Monday, August 20, 2012

The Story of Cracker Lake

Although I have many stories to tell about Montana, the friend with whom I had the experience that follows told me "You so have to blog this," at the halfway point, so I guess that's my imperative for this post.

On Friday I went to Glacier National Park, where I saw and heard and felt many amazing things. On Saturday, I went on a horseback ride, one that lasted seven hours and was one of the best experiences of my life. Every time in the past I've taken a trail ride, it's been slightly disappointing, because it's been too slow or plodding, or too short, or the surrounding landscape has been uninteresting. (A horseback ride I took in Bermuda was an exception, but I was wearing a helmet, which sucked a small bit of the fun out of the experience.) I had hope that this horseback ride would be extraordinary, that we would see amazing things, but I tried not to get my hopes up too high, because it seemed likely there would be problems with it like there always had been.

I was wrong. It was the ride of my dreams. It was exactly what I pictured and fantasized about, and more.

Our trail guide was named Harold, and he was an honest-to-God cowboy, his skin full of sun and dust. The belt of his chaps had his name emblazoned across the back of it. He was also a firefighter. And was all of 22 years old. I flirted shamelessly with him, from where I sat on my horse to where he sat on his, and wished briefly but violently that I was ten years younger and not married.

It was not Harold, but another cowboy, who ran down the rules for the trail and explained how to sit in a saddle. One of the guests going on a different ride mentioned the possibility of moose, and the cowboy - hopelessly masculine and self-assured, older than Harold but just as sexy - sucked his breath in and said with little humor that he'd rather meet a bear than a moose. More confirmation (as if I needed more, after the previous night (a story I'll tell another time)) that I was in A Dangerous Wilderness.

Our ride was six miles out and six miles back, on a narrow trail to Cracker Lake, and it was me and my friend and Harold on the ride, no one else. My horse, Roney, was a lazy sod who was very picky about where he placed his hooves, decidedly more of a follower than a leader. My friend's horse, Big Mac, was a large dappled beast with a wide flank and some draft horse in him. They were both docile and responsive. Going up the thin and rocky switchbacks made me feel like an awesome cowboy, but going down them was terrifying. It seemed likely that I'd tumble off into the steep forest and never be found.

We traced the curve of the trail around Swiftcurrent Lake, cresting it for about three-quarters of its circumference. We met hikers who stood politely aside for us, and I felt bad that they had to cope with our horses' leavings on the trail. We crossed rushing streams and discussed whether it was properly pronounced "crick" or "creek". We saw craggy mountains climb narrowly to impossible peaks, and we weaved through groves of tall ancient trees as well as odd low-growing ones. I nudged Roney into a trot here and there, and learned (with yelps of terror) that cantering uphill feels a great deal like bucking.

At length we arrived at Cracker Lake. Harold told us an absurd story about the lake's name - he said its discoverers left crackers by the shore to mark the spot - which turned out to be true. The water of the lake is a bizarre pearly blue color that I can't even really describe. We sat down by the edge of the lake and ate beef jerky and trail mix for lunch. (My friend ate canned tuna, but I abstained.) Harold, meanwhile, climbed up to an overhang and stripped down to his boxer shorts. He was not bad to look at, I'll leave it at that. He asked me to check the water. "How does it feel?"

I knelt by the lake and dipped my hand in. "Pretty fucking cold," I called up to him.

He dithered at the edge of the overhang for a while, worrying about clearing the rocks, while we encouraged and advised him. Eventually, he leapt, and my friend snapped pictures.

"How cold is it?" I called, as Harold stroked to shore. His freestyle was unsurprisingly perfect.

"It's pretty fucking cold," he said in a normal tone. His voice echoed up to me off the surface of the water.

I have no idea how Harold managed to ride all the way home in wet shorts, but he did, and didn't complain a bit. We gave him a huge tip.

I felt so happy to have been on a horse all day that I can't even describe the sensation. Each new bit of the landscape that we saw seemed to have been meant for viewing from the back of a horse. I wasn't afraid of bears. I wasn't afraid of anything, except the descending switchbacks, and of falling behind or being a crummy leader (both issues that Roney did not help to alleviate). All day long I had a painful charley horse in my right leg and the seams of the saddle were rubbing in a, um, real specific place, but I could hardly bring myself to complain. It was too good to be on a horse in the wilderness, everything I needed for the day in my saddlebag. Riding out to a lake with an indescribable color and stillness. In a cowboy hat.

Saddlesore, exhilarated, sunburned and smelly and high on life, we drove out of the park and made our way to the hotel, where we both took showers and zonked out not long after 9:00. The next morning we drove home, and got into another fine mess. But that's for a different post.

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