In a light drizzle that chilly Sunday morning the Moccasin Ridge trek was underway. June hikes in Montana frequently offer the rain option and this was no exception. With hikes up that same route almost every weekend year round, a surprise on that familiar route would be…, well, surprising.
The trail up Moccasin Ridge is a perfect outdoor gym with a range of cardiovascular workout levels . The workouts range from relatively level stretches to full bore hill climbs, especially in the upper switchbacks criss-crossing the higher faces of the ridge. It’s not a Montana mountain peak but rather a hill among many within the intriguing Sapphire Range, and a Forest Service logging road, across the Clark Fork River from Clinton, MT.
The 5 mile training trail begins upon taking a sharp right turn immediately after crossing the Clark Fork at the Swartz Creek bridge. It serves as my private outdoor workout gym, a perfect training setting in every season and weather condition. The large and scenic Clark Fork River lies at the bottom. Moccasin Ridge offers a mountain spring trickling down one of draws, steep inclines, mountain meadows, massive ponderosa pines, deer flitting off into the woods, a small herd of elk lurking in the thicker stands of pines, and an occasional black bear is glimpsed disappearing into the brush.
Throwing on my training pack I set out in the gentle rain and the swirling mountain mists on the upper 2.2 mile leg of the hill climb. The higher climb provides steeper inclines, great views across the valley and surrounding range, and approximates the major Montana mountain trails elsewhere. The upper leg starts at a great knoll about halfway up Moccasin Ridge, expansive enough to set up a campsite under the enormous Ponderosas.
Getting out of the car, I was surprised at the lupines already forming flower heads. Little yellow glacier lilies were already in bloom when I had hiked the trail a couple of weeks before, but I thought they were usually way ahead of the curve for blooming plants at my workout gym. Initially, the trail leads from the knoll winding gently upward through pine groves. With the continual spring rains all the underbrush and grasses were flourishing in spingtime greens.
Wondering at my gradually fading vision, the startle effect was complete, as out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a hint of blue in the grass. Zeroing in on that splash of blue, to my amazement a tiny cluster of Montana bluebells came into focus – right there, right now this early part of June. I then realized that bluebells were all over that hillside meadow above the trail. Scattered among them were wonderful little yellow blossoms and white ones – the flowery beginnings of the springtime blossom parade!
I laughed at the curious spin this startling realization provided my perspective as I had worked this same trail a dozen times over the past 4 months. Typically, during the Moccasin Ridge workout the real processing occurs in the recesses of my mind and the “here and now” world provides a backdrop. Daily life struggles seize the initiative, venting and processing in the quiet solitude of these treks up the ridge.
This mountainside trek was no different. Our oldest son, Robert, had surprised us all, joined the Army, and “shipped out” to Basic Training just days before. This son of avowed peace loving, pacifist parents had voluntarily enlisted his services in a war machine, putting himself in dramatically dangerous circumstances. It was fitting that the hike up the mountain was a slog in the rain.
The Deities, being playful forces, seized the opportunity, springing a delightful surprise on me in the midst of all that grey and rain and grim introspection. A hint of blue in the springtime green, upon refocusing the attention, revealed a mountain meadow of flowers. I marveled at the irony. Continuing the hike, my pace quickened, the slog became an exploration of springtime wonders.
At the first half mile the trail takes a sharp and steep turn to the east, the first of the switchbacks working through tall timber. A deer startled, leaping from the trail into the brush and disappearing. Above the trail among trees and bushes multiple little pink spots were visible. Upon refocusing dozens of little pink shooting stars were seen scattered among the grasses. This grey, rainy June day took on a whole other hue and mood – those rascally Cosmic Forces.
The trail switchbacks criss-cross the steeper face of Moccasin Ridge for the next mile and a half, with more open meadows, steep inclines, and less timber to shelter from the continuing spring rain. The steep meadows were laced with clusters of blues, pinks, yellows and whites – the Dieties and spring had painted the hillside
As I finally topped the ridge at 2.2 miles, the rains decreased to light sprinkles. The mists swirling about the ridge lifted, and the clouds started to break up, offering some sunshine. A wonderful panorama opens upon topping the ridge, with the views back into Swartz Creek, hundreds of square miles of the Sapphire Range, and Elk Mountain standing tall right in the middle. The Deities graced me with meadows now awash with the pinks and reds of Indian Paintbrush along with the rest of the blue, white and yellow blooms.
A burst of sunshine, mountain meadows and blossoms of pinks, blues, yellows and whites while not a solution, at least offered some silver linings as a step in coping with the overall picture, providing a counterpoint. On the return down the mountain there was a little more of a spring in my step.