges of a lost era.

But the modern-day threat of poachers lives on, and Ben now hikes here every fall. For each of the last five years I’ve come to visit, always on the cusp of winter when the air is bracing and larch needles turn to gold. I don’t come for the views, I come to recalibrate and feel the rhythms of the wilderness. I’m a sucker for knock-you-upside-the-head grandeur as much as the next guy, but over the years I’ve learned to prefer slightly less spectacular places with wilder character, where the animals don’t come for handouts, they come for prey. That’s Kishenehn.

In the farthest reaches of the North Fork Valley, 13 miles of ragged dirt road north of Polebridge, itself some 30 miles of rough road north of Columbia Falls,there is an unmarked trailhead. Beyond this entry point lies a land of primitive trails, towering forests and wildlife beyond counting. A literal blank spot on the map, here in a corner of one of America’s showpiece national parks is a place virtually nobody goes. 

When Ben and I are hiking in together, we invariably go quiet after the first mile or so as the Kishenehn acclimation begins. The call of ravens and the jackhammer of pileated woodpeckers replace our conversation. We share a love of tracking wild animals and there are always tracks upon tracks of elk, moose, wolf, lion, grizzly. Then maybe a tuft of hair. Then a hoof, the toes of a deer, lying on the ground like a discarded toy. Inevitably, the carcass parade begins. We gather around the tracks, prod and smell the scat, excitedly studying the kill sites like young boys at Christmas.

The trail here is more like a game trail than the park’s well-pounded expressways, and after five miles it disappears in the cobble along Kishenehn Creek. My first trip in, Ben showed me where to pick up the faint trail to the ranger cabin on the far side. Fording the creek — never deep, always cold — is like crossing a border into the wild heart of Kishenehn. The trees are bigger, the beaver ponds never-ending, and the trail paved with lion and wolf scat. Besides Ben and our friends, I’ve never seen another person here. 

We always come with good boots, good books, and good wine. Sometimes we take a day in the cabin to drink tea and read, and Ben, who vows to someday write a book about this place, pens epic paeans in the station’s logbook, which is otherwise filled with taciturn ranger entries. But most often, like those early patrolling rangers, our days revolve around movement.

A hike we took one cold, cloudy November day perfectly illustrates the Kishenehn experience.

The howling of wolves woke us at sunrise. In less than an hour we were stepping out of the cabin’s grizzly-proof, metal-grate front door with a day’s provisions in our packs. Not more than 200 yards from the cabin were lion tracks, fresh on the morning’s dusting of snow (there’s nothing better here than a fresh dusting of snow). Ben and I high-fived. A lion — a lion! — had just been here. As we followed its tracks down the trail, wolves howled in the distance. We followed the old Kootenai Indian trail up Kishenehn Creek through a towering forest of old-growth larch and fir and aspen tattooed by bear claws.

At the antler- and skull-littered meadows near the Canadian border, we sat and ate in silence. But Kishenehn sang as chickadees filled the air with good cheer and wedges of geese flew overhead in jumbled, bicycle-horn symphonies. Later we saw the tracks of a wolf that had come to the meadow’s edge, seen or heard or smelled us, and turned away.

On our way back at the end of the day, we split up for the last two miles and I explored off-trail in the encroaching shadows. Grizzly tracks appeared just before I reached the cabin. Had it gone before Ben or after him? Following the tracks by headlamp led me directly to the cabin.

Ben was standing on the porch and announced, “This griz came right up to the cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney, smelled our pee, and then flipped over the pack rat we threw out and kept going up the river trail — where we’re going tomorrow.”

The lesson here is that while the big carnivores won’t cavalcade in front of you in Kishenehn’s old forest like they might in, say, Yellowstone, there’s no question they’re here. The other lesson is that if you trap a pack rat and toss its carcass in front of the cabin to see what will come eat it, you don’t have to worry about it being a grizzly bear.

Sometimes the wildlife encounters here are less oblique. Consider the time we were walking along the border swath, that 40-foot-wide treeless line in the sand our country maintains up and down mountainsides for reasons only bureaucrats can understand. Ben was walking a short distance ahead of me as I snapped pictures. Then the ravens appeared, circling loudly over Sage Creek. We immediately squatted down and watched. We suspected a kill site, but we couldn’t see down into the creek bottom.

As I stalked my way toward the bank behind Ben, he came speed-walking back to me furiously waving his hands. I’d never seen him so rattled. Quietly but with a fierce urgency he said, “Go, go, go! There’s a huge black grizzly bear on an elk carcass in the creek bottom.”

He was terrified in a way only someone who has just seen a murderous griz- zly at close range can be. It hadn’t seen him, he said, but it was swinging its snout from side to side trying to sniff out the intruder it knew was there. We had to leave, he said, now.

Some people say the value of large predators is that they teach us humility. At this moment Ben was a spouting fountain of humility. Clearly this was more of a wilderness experience than he was looking for.

I, on other hand, desperately wanted to see this bear. How many opportunities do you get in a life to see a huge black grizzly bear standing on an elk carcass? All I had to do was creep to the edge of the bank, look down 30 feet, and boom: bear sighting of a lifetime. The wildest of the wild was within my grasp.

But what if I reached the bank and the bruin was right there, climbing up after our scent? I have kids. I didn’t want to die here in this stupid swath. So after a few moments of contemplation, I reluctantly turned around and we trudged the eight miles through a foot of snow back to the cabin.

While every day in the teeming lands around Kishenehn carries the unpredictable, kinetic hum of a self- willed landscape, for every dramatic encounter there are five days filled with the kind of dynamic calm that only deep wilderness provides. Often we simply tromp to the nearby beaver kingdom, where the impossibly industrious rodents have dammed the spring that is also our water source. Their concentric dams cre- ate a terraced series of pools reminiscent of Asian rice paddies. They’ve also engineered a network of deeply worn, four-foot-wide channels through the surrounding spruce forest.

All of it — the countless dams, their Mount Rainier lodges, the snaking, grassy-banked channels — suggests an ancient beaver civilization. For untold centuries they’ve been building their beaver world here, unmolested in the farthest reaches of Kishenehn.

Whether we’re contemplating beaver kingdoms, tracking lions or dodging grizzlies, Kishenehn is always an adventure —  but never more so than that night of the November blizzard when I lost the trail. As I felt my way through the snowy darkness beyond Kishenehn Creek, I eventually reached the bank of the North Fork where fresh pieces of ice flowed past my headlamp beam. Cold crept under my jacket and I contemplated the possibility of bedding down for a frigid night in my emergency bivy.

There was a faint ambient light from the moon above the storm clouds, above the troubles and life-and-death struggles of our world. You couldn’t really see things, but more sense their impressions. Then, somehow, I recognized the silhou- ette of a cluster of cottonwoods along the river. At that moment I knew I’d almost reached the cabin. Something about rec- ognizing those trees in the night also showed me that in some small way I’d become a part of this place, that my story was now woven into the wild fabric of the landscape here.

For millennia we humans lived in untamed, natural places like this. Until recent times, we were a part of the wilderness. We may not realize it, but its rhythms are still our rhythms, its wildness is still our wildness. We feel it when we return to places like this. Something relaxes, something is attuned, something comes alive. We’re home.

Ben wasn’t at the cabin when I finally reached it. He was out looking for me, afraid I’d fallen in a creek or the belly of a grizzly. He’d found my tracks though, right after the tracks of a wolf that had suddenly turned around, likely when it heard me — the creature I was waiting for in my light beam. We told stories of searching and being lost far into the night over mugs of hot tea by the woodstove. Dark, snowy hikes aside, or maybe because of them, it was good to be back at Kishenehn.


This article originally appeared in Headwall Magazine. Hope you enjoy it. I'm actually heading into Kishenehn right now for a few days. Looking forward to unplugging and spending a few days in pure, unfiltered nature. Hopefully you'll get the chance to the do same sometime soon.


  1. Excellent to see the article about "Jammin'" in Headwall recently, Aaron. Having spent a couple seasons as a Trail Dog with Ben in West it was cool to see he's still livin' the dream up at Kishenin. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Random follower from the eastern US here....just wanted to say thank you for sharing the story and the great pictures! I really appreciate that you took the time to post this. Most of us can only dream of adventures like this.

  3. Fantastic writing Aaron. The lucky ones have places like this "to be wild again, the way we used to be." Well said.

  4. Excellent blog post. Actually, I can say this about every post in your blog. It is rare to find blogs of such high quality, you are very good writer and photographer. Thank you for sharing your stories and pictures with us.

  5. Some really fantastic photos in this post Aaron. A refreshingly different visual take on backpacking in some of the photos.

  6. What do you mean by "black grizzly"? I'm guessing you mean a dark-colored (even black) grizzly bear? In my North American wilderness experience, I've learned the difference between black bears and grizzlies. I've only seen about 4-5 grizzlies in the wild, and they've all been (in Alaska and) very light in color.

  7. Just came upon your web log. Excellent writing and images. I am a fan----keep writing and sharing.

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  9. I am looking forward to hiking into Kishenehn Ranger Station this summer/fall. My grandfather was actually a ranger that was stationed at Kishenehn in the 20s or 30s so it kind of holds special meaning to me. I have never hiked in there and have just recently done some research on the ranger station and the word Kishenehn.
    I very much appreciate this blog post. Gives me that much more to look forward to.