November's wan light drained from the sky as I walked alone into a forgotten corner of Glacier National Park. As night grew from the shadows, noises in the forest grew louder. My head jerked at the sound of a branch brushing my pants. A foot of fresh snow obscured the tracks of an oversized carnivore on the trail that led me into dark timber. Everywhere was blackness, the world reduced to my headlamp’s bobbing orb of light. It seemed inevitable it would suddenly be filled by some variety of toothy creature.
I checked the pepper spray canister in my pack’s side pocket. Then I remembered the propellant in pepper spray doesn't work in temperatures below freezing. It was 20 degrees.
"Well, this is exciting," I thought to myself.
I’d gotten a late start but was determined to reach the old Kishenehn ranger cabin where my friend Benjamin Polley was waiting. Though I’d navigated the faint trail many times, the deepening snow made route-finding a challenge. By the time I reached Kishenehn Creek its icy flow was being swallowed by the night and thickly falling snowflakes clouded my headlamp beam. I took a moment to steel myself and then forded. But in the chaos of snow and darkness, I picked the wrong spot and couldn’t find the trail on the other side.
This was the point at which I became quasi-lost. Not lost-lost, mind you—I knew where I was, more or less. But I had no trail and the darkness was closing in around me. As I bushwhacked through the black unknown an owl took flight from the night and took a couple of my heartbeats with it.
I was reminded of the writer who said fear is an essential part of the wilderness experience. This is why I come here to this unruly, forgotten forest in the far northwest corner of Glacier. To be wild again, the way we used to be.
The night before, as I lay in bed in the civilized confines of Missoula, I thought about how I would be completely off the human grid on this hike—no phone, no people, no contact with the modern world—and how rare that’s become. I like that feeling. With no safety net between myself and the wild, everything seems more alive.
The first time I attempted this trail was over a decade ago, after discovering it on a yellowing map that showed it leading to a mysterious ranger station. Current park maps show no trails or ranger stations here, and it felt like I was the first person in years to follow the indistinct path. Eventually I reached that same Kishenehn Creek crossing where the trail simply disappeared. At the time, I figured that was it—the area had been abandoned to wilderness.
Five years ago I learned this was only partly true. The area had indeed returned to wilderness, if it had ever been anything else, but the Kishenehn Ranger Station was still there, hidden in thick timber near the North Fork of the Flathead River. More importantly, my friend Ben, a longtime park employee, had been invited to man it during hunting season. His job was to patrol for poachers, the original reason this outpost is here at all.
The first cabin was built at Kishenehn in 1913, three years after Glacier's creation, as the northernmost link in a chain of log-cabin ranger stations encircling the park. A wilderness park where nature had primacy was a new concept, and park managers wanted to shield it from neighboring homesteaders who bristled at the notion of a place where they couldn’t hunt, trap, graze and log. To protect it, the Kishenehn ranger was tasked with patrolling the area’s scattering of trails.