An (almost) visit to Gray Wolf Lake

Mission Mountains

August 2, 2011

For years I have looked at maps, and my map of the Mission Mountains is no exception. Despite being relatively close, I have not explored the Missions much. I have a much larger wilderness area out the back door, and there are a lot of places there I still haven't seen. But the wilderness out my back door is large enough that it really takes a longer trip to get into it and explore. So when we have a need or an urge for a short trip, I often pull out the map of the Missions and mull it over.

We had some out-of-town guests coming in a few weeks with only limited time, and I thought maybe a trip into the Missions would be just right. Every time I pull out the map, I end up staring at a place with few trails and steep terrain, the area around Gray Wolf Lake and Gray Wolf mountain. There is only one trail into the area, and it's about eight miles.

We had a lot of snow this past winter, and there is still a lot of snow in parts of the high country. When we drove up the east side of the Missions on our way to Glacier for our trip to Bowman Lake, we could still see a lot of snow. So for that reason, and because I've always wanted to go there, I thought we should check it out first. We were planning a long pack trip and the horses needed to get in shape, so I thought we could ride up to check it out and then back in a day trip.

The day didn't start out particularly well. As we left the house, Dona asked about getting gas in Ovando. The gas gauge in the truck doesn't work right; when full it says 1/4, and I was told by the previous owner that it says empty when you're down to half a tank. I've always taken that as gospel, in spite of having previously run out of gas. I had just worked on the trailer brakes and while doing that noticed the gas gauge go from a little above empty to sitting on the peg. So we had a half a tank, I was "pretty sure." So I said we would get gas in Seeley Lake, roughly forty miles from home. I did a quick calculation -- the truck gets 10 miles / gallon, so that's four gallons out of 20, a safe margin for error. A mile short of Seeley, we chugged to a halt on the shoulder. I turned on the hazard lights and start exploring the nearby houses for signs of life. Fortunately, I found a helpful woman on the second try. She had an empty gas can and gave me a lift to the station in Seeley and back. I emptied two gallons into the truck, mostly, but the damn gas can was one of the new "spill-proof" ones with a human-proof spout with intricate locking mechanisms made of cheap thin plastic in China. As I was tipping the can up and bending the spout to get the last few drops into the tank, the entire spout section came loose spilling gas all over my jeans so I looked like I didn't make it to the bathroom.

We drove on up to Seeley and filled the tank, and I wrote in my notebook / brain to buy a gas can to keep with the truck. Then we drove on toward the trailhead. Ten miles up the road we encountered the highway striping crew, painting the dotted line on a new stretch of asphalt. I don't know why they weren't painting the white line by the shoulder at the same time, but they weren't. Anyway, after more delays, we made it to the turn-off and drove the eight miles up to the trailhead.

The trail to Gray Wolf Lake is not particularly interesting. It is pretty much a straight shot on a ridge through lodgepole forest, and you can't see much of anything besides trees and beargrass. You get an occasional glimpse of a piece of a mountain or snow, just enough to convince you to keep going.

After about six miles, the trail makes a short diversion into the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, where it curves around a small lake (Buck Lake), then hops back over the ridge to the Mission Mountain Wilderness again. From there on it is more interesting, as it is up on the rocky shoulders of the mountains themselves, winding in and out of timbered slopes mixed with rocky ledges.

We started getting views of Gray Wolf, and we could see where the lake lies. Dona's horse was pretty tired and the terrain was getting steep and difficult for horses to navigate, so we got off, removed their bridles, and tied them on a level spot of trees.

Gray Wolf Lake area
Gray Wolf and Gray Wolf Lake area
Photo by Dona

Across the way, we could see a rocky uplift, behind which lay Gray Wolf Lake. Behind that we could see Gray Wolf herself, and the surrounding peaks. Strangely, there was a small stream of water running from the top of the ridge of the rocky uplift, down the face, cascading over the edge in a beautiful waterfall. I really wanted to go up there to see what the source was, and to just walk across that expanse of rock.

Creek with Waterfall from top of ridge
Creek with Waterfall coming from Top of Ridge
Photo by Dona

Dona had her camelback pack with water and a first-aid kit, and her bear spray in a pouch on a belt. I grabbed my pepper spray and the lunch out of my saddle-bags. We only had a mile or so to go, and I didn't have a pack -- I had thought we would ride the whole way. So I just stuck the pepper spray in my jeans pocket and wound the end of the plastic bag containing lunch around my finger. As we followed the trail across the ridge we were on, sidehilling overall with a lot of up and down that evened out, we spent half our time walking across or around patches of snow or streams of water running down the trail.

Gray Wolf Lake area
Gray Wolf Lake area
Photo by Dona

After a while, we came to a sizeable stream, the start of the Swan River and the outlet of Whelp Lake, Gray Wolf Lake's much smaller neighbor and the receipient of the outflow from Gray Wolf.

By this time it was after 4:00pm, and it was clear it was going to take quite a while longer to get to Gray Wolf itself. We looked for a tree on which we could cross the creek, but didn't find one nearby. I suspect there is one higher up the slope near the lake outlet. Dona's foot was bothering her, making walking difficult on this uneven terrain. I figured if we wanted to get back before dark, we probably didn't have time to get to the lake or the top of the ridge, so we decided not to ford the creek and turn around.

Creek flowing out of Whelp Lake Creek flowing out of Whelp Lake
Creek flowing out of Whelp Lake
Photo by Dona
Creek flowing out of Whelp Lake
Photo by Dona

After an enjoyable lunch with a wonderful view, we started back up the trail. As we started going up hill, my bottle of pepper spray was rubbing my thigh and getting in the way in my pocket, so I pulled it out and carried it. Since Dona gets around better with a walking stick, I started looking for something from which to make one. I found a broken-off dead tree branch, broke off the ends to make it an appropriate length, and started breaking off its little branchlets. They didn't break off easily. I usually saw them off close to the main branch using my leatherman, but I didn't have it with me. What I needed was a wood club or a rock, but I already had a thing that felt like a club in my hand -- my can of pepper spray.

I started whapping off the branchlets with the pepper spray. As I was doing this, my mind was saying "This is not smart. What are the chances you are going to puncture a hole in that can?" I was tired and lazy, not a good thing. I know better than to abuse a tool. About the time all this information made it to genuine consciousness, I whapped down on another branchlet and a cloud of dark red-orange capcysin pepper erupted in my face.

I instinctively closed my eyes and mouth and held my breath, hurled the can, and moved sideways to get out of the pepper cloud. My eyes were burning, my face was burning, and my right lung felt like it had collapsed. Fortunately I knew what was going on so I didn't panic. "I know I'll be able to breathe in a minute..." Dona came up with her camelback and gave it to me, and I dribbled water into my eyes. After a minute or so of this, it was clear that wasn't enough. I was mostly blind, unable to open my eyes for more than a split second. I turned around and hobbled back to the creek.

I spent the next 20 minutes with my face mostly in the creek, trying to wash out all the spray. Some had gotten in my beard, and that mixed with the water when I would dunk my head and I think sometimes I just washed more in. When I put my face in the water it was wonderfully cool and the burning ceased. I'd blink my eyes a bunch, trying to wash out the pepper. But whenever I'd lift my head out, after about a second my eyes would start to sting again and my face would burn, so back in the creek I'd go. While this was going on, I was thinking

"Pepper spray is only a deterrent when sprayed in the face. If sprayed on a surface, it's just pepper, and an attractant to bears. When gathering DNA samples using wire snag stations and bait, the average time for a bear to arrive at a baited station was something like five minutes after the bait was placed. And I'm sitting here with my head in the creek not able to see or hear much."

After about half an hour, I was able to keep my eyes open, although they still burned some. My face stung but it was tolerable, so we headed back up.

When we reached the horses they were rested and ready to go home. We had an uneventful ride and hike back. Dona walked much of the way, as walking on the trail where it was even didn't bother her. We stopped in Seeley Lake at the summer-time hamburger stand, then continued on home.

We were disappointed not to make it to the lake, but it was a fun trip with gorgeous scenery in spite of our dubious start and me bear-spraying myself.

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