August 28, 2011

Glacier National Park

Back in late July, six intrepid souls boarded airplanes in four different states, all bound for Kalispell, Montana and five nights of camping. We were prepared to face the worst of hardships: Grizzly bears, deep snow, lite beer, and no showers. The boys and I took off from Oakland at 6:30 a.m. We arrived in Kalispell around 1 p.m. Three hours later we would be joined by my father, my brother, and my nephew.

Packing for five nights of camping is not that tough. Packing in order to take all that gear on airplanes is tricky. We brought everything but food, fuel, a cooler, and bear spray. All those things were easily obtained before getting to the park.

In grand Dudley tradition, our plans were... somewhat fluid. As in, we were making some of it up as we went. We had car-camping reservations our first two nights at Fish Creek near the southwestern entrance to the park. We also had a backcountry reservation for one night. The rest? Trying to get to one of the many first-come, first-served campsites. I know, right? A bit of a risk.

The trip is labeled above, A to F, in chronological order.

A: Fish Creek car camping campground
Fish Creek is near Apgar Village, a touristy yet charming little town with a ranger station, a tiny general store that has (reasonably) freshly popped popcorn, and six souvenir stores. Also a motel or two, and a little dock. Plus stunning views.

We camped our first two nights at Fish Creek, attending the ranger presentation on wildlife the second night. The rangers we spoke to throughout our whole trip were helpful, kind, informative, and delightful. I'm hoping they found us to be the same.

Anyway, pretty standard car camping as a warm-up for what was to come. Here are some photos from our time in Fish Creek and Apgar Village:

At the boat dock looking eastish, at the peaks we'll soon be visiting.

Check out the tents below. The red one is Ethan's $39.95 special from Target, a two-man rig that he shared with my nephew, Max. Later it would be tested by gale winds and heavy rain. We ended up ditching it in the dumpster rather than flying it back to California because two of the poles were broken and tiny holes were being worn into the bottom. In heavy wind, it flattens out. Literally. The fabric was hitting their faces that night.

The rest of us had reasonable tents. The bright yellow one is Sam's one-man; the dun-colored one is my one-man Big Agnes (which I totally love), and the blue one was a two-man shared by my brother and my father.

Here we are fixing dinner the first night. Foil-wrapped dinners cooked on the open fire, the perfect way to start a camping trip.

Me and da boyz at the edge of Lake McDonald, reveling in the beauty.

B: Apgar Lookout Day Hike
A short drive from Apgar Village is a reasonably strenuous day hike, Apgar Lookout is 3.3 miles each way, with an elevation gain of 1,850 feet to the summit. It meanders around the side of the hill and back in a trio of long switchbacks. The views are spectacular, but the hike itself was a little disappointing in that a fire in 2003 has left the hillside littered with fallen and standing dead trees. Still, it was a fun hike and the views were worth every step. It's a reasonably crowded trail, being so close to Apgar Village, and in fact along the way up we encountered a coworker of mine coming down. Small world. If you hike this trail, bring lots of water. There is little or no shade.



This guy popped up about 10 feet from where we'd sat to eat our lunch. Then he bounded away, startled. We couldn't get our cameras out in time, but I saw him again on the hike down and nabbed this photo.


See what I mean about the views? We figured we could see one of the distant peaks in Canada from here. Which I figure qualifies me to be an expert on foreign policy.

C: Going To The Sun Road, and Many Glacier Campground
Originally we planed to backpack our third night and car-camp the remaining two nights, but the campground we'd reserved was still closed for unsafe snow bridges on the trails. But the ranger hooked us up with a night at Cracker Lake instead, upon high recommendation. So we booked it for our fourth night.

So we got up early on the third day, got our backcountry permit, and watched the introductory video required of all backcountry hikers in Glacier. This video covered two primary topics: (1) the principles of Leave No Trace, and (2) the many, many ways a grizzly bear can kill you. By the end of the video, I had been convinced that no hiker had ever returned alive from the back country of Glacier because they were all eaten by bears.

With our hiking expectations set properly, we set off on the long drive across the park, aiming for Many Glacier campground. It is one of those first-come, first-served sites, so we wanted to get there early. It turned out well, and we snagged two adjacent sites and had a good evening after a great day hike.

But first, the long and terrifying Going To The Sun Road. This is a "marvel of engineering," according to the brochure, though cynical Ethan was unimpressed. This road winds along the side of the mountains, with snow melt waterfalls cascading onto, across, and next to the road. Much of the road was under construction, and it's exciting to see a monstrous dump truck bearing down on your rental SUV, threatening to squeeze you off the narrow lane and send you tumbling back down to the valley floor, hundreds of miles below. But again, the views are spectacular. And there's a visitors center at the summit, which we did not get to go into.


The visitors center at the summit.

In the parking lot of the visitors center.

D: Grinnell Lake Day Hike
Since we scored our campsite before noon, we had all afternoon for a day hike. We chose Grinnell Lake because it was near, and it didn't have quite the elevation gain of others, but it was also highly recommended. Fairly easy hike, about 8 miles including hoofing it from the campground to the trailhead, with some up and down but mostly flat.

If you like, you can catch a boat and ferry the majority of the distance across Lake Josephine, then have a pleasant walk of less than a mile each way to get to the lake. We preferred to hike around Josephine. Once at Grinnell Lake, we all waded in the glacier water, which was somewhat colder than ice. But intensely refreshing. Along the way, we detoured to "Hidden Falls" and navigated a puny but entertaining suspension bridge. We also rubbed elbows with two or three boatloads of people who had ferried in from the hotel.

Still, another gorgeous hike. (Are you sensing a pattern here?) But we were still one day away from the main event.

The hotel. Our trailhead for Cracker Lake the next day is behind the hotel.

The lakes were really this color. Really. Stunning.

Part of the trail traversed a raised boardwalk. Yes, that's me in the SuperDad tee, with the bear spray on my belt.

There were so many views like this that eventually I got tired of photographing them and just enjoyed them instead.

The suspension bridge was great fun for Sam, who almost pitched himself right off into the icy, swift-moving stream below.

Doesn't look dangerous, does it? Drowning is the #1 cause of death in the park. A few people drown there each year.

Grinnell Lake, with some minor wave action from the breeze. This is where we waded.

Dunking in the glacier water. Only the oldest (my dad) and youngest (Sam) on our trip did this here. Nearly all of us dunked in a mini waterfall on the next day.

Happy hikers!

E: Cracker Lake backpacking overnighter
We woke early on our fourth day to drizzles and dire predictions of downpours and thunderstorms. We were divided. This was to be our backpacking overnighter, but half of us didn't want to be stuck up in the mountain in an exposed campsite in a downpour. The other half figured we'd get wet there or get wet here,

With 6.1 miles to the campsite and a gain of 1,400 feet, we could either day hike in and out and stay in Many Glacier another night, or we could strap on our big packs and commit to camping. We got to the trailhead in overcast but dry weather, so we decided to spend the night on the mountain.

The first 1.5 miles of this trail is a muddy, slippery track covered in horse poop. It's a tourist horseriding trail along there, and it was a muddy slog. The rest of the 6.1 miles, though, was spectacular. It wound through jungle undergrowth, along lakesides, along a riverbed, and across low ridges. No matter which way you looked, the view was gorgeous.

Fresh bear scat on the trail and recent reports of a grizzly sighting (the previous day) had us on our toes. We followed the rules, made lots of noise, and kept close together. One ranger had said, "Six seems to be the magic number. We've never had a mauling of a party of six or more." My father cheerily noted we could set the record. Anyway, we never saw a bear, but I'm pretty sure he was around.

We lunched on squished PB&J again, about 2/3 of the way up.

As we neared the campsite, some hikers coming down warned us of a mountain sheep ahead, and a pair of badgers on the trail. Badgers! So we proceeded with caution. We saw the "badgers," which I thought looked more like woodchucks.

But still, badgers freak me out 6 miles from the nearest first aid, so we kept our distance. The next day we found a volunteer who told us they were actually yellow-bellied marmots. And yeah, as soon as I picked up a rock, they showed their yellow bellies and ran away.

The hike was tough. I'd never hiked quite that far with a full pack, and the boys hadn't either. But we all did just fine, and when we reached the campsite it was... spectacular. We set up tents, hung our food, pumped water, and then enjoyed an amazing dinner of top ramen and hot dogs. The campsite has only three tent sites, so the six of us shared the wilderness with another man and his son. We were essentially alone on the mountain. Except for the mountain sheep.

This site also has an old, abandoned copper mine a hundred yards up the hillside, which we explored briefly (photos below). So, all through the day the forecast had been for biblical thunderstorms, the kind that would make Noah think twice about setting up a tent in, yet the weather actually was 70 degrees and sunny. But as the sun set, we could feel the weather changing. It held up until we all went to bed (early), but overnight the winds were righteous and the lighting not so far off. Rain fell, but not terrible. It was mostly the wind. I had to restake my tent twice, and poor Ethan and Max kept having their tent flattened by epic gusts.

We survived, and the rain stopped in the morning. We broke camp and headed back down. This time we were drizzled on most of the way, which actually was pleasant in its way. But the horse track at the bottom was a mess and not that fun a way to finish our wonderful two days.

Getting geared up for our hike in.

This is why I bought them both new backpacks last weekend. The ones they had for this trip sucked. Bu they wore them well, didn't they?

Sam is about 75 pound soaking wet. I think he carried 28 pounds in his pack.

This is the mini waterfall near Cracker Lake where most of us dunked our heads. A welcome, icy refresher after 5.5 miles of hiking with full packs!

One more of Sam. Yes, he carried his share.

And when we took a rest, he rested like a champion.

 Resting just a half mile to our tent sites. But the view and the meadow were too good to pass up.

From one of our tent sites, overlooking Cracker Lake. The blue was stunning. Just fabulous colors.

One of the sheep wanted to know who was setting up tents in his front yard.

And then he posed for us. He held that pose for at least five minutes, until all available cameras had snapped several photos.

Inside the abandoned copper mine. Ethan wanted to head deeper in (it goes back a mile, one ranger said), but I would not let him. I am a scaredy-cat that way.

Photo from the mouth of the copper mine overlooking the tent sites. Ours are the two with the colorful tents. The other gent and his son had the third site.

Cooking ramen and hot dogs! A well deserved rest in a gorgeous place.

The hike down was wetter, with lots of drizzling rain the first hour. Ethan had his pack in a garbage bag, but eventually we just took it off since it kept falling off anyway.

Water break. Rain gear deployed.

F: Rising Sun campground and hot showers!
We got back to the parking lot at the trailhead almost exactly at noon, bought some coffee and cocoa at the hotel, then drove back around to the Rising Sun campground. Another first-come, first-served campground, we weren't sure we'd find any place to stay. And, with our flights early the next afternoon, we thought maybe we should go over the pass and find something in Fish Creek again.

But we stopped in just to see if anything was available. Again, we snagged two of the last four sites, and they were adjacent. Our luck was unfathomable. Even better, the ranger told us that the visitor center/gift shop just up the road featured hot showers. $2.50 for an 8 minute token. SCORE. This was the best news all trip for me, amid a storm of good news. So we supped and repacked everything for air travel, then showered and bedded down.

Our final day we drove back to Apgar Village and dropped some of our gear off with the rangers. Our donation included two canisters of bear spray, three bottles of beer, an unopened block of jack cheese, and an ice chest. Some other stuff, too, that we couldn't bring home or didn't want to carry.

All in all, it was a trip I will remember the rest of my life. And it was just terrific to get to spend that time with my dad, my brother, my boys, and my nephew. Could not have designed a better summer vacation.