Yakety Yaak

Sep. 28, 2021

By Rue McKenrick

I have never witnessed such bellowing smoke before. The “Yaak” the “Yaak” the “Yaak” is on fire, we don’t need no water. I sing as I move deeper into the Purcell Mountains of Montana. My voice is an octave lower after sucking smoke for weeks.  I quickly lose my amusement with the melody written by the hip hop group Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three and later revised by Pennsylavania rock band, The Blood Hound Gang circa 1996. I move on to my own rendition of an old sailors folk tune. Now I bellow as the smoke “Way Hey to Burn the Man Down.” Ultimately I grow silent for my throat is irritated from the constant emissions of smoulder. I saw a Subaru Outback the day before, while resupplying, that bared the custom license plate “OutYaak.”  I am happy and joyous and grateful. I know I am entering a truly wild country and that is my favorite kind of country.

Anyway, vistas are holy but Wildlife is divine. Here is an abridged list of some of the Fauna I see or see sign of on a regular basis in this region: Northern Alligator Lizard, Pileated Woodpecker, Western Toad,Grizzly Bear, Cutthroat trout, Mountain Goat, Bighorn Sheep, Coyote, Badgers, Beaver, Lynx, Black Bear, Mountain Lion, Otters, Porcupines, Moose, Elk, Mule Deer, Millipedes, Pika, Ptarmigan, Alberts & Red Squirrel.

I have an interest in bringing The APT through the Yaak River Valley, Cabinet Mountains, Purcell Mountains, Northwest Peaks (Montana), and the Selkirk Mountains (Idaho). Why? Well I have heard and seen photos of this area with the most majestic views. I personally am not seeing  these vistas due to the whiteout smoke conditions. I forgot to mention that the Yaak was on fire while I was passing through.

I am backpacking through a large canopy of Fir, Lodgepole, Spruce, and Hemlock. I exit the darkness of the forest into a clearing. There is a large puddle before me that looks to be unfed the area surrounding it. It doesn’t look like a source I would normally drink from but I have little choice in the matter. I unshoulder my pack and do my best to process the water from the depression. Its warm and full of Macroinvertebrates; Dragonfly Nymphs, Mosquito Larvae, Mayfly Larvae, and Tadpoles. I catch some of them as I fill my bottle. I try to remove them, not because I am concerned about swallowing a couple bugs, but rather because I don’t want them clogging my filter. I notice on my map that the route follows a dirt road for about a mile before swinging back up onto a ridge line trail.

I mosey down the dirt and gravel thinking of little besides the heat and the beauty of the forest abound. From a small opening there is partial view of a neighboring mountainside. There is standing a lone Pine rising way above all the other trees. It is massive in comparison to the surrounding forest. I am so delighted that I pause here for sometime while sipping the puddle water. I continue up the track a the while contemplating why this Giant has remained. I personify the trees in my mind as I daydream stories of how this anomaly came to be. I picture the Trees as being Human incarnate and the battles that took place among the Tree People many moons ago. I feel sad for the lone fir, spectacular, breathtaking, and picturesque. However, all the time being alone. Surrounded by thousands of others but all the while, alone.

There is a crashing in the forest to my direct left. I am not startled and I do not change course. I am sure it is a deer or maybe several breaching the woods because of my scent or the sound of footsteps beneath my feet. I am looking over to my left and scan the animal directly in front of me. It is in a full out gallop coming directly for me. I in disbelief am absolutely frozen unable to move. Have you ever seen an object, like a lamp, or a human begin to fall. You are right there, you could arrest the fall by just reaching and grabbing the Person or lamp but you don’t. You freeze and the whole thing happens in what appears to be slow motion. This was my state as the animal rushed toward me. I never have paused with Black Bears before. I yell or threaten to hit them with my trekking pole or nail them with a rock. But I never freeze, not once. I turn on my own inner animal and get down right aggressive. However, this was no Black Bear. This was a Wolf.

I look right into those beautiful amber eyes. The Wolf comes close and then almost if waking from a dream it quickly and clumsily turns and high tails it in the opposite direction. I have seen this before with deer, that they run from a perceived peril but it takes a moment to coordinate where the danger is coming from. In this haste they fortuitously run straight for the very thing they are trying to avoid. Of course I don’t know if this is the case. I am fortunate to be on the track for I can see it running at a great distance before it leaves the road and enters the thick forest. Still, I am not moving for I am wholly awestruck at the encounter. I rarely have seen or experienced anything so sublime in all of my years of backpacking. I wonderer where it’s Pack is. Had it purposely wandered into the Valley of the Great Lone Pine to live out its life with the company of one.

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