Trip Report: Jewel Basin, Montana
Working remotely for a virtual company has many perks. Want to work in your PJ’s all day? Great! Feel like blaring your Pop Punk or Hair Band Hits playlists? Go for it! Have a meeting but also want to get out on a mountain bike ride? Call in from the trailhead! Despite our different work styles and time zones, we’ve been able to build rapport and form friendships without ever having met some of our coworkers in person. But when our CEO, Victoria Livschitz, decides to gather our leadership team in her home of Northern Montana for a week of planning, strategy, and adventuring. It’s near impossible to say no to the opportunity to explore the area’s natural treasures, enjoy delicious meals, hang out with friendly locals, and finally meet your co-workers in real life! And, as an outdoor recreation company, there really wasn’t a better way to kick off our Leadership Summit than a backpacking trip into the heart of the Jewel Basin.
Well known for its easy access, plentiful hiking trails, and gorgeous lakes, 27 in all, the Jewel Basin is a popular hiking and backpacking destination in the Flathead National Forest of Northwestern Montana. It sits in the northern reaches of the Swan Mountain Range, between the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, Flathead Lake, and the Hungry Horse Reservoir, which is surrounded by at least 25 distinguishable mountain peaks. And, luckily for us, it’s not far from RightOnTrek’s home in Kalispell.
Before setting out on our adventure, the five of us - Victoria, Anastasia, Carrie, Eric, and myself - outfitted ourselves with RightOnTrek’s Backpacking Rental Kits. Outside of clothing and food, none of us brought anything that wasn’t in the kit. It was a true field test. Though, with a Granite Gear Backpack, MSR Mutha Hubba Tent, Patagonia Sleepingbag, Big Agnes Sleeping Pad, Montbell Cookset, and Katadyn Water Filter, what else could I need? If it sounds like I’m name dropping and shamelessly plugging our kits, well, I am. Next time you're in Northern Montana, try them out yourself.
Camp Misery Trailhead was where it all began. If I were superstitious (or a fan of horror movies), I would have probably been a bit nervous that this was where our hike and Leadership Summit was kicking off. Fortunately, that’s not the case. We were about to embark for a couple days of backpacking, camping, and camaraderie into the Jewel Basin, and I had nothing to worry about. Other than bears.
The first mile or so from the trailhead was an enjoyable ascent up a double track road, Trail 717, to a small ridge line. As most of us hadn’t hiked together before, it was the perfect time to adjust to one another’s pace, talk about past trips and the possibilities of finding mushrooms, and learn all about Ace, Victoria’s Karelian Bear Dog, who was joining us on the trip.
Upon gaining the ridge, we split off north onto Alpine Trail 7 and took a few steep switchbacks up to a small saddle. The saddle gave way to a small meadow where we sat down for a snack and to talk about a couple of topics that are near and dear to all of us - Leave No Trace & Bear Safety. Also, a quick shoutout to Anastasia for packing the most delicious snacks, her wasabi pea and dried edamame combo is super protein dense and absolutely going to be part of my food bag from now on! We spent about an hour discussing our environmental impact and the importance of each of the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace, namely Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces, Dispose of Waste (including human!) Properly, Be Considerate of Others, and Respect Wildlife. And as it turns out, we all love the classic Leave No Trace saying, ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints.’
As we talked about respecting wildlife, it was the perfect opportunity to run through our collective approach to bear safety for the outing - handle your bear spray carefully and always have it accessible, stay within sight of the group while hiking and talk aloud to one another, and keep a clean camp by cooking and storing our scented items well away from our tents.
Montana is serious bear country and our talk was absolutely necessary for safety on our trip. It also made me look forward to the next evening, when we would meet with one of our newest nonprofit partners, the Glacier Institute, and they would be taking us through their bear safety program. If you’re unfamiliar, the Glacier Institute is the only official education organization that operates in Glacier National Park and they provide awesome opportunities to learn about the outdoors. From youth trips and overnight adult courses to personalized group tours, they really cater to everyone. For anyone who’s interested, the Glacier Institute has filmed their 90-minute bear safety program and it’s available on their website for a nominal course fee.
Crossing through the meadow after our break, we dropped down into our first basin via the Picnic Lakes Trail #392. During this stretch Carrie and I discussed our hopes of hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail the following summer and the variables that would entail. After navigating around the quaint Picnic Lakes and the campsites that surround them, we continued north before finding a connector trail that would lead us down to Black Lake. As Anastasia, Carrie, Eric, and I walked along, we heard an excited ‘Hey you guys!’ from behind us. It was Victoria and she had found something. We came back and she was smiling ear to ear, she simply pointed and said, ‘Look’. And there it was, the biggest porcini mushroom I’d ever laid eyes on. Now, I’m no expert, but after 10 years of working in restaurants I knew this 4 or 5 lb. porcini was a seriously special find. And that there must be more.
As we carefully looked over the area, Victoria gave us some pointers on mushroom foraging and identification, and also why she knew to look there. It was a combination of the right types of conifers, good drainage, and open spaces with little vegetation. We harvested a handful more porcinis that were ready for picking, and carefully laid them into all the extra stuff sacks we could amass. Side note: we found plenty more porcinis along the following trails - where exactly, we’ll never tell.
After our exciting stop, we meandered to Black Lake’s northern shore and ran into an awesome couple who had set up camp there. Despite being the only people camped there, they were not at the only campsite by any means, and the views across the lake to Mt. Aeneas were postcard worthy. As we chatted and shared a few snacks, we learned they were recent transplants from Chicago to Montana, having moved to experience the incredible geography the area offered. Being a fellow midwesterner who now resides in Oregon, I totally understand the draw of the mountains and larger terrain.
After departing from the lake, we turned onto the Blackfoot Lake Trail. The path, which was quite overgrown, really provided the sense of solitude and adventure that a not-so-often traveled trail can. After passing by a series of unnamed lakes and descending a surprisingly steep, traversing section, we landed in the incredibly juxtaposed Blackfoot Lake Basin - on the south and west sides was a beautiful, lush conifer forest, while on the north and east side a fire had clearly ripped through the area a few years prior. The standing dead trees and brushy regrowth stood in stark contrast to where we were coming from.
As we hiked around the lake and into the burn area, we also started a healthy 1,000 ft. climb up to one of the ridges formed by Tongue Mountain. Upon gaining that ridge we enjoyed the views southeast towards the Graves Creek Drainage and Pioneer Ridge and did a quick jaunt south to meet up with Alpine Trail #7 once again. We followed it back to the north as it traversed some rocky slopes that were sure to be avalanche slide paths come winter.
Making our final trail change, we turned east onto Wildcat Lake Trail, descending by a marshy, pond area that was all but dried up at this point in the season, as well as another very small lake. Just beyond the lake there was a really spacious campsite that we noted would be our backup if Wildcat Lake was occupied. Fortunately, after a winding and rocky route down to the lake, we determined we had the place to ourselves.
We set up camp near a cute little creek delta on the southeastern shore of the lake. While it was closer to water sources then we would have liked from a Leave No Trace perspective, the site was quite established, durable, and had access to a couple of small trails that led away from the water if nature called. It also had plenty of space for our three 1-person and one 3-person tents. Remember all those pieces of gear I name dropped at the beginning? Well, it was finally time to test them out!
Eric and I were sharing the MSR Mutha Hubba 3P tent. We split the pieces between our packs and in terms of volume and weight, it was very insignificant. The single piece pole was pretty interesting and did take a second to put together, but once it was in place the tent body snapped to it easily. We put on the fly, staked it over the matching footprint, and that was it. I think it took us less than 10 minutes from start to finish. I was impressed with our speed, but was quickly humbled when I looked over and Anastasia appeared as though she had been done for hours!
My sleeping system included a Patagonia sleeping bag rated to 20℉, and a Big Agnes sleeping pad that came with an ‘inflation sack’. You simply attach the sack to the fill port on the pad, blow into the sack, and squeeze the accumulated air into the pad. It’s a pretty standard feature with inflatable pads on the market these days and comes in almost all of our rental kits. While I’ve always been proud that I can inflate my personal sleeping pad in 13 breaths, losing the lightheadedness that sometimes comes with that was really quite a treat.
After finishing our campsite set-up, it was time to start cooking! We mosied down the rocky shoreline and came across a few pieces of driftwood that were perfect for lounging and prep tables. The cook system in my kit consisted of an MSR Pocket Rocket and a 2L Montbell pot. The Pocket Rocket is an absolute classic backcountry stove - it’s light, easy to use, and just doesn’t quit. The Montbell was more pot then I’m used to carrying, but the extra liter of volume was awesome for our group cooking.
Eric, RightOnTrek’s Head Chef and Meal Developer, brought a few things for us to sample. We started off light, with some tasty Spicy Peanut Noodle Soup, and followed that up with a dish that I’d never tried before - General Tsoy’s Mountain Rice. While the slight spice might not be for everyone, the sweet and sour sauce and perfectly cooked rice had me going back for seconds, and, if memory serves, even thirds.
As we laid out our haul of mushrooms, we picked a few that had broken in transport, cleaned the dirt off them, and chopped them into smaller pieces. Victoria had a recipe in mind. With the 2 liter pot overflowing with porcinis, we covered the mushrooms with water, brought them to a boil, and left them on a healthy simmer for the next 20 minutes or so. It was a good thing we brought plenty of fuel! Porcini’s are a bolete, a type of mushroom that, instead of gills, has a spongy, porous underside of their cap. As they cooked in the water, that spongy portion broke down, thickening the soup into a hearty stew that was seriously delicious. Pro-tip: if you’re going to make a mushroom dish, don’t forget the salt like we did! Our use of dried meats and salted, hickory smoked lentil snacks was a great backcountry substitute, but, for real, salt and season your mushrooms.
With Eric and Victoria, managing the dinner, Carrie took this opportunity to try her luck with some fishing. Using a collapsible fishing rod, she rigged the line and set her sinkers, bobber, and hook to an optimal depth. I was impressed with her expert cast out into the glassy lake, which was quickly distrubed by the splashing and fighting of a rainbow trout. I think we were all taken by surprise when she reeled in her first fresh catch! Over the course of the evening she’d go on to catch around a half dozen beautiful fish. Paired with the mushrooms and huckleberries we harvested, a fantastic team dinner was in the works for the days ahead.
After brushing our teeth, we stuffed our Ursacks with all of our remaining food and scented items. So none of the local bears would walk off with them in the night, we proceeded to tie them to a tree down a ways from our cooking area. As I crawled into my sleeping bag, Eric said he was going to stay up and take in the stars. Mentally, I told myself I’d join him, but the next thing I remember it was just getting light out. As recounted by Anastasia and Eric, the night sky was just breathtaking - the stars were out in full force, and so was the Milky Way. Note to self, don’t miss stargazing next time!
It was a slightly chilly morning so we packed up our sleeping stuff and broke down our tents. As part of our multi-day meal planner, we include snacks and hot beverages, and fortunately for us, Chef Eric was stocked with product samples of both. We had about a half dozen instant coffees to try, a solid array of scones and other dense pastries, and a new meal he was testing out as a potential for next season’s line, savory breakfast grits. As I tested my way through the coffee to a point of heavy caffeination, I devoured a couple bowls of the filling grits and an especially delicious blueberry scone.
Packing my bag to head out was a trip - because of the mushrooms, it was the first time I’d ever experienced a heavier pack on the way out of a hike. Totally worth it. We proceeded back up the drainage and to Alpine Trail #7, heading south. Taking a more direct route along #7, we passed through several pristine meadows before traversing high above Twin Lakes and turning west onto the Noisy Creek Trail #8. Trail #8 was just incredible and without the cloud cover of the previous day we were granted some first-class views west into the Flathead Valley as we returned to the Camp Misery Trailhead to complete our trip.
Starting our Leadership Summit with an overnight camping trip was a proper foreshadowing of the week to come. There would certainly be some planning, deep discussions, and hard work. We’d even come to use mushrooms as an analogy for RightOnTrek as a company - also, we’d just forage for and eat a lot of mushrooms! Most of all, we were able to share our experiences and knowledge, build lasting friendships, and get excited for our future adventures and endeavors. It really was a great week and I’m not alone when I say I’m already looking forward to next year’s summit in Montana.
Steven, the author, lives in Portland, OR. He is the Head of Wilderness Data and Community for RightOnTrek. When he’s not hiking, biking, or snowboarding in the Cascades, you can catch him eating a sushi burrito and drinking a beer at one of Portland’s food truck pods.