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Triple Divide Pass 2023
Triple Divide Peak straddles the Continental Divide where water hitting one of it’s aspects can go not only west to the Pacific Ocean or east into the Atlantic Ocean (via the Gulf of Mexico), but also north into the Arctic Ocean via the Hudson Bay. Just below that summit sits Triple Divide Pass which is a longer day hike full of wonderful forests, the lovely Cutbank Creek, and stunning views of Medicine Grizzly Lake and the towering peaks surrounding it. Oh and the drainage is home to many large animals such as bear, moose, elk and mountain goats which we were fortunate to spy throughout the day.
It was a cool fall morning as we stepped out onto the trail. The flower meadow at the Cutbank trailhead was well past its prime with only a harebell here or a cinquefoil there. The views, however, were still amazing as clouds moved across the sky. Our rough plan was to head to Triple Divide Pass and, if time/energy permitted, maybe climb Triple Divide Peak and then Norris Peak.
In spring and early summer, birds are singing as you come along Cutbank Creek, but later in the year, birds are just “chatting” with one another with short calls and high “seeep” sorts of calls, but there are still an abundance of them. As we cruised across along the creek, going up and down through the forest, chickadees, kinglets, juncos, crossbills, and such chirped, chattered and zipped through the forest.
We came through the first trail junction where left takes you further up Cutbank Creek to Morningstar Lake. We stayed right to head up the Atlantic Creek drainage towards Medicine Grizzly Lake and Triple Divide Pass. The trail began climbing more out of the valley bottom with better views through the trees. We passed the backcountry campsite, then took the last trail junction, staying right for the pass.
While the lower section was small birds, chipmunks, and squirrels, we were delighted when we flushed a Dusky Grouse, then later spied a bull elk foraging far below us. A sneaky tip is to keep your eyes in the avalanche chutes where, out of nowhere, large animals will disappear as they step out to forage, then duck into the trees, disappearing like they never existed.
Moose are always one of our favorites in this area, so we stopped quite a bit to catch our breath as we ascended along the southern, cliffy flanks of Mt James. The rocks changing from gray to red to brown as we ascended through eons of history along this trail that traversed the hillside. Along the way, the views continued to open up as the trees grew shorter and more sparse.
At the head of the valley is the towering Razoredge Mountain. An impressive cliff face stretches from this triangle of a peak northwards to Triple Divide Peak. A lovely waterfall slices down the dark rock where we spied a couple of solo mountain goats, adding to our large, ungulate (hooded mammals) for the day.
As we approached the pass, we kept rounding a bend thinking it was the last bend, but another showed up, but we finally rounded the actual last bend and passed through boulder fields of pikas with their “Eeeeeeep!!!” calls and White-crowned Sparrows calling out from the krumholz.
Once at the pass, we were rewarded with the gorgeous views looking north into the Hudson Creek drainage with the turquoise tarns in the rock fields followed by meadows and forest, all backdropped by the impressive Spot Mountain. I pulled out my binoculars again, looking at meadows to find three, large, bull elk having lunch as well. A raptor was calling and we finally located it, a Golden Eagle right above us, on the summit of Triple Divide Peak where it called out a couple more times, then lightly lifted in the breeze, then began kiting as it was surveying the area.
We broke out our lunch and began eating when Kristen exclaimed, “Bear!” Right below us, at a too close 25 yards or so, was a grizzly bear wandering up from the Hudson Creek side towards the pass. We stood up, gathered our things, got our our bear spray, and called out, “Hey bear!” all the while backing up the ridge from the pass towards Triple Divide Peak.
The bear, wearing a radio collar, looked up at us a few times and continued doing what it was doing. We got a safe distance away and continued watching the bear when her two cubs came out from where she had walked. They were busy learning what it was to be a bear from their mother. She would dig through the rocks to find food. They would dig through the rocks to find food. She would scent mark a tree by rubbing up against it. They would scent mark a tree by rubbing up against it. And so it went including scratching the dirt at the pass and rubbing head and shoulders there.
We watched them go up and over the pass, giving them ample room of course, and watched them wander off down the Cutbank drainage. We settled down and finished our lunch, decided that we’d had plenty of day and wanted to get in a pika survey in where we were to collect pellets for a citizen science program.
The bears had been gone for a bit, so we cautiously worked our way down the trail, “Hey bear!”-ing as we went along. We saw them again, working their way down the slope to the head of Medicine Grizzly Lake which made us feel much more comfortable about our return journey.
A spot further down the trail was an unlikely spot to find pikas, but we’d heard them their earlier in the day, so we stopped there to find their homes under the rocks and collect scat so that their DNA could be analyzed. While collecting, I looked down into one of the aforementioned avalanche chutes to see a bull moose. Upon scanning further, I realized that there were three bull moose, adding to a very special day.
After the pika survey, the bull moose, the grizzlies, and all of the other animals we spied we cruised out back to the trailhead past the forest birds and the lovely creek with tired legs and big smiles.