Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Walk in the Park

The "park" being Glacier National Park in Montana (across the border from Waterton National Park in Canada), and the "walk" being a 7 day backpacking trip.

Warning: This is a long post - feel free to skip, skim, or just look at the pictures :-)

We drove to Minot, stopping at Fourth & James Bakery in Lumsden for coffee. Saw some hawks but not much else for wildlife. Stayed overnight at the Grand International, which is neither, but decent and conveniently located across the road from the airport. The long term parking was full of big pickup trucks - odd, until we figured out it's probably oil workers flying home on their off days/weeks.

We were surprised to see a passenger train in the station. The west bound goes through in the morning and the east bound in the evening. It turned out it was the west bound train, seven hours late! We had received warnings from Amtrak about delays but that seemed excessive. Apparently heavy freight (oil?) traffic has been delaying trains. Thankfully our train was only about an hour late.

We could have just driven to Glacier but it was more enjoyable on the train. There is also history in the USA of taking the train to national parks before everyone had cars.

With no wifi and not much else to do I read the whole of The New American Road Trip Mixtape. I enjoyed it.

We had counted on eating in the dining car but the train was so busy that we couldn't get a reservation. We went on a waiting list and they finally called us at 8 pm, just about when we were supposed to arrive. Except the train was still running late so we had time to eat, including dessert :-)

East Glacier Lodge

We stayed overnight at East Glacier Park Lodge, across the lawn from the train station. The next day we took the shuttle to Two Medicine Lake where the nearest park ranger station is. Backcountry campsites have to be booked either 30 days in advance by mail (!?) or last minute within 24 hours of starting your hike. We hadn't booked in advance and had no idea what campsites would be available, we were just winging it. We started to get worried when it turned out there was nothing available that night within walking distance and the car campground there was full. But they keep some sites for hikers on foot and we were able to get one of those. After that we managed to link together a six day hike ending up back at the East Glacier Lodge.

Scenic point trail After reserving we had most of the day free so we hiked up to Scenic Point (10 km return) - steep uphill but great views. Among the Blackfeet Indians this area is known as "the backbone of the world." We encountered a family of what I think were white-tailed ptarmigan (ptarmigan are a kind of grouse)

White-tailed ptarmigan (?)

That evening at the Two Medicine Campground we had ground squirrels and a rabbit come to visit us.


There are lots of warnings everywhere about bears, in particular grizzly bears. This being America, the land of the right to bear arms, every second person you saw had a big can of bear spray in a holster on their hip. And this is in the car campground, not the backcountry. You don't step out of your RV without strapping on the weaponry. The bear warning signs don't have a picture of a bear on them (like they do in Canada), they have a picture of bear spray. I have a healthy respect for bears, I'm definitely not blasé about them. On the other hand, you're more likely to get killed driving on the highway or by lightning on the golf course. On the positive side if any of these people actually manage to pepper spray bears maybe it will make them more wary of people. (We don't carry bear spray, although it might be worth it.)

Our bear encounter this trip was typical of what I've had in the past - by the time we spotted the bear (a small black bear) it was running away from us, probably just as scared of us as we were of it. The funny part of this encounter (near the pass between Park Creek and Ole Creek) was that I almost missed it because I was too busy taking photographs. Shelley said "What's that noise?" Without really paying attention I said "Maybe a raven." (They can make a wide range of noises.) But what Shelley was hearing was "huffing" - not a raven! She started yelling and clapping and sure enough we could hear crashing through the bush and I caught a glimpse of the bear running away. Unfortunately, he ran in the same direction we were headed, so the rest of the way down from the pass we made lots of noise!

evening reflections

From Two Medicine we decided to take the boat across the lake. It only cut 2 km off our hike and meant a late start (9 am) but it's a historic boat (built in 1924) and a beautiful ride across a glassy lake in the morning sunshine.

From the lake the trail ascends gradually through the forest up to Cobalt Lake. There were lots of beautiful wildflowers.

flowers We would have camped there the first night but it was all booked up, not surprising since it's a beautiful spot. So after a lunch break we headed on. The trail goes up to the broad rocky ridge and along it, with beautiful views off both sides. You go over Chief Lodgepole Peak before descending down, down, down several thousand feet to the Upper Park Creek campground. This area burned in 2003. You'd think that would mean it was open, easy travelling but it's actually the opposite. A mature forest here is fairly open, whereas after a forest fire all the undergrowth goes "wild". There was still a good trail but it was quite overgrown.

spot Shelley in the jungle
spot Shelley
We has wondered why so many of the campsites were all booked up. Were there really that many backpackers? But we found there were only two or three sites at each so it didn't take much to "fill" them. It basically makes it a quota system, although they don't call it that. It makes it tough to book, but once you do it's nice since you know there won't be a lot of people. It probably also helps to spread people out since they can't all go to the "popular" sites.

we saw lots of butterflies (more photos in the full set)
The next day was a short one, less than 4 km (although 1200 ft up) to Lake Isabel. This is a beautiful alpine lake but the fire had also been here so there were no (live) trees, which made for good views but also zero shade, and it was very hot! We cooled off a little washing away some sweat and grime in the lake.

tadpoles in Lake Isabel
I was surprised to see an abundance of tadpoles in the lake. I would think most alpine lakes would be too cold for frogs. Although the lake was snow fed it didn't seem that cold - perhaps shallow enough to warm up in the summer sun.

reflections in Lake Isabel

From here we hiked 16 km (about 10 miles) to Lower Park campsite. We left the burn area and were grateful for the shade here. But lower down and on the forest we were plagued by flies. Most of them didn't bite, they were just annoying buzzing around your face and landing on your arms and legs (for the sweat?) But you couldn't just ignore them because there were mosquitoes and horseflies in the mix. As far as bugs go, it wasn't really that bad.


When we were reading in the tent later in the day a hummingbird came to visit us several times. We would hear it buzzing around like a giant bee and then it would appear in the doorway of the tent and hover, looking in. Maybe it thought our orange tent was some kind of giant flower.

bees on flower

There were lots of bees around on all the summer flowers. It was fun to watch them fly from flower to flower and gather the pollen. There were some thistles where the bees would have to push their heads deep into the fluffy flowers. All you'd see would be the tip of its tail sticking out. Later, small sparrow like bird came and perched on the thistle and tore out beak fulls of the fluff - digging for the seeds perhaps? On the cool morning there were bees hanging motionless from the flowers, caught by the cool evening and stranded until they could warm up enough to fly again.

bird eating thistle

It was on the following day, over the pass between Lower Park and Ole Creek, that we had our minor bear encounter. This was a shorter day distance-wise (about 8 km) but about 2000 ft up and then back down. Ole Creek was another nice forest camp. We were glad of the shorter day and the afternoon to relax. And it was peaceful since we were the only ones there. We took the opportunity to wash clothes and ourselves in the creek. (Without soaps since the water is too cold for even biodegradable camping soap to break down.)


From Ole Creek to Ole Lake was another 15 km (9 mile) day with only a small amount of elevation gain. The lake was small and muddy - not a pristine alpine lake like Isabel. We could hear a waterfall at the inlet across the lake so we headed around to get water and wash up. There was no trail though and Shelley wasn't too thrilled with the bushwhacking :-) Thankfully it wasn't too far around and it turned out to be a lovely little waterfall tumbling down over moss covered rocks and logs.

waterfall into Ole Lake We were happy to have such pure cold running water all along the way. Our last couple of hikes were in Arizona and Utah, in the desert, where water is much more scarce and more often than not a warm dirty pool. (Despite the "clean" water we still filtered and treated with Aquatabs. Either one would likely be sufficient on its own but using both covers anything missed or contaminated.)


As now is usual for us, we're on our no-cook plan i.e. no stove or pots or any food that needs cooking. The gist of it is granola (homemade) for breakfast, trail mix during the day, and bars for supper (including custom designed YouBars). There were lots of huckleberries around which we enjoyed eating along the trail and a couple of days we managed to pick enough to go on our granola for a nice treat.


Normally we'd plan a shorter last day, but with campsite availability dictating our route we ended up with a last day of about 20 km (12 miles). On a flat easy trail that's not too bad, but our day included a steep climb 2000 feet to Firebrand Pass and miles of overgrown jungle where we we were often chest deep in greenery. Luckily it wasn't thorny greenery! Most of the trip we'd been starting early and getting to the next camp before it got too hot. But this day was long enough that we ended up hiking through the heat of the day. (about 30c or 90f). Needless to say we were hot and tired by the time we finally made it back to East Glacier Lodge.


Our legs complained a little about the additional insult of have to climb two flights of stairs to our room but a shower felt great and the huckleberry ice cream that followed tasted even better.

See all 106 (!) photos as a slideshow or overview
(all taken with the Pentax K3 & Tamron 18-250)

See also Shelley's blog post: A Bear With a Belly Full of Huckleberries

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