Into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
Lessons learned from four days in Montana with Mystery Ranch
To be a dog in the woods is to be a dog in the fullest. Each passing minute treated as a lifetime, delivering endless new smells, tastes and wonders to see and just as quickly be forgotten and discovered anew. The trail is a rule—one to be broken. Exploring ahead is encouraged only if paired with a speedy return. Being named a Good Boy is as good as a steak dinner, and more easily savored. As my heavy boots kicked rocks on the steady incline with 50 plus pounds of pack weighing down, these were the thoughts running through my head, deep in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana.
The dog in question belongs to Luke Buckingham, a 15 year veteran of renowned backpack manufacturer Mystery Ranch, who until just two years ago held the title of Ranch Hand, having done just about every job under the humble company's roof. Luke is the third longest running employee at Mystery Ranch, bested only by the brand's founders Dana Gleason and Renee Sippel-Baker. Luke is a sturdy man of admirable composition—and his beard isn’t half bad either. He's one hell of an ambassador, for both the region and the brand. But endless books have been written about about characters like Luke: genuine men that take little bullshit and dish out even less. No, there’s no need to dig further there. Rather, it’s his best friend that’s on the mind.
The Dingo. A spritely little dog of unknown breed (an Australian heeler mix?), The Dingo has a favorite human, sure, that is as true a truth as there ever was, but he has no owner. The Dingo is beholden to no one and no thing, save for the single job that he was put on this earth to fulfill: to seek out the perfect stick and perform the sacred act of fetch. The job is tiresome, as any worth doing is. Not any stick will do. Selection is crucial, though just a part of the process. And as far as The Dingo sees it, Humans are merely oversized assistants, put on this earth to take up the stick (once selected), and propel it down range, so it can be retrieved again, completing the cycle. The seemingly small series of actions keeps the world spinning. After all, there is no guarantee that big bright bird in the sky will rise tomorrow.
It was nearing noon and our party had crested the trail’s main ascent. Beyond laid two beautiful alpine lakes and somewhere in between our campsite. It was all downhill from here. And unbeknownst to us, for some time after this moment, the saying would ring true in more ways than one.
We had spent the previous day touring the Mystery Ranch factory floor, R&D department and design office, and now three days of backpacking were ahead of us—an opportunity to test the legendary bag-maker Dana Gleasen’s new 2016 packs for ourselves. The plan was simple: hike a handful of miles up a series of switchbacks and over a saddle, breeze through three more miles on a meandering lakeside trail, cross a bottle neck between two lakes by log bridge, and sure enough, we'd be at the campsite by late afternoon with plenty of time left for a leisurely swim under the watchful eye of Granite Peak, Montana's highest point. Though rain was in the forecast, all involved were confident that luck was on our side. It’s a funny thing though, luck.
The first raindrops arrived as a welcomed departure from the high altitude sun. It felt good, really. In short time smiles faded as a plume of ever-increasing bruise-colored clouds approached from the east were recognized. The worst would hit just before we reach the log bridge, and we’d be free to set up camp in early evening sunshine, our guide had said with enough confidence that no one dared to think otherwise. After all, The Dingo didn’t seem concerned. In hindsight though, such confidence was likely due to his discovery of a new stick, perhaps the most perfect stick the world had ever known.
The worst arrived just as we reached the log bridge, which, as it turned out, was less of an intentional bit of engineering and more of jumble of logs and sticks slick as snot and thrown with much abandon into rather treacherous waters. Jammed against one another abreast various islands of flimsy reeds and dense brush, the log trail extended some 50 yards across waters ranging in temperament from indifferent to not amused. Perfect.
The call was made — ditch the plan and pitch tents in the midst of the storm.
As the rain closed in visibility was cut to roughly thirty feet. Just before the trail turned to water it took a final fork and 1/3 of the crew fell behind. The temperature had dropped well below the forecasted low of 50. In my t-shirt and shorts, I was underdressed. My search for the crew was quickly abandoned. Our camp laid just on the other side of the lake and the unaccounted for were lead by Mystery Ranch Marketing Director Ryan Holm, a genuine and introspective character of seemingly pure Swedish Viking blood that seemed entirely at home in wilderness. They would be fine, I thought. It was me, myself and I, that may not be.
The rain fell at such a rate my adventure hat's wire-brim gave way, forming a sort of reverse taco with my head making the meat. The final barrier between me and the elements had been breached. I’d have laughed if I wasn’t hours from civilization, deep in grizzly country and soaking wet with no real idea of which way was which. Luckily, I’ve always fancied myself quite the log hopper. One foot in front of the other, eyes ahead, with arms out if needed. No different than walking on a train track—except a misstep here delivers you headlong into a variable blender of storm debris and increasingly angsty currents. The Dingo had made it across. Easy as pie. One foot in front of the other. That’s it.
Though intimidating at first glance—and definitely well above a five on the 10 point how-sketchy-is-this-log scale—smooth logs on the whole tend to be relatively easy to navigate when balance is on your side. It’s the ones with vestigial branches that offer false hope as a handhold that are most dangerous. With one third of your body weight perched atop your back and shoulders, the body's center of gravity is lifted considerably. In the standing position, it's hardly noticeable. Though bend over, and gravity reaches up to say hello, pulling you in for a face first embrace. This is precisely what happens when you lose confidence and reach down to grab a stub of a branch by your feet. Instead of offering a moment of respite, allowing you to gather your bearings and reassess the situation, you’ll be reminded of just how precarious is it to be balanced on a half submerged dead tree. And don’t forget how fun it is to stand back up with that pack weight bearing down. Now don’t forget the wind, either. A proper pack can double your silhouette, creating an unpleasantly large target for well-aimed gusts. Lesson learned. Onward. One foot in front of the other.
I could have kissed the earth had I not began to shiver uncontrollably. I couldn't help but marvel at just how little shelter the high alpine area’s scraggly forests offered. As an adolescent I’d grown up knowing well the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest—without conscious thought I’d just assumed trees in mountains everywhere cast twenty foot canopies of impenetrable bows. Though grand in absolutely every sense, Montana’s mountain ranges approach admirable altitudes in such a way that many recreation zones lie near or above the timber line, leaving the surviving pine, spruce and occasional cottonwood to grow dense but thin, offering little in terms of human-sized shelter. The Dingo on the other hand was cuddled up cozily at the foot of one young pine. Happy as a clam. A new, even better stick by his side.
Get those wet clothes off and a jacket on, Luke instructed. Though I felt a hit to my ego, I had to admit my outfit seemed at times better suited for a lookbook shoot than a surprise rainstorm deep in the wilds of Big Sky Country. I complied, tossed on a rain shell and hoped the taped seams held tight. The plan was to wait out the rain. It would surely pass soon. This time of year, we were told, the afternoon rains never last past four pm.
The call was made, we would ditch the plan and pitch tents in the midst of it. Shelter was priority numero uno. At this point my hands little more than primitive clubs. My fine motor skills were shot. Hypothermia knows no calendar. Even in the summer months it can begin to leach into the bones far sooner than most might think.
In what seemed like the first bit of luck all day, I realized my issued tent for the trip was of Hilleberg make, perhaps the finest there is. Hilleberg is the Mystery Ranch of tents, or so said Luke—the complement certainly works both ways. With two ply walls and a built in rainfly, the one man Soulo tent went up without allowing the elements inside. No puddles would be waiting, thank God. I staked in the crosshatched struts as if the winds would suddenly accelerate to triple digits—a silly thought, though at this point, I was too tired to take chances. I climbed in, stripped off my wet shorts and socks and put on only slightly less wet alternatives from my drenched pack. The internal camera compartment was dry; that was all that mattered.
With a layer of down resting on my chest and legs and hood tied tight my cooled blood began returning to the nonessentials. My toes may be blue for the moment, but they’d survive, I thought to myself. I heard the formerly missing crew members banging around outside and knew we’d all made it to camp. Few sounds are as soothing as rain pouring down on an impenetrable surface.
I awoke at close to 6pm. The rain had stopped, just two hours later than we would have liked, and Luke had a fire going already. I wandered outside to toss my socks on a stick to dry them like marshmallows. The rest of the camp was still still. Luke handed me a flask and my throat burned just a bit. Sun peaked out from behind a less-than-menacing cloud and The Dingo adjusted his position as a foot warmer. I held my composure and didn’t cough as a second swig went down with a fiery descent. Single Malt. Not bad for mountain man from Bozeman.
They say the best type of equipment is that which you never have to worry about. And, well, not once through three days of heavy rains and adventurous bushwalking did I ever consider my Mystery Ranch Glacier pack. It did it’s job while I did mine, even if one of us was significantly more prepared than the other.
Good boy, bag.