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“If you’re not moving, you’re standing  still.”


Steve Trafton

Across Montana’s Continental Divide

Hiking Across the Big Hole to Clark Canyon Dam: 79 miles


image005Route from Big Hole National Monument To Clark Canyon Dam

July 2, 2002 I started out from Whidbey Island and made the long drive, across Washington and the Idaho panhandle to Missoula, Montana. From Missoula I turned south and followed the Bitterroot River Valley to Hamilton, Montana where I spent the night. Early on the morning of the 3rd I continued up the valley to its head at Chief Joseph Pass, then drove east across the Continental Divide and into the northwest corner of the Big Hole Valley at the Big Hole National Monument. This high valley is the link between the headwaters of the Beaverhead River which flows east to the Missouri River and the Bitterroot River which flows north into the Clark Fork River and eventually to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.

The Big Hole is a high valley nearly completely surrounded by mountains. On the west and northwest is the Beaverhead Range, on the north the Anaconda Range and on the east the Pioneer Mountain Range. The Continental Divide runs up the west side and then curves around the north side of the valley before continuing north between Missoula and Butte. The valley itself is over 6000 feet high and has numerous streams and the Big Hole River which crisscrosses the valley, passing Wisdom, Montana, before exiting at the northeast corner of the valley and flowing through the Big Hole Canyon before joining with the Beaverhead River to form the Jefferson River near Twin Bridges, Montana. The high elevation and available water make it ideal for cattle pasture and hay production.

My plan was to drive about half way down the Big Hole to the small town of Jackson, Montana where I would hire someone to drive me back to the National Monument so I could hike the 27 miles back to Jackson and my car. When I arrived in Jackson I had no problem finding a local to drive me back to my starting point and I was on my way by 8:30 on the morning of the 3rd.

The sky was clear and it promised to be a flawless sunny, if hot day, to enjoy this hike. The walking was easy alongside the road as I initially headed due east for the first nine miles to the town of Wisdom. As I walked along at about 3.5 mph I wild flowers beside the road and watched as pronghorn antelope grazed in the distance. By 10:00 the temperature was up to about 80 degrees and rising fast as the sun heated the exposed, shade less road. I was still making good time about 3.3 mph as I arrived at Wisdom, (11:00) grateful for a chance to rest and have an early lunch at a cowboy bar in town.

By the time I finished lunch at 12:00 and started out again the temperature had risen to 95 degrees and the next 18 miles promised to be “memorable” if not pleasant. Just out of town I turned due south and walked on down a road that gave new meaning for me to the words vanishing point. The road was absolutely straight and the telephone poles literally looked like an endless picket fence disappearing off into the horizon. After about an hour of this I began passing the time by counting the number of footsteps between telephone poles (280 – 293) and then seeing if I could match step for step between them. Between this game and reciting the Cremation of Sam McGee I passed another hour or so. Three hours south of Wisdom (about 10 miles) I ran out of water and the sun was really hot. It was clear to me that what had started out as a pleasant walk was quickly turning into one of those “ordeals” that build character. I was still seven miles from Jackson and dehydrating fast. At three miles the heat felt nearly unbearable and I began to have some doubts about making it all the way to Jackson without flagging someone down for a ride. But I pressed on, and at 5:30 I stumbled into town and then into the bar at the Jackson Hot Springs Lodge. I told the bartender I wanted three beers right now and I would get back to her for more when I had finished those. My feet hurt, I was sunburned and dehydrated. All in all it was one of the worst hikes I have ever endured. I think if it had been another mile or so I would have been in real trouble.

After a half dozen beers and a shower, things weren’t quite so bad and I enjoyed an great steak dinner before turning in for the night and starting the long drive back home the next day.

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