Elk Meat and Dirty Water: Lessons Learned the Hard Way in the Bitterroot Mountains


Trail notes

Once every 15 minutes or so, I’d have to stop walking and puke my guts out on the side of the trail. I was feeling pretty darn sick and I still had about five miles to hike before I made it to the Little Rock Creek trailhead and back to the road that skirted the edge of Lake Como. When I had started my hike the prior evening I was filled with excitement and adrenaline. The surrounding snowcapped mountains of the Lonesome Bachelor, El Capitan, and the Como Peaks, stood with magnificent beauty in the evening light. But now, through a pair of eyes blurred with tears from constant vomiting, the surrounding Bitterroot Mountains appeared daunting and harsh. All I could think about was getting the hell out of that rocky valley and back to my bed. This was a solo backpacking trip I wouldn’t soon forget.

It was a Friday afternoon in late June and I had just gotten off work. I quickly drove back to the cabin I was staying in for the summer and packed my backpack. My goal was to hike to the base of two prominent Bitterroot Mountain peaks, the Lonesome Bachelor and El Capitan. At the base of these peaks there are three alpine lakes. These lakes source a small mountain creek called Little Rock Creek. Little Rock Creek tumbles down a steep ravine flanked on either side by the magnificent Bitterroot Mountains. Starting at its source, the creek runs unimpeded for about 2.5 miles until it reaches a large lake known as Little Rock Creek Lake. This lake is about 4.5 miles from the Little Rock Creek Trailhead. It was at this trailhead that I had parked my ‘82 Suburban and began my hike.

I was by myself and I had hiked the 4.5 miles to the shore of Little Rock Creek Lake. I stopped and made camp in the fading evening light. I peered through the twilight, across the tranquil lake, and could see a small campfire on the other shore. The light from the fire illuminated the trunks and lower limbs of several surrounding pine trees. I wasn’t the only one camping at the small mountain lake that night.  I slept out under the stars. The shadowy silhouettes of the surrounding Como Peaks watched over me as I rested my head on my pack.

In the morning, I saw a couple of Boy Scouts walking down to Little Rock Creek Lake with their fly rods. It was their fire I had seen the night before. I gathered some kindling and enough wood to make a small cook-fire in order to prepare a quick breakfast. Among my camping gear, I had brought a metal cup for boiling water, a small packable skillet, and a frozen hunk of elk steak that a friend had given to me before I left. I pulled out the skillet and the now-thawed elk steak and hastily prepared my breakfast. I ate the elk, shouldered my pack, and headed for the base of El Cap.

As I moved up the ravine, away from my campsite and the popular wilderness lake, the trail became less defined. It wasn’t long before the trail had vanished completely and I had to bush-whack along Little Rock Creek. As I moved up the beautiful ravine, I was startled suddenly by a moose exploding from a thicket in front of me. The cow moose crashed through the brush and then slowed to a lanky awkward walk. Every so often she glanced back at me, but eventually ambled off.

I continued to follow Little Rock Creek until I found its origin, three pristine mountain lakes filled with frigid run-off from El Cap and the Lonesome Bachelor. Here was the source of the clear flowing waters of Little Rock Creek. Feeling moved and inspired by the beautiful scenery, I built a stone cairn and placed a log book on the south-eastern shore of the southernmost lake.

I sat next to the blue waters for some time. I stared at the rugged talus piles and the aqua blue mountain lakes. It was early afternoon and I knew I had a long hike back. I pulled my canteen out of my pack and walked to the rocky slope of the Lonesome Bachelor. Here, a steady stream of water flowed over the rocky talus. The pristine water was ice-cold from the melting snow. I lowered my canteen into the crystal-clear water and filled it to the brim. I took a big refreshing gulp. I felt a like a new-aged adventurer as I spun on my heels and headed back down the ravine.

If my memory serves me, I probably hiked for about an hour before I felt the pangs of stomach-churning pain. Within half a mile of Little Rock Creek Lake, I began vomiting. The source of my digestive woes was either from the elk meat I consumed that morning, or, more than likely, the water I had drank from the base of the Lonesome Bachelor.

I stumbled out of the tree line along Little Rock Creek Lake, and made my way along the shore. I could feel the cold sweat pouring down my face and chest. I came across two young Boy Scouts fishing along the bank. The two boys stared at me wide-eyed, I must’ve looked like hell.
“Hey guys, do you have a water filter?”
One of the boys nodded.
“Could I get some fresh water from you?”
The boy put his fishing rod down and walked to his backpack. He produced a pump and I handed him my water bottle, after dumping out the unfiltered water. He filled my canteen with filtered water and I thanked them both. I began to feel a little better. I had a canteen of filtered water and had four-and-a-half miles to the trailhead. My 19-year-old ego told me that I didn’t need any further assistance. This was the home-stretch.

I started down the trail, away from the mountain lake and the Boy Scouts. I felt slightly revived and I had a new sense of determination. Only four-and-a-half miles to go, it would be a piece-of-cake. Unfortunately, this feeling didn’t last too long. Maybe a half-mile later, I was doubled over again on the side of the trail. Once the spasms of vomiting had subsided, I blearily continued walking down the trail, then another wave of nausea swept over me and I stopped again and emptied my stomach contents. 

This pattern of hiking, puking, hiking, and puking continued. Slowly, I lost all sense of how far I had walked and how much further I had to go. Stupidly, I had kept trying to push forward, towards the trailhead. Now, I was too far from the lake to get help from the Boy Scout Troop and too far from the trailhead to get home. I felt incredibly weak from constant vomiting, so I just laid down in the middle of the trail and shut my eyes. I don’t know how long I laid there. I hoped that someone would come along and help me, but no one came.

At some point, I brought myself back to my feet and continued stumbling down the trail. It was slow going, but at least I was making progress. The sun had begun to set and the evening light cast a golden hue on the pines that bordered the sides of the trail. After several hours, I had finally ceased with my incessant vomiting and was able to make tracks. Eventually, I made it to the trailhead and back to my vehicle.

On my way into town I stopped at the local grocery store and bought a Gatorade. I then drove home and climbed into bed. I don’t think I moved from my bed the whole next day.

Two glaring mistakes come to mind when I think back on this hike. The first being my hastily prepared elk meat breakfast. Had I given myself food poisoning by not cooking the meat thoroughly? Maybe, but probably the only way the meat could have caused food poisoning was if it was contaminated prior to it being frozen. Because I didn’t have a hand in processing the elk meat, I can’t definitively say that the meat was processed in a sanitary way. But, I still think it’s unlikely that this was the culprit. The second mistake, and more than likely the reason for my illness, was the untreated water that I drank at the base of the Lonesome Bachelor. I thought that because I was drinking water straight from the snowmelt, it would be void of any harmful microorganisms. This probably wasn’t the case.

Harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella can be found in the feces of animals, especially rodents. The Bitterroot Mountains are home to several species of alpine rodents, including Hoary Marmots and the American Pika. Both of these mammals live amongst the talus piles on the rocky slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains. I hate to blame such cute critters for my violent ailment, but it seems to be a likely culprit. Another dangerous microorganism that can be found in mountain lakes and streams is the parasite known as Giardia. The nick name for Giardia is “Beaver Fever,” so you don’t need much of an imagination to figure out where this parasite comes from. All of these microorganisms cause vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms can be debilitating, especially when hiking in the backcountry.

I learned several valuable lessons on that fateful weekend hike. The most obvious one, and the hardest one to admit, is ALWAYS treat your drinking water by either filtering, sterilizing with chemicals, or boiling, even if the water looks pristine. Also, it’s important to always cook your food thoroughly. Especially wild game. Another mistake I made was thinking that I could continue hiking once I made it back to Little Rock Creek Lake. At that point, I should have found a nice shaded tree under which I could have writhed in pain. Instead, I tried to continue my hike. If I had stayed at the lake, I could have been around other people that could have assisted me if things got really bad.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty and these lessons now seem blindingly obvious. I must’ve watched Jeremiah Johnson too many times and thought that I was some kind of grizzled mountain man. Kin to Bearclaw Chris Lap I am not, and laying in the fetal position in the middle of a Montana hiking trail is a pretty good way to knock your ego down a peg or two. The lessons I learned that weekend were painful ones, but despite that, it will always be one of my most memorable hikes.