Having a Plan B, C, and maybe even D in life and nature comes pretty easily when I am in the backcountry, but this seems to be way more complicated in front country, and even car camping settings. Add to the equation a larger number of people, schedules, timelines and desires, and it only seems to become even more complex.
Last weekend was a perfect example of the latter when two friends joined Erik and I on a car camping and kayaking excursion to a popular lake about 80 miles from Missoula. We got a later start than planned, though, as one of our friends ended up having to work until early afternoon on Saturday.
Erik and I thought that as in past years, we could probably arrive by early afternoon and still grab a campsite, then meet Monte and David a few hours later and begin our weekend together. After all, we surmised, this wasn’t like spontaneously showing up and trying to get a place in Glacier or Yellowstone-our target was an off-the-radar destination for most people!
Lots of folks in the region, as well as visitors from other places must have had the same idea, though, as there were no paid campsites to be found. We circled both campground loops, occasionally stopping to ask people whether they were setting up or leaving, and were bummed that we wouldn’t be able to camp at Lake Alva, one of our favorite “no-wake” lakes in Montana.
We checked out one other campground further south, only to encounter six sweet, yet totally occupied sites. So much for being able to just show up and wing it, we started lamenting to each other. We had hoped to be kayaking by now while watching for our friends arrival in the boat launch area as planned.
We left Monte and David a note letting them know we had driven to Holland Lake in search of a campsite, then traveled down a dusty hot road in search of an alternative watery escape zone for the weekend. Two repeat campground loop drives later around the Holland Lake area led to the same sad conclusion, all campsites taken!
We pulled over to look at a detailed Montana road map, and Erik suggested that a lake he had never been to, Lake Marshall, might be worth a shot once we connected up with the guys. We zoomed back to Lake Alva, tore down our first note, and left our friends a new one saying to meet at the boat launch area as originally planned.
It was a very rough road to be on, with lots of divots and bumps and blind curves. We stopped several times to compare even rougher roads radiating from the main unpaved route with what was identified in the atlas. It was slow going. Thankfully there were no vehicles barreling in the opposite direction, as shoulders were fairly non-existent, and drop offs were steep. The views of lakes Alva and Inez, and in the distance, Seeley Lake, were gorgeous, which helped take our minds off the rugged road conditions.
Finally we found a worn down sign indicating that Lake Marshall was ahead of us by two miles, but as Erik likes to say, that was likely two “Smokey the Bear” miles, meaning it was a stretch farther than the stated distance.
There were a total of four already occupied sites near the shores of this serene alpine lake. We had been obsessed about having a lakeside campsite where we could launch our kayaks and enjoy being down by the water, but it was now after 4 p.m. and time to make an alternate decision. Plus, we were hot, thirsty, and ready for at least a swim, given how much time we spent in search of a campsite that afternoon.
“What about that gravelly area up from the lake about 200 yards?” I suggested.. Erik and the guys all chimed in agreement. We drove up to the area, found an old fire pit, and decided on the spot that this would be our campsite. This would be good enough.
We were still bummed about not staying at and showing Monte and David around Lake Alva, but in hindsight being open to something new and different than originally planned ended up being a wonderful experience.
For starters, it was a calmer, smoother lake for David to have his first kayaking adventure. There was no motorized boat launch and parking area-this lake was managed as a wilder place with no overnight amenities, but where you could still kayak, hike, lounge, canoe, fish, wade or swim.
Both days we were there, common loons occasionally called out, then dived and disappeared before re-surfacing in different spots around the lake. A few garter snakes, one of them about four feet long, slithered between rocks alongside the shore, while minnows raced into deeper waters as we waded into the lake. A lone osprey silently glided overhead in search of sustenance. At the head of the lake. shallow waters harbored floating plant communities that must have been a magnet for fish, and species that like to catch them, such as people, bears, otters, and of course ospreys.
Families camping nearby were splashing in the water, taking turns with kayaks and canoes, or cruising around on stand up paddle boards. Happy dogs abounded as well, and everyone camping overnight in the area was friendly and hospitable.
That night and the following morning, unlike what we typically experience at Lake Alva, you couldn’t hear any recreational vehicle generators running, or any highway noise. Instead we enjoyed occasional soothing breezes flapping against and through our tents, and heard the howling of coyotes. Toward dawn a loon flew less than 20 feet overhead, awakening us with its unmistakable, eerily beautiful calls.
We extinguished our campfire on Saturday night, we were astounded by the absence of clouds and the preponderance of evening stars and constellations illuminating our path in all directions.
I realized how easy it was to become fixated or stuck on just one star or thing in life, when there are actually an infinite number of things to enjoy, experience wonder and mystery from, as long as we keep that universal spark alive inside of us, as long as we stay unattached to particular outcomes.
Perhaps that was the gift of our mad ramblings and numerous plot twists and turns earlier that day. When we stop expecting and demanding to having things look, be, and feel a certain way, the universe really opens up an entire new universe of possibilities.
Since that weekend Erik and I have been pulling out the Montana atlas more often now, checking out other lakes and destinations that have largely been off our radar, totally waiting and worthy of future exploration, discovery and adventures.