Goal Reached: Four men and their Mustangs reach the Canadian Border.
We reached the Canadian Border at Chief Mountain Trailhead in Glacier National Park at 3:15 p.m. on Friday, September 6. It feels good! Glacier National Park was as epic of a finale as we could have asked for and we got all our horses there safe and sound. Now its time to take a rest, put our ponies to pasture and edit our documentary footage.
The last 100 miles of the trip was the most dangerous terrain of the route. Glacier National Park is notorious for early snowfall, constant rain, icy passes, vertical cliffs and steep narrow trails. It’s the type of place that you’re wary of in the best of weather and terrified of as soon as the rocks get iced over. The passes in Glacier are where the Mountain Goats live, above the Bighorn, where you can look down at 10,000-year-old glaciers nearly 2,000 feet in elevation below you. Mirror lakes surrounded by vertical cliffs are found at the headwaters of the different drainages. We saw bald eagles, huge bull moose, bugling elk, Rocky Mountain Bighorn, deer, grizzly and black bears, and dozens of Mountain Goats. The phrase “pictures can’t do it justice” was likely coined in Glacier National Park.
Our route was ambitious, especially with tired horses, tired people, nasty trail and our minds on the Canadian border. Our permit was for 100 miles with only 5 campsites. The National Park Service prohibits grazing stock on the trails, in hobbles or picketed, which forced us to carry our own feed and tie our ponies to hitch racks at night. To make matters worse, the weather forecast called for rain every day we were there and freezing temperatures at night. I was not looking forward to being soaked going over icy rocks on vertical cliffs with tired, underfed horses.
Our first day through the park started off beautifully but turned overcast and drizzly before noon. Thunder shook off the sheer rock walls throughout the afternoon, but fortunately the downpour never occurred over the craggy scenic ridge just west of East Glacier. We made it over the first pass without any horses slipping on wet rocks and in to our campsite at Oldman Lake without problems. The second day was a beast: 20 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation change over both Pitimakan and Triple Divide Passes. We started shortly after dawn to a fog-filled landscape that occasionally showed towering crags of rock and snow thousands of feet above us. Our first obstacle of the day, Pitimakan Pass, looked impossible and would have been so if the Park Service hadn’t cut a trail into the rock. As we rounded the first switchback, we saw a Park Ranger and after a moment of conversation learned that she had never heard of horses going over Pitimakan Pass. What a reassurance.
The uphill part of the pass had a lot of downward sloping rocks to scramble across but our mustangs and special tungsten carbide shoes did an excellent job of keeping our ponies on all four feet. Reaching the top of the pass was a relief and the view to the north was unforgettable. Directly below us, about 800 feet, was a huge lake without a ripple on the surface reflecting the glacier filled peaks beyond. We stopped for a quick look but moved on as the clouds began to build and drizzle slowly turned raindrops. The second pass, Triple Divide Pass, was equally as scenic and the trails were in remarkable shape and it presented no difficulty. That night we camped at Red Eagle Lake and watched a bull moose feeding in the lake as the sun went down and the stars began to shine through the clouds.
The following morning I woke up to bugling elk, my favorite animal. Hopping out of my sleeping bag and running towards the sound, I spooked some cow elk out of camp and took off towards the sound of bugles. I caught up to the bull, got in front of him, and watched as he approached from 500 yards to within 10 yards of me and my camera. He bugled at least 2 dozen times challenging the other elk in the valley before he caught scent of myself and vanished into the dark timber. On my way back to camp I encountered two massive bull moose grunting and raking the last remnants of summer velvet into the willows and jack pines—excellent start to the day. The remainder of the day was easy, 20 miles of travel, no passes and only brief afternoon showers. We took our horses to the Going to the Sun Road and trailered them to the town of St. Mary in order to get them grass for the night to give their digestive system a break from alfalfa pellets.
We got up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, trailered our horses back to where we left, and departed on our second to last day of the trip. It began raining immediately as we began the ascent up Piegan Pass and intensified as we got closer to the top. Fortunately the pass didn’t have too much rock to slip on, and we made it up and over without incident. We saw bands of mountain goats and a herd of Bighorn when the rain slackened and the glacial water melt made the lakes below us an unworldly turquoise blue. We reached Many Glacier that afternoon, ate and headed up the last pass of the trip, Ptarmigan Pass. On top of Ptarmigan pass is a tunnel about 9 feet tall, 4 feet wide, and 150 feet long, just large enough to get a horse and rider through. The switchbacks were rocky and steep but the rain was gone and one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen greeted us on the other side of the tunnel. Part of the beauty was due to the fact that to the north of us, in plain sight, was our final destination—the Canadian Border.
We broke camp at Elizabeth Lake on the north side of Ptarmigan Pass just 10 miles from Canada for the final night. Anticipation was high and rightfully so, the border had seemed like an imaginary unreachable object that just recently came within our grasp at the first sight of Canadian Mountains. A sense of euphoria, followed by sadness, would come over me occasionally when I thought about how close we were to the finish line and all it represented.
The final day started with coffee, like all good days do, but that day I took a little extra time drinking my coffee and thought about all the people, hard work and planning it took to get to that moment. I realized that I wouldn’t be enjoying that moment without the support of over 1,000 Kickstarter donors, a dream team of production staff, investors, dozens of people who gave a helping hand along the way, and organizations like the Mustang Heritage Foundation and Western Horseman magazine who helped get this monumental project on its feet. To all the folks that helped along the way, thank you, and I wish you could have been there for that cup of coffee. It was the best I’ve ever had.
We headed for the border at 10:00 a.m that morning at an ambling walk soaking in every step of the last 10 miles. Douglas Fir trees gave way to Aspen groves as we dropped in elevation along the Belly River, which opened up to beautiful pocket meadows with waist high grass as we approached the border. The last mile was an uphill climb to Chief Mountain Trailhead and the horses must have sensed our excitement as their feet gained momentum and our speed increased. Eventually we lost all self-control and went faster and faster as the border came closer and closer. We burst through the trees at Chief Mountain Trailhead and to the north was the sight we’ve been imagining since Day 1: “LEAVING USA STOP AND REPORT TO CANADIAN CUSTOMS.”
We ran across traffic with abandon and flew across the sign as Canadian Customs officials scratched their heads. It was a great feeling that only a person who has finished a long adventure can truly relate to. All the hard work, freezing nights, burning days, injuries, heartache and sickness was worth that one moment of euphoric joy. It was awesome!
For all of you who’ve helped along the way: That border crossing was yours as well. Thank you.