July 12-14: Bass Creek Bonding

It’s 9:00 p.m. and my mom and I are finally sitting down to a mug of wine, spicy blue chips and mango salsa. Mom and I don’t mess around on our first night of a backpacking trip. Even with these decadent hors d'oeuvres my pack is so much lighter then I’m used to because my mom and I share a tent, stove, water filter, and even a toothpaste tube. That’s the joy of having a mother that loves to do what you love to do — backpack and explore! My mom and dad taught me everything that I know about traveling in the wilderness. Mom honed my backpacking and hiking skills while Dad sharpened my riding and horse-packing abilities. I am very lucky to have my parents living in Missoula and volunteering their time to work with me and the SBFC in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. We’re sipping wine and munching on chips and thinking about the beauty around us instead of the next two days of inventorying and cleaning up campsites along the Bass Creek drainage and around Lappi and Bass Lakes. This is one of the closest and most popular drainages to the Missoula Valley, and it gets hit hard by recreators. We wake up early and mom takes down the tent while I get breakfast started. We’re good at splitting camp chores, a division of labor that we’ve honed over the 10 years that we’ve been backpacking together. We’re packed up and hiking towards the Bass Creek-Lappi Lake junction within an hour. The sun is just starting to light the hillsides and dry the dew off of the grass. My mom has been up all these Bitterroot Valley canyons multiple times and the last time she was up Bass was 28 years ago, almost to the day. She was 8 months pregnant with me. She remembers looking up at the ridge where she thought Lappi Lake was nestled and noticing two prominent spires that looked like devil horns. She points at the southern ridge, and sure enough, there are the devil horns. We start looking for the rock cairn that marks the junction. My mom also remembers that the trail was pretty overgrown and hard to find back then — what will it be like now, 28 years later?

My mom is an amazing trail sleuth. I think she has a special 6th sense for finding obscure routes. We thrash our way through the underbrush, battling downed tree branches and grippy alders. We slosh through hidden puddles and huck ourselves over jack-strawed trees. All the while, my mom’s looking for clues. She spots a pitchy overgrown blaze and we know we’re still on track. When I think all hope is lost and the brush can’t get any thicker, she spots the cut end of a tree and the path emerges —a little easier to follow than no path at all! About half way up, we’re shoving through the brush and we realize that we are off the trail. She seems to remember that the trail goes up the rocky hillside so we try to angle that way, but a woven pile of trees stops us in our tracks. We decide the best way out of this mess is to go back to the last cut log that we saw. When we finally find our way back, we realize that the trail has become the creek, or vice versa. So, we slosh on. Finally, we emerge onto the rock slope and follow a series of rock cairns that seem to have no rhyme or reason. Perhaps some sculptor went for a hike and decided to get creative. But we’ve got our eyes on the ever-growing, ever-looming devil horns and we know that we’re getting close. After hopping over the outlet and scaling a few more rocks we’re treated to a lovely view of Lappi Lake surrounded by snow-covered slopes and rocky outcroppings. My mom and I don’t say a word. We know what’s next: s swim! My mom would swim in an ice cube if it was a backcountry lake and she could. I’ve seen her swim in water that was so cold it was slushy. She doesn’t stay long, but she gets her whole body under the water. She hoots and hollers like a banshee but no one can say that mom can’t stand cold temps. We used to see who could swim in the most lakes in a summer but once I started working in the woods, I out-swam her with ease. She’s at a distinct disadvantage with her desk job . . . .

After our swim we get to work inventorying and cleaning up a campsite that used to be an old cabin site. The Forest Service burned it years ago and all that’s left is a mossy spot and some rusty nails. Folks have camped here recently and there’s lots of trash and two fire rings. It’s hot dusty work to pitch rocks and scoop us ashes. I admire my mom for volunteering her time to spend grueling hours mucking in damp, ashy campfire rings looking for some careless schmuck’s discarded, burned-to-a-pulp aluminum beer can (yeah, we might enjoy our wine in the backcountry but at least we put it in a plastic bladder and we don’t try to make it disappear in the camp fire) or half-burned plastic Mountain Home dinner packet. Maybe we swam and cleaned up in the wrong order, but every backcountry swimmer knows that you get your swim in while you’re hot and sweaty from your hike up.

Mom is a quick learner and after about 2 campsites we have our division of labor down pat. I do the inventory paperwork and she counts damaged trees and roots. Then we both work on dismantling fire rings and picking up trash. She’s also on the lookout for interesting developments in the campsites that help me with the inventory matrix: nails in trees, constructed seats, or ditched-out tent pads. Generally, wilderness campsites need to be inventoried every five years to make sure that their impact level is in sync with the opportunity class designation for the area that they are situated in, but these sites need to be cleaned up every year. My first year working in the woods, I was a Wilderness Ranger in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington. I packed out more trash in three months than I could imagine. The area is close to Seattle and gets a ton of use. I packed out a rusty cast iron skillet that my dad cleaned up and still cooks with. My mom hasn’t had much experience with trashy camps and she is livid with anger at the carelessness of some people. She really cares about wilderness and can’t believe that people would treat it with so little regard. After a full day of inventorying and cleaning up sites she is telling everyone that we see to pack it in, pack it out. A group of teenagers on their way to Bass Lake to swim commiserate with her and promise that they never leave trash in the Wilderness; my mom is heartened to hear that these youth have a such a sense of responsibility.

On the third day, as we’re hiking out, my mom and I get a chance to chat and reflect. We realize that this trip has really brought me full circle in my hiking career. Not only did she come up here when she was pregnant with me, but this hike also helped my overcome my dislike of hiking when I was younger. I hated to hike. I liked being outside and camping, but I didn’t like hiking. It might have been a bit of rebellion since it was something both of my parents loved. I resisted for years and then for some silly reason, probably because it’s in my blood, I joined the high school hiking club. She reminds me that one of hikes that she chaperoned was to Bass Creek Falls in the early spring. We didn’t make it to the falls because of a treacherous high water crossing but that hike put my mind on a path that my genes were already on. My mom gave me an external-frame backpack and sleeping pad for high school graduation and we spent the whole summer before college backpacking.

I’m still learning how to travel and live in the woods from my mom. She is strong and confident and responsible. She can go anywhere and even after 3 knee surgeries and struggles with back pain she still hikes close to 100 miles a summer. Her adventurous spirit inspires me and her company helps me get through the mentally and physically grueling aspects of my job. I’m lucky to have her as my mother, but more importantly, I’m lucky to have her as my friend and number-one hiking buddy!

      — Rachel Kaufman, Lead Wilderness Steward