Montana Firetower Bucket Brigade

Montana Firetower Bucket Brigade. Written by Trina Ortega. Photos by Scott Haraldson

It was about 11 p.m., and I had just finished brushing my teeth

on the wooden catwalk of the Garver Mountain Fire Lookout, 40 feet off the ground. I had bikepacked to the lookout that afternoon from the bustling six-business metropolis of Yaak in northwestern Montana. After brushing, I spent a few minutes studying the sky. The stars were thick and crowded the night air. Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Andromeda, Cassiopeia—they were all there. The Milky Way was a frothy band spilling downward to the southwest.

An off-white, low-arcing rainbow sat just above the horizon to the north, far past the Canadian Rockies whose silhouette looked like a string of tiny flat black triangles against the light blue sky. The arc stretched across most of the northern horizon. It was distinct, not like the lights cast from a city in the distance. (Besides, I was in the very northwestern corner of Montana, a stone’s throw from the Idaho panhandle, and there’s nothing out there for hundreds of miles. Nothing.) The white glowing rainbow was odd, like nothing I’d ever seen.

The arc stretched across most of the northern horizon. It was distinct, not like the lights cast from a city in the distance.

“Surely that can’t be…” I thought.

My heart skipped a beat when I was realized I was staring at the Northern Lights, a scientific wonder on my bucket list. I didn’t have an immediate plan to see the Aurora Borealis, and it wasn’t even on my radar for this trip. Despite not being the brilliant green we see in photos, the sight brought tears to my eyes. After days of stressing about my bike fit, my fitness, my lack of experience bikepacking, and the 100-some-odd fires burning in the Kootenai National Forest, I felt some peace.

I like nature that way. It can fix things. I’d been yearning to spend time up high in the Colorado Rockies, camp above treeline, take a break from the static that comes with being a mother, an editor, a wife, dog-owner, car-owner, house-owner, volunteer, community member, library card-holder…and this bikepacking trip in Big Sky Country—even if the big sky was a bit smoky—put things back into perspective. Spending each day with only a small supply of clothes, food and water on your back and bike can do that.

I had two companions, Laura and Kelly, and we traveled by map and compass, pre-printed route suggestions from The Google, and Garmin waypoints. It was mid-August, and we based out of Yaak, 120 miles north of Kalispell, Montana, “The Yaak,” as it is known by locals and visitors, is not so much a town of 240 people but an “area” that locals proudly define by mile markers and highways. You can’t claim to be from The Yaak, if you’re just outside those mile markers. (But if you’re from The Yaak and need furniture delivered, you’d better fudge on those mile markers, otherwise the driver won’t make the journey north on the narrow South Fork Road/NF-68, which in spots looks more like a wide bike path than a road.)

Our tour covered approximately 170 miles in four days, with three fire lookouts as our nightly destinations. (A fourth night of open-air camping was scheduled but we skipped it, opting to pedal 61 miles back to our start-stop location in The Yaak, a Kootenai Indian word that means “arrow.”) Travel to each of the lookouts was via Forest Service roads and singletrack, but we pedaled paved highways and chip-seal roads as well. I likened the riding each day to the mountain biking in Santa Cruz, California, where you almost always end on an uphill. The lookouts—for obvious reasons—are on the very tops of the peaks, and our three destinations were located on some of the highest points in the Purcell and Salish mountain ranges: Garver Mountain at 5,784 feet, Big Creek Baldy at 5,768, and McGuire Mountain at 6,970 feet.

It was no coincidence that we were staying in fire lookouts while fires burned all around; August is fire season in northwestern Montana. Smoke from the 100-plus area Kootenai fires and Washington’s largest forest fire had choked the valleys in all directions except the north, toward Canada.

The fires added a different level of reality to the trip. They were unnerving and kept survival of a different sort at the forefront of our minds. We took advantage of our technological devices and, in the minimal pockets of cell coverage, phoned the regional Forest Service offices when possible to find out about fire danger and closures.

I was restless at night, with the high winds whistling all around the lookouts. It would push smoke into the Kootenai River valleys, where it settled during the day. We pedaled with damp bandanas over our noses and mouths, but I could still feel a bit of stinging in my eyes and burning in my throat from time to time. We woke up with dry, stuffy noses and the air quality didn’t help Kelly’s chest cold or Laura’s sensitive left nostril, which bled occasionally from the dry, smoky air. The smoke obscured the views, and a sprinkling of ash coated our bikes and packs on the last two mornings.

For all the reasons you’d expect, this bikepacking trip put the present moment right at my fingertips. Bear spray was at the ready, mounted to the handlebar, and we constantly yelled into the forest to scare away any big critters. We passed the time with each pedal stroke, and broke up the miles by stopping to stretch during the climbs, laying in the gravel on the shoulder of the dirt road, cooling our feet in a mountain stream, and seeking out shady, wind-sheltered spots (such as under the Kootenai Bridge) to eat lunch like hobos with no agenda.

When you’re in the moment, finding your way in the woods, priorities are easily ranked. But this bikepack adventure also gave me pause to realize what’s important back home, such as playing more board games with my kids and spending more Saturday mornings with my husband savoring coffee on the patio.

On this trip, I also thought a lot about my mom, who died 13 years ago. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the stress of the fires. I wanted her to make me feel safe. Maybe it was the strength I felt in being out there, taking on this human-powered journey. She would be proud. Maybe it was living down to the basics. She would be curious: Where do you take a shower? If anything, bikepacking in “The Last Great Place” made me feel closer to her. I like nature that way. I do believe she was there with me—in the bright green lichen clinging to the wood of an old cabin, in the gurgle of the water running over the rocks in Sutton Creek, in the golden sun setting on the soft needles of the cedar trees, and in the glow of the Northern Lights.