Bob Marshall Wilderness Open (BMWO) 2020

In the words of its creator Dave Chenault (website: Bedrock and Paradox), the BMWO is “an unsupported traverse of a big wild place in the tradition of Bob Marshall and the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic.” Each spring since 2012, a small group of folks gather to traverse the Bob Marshall wilderness by whatever self-powered and self-supported approaches seem most appealing. The start and finish points change each year, and specific route you want to take is completely up to you. Some people create longer trips and bring packrafts or skis, others strive for a more minimalist approach. And though this is not a race, some misguided souls look to see how fast they can cover the distance.

I’d been working diligently on physical therapy since July 2019 when I’d been diagnosed with a bulging disc in my lower back. After ten months of patient work on it I was feeling confident and ready to test my fitness and recovery. I mapped out a route that looked scenic and efficient, and using a packraft didn’t seem to make as much sense as just using my feet. It looked to be roughly 95 miles total, with a couple alpine passes to cross along the way that added up to about 15k worth of ascent. I’d been in the Bob for a grand total of about two hours before, so I couldn’t wait to explore this place that’s so etched in Montana lore. Plus, I’d no longer have to feel so guilty about telling people I was a Montana native who had never been in the Bob. It was shameful, really.

The 2020 route was primarily a west-to-east affair, starting at the Point Pleasant campground in the Swan valley and finishing at the Gibson reservoir near Augusta. I figured I could fit the trip into two days, moving with purpose through the days but not necessarily trying to go as absolutely fast as possible. I wanted to scratch my itch for ultrarunning, but I also wanted to get a full night’s sleep and, gasp, maybe even enjoy myself along the way. But even packing as light as possible, carrying two days’ worth of food plus gear suitable for late May in the mountains meant the pack would start at 21 pounds. I’d never tried to cover this much runnable terrain with a pack that heavy, and I was both excited for the opportunity and nervous. So I leaned into the optimism that this successful trip would kick off my summer running season well and did my best to bury negative thoughts that I was pushing my back recovery too far, too fast with the long days of running and the heavier pack. They say the best alpinists have the shortest memories…the feeling applies fairly equally to ultrarunners, too.

That route is only like, four inches across. How hard can it be?

Snow conditions looked exceptionally high for May, but the water levels weren’t projected to be extreme. I packed my bag, crossed my fingers that the water would stay on the hillsides as snow rather than in the creeks to wash me away, and hit the road. I talked my friend Alex into driving me to the start, and my girlfriend at the time to pick me up at Gibson reservoir. Given the options of running around incomparable wilderness in either the Swans or Missions, or walking up a dirt road with me to Napa Point, Alex chose to join for the first few hours. I’ve certainly got some screws loose, but he’s wired a bit differently too.

BMWO rules state that you can’t travel linearly along any paved roads, so instead of a leisurely walk down the highway for a couple miles to the dirt road heading to Napa Point we left the campground and within ten minutes were making a beeline straight through the brush. Looking back at one point and seeing the look on Alex’s face as he emerged from the wet bushes and realized he had to cross a log spanning a creek was catnip for the sandbagger that lives inside me.

Alex joined for a bit of the snow slogging past Napa, then wisely bid adieu. At Napa I’d put the snowshoes on, but as I sidehilled along they seemed more trouble than they were worth. After fifteen minutes I put them back on the pack, where they’d stay for the remainder of the trip. It was a bit of a bummer to carry that extra weight (the geek in me: nearly 10% of my pack weight!), but I don’t see how you could justify leaving them at home for a trip like this over so much snow. Even if you somehow had a friend walking the same route the day before you left and they reported the snow was firm enough to walk without snowshoes, could you trust that the conditions would stay the same? Of the 95 miles, I’d guess a solid 30 were on snow. Postholing for even a few of those miles could make for a long day.

I made good time on firm snow to Inspiration pass, and even better time bombing down the mushy afternoon snow on the descent into Bunker creek. The mid-elevation snow seemingly lasted forever, and I wove through several miles tangled brush and untrustworthy snow as I dropped elevation into the canyon. The old bridge across Bunker creek was quite obviously defunct and more or less marked the transition from snow slogging to dirt road jogging.

Pretty sure the bridge is out

The 10 miles of flat and downhill jogging on the Bunker creek road gave me the first real test of whether I’d be able to run enough to complete the route in two days. 21 pounds for a pack is the heaviest I’ve ever tried to run with for an extended amount of time, and I definitely wasn’t jonesing for it to be any heavier. But everything seemed to be holding up with my body, and though the miles felt slow it was great to be out there getting a taste for this place. I saw a couple picnicking by their truck at the Meadow Creek campground, which would be the only people I’d see (besides Alex) for the whole time out there.

For the rest of the day I walked and jogged down the South Fork of the Flathead, across several easy fords of side creeks, and hit the Helen creek trail turnoff about an hour before dark. Besides misjudging where I’d find water in one section and going a couple hours without water, the day passed uneventfully and happily. The trail along the S fork of the Flathead is especially pretty, winding its way up and down the hillside paralleling the river.

I’d planned to get three-quarters of the way or so up Helen creek, in order to cover about half the route’s total distance and set myself up for an early morning crossing of the pass at the head of Helen creek, just south of Pagoda mountain. Helen creek is a tight, v-shaped canyon, and as the twilight deepened I got anxious to find a campsite and get off my feet for the day. I found a spot right about the time I put my headlamp on, and got my tarp set up just as a light rain started. Phew, just in time. Quick dehydrated meal and a recovery drink of Skratch hot cocoa and I was happy as a bug in a rug. And tired as a dog. 14 1/2 hours and 47 miles for the day. I laid in the bag and reflected on the day; how fun it felt to crest the Swans and drop into new-to-me territory in Bunker creek, in the Bob. I drifted off to sleep with the rain lightly pattering the tarp overhead.

Dinner for me, and bear spray so I don’t become dinner for certain other omnivores

I started walking at first light without breakfast, figuring I’d hold off on eating and just walk until I started to get hungry. The rain off and on through the night left all the brush overhanging the trail soaked, and the morning was fairly cold and wet until I got high enough in the canyon to get into the snow and above the brush line. By mid-morning I climbed up to the headwall and followed wolverine tracks up the ridge into a foggy world. Thank god for GPS. At the pass I descended down perfect snow for running; a couple inches of soft snow on top of a deep, firm base. A few hundred feet below the pass I dropped out of the fog and my mood soared as the view across the valley opened up. I cranked up the pace even more to match my mood and ran down the snow slopes like a feral child, grinning and laughing and leaving a slash of tracks through the snow down out of the fog.

Pretty sure it was wolverine tracks I followed for awhile uphill through the fog. Heck yeah.

After the descent I needed to head north up the White creek trail several miles before I could head east towards Larch Hill. The White creek trail fully embraced the late spring conditions, and felt as remote as any part of the route. Though it was not in full flood stage, the creek was high enough to flood the trail in several spots. At times, the trail and creek became one for extended stretches sloshing through water that was just a degree or two above snow. Twice, I got back on to dry land and had to stop for a couple minutes, hands on knees and half-laughing, half-groaning to myself while my feet slowly came back to life. I followed moose, elk, deer and wolf tracks through the snow, and for half an hour a pack of wolves howled further downcanyon behind me, adding to the wildness of the moment.

Instead of following the exact twists and turns of the trail five feet under the snow, I cut a set of bear tracks heading generally towards Larch Hill and followed them for forty five minutes up the hill. All the way to the ridge I reflected on the small connection I felt to the bear as again and again he or she took the best route, weaving efficiently uphill through the trees and bushes. I silently bid the bear safe travels as our paths diverged at the ridge.

Looking back at the Pagoda mountain area, from below the Larch Hill saddle

I hit the top of Larch Hill in the early afternoon in what felt like a completely different world than the morning’s fog-shrouded pass or frigid waters alongside White creek. The overcast skies had cleared, and the sun shown warmly through the holes in the clouds. The Chinese Wall looked absolutely magnificent with the cloud shadows panning across its face and the afternoon sun even breaking off a couple small cornices down the face. From the vantage point at Larch Hill my route traversed along the base of the wall for another four or five miles and I enjoyed the solitude and beauty of this special place for a good long while as I walked and jogged along the base of the wall.

Just like Bunker creek, the mid-elevation snow lingered for miles longer than expected as I descended into Moose Cr. But even so the snow stayed mostly firm and my movement was still fairly efficient.

By the end of the snow I knew there were about 25 miles to the boat launch at Gibson, almost all of it runnable. The miles and pack weight were getting to me, and I had to focus intently on getting into a good rhythm and keeping the momentum going. Morale was still high, but the easy, carefree miles from early goings were long gone. The ford at Moose creek was knee to waist deep but not in flood stage; I threw the electronics into a drybag in my pack just in case, but made the crossing without incident.

The miles along the North Fork of the Sun river felt like a green Eden. The trail winds in and out of meadows, tucking against the riverbank one moment and climbing small hills the next. I bumped several bands of elk and deer from the meadows, and the early evening sun painted everything in warm pastel light. I felt about as lucky as a guy could be.

I love Montana

Darkness fell as I jogged along the long six miles of the reservoir. I’d made the mistake of packing too much chocolate-type foods (chocolate nut butters, chocolate bars, trail mix, snickers, Pro Bars and Clif bars with chocolate, etc.), which was fine right up until it wasn’t. I fell behind on calories as the evening transitioned to night because I couldn’t stomach the thought of any more chocolate, and finally choked down half a snickers in the dark at the edge of the reservoir. I came to the trail sign a hundred yards from the parking lot and saw a note from Libby — 10:30. Worried that you’re behind schedule. Driving back to service to check your progress. I’ll be back in 45 minutes.

I checked my watch — 10:30 on the dot. Shit! I must have missed her by just a few moments. I ran as fast as my tired legs would allow and caught up to her just as she was opening the truck door. We both laughed in relief and then I took a few seconds to jog down to the end of the boat ramp itself. I walked off the ramp to ankle-deep in the water and shut off my headlamp. The night was crisp and clear, and I slowly traced the arc of stars with my eyes back along the reservoir where I’d come.

These two days in the Bob were just about perfect. I got to explore a beautiful place while scratching my itch for endurance movement. Besides the two people at the Meadow campground, I was lucky enough to spend two days without seeing another soul. I followed human tracks at times, but saw just as many elk, deer, moose, bobcat, and wolf tracks. I waded through icy creeks while listening to a wolf pack howling on the hunt. And covering that much country with a heavier pack (relative to usual running weight, anyway) and being self-sufficient in late spring / early summer conditions upped my confidence considerably in my recovery from the back injury that had been so debilitating. For a first experience in the Bob, I’d give it a 10/10. Would recommend.

Post-trip, down to 138. Gettin’ too skinny, gotta pack something other than just chocolate next time!

2 thoughts on “Bob Marshall Wilderness Open (BMWO) 2020

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