Southwest Montana had just suffered a shock to its metabolic systems in the form of a multi-day storm event that brought snow to the mountains and triggered the slow but inevitable slide into autumn. The needles of the subalpine larch began to turn gold, the black bears intensified their consumption of pine nuts in preparation for their winter nap, and I decided I should backpack into the Pintler Range before cold weather returned and made the mountainous landscape inhospitable.
Rain and snow had finally suppressed many of the forest fires plaguing the northwestern states, so I was also eager to experience some smoke-free high country vistas before the blazes had a chance to rekindle.
I chose a twenty-five-mile loop in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness that wound through stands of lodgepole pine dripping with black lichen and through meadows carpeted with withered yellow grasses and false hellebore. Bull elk bugled in the far distance to attract potential mates and show off their lung capacity. Their shrill cries pierced the forest – a sound resembling a steaming teapot trying to whistle a tune for the first time.
The trail continued into regions scorched so intensely by the Mussigbrod Fire in 2000 that no conifer seeds survived to regenerate the forests. The silvery ghosts of long-dead trees still stood erect, haunting the hillsides and awaiting a windstorm strong enough to lay them to rest. Grassland vegetation thrived in the absence of the forest canopy, obscuring the trail in sections. I looked for the turnoff to Hidden Lake and failed to locate it, but I ended up wandering onto the trail to the lake by accident. That was fortunate. The trout were jumping like mad out there when I arrived. I needed to capitalize on their hunger and catch myself some dinner.