There are many reasons why I go hiking.
Just as John Muir encouraged, I go to the mountains and seek their good tidings. I go to witness the short-lived wildflower blooms, the commanding power of a family of mountain goats straddling a pinnacle, the expansive view of mountain peaks, jewel-toned lakes and the roll of the plains, and the feeling of release that comes from hours of putting one foot in front of another on the trail.
While it is nature that commands my attention, I like to experience the trail with the people I like the best—my family and friends. It is nice to share the trail with a select few but there are also times where it is the people I meet who make the greater impression (for better or worse) rather than the flowers or wildlife.
During a recent hike to Stahl Peak and Lookout in the Ten Lakes Wilderness Area, the characters I met overruled the climb.
At the trailhead I met my first interesting character of the day: Bear, a 200-pound Lab mix. It is safe to say that Bear has the feeding habits of a grizzly bear, although the hound neither needs food for winter nor roams the mountains.
From the looks of him, Bear didn’t do much hiking. With his rotund owner, Bear hung out at the trailhead, hoping his engorged stomach would inspire a passing hiker to feed him. I do not feed wildlife, which was a good enough reason why Bear, wild in name anyway, didn’t get a treat from me.
South and east of Eureka, Montana, lies the Galton Range, home to the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area on the Kootenai National Forest. My plan was to hike to Stahl Peak where an old fire lookout clings to rock.
The lookout was built in 1926 and a local guidebook claims it was used in the 1960s for emergencies. The book doesn’t elaborate on what kind of emergencies, but Stahl Peak makes for a good destination after five miles of gradual climbing through a forest of spruce and fir.
After saying goodbye to Bear, we encountered a man in his mid-twenties wearing pink sunglasses. In a loud voice, he kept pointing at the surrounding mountains and commenting about their possibility as backcountry ski lines.
He said he was visiting from Oregon and was thinking about moving to Montana. My trusty hiking companion, Cole, and I allowed Skier Man to make his way up the trail first.
At its start, the trail is an old logging road that offers views of the lookout: a giant, whitewashed building atop a buff-colored cliff. Surrounded by densely forested, rolling mountains, Stahl Peak looks like it belongs in the cliffs of Yosemite National Park.
Instead of going up the rock, the trail winds through the western edge of the ridge, trees and wildflowers bordering the switchbacks. As we climbed higher, we got a filtered view of Glacier’s peaks in the southern sky.
The trail sign promotes a four-mile trek to the lookout, but it is a good five miles. All but the last quarter- mile is in the trees. When we exited the quiet forest, we were immediately on rock. A few more steps and we were on top of Stahl Peak.
There’s just enough room for the lookout, which doesn’t look as big as it did 2,400 vertical feet lower. The door to the lookout was open, but it was better to sit outside and take in the views of the dramatic drop to an unnamed lake below and the lesser-seen side of the mountains in Glacier, the Whitefish Range, and Canada.
Skier Man was eating his lunch and was pleased with our presence, so he could tell of his impressive ski career. So many accomplishments for such a young guy. Cole, who loathes small talk, gave mostly one-word responses.
Skier Man kept boasting about his varied ski career, and he then pointed at a nearby mountain, hoping it would elicit more of a response from Cole. Cole looked at Skier Man and said, “That line you’re looking at? It’s a major avalanche path.”
Skier Man looked blankly back, his first attempt at silence.
Skier Man was not the only person at the lookout. Two girls, one with a .357 on her belt, and their two dogs wandered in and out of the lookout. As I produced a bag of trail mix for my lunch, both girls pulled bottles of wine from their packs.
They told me that on their days off they drink a bottle of wine at the trailhead, hiked to a lookout, and drank the second bottle of wine.
While I, too, like to drink, I usually reserve the consumption of libations, especially two bottles of wine, for after the hike. I would not even be able to tie the laces on my hiking boots after a bottle of wine at nine in the morning. The girl with the gun was born and raised in Eureka and pointed out the lesser-known peaks in the area.
Three other people joined our closely knit lookout party. They opted for the south edge of the cliff, careful to avoid the cables that secure the lookout to the mountain. The scene at Stahl Peak felt like we were all in line for a concert, strangers pushed together in a small but beautiful hallway.
The girls, who had climbed up the peak from a different trailhead, said if Cole and I wanted to join them on the descent, they could offer us a ride back to the Clarence Creek trailhead. Skier Man took them up on the offer and we waved the trio off.
We had no problem going the same way back, just the two of us.
You can find Stahl Peak and Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area off Highway 93 North just past Fortine. Turn right at Grave Creek and follow the signs to your desired hiking or camping area.
Maybe Bear will be there, hoping for a meal or two.
Maggie Neal Doherty lives in Whitefish, Montana.