Sunday, August 31, 2008

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.

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