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...

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