Another early season hike on the west side of Glacier National Park is easy walk to John’s Lake, a lovely loop or simple in and out stroll.
The NPS recently opened Going-to-the-Sun Rd. from Lake McDonald Lodge to Avalanche so we could access the parking area and trailhead to John’s Lake without a problem. It’s only probably a mile from the end of the lake to the parking area, but it’s still easier when you can drive. During the summer, the small parking area at the official trailhead is usually filled, so if you’re going to do this hike, start early or park at the Sacred Dancing Cascades to begin the loop from that end.
For our evening outing, we wanted to see what was happening at the lake, so we opted for the half-mile stroll from the trailhead. Even though there is a very slight uphill on the first few hundred yards, overall this is a very easy hike suitable for practically any age and most ability levels. The trail is wide and smooth with no scary drop offs, which makes it nice with young children, although as always, keep them close to you hiking on even such a short and “civilized” trail. There are mountain lions and grizzlies in the area, and even though the chances are slim you would ever have a problem, you don’t want to take the chance.
Along the trail we enjoyed checking out what mushrooms were growing on the trees, as well as the plants that are finally greening up after such a cold winter. At the lake, the water lilies were just starting to emerge from the bottom, and we found a frog resting on a half-submerged branch, plus there was a bonus find of a couple of leeches in the water. We really hoped to spot a loon on the lake, even though this is not prime habitat, but were still happy to see 5 buffleheads and a single, drake Barrow’s goldeneye.
There’s a lot to see after this 15-20 minute leisurely walk, and John’s Lake is one of those terrific little side trips to step away from the crowds and feel like you’re in the backcountry.
Since I finally remembered to bring the video camera (along with a working battery and SD card…. it’s a miracle!), check out this brief video on Glacier Girl to have a better idea of what the walk and the lake.
Weather is variable, to say the least, at time of the year, so we took advantage of a few decent days to explore the west side. Fortunately, we were graced with one of those perfect blue bird days to take an easy stroll to Rocky Point Nature Trail out of the Fish Creek campground. Although there are several ways to pick up the trail, we used the directions on one of my favorite sites, HikingGlacier.com.
Despite living in the Flathead for almost 20 years, I never hiked to Rocky Point, and after enjoying the beautiful walk and stunning views at the end, I’m glad we remedied this situation. I can see it being a regular hike in the early season. This little walk is a mere 1.9 miles round trip with just over 300 ft. elevation gain so it’s a perfect outing for kids, or those who are stretching their legs at the beginning of the season.
The trailhead is located through the Fish Creek Campground, near the gate to the inside North Fork Rd. It begins as a beautiful stroll through the forest and across the bridge at Fern Creek, before walking above Fish Creek campground along the area burned by the 2003 Robert Fire. There’s a fair amount of standing dead, which offers excellent habitat for the cavity nesting birds, along with tremendous new growth, and the views throughout are beautiful.
It was also a butterfly paradise the entire time. Everywhere we turned commas, mourning cloaks, and a few azures flitting around seemingly celebrating the warm weather with the rest of us. Red squirrels chattered at us from the trees, and we saw a couple of nuthatches and a dark-eyed junco.
Rocky Point did not disappoint. With plenty of fascinating rocks (particularly for us geology geeks), gnarled trees, the insanely beautiful hues of blues in Lake McDonald, and knockout scenery, this is one of those little gems that is a quick walk to a peaceful setting, particularly early in the season when the high country trails are still blanketed in snow.
One of the beautiful aspects of Glacier National Park is we have a number of relatively easy day hikes where you can stretch your legs without extensive climbing. Cracker Lake in Many Glacier fits the bill perfectly in this category covering 12.6 miles there and back, but only gaining 1200 ft. in elevation over the course of the trail. There are a few uphill pulls along the way, but nothing that is overly strenuous.
Be sure to start early
The greatest challenge of hiking in Glacier, particularly Many Glacier, in August is finding a parking space, but thankfully, these ladies are on top of it. We left Great Falls around 5 a.m. to make it to Many Glacier shortly after 8 a.m. , and had no problem finding a spot. After running into the Many Glacier Hotel for potty breaks, we were on the trail before 9 a.m. and enjoyed the cool, damp morning on the trail around Sherburne Reservoir.
Imagining the town of Altyn
Looking at this wild area as we skirted along the water in the forest, it’s difficult to imagine a small, but bustling, town once stood where the lake now exists. The optimistic town of Altyn was the hub of activity for the early, and brief, mining operations within this area. Sanford and Claire Stone at the Park Cabin Company in Babb wrote an interesting piece on the early history and business shenanigans of the area called “The Drowned Town of Altyn,” which is definitely worth a read.
Keep an eye open for bears
For much of the hike, the trail to Cracker Lake winds through the forest with the major obstacle being the horse piles for the first couple of miles since the trail shares the area with the horse concessioner. But the dense vegetation, including thimble berries, is also why this is a hot spot for grizzlies and is a trail best hiked with a group to minimize the potential of a surprise encounter. Years ago there was a female grizzly who put the run on one of the horse people. From what I remember, the wrangler held on and ran!G
Gradual elevation gain means big rewards
The trail continues through the forest, but eventually climbs to an area where a number of switchbacks help you gain elevation before using the bridge to cross Canyon Creek, then head up the hill. At nearly 5 miles in, you begin to open up where you can appreciate the stunning views of Siyeh Mountain, and the view of Cracker Lake can nearly take your breath away with its surreal turquoise blue color. When we arrived, it was somewhat milky, possibly from the recent rain that obviously caused sediment to wash into the inlet at the head of the lake, but it was still beyond gorgeous.
Technically, the lake is 6.3 miles in to the lake, but we continued to the large red rocky outcropping to stop for lunch, then another lady and I walked to the end of the lake in search of the old mine. While we couldn’t locate the mine shaft, which was tunneled 1300 ft. into the base of the mountain, the enormous amount of mining equipment, including the 8 ton steam powered ore concentrator, still sat where it was last used over a century ago. How they hauled back everything, particularly the concentrator, is beyond my comprehension.
This is definitely a hike we’ll do more often. It’s a pleasant walk through an array of terrain, including plenty of wildflowers around the lake, and views that are out of this world.
Last January, 4 of us were on the computer vying for a night at Granite Park Chalet as soon as the reservation system opened. With the burning of Sperry Chalet in August 2017, we thought the competition for a night at Granite Park would be greater, so we were thrilled when a couple of us managed to send in a reservation request. We were ultimately granted the time for July 14, a date we figured was late enough to be mostly free of snow, while still early for fires.
As soon as our date was set, the planning and excitement began, but as the time drew closer, my level of concern also exponentially increased. Granite Park Chalet is a little bit of heaven being able to stay in a historic – and incredibly well-built stone structure (I kind of geek out over these things)- in one of the prettiest places on earth, but when food can kill you, you look at things differently, particularly when there is no easy way to receive help.
In our case, I don’t have a food allergy, but my son, Sam, does. And nuts, including all of those delicious, high-protein additives to trail foods, are the most dangerous. We avoid foods from facilities that process tree nuts or peanuts even in our ingredients (because everything from a frozen turkey to regular milk can be cross-contaminated) so staying at a place where people are constantly snacking on these foods – and touching the tables, chairs, doorhandles, or sleeping with their peanut butter smeared faces on the pillows – sent me into high alert. For weeks ahead of time, I woke up in the middle of the night going over every possible scenario. How can I keep him from accidental contact? What happens if he does have a reaction?
Granite Park Chalet is a 7.2 mile hike in from Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, or a 4 mile (and 2400 ft. elevation gain) hoof up from what’s called The Loop, a sharp curve on the west side of Going-to-the-Sun Rd. There is cell service from the chalet, and there is often a ranger on duty who can call in in case of an emergency, but that doesn’t mean anybody can reach you in time. Weather or logistics can ground a helicopter, and hiking either of the trails at night is sketchy because of grizzlies, as well as just being a long way out in an emergency situation. Even bringing 6 epi-pens, I envisioned backpacking my 75 lbs. child down the trail to The Loop, wondering how fast I could feasibly do it if he had a reaction and a helicopter wasn’t an option. These are the things that tap you on the shoulder at 3 a.m. so I intended to do everything possible not to have to deal with any of the worst case scenarios that ran through my mind.
As I mentioned, I had 6 epi-pens, plus Benadryl, but the trick was to keep the epinephrin within the acceptable storage range of 66-77 degrees F., which is a challenging when it can go from nearly freezing to 80 degrees in the course of a day. And that’s exactly what the weather did. On our hike into the chalet, the clouds hung low and it occasionally spit snow. Most of us had on winter jackets, hats, and gloves. I had the epis in pockets, as well as insulated as best as I could inside of my and Sam’s packs. (I always had a pair in his pack in case he had a reaction so I could just grab them without taking off mine.) At night, I slept with them like a clunky teddy bear to keep them relatively warm. The next day, I had to keep them next to the cooler water bladders and inside the Frio insulating pack because the temperature rose well into the upper 70s – and we opted for shorts – on our hike out.
As any food allergy mom knows, baby wipes are our best friends. Hand sanitizer does not eliminate food proteins so wiping off tables or anything else with it doesn’t help. Baby wipes do. My friend, Julie, was proactive and brought them, as well, and wiped down everything in our cabin at the St. Mary KOA the night before we hit the trail. From the door handles to the rungs of the ladders on the bunks, that girl had the cabin clean. When we were at Granite Park, I was careful to wipe off the table and anywhere Sam might touch. Of course, I got “the look” since an 11 year old, especially when he’s with two 11 year old friends, doesn’t necessarily want Mom fussing like a loon. But a loon I will be. I even brought a separate set of sheets to put over the ones they provided to be sure that there was extra protection between him and what a previous guest might have eaten.
Surprisingly, the food wasn’t as big of an issue as some might think. Of course, this is what we live every day. We do need to try Mountain House freeze dried meals, as I’ve heard from a number in the food allergy circles that they are good about labeling and there’s no risk of cross-contamination, but I wanted to stick with known quantities for this trip. The crew at the chalet is always phenomenal, but they were particularly accommodating when I mentioned that Sam had food allergies so I hoped to keep everything separate. They did whatever I needed, which wasn’t much, but just having them be so willing was a huge relief. I packed our own cookware, including the pans to heat up the water, even though there is a fantastic kitchen with pretty much anything you might need, at the chalet, and planned to make everything with minimal outside contact.
For Sam’s dinner I packed up frozen chicken in an insulated lunch cooler with ice packs (since I’m equally anal about food safety and there was no way I would pack chicken without it being cold). No wonder my pack was 28 pounds. I also had dehydrated pasta and rice as a side. I ate my typical quinoa with lentils and veggies. For dessert, the apple crisp made with dried apples and a yummy, toasted oatmeal mixture was a hit. And, for a hot drink in the evening, which is common during coffee hour at the chalet, I made our own hot cocoa mix using 1 cup Carnation instant non-fat dried milk, 1 cup powdered sugar, and 1/2 cup Hershey’s cocoa. A few tablespoons in a mug with hot water and you have a terrific drink on any cold evening. In the morning, he had the GF Harvest apple cinnamon instant oatmeal for breakfast before we hit the trail heading down to The Loop.
Once we got to Granite Park Chalet, I was still on alert, but not as worried as in the weeks beforehand. Sam washed his hands and was careful, even if I did get the eye rolls, which made it easier. I can’t say I’ll be less apprehensive on future trips because the reality is I will probably consider every possible scenario before venturing on any backcountry adventure, but hopefully with preparation and caution, we’ll simply be able to enjoy making good memories, not scary ones.
It’s cliche to ask where time went, yet here I am at the end of November recapping the summer since it was much more enjoyable to be on the trail rather than at the computer. But now is the time to recap a few of our favorite adventures.
For our mother/son excursion this year, John wanted to stay at the Many Glacier Hotel, and thankfully, I managed to reserve a room in January for their opening day on June 8. After the long, cold, snowy, horrible winter, I wasn’t sure what might be free of patches, or drifts, even in early June, but it was beginning to green with a few flowers blooming in the new warmth of the season.
It’s been years, long before the extensive renovations of the hotel, since I stayed there, and their fine work was obvious. Many Glacier isn’t fancy when you compare it to the modern hotels packed with technological amenities, but it’s very comfortable, clean, and is a perfect place to call home base anytime during the summer. The staff was exceptionally sweet and accommodating, despite the long lines so early in the season, and we settled into our room with 2 twins at the end of the hallway on the second floor.
There were no epic hikes during this adventure. It was John’s trip so he chose what we did for the most part, and hoofing it for miles isn’t his idea of a good time. Eating the dining room was a big hit, and we ordered a huckleberry cobbler to enjoy on the dock of Swiftcurrent Lake later in the evening after a short stroll that was thwarted by the report of a young grizzly feeding in the willows a short ways down the Swiftcurrent Lake trail.
The next day we really hoped to take advantage of being there to play the tourist and go on a short horseback ride. Unfortunately, due to early season restrictions, the easy, 2 hour rides weren’t available, and I didn’t think John would be up for a half-day ride. (Especially since the horses are huge. Most, if not all of them, appear to be a draft-cross.)
Instead, we hopped on the boat with the Glacier Park Boat Company during their first day of the season, and enjoyed the interpretive talk while basking in the gorgeous scenery. Even when a trip to Many Glacier doesn’t involve long hikes, there’s not a better place to be.
This past winter was one for the books, but the gloriously warm spring made up for it by melting the snow and giving us a fantastic wildflower display this spring. We’re warming up by taking the kids on several of our early season favorites, including Wagner Basin, as well as exploring new territory. As the snow melts in the high country, the higher elevation hikes are just around the corner.
On National Trails Day, Samuel and I joined a group from Get Fit Great Falls to hike the service road to the top of Highwood Baldy in the Highwood Mountains east of Great Falls. The greatest challenge of this particular hike is reaching the trailhead, as the last 3 miles of the road are terribly rutted and would swallow normal cars. Thankfully, our leader, Dave, had a new Jeep Rubicon that crawled over the mess without hesitation.
The actual walk up the road to the top was just under 3 miles and 2000 ft. elevation gain. While it was a steady uphill, it wasn’t terrible by any stretch, and the expansive views of green hillsides made it all worth it.
The sun was out the entire day, but so was the wind, making it downright chilly at times. Samuel was happy to have his down jacket when we reached the top.
It probably wasn’t the best day to experiment with packing ice cream on the trail, but it worked. I made vanilla ice cream the day before, and after it froze relatively solid in the freezer, I packed a few scoops in the Hydro Flask thermos and kept it in the freezer. When we left the next morning, I put it in a softer lunch cooler where I packed Samuel’s sandwich. Once we stopped for lunch at the top, the ice cream was a little soft, but still a terrific consistency. The next time I’ll make it at least another day ahead of time so it can freeze harder within the thermos in the freezer. I think the kids will love having homemade ice cream during a hot day of hiking.
At the summit, there are communication stations and lots of equipment (which we can see from near our house if we use binoculars), yet once again, the elevation gave us a tremendous view of the entire area. It was a good day to be on top.
Wagner Basin – Sun Canyon
Several years ago, I joined a hike with the Montana Wilderness Association for a kids’ hike in Wagner Basin. While I’ve spent time in the Sun Canyon area outside of Augusta, I never really hiked the trails (chasing mountain lions over the hills with a camera doesn’t count). It was a simple walk through the gorgeous little area tucked along the mountains and the Sun River, and it’s now an annual trek. It’s as if hiking season doesn’t officially begin until we visit Wagner Basin.
Friends joined us for this outing, meeting the boys and I at Sun Canyon Lodge where I interviewed Niki, one of the owners, for an article. They all decided we need to come back and stay together since it’s like a playground, including a terrific restaurant and daily horseback rides, within the larger playground of the Canyon.
The path into Wagner Basin starts alongside limestone cliffs where you can see a few pictographs from the early people of this area before it opens up into the beautiful basin. Our first stop is always checking out the skull tree, where local artists paint wildlife scenes on deer or other animal skulls, then attach them to the tree. We also want to check on which ones still remain, as well as to notice if there are any new ones.
From there, we went up. Wagner Basin can be an easy hike along the bottom, or you can gain elevation for tremendous views of the entire area. Last year friends and I hiked to the overlook where you can see all the way into Great Falls, but this year we only went about halfway up where we stopped for lunch.
Afterwards, a group of kids wanted to hike higher so half of us continued to the tree line. And, since my focus early in the season is to train for a backpacking trip later in the summer, I’m always game to go higher.
On the way down, one of the boys found a large rock embedded with coral, which is a distinct reminder that this landscape was once under water. Our geologist friend said it is called horn coral. We’ve also found oyster shell fossils along the prairie during a different outing, and from what I understand, Sun Canyon is a hot spot for the geology minded types.
With perfect weather, great friends, and a beautiful location it was one of those days we reflect back upon when we’re hind-end deep in snow.
Flowers make me happy. And thankfully there is such a strong native plant community in our state that it’s possible to learn about the rare jewels we have in our midst. The Kelseya uniflora is one that I’ve wanted to see for years. So after our final pottery class this week, the other two families in our group, my friend Jean, and I, made the run to York, a small town 16 miles NE of Helena to find the diminutive flower that grows along the limestone cliffs of Trout Creek Canyon outside of Vigilante Campground.
According to the Montana Field Guide, there are very few areas where this unique – as in the only one in its botanical genus (hence, the “one-flower Kelseya” name) – can be found. Besides this beautiful little canyon, the Montana Native Plant Society’s newsletter (and I have to note that the Kelseya is the MNPS’s official plant symbol) said it is located along the Front near Augusta, as well as in the Centennial and Beartooth Mountains. Now that I know they are near Augusta, I’m definitely going to stay on the lookout to find another group of them.
It was discovered in 1888 by Francis Duncan Kelsey who came to Montana from Ohio, and was one of our first resident botanists in Montana who recorded a number of species, including his namesake. From what I understand, Kelseya is actually in the rose family, and is a low-growing mats with semi-evergreen foliage that thrive clinging to the rocky cliffs in these regions. The tiny, only about 1/4 inch in diameter, flowers are a bright pink and are exceptionally beautiful. It’s not hard to see why its such a celebrity in the plant world. It’s remarkable that something so gorgeous grows in such difficult terrain. I think there’s a metaphor for life in there.
When we made our little hike, we arrived at the Trout Creek Canyon parking area around 2, and with 6 kids and 5 adults, were on the trail 15 minutes later. The path itself is super easy with barely any elevation gain along a wide, flat former road. Within the first quarter-mile we noticed the Kelseya up in the cliffs, but continued walking until we reached the stream, maybe a mile down the trail. The stream was a source of concern for me this year because of the inordinate amount of snowmelt we’re experiencing, along with the subsequent flooding. I envisioned kids being swept away and went over every scenario (including turning back) when we reached the water. It was no big deal, at all. We all brought shoes to wade through it if that proved to be safer, but no one needed them. I even had my muck boots with me to be able to stand in the water to guide the kids across, but they stayed strapped to my heavy (because I also brought flower books) pack. In reality, the kids thought it was great fun to hop from the logs or rocks. And it was a good opportunity for us adults to practice our balancing skills. While we weren’t always graceful (and I almost lost my muck boots), no one would have made it on Funniest Home Videos.
Not long past the stream, the trail draws closer to the cliff and there were flowers all over it. Many of the plants were already passed their bloom time, but I was thrilled to find a few clumps still adorned with the pink blossoms.
We took our time heading back to the vehicles covering maybe 3 miles total, but overall had an enjoyable day with perfect temperature, no wind, and no mosquitoes. Ticks were definitely present. We saw one on the ground as soon as we got there, plus John found one on the back of his neck (thankfully not embedded) on the drive home, and Sara’s crew reported a couple, as well. It’s a reminder of why we always have to be vigilant at this time of the year.
Between the spectacular scenery of the box canyon with a profusion of flowers beyond the Kelseya, we’ll definitely be back to visit Trout Creek Canyon and the nearby trails.
A lifetime ago, in a galaxy far, far away I built gardens, a business, and a home. On 14 acres in Coram (purchased from friends for $18K!), the first thing I did was try to build a garden. Using my tried and true methods of turning the soil, I put a shovel in the ground, jumped on it, and teetered back and forth. With all of the glacier till (read: rock) I was going no where in the duff. Not to be dissuaded, I decided to dig up the rocks ultimately building 220 raised beds out of stone and filling them with the gorgeous topsoil from the Creston area of the Flathead Valley.
Whenever we weren’t away filming, which was cyclical, as the nature of the filming industry is fickle, I created gardens and made dried arrangements (something I’d been doing since high school) since I wasn’t about to stay home and twiddle my thumbs. And as I built more beds, I wanted to show more people. Ever since I was young, I dragged visitors to the garden to show them what was growing, so now I intended it on a grand scale. Every year, typically when my mother visited (she called it her annual work camp), we threw a big “Garden Celebration” where people toured the garden, visited the gift shop filled with dried flowers, books, soaps, etc., and enjoyed garden-inspired refreshments. Friends helped throughout the day, and though exhausting, it was a good time running up and down the hill talking with people and answering questions.
Then, I walked away. The gardens allowed me to rein in my rage over my soul-sucking marriage that was making me physically ill, but even tons of rock and dirt wasn’t enough. My ex bought me out of my portion of the property and I moved on to a new chapter of my life.
Over the years, my ex sold off chunks of the land for others to build homes or cabins, then finally sold the house and roughly 9 acres. The house eventually burned, and the 9 acres was split and sold again. Fortunately, the lower 3 acres, the ones with the shop and a couple of the small buildings find its way to a wonderful couple, Linda and Chuck. A few years back, Linda contacted me asking where the well and septic were located. The best description I could give her was under the heart garden and the moon garden. They no longer existed, so I wasn’t much help at all, but it was certainly enjoyable to talk with Linda, another avid plant person, about the property. And when she showed me their listing on Airbnb for their cabin (formerly my gift shop) called Mad Betty’s, I was super excited.
She said previous owners turned the small barn into a livable space putting in a kitchen where the wreaths once hung, and creating an incredibly spacious and welcoming bedroom from the attic where rows and rows of dried flowers were stored. Even the side structure, originally used for storing odds and ends, evolved into a family room with a futon where a couple of people could sleep. In my wildest dreams, I could not envision such a transformation. I was thrilled.
Last week I had meetings in the park for work, so we had the opportunity to stay at the cabin and finally meet Chuck and Linda. It was an absolute delight all the way around. They are the nicest, most-welcoming people, and I felt like I’ve known them for ages. And while they might not have turned the shop into a cabin, they certainly gave it life and personality. When we walked in, there were scones on the counter, fruit in the bowl, fixings for s’mores, and a bottle of wine on the table. In the freezer, Chuck had ice cream bars for us, and there was basic food in the refrigerator and cupboards. Even though we came well-stocked, it truly is like coming home where everything is ready for you.
I loved the kitchen area, which was the main part of the gift shop, as well as how a gas fireplace now warmed the house near the front window. Upstairs, instead of ducking your head to avoid being smacked by statice, it was roomy and open. There is now a balcony off of the bedroom, which is the perfect place to sit and drink coffee in the morning or enjoy dinner at night.
Sam and John thought the futon was an engineering marvel, and were beyond thrilled with the flat screen television (yes, we are behind the times at home). There are books and games, and plenty of ways to relax indoors.
Outside, on the lovely stone patio (big kudos to whomever put that together), there is a terrific fire pit with plenty of wood and tools to sit back and enjoy a calm evening under the stars. (Backyard fires can be tricky here in gusty Great Falls.) We had a wonderful time building a small fire during our second evening there totally overloading on sugar and relaxing after a busy couple of days.
I was equally thrilled to see how much still lived in the gardens. It’s early in the season, but obviously the lavender, oregano, lamb’s ear, and artemisia still thrive; some beds even have their metal plant markers. The witch hazel I planted next to one of the cascading ponds is taller than I am. And the little lodgepole I allowed to grow next to it is well over 20 ft. high. Actually, there are a lot of tall lodgepole pines growing within the garden on the hillside. That is the greatest difference in the overall landscape with the trees obscuring the gorgeous view of Desert Mountain (although I heard that is about to be remedied). Even the foundation and initial construction of the stone greenhouse I was building remain almost as I left it nearly 20 years ago.
The best part of everything was to experience the life brought back into the place. Yes, the house, with all of its unique touches from basically being scrounged together (and having most of the framing lumber cut from the property), is gone, but the once gift shop has a brand new purpose of bringing joy to a lot of people. The guest book is filled with comments on how much the guests love spending time there. It is pure joy to see it and a privilege to watch the improvements Chuck and Linda continue to make as they offer a home away from home for so many people who love this area. Progress is a beautiful thing!
One of the greatest joys in life is learning something new, especially when it means improving something you love. For me, this meant getting serious in the gym, relearning everything, to make packing weight up the trail exponentially easier and more enjoyable. It takes effort to reach high places.
I am no stranger to the gym. Way back when, I was a national and world powerlifting champion, and for many years lifting heavy things – such as the rocks I used to build my 200+ raised bed gardens – was very useful. But with my focus changing, so did my workouts, particularly since I felt like I was physically falling apart with daily aches and pains. For nearly a year, my shoulder hurt to the point where I could barely grate a carrot. I thought surgery was unavoidable until I went to my chiropractor/miracle worker, Dr. Mark Stoebe of Great Falls Chiropractic Clinic. He said it was a mild impingement, and after a couple of treatments, sent me on my merry way with the instructions on exercises I needed to avoid. This meant no more overhead barbell presses, push-ups, bench presses, and other exercises that involved both arms moving the weight simultaneously, especially with a barbell. The next issue is the diastasis recti I have due to multiple abdominal surgeries, so basically my goal is to keep muscles from separating any worse than they are. It’s such hot mess that many traditional ab exercises are off the table.
So I turned to fantastic fellow homeschool mom and exceptional personal trainer Tamara Podry of Anchor Fitness. Tamara and her husband, Zach, started this very unique (at least for Great Falls) gym where personal instruction and focused fitness go hand in hand. It’s not a club open at all hours; instead they have a growing number of classes, along with invaluable one-on-one time helping people reach their health goals. I explained my new focus to Tamara, listed my limitations, and she took it from there.
After consulting with Dr. Stoebe, she understood what I couldn’t do as far as the shoulder goes, but came up with exercises to strengthen the joint – since imbalances or weakness are a significant cause of injuries – and we learned what core strengthening routines worked without feeling like my abs were tearing apart. She developed strengthening exercises for my legs, focusing a lot on my glutes and hamstrings since she said many of us are disproportionately strong in our quads. Plus, she included exercises for the lower back because, as any hiker knows, one of the first things we often do when we take off our packs is give a nice forward fold stretch. Hopefully, by strengthening this area I’ll need less of that even if I’m hiking 30 miles over a few days with 30 pounds on my back.
Here is one of the strength routines she put together, including the reasoning behind the moves:
Squat with one-arm dumb bell press – This is a dynamic move that incorporates the lower body, as well as excellent stabilizing and strengthening of the biceps, triceps, shoulders, and upper back. It’s hitting a little bit of everything. I admit, I was concerned when she brought up this one because of the shoulder situation, but the dumb bells make all of the difference allowing a more natural angle. It’s been fine.
Bent over rows – While the majority of hiking involves the legs, Tamara reminded me that we definitely use our back and upper body when we’re backpacking. Whether it’s hoisting a fully loaded backpack up in the sky on a bear pole, having to use arms for a scramble, as well as simply using trekking poles for general hikes, it’s a full-body activity. The bent over rows (once again, with dumb bells) effectively works the upper back. After more of these, I believe they will even improve my rowing abilities in the raft.
Sumo deadlift – Although I always used the conventional form instead of the sumo, deadlifts were always my baby in competition. But the sumo deadlift, which is one with a wide stance and feet pointed farther out to the sides (not completely parallel), engages more of the gluteus medius that runs underneath the gluteus maximus and is important for single-leg weight bearing exercises, such as hiking. The trick, as least for me, is to focus on hinging at the hips and not overly relying on the quads, which is a natural thing to do. Tamara recommended using some sort of platform on each foot to allow for a greater range, then she gave a wicked little laugh, so I think that means a fair amount of pain.
Good mornings – This is another lower back exercise that every hiker should do to make carrying a heavy pack that much easier. Many times a barbell is used, but dumb bells are equally effective. Settle the weight on your upper back, or shoulders with the dumb bells, and hinge at the hips leaning forward to reaching roughly parallel from the floor. This is a good one to focus on reps and not necessarily heavy weight, and will really make a difference.
Assisted pull-up – With the super-band, you don’t dare get the giggles or you might be shot up and over the rack. This incredibly strong rubber band helps people, even if he or she couldn’t do a single pull up on their own, receive the full benefit of the exercise. Tamara showed me the dos and don’ts of stepping into the band, and helped me not kill myself, so I was able to complete pull-ups with my chin above the bar. I could really feel it in my lats (Latissimus dorsi) while performing it, and today I noticed how much my biceps responded to it.
Bosu ball – I’ve long been intrigues by Bosu ball, but never attempted any of the routines myself since I wasn’t aiming to be on Funniest Home Videos. In reality, the Bosu is an excellent tool to work on balance and stability, especially in those smaller muscle groups that are often neglected. Tamara had me concentrate my weight on the stationary leg on the Bosu while tapping to the side with the other one, the bringing it up high in the front. That’s easier said than done, let me tell you! While my form wasn’t perfect, it will improve, and I can see how it’s going to help my ankles and supporting muscles.
Plank with spiderman and twist – Despite my messed up abs, I can do planks. Tamara stepped up the effort by adding a spiderman, where one leg is brought up parallel and towards your upper body, followed by a twist. I can’t say that my form was textbook, but it really helps to keep the entire core stabilized.
Side plank with leg raise – This is another one that helps stabilize the core. Last fall, I could only do them on my knees, but have progressed to full extension. Now Tamara recommended adding a leg raise as the best way to go to reap more benefits. At first she had me do 10 reps. No problem. The remaining 2 sets, she brought out the stop watch for 30 seconds each side with leg raises. I was dying. She wants my goal to be a minute.
Stomping bear – This one looks easy until you try it. Starting on all fours, bring your knees just an inch or two above the floor, then alternate lifting your hands back and forth, just like a bear who is irritated might do. This hits a lot of muscles, including the core, legs, and arms. By the time we reached this final exercise on the last set, I was dripping with sweat.
For this full-body strengthening circuit, which she recommends doing at least 2 times per week, we did 3 sets of 10-15 reps with minimal rest in between exercises. This bumped up my heart rate into the cardio level, which is an added bonus for the overall program. The cardio work I’m adding to the program- a foreign world for me – will be addressed in my next installment of since it is every bit as important as the strength aspect, and Tamara has done a lot helping me to understand the best way to go about it.
As challenging as it is, I am loving my strength program, and always look forward to learning something new. There’s nothing like having someone watch your form to ensure you’re utilizing the muscles the best way possible. Numerous times throughout our training, Tamara corrects what I’m doing since I’m primarily focusing on breathing and generally not dying. There’s no point in cheating because it’s only cheating yourself in the end. I would rather be sore now than have pain or extreme difficulty take away from the experience on the trail.
The spring is off to a slow, cold start, but we’ve still managed to make it to local trails for a couple of days these past few weeks. Our first adventure was a walk in Tower Rock State Park. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition came though the area, Capt. Lewis climbed this area to gain a better understanding of where the plains end and the mountains begin.
It’s a steep walk up to the saddle below the actual Tower Rock, but there are lots of neat areas to see and explore. We had significant mud, and a lot more snow, than I anticipated, but it was a good day to be outside. There was even a bonus sighting of the bighorn sheep band that frequents the area.
This region along the Missouri River is particularly stunning in the late spring when the yucca are blooming, but even in the barren early part of the season, the geology of the region is remarkable. This particular rocky outcropping always caught my eye, so I was fascinated to learn that it was caused by a pyroclastic flow from a volcano southeast of Tower Rock and interstate 15, according to a geologist friend of mine who is always so good about answering my bazillion questions about such things. It’s hard to imagine volcanic activity like that, yet the rocks make total sense of it. The day ended with multiple pairs of muddy boots. The good news is there were no snakes and no ticks (both significant considerations when the weather warms), and an enjoyable time exploring the beautiful area not far from Great Falls.
Last week we ventured to the First Peoples’ Buffalo Jump in Ulm. Normally, at this time of the year, the trail would be clear of snow, yet this season we had to trek over several smaller snow fields.
Besides the increasing number of waterfowl we spotted in flooded fields along the way, we spotted a couple of marmots in the rocks along the trail.
Once again, this wasn’t an epic hike, but it was a nice way to spend a pleasant day. No bugs, no snakes, just breaking in the legs and enjoying the sunshine.