Six-Day Trip to Prairie Reef, Chinese Wall and Many Adventures
“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” -John Muir
The WALL: After month's of preparation, two cars with eight gals and tons of gear headed to the Stage Stop Inn in Choteau for our evening of meet, greet and get ready for our six-day trip into the Bob (Bob Marshall Wilderness).
We arrived at just after 3 p.m. and met the gals from Dropstone at 4 p.m., whom we followed to their work site, a large outbuilding on one of the gal’s mother’s place just out of town. Here, we were given more details about our tip, including how each day would, hopefully, proceed. We also had our gear weighed and only one of us was overweight and had to remove a few items. We were allowed 20 pounds, which included our tent, pad, sleeping bag, headlamp, toiletries and extra clothing. We carried our lunches and day packs each day along with raingear, jacket, first-aid supplies. We also had to make our lunches for our first day.
We were introduced to our hiking guides and packers: Julie and Maggie (co-owner of Dropstone), packing; Nicole, cook and guide; Aubra and Bonnie, guides. Bonnie was the newbie in training for Dropstone. Although she had backcountry experience, it was her first trip to the Chinese Wall.
We were all worried about the extreme dry, heat and smoke from wildfires and requested a very early start. So we agreed to meet at 6 a.m. for the drive to Benchmark, where we would start hiking. I don’t think any of us slept well that night. And Kuntz was very worried as she packed jerky for her snacks, and we all told her the grizzlies especially liked it.
Day One: 11 miles, 1,000 feet of gain, Camp on Reef Creek for two nights “If you are lucky enough to be in the mountains, you are lucky enough.” -Unknown
After a very hurried breakfast at the Stage Stop Inn, we headed at 5:45 to Dropstone’s headquarters where we loaded the van, put our overnight gear, cellphones etc., into the their shed so they wouldn’t overheat in our cars. The road to Benchmark was a washboard ride, but we got on trail by 8:15 a.m.
We really did well up until lunch time, traveling at over 2 mph, but afterward, the sun beat on us and we started to fade. On the trail, one pack train going in passed us while three were headed out, but really the trail wasn’t too crowded at all. However, it was dusty and very overworn.
We enjoyed looking back at Patrol Mountain, remembering our past climbs and visits to see Samsara in the lookout. We eventually separated into two groups, one going a faster pace. This group arrived in camp at 1:30 p.m. while the other got in at 2 p.m., both ahead of our pack train.
Nicole went to the river to scout a camp and she got her first choice. To get to it, we had to ford the river, so we were glad we had carried our wading shoes/sandals with us. The cool water felt good on our feet as we made our way to our camping spot. We barely beat the pack train led by Maggie and Julie.
We rinsed off in the river (no soap allowed in wilderness), and set up our tents, some with help from the guides, while the cook set up her area (Shared tents: Katie and Mary S, Mary N and Kuntz, Julie and Deb, Roni and Sue) The guides slept in tents by the horses to listen to anything strange at night.
Our meal was stew, bread and kale salad with parmesan with a cookie for dessert (Katie had a lentil stew). We had crackers and cheese for an appetizer and a box of wine along with tang laced with electrolytes to drink.
Everyone was tired, but Maggie prepped us for the dreaded Prairie Reef climb the next day. Some wanted to get up very early to start climbing before the heat but the earliest the guides said they would get breakfast would be 7 with a trail start around 7:30 a.m. Maggie explained that some could go just to the saddle so they got a view of the wall while others could go all the way to the lookout. Kuntz declared she wasn’t going at all and would hang out in camp. Katie thought she might change her mind.
But we had the added worry about both Mary’s having blisters and several others having hotspots. The blisters, along with heat exhaustion, were the number 1 and 2 issues the guides said they dealt with on these trips. Luckily, packer Julie was also a paramedic, so we sought her advice throughout the trip. She checked on the Mary’s while Maggie pulled out the medical supplies.
Then Kuntz entertained everyone with her stories incriminating herself, including one story involving Dr. Bergman, not realizing that guide Audra was Dr. Bergman’s sister-in-law. We all howled at that one. She also did a demonstration of her husband’s dancing along with examples of her awful cooking. Maybe she had a bit too much of the boxed wine.
Then we washed up, visited the latrine (a hole dug in the ground with a rope around the tree to help us balance over it). Whenever someone went to use the “facilities,” she took the shovel and followed the pink marking tape to the spot. After doing our “business,” we shoveled dirt over it and put the shovel back so that we knew when the “bathroom” was free.
What our camps were like: a set area for the “kitchen” with a table; camp chairs around a campfire area where we ate and gathered to hear about the next day (to get out of the chairs is a challenge—Sue said, “Nose over toes” is the way to do it; a drip system of drinking water hanging from a tree; a wash-up station with biodegradable soap that is not near the river for washing face and hands; an electric fenced area away from our camp for the two horses and six mule;, and our tents spread out in an area away from the food area. The bathroom consisted of a hole dug in the ground way away from our living/eating areas, with the way to it marked with pink marking tape. And everyone took a turn doing dishes after dinner. The guides handled them at breakfast for us.
Flowers we saw: Fireweed, and more fireweed, showy fleabane daisy, harebells, goldenrod, tall buttercup, potentilla/cinquefoil, Indian paintbrush.
Day Two: 12 miles, 3500 feet of gain, Prairie Reef “I’m on the top of the world looking down on creation…” -The Carpenters
We rose in time for a 6 a.m. breakfast of cherry almond oatmeal for our big climbing day. Mary N and Kuntz decided to take a down day and just hang out at camp, Mary to rest her blistered feet. The other six headed to conquer the big daddy hike of the trip: a climb of Prairie Reef with 3500 feet of gain over 12 miles. We got a later start to the day as we had to ford the river again, which necessitated those with blisters to doctor their feet after the crossing, which took around 40 minutes to complete. We got on trail around 8 a.m. instead of our hoped-for 7 a.m.
However, we made good time and reached the saddle by 10 a.m., despite most of us carrying four liters of water and our guides carrying six, in case anyone ran out as there is no water on this trial aside from a mud wallow. At this point, Sue and Mary S decided to call it quits for the day. Mary’s blisters were really bad by now, affecting most of her toes on both feet. So Deb, Roni, Julie, Katie and guides Bonnie and Maggie headed up the final 1.5 miles to the top while Nicole returned to camp with the other two.
Once we left the saddle, a very nice breeze came up, helping us with the heat as we were now in the exposed area above the treeline. Roni and Deb shot out ahead with Bonnie, reaching the top 20 minutes ahead of the others. Then they headed back down, while Julie and Katie explored the lookout, the Osborne Fire Spotter and the “outhouse” with a view to discover how Rick, the lookout, lived.
Guide Maggie pointed out the various peaks to us, including Rocky, the highest point in the Bob; Holland, Swan, Twin Peaks, the Flathead Alps, Red Buttes and Silvertip. She also showed us Cliff Mountain, the highest point on the wall, near our climbing spot, as well as where we would be climbing the wall. The 360-degree views, of course, were spectacular, and two of the gals felt this was the best day of the trip.
Rick, the new lookout, was very friendly, sitting outside and visiting with our party as well as another that also climbed to the top. He talked about the elk that visited him at the lookout and how the resident marmots had chewed the cork handles on some hikers’ poles while they went inside the lookout, proving you do not want to leave your gear unguarded or the critters will munch on it.
Rick also said he hadn’t had any bears on Prairie Reef yet, but that he hears wolves nightly. The way down was hot, hot, hot! And twice Julie lost her hat to a gust of wind, but faithful guide Maggie chased it down both times, even when Julie said to let it go. The heat made us just want to get down as quickly as possible. The first group was down by 3 and the second group by 4 p.m.
When we got back to camp, we learned that Audra had to ride back to benchmark with a mule in tow as the gals had forgotten a saddle bag of food. Nicole had discovered it when she was getting items out in preparation for supper. So Audra rode 24 miles on her “off day,” when she was supposed to be on light duty. The predominate flowers we saw were showy fleabane daisies, buckwheat (both Sulphur and white), various paintbrush. Our dinner was black-eyed peas with sausage (fake sausage for Katie), rice, onions, celery, lemon and sun-dried tomatoes with brownies for dessert. And Kuntz entertained us with her usual stories. Many of us rinsed our clothes in the river in preparation for moving camp tomorrow with an early rise of 6:30 a.m. so we can hit the trail by 8. And no one had been sleeping well as one horse camp let their livestock wander at night, their bells keeping us awake.
Day Three: Hike to Base of Wall (Cliff Mountain camp), 11 miles, 2500 feet of gain “The mountains are calling and I must go.”-John Muir
Mary joined the “Creek Club” today, a club Kuntz dubbed after several had taken a spill in one water hazard or another. Bonnie took a tumble in a waterfall while Susan fell in the Two Med River on other trips. Mary succumbed to one of the nine stream crossings, one that had a log over it. The creeks were Grizzly Bear, White Bear, Black Bear, Grizzly Gulch, No Name, Pine, Red Butte, and the West Fork (really a river) two times.
We did hit the trail at 8 a.m. after a breakfast of granola, either hot or cold, on a very pleasant morning temperature-wise. Again, the gals doctored their blistered and mustered on. We ate lunch just past No Name Creek, at a campsite, where someone had irresponsibly dumped about three pounds of dog food. Audra and Nicole carefully scooped it up, put it in a plastic bag and hauled it with us. This dog food would have attracted bears and other creatures to a camp site. The other options besides hauling it out would be to disperse it in the stream, making some fish food of it. Along the way, Katie spotted huckleberries well as grouse whortleberries and strawberries and she and one guide stopped to pick them. Later, the others who were traveling in front noticed the berries too. This prompted Ron it say, “The only thing that Deb stops for is huckleberries, “ as Deb was the speed demon of the group.
After a while, it got very HOT! We struggled in it for about three miles until we spied the “wall,” which gave us a second wind. Except for Kuntz, who said, “Where’s the wall? All I see is a big rock!” She actually thought the Chinese Wall was a man-made structure in the middle of the wilderness. Of course, we didn’t point out that she thought we were planning a flight to China when she first signed up for the trip. At this point, Mary N said, “Attention: The Great Wall of China is NOT in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.” We all got a laugh at Kuntz’s expense.
But Kuntz got us back: Around the wall, was beautiful bear grass and more bear grass, still in bloom, so we all took many photos, prompting Kuntz to declare her famous, “Keep moving. Bear grass is bear grass.”
As we neared our campsite for the next two days, an old cowboy-type packer was standing at the junction in the trail to tell us to turn there, indicating that Maggie, Julie and the mules had gone that direction. It was nice of him to stand there to point the way for us, except he told us we had eight more miles to go! Good thing he was kidding as most of us were ready to be done for the day. Then we saw the pink marking tape. One guide and several gals went ahead but lost the trail. This time, Kuntz regained her standing after her Chinese Wall comments by finding the way for us and leading us to the campsite for a much-needed rest after a long day.
The way was very mucky but through a tall-grass meadow with very unusual swamp flowers: White bog orchids and bright pink elephant heads along with showy fleabane daisies, arnica, Lewis monkey flowers, valerian, and Indian paintbrush. The guides created this campsite bathroom up a hill and over several downed logs, presenting quite an obstacle course to reach it. Everyone hoped she wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to use it. Kuntz again revived her reputation as she showed the guides how to “core” the toilet paper so that it rolled easily from their draw-string bag holder. A few of us rinsed off in the nearby creek. However, several of us go the itches from no-see-ums, which lasted a few days, since we didn’t have other water sources to wash off. This small creek had been trampled and fouled by stock, so several gals disinfected their water twice, just to be safe.
Dinner was pulled pork with coleslaw. For Katie, Nicole used Jack fruit, which looked like pulled pork, but the texture was different and the flavor sweeter. And tonight, the gals built a campfire; the smoke followed Mary S, no matter how many times she moved to another spot around the campfire, so Katie quit sitting next to her tent partner. Another note to our evenings: Maggie brought along her dog Rosie, a part healer, part collie, very fun dog, who was constantly bringing sticks to each of us to throw. Kuntz was the gullible one, who kept throwing sticks, so she soon became Rosie’s fav.
We went to bed dreaming of the Wall and our climb set for tomorrow.
Day 4: Climbing the Wall, 7 miles and 1200 feet of gain “It is one thing to decide to climb a mountain. It is quite another to be on top of it.” -Herbert A. Simon
Coffee at 7 a.m. and a hot breakfast scramble of eggs, cheese and sausage greeted our day, the day of climbing the Wall, the day we all came for, the day we all hoped everyone make despite blisters and tired legs. We left camp around 9:30 and headed to Trick Pass, a pretty easy climb to a pass that really doesn’t go anywhere, but it does abut the Chinese Wall, so we took the opportunity for a group photo of us kissing the rock face. From there we dropped to Moose Lake, a small tarn surrounded by meadows and moss, a bit of a bog. We refilled our water bottles, but it did had a lot of detritus. Also, this area held some snow, so we collected some that the guides said we could use in snow cones. However, the gals had other ideas: using the snow in alcoholic drinks and calling the drinks “Chinese Ditches” in honor of the wall.
Then it was on to the bushwhacking part followed by climbing. Guide Maggie went ahead to scout the trail and was soon back with a game plan. As we started up, we all saw an image of “Mother Mary” as Mary S. called her, projected in a shadow on the part of the wall that we would climb. We couldn’t resist taking pictures of her and proclaiming that she was on our side, a bunch of women of a certain age setting out on a climb we all hoped to accomplish. We also wondered what would happen if the Wall became a shrine with pilgrims visiting to see the “vision.”
Before the climb, we went to trick pass, an easy way to get to the wall but it's a dead end as far as climbing all the way through.The we down-climbed to Moose lake, more of a pond than anything and had a snack, enjoying all of the flowers in the surrounding meadows, including the exquisite pink elephant heads.
Then it was time for the real thing. At first the climb wasn’t too bad, our poles helping us up the steep slope. Then we it came time to stash our poles and start using our hands. Some of our guides took our hiking sticks in their packs. Some of the gals even gave up their entire packs for the guides to carry the rest of the way. Others decided to carry their own. Then, right when some of us were balanced in precarious positions, three down-climbers insisted on coming down before we gained the ledge, refusing the right of way to uphill travel, which is customary protocol. So we clung to our rocks, bracing ourselves, as they skirted around us, one gal almost slipping as she tried to avoid us. In all, it made the day a bit more interesting to tell the tale. The wall climbs and then comes to a flat spot that still held snow. We made snowballs and pitched them into the air like schoolgirls on recess. Then some of the guides said they would put the snow into their thermoses to make snow cones with Tang later. Instead, we made a special kind of "ditch" with whiskey.
And we all made it! We all made it! Once we got on top of the first part, we had another small stretch that also required scrambling, but then we were there, surprised at the gentle angle of the slope on the other side.
We got our pictures, put our “sticks in the air,” and sat down to a much-earned lunch, knowing that going down is usually more treacherous than going up. During lunch, we had a good laugh at Kuntz as she thought she was the only one to get leftover pulled pork for lunch. Was she surprised when we informed her that what she was eating was Katie’s jackfruit, vegetarian substitute!
Then for the down-climb, Kuntz almost went down the wrong slot until the guides caught her making a bad mistake; however, Kuntz redeemed herself later in the day when she again led us back following the marking tape impeccably. Sue, who bruises easily, was wearing tape over her arms, which worked well. However, we did have two casualties. Mary N fell coming down. She put a cut in her chin and two good bruises on her left arm. The other casualty was Kuntz’s water bottle that took a tumble down the wall. The guides retrieved it but it does have a dent, giving Kuntz a souvenir of her Wall, I mean “Rock” adventure. She also ended up with a rip in her pants. But overall, we didn’t’ have any real accidents.
That evening, everyone was happy since we all made it not only to the wall, but on top of the wall. The guides were glad and said we all did an excellent job and that we shouldn’t say we weren’t very good hikers because they thought we were. Maggie said it was the first time on one of their trips when all the guests made it to the top of the wall. We felt a bit proud of that accomplishment.
We enjoyed our appetizer of chips, salsa and guacamole followed by rice and beans. During dinner, Ray Mills, the outfitter who showed us the way came to visit. He turned 80 this year and one of his partners is 90, he said. He also said he had been in the back country for 60 years, first for the forest service as a back-country ranger and then outfitting. He couldn’t believe the condition of the trails and talked about a permit system to help keep the crowds down and the destruction of the wilderness to a minimum.
It think the wind disappeared quickly on this night. Katie asked Maggie to explain high impact camping and how Dropstone tries to mitigate the impact on the land by limiting the poundage of belongings the guest bring in, fixing simpler meals, etc. In this way, they do not need to bring in so much stock, so the trails aren’t as damaged and the meadows less grazed. The guides also explained how the outfitters get permits to take in guests.
That night and the next morning, a mule was making much noise. Maggie explained that mules get very attached to horses and the other outfitter had taken the guests on horseback to watch the sunrise, so the mule was crying for his horse. It was a bit unnerving.
The flowers we saw on the Wall day were a bit different from the rest as it was still earlier in spring: fringed grass of parnassus, monkey flower, columbine, milkvetch, mountain heath, heather, and tons of bear grass in bloom rather than going to seed.
Days Five and Six: Heading Out “Never in my life have I seen so many women on the trail. You win, girls, you win.”_Packer who passed us on the trail
After the Wall, everyone was eager to get home, some even suggested that we hike out in one day instead of taking two to cover the 18 miles. It is kind of a letdown to have two days to walk after accomplishing both the Wall and Prairie Reef climbs. However, we hiked the 12 miles on day five so that on our last day we would have just under 9 to go.
Our last two breakfasts were steel-cut oats with dried fruits and then granola again. I think everyone was a bit sick of oats and yearned for some protein, but we were getting down on the food and the load lightened for our packers and our mules. Audra set a good pace that suited most of us on Day Five and we stayed together as a group for the first time on the trip. Day Six saw us in two groups again.
Our last evening, we reminisced about our adventures. Mary N said she took the prize for most falls: fell when crossing the river, fell coming down from the wall while picking stickseed off her pants and fell on the trail when looking at some tents and tripping on a root. “Three’s a charm,” she said.
Nicole said we were “barn sour” and eager to get home ---and to a shower-- we all thought. However, we did rinse off In the West Fork of the Sun River, which was so much better than the stream with the no-see-ums. Maggie said she had never had a group get to camp so early, often beating the stock.
Our last dinner was spaghetti with humus and cheese for an appetizer. The gals finished off the last of the wine, calling the last drops “Bobinay” which stood for “Chardonnay in the Bob.” Afterward, we played a game called Thorn, Bud, Rose, where everyone had to say what part of the trip they didn’t like or something that annoyed her (the thorn), what she was looking forward to (the bud) and the best part of the trip (the rose). The roses: Everyone getting to the Wall; Prairie Reef and climbing the wall; being with accomplished women; Bonnie, the guide; being part of our group’s bucket list; everyone’s goodness and kindness; taking all members of a group to the wall, which is a first for Dropstone.
Our last day ended early, with us off trail by 2 p.m., on a hot and dusty and smoky day that saw tons of horse and mule train traffic, all going in for the weekend. Even though a part of us may have wondered if they all would make the Wall and a small part may have wanted to go back, we were glad to get back to our cars and drive home to see our families to tell tales of our adventures. “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” -John Muir
66 miles Who went: Julie, Roni, Deb, Kuntz, Mary S, Mary N, Sue, Katie
Quotes: "I took two showers today just so I remember what it feels like." 'I had to miss Judge Judy." "Everyone at home said their goodbyes to me in case I don't come back."