Hammock Havoc at Turquoise Lake

lachesism n. The desire to be struck by disaster, to survive a plane crash, or to lose everything in a fire.

Summer is rapidly, mind-bogglingly rolling toward a close.  Despite all the struggles of burgeoning adulthood it has held, it has still gone by remarkably fast.  It all hit me last Tuesday as I was preparing to go pick up my friend Mitchell from the airport.  Mitchell and I met last summer while we were both solo backpacking through Europe.  Though we only spent a few days together hiking in the small mountain village of Zdiar, Slovakia, we have stayed in fairly close contact ever since.  Almost six months ago, we concocted a plan for him to visit me on the tail end of a Canadian Rockies road trip he was doing.  Pretty soon, that spiraled from a stopover in Montana to a post-summer, pre-South America western National Parks road trip that would last about a month.  After that, Mitchell would be joining me in South America for a couple months before heading back home to Perth.  In other words, Mitchell’s arrival was a symbol that all my plans (or rather lack thereof) for the future were really happening.  In three weeks, I’d be living out of a car for a month.  In two months, who knew where I’d be living.

As is typically true for the long time traveler, Mitchell’s arrival was not as smooth as it should have been.  After nearly missing his flight out of Toronto, which was luckily delayed, he arrived in Minneapolis to find another not-so-lucky flight delay.  A one-hour delayed turned into two and three as he kept me posted on his status while I was at work.  Originally, he was set to arrive in Kalispell just after midnight.  In the end, it was about 3am when Chris and I finally met Mitchell at the airport.

After a few days of rest and regulating his sleep schedule to Chris’ and my elderly one, we wanted to give him a taste of the Montana Mountains.  By Friday afternoon, we were rolling down the Swan highway toward Kraft Creek Rd., the trailhead to Turquoise Lake.  I had never been to Turquoise before, but Bud had mentioned it was his favorite spot in the Missions and we decided to trust his expertise.  Naturally, Kraft Creek Rd. bears no signage directly on the highway, so we passed by the turnoff no less than three times before finally getting it right.  Fourth time is a charm, or something like that.  Another eleven miles down a narrow, winding dirt road and we were finally at the car-filled parking lot.  Normally, that might worry me, but I knew that this was a popular hiking spot, not for Turquoise Lake, but instead the easily accessed Glacier Lake only 1.3 miles from the trailhead.  I didn’t think I needed to worry about the family in their bright colored aerobic outfits crowding up our lake, which was about six miles down the trail instead of one.

That first section to the Glacier Lake split was smooth and easy, but after we continue on the right-hand trail past Glacier Lake, it slowly started to slant upward through a series of gentle switchbacks.  The official Forest Service difficulty rating of this trail marked it as “Difficult,” though we could hardly see why.  Maybe it was just my post-Holland perspective but this trail was a cakewalk. 

The higher we slowly climbed, the better the view became, with Glacier Lake opening up below us on the left side and Swan Mountains visible in the distance.  We could even make out the monstrous Holland Peak, the only peak that stood shrouded in cloud cover on the mostly clear and sunny day.  How appropriate.  Even from there, it looked ominous. A note on the geography of the area: We were hiking in the Mission Mountains, which run parallel to the Swan Mountains, at the base of which I live and the range to which Holland Peak belongs.  The Swan is to the east of Highway 83 in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, while our destination today was on the west side, in the Mission Mountain Wilderness.  That’s why the access points to both ranges run along the same highway.  While I’m still a little scarred from our ascent of Holland peak, I hope to one day conquer the highest mountain in the Missions, Macdonald Peak, standing at 9,820 ft., about 500 ft. higher than Holland.

After a few more forks in the trail that led to various other nearby lakes, like Heart and Crescent Lakes, the trail led us into a barren alpine region covered in massive rock slabs.  It bent downward and forced us to traverse over these slabs and over numerous other rocks on the trail.  It wasn’t so much difficult as demanding of careful footing.  We passed the swampy and aptly named Lagoon Lake to suddenly find the trailside littered with ripe huckleberries.  Needless to say, the last half-mile took us way longer than it should have.  Mitchell and Chris had the excuse of not having grown up with the opportunity to eat these little gems.  I, however, could only blame the delay on my complete lack of self-control and the addictiveness of huckleberry picking. 

Finally, we made it to the bottom of the bowl with the small, steep-shored Lace Lake on the left, and the roaring stream pouring from Turquoise Lake on the right.  Turquoise itself bends around a huge rock shelf consisting of more rock slabs rising high above the crystal clear waters.  It’s big for a mountain lake, though for the most part the shore is quite inaccessible between the sharp boulders on the far side, the giant rock slabs, and the logjam near the creek outlet.  There are, however, a few very nice camp spots along the near shore of the lake for those willing to seek them out.  We hiked our way up onto the rock slabs and found a perfect little trough of grass between the rocks just big enough for a campsite.  Then we set to work.

Mitchell was on fire pit duty, using my collapsible shovel to dig out a pit and carefully stack walls of rocks to create a neat little well.  I must admit, his fire pit was far nicer looking than any I had ever made.  Chris put himself on hammock duty.  A while ago, we had purchased a cheap double hammock for the purpose of camping in the jungles of South America.  We had yet to test it out and since I only had one tent that would not fit the three of us, this trip seemed as good a time as any.  He unfurled the bright pink and blue (his idea, I might add) fabric and decided to string it up between two dead, but thankfully sturdy trees growing out of a soil surrounding a rock outcrop that hung over the lake.  I hoped this hammock flip on us or we would be in for a rude wake-up call in the middle of the night.

In the meantime, I quickly pitched the tent, which I’ve gotten down to a science at this point, and started gathering firewood. Using my collapsible Gerber handsaw, I wandered around the rock slabs, sawing off bits of wood here and there before finally hiking down to the logjam and slinging a log over my shoulders to drag back to camp.  Mitchell had finished the fire pit by this time and helped me carry a few more logs up to camp, where we took turned sawing them into burnable pieces.

With that, camp was pretty much done.  Chris celebrated by peeing off the cliff as if to assert his dominance over nature.  Oh, how nice it must be to be a man.  The sun was well on its way toward the peaks of the mountains on the west side of the lake and I wanted to try my hand at fishing the lake before dark.  I had heard this lake was famous for it “gold medal” Cutthroat fishing, but after running into a fisherman on the way down here who had failed to find any fish in Turquoise, I wasn’t too optimistic.  Either way, it had been ages since I had been fishing and I was eager to do it anyway.  I pulled out my backpacking fishing pole, rigged up a small spinner on it, and clambered down the rocks to the shore to cast.  Chris and Mitchell entertained themselves on the shelves above me by tossing rocks into the water near my line as if they could convince me the fish were jumping.  It did at least give me the excuse of blaming the lack of bites on their disturbances instead of my failed ability as a fisherman.  Being a fisherman is, after all, 10% catching fish and 90% coming up with excuses as to why you didn’t. 

I gave up when Chris and Mitchell joined me on the shore and instead took to enjoying the scenery.  The water there was stunning, crystal clear and impossibly dark as it quickly tumbled down off the sheer rock edge.  There was no gradual shore to this lake, only a steep plunge down.  It was no wonder this lake was Bud’s favorite spot in the Missions.  We all entertained the same thought; how dumb would it be if we went swimming now?  The sun was dangerously close to setting and it already wasn’t exactly a heat wave out, but at the same time, the water looked so appealing.  Finally, we decided to just go for it.  We all stripped down to our underwear and agreed to go on three.  We counted down and only Mitchell dove in while Chris and I stood staring at each other like chickens on the shore.  We laughed and counted down again, this time committing.  The pain of the plunge took a few seconds to set in, but then we could instantly feel the cold seeping into our extremities and numbly swam to short to haul ourselves out onto the rocks.  Chris and Mitchell jumped in once more for the sake of taking a slo-mo video of it as evidence of our insanity, then we all sat on the rocks and attempted to dry off in the bleak, fading sunlight.  We had definitely waited too long to do this.

Shivering, we returned to camp in our underwear, naturally passing by a family camped a little ways below us.  At camp, I immediately sparked a fire to life so we could warm ourselves up a bit.  As we waited for the fire to spawn a hot bed of coals, we toasted a few marshmallows (who says you can’t have desert before dinner) and then finally cooked our sausages and turkey dogs.  Once we finished dinner and some more marshmallows, we attempted to play card for a bit.  I say attempted to refer to various respects.  First, Chris carefully devised a betting system using trail mix pieces, which failed with whatever game we tried to play it with much to his dismay.  Second, I tried teaching Chris hearts, but that too failed, as apparently the many years I spent perfecting the art in order to compete with my overly competitive and ruthless grandpa rendered me incapable of simplifying it.  Finally, we settled on the simple and classic fallback game of Bullshit.  You simply can’t go wrong with that.

As it got too dark to see the cards, Chris and I were ready to retire.  We left Mitchell up to play around with his camera trying to capture the emerging stars with long exposure shots while we began the long task of situating ourselves in the hammock.  First, we laid out Chris’ sleeping bag across the bottom, then Chris crawled in and I handed him mine, which would act as our blanket.  Then I somehow needed to squeeze myself in there.  Not an easy take, but once in, it was surprisingly warm and comfortable.  But between adjusting the bags, our bodies, and the shitty zipper of the mosquito net that kept splitting every time we tried to zip it shut, it took forever to get ourselves into the comfortable position. 

Then, just as we finally got it, SNAP! The nylon strap security our foot end to the tree broke and sent us crashing to the ground.  Specifically, it sent me crashing onto Chris and Chris’ tailbone crashing right onto the sharp point of the singular large rock below the hammock.  We were a mess of nylon, limbs, and groans as Mitchell ran over to help us disentangle ourselves.  Despite the pain, mostly for Chris, and frustration of the fall, we set to work re-rigging the hammock, forgetting the cheap straps it came with and instead using our climbing webbing to hold it to the tree. It was only then that we noticed the sleeping bag pouring from the bottom of the hammock and found a huge gaping hole where the rock had torn the pink fabric.  I was so glad I had trusted our lives to apparently such cheaply made materials.  We should have known, though.  The day had simply gone too well, too unhindered.  It was only a matter of time before some disaster had to befall us.

From there, all we could do was improvise.  We drug the ruined hammock up onto the grass trough where my tent was pitched for Mitchell and placed our bags inside it.  The ground was cold and while we usually slept without a sleeping pad without issue, this time we were also lacking the three-season tent to keep us insulated.   Because Mitchell had the tent, he volunteered to give his sleeping pad to us, for which we were grateful.  In the end, we made a pathetic little makeshift shelter, burying ourselves into the hammock and covering ourselves with a tent rainfly we had found abandoned alongside the trail and decided to pick up just in case. Just in case, indeed.  It was anything but comfortable, but it would do.

Even then, it was a long night.  Chris’ tailbone kept sending sharp jolts of pain through his body and I worried he may have broken it.  The sleeping pad was so narrow that we often found half our bodies hanging off it on the cold ground, which just gave us reason to huddle closer.  What’s more, the near full waning moon was casting such bright light in the clear night that it was difficult to fall asleep.  I hate sleeping with things close to my face but that was the only way to block out the light.  In the morning, Chris asked me if that light had been Mitchell’s camera all night, which garnered a laugh from me as I explained it was the moon.

All in all, we got maybe three or four hours of fitful sleep before I finally rose to rebuild the fire and start prepping the potato boat while the boys slept.  It was around 7:30am and everything seemed so impossibly still.  The surface of the lake was like glass and no wind swept through the bowl.  The only movement I could detect was that of the flickering fire and the line of sun slowly moving down the opposing ridge as sunlight filled the valley.

Once Chris and Mitchell were awake, we ate breakfast and packed up camp.  It might have been nice to hang out at camp for a little longer, but with Chris’ tailbone hurting considerably and me having to work at 4pm that evening, I knew the hike out could take us quite a bit of time we didn’t have to spare.  We snapped a few final photos at camp and set off.  The first mile of the upward rocky grade was the worst for Chris so we took it slow and steady.  Past that first mile, at least, the rest was a gentle downward grade that neither broke our knees nor hurt Chris’ tailbone too much unless he stumbled and planted a foot too hard.

As we hiked out, we became more and more pleased that we had come the night we did, because the vast number of people and backpackers streaming in on that Saturday morning would have significantly reduced the peace of our lake.  Despite injury and traffic on the trail, we made good time coming down and found ourselves homeward bound on the highway with a few hours to spare before I needed to be at work.  Hell, I even had time to shower and pretend to be somewhat civilized so my boss wouldn’t have to yell at me for having dirty ankles.  It wouldn’t have been the first time and it surely wouldn’t be the last.