This past summer, on June 24th, the day before my 60th birthday, I felt like spending most of the day entirely by myself. And I knew I could accomplish that here in the Northern Rockies by simply spending a day in the mountains.
I spend a great deal of time thumbing through the "Montana Atlas & Gazetteer" - looking for out of mainstream traffic places to go. And one particular mountain lake that set at about 7,000 feet, right along the Idaho border in the Bitterroot Mountains had caught my attention...way back in February. Knowing how snow that high can linger in some basins, I waited as long as I could, then put together a day pack, along with a spinning rod and some baits, loaded up in the truck with my two trail buddy dogs, Bob and Tully, and was headed out before daybreak.
I found the trailhead without any problem, at about 5,000 feet, and wasted little time heading out on a day adventure. It was just cool enough to require a light jacket, and the climb wasn't bad at all. Several times, I stopped along the way to glass a few cow elk on adjacent grassy slopes. By the time I covered the 4-mile walk in, I had seen 9 or 10 elk, and none had calves with them. But several times I had come across wolf scat, matted with young elk hair and bone shards. (This is a topic I will get into soon.) And about half-way up the trail, the dogs sent a 200-pound black bear running off the trail.
When I popped up over a slight rise and peered into the basin, the lake was even more magnificent than I imagined - and larger. It was easily 3/4-mile in length and about 1/2-mile across at its widest point. And from the deep dark blue color of the water, it was apparently very deep. A slight breeze had picked up. As far as the fishing was concerned, I liked the looks of the windward side most - with a lot of logs floated up against the shoreline, and looking not quite so deep. It proved to hold an abundance of 10 to 12 inch brook trout. In less than an hour, I had caught and released 15 or 16. Then, I climbed upon a rock to enjoy the scenery, and a bit of an early lunch.
The entire upper end of the lake was surrounded by towering steep ridges and sheer rock faces, with remnants of the winter's deep snows still coming down to the water's edge. I detected a slight movement on one steep face, and broke out my binoculars. It was a band of 9 mountain goats. I glassed them for about 15 minutes, then finished my lunch - with a little help from Bob and Tully.
The sun had warmed, and I slipped out of the jacket, rolled it up and used it for a pillow - listening to the water lapping against the shore, and the sound of the breeze blowing through the trees. Enjoying the serenity of the beauty surrounding me, I took a fifteen minute snooze. Then just laid there reflecting back on a good life, but not without a thought or two of tough times. Even though the memories were vivid in my mind, somehow, just laying there on that mountain distanced all of them. This was living for the moment at its best.
Another two hours of fishing produced easily another 20 of those colorful brookies -all released to fight another day. In mid afternoon, the dogs and I headed back down the trail, reaching the pickup about an hour and a half later. There was a young couple there at the trailhead, ready to head up for a night on the lake - and to do some fishing. They were the first people I had seen since driving the 20 miles of gravel road from the interstate early that morning. I asked if they had any small Panther Martin spinnerbaits, with a black blade and tiny yellow dots. They answered they didn't. So, I opened my pack and pulled out the one I had caught the majority of my fish on, and gave it to them - telling them to use it wisely...because that's what the fish were biting on.
It had been far better than just a great day. This was the last day of my 50s. And as I made the 70 mile drive home, to a woman I love dearly, I wondered if I would still be able to spend the day on that same lake on the last day of my 60s. And I realized that I had just set a new goal for my life.
About the photo: On the day before his 60th birthday, MONTANA MOUNTAIN CHRONICLE host Toby Bridges hiked into this remote mountain lake, to spend a day hiking, fishing and reflecting back. The spot proved to be an excellent choice for doing all three. (Click on photo to enlarge.)