There is something alluring, almost magical, about the Rocky Mountains, affectionately known as “The Rockies.” They had been tugging at Caleb Winings’ heart a long time to “come and see” them. In August of 2018, the then 22-year old from Indiana, gave into the calling and experienced a hike of a lifetime.
Caleb relates, “I have always loved camping and hiking and being in the woods. I’ve always wanted to see the Rockies too but when I had the time, I didn’t have the money and vice versa. This year it all came together. It was just the right time.”
So it was. Caleb chose Montana because he wanted somewhere semi-green instead of all rock. He had been looking at Glacier National Park until he hooked up with an outfitter on a gun forum who told him that if he wanted away from the crowds and to be able to experience the true Rockies to stay away from Glacier. Instead, he suggested the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in northwest Montana.
This wilderness area is broken down into three regions, the Great Bear, the Scapegoat, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness area. All three together comprise more than 1.5 million acres that are one of the most completely preserved mountain ecosystems in the world. The area offers rugged peaks, alpine lakes, cascading waterfalls, grassy meadows embellished with shimmering streams, towering pines, and big river valleys. Caleb was sold, it had it all. Over 1700 miles of trails wind through the wilderness which is home to moose, elk, mountain goats, mountain lions, black bear, and numerous grizzly bears.
From Indiana, he flew to Kalispell and from there he hired a Uber driver to drop him off at Devil’s Creek Campground in the Flathead National Forest, literally in the middle of nowhere. There was a landline for phone service at the campground but, from here on out, cell service ceased to exist. Caleb instructed the Uber driver to pick him up in five days at that point. The Uber driver told him that if he wasn’t there, he would call the Rangers. Caleb was on his own, just himself, his 2” barreled snub-nosed .357, bear spray, and a knife. If he encountered anything that none of those would handle, it would be game over.
His plan for the first day was to hike to Forester Mountain but, like many best-laid plans, they tend to go awry. “That first day tested me,” Caleb admitted. “I hiked 6.2 miles and gained over 2000 feet in elevation, all in rain that never let up. I made it to Elk Lake and decided to wait it out there overnight.”
He had five days’ worth of food with him, winter gear that was good down to 10 degrees F., one change of clothes, a butane stove for boiling water to drink and heating freeze-dried meals and no tent. By nightfall, he was literally soaked from brushing against the six-foot high foliage along the trails. Caleb used the app “All Trails” on his phone, which was a big help in locating the trails and registering their degree of difficulty. However, the trails were merely paths that were cut through the overgrowth.
“The only thing that saved me were my wool socks. My boots got wet but my socks stayed dry and kept my feet warm,” he explained. “Elk Lake was beautiful, even in the dreary rain. I made camp there and vowed to stick it out, hoping that the next day would be better.”
No such luck. He hung his food in a tree to lessen the temptation of the Grizzlies coming into his camp and put on his dry set of clothes. As it rained even harder, he hunkered down in his military sleeping bag with a rain-proof cover on it. Around midnight the waterproof cover quit working and the water started draining back on him, but it still wasn’t a big deal.
The next morning was a different story. The temperature was 40 degrees and it was snowing. It was so miserable and cold that his fingers couldn’t feel the zipper on his jacket. “I was ready to pack it in and give up, so I headed back to Devil’s Creek to call the Uber driver to take me back to Kalispell and regroup.”
He got a hotel room for the night to get warm and dry out. With clothes hanging all over the room to dry and spirits broken, he kicked around the idea of going home. “Two things saved me,” he recalls. “My Mom, knowing what this trip meant to me, told me not to throw the towel in just yet and the fact that it would have cost me more to go home early than to stay. It’s probably the only time I’ll ever be thankful for expensive airline flights!”
So, he ordered pizza and planned his strategy. Flathead National Forest was 25 minutes away from where he was and it was still in the Rockies. Plan B was set.
The next day was like someone had flipped a switch from the previous day, temperatures were in the 70’s with blue skies and beautiful sunshine. The Uber driver dropped him off at the trailhead about 11:00 AM that third day where he would climb the mountain adjacent to Strawberry Mountain. The trail going up was all switchbacks but provided some gorgeous overlooks.
“Words can’t describe the beauty,” Caleb recalls. “It was awesome! I got some cool photos even though they don’t do it justice. My eyes literally hurt from taking it all in.”
So impressed with the area, he camped at Strawberry Lake and stayed in that general area the rest of the time, exploring various trails. The last day held yet another challenge. “As I was going down the trail, I kept hearing something switching back and forth in front of me. It turns out that I was actually following a black bear! Forty yards in front of me, I caught a glimpse of him. Thankfully, he went his way and I went mine.”
You do what you have to do at the time. Looking back, Caleb confides, “I was actually more concerned about mountain lions than bear. I knew my .357 would take care of a lion and, actually, the bear spray would have been a better deterrent for the bear. As I was told, it is like ‘mace on steroids.’”
He did find that he and the bears have one thing in common, they both love huckleberries! “I encountered these on the trail that went towards Jewel Basin. They are like blueberries, except smaller with a taste all their own. They were a real treat.”
All in all, he encountered only eight people in five days on the trails. Two of those were a husband and wife who were fly fishing. He spent a little time with them since he had never fly fished and was intrigued by it.
The rest of the time, it was just him and nature. Although an experienced hiker and camper, he admits that it was different knowing you were totally on your own, especially after dark. “The mind does interesting things and the imagination can lure you to dark places. You have to keep your mind straight because you hear every little sound in the stillness of the night.”
Unfortunately, he had to be cautious not only about the various wildlife, but also for any people he might meet on the trails. “These days things are different and it’s sad, but you have to look out for yourself at all times.”
On this note, Caleb is thankful that his parents were behind him 100 percent. “It would have been harder,” he admits, “if they had expressed reservations about my safety. Instead, they totally wanted me to have this experience.”
When I asked Amy, his mother, in retrospect if she did have any reservations before he left she commented, “I only asked him to take a GPS locator with him.”
Gene, his dad, laughed. “I told him, ‘See you when you get back!'”
Ironically, if he could have changed anything, it would be to take less food. His backpack, including food, only weighed about 50 pounds. Of the freeze-dried food, protein bars, and dried fruits and nuts that he packed, he only ate about two-thirds of that in the five days.
As Caleb reflects, “It was definitely a challenge, on all fronts. I had kicked around the idea of taking a friend, but it is good knowing that I did it myself. There is a satisfaction in that.”
However, there is also a flip side to this. He adds, “There were so many magnificent sights but I had no one to share it with. You just can’t capture this in pictures.”
The experience was different than he had imagined. “The Rockies are referred to as the ‘Lonely Mountains’ and for good reason. I love the Smokies, but these are mountains! I spent a lot of time reflecting out there and it definitely made me a stronger person.”
Would he do it again? Without hesitation, his answer is an enthusiastic, “Absolutely! I got to experience the Rockies instead of just seeing them.”
He has just touched the tip of the iceberg. Even though he hopes to someday hike in Alaska, see the Great Wall of China, and experience British Columbia, the call of the Rockies will definitely lure him back to this wild area.
Images courtesy of Caleb Winings