Here are the experiences I had through the Purcell Mountains. Fortunately most of the snow at this point had all melted. After leaving Eureka the trail followed a railroad for a short distance, followed by a series of dirt trails that led into Rexford, Montana.
Rexford is not much of a town than it is a resort for people with boats. I picked up some town comforts from a general store, because why not, and I made my way to the first challenge of this section: the climb up Webb Mountain. It began with a 7 mile, paved roadwalk.
This in my opinion, is terrible. Walking on a paved road with moderate to heavy traffic is just not fun. It did follow along the Koocanusa River though, that was cool. After trudging along the road, I finally made it to the base of Webb Mountain, where the steep climb began.
- Getting to the next town using any means possible – it’s not always a small dirt path.
I’ll begin explaining the climb after I give you a little background on the PNT: it likes to hit summits & follow high ridge lines, while spending as little time in a forested valley as possible. This is purely due to the good views obtained at the higher elevations. There are other, easier ways to get around the mountains (and sometimes you can choose to take this type of route) but they are always following low-level valleys (i.e., no good views). Since I love good views, 9 times out of 10 I would opt for the high routes. Every now and then I would choose the easier route depending on how much food I had or how my mentality was doing at the moment.
Now that you have a vague idea of what the trail is like physically, I’ll explain the climb up Webb Mountain.
- Looking down at the Koocanusa River from Webb Mountain.
This climb was described in my guidebook as the “first PNT climb” of the trail. I read this and was like, uh-oh. This will probably be a steep one…and it was.
Climbing from the base of the mountain up to the summit consisted of gaining ~3,500 feet in elevation within 4.2 miles. It’s not like I haven’t done that type of elevation gain before but this was different. The climbing is really steep and constantly goes straight up or down, with not much of a grade in between. All I had to say about this climb in my hand-written journal was the following: “It was rough but I did it.”
When I made it to the top, I took a break at an abandoned fire lookout tower, enjoyed the views of the Koocanusa River, and continued on.
- Getting lost – an inevitable part of this adventure.
The PNT began to head towards Mt. Henry, opting to summit that mountain as well. Truth be told, I tried to opt out of this climb. It’s hard to explain in a way for people to fully understand but my mentality was being drained fast in between towns. The mixture of the constant climbing, having to accurately navigate my way, and having to always be aware of wildlife all at the same time was hard to get used to at first. I did get used to it later on though.
So yea, there I was at a trail junction. One way led to the summit of Mt. Henry while the other one dropped down and meandered through a valley until it met again with the primary PNT route. I tried to take the trail that dropped in the valley with no luck. After about 2 miles down this trail, the vegetation began to get really dense with vines, trees, and bushes that were all growing over my head. The trail soon disappeared. I tried to continue through the vegetation and find it again because I really wasn’t feelin’ another summit just yet. The more I tried to find the trail, the more I got lost. At one point I couldn’t see anything around me, nor could I find where I came from. I used this opportunity to take a break, keep calm, and figure it out. I decided I was just going to hit the summit of Mt. Henry.
Yea, it’s more climbing that I didn’t want to do on this day but being lost sucks. Based on my maps I knew that if I just bushwhacked back uphill, I would make it onto a ridge that met back up with a trail leading to Mt. Henry…so that’s what I did. At this point, I’ve become pretty comfortable with bushwhacking. It’s just another tool in the toolbox now.
- The ascent up Mt. Henry was beautiful.
Technically, the PNT doesn’t hit the summit of Mt. Henry. It skirts around the mountain reaching a point about 0.5 miles away from the top. But I’ve climbed this far, so why not just push on? I climbed the additional few hundred feet in elevation to the summit. The views were amazing up top and the sense of accomplishment was strong. I took a break at the summit, studied my maps, and began to descend down a ridge.
The pattern of the trail was to follow a ridge, hit a couple of summits, drop down in a valley, climb up another mountain, and repeat. It was challenging but the views were one-of-a-kind in this area, with views of endless mountains extending across Montana, Canada, and Idaho. After a while I made my way into Idaho and also to the last big climb of this section: Bussard Mountain.
At this point, my body was in pristine physical condition. I had gotten used to the constant, heavy climbs that the trail offers. It was the mentality that was constantly challenged. That part never got easy. High highs were followed by low lows. The mental aspect seemed to follow the physical aspect of the trail – big ups and big downs with not much in between. The lows sucked but the highs were incredible. Imagine a feeling of extreme happiness that encompasses the entire body from head to toe, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. I’m sure this is due to the excessive amounts of endorphins being released in the brain from all the physical activity. I can’t explain it more than that but just know one thing – it’s addicting.
- More eyecandy from Montana and Idaho…notice the faint trail?
I had a good mentality before climbing Bussard Mountain so it went by pretty easily. I took a lunch break near the top of the mountain to rest up before the final push into Bonner’s Ferry. While I was eating, I heard the sound of a dog whimpering from around the corner. I immediately thought, “Oh cool, someone brought their dog up here. Now I can have someone to talk to!” I had been alone since leaving Eureka. But then the animal came around the corner and I quickly realized that it wasn’t a dog – it was a full-grown grey wolf.
- This isn’t my picture, I found it on Google Images…but it looks identical to the wolf I encountered.
Before it noticed me, I saw that it had a rabbit in its mouth. This was comforting because I knew it wasn’t looking for more food. Regardless though, I kept my eyes on him as he walked by. When he got about 15 feet away, he finally noticed me and stopped in his tracks. Our eyes locked and I remained calm to show him that I wasn’t phased by his presence. Without breaking eye contact, I grabbed my bear spray, took off the safety, and pointed it at his head.
After having practiced this maneuver many times, I was able to do it in one solid motion. The moment I pointed the spray at the wolf’s head, he ran. He jumped off the side of the mountain and I don’t think he knew this, but there were a lot of fallen down trees (known as blowouts) where he jumped. I heard him crash & tumble before picking himself back up and running out of sight. I hope he didn’t lose his rabbit.
- Up and over Bussard Mountain in Idaho.
After the wolf encounter, I decided to pack up and continue with my day. I considered myself lucky that it was just a lone wolf. I didn’t want to encounter a pack. I made my way down the mountain and to a highway that led into Bonner’s Ferry. A trail angel (someone who helps out the hikers) gave myself and another hiker that I just met, Simple Sole, a ride into town. Apparently Simple Sole had always been just a little bit ahead of me this whole time, although I had been alone for days. He got a room at a motel while I setup my tent in the motel’s ‘backyard.’
This town was a nice stay. I ran into my friend Raven again and met some other hikers named Free Bird (who has hiked an insane amount of miles), Roadie (who I had recently met on Instagram), and Nightrider (a friend I made along the PCT last year)! We all hung out in town together and exchanged stories of this trail as well as other trails from the past. Raven and Freebird split off early while Nightrider, Simple Sole, Roadie and I rested up in town.
After recharging, we went back out to start one of the most intense parts of the trail: the traverse across the Selkirk Mountains.
Keep following along as I write about the best experience of my life – the Pacific Northwest Trail!