Slow Down, People are Breathing.
25.08.2012 - 02.09.2012
"Keep close to nature's heart....and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." -John Muir
We left Sioux Falls early in the a.m. and, after a brief fuel stop in Glendive, MT, we found ourselves in Kalispell, MT before noon.
We made the quick drive to West Glacier and headed to Apgar Village. Apgar Village sits just inside the west entrance. It makes a great place to begin the trip because it keeps the drive from Kalispell short on your first day, but gets you inside the park. Apgar Village also has several small shops, so it’s a chance to pick up anything you might have forgotten.
Our first order of business was to get our backcountry permit, which we would need the following night.
Before getting the permit, we had to watch the mandatory backcountry video. It spends about 14 minutes telling you how to stay safe in the backcountry from perils such as hypothermia and bears. Some people start their vacation with a glass of champagne. I start mine with tips on how not to die in the next 5 days.
When I heard the narrator say, "Avoid surprising bears, but if you do, have a plan for how to react," I immediately thought of one of our past trips to Glacier when Matt thought he heard a bear coming around a blind corner, a fact of which I was not made aware until about 5 minutes later….after he knocked me down and ran, leaving me on the ground trying to figure out what was up.
There was, in fact, a large animal coming down the trail, but I don’t think that horse intended Matt any harm.
So, when I heard the narrator, I knew exactly how I would react if I surprised a bear. Given that my husband’s gut reaction is to render me helpless and flee, my plan would be to knock Matt down first this time.
After becoming backcountry experts, learning valuable skills like peeing on rocks rather than dirt, spraying our toothpaste rather than spitting, stripping naked as soon as we cooked dinner lest we unwittingly invite the scent of freeze dried peas into our tent, and tying our stinky boots inside our tent so that a mule deer didn’t carry them off or a cold chipmunk didn’t make them into a toasty bed, we quickly checked into the Village Inn.
Accommodations inside the park are "rustic." Rustic in this case means that you get a small room with a hard bed the size of the one you used to sleep on when you were 7 and went to your grandmother's house where she would pile 4 of you up in the attic room on a full bed with a polyester coverlet, and, just like Grandma's, there is no t.v., no phone, and no air conditioning.
Despite this, we love the lodging inside the park and would never consider anything else. What they lack in room amenities, the lodges make up for in history, in keeping an authentic experience, and in views that no 5 star can match.
The Village Inn sits on the west end of Lake McDonald and is our favorite place to spend the first night. The views alone are reason enough to stay, but the bonus is that the Village Inn is close enough that you can run to Polebridge for dinner.
The outpost of Polebridge requires a long, slow drive down a gravel road. I know that doesn’t sound appealing, but sometimes, a long, bumpy drive is just what you are craving. The North Fork Road is the most perfect long, bumpy drive because every mile takes you farther back in time. It's a place that feels unplugged and hidden, and when you are there you feel like you are in on the world's most wonderful secret. It's a place where happiness comes in the form of a huckleberry bear claw that has just been pulled out of the mercantile oven, where a cocktail consists of a cool amber ale in a canning jar, and where a big weekend night probably involves a game of fetch with a 3-legged dog.
Polebridge is a wide spot in the road with a saloon, a random collection of mismatched dogs, and a 100 year old Mercantile that offers a little bit of everything and has some of the best baked goods you will ever find. There is no electricity, no traffic lights, and the biggest issue of the day is whether or not some fool tourist will stir up too much dust as he drives toward Kintla Lake.
Apparently, you can also buy painted rocks there. And they are a great deal.
We passed on the rocks, feeling we were pretty well set for rocks at this stage in our life, but stopped in at the Merc and grabbed a bag full of baked goodness and headed up the road to Kintla Lake. It’s a bit of a haul, taking about another 45 minutes from Polebridge, but we had an afternoon to kill so we made the drive.
Kintla Lake is the starting point to a multi-day backpack trip that ends in Waterton Village in Canada, on the opposite side of the park. We had nothing that ambitious planned, however, and did no more than take an easy stroll around the lake. It was beautiful, but we couldn't help but notice the thick haze that was the result of some nearby wildfires.
We had seen trout on the menu at the saloon and couldn’t wait to get back to Polebridge for dinner.
The Northern Lights Saloon resides in the “mother cabin” that belonged to the family that originally built the Mercantile. It has changed hands many times since our original visit, but I believe the new owners have finally brought it back to its original glory.
It had the warm glow that I remembered and was filled with laughter and the smell of baking pie. Draft beers were passed around in old jars and the menu was handwritten on a chalkboard that hung on the log walls. We all had the trout. I don’t regularly eat fish, so when I say that trout is good, you know I mean it. It had that fresh clean taste that only trout has. It was served with a chipotle sauce and a thick slice of the Merc's homemade bread.
We had to follow dinner with a slice of their homemade pie. The saloon makes some of the best pies in the area.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the dog.
We made it back to the Village Inn in time to sit outside our room and watch the fading colors of the day decorate the sky above Lake McDonald.
We had to turn in early, though. Tomorrow was a big day. We would do the first of our 2 day backcountry hikes and would need to get an early start.
I went to sleep remembering our first backcountry hike from the previous trip. I lay in this very inn not knowing that the next day, it would snow several inches and that I would be hiking with wet feet, lying awake all night shivering in a summer weight sleeping bag while the temperature dipped to 28 degrees, and praying I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to pee, not sure whether I would freeze to death first or whether the bear would get me, knowing I had a cherry flavored chapstick in my pocket.
Hopefully, our hiking and camping experience over the next two days would be better than last time….but only time would tell.