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Wildfire pushes CDT hikers through Big Sky

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A CDT hiker who goes by Guy #5 takes a break while cutting through the Spanish Peaks near Big Sky. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEDEE JURISCH

By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – After a long dry spell in southwest Montana, people watched from their windows with gratitude on Aug. 18 as rain saturated the crisp earth. But not all were sheltered from the storm. Along U.S. Highway 191, dozens of hikers with torso-sized packs trudged through roadside puddles in boots that had seen better days. 

These walkers weren’t masochists out for a soggy day hike; they were thru-hikers on the Continental

Divide Trail, a roughly 3,100-mile trek from Mexico to Canada. In July, wildfires shut down part of the trail, and many hikers opted for the less traveled, unofficial Big Sky Cutoff as an alternate route back to the main trail near Butte. 

DeDee Jurisch, 37, dripped with water as she trudged down U.S. 191 toward Big Sky. Her pack’s hip belt pressed against her stomach, causing it to ache. Somewhere along the way, Jurisch contracted giardia, a stomach illness often caused by drinking contaminated water. Jurisch, whose trail name is “13,” started hiking in April at the Crazy Cook Monument in New Mexico and hopes to reach the Canadian side of Glacier National Park before the snow falls. 

Trail names are part of thru-hiking culture. Each hiker is given a nickname often based on a personality trait

DeDee “13” Jurisch hikes in the rain north on U.S. Highway 191 toward Big Sky. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEDEE JURISCH

or perhaps a unique item they carry with them. For Jurisch, 13 has been a significant number for her in many ways since she started thru hiking. When she hiked the Appalachian trail in 2018, Jurisch experienced a series of unfortunate missteps, leading to her trail friends calling her “De-saster.” 

“I had 13 blisters, I sprained my ankle on the 13th and I was stuck there for 13 days and I was like ‘you know 13 is easier than explaining De-saster all the time,” Jurisch said. Staying true to her trail name, Jurisch started her CDT thru hike on April 13. 

A thru hike is a point-to-point backpacking trip on a long-distance trail. In the U.S., three thru trails make up what’s known as the Triple Crown of Hiking: the Appalachian Trail in the East, the Pacific Crest in the West and, the Continental Divide Trail. 

The CDT is the least traveled of the trifecta and is often considered the most challenging. Beginning in the Big Hatchet Mountains of New Mexico, the CDT runs north over the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the Great Basin in Wyoming and the Northern Rockies of Montana and Idaho. 

The traditional CDT travels northwest from West Yellowstone toward Salmon, Idaho, and eventually skews toward

The Big Sky Cutoff is not an official CDT alternate and has many routes within it. GRAPHIC BY ME BROWN

Butte. In mid-June, however, the U.S. Forest Service issued trail closures near the Montana-Idaho border north of Lemhi Pass due to the Trail Creek and Black Mountain fires. 

Luckily for Jurisch and hundreds of other hikers that walk the CDT annually, the CDT is known for its extensive number of alternates. 

“There’s a lot of routes on [the CDT],” Jurisch told EBS after arriving in Ennis. “They kind of call it [a] ‘choose your own adventure trail.’” 

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition, a nonprofit that stewards the CDT and provides information to the public, suggested an alternate road walk in lieu of the traditional section through Montana and Idaho, but many hikers headed for the Big Sky Cutoff to shave off miles and avoid long days on the road.

The Big Sky Cutoff is not recognized as an official CDT alternate, according to CDTC Communications Coordinator Allie Ghaman, and its infrequent use means it’s not as thoroughly chronicled as other alternates. Ghaman reported that in 2020, 24 percent of hikers told the CDTC they used the Big Sky Cutoff.  

Several routes exist within the cutoff, so it’s hard to say exactly how traveling through Big Sky impacts the 3,100-mile total. For Jurisch, the cutoff shaved off a good portion of the Montana-Idaho section. 

Following the trail section closures, the CDTC advised hikers to avoid the Big Sky Cutoff “due to it crossing on private land,” according to its website. Following reports of hikers crossing private property in Big Sky, Ghaman advised hikers to do their homework and choose trails and camping spots on public land. 

Joey “Machine” Leen, 30, from Maine, cut through Big Sky and over the Spanish Peaks in mid-August. 

“As far as mountain ranges go, the Spanish Peaks are some of the more impressive ones on this trail,” Leen told EBS while taking a break on Flesher Pass north of Helena on Aug. 24. Like Jurisch, Leen started the CDT in April. When he reaches Glacier in September, he’ll have completed the Triple Crown. 

Joey “Machine” Leen sets up camp near Lonesome Rock Lakes. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOEY LEEN

Compared to the other two big trails, Leen says the CDT has been hard. In June, he followed footprints through snow in Colorado, the hardest hiking he’s ever done, he said. In Montana, a good portion of his trek was spent sucking in wildfire smoke. 

“The smoke, that was really demoralizing because it was so hot and you couldn’t see anything,” Leen said. “And then with the rain, that was really demoralizing because it was so cold and you couldn’t see anything. But it’s easier to hike with rain than with fire.” 

The Montana section of the trail isn’t the only area facing closures due to fire; part of the CDT that cuts through Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is closed as well. 

Like trail names, trail families are part of thru-hiking culture. Many hikers start solo but group up with others along the way. Jurisch found her trail family just in time, she said, right around grizzly country. According to Jurisch, the three men she connected with have served a greater purpose than simply offering protecting from grizzlies.  

“There’s a time-skew on the trail,” she said. “When you’re hiking with someone, you get to know them really well

The Continental Divide Trail sign marks the return of the official CDT near Butte. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOEY LEEN

because all of our outside distractions are gone.” Knowing someone for a week on the CDT, she added, is more like knowing them for half your life. 

Fewer hikers will be passing through Big Sky now as summer wanes and they race the snow to the northern border. As of EBS press time, the primary border terminals that CDT hikers use to cross into Canada are closed due to the pandemic, an unprecedented challenge, according to the CDTC.

Will the Big Sky Cutoff every become an official CDT trail one day? Ghaman says it’s unlikely, since the true CDT follows the geographic Continental Divide through Montana and Idaho and there isn’t a need for the Big Sky route.

Though perhaps unofficial, both Leen and Jurisch suppose that as more people travel up the Big Sky Cutoff this year, more information will be available to future hikers and the alternate may become more readily used. 

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