September 5, 2016

Buzzing About Great Bear Wilderness Ousel Peak Trail

Mosquitoes and altitude won't stop Dagmara Mach and friends from conquering this stunning summit in Montana.

Ousel Peak Trail Overview

Trailhead Elevation: 3,380 feet

Ousel Peak Elevation: 7,157 feet

Elevation Gain: about 4,000 feet

Distance: 7.2 miles round trip

Season: Year-round

Range: Flathead Mountain Range

Location: Flathead County, Montana, USA

summits in Montana

“Pretty sure we passed up the trail,” says my buddy Ryan as we drive north on Highway 2 from his West Glacier employee housing. Having both moved west from Cleveland, Ohio after college, we make it a point to meet whenever our travel itineraries come close to geographical overlap.

This summer, we happen to both be living in Montana. In the car behind us, my friend Dany, her boyfriend Alex, and their two dogs are visiting from the Bay Area. Though it feels like yesterday, I haven’t seen any of them in almost of a year.

Ryan pulls the car over and turns around. This time, I keep my eyes peeled for mile marker 159. Spotting her as we round a blind corner, I scream excitedly and wave my arms motioning for Ryan to park the car.

Read more about the hiking gear Dagmara used for the hike right here.

Grabbing our packs, we wrangle the dogs and prepare to play Frogger through a sea of mad tourists driving 80 mph toward Glacier National Park. We assess the area and make a calculated dash for the forest of lodgepole pine trees on the other side. We safely cross and enter the Great Bear Wilderness, in the Flathead National Forest.

snow and hikers on Ousel Peak

The trail is brutally steep from the start, seemingly weaving its way straight up the mountain.

After leaving the valley floor, the forest gets wetter and Dany and I quickly fall behind the boys. Taking increasingly deeper breaths, I inhale the pine trees. Instantly, I feel hungrythe pine kickstarts my already-fast metabolism into hyperdrive. I reach for the apple I keep in my pants for just such occasions, take a bite, then put it straight into my pocketno sense breaking to re-seal it in its plastic bag.

We’re in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (i.e. Bear Country). Situated in northwestern Montana, this park is home to an estimated 1,000 grizzly bears and growing. But bears are not our biggest problem. It’s still early in June and below treeline, the northern facing Ousel Peak is a lush, wet jungle teeming with life. As jungles go, it is also teeming with insects, and the deeper we hike, the damper it gets.

Lewis Range Glacier National Park from Ousel Peak

Ryan and Alex, now some distance ahead of us, are happily exhaling massive clouds of carbon dioxide, as they chatter forward leaving Dany and me in the wake of the mosquito cloud trailing behind them. Capable of honing in on the scent of carbon dioxide from a distance of up to 50 meters when identifying their victims, this sea of mini-Draculas was out for blood.

We were not only slower than our male counterparts, but thirstier too. As a result, we stopped frequently to drink water, each time standing in a rapidly expanding cloud of mosquito attractant, made all the more potent by our three dogs happily running back and forth between our two groups.

We make a run through a particularly buggy thicket toward Ryan and Alex at treeline. I graze my hand on some leaves and squeal. My hand erupts in a burning sensation and I see Ryan grinning down at me.

“Run into some stinging nettle, did you? That stuff hurts, but it’s really good for you if you brew it in tea. The sharp hollow hairs all over its leaves and stems are what sting you. They’re called trichomes and when you touch them their tips fall off and penetrate you. Sort of like hypodermic needles, they dig in and inject you with formic acid, histamines, and other chemicals that make your skin flare up.”

“Ow.” I wince. “So, can I attack someone with stinging nettle?” I ask intrigued.

“I guess so. It takes at least a few minutes for the plant to wilt and the oils to start evaporating.” Ryan informs me.

“Well, that’s good to know,” I think to myself, imagining the possibilities.

At timberline, the cloud of mosquitos clears revealing sunshine, blue skies, and glorious views of the Glacier’s southern peaks. Though still steep, largely indistinguishable, and generally covered in a thick layer of snow, removing the insects and replacing them with alpine vistas had made our journey decidedly more enjoyable. In fact, having just survived the attack waged on us by an army of flying warriors intent on eating us alive, the steep rocky climb to the peak no longer bothered us.

After traversing a few false summits, we happily arrive at our destination and take in the full glory of our surroundings. Sandwiched between the 1,063,503-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness and 1,012,837-acre Glacier National Park, Ousel Peak sits amid a geological wonderland of unparalleled proportion.

Ousel Peak mountain

From the rocky summit, we catch stunning panoramic views of the snowy peaks in the northern Flathead Range to our south. Inside of the park to our north we look over Harrison Lake and a long line of snow capped peaks in the Lewis Range.

I look over at my friends, snap a few photos and smile. Sure, I would prefer to see them all the time, but if that’s not an option, these few days spent romping around the Crown of the Continent together are certainly the next best thing.

Few things can compare to the rejuvenating, carefree, childlike feeling of summiting a mountain in the company of friends. Following a delicious cocktail of physical exertion, laughter, and the sheer epic mass of Montana’s breathtaking landscape, we’re blissfully intoxicated despite the itchy sores all over.

It’s here in this wonderful, wild place where memories are born that I feel most at ease. Up here, nothing else matters. No one complains, and everyone is happy. Even the dogs are smiling. It’s moments like these that forever ingrain themselves in our memory banks.

Dagmara Mach with dogs on mountain

Though I can’t remember the numerous times Dany and I or Ryan and I have gone out to eat or drink together over the years, I clearly recall the details of every last hike and outdoor adventure we’ve ever been on from Bald Mountain to Cleveland.

“What?” Ryan asks waving his hand in front of my face as he steps over in my direction and I realize I’ve been staring.

“I just love you guys,” I reply with a sheepish grin, as I take my seat in the circle.

We eat lunch, throw on our GORE-TEX® jackets and begin the descent. This time, we put some distance between us and the guys, hoping the gap buys us relief from the hungry horde.

Ryan and Alex disappear into the woods, and we hear their scream in the distance.

“They finally got a bite,” I remark as Dany examines a scab on her calf that had ripped open during our adventurous alpine slide descent. A thin red line of blood slowly makes its way down her leg, and looking around I spot a patch of weeds with white flower tops to my right.

“Oh man, watch this! Don’t you touch that bloody hole.” I command her excitedly, reaching over to pull some leaves off the nearby plant. I place them in my mouth and chew. One eye cocked, Dany stares at me quizzically. Moments later, I produce a gently pulverized ball of delicious smelling green goo, which I proceed to spread onto her wound.

“Gross, Dag!” Dany exclaims watching in horror as I guiltily grin up at her, my saliva now mixing with the rivulet of blood trickling across her calf. Judging by her reaction I can see that she had not anticipated such close contact with my spit rich wonder ball.

“It’s yarrow, aka knight’s milfoil or woundwort,” I proudly tell her, channeling my inner Montana medicine woman.

Her look tells me she is not yet sold, so I go on.

“The Native Americans used it to coagulate blood. The leaves are full of antimicrobial oils that stop bleeding, speed wound healing, and help relieve skin itching or rash symptoms. Look, you’re not bleeding anymore.” I say wiping my concoction from her skin.

“Guess what else?”

“What?”

“It’s also a natural insect repellant.”

Massaging the juices out by rolling the leaves in our palms we rub the yarrow residue all over and place a few extra leafy stems in our hair, pants pockets and backpacks for added protection. Stuffing an extra couple handfuls into my hiking pants just in case I have another run in with more stinging nettle later, I feel as prepared as I’ll ever be.

Though we’re hopeful that my medicine woman knowledge will ward off the insects ahead, we mentally prepare ourselves to re-enter the wet, jungle-like forest. Slowly, gathering our courage, we step forward and to our delight, none of the once voracious pests seem to be landing on us.

Dany looks over at me and shakes her head. “You couldn’t have thought of this on our way up?” she asks.

“But it’s so much more profound now. You wouldn’t have appreciated it earlier.” I laugh.

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