Monday, September 12, 2011

Glacier National Park

Oh hai. As you may have noticed, I've been away from technology for the last two weeks. It's been an absolutely wonderful adventure in Glacier National Park. This entry will be long.

Before I begin, I have to shout out to Jessica Driscoll, a fellow Amherst alum and adventurer who worked in Glacier. She gave me invaluable tips about where to go, where to stay, and especially how to navigate Glacier's byzantine wilderness-permitting procedures. Even though this was my first park without a home base, it felt like I had a guide the whole way. Thanks, Jess!

And also: I have to say that I love driving across the vast distances of this country. The trip over the Cascades, through eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and now down through Montana to Bozeman (where I'm sitting at a sweet coffee shop enjoying Americano and wi-fi) were absolutely spectacular. I can put on Neko Case, set the cruise at about 73, and just roll away under the huge western sky. Unfortunately, I can't really take pictures while I do so.

I broke up the drive from Olympia to Glacier by stopping in a campground near Coeur D'Alene, Idaho. The Idaho panhandle is lovely, at least the part I saw, and lake Coeur D'Alene is a gem. Here's a view a short hike from my campground:

So far, this trip has been blessed by serendipity. On my first night alone, I felt pretty good, except I inexplicably missed my cats. When I went for water, I spotted a pretty long-haired tabby hanging out by the pump. She was shy, but I got her to approach me and follow me a bit. The camp caretaker came by on his 4-wheeler a moment later and asked, astonished, "Did you make friends with that feral cat? My son's been trying to be friends with that cat the whole summer!" CAT MAGIC.

The next morning, I got what I always crave after camping: a huge American breakfast. The waitress assured me it was worth waiting for the sticky buns to come out of the oven. Dear god. I may still be digesting it.
It's hard to tell from the photo, but that's a DINNER PLATE. It took me TWO DAYS to eat.
Then it was on to Glacier.

Campground = RV-style campground with bathrooms, "front country"
Campsite = hike-in, back country site

Lake McDonald/Snyder Lakes

I managed to pull off a miracle this August: I spent a month in the Pacific Northwest, and not once did I put on my rain jacket. Of course, the clouds rolled in just as I got to Glacier. I set up camp at Fish Creek Campground, near Lake McDonald on the western side of the park, and took a walk around the lake despite the thunderdrizzle. The area around McDonald burned in 2003, adding an eerie drama to the sky.

The rain ended around sunset, and I enjoyed dinner on the lake shore under the stark sky. A couple, Hannah and Mark, was also there, and they invited me to share their campfire. It was damp and chilly, so I took them up on it. When I stopped by their site, they were still cooking dinner (chicken with peach chutney), and they insisted I join them. The Hannah was from South Africa, and we shared stories of dangerous animal encounters (she won), chatted about traveling, US culture, this and that. Then they offered me hot chocolate with bourbon, and we took long-exposure photos where we "painted" ourselves with our head lamps, leaving ghostly impressions. I gave them my email; I hope to share the pictures here once they send them. It was an awesome fun evening.

The next day, I drove up Going-to-the-Sun Road to a day hike along the high ridges of Glacier. Unfortunately, it was still socked in.

Yes, I stopped before taking the picture. You can't tell but there's a CLIFF off that guard rail.

Even with the cloud cover, I can say this: Glacier is the most spectacular park I've seen so far. And unlike the other parks, it's well worth the trip even for people who don't get out of their cars. Going-to-the-Sun Road and some of the campgrounds are as fantastic as the backcountry in North Cascades.

When I got to the high pass to start my hike, I found a fresh dusting of snow.

It even smelled like Christmas.
The hike was pretty, if not the spectacular vista it would have been without cloud cover.

The trail overlooks Going-to-the-Cloud-Sun Road
They call part of it "The Garden Wall." Not sure if they meant a lichen garden, but they're nice.
Not sure if they meant "Garden Hose Wall" either, but I'm glad I didn't need to rely on this.
At a certain point, I was just walking in a blank fog, so I decided to turn around. Just as I got close to the trailhead again, the clouds started to break up. The mountain winds created amazing eddies and swirls in the mists around the peaks. I took about a million pictures and like seven videos, most of which I will spare you.

It was chilly.
I had an uneventful night in Fish Creek before heading into the back country.

Lake Ellen Wilson/Gunsight Pass

After heavy walking in the Cascades, I decided to break up my back country hike into smaller chunks, with longer stays in camp. The first day, I did a quick 4 miles to Snyder Lakes. It was still mostly cloudy.

There was a huge talus hillside by the lake, so after chatting with a retired couple who'd hiked there for lunch (and also offered me their food), I spent the afternoon clambering and chasing pikas. Apparently I'm not the first, because the place was littered with creative cairns.

My camp-mates said this thing was "amazingly sturdy" to the touch.

Cairn City. I really wanted a pika to wander in there with a briefcase and a fedora and be all like, "I'm going places!" Alas.
I'm likin' these lichens.
That evening, another young couple showed up in camp. Glacier has specific food-prep "kitchen" areas at its campsites to keep bear-attracting odors away from your tent, and it makes for social camping. It turned out that they went to Middlebury, so we talked about the Vermont flooding, the A&W drive-in, and precious liberal arts colleges.

It got COLD at night, but warmed to the 80s during the days. I had a long hike to Lake Ellen Wilson campsite the next day, which I documented via layering.

9:00 a.m. Hat, fleece, thermal, T-shirt, pants, long johns.
11:00 a.m. Thermal, T-shirt, pants.
3:00 p.m.: T-shirt, shorts.
5:00 p.m. Arrival in camp. Sportsbra, shorts, and soaking my feet in the frigid glacial lake. I messed with the picture because it was unsalvageably overexposed. I'm not very good with the self-timer.
Aaaand 6:30, like 2 minutes after the sun went behind the mountains. T-shirt, TWO thermals, fleece, hat, long johns, pants, frown.
On the way up, I planned to stop at the Sperry Chalet for lunch. Glacier has a system of Swiss-style chalets perched at the tops of mountains. Originally, they were intended as stops on a horseback tour through the high country. They still offer horse tours (and the trail is piled with horse puckey), but most current chalet traffic is hikers. The Sperry Chalet hotel and restaurant were closed for the season, but I wanted to sit on the porch and enjoy the view while I ate my BabyBell cheeses and trail mix.

When I got there, I found this guy:

Goats: Nature's Stink-Eye World Champions
When he spotted me, he actually started following me. Thinking he was territorial, I beat a hasty retreat. More on these guys later.

I finally arrived at Lake Ellen Wilson campsite. This might be my favorite campsite so far. The lake was emerald-sapphire and ringed with spectacular mountains. The sky was brilliant, and offered first an incredible sunset, then a lovely moon, and at about 2:00 a.m., truly unbelievable stars.

View from the trail into camp
ALL the lakes here are this color.
View from my tent. Not too bad.
The house-sized boulder made for a neat kitchen area.
Despite the color, the lake water was unbelievably clear.

I met another solo hiker, a guy named Derek from Missoula. He looked exactly like a buff Louis C.K. We and a few other campers hung out at the lake shore, watching the sunset. The next morning dawned VERY cold.
Who wants a tall, frosty backpack?

That day, I did a short jog to the foot of the waterfall near camp, then day-hiked over Gunsight Pass. So far, I'd only been on the western side of the Continental Divide. Everyone reported that the east side is very different; much drier and more open, less wooded. This was my first trip over the divide, and the views didn't disappoint.

A snow cave over a stream. It was melting rapidly, so I didn't dare go inside.
Gunsight Lake, over the pass, is a mirror of Lake Ellen Wilson
The rocks here are pretty.
Someone told me that the red and green layers are the same stone, but one is oxygenated and one is not. I didn't think to ask whether it was iron and the red was oxygenated and the green was not, or if it was copper and the green was oxygenated and the red was not. I think the former. GEOLOGY NERD GO!
Gunsight Pass is a high saddle on the Continental Divide, and it was just INFESTED with mountain goats. They were about as fearless as domestic goats, and would actively approach and follow people. It turns out they love salt, and are eager to chew/eat/lick human sweat or urine. Weirdos. Luckily, they were calm and easy to shoo. I needn't have been afraid of that guy at the Sperry Chalet.

"Pee? I love pee!"
Mother and kid
They were RIGHT THERE.
I like their burly-looking feet.
The baby was a little more timid. If you got too close, it made an adorable baby-animal noise and skittered away.
There was another group of three goats hanging out near the trail on the way back to Ellen Wilson. They have a habit of climbing up on high rocks and chillin' while they survey their domain. I decided I like mountain goats.

My second night at Ellen Wilson, a new group of hikers arrived. There was another young couple and a group of four older dudes. I ate dinner with the couple while the dudes were setting up their tents.

While we were chatting and eating (the usual where-you-from, where-are-you-hiking stuff), a MOTHER GRIZZLY with TWO CUBS sauntered through the campsite. Look across the room you're in; they couldn't have been farther away than your wall. We were all startled shitless. I stood up and carefully stepped to the opposite side of the kitchen near the couple, food in hand. The guys had seen them, too, and were holding back near their tents, bear-spray in hand.

The mother totally ignored us; we even wondered in whispers whether she knew we were there. The second cub turned and sniffed the air, surely getting a whiff of our dinner, but I clapped and shooed a bit, and he followed Mom. The cubs were at least a year or two old; they were more than half their mother's size. They ambled into the trees, disregarding us completely. A couple of the guys went to higher ground to see if they could locate where they went, but we never saw a hair of them again.

So it seems that after calling them assholes in these very pages, I'm destined to encounter bears on every single trip until I change my opinion. I was, in fact, reassured by how Momma and the cubs acted; they weren't interested in us or our food, and weren't agitated or aggressive in the least. Both the couple and the guys offered to let me move my tent to their site-spots, but I assured them I felt fine sleeping alone. And I did--I fell asleep just fine. But I guess something in my subconscious wasn't quite comfortable, because I did have a wake-up-cold nightmare about hearing a growl next to my tent. After reassuring myself that it was not real, I took the opportunity to watch the Milky Way.

The hike out was unremarkable. I landed for a night at another campground on Lake McDonald, met my neighbors' Bernese Mountain Dog, and got an overpriced breakfast at a hotel restaurant before crossing Going-to-the-Sun Road to explore the eastern side of the park.

Grinnell Glacier

I camped at the Many Glacier campground, where they had SHOWERS. I think the showers are a racket, though. You buy a token at the camp store, good for a supposed 8 minutes. Signs everywhere insist that there are NO REFUNDS on the tokens. But then a hand-printed sign in the shower stall says to turn on the water and check whether there's time left before inserting your token. I took two showers, and neither time did I insert my token. There were three discarded tokens in the stall when I got there. I took a really long shower the second time, and even left the water running while I dried and dressed. It was way more than 8 minutes. I think they just leave the water on all the time and take your money. Racket! Anyway.

I spent a day in the front country and took a popular day hike past a couple of lakes to Grinnell Glacier, the most accessible glacier in the park.

This is a lake, viewed from above. I did not mess with the color at all.

Thank God global warming isn't real. Otherwise, this glacier would be melting.
Centuries-old ice
This dude was hanging around the trail. He was as fearless as the goats, but not actively approaching people.

On the way back, the trail passed through some berry patches as it went along the lake. I noticed a berry bush up ahead shaking violently. When I made out a large, brown shape in the bushes, I backed off, along with a group of German hikers, and we watched ANOTHER GRIZZLY cross the trail and disappear into the bushes by the lake.

We were about to make a detour all the way around the lake when we heard a splashing sound. We looked into the water, and the grizzly was swimming around us.

That evening, I camped next to a retired couple in an RV. Around dinner time, they came out with an ancient, sweet little cat on a leash. Her name was Chloe, and they let me pet her as she wandered around the site.

The next morning, I departed for another back country trip.

Ptarmigan Tunnel/Redgap Pass

The Ptarmigan Tunnel is another leftover from when national parks were more like "Nature's Disneyland!" than wilderness preserves. Instead of having hikers climb all the way over a pass, they built a tunnel through the mountain.

On the way up, just after I caught up with a group of women, we ran into ANOTHER BEAR. This one was a black; he was just as nonchalant as all the others, and strolled across the open cirque as we approached. I was so bear-jaded at this point that I didn't bother to get a picture.

Here are the views of/from Ptarmigan:

The red/greenish rock striations are more prominent on the east side of the park.

The view from the far side of the tunnel. That night, I camped at Elizabeth Lake, seen here.
The camp at Elizabeth Lake was a close second, and maybe a tie, for nicest campsite. By now, the moon was getting big enough to cut down on stargazing, but I again enjoyed a lakeside sunset with another solo hiker, this time a girl who was working at a park hotel over the summer. There was also an older couple in camp; they were so fit and young-looking that I was astonished when they mentioned having college-grad kids. They were from Arizona, and offered great advice on can't-miss spots in the Grand Canyon.


A view of Redgap Pass, my appropriately-named next day's destination

Dawn. Another cold morning, but the sky is already hazy in preparation for a hot, humid afternoon.
After chatting until dark, we all retired to our tents. Just after I turned out my light, I heard shouts in the woods. They were indistinct, and I thought at first it was just late hikers doing the recommended bear-warning yells as they came into camp. But then the voice came closer, and a man distinctly yelled "HELLO? CAN ANYBODY HEAR ME!?!" Man, it is chilling to hear someone shout that and mean it.

I shouted back, "Yes! Are you okay?" He was fine, if distressed. It turned out to be a friend of the solo girl; he'd taken off to hike out Ptarmigan Pass rather late that afternoon, but taken a wrong turn and climbed way the hell and gone before realizing he'd erred. He was understandably relieved to find people and to reunite with someone he knew.

Early the next morning, a very no-nonsense looking ranger showed up in camp and declared he was looking for a hiker named Forrest (HA!) who hadn't come out of the back country as scheduled. I relayed the events from the previous night and directed him to the guy's tent. Good to know they're looking out for you here (especially when you do something a bit stupid like try to start a 10-mile hike at 4:00 p.m.).

Redgap Pass was yet another spectacular view. It was also the first day when I was on the trail totally alone.

Fear not. This is when my camera's battery finally quit.
The trail down to my last campsite, Poia Lake, was littered with bear scat. One of the piles was pretty much just lumps of fur--fur from something really big. This time, I felt uneasy camping entirely by myself, especially when this campsite turned out to be a gloomy spot in the trees, out of sight of the lake. I ate dinner all on my lonesome (except for two hares) and decided to retreat to my tent early, figuring no one was going to come in that night. Just before full dark, I heard the voices of a couple setting up their tent next door. If it hadn't been cold outside, I would have gotten out of my sleeping bag and hugged them. I only saw them to say "hi" before heading out the next morning. (It was an all-nose ring camp.)

It was a short 6 miles out the next day. While passing through a meadow, I spotted YET AGODDAMNOTHER BEAR. Black, he fled as soon as he heard me (since the first encounter, I've been taking very seriously the advice to talk/sing to one's self on the trail to avoid startling bears). As I walked, I talked/shouted to let him know where I was and scanned my surroundings for him. Not paying attention, I lost my footing and took a rolling tumble. Luckily, the trail was not steep and mostly dirt, but I got a good case of road rash (trail rash?) on my legs and elbows.

The trail made an imperfect loop, coming out on the road a couple of miles from Many Glacier campground, where I was parked. The solo girl said it was S.O.P. to hitchhike inside the park. At first, I was wary/embarrassed, especially since I was smelly, filthy, and bleeding. But eventually it was noon and hot and tired, and I thumbed a ride. The second car that passed me picked me up; it was another retired couple, friendly as all heck.

I was expecting to feel snobbish about all the retirees in their RVs and cushy hotels on this trip, but everyone's been so gosh-darn generous that I just can't. Plus, it's good for the soul to see elderly couples who still like hanging out together.

Two Medicine

The Ptarmigan/Redgap loop was going to be my last trip in Glacier, but too many people said I couldn't leave without visiting Two Medicine, another area on the east side of the park. I stayed in Many Glacier one more night, then drove to the campground at Two Medicine for another night in the front country, enjoying the fruits of semi-civilization.

Aw. Yeah. p.s. This is my 3rd and 4th hot dog of the evening.
Turns out that being really well-equipped for backpacking doesn't make me very well-equipped for car camping. I definitely could have used a real tarp to create a dry cooking area on my first night, and I don't have any of the gear necessary to cook or eat fresh food. So far, I've been happy with dehydrated meals eaten out of the pot, but the shortcomings became obvious at Two Medicine.

My last day, I gave my legs a break and rented a kayak to paddle around Two Medicine Lake.

Phone photos. Not as high quality.
I passed by an older couple who were fishing. We came alongside each other and chatted a bit. I met their dog, Fozzy Bear, who really looks like Fozzy Bear. Then the man said that since his wife was allergic to fish and he'd caught two big, beautiful rainbow trout, did I want one? I tried to explain that I wasn't set up for real cooking, but they insisted, and said I should just throw it on the grill grate over a campfire. "You've gutted a fish before, right?" Uh, yeah, okay!

I sort of  know what I'm doing.
Then, at the camp store, as I was buying firewood and ice to deal with the fish, the cashier asked if I wanted the last apple. "Free!" she said. Well, hell, now I had a whole dinner solely from the unexpected generosity of strangers!

It really was an absolutely beautiful fish.
At this point, I think I'm awesome.
I was doing a really good job. I gutted the fish without incident, rubbed it with garlic salt, stuffed it with apple, and washed off a nice, flat stone to cook it on. It roasted up beautifully. Then, lacking a spatula, tongs, or even a plate to set it on, I dropped the whole thing on the ground on its way from the fire to the picnic table.

By then, a little gravel wasn't going to stop me. I scooped up as much as I could and ate it anyway. It was delicious, if crunchy.

Let's not end on a sad note--here are photos of things!


Their chipmunks are pointier than ours.

Ground squirrel!

The rocks here remind me of the Ault's walkway.

There's something appealingly fractal about the erosion patterns in many of the mountains.

Bear grass, the quintessential Glacier flower. Never did much for me...
... but I found it prettier in person.

And now I'm in Bozeman, taking an extra day to do life maintenance (WHERE ARE MY LICENSE PLATES, WASHINGTON STATE!??!?).

Tomorrow, I leave for Yellowstone. Expect another long gap and long entry!

1 comment:

  1. Yay Glacier! You look like you hit some great spots, and I'm glad my pointers were useful.

    GEO NERD ALERT: Red and green rocks are due to oxidized (red) and reduced (green) iron, not copper. Also your "fingerprint" rocks are actually stromatolites (fossilized algal mat), and the oldest (Precambrian) fossils on some of the oldest exposed rocks in the world.