Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Flathead Police Blotter

In my real life, I live in the city. I love where I live, but... it's the city. Doors are locked as soon as you go inside. I do not walk at night. Someone escorts me to my car after work. My house has been broken into while I was at home. My car has been vandalized... several times. And I got used to hearing drunk people shout about killing me or kicking my ass. Point is, there's crime. Every day. All around you.

When I was in Montana, one of my favorite parts of the week was reading the Flathead Beacon's Police Blotter. Every Wednesday the free weekly paper of the Flathead Valley would turn up around town. I would grab one and sit outside on my balcony, the mountains framing said valley, and I would read. And laugh. I think the man who summarizes the police calls has a pretty great job, and like any great obituary writer, his words scream with personality.

Check it out: Flathead Beacon: police blotter

You'll note much irony, many kids misbehaving, drunken incidents with forks at bars, a lot of strange "activity" surrounding cars, and many complaints of spotted wildlife. The only real crime seems to happen in Evergreen, most of the crimes at bars have a woman in the center (who usually does the stabbing), neighbors fight a lot, and the whole thing manages to read like the modern frontier in bullet points.

I don't want to enjoy crime anywhere, but in the Flathead Valley of Montana, it at least makes for some pretty great reading.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Greetings from South Dakota

Hill City, to be exact. After wind that almost knocked me off the road en route to Billings yesterday, I had a much nicer drive today. I realized at one point the sky was no longer Montana blue. It was still bright and vivid, but it just wasn't the same. It's like living in black and white, getting the technicolor Oz, and then going back to monochrome Kansas. Everything is diluted, and soon it will be muted to shades of beige and fields of crop, the sky a white or pale blue stripe at the horizon. That's what it means to drive south, so that's okay.

Today, there were presidents enshrined in rock. Go on, can you name the four of them? If not, have shame and I am not helping you. So, welcome to the Black Hills of S. Dakota. Tomorrow, I am hitting the Badlands and thinking of Cissy Spacek and Martin Sheen all day, and I am definitely going to stop for some ice cream, at Wall Drug. My mom and I went there 14 years ago, and the signs have been beckoning me since Buffalo, WY. Then Omaha, and soon, back to STL.

I wore my other Royale shirt all over Australia, it seemed only right to wear one touring the west. And... I met people from MO while wearing it.

My trusty modes of transport in the foreground, Washington's profile in the back.

Many Glacier, in the wind

Grinnell Lake, below the glacier

The white patch of snow at the top... that's the glacier, kids.

The weather was not cooperating and I found myself wearing two pairs of pants, two fleeces, a Goretex coat, and a hat and gloves at the end of August. I was in Many Glacier at the northeast side of Glacier National Park. They had closed the Sun Road because of weather. The tops of the mountains were completely occluded by clouds, and where they were visible, the snow was starting to collect. The wind was gusting at over 40 mph and the temperature was in the forties. Bracing against the wind, I slammed myself down the hill and into the Lodge, looking for a few minutes relief from the cold.

I was camping, and there were few places to be that were not in the direct line of the wind. No one was hiking because of the weather. And we were so remote, it left few options. One could drive the 40 minutes to a neighboring port of Glacier, where the options would be the same. I settled into a warm couch by the fire, the wind whistling through the windows, and I read some of my book.

As I’ve traveled, I’ve found myself attending a lot of ranger-led events in the national parks. They curate really interesting programs. I’ve done some interpretive hikes, some nature hikes, slide shows, photography lectures, wildlife viewing... and on this trip I attended a history of Glacier’s people as well as a fun, family-oriented program on tracking (which amounted to footprints and poop, with the ranger acting out how various animals walk and run). But I’ve learned quite a few things. And the other night, it certainly beat being in the cold.

I took advantage of some hot tea at the end, then found my way back to the dark campground and put on every warm piece of clothing I had. I was warm enough, but sleep came roughly that night with my shoulder seizing up, making any position I tried excruciating. When I was brave enough to climb out of my sleeping bag the next morning and peek outside, I was hoping for signs of better weather, but no luck. It was slightly warmer-- maybe in the low fifties, but the wind was still whipping around. I pulled out all my warm clothing for my day-long hike up to Grinnell Glacier and hurried to the boat dock. The hike would be 8.5 miles of trails after two separate boats across two lakes.

The same ranger who had led the Glacier history program the night before, Diane, led the hike. She had worked at Many Glacier through college, and had returned as a ranger each summer since the eighties. A retired school teacher, she was an excellent source of information, and she led our huge group (40 people or so) up the 1600 feet of elevation gain to the Glacier. The trail wound alongside the mountain, exposed to the wind, crossing waterfalls as they cascaded down the rock. Behind us, there was a chain of glacial lakes-- each that deep turquoise color because of the sediment that washes off the glaciers, called “glacial flower”. We saw several rams as we hiked, and every 20 or 25 minutes, Diane stopped and gathered us up to tell us about some aspect of the glacier, the land, or the rock. I alternated putting on all my clothes and occasionally throwing everything off except my long sleeve shirt and hat. We never saw the sun on the way up, but the wind did give us a much needed reprieve.

While eating lunch below the moraine, sheltered by trees, I met a couple from St. Louis. We all moved on, making the last steep climb up to the glacier. It was breathtaking, but not at all what I expected. When I think of glaciers, I still see the pictures that were in my science books as a kid-- glaciers from earlier in the 20th century, or those in Alaska. Glaciers today in the US (at least the lower 48), they’re pretty small. I learned that the Grinnell Glacier recedes approx. 50 feet each year. It looked like little more than a small field of snow and ice in the shadows. Diane told us how it had looked when she guided hikes 20 years ago, and then she showed us photos of the exact place where we were standing from the 1920’s through today. The difference was astounding.

Still, it was a stunning view. The glacier with its dirty layered snow, then below that a lake (also a new feature of global warming) with iceburgs floating on it. There was rock with circles on it, formed from pillars that had once broken off... and then from all that, a flowing creek which would continue eventually cascading down the whole mountainside into a lake, and then on down again. I hiked down with my new friend, Marlene, who was going slowly after knee surgery a few months back. Returning on the boat, we saw a grizzly above the trail on the mountain. I had seen one the day before by the river, and after I returned from my hike, I saw two more on the mountain side behind the campground-- though they were far off and I needed my binoculars.

In addition to roads being closed and wind keeping hikers off narrow, steep trails, they had closed several trails when I was there because of “strange bear activity”. The Iceburg Lake and Ptarmigan Trails would remain closed for several days. Rangers had hiked up the day before to escort backpackers out of the area. Apparently, one of the incidents involved a bear cub having binoculars-- which sounds funny, but the rangers took it quite seriously, the obvious question being Where did the bear get the binoculars? Or, whose were they? The bears are trying to eat, eat, eat right now before they hibernate. So food is serious and anything getting in the way of that agitates them. Because of the wind and cold, they had been lower on the trails than usual.

All in all, it combined for an interesting trip. Many Glacier to me seems almost separate from the rest of the park, and indeed, it is separate. It’s so remote, and there are so few services that it seems a small little hamlet unto itself. In a few weeks, everything there will be shuttered and closed for the winter, Shining-style, which also adds to the strangeness of it all. It was wild and big, and certainly untamed-- the perfect way to end so many weeks of dropping in and out of the park.

A few weeks ago if you had asked me my favorite national park, I would have said Teton. But now, I’d have to say Glacier, with the caveat of Many Glacier being the place to go. The rest of the park is gorgeous, but it’s crowded and difficult to get around. But Glacier demands you hike, and there is only wide open sky and long trails to welcome you. Even with the wind shouting, it seemed a quiet place. I loved it, even in the cold.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Flathead River: Thrillkat

Be here now. I kept thinking that yesterday, the sound of the rapids bending through the canyon reaching me before I saw them. Jake, my guide, gave me a quick set of instructions and then his raft went down through the chute of rushing water, 9 people paddling on his boat and I was left on my own. I followed the line, my small Thrillkat bouncing into the rapids, water surging over the front past my shoulders and over my face. I dug deep with the oars, unable to see for a second, drenched, paddle paddle paddle... My boat bounced back up the other side of the wave and I followed the line out, water spraying and my oars windmilling into the river. The water smoothed out and then... I floated.

The sun was shining. The trains roared by. The river moved clear and turquoise and cold. A few clouds skipped through the sky. I was back on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, at the very south side of Glacier National Park. I had rafted the same stretch 10 days previous, and while it was extremely fun, I was looking for a little more adventure. I found it in a Thrillkat. After seeing the river, my plan was to get a little closer to the action, to run it on my own-- well, sort of.

My vessel of choice was called a Thrillkat. Approximately eight feet long, it was a skinny inflated pontoon, the bright yellow floats like two big bananas surrounding the red cockpit. Like a small stretcher suspended between the floats, I sat on a small seat with a backrest, my feet stretched out in front of me, braced against a padded block, the whole thing barely two feet wide. I had a double-sided oar, as if on a kayak. Because of the short length of the craft, and the twin floats, there was stunning suspension, throwing me up and crunching me with the waves as they came. The craft was surprisingly manueverable, despite my lack of experience. By the end of the day, I could spin that baby on a dime.

I learned to use the oars as rudders, shifting direction slowly when I was drifting. I would switch up the paddling if the wind pushed me one way or the other, doubling strokes on my left or right to straighten myself. I could spin around and paddle backwards when I wanted to watch my counterparts hit the same rapids I had just run. The oar could be pushed in the water to arrest the boat and slow it down when I needed to wait for my guide. By the end of the day, on the slower parts of the river, I could paddle down and race back, the small current between the rapids almost negligible. My vessel glided by the rocks on the side of the river, in and out of the small pools and eddies where I watched people jump from the cliffs and fish.

Three of the rafts pulled over towards the end of the day and I joined them for a swim off the rocks. The water temperature barely fazed me for a change. I was already soaked and had been covered in spray and occasional deluges the past couple of hours. 55 degree water seemed normal by then, like a badge of honor I was wearing. We ran the last three sets of rapids, the bigger ones already behind us. Jake said I could go ahead and run them on my own without instructions. I thought of something my rafting guide, Nick, had said the previous week. “There’s a reason why we have the phrase go with the flow. Don’t fight the water. Go where it takes you and watch out for rocks.” That seemed the best advice I could ask for. I went with the flow.

I followed the river, and when it was all over, despite the pain in my shoulder from paddling, I wanted to do it all over again. Be here now. That’s what survival writer Lawrence Gonzales says is the key to making it through any situation-- being present. It’s also the only way to have fun.

I was in those waves yesterday. And rather than running the rapids, I feel I ran with them, my small boat part of the whole mechanism of the river’s movement. I got my adventure, that’s for sure. But rather than being unnerved by it, I loved each moment. The deeper the better. I liked it fast and found some great pleasure in dodging rocks and navigating turns in the middle of water rushing at me. There’s a difference between riding above the water on a raft and feeling like you are in the water experiencing everything as it happens, not just watching-- but part of the movement itself. That's how I felt, part of the river.

When I beached my Thrillkat at the end, I felt like I had just done something. After a beer and a burger (much deserved), I headed away from Glacier and back up the mountain to my place. As I drove, I looked at Big Mountain, and my first thought was I climbed that. And then I thought of the river, and realized I paddled that. Alone. It’s not about conquering the landscape, but I have to say that there is a lot to be said for being a part of it, for feeling it, and for navigating it under your own power.

I’m happy I had a guide on the river, but I am even happier I paddled it alone. Now I just need a kayak, and some good whitewater in the Midwest.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Logan Pass, Glacier N.P.

a goat, in a meadow at the bottom of the trail

Hidden Lake

long-horned sheep in the snow

a marmot, so you know what they look like

a river pool, glacially cold even when warmed by the sun

I've been hiking in Glacier about once a week since I got to Whitefish. It's 45 minutes from my door to the gates and it seems a shame to not take advantage. Last week, I headed into West Glacier to raft, which was fantastically fun-- so much so, that i am planning on going again before I return home. But yesterday, I felt like hiking and I wanted to see some good wildflowers. I bought some field guides last week so I could get better at naming flowers and trees. I used to be able to do it when we lived in Colorado, and somewhere along the way, the information just got booted out of my head.

So I headed to Logan Pass, where the views and the wildflowers were renowned. I left early to miss the construction traffic on the Sun Road, and I got to the pass a little after 10am. It was already sweltering, but I was rewarded with prairie dogs and mountain goats in the meadow at the bottom of the trail. I was headed up to Hidden Lake, a trail recommended to me by a few of the rangers the first day I hit Glacier. I was hoping to do a ranger-led nature hike, but they had just switched their activities out of full summer mode and cut back. So I grabbed some water and struck off up the mountain to see Hidden Lake. Along the way, I saw herds of long-horned sheep below me, several other lakes tucked into the navel of mountains, marmots, waterfalls flowing into snow-covered morraines, lots of wildflowers, and more sheep. As I walked, it was stunning to see how closely one had to look to see the wildlife-- even when they were just a few hundred feet away. The sheep blended so seemlessly into the rock, and the goats' white fur was the color of snow. But at the end, there was the lake, its turquoise water shining below me in the sun. Even several hundred yards lower than me, it was possible to see the rocks at the bottom of the lake, the logs that had been felled into it. It's still just amazing to me the clarity of the waters in Montana-- all that same deep turquoise, all clear, and all stunningly cold.

You get lured by the color. When I was rafting, the intense heat was getting to me, and like several others, I jumped intot he river in a calm part, quickly swimming straight back to the raft before my arms were covered in gooseflesh. Yesterday, after hiking and sweating for a couple of hours, I had the idea to drive back down the pass, eat a picnic lunch by the river and then wade in. Even knowing how cold the water would be, this seemed like a good idea. I found a great place and pulled off, my feet dangling off a rock in the fast moving water. There were pools periodically-- what we would call shut-ins in the Midwest-- and I scurried over some rocks towards the shouts and laughter of other people. What I found was a deep pool. People were jumping off the rock croppings, going in the water in their clothes-- anything to get cool. I watched until I couldn't stand it. I went and changed into my suit and I dove in, knowing this was not the kind of water one joked with. It was all or nothing, and before I knew it, I was under water and gliding to the other side.

And then I came right back. The phrase "glacial" to describe extremely cold water is pretty spot on. And considering these were glacial waters, the sun was just a far away cousin-- related, but having no real impact on the character of the other. A little girl asked me if it was cold, and I said yes, but I had the feeling it would warm up when you got used to. I, however, was not waiting to find out. Even swimming the length back, the cold seemed to make my limbs slower and tighten my chest. Imagine swimming in a huge pool filled with ice. When you're hot, it sounds great, but the reality of it is something else. I was satisfied after to bask on the rocks, like a river otter, warming in the sun, looking at the snow on the peaks down the river.

It's amazing the national parks I have seen, and none of them a one-trick pony. Each as different from the next as possible, and each seemingly different from one side of itself to the other. Just the four I have been to on this trip-- Arches, Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier-- each have their distinctive features. Glacier is growing on me. The beauty and its features are certainly unparalelled and not found anywhere else in the USA. I just wish it was slightly easier to navigate. Still, I can't even complain about the construction stops at the top of the Sun Road. It's one thing to be struck still on the interstate in Kansas, the heat pushing down on you; it's quite another to be stopped for 15 minutes at the top of a mountain, looking straight down at rivers, across to waterfalls, glaciers behind the mountains, and snow-crested tops. And then, at the end of it all, there's no shortage of ice cream (or huckleberry shakes for those not allergic-- I still have not risked it).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Glacier National Park

Avalanche Creek

Last week, I went to Glacier National Park for the first time. It was a windy, cold day-- one of the few I have seen this summer-- and I intended only on a fact-finding mission. Glacier is set up differently than many other national parks. It has one main road (Going-To-The-Sun Road) which runs through it, effectively bisecting the park. There are a handful of other entrances around the park to access its jagged edges, and then Waterton, to the north, in Canada. Unlike Yellowstone or other parks which are almost oriented to the roadside and the driver who wishes to access the park, Glacier is for the backcountry enthusiast. Only one problem: I am alone.

So, for me, there are many limitations to the beauty of Glacier, or rather, to experiencing that beauty. Because of the usual safety considerations involved in long or remote hikes or backpacking for days, I have to steer away. An additional concern in Glacier is the bears. Northwest Montana is bear country pretty much everywhere. It is not uncommon to see them on the mountain where I live-- and by bears, I don't mean regular bears, I mean Bears. Grizzlies. So, I am well-versed on bear safety and precautions. Make noise. Travel in groups. Be extra vigilant in certain places (streams, around bends, near berries-- basically anywhere in the woods here). So, for me, this double concern means certain hikes are out.

So, the first issue in Glacier was where could I hike alone? The second, how to get there. By virtue of there being only one road, it is highly trafficked (and there's construction, June and July being the only months without snowfall). So Glacier provides shuttles. The only problem: they don't seem to run remotely as planned. However, while waiting several lengthy waits for shuttles, I did meet some nice folks.

It seems everyone in Northwest Montana has a history here. Some grew up here, left, and have returned. Many moved here in retirement after vacationing here. And others simply come here every year. I met a retired Navy man and his wife who come here every summer for several weeks. They roam around the Flathead Valley (I imagine in an RV, as he was quite familiar with campsites) and see the west. I asked them all sorts of things and they told me where to fish (Thompson Chain of Lakes), where to canoe and camp (Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake), where to see a rodeo, where to find great (and safe) campsites, and not to miss hiking around Logan Pass in Glacier. I spoke to a bunch of nice rangers (all of whom I met were easily over 65 and ridiculously spry and fit). A couple of hikes that were more popular were suggested for me to do alone, and off I went.

I headed towards Avalanche Creek to hike up to Avalanche Lake. If nothing else, I loved the name. The trail definitely had people, but rarely was I toe-to-toe with them. The first half mile swept gently upwards, following the line of Avalanche Creek, a stunning turquoise fast-moving river. It moved downhill from the lake at quite a fast pace, spilling over rocks in huge bursts. Looking down from the rocks, you could see that the fast-moving water had literally bore a hole into the rock, rounding it as it went down the mountain into the valley. Following that, there were huge woods of cedars, the undergrowth knocked down, the land dark and dense. 2 miles up was Avalanche Lake, a small-ish glacier lake surrounded by huge mountains on its far end, with 5 sets of steep falls towering down the rock face.

Avalanche Lake

I ate an apple in the wind by the lake, marveling at how far the water fell to reach the lake. The ranger had told me that in a matter of weeks, the falls would begin to dry up, so it was fantastic to see all 5 barreling down. The sky was grey and small raindrops came down as I pulled my fleece pants on and buttoned up my raincoat. It seemed that my hike was a lesson in how the land was made.

The view from Going-To-The-Sun Road

A week later, I returned to Glacier. Most of the glaciers are in the backcountry (there are 5 remaining in the park, down from 27 at the turn of the century). Grinnell Glacier can be reached via a longer dayhike (8-12 miles, and about 6-8 hours). Fortunately for me, there was even a ranger-led hike, making it possible for me to go. The only problem, the hike begins daily at 8:30am, and it's on the far side of the park, about 3.5-4 hours from my house. Because I wanted to go to different activities and lectures and hikes within the park, I needed a better idea of how best to get from place to place. Since the shuttle system had worked so poorly last time, I decided to try my luck driving, leaving early in the morning in the hopes of catching parking at Logan Pass.

Going-To-The-Sun Road is an appropriate name. I expected the drive to Logan Pass to be steeper, but it swept upwards rather gentley, tracing the rise of the peaks and leaving other cars and rivers on the valley floor. I climbed and climbed, the road eventually becoming one-lane because of construction. The road itself is a marvel. It was built several decades ago (the 30's, I think) and features two tunnels bored through the rock. It rests on the side of the mountain, clearly a ledge that has been created with explosives for our enjoyment, and it moves straight, right across the peaks, perpendicular to their ascent. There were huge waterfalls careening down over rocks and tunneling under the road. There was Weeping Wall, a stretch of 40 or 50 feet, at least, with water cascading down in solid sheets to the road. There were wildflowers, and everywhere, there were views.

I was going to stop at Logan Pass and hike, but because of construction, it was right around noon and crowded. I decided to feel the zen of driving and head on. I drove the whole road, stopping occasionally for pictures, and to eat lunch on a wall overlooking one of Glacier's many turquoise lakes.

Looking out over a lake, after lunch on the roadside.

Eventually, I headed out the other side of the park at St. Mary and went north to Babb ( a great small town consisting of a supper club, a gas station, two cafes, a motel, and a huge bar) and on into Many Glacier. Right before re-entering the park, I could see the big red bus up front and several cars stopped. I slowed, assuming an elk or some sheep in the road (I had seen many BigHorn while driving). Nope. It was a bear. In the woods. About ten feet from my car.

The vehicles in my lane slowly started moving again, and I continued at a slow pace. You are not supposed to stop in the middle of the road unless wildlife are crossing, and the road at Many Glacier was pretty crappy, so I thought I would abide. As I passed, a woman in the opposite lane had her head sticking out the window and was pointing. She was clearly not happy that I was driving by, and as she pointed, she began to say quite loudly, "A bear! A bear! A bear!" And when I looked at her with a mixture of amusement and caution, she seemed to get more unhappy with me. "Right there. Other side. Right there! A bear!" She was not concerned for the bear's safety, nor mine. I was barely rolling by. But she really wanted me to stop and seemed very confused that I didn't. I did see the tail end of it as it ran quickly up the side of the mountain, further into the breadth of aspens. Mostly, I was stunned the bear remained that long with her shouting and pointing. There were several other cars, but everyone else seemed relatively composed. I trudged off wishing I had seen it better, but laughing regardless.

Many Glacier, view from the road to the Lodge

At Many Glacier, I had arrived too late (half an hour early, but too late) to get on a boat for a hike with a ranger. No bother in the end. It was hot and I watched as people rented canoes and took out rafts to swim. I walked down by a huge waterfall, though not too far, as the woods were dense and I figured possibly bear-laden. And then, after a while of looking at the glaciers that looked more like plain mountains (global warming, folks-- and summertime), I got back in my car for what would now be a long drive home.

Instead of heading through the park, I drove around, which was well worth it and half an hour quicker. The first stretch was through a burned out mountainside, the trees bald, like an army of naked soldiers. Wood rising up in profile, no branches or leaves. And below me, in the valley, other lakes, that same gleaming turquoise. Later, the drive rounded out near the Middle Fork of the Flathead, a big whitewater rafting area. The trains rolled by and the sun beat down. It was a long day, but a nice one. I stopped for ice cream on the way home and decided maybe I would hit up the east side of Glacier on my way out of Montana.

Maybe it was a bust of a day in some ways. I didn't hike at all, but I did see a whole lot of land. It's funny to drive in what I know to be such a small patch of the state. But after hours and a couple of hundred miles, I expect I have driven halfway across the state. The sky so huge and those mountains coming and going, alternately holding you close and then beckoning from far away. You are hemmed in, but with such a deep sense of freedom because you understand size in a different way. Scale becomes completely relative. And you move within that world, slowly, waiting for whatever comes, but also not wanting to leave any of it behind. And you drive...

By the numbers...

National Parks Visited (this trip): 4 (Arches, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier- twice)
Miles Driven: 3,6XX
Cheapest Gas: $3.99 yesterday in Hungry Horse, MT (across Glacier NP, it was $4.60)
Laps Swam: a lot
Miles Cycled: 42 (I think)
Miles Hiked: 31 (over 5 hikes)
Elevation Gained and Lost While Hiking: 6000 feet (best guess)
Favorite Montana Beer To Date: Big Sky Moose Drool (brown ale)
Pints Consumed: 5 bottles and a mug
Favorite Spot in Whitefish: City Beach
Amount of Hours Spent on Beach Reading: 9-10 (a couple of hours a day; I burn)
Longest Hill on Favorite Bike Ride to Date: 1.2 miles
Minutes it takes to drive from town to Big Mtn: approx. 15
Quilts I have seen: approx. 440
Books I have read in full: one (For some reason, I almost never read while traveling.)
Number times per evening I look out at the mountains from my balcony: 6-10 (outside)
Huckleberries Eaten: zero-- I am still afraid I will be allergic; they look too similar to blueberries
Canadian Motorcyclists Seen on Road: a few hundred
Number of times I have done laundry while traveling: 2 (the third will be tonight)
Postcards Sent: 13 (if you want one, send me an email with your address)
Times in my life I have had this much time off from work: never-- Even if you added up all the days I have taken off, it would have taken me about 2-3 years to have that many days off over the regular course of work, including all holidays and vacations taken.