04.09.2010 - 08.09.2010
Some trips are about leisure……some are about sightseeing…..some are about visiting with family and friends…..some are about going to new and different places…and then there are the “other trips.”
The ones that are about brute survival. About endurance. About overcoming suffering. About finding out just what you are made of.
You don’t take those kind of vacations? Oh, well, fasten your seatbelt….you’re with Vicki now. You’re in for a ride.
I saw a quote framed in a small airport in Iowa that said, “A venturesome minority will always be eager to get off on their own…let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.” 16 Idaho Law Review 407, 420-1980
I am that venturesome minority. Welcome, friends, to my adventure in Montana……
Saturday, September 4
Saturday dawned bright and clear. The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg and not a cloud was in sight. This was a good day for flying.
Matt and I had made a bold decision for our annual September hiking trip. We would fly our own plane to Northwest Montana this year instead of flying commercial. This was twice the farthest distance we had ever traveled under our own power and was something we’d been itching to try.
To make the flight less tiresome, we decided to break the trip into 2 days each way. Saturday we would fly to some Midwestern city about halfway between TN and MT and make the remainder of the flight on Sunday. We’d spend Monday – Friday in Glacier National Park, hiking about 60 miles and doing 2 nights in backcountry campgrounds and the rest in the park’s lodges, and then would repeat the flight home the following Saturday and Sunday.
This wasn’t going to be a vacation. This was going to be an adventure.
On this fine Saturday we were bound for Sioux Falls, SD and the weather was perfect. Flying cross country was an amazing thing. Leaving Tennessee…with her rolling green hills….I noticed that everything suddenly became ……very……flat. Flatty flat flat. Kentucky, Indiana, and Iowa are very flat, my friends.
After a few hours of flying, we made a quick fuel stop in Washington, Iowa. They have a lot of corn in Iowa. A lot of corn and a lot of sky.
After 6.5 hours of flight time, we landed in Sioux Falls. We checked into a downtown hotel and stepped out to see what Sioux Falls had to offer. Turns out, it had a lot to offer.
I can’t say enough good things about Sioux Falls. We only saw the downtown area, but it was squeaky clean and filled with neat shops, outdoor cafes, restaurants, and patio bars. First things first: Dinner. We went to Mama Ladas Enchilada Shop and Wine Bar.
HOLY ENCHILADA!! This place was awesome. They only have about 5 tables and they only serve enchiladas. Enchiladas to DIE FOR. They were so good, we ordered a second plate after we ate the first.
With bellies full of enchiladas, we needed a good walk, so we walked down to the Falls Park and saw the waterfalls. How cool to have this downtown:
After the falls, we strolled the downtown streets, lined with happy awnings and cute patio bars and stopped at Stogeez for some wine and live acoustic music. This is where I met “Too Tall Don” (his name, not mine) in the line for the bathroom. He was indeed, too tall, and was from Great Falls, MT. He was very enthusiastic about Montana when he found out we were headed there. Here’s to you, Too Tall. Hope you eventually made it to the restroom because you’d apparently had a lot of beer.
Sunday, September 5
We flew out early. The strong headwind the day before really slowed us down and we knew we could expect more of the same today. We wanted to get an early start. After leaving Sioux Falls, it was an uneventful flight all the way to Miles City, MT where we made a pit stop for fuel. Miles City is a tiny spot in the middle of Nowhere, MT where there are hay bales along the tarmac and the airport greeter is a big dog that looks part chow, part coyote, and part muppet.
As I was petting Airport Dog, oblivious to anything but his big furry head, Matt was looking at this:
That is a storm. A big one. Moving right at us. We had to get a move on and we had to get it on FAST. We detoured a hair to the north and skirted the edge of that bad boy for a long time but eventually made it past, but not without some bumps, some ice, and some rain. We had made it to the Rockies and we spent the next hour flying at 17,000 feet over snow capped peaks and turquoise alpine lakes suspended at impossible heights.
Anyone who says the U.S. is overpopulated has obviously never flown over Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana.
After 6 hours of flying time, we landed at the Kalispell City Airport shortly after lunch. This is the only airport I have ever landed at where there were deer on the runway and then we were asked to park the airplane in the grass.
I love Montana.
They delivered our rental car to us and we were on our way. We made the drive up to Glacier National Park and entered the West Entrance and headed over to Apgar Village, which sits on the west side of the park at the end of Lake McDonald. Our plan for the next 5 days was this:
Sunday night: Sleep at Village Inn at Apgar.
Monday: Hike into the backcountry, 12 miles, to Lake Ellen Wilson campground for the night.
Tuesday: Hike 10 miles back out of the backcountry to Lake McDonald Lodge for the night.
Wednesday: Hike 12 miles to Lake Francis and then another 3 miles to the backcountry campground at Kootenai Lake for the night.
Thursday: Hike back out of the backcountry and drive to Many Glacier Lodge for the night.
Friday: Do a 12 mile day hike to Grinnell Glacier and back to the Many Glacier Lodge for the night.
We have always gone to Glacier the week of Labor Day and the temperatures have always been about 75 during the day and about 50 at night. This was the first time we would try our hand at camping, but based on the weather of the past, it should be a piece of cake. We were ready! Bring on the hiking! Bring on the camping!
You know what they say about the best laid plans.
When we arrived at Apgar….it was raining. And it was cold. I don’t mean like, 50’s cold….I mean like 30’s cold. And it was only early afternoon. We went into the backcountry station and picked up our first backcountry permit, but not before being forced to watch a 30 minute “backcountry how-to” video about how you must pee on rocks instead of dirt, how to go “ffffppphhhhtttt” and “spray” your toothpaste spit so that it doesn’t attract animals, and how to curl up in a fetal position properly so that when you die from a bear attack, you’ll be thinking of your mother.
More practical topics for that video would have been how to keep your feet dry when your non-waterproof boots become saturated and you still have 6 miles to go, how to survive gale force winds and driving snow at the top of a mountain pass when you don’t actually have a coat, and how to dodge a mountain goat that has decided he’s not getting off the trail, you are ….but they never cover the stuff you really need to know, now do they?
And….wow…..this backcountry stuff was serious. How to pee so you don’t attract a bear? I had never camped a night in my life. No, not even in the backyard as a kid. And I chose to spend my first night camping in the middle of Backcountry, MT where I had to worry about hypothermia and bears. Brilliant. I knew I was in trouble when the recommended gear included 35’ of rope, bear repellant, and a water filter and the important things in my pack were lavender scented body wipes, plastic bottles of wine, and peppermint foot rub. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this.
Video over, we braved the weather and headed down the 25 mile dirt road to Polebridge.
Polebridge is cool. Polebridge is funky. Polebridge is my kind of place. It’s part hippie commune, part hiker’s outpost, part gunfighter town. The first thing you see, after driving 25 miles down a rough dirt road, is a hand painted sign that reads, “Slow Down. People Breathing.” Not much more than a mercantile, a saloon, and about 15 dogs in varying stages of disrepair, Polebridge is a must stop for us on every trip to Glacier.
The big, red Merc building doesn’t look like it has changed much since 1914. We said “hello” to Sasha, the 3-legged Merc dog, and went inside. You see, this old fashioned building houses some of the most phenomenal baked goods you’ll ever put your hands on. A dozen cookies, a huckleberry turnover, and 3 cheese Danishes later and we dodged the rain over to the Northern Lights Saloon for dinner.
It had changed hands since we had eaten here last, but it was still good. Nothing says, “You’re in Montana” like a plastic red cola glass filled with wine and a hamburger soaked in chili. Aaaaah……it felt like coming home.
It rained on us all the way back to Apgar and when we pulled back in the park and passed the ranger station there was a big sign that read, “LOGAN PASS CLOSED DUE TO SNOW.”
Logan Pass is the high point in the road that runs from West to East across Glacier National Park. It’s where we had to pass through to get to our trailhead the following day.
Not only was I now stressing about bears and camping and not having enough rope, I had to worry about the road being closed and the snow. SNOW???? Seriously? Snow?
Monday, September 6
Happy Labor Day.
We woke up to thick gray clouds and rain. And cold. This would become a pattern.
I was stressing about trying to get the hikers shuttle across Logan Pass, which was still closed for snow. We had a 12 mile hike up a steep pass with full packs to do by day’s end and needed all the time we could get.
“Don’t stress about it,” Matt said. “We have plenty of time.”
I looked down at the backcountry permit in my hands which read, “NOTES: ADVISE EARLY START.”
Oh…I was stressing.
Late in the morning the road opened up so we grabbed the first shuttle from Lake McDonald to Avalanche Lake, where we would catch a second shuttle to Logan Pass. We got off the shuttle just as the other was pulling around when Matt looked at me and said, “Uh oh.”
“Uh oh,” were not really the words of reassurance I was looking for at that particular moment.
“I forgot my jacket.”
I tried to convince him that a jacket wasn’t really that important in the snow and high winds at high altitudes, but apparently, I was not convincing.
Back on the shuttle. Back to Lake McDonald. Got the jacket. Back on the shuttle. Back to Avalanche Lake.
By this time it was about 11:00 and we still had about an hour of shuttling to do. Early start my aunt fanny.
We finally pulled up to Logan Pass and it looked like Santa’s Freakin’ Workshop. I looked out the window and waited for elves and reindeer to frolic across the field in front of the bus. Today was Labor Day!
I gave Matt a pathetic stare as I shivered outside waiting for the shuttle. Were we really going to do this? He assured me that it was only this bad because this was a high point. Things would be fine on the trail.
We finally reached the trailhead at noon. We had over 11 hard miles to cover and really needed to get there by about 6 p.m. so that we had plenty of time to set up camp and cook dinner before dark. Folks, 11 steep miles with a full pack in bad weather in 6 hours is not an ideal scenario.
I believe I experienced every type of weather possible in those 11 miles. I started off with a heavy jacket and gloves as the thick gray clouds blotted out the sun. Then the sun popped out and it got hot as we climbed the switchbacks so the jackets came off. Then it started to rain. Hard. Jackets had to go back on along with rain shells. Unfortunately, I didn’t have waterproof pants or boots. I just wasn’t thinking of rain when I packed. Within minutes, my pants were soaked from thigh to ankle and my boots and socks were so saturated that they squished when I took a step.
Step. Squish. Step. Squish. Step. Squish.
And then we hit the hurricane force winds and driving snow.
Going straight up a steep mountain pass.
For 2 hours.
I spent the next 2 hours trying not to cry. I really wanted to cry. I kept thinking about stuff like my warm cozy den, my pink fuzzy blanket, and my mom. I wanted my mother. I would not cry. I would not cry. I am not a sissy. I would not cry. It was, quite honestly, a test of my emotional and physical endurance. And somehow I won.
We reached the top of the pass without a tear shed. There may have been a few choice words….but no tears. We were greeted at the top by a fearless goat who looked at me like, “What? You don’t like the snow?” I wanted to punch him.
We sat in the shelter at the top of Gunsight Pass to get dry for a brief moment before heading down the switchbacks that led to Lake Ellen Wilson.
I know it’s hard to believe, but my spirits soared as we climbed over the pass and the beautiful blue lake opened up before me, mountains rising on all sides, snow perched on their steep slopes. On this side of the pass, there was no snow or rain and the brisk pace was keeping me warm.
Hoary marmots sat perched on the tops of rocks on either side of us and whistled to one another. It was wonderful ….like funny music in the dim light of the early evening. I could see the sun setting in the distance as the clouds broke far below Lake Ellen Wilson. I could also see our campground on a tiny piece of land jutting out into the lake. I saw the famous “cooking rock” and new we weren’t far now.
The campground took my breath away. I forgot all about the snow and the cold and the wet as I looked at this perfect spot nestled beside this perfect lake in these perfect mountains. The sun at last made an appearance as we set up camp. We hung our food up on the bear pole and set up the tent next to the lake. There are only 4 tent sites and only 3 were occupied. There were only 6 of us at the campground.
Because we only had one set of dry clothes (for the next day), we opted to leave our wet ones on while we made dinner. Our other camp mates were also in the cooking area – four logs in a square under a big slanted rock. One of them told us that a big grizzly with 2 cubs had been in the camp that morning. I knew they were telling the truth because I saw the scat on the trail between the pit toilet sign and the cooking area. It was fresh. This was not a happy bedtime story for Vicki. I didn’t want to hear about the 3 bears.
Because we only had to camp one night, we were able to carry a little heavier food than most other campers. They turned green with envy, eating their dehydrated carrots out of a foil baggie, as we pulled out pre-cooked gnocchi and I made a quick tomato sauce and added some cheese. Italian bread and brownies rounded out the meal. I felt a little sorry for them, but not enough to share. They hadn’t hiked in wet socks for 7 miles, now had they?
No fires allowed, so we cooked over a little propane burner and it took maybe 5 minutes….as we shivered. It might have been my tired, wet feet…it might have been the stunning surroundings….it might have been the sound of the marmots whistling in the night…but that might have been the best food I had ever eaten.
By the time dinner was over, the sun had set and we were shivering uncontrollably with the cold. We climbed into the tent, got dry, and burrowed into our sleeping bags. Lavendar scented body wipes be damned. I would have traded a million of them for an extra pair of socks, a sweatshirt, and a ski mask.
It was cold. Bitter cold. About 28 degrees. WHAT was I thinking? WHY was I out here? Sleeping in my down coat and burrowed inside my bag, I wasn’t actually cold, but I wasn’t exactly warm either. I had to literally close the drawstring on my bag because if even my nose stuck out, it instantly turned to ice. So, there I was. Wadded inside my sleeping bag, breathing my own hot, recycled air, wondering if a person could suffocate in a sleeping bag while trying to decide which would be worse, dying of suffocation in one’s sleep or dying of hypothermia in one’s sleep?
And then of course, every woman’s nightmare. I had to pee. Damn. The pit toilet was a long way from the tent. It was 28 degrees. My feet were in dry socks but my boots were soaking wet and frozen. I was mummified in my sleeping bag and didn’t know if I could get out without losing an arm to the zipper. It was darker than dark outside. And then there was that bear. Well, crap. I did what any self preserving woman would do. Modesty went out the window and I hung my happy ass out the tent door.
And then I remembered that video about the pee on dirt attracting bears. Double crap.
It didn’t actually matter, however, because after that bear story, I wasn’t sleeping anyway. I lay there ALL NIGHT….listening. Yes. I listened for approximately 8 hours. To every sigh of the wind. Every creak of a tree. Every hoot of an owl. Everyone in that camp should have slept like a baby that night because Vicki the Bear Guard was ON and she had an all night shift. Had so much as a twig snapped, I was jumping up with an air horn.
And then there was the problem with the gnocchi. That gnocchi gave me gas. There aren’t many feelings worse than being cocooned inside a small sleeping bag that’s drawn over your face, breathing about 1% of the oxygen your body really needs through the thick down layer over your nose and realizing that you have gas. I spent the next few hours trying not to let any of it escape while wondering if one could die of asphyxiation from one’s own gas if trapped with it inside a sleeping bag.
Blessedly….I finally dozed off around 3 a.m. but I immediately had a bear dream and woke up about 20 minutes later. Giving up on sleep completely, I spent the rest of the night listening for bears, talking to God, wondering what time it was, and trying not to fart inside my sleeping bag.
It was the longest night of my life.
Tuesday, September 7
Eight extremely long hours later…morning came. Praise the Lord…I had made it through the night. Unfrozen and fart free.
It was cold and gray. I dressed inside my sleeping bag and headed for the pit toilet. What I expected was an outhouse. That’s what most pit toilets are.
What I saw was this:
Not very private, but it sure had a helluva view.
We made breakfast over our tiny burner under the big rock. I had oatmeal, blueberry Clif bars, and pre-cooked bacon. Shivering in my down coat….this was the moment that I learned to love Starbucks Instant Coffee. God bless Starbucks.
We set out after breakfast. We had a 10 mile hike that included a climb to Lincoln Pass and then a steep 7 mile descent down to Lake McDonald. Descents hurt me worse than climbs, so I wasn’t looking forward to it. Besides, I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours and I had 25 lbs. sitting on my back. And my boots were wet.
Despite it all, the hike along Lake Ellen Wilson was inspiring. I felt lucky (yes, I said lucky) to be able to be here and see this when so few ever got that privilege. God’s world is so big and so beautiful and his creation was all around me, painted in bold colors and striking textures.
As we walked the narrow trail we saw a mountain goat and her baby coming toward us on the trail. She made it clear that she was staying on the trail. Not sure where to go, we just stepped a few inches off the trail and waited. She sauntered right on by. The kid gave us a funny stare that said, “You aren’t gonna’ grab me, are you?” and then sauntered right on by himself.
After the climb to Lincoln Pass, we had a descent of about a mile before reaching Sperry Chalet, a hike in only lodge where hikers can grab a hot lunch. Oh how I wanted a hot lunch. When you’ve been backcountry hiking an $8 fried egg or a $5 peanut butter sandwich sounds like foie gras and caviar.
With knees that felt like someone was driving screwdrivers through them and no Advil….I was easing down pretty slow. Matt finally pulled out the leftover wine from the previous night’s dinner.
“Drink it,” he said.
“It’s 10:30 a.m. I’m not drinking that.”
“Drink it,” he said.
I drank it. In that moment, that little plastic bottle of screw cap wine was like nectar from the gods. It eased the ragged edge a bit and warmed my insides and I made it the rest of the way down to the Chalet.
A pitcher of lemonade, hot tea and hot chocolate, and soup with grilled bacon and cheese sandwiches made up for a lot of wrong. It was warm inside the chalet as the wood stove cranked up and I could smell the fresh pies baking. Sperry is known for their pie. Don’t think I didn’t know that.
The first pie had just come out so we put in our order for the first 2 pieces. “Two pieces of that boysenberry pie, please.” It was hot and delicious. Within 3 minutes, all 6 pieces of pie had been claimed. The next pie wouldn’t be ready for 35 minutes and people kept streaming in.
People looking for pie.
It was a fight to the death as we witnessed what I now call the Great Pie war of Sperry Chalet.
Then it was 6.5 steep long miles down. Down, down, down. We finally made it to the bottom when I literally felt that I couldn’t take another step. Thank you, God, for the end of the trail.
We checked into Lake McDonald Lodge and cleaned up. Nothing feels better than a hot shower after 48 hours with nothing but handi-wipes and hand sanitizer. We grabbed spicy bloody marys at Luke’s Lounge and a late, exhausted dinner in the dining room.
And, in the safety of a lodge room where no bear could make me a midnight snack and I didn’t have to breathe my own recycled breath….I found blessed sleep.
Wednesday, September 8
Guess what. We woke up to rainy, gray, cloudy skies. Big surprise. We had to drive to Canada, so we headed out.
Our original plan had been a hike to a backcountry campground in Canada on Wednesday and back out on Thursday, but the campground was unavailable, so we had switched to Plan B: the Carthew-Alderson Trail with a night mid-trail at Alderson Lake.
When we got there, we found that our hike was snowed out, so we managed a last minute change to a campground that was not at a high elevation so we didn’t have to worry about snow. The only suitable and available campground was only a 2 mile hike, and the other hikes were weathered in, so we drove up to Cameron Lake and took a lake stroll instead.
It was foggy and gray, but we did see a deer and a bear swimming across the lake. I guess he was too lazy to walk around. We had a picnic lunch by the lake and then loaded up our packs and drove to the Crandall Lake trailhead.
At about 3 p.m. we made the quick hike back to Crandall. The walk was reasonably easy and the weather, while gray, was holding. It wasn’t too cool and it wasn’t raining.
Matt was actually surprised I was willing to try camping again, after the first night. I was actually looking forward to it. I wanted to try again.
We couldn’t have made a better choice. Crandall Lake was a perfect camping oasis. We broke out of the trees to a small, round lake, surrounded by small mountains and with a sloping pebble beach. There was absolutely NO ONE there. Just us and one duck. The Lone Duck of Crandall Lake. We had our choice of sites and we set up our tent in the trees. There was an unbelievable clean pit toilet (complete with walls! Yes!) that was so new it only smelled like pine. There was a covered cooking area and several small fire pits where fires were allowed.
We gathered firewood as our one lone duck paddled back and forth across his lake. Matt built us a perfect fire and we just sat and enjoyed the great outdoors for a while.
I was trying to read, but I kept closing my eyes and listening to the wonderful sound of the crackling fire.
I made another of Vicki’s Fabulous Camping Dinners: rice and chicken with a southwestern cream sauce. For dessert, we had chocolate shortbread cookies that we held over the fire until the chocolate ran all warm and oozy down our fingers. We sat there, listening to the fire and watching our duck until it was too dark to see anymore, licking chocolate from the corners of our mouths.
It was only about 8:00 so we climbed in the tent and got cozied down in our sleeping bags and Matt pulled out his iPad and we watched a movie. Just as the movie was ending, the rain began. It rained almost all night. The sound of that rain on the tent as I lay warm and soft in my bag was one of the most peaceful and relaxing sounds I have ever heard.
It was a perfect night.