This past autumn, my partner, Chandler, was really wanting to knock one of her bucket list hikes off her list: Upper Holland Lake. On top of that, it was also the onset of fall and the tamaracks were starting to change color, from their olive and sage tones of evergreen, to bright and vibrant golds and ambers.
We had attempted this particular hike only once before, at the same time the previous year actually. But due to unfortunate circumstance of almost coming upon a bear, we decided it best to turn around and avoid the apex predator that round. Such is the risk of hiking during the hyperphagia season, which is why we always carry bear spray.
Things were different this year though. Either because we were more determined than ever, more restless from being cooped up most of the summer with both of our multiple jobs, or just wanting a bit more excitement before the end of the year; we decided we weren't going to back down.
Admittedly, I was a little more worried about the bears than Chandler was, so we decided to change things up this go-around. Begrudgingly, we decided to not bring our adventure buddy Sunny, my golden retriever, along with us on this hike. She could possibly be too unpredictable should we run into a bear. So instead, Sunny got to spend the day with family, lounging around, and snacking to her heart's content.
My very good friend, Kyle, had also never seen a tamarack, let alone their changing of colors with the seasons. As an avid hiker himself, we knew he would be a great accompanyment for our troupe, and would help us reach the "magical number" of 3 people; to which of course he agreed to join us.
We set out in the wee hours of the morning, leaving Helena under the cloak of darkness, and we began our 3-hour-or-so drive up the Seeley Swan Valley. Driving along the backroads highway as the sun slowly rose, a gorgeous landscape was painted all around, with a low fog that clung to the lakes and valleys before us. Before too long, we pulled up to the parking area and prepared to set out.
The hike to Upper Holland Lake, itself, is a surprisingly fairly easy route. It's just over roughly 11 miles round trip. And the way up, despite being a 2,500ft climb in its entirety, is very gently graded almost the whole way.
As we navigate up the mountain to the northeast side of Holland Lake, we are greeted with many scenic stopping points. These vista overlooks certainly help break up the pace of the overall climb, and you can't help but to stop at each one and take in the gorgeous scenery of the Seeley Swan Valley; as the Mission Mountains wrap around and across the eastern horizon, catching the golden glow of the morning sun.
After about the first hour of hiking, the trail begins to wind around the hillside and into the elevated creekbed canyon, just beneath Holland Peak. If you were to take the time to stop and listen, you might just hear the roar of the Holland Falls a few hundred feet below you. (Another stop definitely worth visiting, if you have the time and energy for an extra 3 miles; with a short but steep hill climb up to the falls.) And as you continue to follow the Upper Holland Lake trail deeper into the canyon, you'll be greeted by cool and shaded pathways, the cold rippling waters of Holland Creek, and a temperate-seeming paradise of autumn colors. A crisp oasis, of sorts.
As we continued hiking along the trail, we were treated to mulitple small waterfalls, foliage rich with the color of every hue on the spectrum, and occasional rays of warmth as the sun rose higher and broke through gaps in the canopies.
It's hikes like this that make adventuring into the mountains entirely worthwhile. Our heads were constantly on a swivel as we chatted and climbed. We would stop frequently as one of our group would point out another hidden gem tucked along the sides of the ravine, "ooh"-ing and "ah"-ing to grab each other's attention.
In between moments of gawking at the picturesque landscapes, we shared stories and inquired deeper into each other's lives. Kyle is a skilled craftsman of mead making, the ages-old method of brewing honey wine. So naturally, I'm always curious as to what he's brewing up next, where the next honey is being sourced from, from which kinds of flowers the bees have been pollinating from, and what kinds of herbs and spices he's blending into his latest batch. During this reoccuring conversation of ours, that happens on each one of our hikes together, I always begin to find myself salivating for a nice glass of mead; to which I'm always reminded that Kyle happens to bring a bit of mead to share, at the summit of our hikes, with his traditional ritual of "Mead on the Mountain."
We eventually strike paydirt as we crest the final slope, and work our way through the last grove of evergreens. Now before us lays the beautiful Upper Holland Lake. The mountains slope around it like cup, pouring all snowmelt into this hidden, pristine lake. The waters here are crystal clear, vibrant and blue like a Yogo sapphire, and surprisingly quite deep. Similar to the clear waters of Whitefish and Bowman lakes to the north, you can see for dozens of feet downward, with one part of the lake descending into a dark navy pit of unknown depth. Chandler joked how she should've brought her fishing pole because you can see the fish clear as day in the water, swiming around just barely out of reach.
Soaking up as much time in the sun as we could, we enjoyed the warming rays, and relaxed around the shoreline. We snacked, hydrated, and shared in some samplings of Kyle's latest mead, as I had hoped for. We toasted to health, friendship, past and future adventures together, and well wishes in our personal endeavors.
In these moments I always feel blessed to have people like this in my life. It has a way of really putting everything into perspective. All of the trials and tribulatioins, all of the heartache and loss. It all seems so far away and distant now. To me, I see myself as a scarred individual who has always endured, and will continue to endure. But it's nice to have these times with friends, just like this one, to help remind me that I'm not as alone as I often feel to be. To remind me to keep pushing forward and to keep following my dreams as passionately as ever. I've never said the words out loud to them in regard to this, because a simple "thank you" just never seems to cover it entirely. So I raise my glass and smile as I look each of my companions in the eye. And like the shutter of a camera, I capture this memory into my mind. A photograph to be preserved within the soul.
After wrapping up and packing up, we begin our descent back down the canyon's trail, saying goodbye to Upper Holland Lake like two old, parting friends, wishing to see each other again. Yet never soon enough.