Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Trail #132 to Leigh Lake, Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Montana

Trail #132 in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness begins at the end of an atrocious, crater-filled road that winds through a logged area for about two miles. No, "road" is too generous a word. A road is what we turned off of two miles back -- an unpaved gravel affair, but nothing too dire. This, on the other hand, is a two-mile ribbon of unforested space covered in large rocks, pitted with gigantic holes, and actually strewn in places with fallen trees. This cannot be called a road so much as an obstacle course.

I've been on some bad roads. We once hauled a canoe along the Inside North Fork Road in Glacier National Park, and I think I have some residual brain damage from that ride. Though I'd thought it impossible, this one was worse. What I'm trying to say, in my customary delicate manner, is that one really ought not to attempt to reach Trail #132 to Leigh Lake without an extremely sturdy vehicle, or at least a healthy dollop of idiotic bravado. Both would help.

But if you get there, it's a treat. First hikes of the season have always been misery for me. I get all soft and flabby in the winter, mentally and physically (even softer and flabbier than usual), and hauling it all up a mountain is kind of a challenge. The hike to Leigh Lake is only 3 miles round trip with an elevation change of 1,000 feet each way. (I was also carrying a full pack and tripod.)

It wasn't hot, but it was warm enough that we became hot as we climbed steadily up to the lake. Large patches of snow lingered off trail, and we could hear the constant sound of snowmelt rushing off the mountains. After about an hour we arrived at a sheer rock face deluged in a seasonal waterfall. I placed my hands on it and let the ice cold water run over my wrists. Thomas, our year-old dog, had a drink.

At length, I turned around and saw this:

Hmm. Not bad. So I turned back around and kept going. Once you reach the base of the waterfall where the lake spills over into the valley, the trail forks and you have two options. One is to the right and one is to the left. The trail to the left is supposedly well-marked and not quite as steep, while the one to right involves scrambling on a scree-strewn trail that braids often and is easily lost.

So naturally we never found the left fork. Scrambling over the rock I was amazed to see that the alpine wildflowers were in full bloom, even though it was only Memorial Day weekend. Once we clambered up over the lip of the cirque, we could see the trail to the lake winding through a carpet of glacier lilies.

To me, an ascent is much less painful than a steep descent. Sure, it's harder on the lungs, but it's infinitely kinder to the feet and legs. Maybe it's my center of gravity, but I have to make a steep descent low to the ground. This produces what my husband calls "machine-gun leg," or the staccato quivering of muscles that have been overworked. The insult continues on a normal but still descending trail, as one's toes jam mercilessly into boots with every step down.

But it doesn't last long, and it's all part of the game, and it still beats the living hell out of any other day parked at a computer. We made it down, though we were slightly dehydrated from a mistake calculating our fluid needs for the day. We went to the DQ on the edge of town and I sucked down a root beer float, which solved the problem immediately.


wyldthang said...

Hey, sounds like a great hike! Your pix remind me of the north cacades, the olympics. I admit I like potholes, they cut down on traffic. We took one of those trips too, following a road into oblivion. I tried to convince hubby that a skinny grey road on the map does not neccessarily mean short cut. Although the "short cut" was way fun! Hairy! Scary!Happy next hike!! Celeste

Trailhead said...

True; potholes do cut down on all but the most dedicated traffic!

I love the Olympics, and have backpacked there, but I have to admit that the North Cascades are a glaring omission in my mountain repertoire. We keep trying to get there, and I suppose it will happen eventually.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

*sigh* this sounds so lovely

descents kill me, too. I am always wishing I'd brought oil for my knees.

kris said...

That sounds so cool - thinking I must get the body in shape and take up hiking! Beautiful - photos and descriptions!

James said...

I grew up in Libby and have hiked this trail numerous times. I personally think Leigh Lake is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Lots of fun stories from this trail...

Trailhead said...

Leigh Lake is wonderful, isn't it? I've noticed an uptick in folks visiting this post recently -- I think we must all be getting cabin fever and are ready to hit the trails. I know I am.

Libby is where we have our other house -- small world! Thanks for coming by.

James said...

Where's your other house at beside Libby?

My parents still live there, where abouts is your Libby home?

My favorite story is when we took a visiting missionary there and she tried to throw her shoes across the waterfall and one didn't make it, we actually were able to find it, it got caught up in one of the logjams about 10 feet below the falls. It was fun trying to retrieve it.

Trailhead said...

The picture on top of the page is actually of the house. It's east of the river, near the L.