Tuesday, November 27, 2007


The Grand Loop of Glacier

For years I have wanted to do a two-hundred mile hiking loop in Glacier National Park. Much of this loop follows the Continental Divide Trail. The park boosts over 700 miles of trail but I picked a couple hundred of the most spectacular, connected all the dots and had the loop begin and finish at the train station in East Glacier, Montana. Instead of flying out and renting a car, I planned to ride the train to East Glacier where I could simply step off and start hiking. The train ride from Michigan was cheap ($300 round trip) but I am not sure I would do it again. Thirty-four hours (one-way) in a train seat is not good for the legs that need to jump off and start hitting 20+ miles a day.I did enjoy the train experience. I met a lot of interesting people, saw the road west (Hwy 2) from a totally different perspective, and read a couple great books. It would have been easier with a sleeper but that costs an extra million dollars per ticket. Definitely not in a backpacker’s budget. The train made numerous stops but stayed right on schedule. That was important to me because I only had two hours of daylight remaining when the train arrived at East Glacier at 6:45 PM. When the train stopped I hit the ground running. I crossed the street to the Glacier Park Lodge, worked my way around the golf course, through a small residential area, and started to gain elevation through benches of mixed forest and field. I packed my duffle bags and extra clothing in a large black garbage bag and hid them in a secluded area along the two-track leading to the Glacier National Park boundary. I built a rock cairn so that I could find it on my return. I slept that night facing east looking out across the plains that stretched to a horizon that was quickly fading into dim light.I was up with the sun anxious to get over Mt. Henry and secure my backcountry permits at Two Medicine ranger station. I had only walked for a few minutes when I met my first Griz. I was still a quarter mile short of the park boundary. The trail was leaving tree cover and opened into a field of tall grass. I was whistling as usual. A hundred feet ahead of me the bear stood up out of the grass like a jack-in-the-box on his two hind legs to check me out.
Standing erect, on alert, glistening in the morning sun, this was a beautiful animal. They always make me pause. I slowly backed into the trees I had just cleared and kept whistling. The bear dropped to all fours and ran for some trees himself. I was doing what I should have been doing—making noise. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing—not having me for breakfast. The ranger at Two Medicine told me the grizzly I ran into was probably one they have been having a problem with. A fire crew had camped in that area all summer and did not control their garbage properly. The bear had become habituated to the free grub and was causing some problems around East Glacier. He also told me about two more that I would meet later in the day.It is 10 miles from East Glacier to Two Medicine over Mt. Henry. There are beautiful views in every direction once you get above timberline. I arrived at the Two Medicine ranger station just before noon and spent close to an hour trying to secure a permit that would let me hike the loop I wanted. This was September 5th and still the backcountry is busy with hikers. The inadequate permit system the park uses has always been a problem for hikers who do not make reservations. I planned on arriving at this point by noon because the park is required to release any permits that have not been picked up by ten o’clock in the morning. They never do. That is just another rule the park created and doesn’t follow. The permit system is run by a government computer which is like most other computers but not quite as smart. They are normally a few chips short of a full circuit. I could have hiked the exact loop I wanted by staying a night in the frontcountry at the Swiftcurrent campground but that would cancel my backcountry permit and I would have to start all over after my night at Swiftcurrent. To get around this I told the computer I was going to hike 32 miles that day to another campsite north of Swiftcurrent. It meant that someone else could not camp there if they wanted, even though it would be empty, and that I would have to pay for two campgrounds for that night. So maybe the Park Service does know what they are doing. They get two nights rent for one nights stay.Just six miles up the trail from Two Medicine I came over a rise near Old Man campground and ran right into a big brown bear butt. My first thought was grizzly, but as I was backing down the trail a big lazy head turned and looked at me. It was a brown, black bear. I yelled several times and moved forward to discover this bear was not going to scare easy. I tried all kinds of tactics. Once I yelled, “Come’on Fred, Charlie, Dale... I wanted that bear to know I was with a lot of people. Didn’t work. About the seventh act, the bear had moseyed about ten feet off the trail and I just breezed on by. Several steps further I ran right into his partner, a black, black bear. He was sitting on his butt just feet from the trail proper. I was moving fast so I just kept moving. I looked back and he just stared at me without a care in the world. These were the two the ranger warned me about. They had been ripping open tents and packs in Old Man Campground, which was now closed. They had already been shot with rubber bullets, but that didn’t seem to phase them. This trail was closing the next morning to deal with Yogi and Boo Boo. I never could get a ranger to tell me what they used on them the second time.
My second day was very enlightening. I had never had knee problems in all my years of backpacking. The second morning my right knee was barking at me with every step. It took me all day to get up and over Triple Divide Pass. I was walking like Chester from Gunsmoke. It was another beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky until I peeked out at the pass. A perfect storm and perfect timing. Just as I crested the pass a snow/sleet storm blew through. The thunder and lightning was about 2 seconds apart and I was carrying a metal hiking pole in each hand. My knee was bothering me so much I thought if God was going to take me out with lightning this might be the best time to do it. I started down the other side of the pass as quickly as I arrived. I could still make out the trail and I could see it was only raining in the valley below. It was a slow slog. Going down was no easier on my knee than climbing up.I could see another couple below me that I had camped with the night before. I was slowly gaining on them. They were carrying too much weight. They looked like sherpas heading for Everest Base Camp. Sitting around the cooking area the night before I noticed they were carrying three bear canisters full of food. They were a new type cannister you can see through. I noticed at least three large blocks of cheese in one of the cannisters. Not only could they eat well on this hike, they could open a restaurant if they so desired. When I caught up with them the woman seemed a bit hypothermic. I offered some dry clothing but they wanted to keep moving. She said she was warm as long as she was moving. We were all headed for Red Eagle Lake. I knew I could make it but it would be nearly dark with the miles I was doing with my new illness—I called it kneasles. I came to a river crossing with no bridge—no big deal, I’m soaking wet already. It was hard finding the trail on the other side and beginning to get dark so I felt I should wait for the sherpas and help them save some time. I stood in the rain waiting for quite awhile. When they did show up they seemed confused that there was no bridge. I was yelling instructions across the river to them but they continued to look for a bridge. Finally they crossed and we began hiking together. We were now in the Red Eagle fire burn area. The summer of 2006 exploded this whole forest into an inferno. I wanted to stop and set up my tent. It was getting much too dark to hike, but everything was charred black and I knew my gear would look the same in the morning. We pushed on. As soon as I found a flat field that was not carpeted in charcoal I told them I was staying there for the night, trying to encourage them to do the same. I think they felt that they were supposed to stay in a campground—which is true. So the decision is camp illegally in this sleet soaked vegetation or hike another hour in total darkness to Red Eagle campground. I was already setting up my tent when their discussion ended quickly and they started breaking out there gear.I was up early and gone in the morning. I had some decisions to make. My knee problem was slowing me down and I would not stay on permit or schedule if I didn’t find a cure. At Red Eagle I ran into a bunch of great kids who had been working for a rafting company all summer on the Flathead River. This was their chance to do some hiking in the park before they left the area. They gave me a hot cup of coffee and some Ibuprofin. The coffee did more for me than the Vitamin I. During the next few days I would discover that the backcountry is one big pharmacy. Everyone is carrying drugs. I found myself shamelessly bringing up my knee problem to hikers I would run into just to see what drugs they would offer me. Ibuprofin and Aleve seems to be the drugs of choice for backpackers. I decided since I hadn’t taken drugs in the 60s I wouldn’t start now that I’m pushing 60. I checked out Motrin at the grocery store in Swiftcurrent. The label on the Motrin bottle said, “Take no more than 2 tablets in any 24 hour period. Can eat holes in your stomach.” Oh yea, I want some of that!I couldn’t make it all the way to Swiftcurrent from Red Eagle Lake with my bad knee. I had done it in 1999 at the end of my CDT hike but at that time I had 3,000 miles under my belt and a 25 mile day was a normal occurrence. Instead I hiked to St. Mary and hitched a ride to Swiftcurrent. That gave me a late afternoon to dry out my gear and work on my knee problem. The following morning I thought I might have to pull the pin and go home early. My leg would just not move without a lot of pain. I bought some Aleve and took a couple capsules. I started up the trail to Ptarmigan Tunnel and it was still too painful. I walked back to Swiftcurrent and stuck my thumb out. I planned to hitch a ride back to East Glacier and move my return train ticket up a few days. An older couple in a brand new sedan stopped to offer me a ride. It was a beautiful day and I was still struggling with the thought of leaving. I told the couple that I smelled pretty bad and didn’t think they would want me riding too far with them. She said, “Well, this is a new car you know!” I said I would wait for a pickup truck and thanked them for stopping. I then walked over to the ranger station and thought about canceling my backcountry permit. I’m sure people thought I was nuts. With my pack on my back and my hiking poles in hand, I was in front of the ranger station stepping up and over all the parking space boulders. I wanted to see how my leg felt when it had to climb. It was feeling better I thought. So again I started up the trail to Ptarmigan Tunnel. Again the pain was intense. I turned and started across the Swiftcurrent parking lot for a third time. If it was raining and nasty I may have gone home early, but it was 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. I was surrounded by the most beautiful mountains on the planet. This was my place. I don’t know what happened. Maybe the drugs finally kicked in. I turned around crossed the parking lot one more time and started up the mountain. This time I had little pain and throttled right up to speed. It was late in the morning. I had lost a lot of trail time. I knew I would be off my permit again.I spent the night camping alone at the far end of Elizabeth Lake on the other side of Ptarmigan. My permit was for a campground much further up the trail but this campground was empty and I was still struggling with knee problems. I had to re-group and re-think my loop.I decided to break camp before light and go back over Ptarmigan Pass, down to Swiftcurrent then west to Granite Park. This back tracking was the shortest route (19 mi.) to get me back on schedule. It would turn out to be the first time I ever used my bear spray.To get back on my permit schedule I had to hike all the way to Granite Park the following day. To stay in this valley and hike over Stoney Indian Pass would mean a twenty-five mile day with lots of elevation and mechanical problems with the right knee. I decided it would be faster to hike back over Ptarmigan in the morning to Swiftcurrent and then up the stunning Sherburne Valley to Granite Park campground. It would mean the steep up and down of Ptarmigan back to Swiftcurrent and then another 8 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation to Granite. My new route would only be 19 miles and I would be back on my permit again. I decided to get up in the dark, break camp, eat breakfast and be ready to hike at first light. Something had been pawing around the tent all night. I assumed it was deer. My first chore after crawling out of my tent was to get water for breakfast. I started down to the lake with my headlamp leading the way. I decided maybe I should carry my bear spray since it was dark and a little brushy along the trail to the lake. When I reached the lake, two things caught my attention. First, I heard some faint rustling in the brush to my left. This prompted me to pull the safety off my bear spray. Second, a trumpeter swan was floating just off shore in the moonlight, about 15 feet out. I spotted the swan as soon as I had passed through the tunnel the day before. You don’t have to be an avid birdwatcher to ID something the size of a trumpeter. Even from the top of the mountain I knew what it was as soon as I noticed a white spot floating in the lake below me. I was concentrating on the swan and not paying attention to what I should have been doing. I slipped the bear spray into my pocket and bent down to fill my GatorAid bottle with water. I heard an odd noise and came up quickly to listen—everything seemed quiet. I bent down again and heard the same noise—pssssst. Then all hell broke loose. The noise was my bear spray going off in my pocket. FIRE IN THE HOLE! Within seconds the oily concoction of Cayenne Pepper had set my world on fire. I was out of my clothes in seconds and into the lake. It cured my knee problems. I didn’t even know I had knees. I was doing an Indian War Dance in the lake, the swan was blushing and I was howling at the moon. I ran up to the tent and grabbed my packet of baby wipes. The alcohol in the wipes helped put out the fire. I felt like an idiot. I looked like an idiot. I knew if my wife was along she would say it was just another Pre-Dick-Ament. My clothing was shot. This stuff will never come out. I carefully wrapped them all in a garbage bag and duct taped it shut. I cleaned up completely with more baby wipes and finally started breakfast. While eating my oatmeal my lips started burning. My first thought was, “I must have sunburned my lips coming over the pass yesterday.” No, it was bear spray. I have no idea where it was coming from but it was moving up into my nose and sinuses. I needed to stick baby wipes in one ear and pull it out the other just to clear my head. I have always heard that you need to wait until a bear is right in your face and then shoot the bear spray into the nose and eyes. I don’t believe that any longer. From now on I’m going for the undercarriage. Truth is, I will never pull the safety off my bear spray again unless a bruin is chewing on my leg. For the rest of the trip I could smell cayenne pepper on all my gear. At night it seemed to fill my tent. Maybe there was some health benefit to this wild scenario. My legs felt pretty good all day and I made it to Granite Park by late afternoon. At Granite Park I camped with a lot of nice people. All Southerners. Next to me were several EMS/Firefighters from Oakridge, Tenn. I told them about my knee problem, and my hesitancy about taking Ibuprofin.They said, “We take four every night after dinner whether we need it or not. We even start taking it before we leave to come out here hiking.”That convinced me. I decided the next day I would take three of them. They headed north in the morning and I headed south toward Logan Pass along the Highline Trail. Again my knee started acting up so I pulled out my “Vitamin I” with the intention of taking three or four of them. I studied the tablets and they were marked 200 ml. I had not asked my new friends, the medics, what ml tabs they were taking. Theirs could have been 50 ml. That made me hesitant again and I only took one. It didn’t touch me. Luckily the Highline Trail is pretty flat and an easy morning hike to Logan Pass. From Logan Pass I dropped down to Hidden Lake, steep switchbacks that beat my knees up a little more. I really should have pulled the pin at this point but I was looking forward to an off trail section of hiking that would take me from Hidden Lake, past the base of Sperry Glacier, and to the west side of the park near McDonald Lake. I spent all day trying to find a route up to the Dragons Tail and Sperry Glacier. Toward evening I was discouraged. I could not seem to find a route that made sense of the terrain. As a last ditch effort I climbed a steep scree field up the side of Bear Hat mountain, thinking that must be the route—WRONG. I ran out of light and spent the night on an uneven narrow bench at the top of the scree field. It was time to bail. My knees pained me all night and I was not looking forward to working my way back down the scree in the morning. I woke up early and broke camp in the dark. It was cold and windy. The morning sky was full of what looked like snow clouds. I didn’t want to deal with snow climbing back down to Hidden Lake so I started down using my headlamp until I had enough light to negotiate the rock.By the time I reached the Logan Pass boardwalk I felt like the walking wounded. This was a new experience for me. I always thought I was bulletproof. I didn’t want to do permanent damage to my knees. I decided to hitch a ride down to St. Mary, get out of the wind, eat a hot lunch and regroup. It took me a couple rides and a lot of walking down the mountain to reach town. It was an overcast day, blended with a cold drizzle. I found the only cafe in town still open and you needed a shoehorn to squeeze your way in. I’m sure the crowd didn’t appreciate my pack but it goes where I go. Tables were in high demand. I spotted a singe stool at the counter and put a bid in for it. I was the only taker. This place too would close down in a couple days. The season was over and the crowds would soon thin as September aged. I decided to hitch south to Two Medicine campground and spend the night. From there I could decide if I would take the train home a day early or hike further. As I stood out in the wind with my thumb out the traffic was piddling. The road south out of St. Mary is a steep grade. You have to catch the traffic at the bottom before they get a head of steam up. I stood there a long time. Finally a guy pulled up on a Harley. I thought he was going to offer me a ride and in my mind I was considering it and decided, “Why not, I’ve never done this before.” Actually, he was just bored I think. He wanted to stop and tell me his life’s story. He was a member of “Bikers for Jesus.” After hearing his life’s story I was thinking that might be the safest place for him. I quickly decided I was not going bike riding with this guy if he did happen to ask—which he didn’t. I’m sure if I would have stood there in the wind and listened to him, he would have talked to me all day long. No one was going to stop and pick me up when they saw this character parked next to me explaining how he got from the Hell’s Angels to Jesus on a Harley. I politely told him I needed to get out of the wind and walked down to a nearby store. That moved him down the road and I was back out working on a ride again.While I was in the store the manager gave me a small square of cardboard that I could write “Two Medicine” on. Just a little road marketing. I figured if people knew where I was going they may be more inclined to pick me up. A sign that said “Two Medicine” also said, “Hey, it’s not like we’re going to be stuck with this guy all the way home to Boston.” My next ride turned out to be a geologist and a nurse from Whitefish, Montana. They were in the park to do some hiking. Their next trail started at Two Medicine Lake and that is exactly where I needed to go.Once I reached Two Med I checked in at the ranger station. I cancelled my backcountry permit and traded a night in the backcountry for a site in the campground on the lake. There were few people in the campground. I picked a site that just happened to have a stack of firewood and a bunch of cedar shake starter. I didn’t need a fire but I didn’t have anything else to do so I built one to sit by while I ate my dinner. I sat mesmerized by the calendar setting of the lake. It was a still afternoon and not a ripple across the mirror surface to the water. Abruptly, my meditation was shattered by the law enforcement arm of Glacier National Park. I saw the patrol car slide slowly by my campsite, then spin around and pull in. The young ranger climbed out of his car and strolled over. My first thoughts were that he was bored or he wanted some of my Ramen Noodles. He asked me if I knew about the Stage Two Fire Restriction in the park at this time. I said I did not, and immediately poured my water bottle on my picture postcard campfire. He asked for some ID then slowly walked back to his vehicle. I didn’t think too much about it until I finished off my Ramen Noodles and Barney Fife was still in the car with my license. It dawned on me that I might be getting a ticket—that ticked me off. I just remembered that when police sit for a long time in their car with my wife’s license they always come out with a ticket for her. I’m no jailhouse lawyer, but I was putting a good case together if I had to debate the fine points of campfire restrictions on a rainy day. The ranger didn’t really act like Barney—more like Dirty Harry. He walked back to my smoldering fire and said, “Do you know that having this fire when restrictions are posted is a $125 fine?” I think I said, “Holy Smokes — no pun intended.”Then he said, “I’m thinking I should let you off with a warning—what do you think?”I wanted to say, “No, I think you should ticket me, then burn me at the stake.” But using better judgement I said, “I think that is not only a good idea, but the right thing to do.”I had talked for an hour with the ranger coming into the campground. There was no mention of fire restrictions. At a hundred and twenty-five clams they better have a neon flashing billboard warning of fire restrictions. I mentioned that he should remove the cord of firewood and the pile of starter from my campsite. I said, “It could give the impression of entrapment.” The fact is, I would not have had a fire if all the supplies were not right there next to my fire circle screaming, “Burn Me, Burn Me.”It all worked out fine, and saved me a bunch of time. Had he given me a ticket I would have had to spend hours calling the Park Superintendent, the District Manager and the Secretary of the Interior. My knees were feeling better so I took a long walk up the lake until stars began to fill the sky. On my way past the ranger station I looked for the Fire Restriction Sign. It was an index sized card tacked on the bulletin board surrounded by other important information like, “Store camp food in metal containers,” “Do not wash dishes in the rest rooms,” and my personal favorite, “Bear have killed people in this campground.”I was still struggling with the decision whether to hike back over Mt. Henry to East Glacier or hitch the 14 miles to town. The answer finally dawned on me—pun intended. The morning dawned warm. The air was crystal clear and not a cloud in the sky. I was in the most beautiful place on Earth on a perfect hiking day, the knees would have to work one more day. What took four hours coming in, took all day going out. From Two Medicine the trail starts switchbacking immediately. Across the gorge near Appistoki Falls I could see a large grizzly foraging on the hillside. I stopped and watched him through my monocular for several minutes. It was a magical morning to be hiking and I wanted to savor it. Besides, I didn’t need much of an excuse to rest my aching knees. Mount Henry is a long series of steep switchbacks to the top and then a reward of one of the most beautiful sights in the park. Looking west into the park is Two Medicine Lake surrounded by majestic mountains. Each peak a trophy peak for those who collect them. Looking east you scan the prairie all the way to Minnesota. Hiking southeast into East Glacier the Bob Marshall Wilderness comes into view along its front range. Nearing East Glacier, I started looking for the rock cairn I had built over a week earlier that would point me to where I had hidden my garbage bag of clothing and duffles. The cairn was gone so I wondered if my gear might also have disappeared. The ten miles of trail from Two Medicine to East Glacier leaves the park a couple miles from town and passes through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. A tribal recreational use permit is needed to hike the remainder of the trail. I did not have this permit or any ideas where I should pick one up. I had mentally stored a few other landmarks that would help me find my gear and they now came in handy. Everything was there and intact. My next goal was to find a restaurant in town that had a strawberry milkshake on the menu. After satisfying stage one of my food addiction I found a local hiker hostel and spent an hour under a hot shower. East Glacier is only about a block long so everything is convenient. On the west side of town I started my laundry, walked to the train station in the middle of town and changed my train ticket for the next morning, ate again on the east side and back to finish my laundry. As I waited the following morning for the train to arrive, I sat on the platform in the glory of another spectacular September day in Northern Montana. I was not looking forward to another 34 hour train ride. I bought a thousand page paperback in the station to ease away the hours as I saw the Empire Builder rounding the bend west of town and slowing for it’s next batch of riders.