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Glacier National Park

8/4/2007

SHOW ME WHERE THIS IS

Glacier National Park

Editor’s note: the main text [regular font] is written by Will McElwee.  The inserts [italics] are comments by Bob Laney, and Bob also edited the main text for readability and filled in some details.

 

During the first week and two weekends of August, 2007,  a band of Wilkes County natives, Will, Bob (partially), Kelly Pipes and Andy and Brooke Johnston hiked the entire width of Glacier National Park, from Lower Kintla Lake in the northwest corner to Chief Mountain Customs in the northeast corner, with a z-shaped angle into the middle of the park south of Waterton Lake.   

 

Well, it has taken me over a month to finally post a report from this trip.  I'm going mostly from memory and from the 150 or so photographs that I took along the way.  We actually started planning this trip a year ago, back in August of  2006.  It started with my explanatory e-mail to several of my friends.  I was shocked at the response for such a long, tough, remote trip.  At one point, we had nine people confirmed.  Ultimately, we ended up with five, as one guy had knee surgery in the spring before and couldn't go, taking with him his two sons and their friend.  As it turns out, five was a great group size.  If all nine had gone, we would have likely had to split into two groups, which would have multiplied the logistical hurdles. 

 

I invested in myriad efforts over the prior 6 months to do everything possible to prepare for this trip.  I upgraded to a lighter sleeping bag, tent and stove.  I got lighter, more breathable boots and broke them in well.  I made a long checklist and reviewed it to omit every item that was not either necessary – like spare socks – or mandatory under Park regulations – like rope to hang food.  I even omitted tooth paste and floss, relying on a toothbrush and water.   All the members of our group made similar preparations.  Despite those efforts, all of us ended up with packs in the 40 – 50 pound range, which is a major load. 

 

The planning for this trip was difficult.  The first hurdle was how to get to the trailhead at Lower Kintla Lake.  I quickly learned there is no shuttle to take hikers up there.  Due to the licensed guide services using their political clout to protect their economic turf, the local shuttle and taxi services are forbidden by government regulations from carrying hikers to that particular destination.  The chat boards on this website had a few people who were offering to car pool or switch off rental cars, but none of them were going at the same time we were.  Fortunately, I went with my family to Big Mountain in Whitefish, MT, for a ski trip the prior February.  With a little bit of looking around, I found a licensed winter cross country ski guide, Greg Fortin, who was willing to “bend the rules” and drive us up there in the summer, while taking his son on a swimming trip. 

 

We all tried to do pre-trip workouts and practice hikes.  But the other partners frankly beat me.  Will ran The Bear race at Grandfather Mountain the month prior –5 miles straight up.  Brooke runs marathons, and she and Andy backpacked an ambitious route in the Wind River Range.  Kelly backpacked most of the mountains over 6,000 feet in the southeastern US. 

 

The next hurdle was to get a permit.  If that didn’t happen, then the trip would be out the window.  The trails and campsites are totally regulated by the backcountry rangers, and are in great demand.  Many campers don’t get their picks.  So… I filled out my application, asking for such popular campsites at Hole-In-The-Wall and Mokawanis Lake, among others, and held my breath.  The reply came sooner than expected when I checked my e-mail on April 23.  There it was: permit # 176!  They gave me a couple of second and third choice campsites.  But I wasn’t complaining if I had to stay, for example, at Mokawanis Junction instead of Mokawanis Lake My dream was going to come true.  We were going to through-hike Glacier Park from west to east!   

 

For those of you wishing to track our exact route on the Glacier backcountry map, our final permit campsites were: enter at Lower Kintla Lake front country campground à Upper Kintla Lake à Hole-in-the-Wall à Goat Haunt à Mokawanis Junction à Elizabeth Lake à exit at Chief Mountain Customs.  Our trails were: Boulder Pass, Waterton Lake, Stoney Indian, Elizabeth Lake and Belly River.   Ambitious, huh?   

 

Very ambitious is more like it.  It was 65 miles across the park in six days, crossing two 7,000 foot passes, while gaining or losing  up to 3,500 altitude per day.  After our trip, I asked several backcountry experienced Park rangers and local professional guides about our itinerary.  The universal response was along the lines – “They did that?  Well, that’s more than I would try to do…”

 

Actually, our original permit was to go from Elizabeth Lake through the Ptarmigan tunnel and exit at the Swift Current Lodge, not Chief Mountain Customs.  But a week before we arrived, we learned on the Park web site that the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail was closed for current grizzly bear activity in the berry patches, so our route was changed. 

 

We got a very early start in North Wilkesboro to carpool to the Charlotte airport, meeting at 4:30 a.m.  Flying into Kalispell, MT, was mostly uneventful.  After getting a good night’s sleep in the Columbia Falls Super 8 Motel, we were off with a chilly, but early, beginning to our first day in the Park.  We had to check in at the ranger station in Polebridge.  I expected our trip up there to be the rough ride described in several sources as a rutted out half-road with our heads banging into the roof of our rented SUV.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the road was a decent gravel road.  In Polebridge we stopped at the Mercantile Store.  What an interesting place!  A couple of local dogs were hanging around outside the store.  A hiker who happened to be there pointed at one of the older looking dogs and said that he remembered seeing that same dog when he was last there – 8 years earlier!  I guess things don’t change much in Polebridge. 

 

Polebridge  is like a northwestern USA version of Key West, FL, : an end-of-the-world locale where misfits of all sorts drift in and stay for half a decade. 

 

Inside the store, I was immediately drawn to the smell of fresh baked goods.  All across the counter was an array of homemade muffins, scones and breads, which was an especially nice treat given that my diet for the next week would be mostly dried stuff like nuts and granola.  I chose the huckleberry scone and it was great.  One warning about the Mercantile in August – there are bunches of yellowjackets around the front of the store.  I tried to sit outside in one of the rockers and eat my scone…nothing doing.  Anybody with food was swarmed by yellowjackets, which were attracted to the sugary stuff.  I ended up finishing it in the car.  Then we were off to the ranger station just around the corner.  Just before we got there we had the rare treat of seeing a couple of coyotes running through a field beside the road.  At the ranger station was a nice young girl doing the check-in and orientation.    I found myself wondering – how did she get such an ideal job, working full time in a beautiful wilderness?  Then it occurred to me: not everyone wants to live and work in a place 40 miles from civilization.  In addition, she told me that she was envious of us for going backpacking.  Her job doesn’t allow her enough time off to take week long backpacking trips like we were doing.  So… maybe her job wasn’t all that I imagined it to be. 

 

The ranger tried to accommodate our requests to upgrade some of our campsites.  But she was almost laughing at the idea that we might actually be able to upgrade to Mokawanis or Glenns Lake campsites.   Our itinerary was in the middle of the most popular 3 – 4 week window of use for the whole year.  All those sites were completely booked up.  We also toyed with changing to Fifty Mountain and Granite Park campsites.  She did laugh at that idea.  We watched the mandatory “beware or bears” video, got sufficiently worried and then we were off to Kintla Lake

 

We also read the warnings on giardia in the water, were told to avoid drowning by not crossing high water creeks, were reminded of lightning, deadfall trees, trails that disappeared under landslides and slick places where snow zones  had not melted off the trail from last winter [after all, this is Glacier National Park].  The park is kept astoundingly pristine -  and hikers are kept safer from bears - by not allowing campers to put anything on or in the ground: no food, no trash, no nothing.  If you carry it into the woods, then you either eat it or carry it out.   We were supposed to carry out our used toilet paper; and filter the dishwater and carry out the detritus.  Our group avoided these last two gross chores by using the pit toilets provided at each campsite, and licking our plates clean. 

 

I have to confess that I was bit nervous when we finally hit the trailhead, what with all the talk of bears, floods and such.  In addition, I still had some question about my ability to physically make it.  I had actually been training for this trip a long time, and I’ve become an avid runner over the past year.  I guess I have shed about 50 pounds.   Still, I had those worries in the back of my mind.  What if I can’t lug a 50 pound pack up to Boulder Pass and Stoney Indian Pass?  What if I can’t keep up with the other members of the group, all of whom are quite physically fit, over 6 days and 65 miles?  [Brooke runs marathons!]  What if my feet start to blister and give out?  What if someone has an injury out in the middle of nowhere?  How would they make it back to civilization, 20 miles and a mountain range or two from the nearest road?   My cousin Andy put it best when he answered similar questions from Bob: anxiety is good, because it makes the accomplishment that much sweeter when you make it to the end.  Plus, at that point, I was standing at Lower Kintla Lake with the pack on my back, so what else could I do but start walking

 

Andy is a wise man.  His words ring true…but only if you make it to the end.  My concerns, the same as Will’s above, and expressed over the prior 6 months in several e-mails from me to the group, also ring true…if you can’t make it to the end.  I had experienced prior trips with younger guys who could out-hike me, and I had grave concerns for months prior to this trip that I was getting in over my head.  In hindsight, I should have followed my own instincts and planned my trip to parallel theirs in other parts of the park.  But, to quote Jack Nicholson’s character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “At least I tried.”    

 

Lower Kintla was scenic as expected.  It was a clear day and all of the peaks – Kinnerly at first – could be seen.  There was a guy canoeing up the lake who we kept up with for a while.  The thought crossed our minds that it would be cool to load our gear in a boat and paddle to Upper Kintla campground, then set up base camp and day hike to Boulder Pass or other nearby places.  Maybe next time. 

 

This scenario is what I proposed, a route shaped like a lollipop, with side trails at the lollipop radiating out like spokes on a wheel. But the group elected to stick to the original itinerary, straight across the park, "Point A to point B," since it allowed us to string together many more scenic views and remote campsites. 

 

We tried to hike at a fairly good pace on the first day, because it was 11:30 a.m. by the time we finished all the shuttle and ranger check-in activities, and actually started moving.  Then we had over 11 miles to cover before dusk.  We found a nice place to sit and have a snack at the halfway point between Lower and Upper Kintla Lakes.  That was where was saw our only bear of the entire trip.  He was ambling along the other side of the lake.  We concluded that he was a large black bear as opposed to a grizzly – but it was hard to tell for certain from where we were sitting.  Even though he was quite a distance from us, I noticed that without saying anything we all kind of quickly loaded our packs and started moving again.  I wondered why we never saw another bear the entire time.  Maybe it had something to do with us hollering “Hey Bear!” somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 times over the five days we were in backcountry.   

 

I saw two other bears, one about 50 yards away between the trail I was on and Lower Kintla Lake; and one way up a mountain as I was driving to Many Glacier Lodge.  I did not get a good look at any of them and assume they were black bears.  Tuesday morning I passed a fresh, damp pile of bear scat full of blueberry seeds, at a spot on the trail where there was none the day before.  At other times I saw, some only a few feet away: white tail deer, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, golden eagle, beaver, otter, trout, chipmunk, gray squirrel and many birds.

 

As we hiked along Upper Kintla Lake the trail moved uphill from the lake for a while and we were hiking through the woods. 

 

This section of the trail, actually just a few hundred yards from the Canadian border, was through a burned out area from a fairly recent forest fire.  There were plenty of flowers, grass, shrubs and weeds.  But without shade from the trees, it was suffocatingly hot.  

 

When the trail came back to the shore, we could look up to the head of the lake and see the beach beside our campsite.  At this point we had great views of Kinnerly and Kintla Peaks and we started to see the mountains that we would have to negotiate the next day.  Upper Kintla Lake campground was absolutely beautiful.  The views from the lakeshore were astonishing, and I felt like it was the most enjoyable campsite we stayed at all week. 

 

My preparations were not enough.  The combination of pack weight and hiking pace were more than I could handle.  By lunch time the first day, I had a large, debilitating blister in the middle front of both feet.  Like me, everybody else was glad for the occasional rest stop.  But their attitude and body language showed that they were not stressed out and were thoroughly enjoying their environs.  Even though I stayed with the group the first day, I was stressed to my limit and not enjoying the trip.  I realized that I was not on their wavelength.  The best I can determine, the main difference was age.  I had about 25 years’ worth more gray hairs than my partners.  Many of those 55 years were spent backpacking, elk hunting, trout fishing, white water canoeing, sea kayaking and telemark skiing, all over the eastern and western USA.  But those experiences could not give me the stamina to keep pace with excited, jazzed up, ultra-physically fit 32 year olds.   By far the most demanding parts of the trail were still ahead: several days of over 13 miles and climbs with 3,500 feet altitude gain.  I could not see myself completing it. 

 

In the morning we rose early and looked at the neighboring mountains reflecting off the lake, which was as still as a sheet of glass.  I took some really great pictures that morning.  The real bummer though was that we lost my friend Bob at Upper Kintla.  When we got into camp that night he showed us a couple of terrible blisters that had developed on his feet.  He had already determined that there was no way he could make it to Boulder Pass and then on beyond there.  He was also concerned about his ability to make it through the next few days given that he was the oldest member of the group.  I could see in his face that evening that he had no desire to go further, so I tried a couple times to urge him on, and then acquiesced to his decision. 

 

Park regulations don’t specifically forbid, but strongly recommend against, traveling alone in the backcountry.  All the documented grizzly bear attacks have been on solo or tandem hikes and campers.  A group of four or more is considered to be safe.  That’s why the backcountry campsites are designed to accommodate four persons.  At this point, I had the dilemma of getting myself back to the trail head without my group.  It took considerable intestinal fortitude to decide to turn back.

 

Fortunately, there was a group of three backpackers in their late teens and younger twenties, who were staying at our campsite.  They included two persons who worked at St. Mary’s Lodge in the Park, and were hiking out the next morning in the opposite direction.  They offered to let Bob hike back with them to the same trailhead where we started.  Even better, the girl’s parents, from Minnesota, were meeting them and gave Bob a ride back to the front country part of the Park.  This break was lucky for all of us.  Bob spent the rest of the week touring the park and doing day hikes.  He even obtained another rental car, which eased our trail-end logistics by giving us two vehicles to carry us back to civilization.

 

Our parting was bitter-sweet.  I feared the complicated solo logistics that I was getting into, but I knew that I would be worse off pushing further into the wilderness at that pace.  I shared some items with the group – my gloves  and guide book to Will, toilet paper to Brooke and lighter and batteries to Kelly. 

 

I was pleasantly surprised at my ability to tolerate the climb to Boulder Pass the next day.  My biggest fear was that I would fall behind the others or simply not make it.  As it turned out, the climb was really no worse than one I had done a few weeks earlier on Hump Mountain back home in NC.  We did have to ford the first creek that we came to because the bridge had been washed out back in the November 2006 flood.  We anticipated that from reading the ranger reports in advance.  That was our only river ford of the entire trip. 

 

They also encountered no snow fields, grizzly bears, lightning or landslides, despite ominous web site and ranger station warnings to the contrary. 

 

On our way up to Boulder Pass, there were fields of blooming plants – both pink and purple.  I was ashamed that I hadn’t read up about the local flora so that I would have some idea of what I was seeing.  When we got to the spot above Boulder Pass campground we threw off our packs and sat around just taking it all in for a little while.  We shot some pictures looking back at Kinnerly and Kintla Peaks, both of which were magnificent from that point.  We ran into a couple of guys there who were going to ascend Boulder Peak.  In retrospect I really wish we had followed them.  However, the Falcon Guide told us that there was a trail to the peak at the eastern end of the pass beyond the campground.  We never did find that trail. 

 

The beginning of the front country phase of my trip was my second trial by fire.  It can be summed up by the name of the movie Catch 22.  Logistically, nothing worked.  And I could not make any thing work, since it required some pre-requisite that I did not have.   My cell phone and wallet were back at the hotel in Columbia Falls, stored with our group’s civilized clothes and gear.  Driving back to the Apgar  front country campground with the couple from Minnesota, we stopped in Polebridge for me to make some phone calls.  The only public phone worked only with a phone-type credit card, which I did not have. 

 

When we got to Boulder Pass, Kelly and I decided to scramble part of the way around the side of Boulder Mountain.  We got a good ways up and reached a point where we had a spectacular view of Hole in the Wall from above.  I snapped a few pictures from there.  We were also able to look down into the Bowman Lake Valley – which looked as deep as the Grand Canyon.  At one point I crept out onto a ledge and carefully looked down a drop-off that must have been 1,000 feet down into the valley.  When we got back Andy and Brooke said that they saw us climbing around out there and thought we were nuts for getting so close to the ledge. 

 

When we got to Apgar, it was the same scenario of only a  pay phone, except that I could charge a call to another phone number.  Each call required a long string of numbers to patch together the authorization.  No one was in my office at that time of night.  My wife Debbie could not hear my voice, so she did not know why some stranger was asking to charge a call to her home phone.  When she eventually, reluctantly, authorized a call, no one answered at the business of our shuttle driver Greg Fortin.  Then I had to go through a long, complicated scenario to get another call authorized.  Something was wrong with the phone system, so for each call, I had to talk to an operator twice, and dial in my home phone number twice.  Of course, there was no answer on Greg’s home phone.  Then ensued another effort to approve a call.  Then, no answer on Greg’s cell phone.  And so on.  The hotel where my civilized gear was stored had no rooms available, and the clerk refused to let me sleep on the floor of the storage room.  When I demanded that she call her manager, she put me on hold, then accidentally hung up.  So began another series of frustrations to re-connect the call.   Of course, she said no, again.  Ditto for my putting up a tent in the hotel back yard...she actually said it was over a hazardous waste fill!!?? I wondered, how dysfunctional is this situation going to get? 

 

As we left Boulder Pass we hiked around the upper rim of Hole in the Wall.  Kelly’s GPS kept telling us that we were one-third of a mile from the campground – which was true, as the crow flies – we just had to circle a mile around it to get to the trail leading down to the campground.  From this area we could see the valley below Hole-In-The-Wall.  The lower valley was surrounded by mountains on all sides, capped by magnificent Thunderbird Peak in the distance.

 

One valley above the other at a 90 degree angle is caused by two glaciers going in different directions, and is referred to as a “hanging valley.” 

 

This was the part of the trip when my feet started to get sore.  It’s 13 miles from Upper Kintla to Hole-In-The-Wall, with significant elevation gain and loss.  It turned out to be the “elevation loss” part that gave me the most problems.  As we tromped downhill toward the campground I could feel that burning sensation on the bottoms of my feet – the familiar feeling of  blisters starting to come.  It was in the same part on both feet and it promised to be disastrous if I didn’t deal with it effectively. 

 

I could not rent a camp site at Apgar, since I had spent all my cash the day before paying Greg for the shuttle ride.  I could not get to a bank or ATM, or to the hotel with my cell phone and wallet, since I did not have a rental car.  The taxi services were apparently not open at that time of night.  I could not get to the airport to rent a car, since I did not have…a car!  I could not call anybody without my…cell phone!  I could not pay for anything without…my wallet!

 

Once we got to the campsite on the second night, I did the moleskin thing and felt better.  Hole-In-The-Wall campground has to be the most picturesque campground at which I have ever stayed.  Surrounded on three sides by mountains, with a stream running right through the middle that led to a waterfall that seemed to fall forever down into the valley, it was what I had thought backcountry camping in Glacier would be like.  What I didn’t expect was the wind and the dust – and lots of it.  This is a place where you have to keep your tent zipped shut at all times or everything you have will get covered. 

 

My partners tell me that this campground had the best pit toilet of all as well.  I never found out, as nature never called for #2 while I was there.  I had to wait until the next day at Hawksbill campground, which was a different experience altogether: a single seat sitting in the open (no outhouse) next to a meadow, which was refreshing in a way.  Kelly might not have liked it as much, since he walked around the corner and there I was in the wide open having a poop.  Interesting side note here – there was a group of college age kids camping at HOL with us.  When we got off the trail a few days later we camped at St. Mary’s campground and the ranger at the campground booth was a girl from that group who recognized us. 

 

Eventually, my front country Catch 22 worked out.  Greg got one of my voice mails and sent me a message via a ranger buddy for when and where I was to wait.  The next morning at dawn he picked me up, took me to the hotel to get my stuff, to an ATM to get cash, and to the airport to rent a car.  He even offered not to charge me due to the semi-emergency situation, but I paid him his regular shuttle rate.  I ended up renting a camp site at Apgar and had a pleasant week.  [One last frustration: my cell phone battery had expired, and I had no access to a wall outlet for recharging.  I had to drive to Kalispell, ask multiple directions from gas stations and eventually found three electronic stores, two of which carried only wall chargers.  I bought, apparently, the LAST cell phone “AA” battery charger in the whole town.  The package had even been torn open and returned…I kept it anyway.]

 

The third morning, the trail from HOL to Brown Pass was scenic.  It started with a narrow section that circled around the side of a mountain with steep drop-off on one side.  The views back to HOL and Boulder Pass were spectacular.  Again it seemed like we were able to look a thousand feet down into the valley from this section of the trail.  At one point we were able to see Bowman Lake in the far distance.  I hated to miss Bowman and hope to maybe work it in to my next trip.  From there we started hiking through some high meadows which were covered with more of those blooming flowers. 

 

            On the same day, in the front country, I drove to Logan Pass at the top of Going to the Sun Road and parked by a waterfall coming off a cliff.  Every little spot in this gigantic park is another poster-quality, photogenic scene.  I hiked on part of the Continental Divide trail, towards Granite Park.  This section is also called the Garden Wall trail.  It has some areas so exposed along a cliff that there is a cable to hold onto.  The view into the valley far below is like Will’s description of the Bowman Lake valley below Hole-in-the-Wall. 

 

The trail then descended down through the woods, where we ran into a grouse hanging out on the trail just above Lake FrancesLake Frances was nicer than Lake Janet.  We had a good view of the Wolf’s Jaw peaks from Frances.  The falls running down into the lake from far up above were awesome.  There were lots of great skipping rocks on the shore of Frances as well, and we probably spent a good 20 minutes just sitting around trying to skip them as far as possible before we moved on. 

 

Even though I felt like a dork for quitting the main backpacking trip, I guess that deficiency did not show through to persons whom I passed on the trails.  My rough appearance from two days in the backcountry and one night without a shower in the front country seemed to attract attention.  Many other hikers asked me questions about the backcountry and seemed in awe that anyone would venture that far from civilization.  I tried to act modest!

 

We didn’t go far from Lake Frances before we ran into a group of Canadian tourists who were doing the guided hike around Waterton Lake.  We had to wait in line for that entire group to cross the suspension bridge, one at a time, and then we were finally at Goat Haunt.  At this point I remember thinking about how long we had planned for this trip and how much we had anticipated it, and the first half was already over.  It was a bummer to think that such a highly anticipated adventure was passing by so quickly, but at the same time I resolved that it would definitely not be the last time I would visit Glacier’s backcountry. 

 

Eventually, I wandered off the Garden Wall trail and just sat for awhile in a flowery grass field beside a tiny waterfall.   I had the unique experience of a chipmunk sitting on the toe of my boot, while it ate a pine cone seed.  Later I found large tufts of mountain goat fur clinging to the bushes.  I gathered a bunch as a souvenir.   That evening, I was chilly and stuck my hand in my pocket.  Soon I was surprised to notice that I was clutching the fur and it was toasty warm.   

 

Our accommodations at the Goat Haunt shelters were basically a garage-sized room with concrete walls and floor, like one of those rental storage buildings.  Tents weren’t allowed, so we had no choice but to stay in it.  This was definitely the worst campsite we stayed at during our trip, but it was offset by the magnificence of Waterton Lake and the presence of running water, which allowed us to clean up.  One thing that stood out to me here was how busy the place was with tourists during the day, but once that last boat left in the evening, I had the overwhelming feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world.  The village of Waterton would be the closest civilization to this place, only 5 miles away, but otherwise there was basically nothing but miles and miles of wilderness on all sides.  I noticed that the rangers have apartments there at the foot of the lake where they live.  I wondered what they do here every night by themselves.  Play cards or charades?  Do they have a radio they can listen to?  Does their family live with them in this isolated place?  If so, what do they do during the day?  It must be kind of like the pioneers had it 150 years ago, living out there at Waterton Lake all alone. 

 

That afternoon we decided to take a dip in the lake – which we were told was the “warmest” swim available during our hike.  Fortunately it was a hot, but windy, day.  After putting my feet in that frigid water, it took every ounce of will power I had to actually jump in and submerge myself, even for a moment.  Bone chilling is the word that comes to mind.  It was nice, however, to get out and sit in the sun to dry off.  The next morning I got up early and snapped a few pictures of the surrounding mountains (I think Citadel Peaks) reflecting off the water.  Just like Kintla, this lake was as smooth as a sheet of glass in the morning. 

 

Each evening at Apgar campground, I hiked down to Lake McDonald and jumped into its glacier snow melt waters in for a full bath.  I  experienced the  same need for steely nerves, just to get wet,  like Will did  at Waterton Lake.  But by the third day, I was more or less used to the shocking cold and looked forward to the refreshing dip. 

 

The next day was our most ambitious hike: from Goat Haunt to Mokawanis Junction, almost 14 miles with about 3,000 foot altitude gain and loss.  We stopped at Kootenai Lake along the way in an effort to see a moose.   We hiked half-way around the lake, figuring we are bound to see a moose, what with the glowing reports from the Falcon Guide and other hikers we met.  It seemed obvious to us that the moose would be standing in the middle of the lake and posing for photographs all day long as people pass through.   No such luck. 

 

The highlight of the day was Stony Indian Pass.  Climbing up there was not nearly as easy as climbing to Boulder Pass two days earlier.  To me it felt like the grade was steeper and the climbing was longer.  It was the hardest climb of the entire trip.  I had to stop and rest several times between the bottom and Stony Indian Lake, where the campsite is located.  As we headed up the trail from the bottom, we passed through lots of tall thickets.  Huckleberries and other fruits were plentiful and tasty.  I had the constant concern that a bear could be just a few feet away from me and I would never even see him. 

 

This day in the front country, I hiked the Cedar Creek trail, seeing both huge cedar trees and rough, steep, scenic creek views.  Of course, I couldn’t stay on the trail and spent some time exploring the creek banks and playing in the stream.  Then I connected with the Avalanche Lake trail and made it all the way up to the lake.  The scenery there was like what Will said about the Boulder Pass trail coming down from Brown Pass to Lake Francis.  The lake is in a cirque, surrounded on three sides by towering peaks, long sharp ridges, small glaciers, water falls and deep forests.  Down stream is Avalanche Creek, leading to McDonald River. 

 

We bumped into a park employee and his girlfriend coming the other way who were headed to the Porcupine Ridge fire tower.  From the trail we could look back and see the tower through our binoculars.  I’m sure you could see the entire world from that spot.  That was yet another place to add to my “must do” list when I come back.  When we finally reached Stony Indian Lake, I threw off my pack and shoes and dipped my head in the lake.  It didn’t feel as chilly as Waterton Lake, but that is probably because I was so hot and tired and needed to cool off.  I remember filling up my water bottle from this lake and thinking that it was one of the most refreshing drinks I could remember. 

 

We rested and ate lunch at the lake.  Then we hiked to the pass along a trail that must have had twenty switchbacks between the lake and the top.  The pass was perhaps the highlight of the trip for me.  It was a beautiful grassy meadow surrounded by spectacular peaks including Stony Indian peaks (above the lake), Pyramid Peak, Cathedral Peak, Mt. Kipp and several others that I can’t recall by name.  We threw off our packs and just lay in the grass for a while, soaking it all in.  On the other side of the meadow was a guy playing tunes on a lute, which was a perfect fit for this high alpine setting.  Kelly and I again decided to be adventurous and scrambled pretty far up the mountain above Stony Indian Lake (opposite Stony Indian Peaks).  From there we could look down on the Stony Indian Lake from way high above.  In the other direction we could see Atsina Lake and further out we could see the Belly River valley, where we were headed.  We hung around the pass for over an hour, and again I had that feeling of regret  as we left that I could only enjoy this incredible spot for such a small moment in time. 

 

As we hiked down from the pass I noticed that my feet were burning.  The moleskin wasn’t enough to stop the friction and I knew I was in trouble.  Despite the increasing pain, I was still awed by the views of Glenns and Cosley Lakes from above, as well as the handful of waterfalls that we passed.  I was left to imagine what these waterfalls, which are magnificent even in August, must look like in May and June when the snow is still melting.  Mokawanis Junction campground was as advertised. 

 

Since the trip, I have debated whether I made the right decision to turn back at Upper Kintla Lake.   After seeing the other guys’ photos, getting a better understanding of the lay of the land, mulling over the options [hindsight…20/20…yada, yada], I could see that maybe, somehow, I could have gutted it out and completed the trip.  One helpful factor that the group offered, but I overlooked in my haste to make a tough decision the first night, was support.   The other guys (and girl) were nice and friendly; physically, mentally and emotionally strong; and genuinely concerned for my welfare.  The second morning, they even offered to carry some of my gear.  I suppose that there may have been some way  that I could  have tapped into that support and stayed with the group.   But then, after a few days of self-flagellation over being a quitter,  I determined that I made the right decision.  If I had stayed with the group, I would have been  under debilitating stress, pushing at my limits to exhaustion every day, with my feet in pain most of the time.  I would have ended up hating my circumstances and not appreciating the beautiful park and wonderful gang of friends.  By leaving the group, I felt free to do what I pleased and enjoyed a grand national park on my own terms.

 

            The next day we didn’t hike very far before I knew that my feet were in bad trouble.  The burning was getting worse, and the thought of two more days of backpacking was worrisome.  We hiked down to Mokawanis Lake, which was beautiful.  Again we had a moose report from other hikers but never had a sighting.  I worked on my feet a little more, trying to pad them with moleskin.  It was at this point that we decided to change our plans and cut out the last half of this day, and the first half of the next day on the trail.  Instead of  taking the side-trail to Elizabeth Lake and back tracking the same trail as planned, we headed straight out to Chief Mountain today.  Oddly enough, we got a little further down the trail and a hiker told us that Ptarmigan Tunnel had just opened up.  Bummer!  But our car was parked at Chief Mountain, so we couldn’t have exited through the tunnel even if we wanted to. 

 

The decision to hike all the way up the Belly River and out to Chief Mountain Customs that day may or may not have been a good one.  Despite cutting out one day and about 8 miles on the trail tomorrow, it made us add another 5 miles to the trail today.  While we enjoyed Glenns Lake and Cosley Lakes and other sites along the way, our focus seemed to switch from enjoying the trip to simply finishing the trip. 

 

One piece of advice that I would give to anyone who is planning an extended trip through Glacier: take your time.  Hike six miles per day instead of 12 miles.  We enjoyed our trip immensely, and I really wouldn’t change anything about it.  We covered a lot of ground and saw so much beautiful scenery in those few days.  If I ever go back, however, I think I’ll plan a trek that covers less ground and pays attention to more details. 

 

Yes!  To quote Will Smith’s  character from Men in Black, “That’s what I’m talking about!” 

 

Anyway, we hiked hard on the afternoon of that last day to make it out before dark.  As we approached Chief Mountain Customs, we ran into a hiker who warned us that he had passed a grizzly about a half-mile up the trail.  That warning was just what I needed!  My attention went directly from my sore feet to looking for that bear, and the last few miles were easier because of it.  We never saw the bear.  It was a relief to get to the car that evening, but it was sad, too.  How often do we have a chance to take time off and go on an adventure like this?  With small kids and a job it’s hard to just grab the pack and go off for a week. 

 

I think the biggest thing I took from this trip is that you do have to make time in your life to enjoy God’s many gifts, like Glacier Park.  I hope you enjoyed this little narrative and maybe someday I’ll bump into you on the way down the trail. 

 

Through out the Park, practically every mountain peak or valley is the equivalent of an entire state park back east.  And there are hundreds of mountains and valleys!  Some national parks are bigger, like Yellowstone.  And some are more scenic in one spot – like Yosemite and the Tetons.  But the grandeur of those parks ends after one or two mountain ranges.  Glacier goes on, range after mountain range, valley after river valley, seemingly forever. 

 

My first impression of seeing the Park was that it was large, brooding, dark, rough and almost intimidating.  Every where you look is evidence of strong, wild forces at work – avalanche paths, forest blow downs from wind storms, land slides, forest fires and creek beds scoured down to bedrock and littered with logs by floods.  While we were there, the largest forest fire in the US was on the southeastern border of the park.  It actually caused the closure of US Hwy 2, which changed the route for our shuttle.  But after a few days there, my attitude became fully positive.  I was blown away by how wild, clean and pristine it is.  I have never seen so much deep, cold, clear water in every valley.  It beats all the other national parks I have experienced for simply being wilderness. 

 


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