As the sun peeks over the eastern horizon to tease the towering green ash and black walnut trees shading my garage in Billings, I ease out the clutch to back my tired Nissan pickup from the driveway. It's 5:36 a.m. On the seat beside me, Gabe, a canine companion of uncertain breeding, has already begun to pant. His breath stinks. I momentarily consider shoving him into the rear with my backpack. But he's too smart for that. Sensing his master's indecision, he catches his breath and my gaze with his intelligent, irresistible brown eyes. I crank down the window instead. The breeze it affords is refreshing, but noticeably warm for this time of the day. It's going to be hot.
But not where I'm headed. Cave Lake, an alpine tarn in the Crazy Mountains, is perched in a lofty cirque at 8,638 feet above sea level. I'll be well into the mountains by noon, hiking through cool stands of Douglas fir and across pastures of springy alpine grasses at timberline. As Montana's largest city fades in the rearview mirror, I conclude with certainty that I'm among its dozen most sapient citizens.
Eight hours later, it seems a more reasonable assumption that the village has lost its idiot. The trek from the trailhead to Cave Lake spans roughly eight miles. I say "roughly," because unless you record your first route on a GPS and religiously follow it the second time around, you'll never tramp twice on exactly the same trail. It's about four miles to the confluence of Milly Creek, the goodly freshet that drains Cave Lake, and Sweet Grass Creek, the namesake watercourse for the maintained trail winding up its lush valley. It's around another four miles to the lake, this segment sans trail and significantly steeper.
Mid-afternoon finds the pooch and I on the north side of Milly Creek, on a vertiginous slope sporting more shifting scree than shady evergreens or spongy alpine vegetation. The canted, south-facing slope feels more like an oven than heaven. "Hellish" is a most appropriate term, not only for my parched, cracking lips and the sweat soaking my bandana and oozing freely from the underside of my backpack, but also for the blisters building on the soles of my feet encased in overheated rubber. The dog suffers as well. He tiptoes gingerly across the heated rocks, his salivating pink tongue hanging nearly to the upper joints of his forelegs. As we grind up the drainage, he learns to pick his way from patch to patch of soil and vegetation, waiting for his owner to scramble across the scree.
Dusk finds us at the lake at last. Unknown to me, Billings has set an all-time record temperature of 108 degrees. In the high country, the hottest days of summer often spawn its wildest storms. Up here, the pent-up energy of the inferno manifests itself in dark, boiling thunderheads and savage bolts of lightning. Just as I secure the fly to the tiny, one-person tent, the heavens deride a huddling human and prostrate dog with a deluge of immense raindrops driven by wind gusts that also whip misty sheets of water from the lake. An exceptionally potent bolt of lightning stabs into the flinty shoulder of the peak above the lake, dislodging a rockslide whose smashing course reverberates stridently around the cirque. We're a half-mile from the slide and safe. But what on earth are we doing here?
The answer to that question lies in the watery depths of Cave Lake and the pockets and pools along Milly Creek for a quarter-mile below the lake's outlet. Within them lives a trout whose Latin name rolls from your tongue in a drunken slur though you're cold sober. Golden trout, oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita, are some of the most rare and resplendent salmonids in all of North America. For Montanans, they're one of the few California transplants welcomed to the state.
Endemic to the Kern River drainage, a watershed sequestered in the bowels of the Sierra Nevada mountains, golden trout were first presumed by biologists to be kissing kin of the Colorado River cutthroat. Vividly hued like goldens during the spawning season, in colors of crimson rather than gold, Colorado River cutthroats are exceedingly beautiful fish as well, sharing many similarities with goldens in physiology and appearance. However, more recent genetic analysis has shown that golden trout are more closely related to rainbows, a species with which they interbreed freely.
Lovers of cold, clear water with a quirky spawning style and life cycle, golden trout are found only in high mountain lakes and streams. While lacustrian (lake-dwelling) trout typically spawn in inlet streams, goldens prefer the outlets, to the effect that the fry emerging from eggs are flushed haplessly downstream. The best golden trout habitat is thus an alpine lake with another tarn below it, connected by a stream navigable to fish. After the eggs hatch, the fry are flushed into the lower lake, where they mature, then migrate back upstream to their parents' abode.
Goldens don't compete effectively with brook trout, and their genetic purity is quickly lost in habitats where they consort with their rainbow cousins. Hence, these aquatic nuggets of the Treasure State thrive in just a few high, specialized drainages that match their spawning requirements and isolate them from other trout.
I've come to Cave Lake to catch one. Why here? Because in the summer of 2000 this Crazy Mountain puddle happened to produce the state record for the species.
Two days later, Gabe and I mince back down the Milly Creek drainage on tender feet. I've learned some things about golden trout. The ones inhabiting the lake seem to enjoy sulking in its depths, tough to reach with fishing tackle, nearly impossible to incite to bite. The fish in the creek's pools below the lake are somewhat easier to catch. I find modest success fooling them with standard spinning tackle: Mepps and Panther Martin spinners, small gold and silver spoons.
Two summers after the first trek, I again ascend to Cave Lake, this time in the company of a friend who also happens to be an accomplished trout guide on the Bighorn River. We have no dog. Gabe hid under a bunk bed when he spotted the Crazy Mountain topo map amidst my gear.
Instead of spinning tackle, there's a fly rod lashed to my backpack. If anyone can catch those finicky goldens on a fly rod, I reckon Carl can do it. Just in case, I also have a Styrofoam container of nightcrawlers wrapped in a rain jacket in the bottom of my pack, though I don't divulge their presence to Carl.
We leave Billings at an ungodly hour of the morning, hitting the trailhead not long after dawn. I'm hoping to beat the heat. My second ascent to the lake is arduous, though markedly easier than the first. It's nice to be in the company of a being who communicates verbally rather than in licks and barks.
I've found a better path for much of the off-trail segment of the route, including an old trail on the east side of Milly Creek that winds from Sweet Grass Creek to a narrow gap in the mountains some 650 feet higher, which marks a natural divide between the two drainages. Nonetheless, Carl's enthusiasm for the trek seems as vaporous as the wispy tendrils of white in the blue above us by the time we reach the series of cascades on Milly Creek marking the final, short ascent to the lake.
The next morning finds him in much finer spirits. From one large pool in the creek, we coax a dozen trout to our flies. Some fall for standard dry flies: Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis and small Joe's Hoppers. Others gobble nymph patterns drifted into the current. After enticing an extraordinarily beautiful specimen with buttery sides splotched in olive and a bold band of crimson running from gill-plates to tail, I've had enough trout fishing for the day.
"Think I'll take my camera and go for a hike," I inform Carl.
Intent on changing flies, he grunts in acknowledgement. There are larger fish in the Cave Lake waterscape than any we've caught and the trout guide is determined to find them. By nightfall, he's landed two very impressive goldens, though by questionable means to any fly angling purist. Remember those nightcrawlers in my backpack?
As we motor south on Highway 191 toward Big Timber the following evening, cool air rushes through the pickup from the open windows. The eastern flank of the Crazies lies in shadow, the peaks aflame with a glowing halo, a lingering farewell from the sun. Black cattle graze placidly in the pastures of the foothills. Stalks of barley are ripening to yellow in the fields. I'm tired, but feeling strong and very much alive.
"Do you think we should try it a little earlier next year, or wait until September?" I query my passenger.
"Uh, look Jack. That was incredible. I'll never forget it as long as I live. But I don't think I want to go back."
Six years pass. In the company of my girlfriend, an accomplished hiker and backpacker, an author of several hiking guidebooks and numerous articles for Backpacker magazine, I'm once again grinding my way across the seemingly ceaseless fields of scree on the north side of Milly Creek. Cave Lake lies a mile up the drainage.
Along the way, we've browsed a couple of handfuls of plump, almost-ripe huckleberries from low-lying bushes in the timber and dropped our packs to glean deliciously juicy wild raspberries from bushes poking from the rockslides. We spied a shaggy mountain goat across the creek at lunch and paused to mark a raven's arcing passage down the drainage, a creature appearing as an Olympian sledding recklessly down a luge-run of thin air.
But as fatigue contracts the capabilities of the body, perception suffers as well. No longer are we wide-eyed nature-lovers on a peripatetic trek through an alpine Eden. We're just two pairs of eyes staring at the ground ahead, limbs moving, impatiently awaiting a place to pitch the packs.
Several legends exist regarding the naming of the Crazy Mountains. Though not dubbed so formally by native peoples, this range was apparently known as the "Mad Mountains" for its wicked slopes, imposing crags and the wild and chaotic storms that rage in the highlands in all seasons. The Crow Indians revered these mountains. It was here on a peak that chief Plenty Coups, the venerated leader of the Crows who shepherded them through the tumultuous transition from nomadic to reservation life, received a vision that would later guide his actions. Like other warriors who crested the peaks in the quest of a vision, Plenty Coups doubtlessly endured the flesh-numbing winds, bitterly cold rain and terrifying bouts of thunder and lightening.
Though we're just here to enjoy the scenery and catch some fish, the mountains seem doubly motivated to defend their good name. We eat dinner in the tent while a gale threatens to tear thefly from its guy-lines. Cold rain flails the nylon, lightning torques over defiant granite, and the thunderclaps are fearsome.
We awaken at dawn to a damp, silent world, save for the music of a singing robin. The lake is calm, a glassy reflection of a scaly peak and snowbank, faintly lit by the bashful sun, perfectly mirrored on its surface. Out away from the shoreline, concentric ripples expand from faint disturbances on the water. Golden trout have also awakened to the new day.
Just one fish takes a fly before breakfast. By the time we down our oatmeal and coffee, a legion of ominous clouds are building on the eastern horizon. Travel delays had reduced our planned two-night itinerary at the lake to an overnighter. A noon departure would still allow several hours' fishing. But the thought of descending the shifting scree-fields in a downpour finds us stowing our fly rods and breaking camp in record time.
Packs loaded, my companion takes one long, last look around. "Beautiful," she murmurs.
But evidently not quite beautiful enough. We slog the last two miles to the trailhead in a torrent on a path of muck. Warm and dry, motoring toward a well-deserved dinner in Red Lodge, I broach the subject of a return trip in 2011, perhaps a three-nighter with ample time to explore the cirque around the lake and climb nearby Conical Peak.
"I don't think I want to go in there again," I hear back.
But I do. Even if it takes six years to find another unsuspecting partner.
- Map by Joe Weston; image courtesy of USDA