Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Glacier Journeys -- Part 1

A couple of days before our arrival at Glacier National Park, Dad started to get grumpy and withdrawn. It took a really good joke to coax a laugh out of him. The rest of us were quite buoyant in our anticipation of reaching the northernmost destination of our journey. John and I had a multi-day backpack planned, and Mom wanted to see the sculpted glacier landscape. We realized that Dad was dreading the traffic and humanity that is part of the National Park experience. On the day of entry, the cars were all lined up at the entrance station, families were taking photos at the entrance sign, and the motor homes and travel trailers (Dad calls them “incubators”) were jockeying for position in front of the gift stores. Dad could only converse in grunts from the depths of his curmudgeonly mood.

John and I went to the backcountry ranger station to obtain permits for the backpacking loop trip we had planned. Most people make their reservations months in advance, but since we did not know when we would arrive, we decided to wing it – we could wait a couple days if needed. All overnight backcountry hikers in Glacier are required to camp at designated sites along the trail, and the number of people allowed at these sites is limited. We worked through our itinerary with the rangers, and with luck on our side, were able to get a place at each of the sites along the route we wanted. The rangers were amazed – they said this rarely happens. We were instructed to view a video about backcountry travel, including how to judge if a grizzly bear is about to attack you (bobbing head, raised hair on back), and what to do if one does (don’t run). We bought pepper spray as an additional measure of safety, just in case.

We were to leave the next day from Many Glacier trailhead, which was on the east side of the park, 50 miles along the Going to the Sun Road. Mom and Dad decided to forgo the drive and get into the first campground before it filled up. We parted ways, to reunite in a week. We felt a bit sorry for Mom, who had to mediate Dad’s happiness, but she gave us a wink that it would be ok.

We headed out on our seven day trek the next day. The first day was primarily in the dense trees of the forest. The heat wave that gripped the West was still in affect, so we were quite sweaty on arrival to camp. Each of the designated campsites had tents spots, and all cooking was to be done in a central area to prevent food odors from contaminating the tent sites. There were either poles or suspended cables to hang food bags at night away from the bears, or metal storage lockers. Pit toilets were also available – some more protected than others. The ones with a wooden enclosure had a crescent moon carved in the door. The open-air variety had just a wood box with a hole in it and a lid, leaving you to ponder the sunrise while doing your business. It was a rather social experience at each campsite, since we cooked with our neighbors. We met folks from St. Louis to Atlanta to locals from Montana. It was much like staying in a hostel.

The landscape over the seven days of our hike was spectacular. The concentration of glacial features was more than we had ever witnessed anywhere. Water was everywhere – from glacial lakes to falls that poured from the hillsides. The metasedimentary rocks lay in horizontal beads, with cliff forming layers, multi-colored in reds and greens. Ripple marks and mud cracks were exposed underfoot along the trail. The loop we traveled crossed passes with names like Red Gap and Stoney Indian. On our second to last day we traveled across a section called the Highline Trail, which had a couple of side trips to overlooks. The top photo of the day is from the Sue Lake Overlook. The second is from Ahern Pass looking towards Helen Lake and Elizabeth Lake, where we had camped just a few days before -- click here for a video. The forest is much lusher than our local mountains, and we picked huckleberries for our morning cereal as we hiked. We watched a herd of 11 mountain goats one evening traversing the cliffs above our campsite. We completed our loop convinced that the best way to see this park is by hiking the backcountry, and we had picked a route through the best of it.

We thought often about Mom and Dad, and whether they were having a good time. We hoped they would be at the trailhead when we came out, and had not bolted from the crowds. We found them in the campground, happy and content. They had worked their way through four different campgrounds in the park, took a boat ride across St. Mary’s Lake, hiked many trails, and were as enraptured with the landscape as we were. A forest fire had closed the Going to the Sun Road, which seemed to diminish the crowds on the east side of the park. We were grimy and hungry, so we bought a shower and we celebrated our reunion at the restaurant adjacent to the campground. The pizza was mediocre, but it tasted good to us with our bottomless appetite after seven days of trail food. The Fat Tire Ale on tap wasn’t bad either.

We continued our journeys through the park, which are chronicled in the following couple of blog posts.

Posted using wi-fi accessfrom Columbia Falls Public Library, Montana.
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