Along the
Great Divide

Story by Cindy Ross as it appeared in the
March/April 1997
"MONTANA Magazine," photos by Bob Riley.
Reprinted with the permission of Cindy Ross and Montana Magazine.

Part I....This is the first of a two-part series chronicling the experiences of a couple who trekked the Continental Divide Trail through Montana, accompanied by their two very young children, a good friend, and six stalwart llamas.

WE WERE JUST SETTLING INTO CAMP AFTER HIKING OUR SECOND FULL DAY ON Montana's Continental Divide Trail, when we saw the riders coming from the opposite direction.

"Hey! How's the trail around Whitetail Reservoir?" we asked.
Marshes are as deep as your hips. High as a horse's belly," they replied. We were skeptical.
Where you headed?" they asked. "Canada."
They laughed. It was 500 miles away.
"Where'd you start?" they queried further.
"Homestake Pass from 1-15." Ten miles ago.
They laughed even harder. "Keep your sense of humor in the bog," they advised, and rode off.

Last summer's two-month hike was only one leg of our 3,100-mile odyssey on the National Scenic Continental Divide Trail. Every year or two we drive out from Pennsylvania with our babes and beasts to hike a 500-mile stretch and work on fulfilling our dream.

Only 48 hours into the hike and already we had our share of challenges: reading guidebook data backwards since it was written for those traveling in the opposite direction, and no blazes or signs marking the trail. The first day we had asked directions from a local who had lived in the area for thirty years and he misdirected us.

We lost the trail around Delmoe Lake and were forced to scramble up a cliff. Steep slopes don't pose much of a challenge for regular backpackers but we were traveling with a string of llamas, who carried our supplies and three- and five-year-old children. A mid-size llama (350 pounds) can carry between sixty and one hundred pounds and, like us, the better shape they are in, the easier the heavier loads are to handle. Llamas can negotiate even the rockiest trails, but as soon as it gets so steep that we need our hands to climb, they are forced to leap, and it is much easier to leap without one hundred pounds of gear strapped to your back. And so my husband, Todd, and our hiking companion, Bob Riley, unloaded all the llamas' panniers and carried them up the escarpment, in their arms, in the rain.


The horsemen weren't kidding about the bog. I went in up to my waist three times. Many llamas don't care for mud but one in our string gravitates toward it. To get him out, Todd had to jump in and shove on his rump while Bob pulled on his rope. We wiped dozens of mosquitoes off our arms in one swipe.

And it was Bob's fiftieth birthday on such a day. You've got to find pleasure where you can under these conditions so we planned a surprise party. I had baked a rich pound cake before departure. We strung up balloons with dental floss in an arch inside our tent and called him over to sing and open presents. The surprise was on us, however, when he said, "We're celebrating my last day as forty-nine. Tomorrow is my birthday."

Some sections of the CDT’s 961 miles in Montana are well-marked and maintained: in the four wilderness areas and in Glacier National Park. In other sections of the seven national forests, there is little traffic, and the trail frequently tests you.

We continued to be tested that first week as we came upon newly constructed fences totally blocking the trail. The men took their axes and wire cutters and created a gate and then put the fence back together. There was near constant map and compass work. Black cattle hid in the shadows and spooked the daylights out of our adolescent llamas, who then tried to walk down the trail abreast instead of in line, repeatedly sounding their warning call. Bob's older, wiser llamas ignored the cattle.

The land was not extremely exciting-forests broken by grass and sage flats and marshy meadows. There were signs of civilization, cabins and gold mines long since abandoned, but other test holes looking very recent proved there was still "gold in them thar hills."

After a week of challenges, I was beginning to feel over-tested, but the tiny town of Basin restored us. When we walked through town, people came out to greet us and ask about our trip. The sweet lady who runs "The Helping Hand" free second-hand shop brought us a bag of donuts and bananas. They took pictures of our children perched on top of "the boys," and some angel asked, "I don't suppose you could use some homemade sticky buns?"

As we walked the eight miles of (,gravel road out of town, an old logging truck pulled up driven by a Native American mountain man. He turned off the truck in the middle of the road and said, "You bring those animals up to my place for the night. My girlfriend just baked bread."

This was just the lift we needed. Long-distance hiking restores your faith in humanity. At no other time are you in such a humbled, vulnerable state, and it opens us up to gifts like nothing could in our other, "safe and secure" lives.


The trail from Rogers Pass and Flesher Pass north into the Scapegoat Wilderness rolls along the divide's backbone, mostly above timberline. The wildflowers were profuse and the wind blew incessantly. It was here that my children learned what faith in a higher being truly meant. The wind had been getting unbearable and we needed to brace ourselves with every step. We took our children off their llamas and Todd carried Bryce in his arms and I held Sierra in front of me as we walked. As we descended into a saddle, the wind funneled up and flattened us. We lay on our backs, unable to move. Sierra's Ilama's saddle blew around and dangled under his belly. He panicked, and we screamed for help at the tops of our lungs. The guys were only ten yards away, involved in their problems, but they couldn't hear us over the roar of the wind. We managed to crawl into the scrub brush nearby, and then composed ourselves.

My children were crying softly. Bryce said he couldn't breathe. Sierra asked if we were going to die. I did the only thing left and said, "Let's say a quick prayer to keep us safe." Within thirty seconds, a brilliant, full-arched rainbow appeared across the canyon over a peak, and it hadn't even been raining. The children's eyes grew wide and they agreed, "We're going to be okay."

This seemed a little coincidental. But half an hour later, after we were better rested and the rainbow was gone, we traversed the back side of the knoll and once again headed into the wind. My children again became frightened. We repeated their prayer and the rainbow reappeared.

The small miracles of a life lived in the outdoors.

You may wonder what we're doing with such tiny youngsters in the wilderness. The fact is, long-distance hiking has been a way of life for us for decades. And now that we have children, the trips include them. The experiences we have teach us about ourselves and our world, and bond us as a family. Our children may come to know what hardship is and what it is to be frightened, but they also experience the joys of sunsets, howling coyotes, swims in mountain lakes, and being with Mom and Dad twenty-four hours a day. They're learning, at a young age, that one kind of experience makes the other even more precious.


The 1988 Scapegoat Wilderness fire that blew out of control was really a verybeautiful place to walk. The fire-charred hillsides offered an advantage: unobstructed views of distant peaks and tremendous wildflowers. The blackened trunks were sculpted by the flames into strange, curving shapes that made a striking contrast against all that color and light.

The country keeps getting better as you head north into "The Bob," a wilderness named after the late Bob Marshall, a "heavy" in the early conservation movement. For fifteen miles, the great Chinese Wall is your backdrop, a 1,000-foot vertical continuous rock cliff that curves and winds through the heart of this land.

Horsepackers heavily use this country and it is better to go later in the season, if possible, to allow the fifteen-foot-wide mud trail to harden. Llamas are just as sturdy as horses or mules, but their two-toed, padded hoofs have a much lower impact on the trails than horse hoofs.

The Scapegoat and The Bob are home to the largest non-park population of grizzlies in the lower 48. As you proceed north toward Glacier, their density increases. Griz were probably our biggest fear before coming to Montana to hike. We thought our children would need to be older, adolescent perhaps, before we could travel safely. But we learned, prior to departure, that our llamas would likely keep the bears at bay. Park officials said there has never been a bear incident involving stock in the park, nor with a party larger than three. Our group of five hikers (plus six llamas) and the amount of chatter and singing we produced, helped keep us safe.

It was difficult to walk in fear in such a place of beauty. Glacier National Park has been referred to as being the most astoundingly beautiful place south of Canada, and having walked 7,000 miles in many of our country's major mountain ranges, I agree.

The park is a jumbled sea of peaks, knife-edge ridges, and shimmering lakes. Waterfalls and cascades drop thousands of feet. The land is green and lush with wildflowers and wildlife everywhere. We were able to get only a few yards from bighorn sheep and snow-white mountain goats.

But no griz. It wasn't that there weren't any, because other hikers were seeing a half dozen a week. Campsites were being closed in many areas of the park to minimize danger from the bears. Certainly our llamas sensed the bears were there somewhere. Normally the llamas grazed, and then rested and chewed their cuds afterwards, but in the park they stood at attention. They were our guards and they enabled us to relax and enjoy ourselves. They must have smelled wildness and danger everywhere, for it was like they were wired with electricity, day and night.

To make such a beautiful lush, green place requires a lot of precipitation and this part of Montana gets much snow and more than one hundred inches of rainfall a year. We experienced snow, rain, hail, and sleet in that hundred-mile stretch through the park. Each child often wore four layers of long underwear and two layers of thick pile pants and jackets. After a particularly windy traverse of the divide one day, I asked my son if he was happy out here. He replied, while crawling on the ground and stuffing his face, "Yes, I love to pick berries." Children are so resilient.

The weather we had in late summer, however wet and windy, was nothing compared to the extensive flooding the park had experienced earlier that season. Thirty-seven bridges had been washed out and trail crews had had to raft across usually small streams. The park superintendent had wisely advised us to plan our hike going south to north, reaching the park at the end of the season, when the water would have receded. Sound advice.

There is a balance out here. There is order and fairness. If you want wildflowers and waterfalls, you must experience rain. To appreciate gifts of kindness from people, you have to experience deprivation. To see such beauty from high mountain passes, you have to push your body to get there, weathering wind and rain.

It isn't really hardship. It's just full living that covers the range of emotion and life. When we top a pass and the world stretches out below and we're feeling like monarchs accumulating all our gold, my daughter takes my hand and walks with me and smiles. She knows, too.

Cindy Ross: is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania. She has been published in numerous periodicals, and has authored several books on hiking with children and with llamas.

Perfect Buddies
Llamas and children are a natural. Llamas have a keen ability to sense a child's vulnerability, and they tend to tolerate the abuse doled out by small children. Llamas rarely spit at humans and usually try to move away from the annoyance. Children are constantly entertained by their presence and curious behavior, which helps tremendously to combat boredom on a hike of any length.
A child can begin to ride around two or three years old. A medium-sized, in-shape llama can carry up to a sixty-pound child. An older, trail-wise llama is a good bet, but a very mellow, gentle disposition is the most important trait for a successful child carrier.
Once a lead rope is on a seasoned packer, they will follow wherever they are led, even at the pace' of a small child. Pony saddles do not fit a llama so we use the flexible, wooden-slatted Mt. Sopris Saddle made in Carbondale, Colorado. We roll closed-cell foam sleeping pads and attach them to the tops of the panniers and across the back to stabilize the child. This helps them remain in the saddle should the llama unexpectedly jump. Pony stirrups work well for older, longer-legged children who are too heavy for their llama to be carrying the additional weight of panniers and pads.
Use discretion when leading your llama across rough terrain such as steep slopes, slippery traits, snow, and various bridges. This goes for encounters with dogs, horses, free-range cows, and more. When in doubt, take your child off and have them walk.

Rocky Mountain Llama and Alpaca Association first sponsored Cindy and Todd and their two children in 1993, when they completed the 470-mile Colorado Trail that runs from Denver to Durango. RMLA and its members will again be assisting them on their Continental Divide Trail hike through Colorado in 1998.

Go to Part II Along the Great Divide

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