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My Trail Story featuring Jim Murphy

Jim Murphy took a wrong turn in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, walked straight into a forest fire, and shares the story of how he survived.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       03/21/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story
03/21/2019

The Fastest Three Miles I’ve Ever Hiked

By: Jim Murphy

Age: very late sixties

A map of a hike in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

AUGUST 23:

A week or so after leaving the Swift Dam trailhead, I stop by the Gooseberry guard station (a little north of the above map) and check in with a couple of USFS firefighters from New Mexico: Gordo and Brian.

They’re staying at the cabin and hiking up a ridge each day to keep an eye on the Scalp Fire. Started by a lightning strike just a few days earlier, this fire is named after Scalp Creek, the topographical feature nearest to the point of origin. Gordo, the guy on the left in the photo below, with eight years experience, told me, “It’s doing what they want it to do,” and not showing any sign of getting out of control. I told them where I was headed — up Clack Creek to Dean Lake and points south, i.e., the (red) trail on the westerly side of the map, and that I expected to be looping back through in a week or so. They said there was nothing to be concerned about – then. Note that the fire perimeter shown on this map is much more recent, as of a day or so after I got out; at the time of my conversation with the firefighters, it was not much bigger than the star on the map labeled “Point of Origin.”

Two USFS firefighters standing at a guard station.
Gordo and Brian. Photo by Jim Murphy

August 30:

Of course, in the world of forest fires, a week is a lifetime, and things can and do change. After hanging out at a couple of my favorite lakes, Dean and Levale, watching mountain goats, and – this turns out to be important – having encountered no humanoids and therefor having no updated fire info beyond what I got from Gordo and Brian at the cabin a week earlier, I head south on the North Wall Trail, and then east on the Moonlight Peak Trail. This trail is designated by the Forest Service as “Not Regularly Maintained,” which means that they don’t go out and clear all the dead trees that have fallen across it during the winter, and, importantly to this epic, the trail may get a little faint here and there. So I knew what I was buying into when I chose it, but I like these trails nonetheless, as you meet very little foot traffic and virtually never any horses or mules – always a good thing from the backpacker point of view.

Everything is wonderful until I come to a fork in the trail that’s not on the map. After some deliberation, and scouting the right-hand fork for a couple of hundred yards, I decide that the right-hand fork, which seems narrower and just generally of a different character than the left, is probably one of those side trails that go either to a camp used by outfitters, or to a nearby lake (Lake Quiet) that appears on the USFS map (not on the map above). I remember thinking that Yogi Berra, one of my heroes, wrote a book entitled When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!, but that advice didn’t really help me much at that particular point.

I continue along the left fork for what seems in retrospect to have been upwards of an hour. I’m stepping over some deadfall, but as I say, that’s to be expected on a trail that isn’t regularly maintained, so I keep going. Eventually, the deadfall gets ridiculous, the trail goes from faint to non-existent, and I realize that I’ve taken a wrong turn – as I so often have in my life – but this time in the literal rather than figurative sense. Even Robert Frost probably didn’t contemplate the kind of jackpot I’d just gotten myself into when he talked about the road not taken.

I can hear you thinking at this point, “Why didn’t he just backtrack to the fork in the trail?” I would have, except that I’d stayed with this phantom trail for so long, continuing on in the direction that the terrain suggested the trail ought to be, that I couldn’t find the trail when I decided to turn back. Life is hard, but it’s harder when you’re dumb.

So what to do? The creeks and rivers don’t show on the above map, but I was in country that I knew drained in an easterly direction into the North Fork of the Sun River, the trail next to the North Fork being part of my planned route. So, I just find some water and follow the flow down to the North Fork, which was where the Moonlight Peak trail would have taken me if I hadn’t been dumb enough to lose it, right? Easier done on a map than on the ground. I find a very small creek and take off, cross-country, toward the North Fork (Point “A” on the map), not at all clear as to how far away that is. My route, such as it was, is designated on the above map by the blue line; the red line is the actual trail, which I should have still been on. I spend the rest of the day bushwhacking through pretty dense understory, keeping the little creek within hearing, if not always in sight, eventually camping for the night when I run out of daylight.

A man standing with large mountains behind him.
Photo by Jim Murphy

August 31:

I get up and get back at it, thinking how much more of this can there be? I eventually come out of the woods into the old (1988) burn that has left mile upon mile of waist-high deadfall (large trees, often stacked two and three high) stretching out to the horizon. I do about half a day of this and it’s kicking my butt, climbing over this stuff every fifteen or twenty feet – and it still stretches out to the horizon. At this point I think to myself, “I know the North Fork runs due north/south for several miles, and if I just head east, I’ve got to run into it. Enough of this following the water. Whatever the terrain is like between here and the North Fork, it can’t be any worse than this deadfall.” So I turn left, strike out to the east. The terrain is in fact much easier and I hit the river at Point “A” a little before sundown.

September 1:

I spend the whole day flat on my back, recovering from the past couple of days, and thinking that the North Fork Trail is just across the river (it was) and that I’m good to go once I get on it and head north – that my ordeal is over. Sure, there’s smoke everywhere, but during fire season, there is often smoke everywhere in the Bob, often from fires elsewhere in the state, or even from out of state. I don’t see any plumes of smoke, so I figure I’m cool to head north and back toward my car. The thought crosses my mind that maybe I should hike south to the trail junction (Point “B”) that I would have come through had I stayed on the Moonlight Peak Trail, and check for a possible fire closure notice. No way to be sure how far north of that junction I am, but I’m thinking, dead reckoning, we’re probably talking about a mile or so. Just on the chance that a fire nobody seemed panicked about last time I talked to anyone was now closing trails several drainages away from its start.

September 2:

Nahhhh! Too tired to hike that far out of my way just to check. I head out northbound toward Sun River Pass (Point “E”), passing several trail junctions that do not have closure signs posted on the signposts, which tells me that this trail is not in fact closed and that I made the right call in not hiking an unnecessary mile or so south to check. I run out of energy (still tired from the bushwhacking) and daylight at Point “C,” where I camp for the night.

September 3:

After my usual very late start, leisurely breakfast, slow, methodical packing up, I continue north in search of closure signs – or telltale smoke plumes – and finding neither, I come over Sun River Pass (no closure notice) and come to a campsite on the banks of Bowl Creek (Point “D”) that I had visited several years earlier. I drop my pack and hang my food, rather than leave it unattended on the ground while I check the next couple of trail junctions for closure signs. The first was the junction of the Bowl Creek Trail, which would take me east and up over Teton Pass in the event that the route back to my car at Swift Dam was closed. No closure sign at the Bowl Creek junction. I then proceed in a slightly northwesterly direction towards the junction of the Bowl Creek Trail and Trail 479, which heads north and which I’m hoping to follow back to Swift Dam. I hike a couple of hundred yards, come around a bend in the trail and see this about fifty feet out in front of me:

A very smoky forest fire.
Photo by Jim Murphy

“Well,” I think to myself, “I guess this probably qualifies as a trail closure notice,” even if the Forest Service hasn’t posted one at any of the trail junctions I’ve passed.

I head back to the campsite, pack up and head back up toward Sun River Pass, roughly a mile and a half away, arriving there towards dark. As I said, I got a late start that day and didn’t cover a lot of miles in either direction. I get a few hundred yards past the pass and decide that I’m probably far enough away to safely camp rather than continue hiking in the dark, which is generally considered to be dangerous. I find a flat spot near the trail, set up my tent and try to relax and get to sleep.

I do a few Sudoku puzzles by the light of my headlamp and finally start to feel drowsy. By the time I turn off the headlamp, it’s full dark and I look out the left, i.e., south, side of my tent and the entire southwestern horizon is glowing bright orange. I think to myself, “I sure hope this is just a particularly dramatic sunset.”

No such luck. I get out of the tent, walk a little ways over to a break in the timber and see flames off in the distance. Unfortunately, having very little experience – well, actually none – observing forest fires at night, or in the daytime, for that matter, I am unable to gauge whether these are small flames fairly close by or large flames farther away. In either case, I decide, it looks as if I’m not done hiking for the day after all.

So, for the third time that day, I pack up and hit the trail. The rule against hiking at night suddenly didn’t seem as important as the rule against laying there in your tent doing nothing while a forest fire appears to be surrounding your camp. I strap on the headlamp and head south on the North Fork Trail, which runs pretty much straight north/south. The only problem with this move is that the brightest part of the fire continues to be almost due south, i.e., just a couple of compass points off of straight ahead of me. I’m still unable to judge just how far away it is, but my thinking is that I know I have fire behind me, so my only real option here is to head south as fast as I can in hopes of getting past the fire ahead of me before it burns across the trail. At that point, my only options would be to bushwhack east up a ridge in the dark – not an attractive prospect.

I remind myself that people make very poor, often fatal, decisions when they panic in what they perceive to be survival situations, so, keeping as calm as I can, I continue hiking what was the fastest three miles I’ve ever done with a backpack, I promise you. Knowing that a broken, or even badly sprained, ankle could very possibly be a death sentence, I refrained from running, but I was definitely setting a personal speed record nonetheless. I don’t carry a watch in the wilderness, so I didn’t time it, but I was moving faster than I ever did when I first started hiking the Bob twenty-five years ago.

But, after what seemed, at least an hour on the trail, the fire still looked to be an indeterminable distance away and still almost directly ahead of me. Am I going to be able to head it off and get past it before it burns across the trail and I’m trapped with fire ahead and behind? There doesn’t seem to be any other option than continuing south; either it hasn’t gotten to the trail and I’ll be able to get past it, or it will have gotten to the trail and . . . . I decide to visualize the former rather than the latter, which I’ll try to cope with if and when.

Oh, yeah. Did I mention that the wind was now blowing about 20mph from the west, i.e., from behind the fire and towards the trail? Didn’t help my anxiety level.

I remember thinking, “Hey, I could win a Darwin Award for this.” Then, “Damn, I don’t have a thing to wear to the awards ceremony . . . . No. Wait. The recipients don’t have to worry about that, do they?” I also thought about the possibility of having to head up that ridge to the east and remembered the smokejumpers that Norman Maclean wrote about in Young Men and Fire, all of them forty or forty-five years younger than me, who didn’t make it safely up the ridge. But, hey, I thought, if I do live to write about this, there’s my title, right? Old Men and Fire. Sorry, Mr. Maclean, hope you wouldn’t have minded. No, I quickly realize, that kind of levity would be pretty inappropriate, given the fate of those smokejumpers.

I also remember thinking that I would ultimately like to have my ashes scattered in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but just maybe not tonight.

At long last, I start coming abreast of the fire, off to my right. For the next quarter mile or so, the ridgeline a few hundred yards away is lit up with sparkly little fires consistent with the main fire having burned past it. Still impossible for a novice to judge, at night, just how far away, but it’s closer than I wanted to be. That I can tell you, to quote a well-known American.

By the time I get up abreast of the intense flames (Point “F”), they appear to be two to three hundred yards away. But, again, this was an uneducated guess, and even if I’d had a tape measure with me . . . . So let’s just say they were close. I was more focused on having actually won the race and now putting as much distance between me and the fire that was finally growing fainter behind me. My little point-and-shoot camera was, of course, not designed for nighttime photography and really couldn’t do justice to what I was actually seeing.

Fire blazes in the distance at night.
Photo by Jim Murphy

Trust me, it was a lot closer than it looks here. I continued on for another hour or so until there was just a faint glow behind me in the north, and about 3:00AM (checked the time on my camera) collapsed into the first level tentsite I could find. I’ve spent a lot of days in the wilderness that non-hikers might describe as boring and uneventful. This had not been one of those.

I got up very late the next day and continued south to the junction of trail 108, which I had briefly considered checking the previous day, ultimately deciding not to bother. Sure enough:

A warning sign hung to close off a trail.
Photo by Jim Murphy

It was dated September 1, when I had been laying up all day a mile or so north, recuperating from my two days of bushwhacking through the dense timber and then climbing over a mile or two of deadfall. It should be noted that, had I not lost the trail, I would very likely have come through this spot on the 31st, possibly even the 30th, and could have very well had this very same adventure anyway. That’s what the Forest Service means when they talk about traveling at your own risk.

Well, this has run a lot longer than the 140 characters that people are used to these days, so I’ll wrap it up here rather than going on to describe: the look on the Forest Service guy’s face when he rode up out the woods and found me camped on Wrong Creek, just a little ways from the closure notice; the bowhunters that offered me a ride on one of their spare horses when they found me at the foot of the pass – the pass that the Forest Service guy said I had to get over ASAP; how the 16-year-old mare they put me on came close to laying down and dying on the way up the pass, so I ended up walking anyway; and how these bowhunters, Andy and Dustin from Ronan, bought me dinner in Choteau (my wallet was in my car) and then drove in excess of a hundred miles out of their way to drop me at my car. I sent Andy a check for the dinner and all the extra diesel he burned, and he refused to cash it. One of the things I love about spending so much time in the wilderness is that the people you meet are (almost) always at their best. These guys really lived up to that.

Two men standing in front of a horse trailer.
Andy and Dustin. Photo by Jim Murphy

Final thoughts: In hindsight, some of the choices I made don’t look as good now as they did at the time I made them, but . . . . Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda, If, right? For one thing, it’s probably a good idea to move a little more quickly through the wilderness when there is fire anywhere in the general vicinity, especially if you’re going to be completely out of touch – and uninformed – for a week or more, as I make a point of trying to be. My mantra has always been that the point is to be in the wilderness, not to get through it, and having virtually unlimited time, I tend to dawdle at places like Dean Lake:

A beautiful lake with a mountain covered in snow.
Dean Lake. Photo by Jim Murphy

Needless to say, that philosophy didn’t serve me well on this trip. I wish my mental coin flip at that unmapped fork in the trail had come up the other way, but, based on my extensive hiking experience, I really thought I’d picked the correct fork. Staying with that choice to the point where I couldn’t find it any longer when I finally decided to backtrack, is, of course, entirely on me. Won’t be doing that again.

I also, it is now abundantly clear, should have done that one-mile or so hike in the opposite direction to check for a closure sign at the junction of Trail 108 at Wrong Creek, instead of relying on the presence – or absence – of closure signs at junctions on my way north. As Joe Woodhead, the Forest Service fire guy so patiently explained, once the Forest Service has closed an area, there’s no point in putting up more signs within the closure, because – Duh!  – people aren’t supposed to be there to see them in the first place!!!!


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Continental Divide Trail

Considered by many to be the most remote and challenging of the Triple Crown trails, the Continental Divide Trail is a 3100 mile (4980 km) adventure from Mexico to Canada, traveling through five western states. It passes through many ecosystems, 25 National Forests, 21 Wilderness Areas, 3 National Parks, and 1 National Monument.

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Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people and places and nature, which might explain why she has almost 23,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things social media/marketing-related and might be seen frolicking around Flagstaff taking photos of the Arizona Trail.