Tue, Sep 5 2017 - An Extraordinary Adventure at Glacier National Park (View Original Event Details)|
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.” ~ Robert Frost
We had an extraordinary adventure in Glacier National Park (GNP). I’ll try to keep it brief and just hit the highlights.
Tuesday, Sept. 5: Travel day. We met at the Kalispell airport as planned. Acrid smoke filled our lungs as soon as we stepped off the plane. Some of our party who’d already been out west for a few days were already feeling the effects of the 13,000 acre wildfire (coughing, eyes watering, headache, labored breathing). Nevertheless, we persisted. After stopping at the Super 1 grocery store to stock up on provisions, we checked into our deluxe cabins at the Glacier Outdoor Center. We met up with the “Glacier Gals,” AOC members on the last night of their own off-the-grid trip. The Trip Leaders held a hastily-called confab to plan the next day’s hiking, as our originally-scheduled trails were closed due to the fire.
Wednesday, Sept. 6: We enjoyed a hearty breakfast of eggs cooked to order, mountains of bacon, English muffins, and pistachio spinach hosted by Wynn and Cabin #12. Then it was off to the Apgar Visitor Center, where the park ranger confirmed the wisdom of leaving the smoky west side of the park. Emily gamely forged on, despite feeling the effects of a few extra days of wildfire smoke exposure. So off we all headed over to the east side. Trouble was, the Going-to-the-Sun Road that bisects the park was partially closed to allow firefighters to do their job. So we hopped on Highway 2 to skirt the perimeter of the park to our destination - about a hundred miles away. We arrived in the Two Medicine area of GNP and began our ascent of the windblown mountaintop known as Scenic Point. We climbed steadily along Appistoki Creek, pausing for some photos at Appistoki Falls. We spotted a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep grazing nearby. We soon emerged from the cover of scrub trees and climbed through a section of whitebark pine trees. Sadly, much of the whitebark pine population in GNP has been decimated by the whitebark pine blister rust that was introduced from Europe in the early 1900’s. The standing dead trees now comprise an eerie “ghost forest” that dominates this section of the Scenic Point trail. Tolkien fans in our group noticed that one tree in particular evoked thoughts of the White Tree of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Layers came off and sunscreen went on as we continued along the steep relentless climb up the exposed path. One section of the trail in particular offered a melodious accompaniment to our ascent: shards of Appekunny argillite (green and purple stone that was chipped off the mountains by glaciers) tinkled under our feet like wind chimes. Finally, 2,242 feet of ascent later, we reached the top of Scenic Point and our well-earned lunch break. Then it was back down through the rocks, dry scrub, ghost forest, and dust to the shade of the last mile. Noticing some fresh animal tracks, we were just pausing for identification by our resident Eagle Scout David when we came face to face with a bighorn sheep coming our way on the trail! We halted for a brief standoff before the bighorn and his buddies veered off trail to avoid our group. What majestic creatures! We drove back to West Glacier and capped our day with bison burgers, Caprese salad and Going-to-the-Sun IPAs at the Glacier Highland restaurant.
Thursday, Sept. 7: After stoking up again at Cabin 12, we drove to the St. Mary’s area of GNP - an even further drive than the day before. Arriving at the Siyeh Bend trailhead, we were dismayed at the still-smoky conditions. A quick consensus confirmed that Siyeh Pass was a no-go for our group. Just when we’d learned how to pronounce it, too. We drove to the Logan Pass Visitor Center at the Continental Divide, and decided to at least traverse a small section of the Highline Trail. We agreed to go a little ways and reevaluate the air quality. The Highline Trail is amazing! We hiked along the narrow trail, the Garden Wall looming above to our right and the Going-to-the-Sun Road ribboning around way down below to our left. A unique experience indeed, to see the GTTS Road completely devoid of cars. We were feeling great so we propelled ourselves onward until we found the perfect lunch spot in a dry waterfall bed. We retraced our steps back to Logan Pass and then the TLs took the group on a surprise bonus waterfall hike. We bushwhacked down to the “real trail” and hiked along St. Mary Lake, spotting a moose wallowing in the distance. The trail led us to St. Mary Falls and then Virginia Falls. Returning to our cars, we made our way to the World Famous Johnson’s of St. Mary where most of us ordered the homemade mystery soup. It was a decision we did not regret. It was darn good soup loaded with good stuff.
Friday, Sept. 8: One last big breakfast at Cabin 12 and we packed up to say goodbye to the cabins. One of the TLs boiled up the rest of the eggs for some trail protein. We drove back along the periphery of GNP to the Many Glacier region on the east side. A brief stop at Thronson’s General Store for supplies and a bio break, then it was on to the trailhead behind the quaint Swiftcurrent Motor Inn complex. Our resident librarian, Joyce, was delighted to find a little public library on site. We hit the trail toward Redrock Falls. Just a few hundred yards into our trek, we were met by an excited hiker who reported a moose sighting nearby. We immediately veered onto a side trail leading to Fishercap Lake, one of the string of scenic lakes along the Swiftcurrent Pass trail. (Fun fact: the lake's name is a reference to George Bird Grinnell, whom the Blackfeet Indians called “Fishercap.” Grinnell, a Yale-educated zoologist, conservationist, and explorer, was influential in establishing GNP in 1910).
Anyway… the moose. We reached the shores of the lake and spotted one, then two moose grazing on aquatic vegetation. A cow and a bull. They were up to their haunches in the water, just hanging out and enjoying a casual breakfast in the lake. We joined a hushed group and observed the moose for quite a while. It was truly a magical moment. Occasionally the moose would look over at the humans and make eye contact, keeping watch on our whereabouts. Now and then they would harrumph and snort and shake their bodies like a dog from head to tail. I could have stayed there all day. But more adventures awaited us, so we gathered up and climbed back to the main trail. Since this was prime grizzly territory, we had been warned to keep the bear spray handy as we marched along the lakes. We encountered a couple who described in detail their harrowing encounter with a pair of grizzlies on their 5-day backcountry excursion. Transferring the bear spray from an outer pocket of my pack to my right hand, my thumb was on the safety and my finger on the trigger as we rounded each bend. But we made it to Redrock Falls with nary a bear in sight. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch at the falls before retracing our steps back to the Swiftcurrent Pass trailhead. We stopped at Fishercap Lake again for some more moose-watching, with a side order of deer grazing alongside the banks. The team practically had to drag me away. Sorry for the delay, team!
Now, it was on to checking into our rooms at the historic Many Glacier Hotel, built in 1914 by the Great Northern Railroad. The largest hotel inside GNP, its website describes the lodge as “located in the ‘Switzerland of North America,’ in the northeastern area of Glacier National Park. Outside, awe-inspiring majesty. Inside, a magnificent towering lobby.” It was time to truly unplug. No television, no air conditioning, and they were not kidding about no cell phone service and “very limited” wi-fi. No problem! The Many Glacier Lodge did offer hot showers, and hot food in the Swiss Lounge. After refueling with wild mushroom pasta (ask Connie about the pasta next time you see her), bison chili burgers, and crafted cocktails, we adjourned to the deck to watch Mother Nature’s TV. The channel was tuned to a gorgeous sunset over Grinnell Point and the Swiftcurrent Lake.
Saturday, Sept. 9: We were up early to make the short drive back to the nearby Swiftcurrent area. What a treat to only have a 5-minute drive! On the trail, we turned right instead of left this time, wending our way up the Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trail. Our original itinerary had included both the Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel trails. However the TLs had decided that a tough 16-mile D5 was not prudent in the smoke, and thus reluctantly revised the plan, to only tackle Iceberg Lake. Putting our disappointment aside, we eagerly looked forward to the climb and to the eventual reward of Iceberg Lake. Susan pointed out more fireweed, at the tail end of its blooming season, and the omnipresent beargrass which she had identified on our first day in GNP. Tricia’s brightly colored gaiters lent an accent to the dusty late-summer terrain and her typical all-black ensemble. About a mile in, we were joined by our new friend Dennis who had shared the sunset with us the night before. After an initial short steep climb, we made our way through the forest which opened up to offer stunning views of Mt. Wilbur and other nearby peaks. We were thrilled to have our most clear day yet as we gratefully filled our lungs with fresh, clean mountain air. We broke for lunch near the bridge at Ptarmigan Falls and it was here that we remembered the rules about high-altitude cooking. No matter; protein is protein and the “hard” boiled egg went down easily with a little mustard. After lunch and the obligatory bridge photos (you were with us in spirit, Joyce T.!) we continued up the trail. We shot a wistful glance at the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail as we passed, and then stayed the course toward Iceberg Lake. Ascending steadily, we reached a beautiful alpine meadow and took a little side excursion to Lower Iceberg Lake. We chatted with several members of the Glacier Youth Conservation Corps, wearing hardhats and wielding Pulaskis and shovels, and thanked them for maintaining these wonderful trails. Returning to the main trail, we climbed up and over a small rise, and, ta-da! Iceberg Lake! Stunningly gorgeous, the lake occupies the bottom of a cirque (an amphitheatre-like valley formed by glacial erosion). And technically Iceberg Lake is a tarn, a small mountain lake that fills a cirque with water as a glacier melts. We all benefitted from Mike’s love of watching documentaries, as he explained the reasons for the appearance of Iceberg Lake and other tarns: Rock flour, or glacial flour, consists of fine-grained, silt-sized particles of rock, generated by the grinding of bedrock by glacial erosion. Because the material is very small, it becomes suspended in meltwater, making the water appear cloudy, which is sometimes known as glacial milk. The fine powder absorbs and scatters varying colors of sunlight, giving a milky turquoise appearance.
We ate our lunch on the shores of the tarn, keeping an eye on the little chipmunks who wanted us to share. Then it was back down the trail, all the way down to the junction with the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail for a water break. Again some of us eyed the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail longingly. Someone spoke up, suggesting perhaps we could revisit the idea of going up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel after all? A collaborative discussion ensued. Pros and cons were weighed. How was the smoke? Did we have enough water? Was the weather turning? It was agreed that if even just one person wasn’t comfortable, none of us would go. A consensus was reached and the Ptarmigan Tunnel was a GO! Carol (aka Fiery Eyes) took the lead and set a blistering pace up the mountain. We paused at Ptarmigan Lake and sent an away team to filter water. The wind died down and the air was clean. We hip-hip-hoorayed at the switchbacks at the end of each long trail segment, and chatted for a moment with Shirtless Guy who encouraged us that the tunnel was just ahead. Then, before you knew it, there it was! The Ptarmigan Tunnel! The 240-foot tunnel was blasted through the mountain by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s for horses and early park tours. In 1975 the National Park Service installed steel doors at both ends, which are closed between October 1st and mid-July. Emerging from the far side of the tunnel, we had clear views of various peaks and the Belly River flowing into Elizabeth Lake. Basking in our triumph, we savored the high before beginning the long descent back the way we came.
Sunday, Sept. 10: We met in the hotel lobby to walk outside together to the boat dock on Swiftcurrent Lake. No driving necessary! Our boat captains shared interesting history about GNP and hiking suggestions as we sailed across Swiftcurrent Lake. Disembarking, we took the short trail to the next boat dock and another guided cruise, this time across Lake Josephine. Getting off the boat at the south end of Lake Josephine, we geared up and began our ascent on the Grinnell Glacier trail. José loudly recited poetry to ward off any potential grizzlies. Ever vigilant, we were briefly startled by a deer flushed out right next to the trail. Next we were treated to an up-close-and-personal encounter with a bighorn sheep whose path intersected our trail. The sky was clear and bright, and a phenomenal photo op waited around every turn. “Spectacular” doesn't even come close to describing these views. Here, a lovely waterfall splashed across our path. There, we observed a herd of bighorns resting in the wildflowers. And over there, shafts of sunlight danced across the turquoise waters of Grinnell Lake far below. And over there, cascades of purple and yellow flowers dotted the lush green carpet of grass. We took a break at the pit toilets (even the outhouses were pretty, I am not kidding! well on the outside at least) continuing to practice our bear spray buddy system.
We made it to the apex of our hike, and bundled up as we sat down for lunch on the shore of Upper Grinnell Lake. It was sublime. As we were packing up to move on, we were stunned to witness a young woman approach the lake in her swimsuit and bare feet. We watched open-mouthed as she walked right into the tarn and continued in up to her neck. She floated around for a bit, then calmly emerged from the icy water, got her goggles, and went back in all the way under! Now that you don’t see every day. We took a little side trip to the edge of the glacier, then turned to head back down. We wandered back, appreciating the different perspective that the afternoon light provided. And of course took lots more photos. When we reached the junction to the boat dock, we engaged in some more consensus decision making and agreed to split the group. Some chose to take the boat ride back, while others elected to walk the couple extra miles back to the hotel. We arranged to meet in the lobby at 6 pm to go to dinner on our final night in GNP. We all wolfed down hearty fare at Two Sisters Cafe in nearby Babb. Bison burgers, rainbow trout, and of course huckleberry margaritas and huckleberry pie hit the spot after our Grinnell Glacier excursion.
Monday, Sept. 11: Travel day. We went from fire and ice, to the remnants of Hurricane Irma who threw some wrenches into our travel plans. But all twelve of us eventually made it home safe and sound. I want to take a moment to offer a heartfelt “thank you” to Connie for planting the seeds of this adventure over a year ago, and for all her organization and encouragement. And most of all, a million thank you’s to Jeff, for his wisdom, patience, perseverance, and organizational wizardry. He did the lion’s share of the work on this trip by far. Not only did he arrange every detail smoothly, he handled all the twists and turns thrown at us by the devastating Sprague wildfire. Many of our carefully-laid plans had to be thrown by the wayside and replaced on very short notice. Even our revised plans had to be revised. And Jeff handled it all with grace and aplomb.