MUDDY CREEK — When the trail disappeared into a boggy marsh after the stream crossing, the bleached cow bones littering the ground should have been proof that we had wandered too far into the brush.
Or maybe the large black bear track in the mud next to the first small spring should have served as a warning.
When the route later disappeared into another marsh and we ended up scrambling up and down a steep, rocky hillside, doubt, frustration and a bit of exhaustion finally settled in.
It was the last official weekend of summer, and not having backpacked the entire season I was trying to cram all of my winter-long dreams of mountain adventure into two days.
The route chosen was supposed to gain little elevation and be reasonably short, about five miles. The trek would take us from the Muddy Creek Trailhead to Granite Lake. The lake is a backward-L-looking, 228-acre mountain pool that straddles the Montana-Wyoming border in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. At about 1.4 miles long and nine-tenths of a mile wide, it is one of the largest lakes in the wilderness.
With all of the route-finding and side treks, though, the path was beginning to seem a lot longer than originally planned. And once the morning’s caffeine boost had worn off, feet were sore and shoulders were aching, it seemed like a bad idea not to have purchased a more detailed map of the area, or to at least have brought along a GPS.
As my daughter pointed out though, what’s a backpacking trip with the Frenches without a little wandering and bushwhacking, some minor dehydration and bonking from a shortage of food? That made me think that we should have a special name for our unusual bad luck with family outings. Combining the words French and adventure I came up with Frenventure. Not the greatest, but I’m going with it until I think of something better.
Adventures with Brett
Frenventures date back to when my wife and I were newly married. Our first backpacking outing into the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness included a visit from a cow and calf moose while my wife sat frozen with fear in a hot springs; post-holing through knee-deep snow to try to reach a lake and eventually running out of daylight and settling for a narrow camping spot under a fir bough in an attempt to avoid bivouacking in the snow.
My children were just wee ones when they were initiated to the fun of Frenventures. Tucked into sleeping bags under a tarp to keep the rain off and stave off hypothermia, they giggled and played while I frantically rowed the raft to reach a takeout on the upper Dearborn River. Leaving them under a bridge after warming up hot cocoa, they resembled a homeless family as I hopped on my motorcycle for a greasy ride back to the truck in the continuing downpour.
These are the sinews binding their muscle memories of growing up with a misadventurous father. Luckily for me, they don’t seem to carry any lasting scars from the many debacles. Even my daughter’s swelling from numerous mosquito bites she sustained as a young girl while camping on the side of Clay Butte hasn’t deterred her from enjoying the outdoors, an astonishing point I made as we crossed under the unusual 10,000-foot tall geologic feature on our way back from Granite Lake on day two of what was a relatively mosquito-free trip.
We had arrived below Clay Butte thanks to yet another navigational correction on this trip of reroutes and course corrections. Recognizing that the trail back down Muddy Creek was riddled with miscues and downfall, I decided to switch our exit to the Clay Butte Trailhead. The trail looked much shorter, and since horseback riders had taken that path, it seemed more likely to be free of downfall and better marked. Plus, we’d see some new country on the way — always a benefit. The only catch was one of us would need to hitchhike a ride back down to the car, which didn’t seem impossible.
What the map didn’t show me, and I failed to consider, was that the route up to Clay Butte would require climbing almost 1,000 feet higher. (That’s about 100 stories.) Imagine climbing to the top of a 100-story building with a backpack on, and you’ll have only a small idea of the strain involved. That’s because mountain trails aren’t smooth and regular, and in the Beartooths we were starting out at an elevation of 8,600 feet in air choked with wildland fire smoke. So really, there's no comparison to climbing the stairs up a 100 story building.
As I paused to catch my breath on one of the trail’s switchbacks on the way out, I questioned the logic of my directional decision. Looking down, the Muddy Creek meadow that we’d wandered through the day before seemed like it was a mile below. Better trail quality but elevation gain seemed like a bad tradeoff at that lung-searing point.
But then I realized that by the end of the week, if not sooner, my feet wouldn’t hurt, the shoulder soreness would be long gone, and it wouldn’t matter a bit which route we had taken, except to serve up more fodder for the memories of our family outings.