Mother and son camping trip

For years I’ve wanted to take the boys camping on a one to one basis since it’s a time when we can unplug (no cell service certainly helps that little addiction) and enjoy time without the daily distractions. This year we kicked off the tradition with Sam and I going on a camping trip to Two Medicine in Glacier National Park while John stayed home with Daddy. I was excited to get away and spend time with Sam where he actually had a chance to talk without being interrupted. He was excited to spend time away from his brother who is relentless when it comes to tormenting him. Plus, Grant got to spend time with John when the dynamics are completely different and they can do something special. It was a win-win on all fronts.

Packed and ready to go
Packed and ready to go

For this first outing we decided to camp in the campground, yet by the way I packed it appeared we were going to be out for a journey roughly the length of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I packed everything, but the kitchen sink, which  I do regret. (I should have included a little wash basin… but I digress.) Part of the reason I wanted to camp earlier in the season was to ensure we could find a camping spot. Anytime after July 1 in Glacier can be a little dicey. The second reason I chose this particular time was because of the naturalist led hikes that were available. We thought doing either, or both, the bird watching hike or the hike to Rockwell Falls would be a good plan.

When we left Great Falls the weather was hot and sunny, but it quickly changed as we continued north. The wind hit hurricane status 10 miles up the road, and before we reached Valier we drove through a hellacious thunderstorm. It was the two hands, white knuckled kind of driving. And with the clouds that hung over the Rockies in the distance, I thought we were doomed for sure.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We quickly found a camping spot at Two Medicine, and took advantage of light sprinkles, instead of the deluge we experienced earlier, to set up the tent. I was very grateful the trees reduced the wind velocity, and the tent was up in no time with very little water reaching the interior.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next we visited the Camp Store, which I’ve wanted to see for years. As many times as I’ve been to Two Medicine, I’ve never taken the time to go inside. And since this is the last remaining building of the chalet system in Two Medicine (the others were floated onto the lake and burned), I was very curious. It’s a nice little store, and I was happy to see a coffee stand in the back.

A friendly game of checkers at the Glacier Park Lodge
A friendly game of checkers at the Glacier Park Lodge

Since the pay phone was non-operational at the rangers’ station, we drove back to East Glacier where there is cell service at the Glacier Park Lodge. On the front porch they have large checker boards on a few of the tables, which is an inviting place to sit and play. We couldn’t resist.

On our way back to the campground we stopped at Running Eagle Falls during our drive back to the campground. What a neat place! It’s only .6 miles roundtrip on a wide, easy trail and there were plenty of flowers to gawk at along the way. The real feature is the dual waterfalls with the main one flowing out of the cave.  This will undoubtedly be a “must-see” every time we visit Two Medicine.

Running Eagle Falls
Running Eagle Falls

Back at camp, dinner was hotdogs on the propane stove since it was still far too windy to start a fire (at least in my opinion, I tend to be a bit cautious about such matters). Sam worked on his Centennial Junior Ranger program activity book until it was time to go to the evening program at the amphitheater. Ranger Kelly Lynch did a fantastic job talking about grizzly bears and how to live with them. Afterwards she answered questions, and signed Sam’s Junior Ranger book telling him it was the first one she signed this year.

Earning the Centennial Jr. Ranger Badge
Earning the Centennial Jr. Ranger Badge

We both slept well despite the wind and rain, and woke early to meet a group for a bird walk led by Ranger Lynch.  Although we didn’t feel like eating breakfast quite so early, I made homemade hot cocoa, which hit the spot on a chilly morning. The bird walk was enlightening. Lynch identified most of the birds through their vocalizations, a talent I’ve admired in a few other people I know. This is something we’re definitely going to work on in our studies because it’s so much easier to hear the birds rather than spot them. We found 31 birds, and as we were tallying them in the parking lot, Sam pointed out a mature bald eagle soaring with Sinopah in the background. Let’s hear it for a memorable number 32!

Bird walk
Bird walk

In the afternoon we took the boat tour with the Glacier Park Boat Company across the lake and hiked to Twin Falls with the group. We swung into the falls on our return hike from Upper Two Medicine Lake last summer, but it was still a pleasant hike.  And, of course, we had to go see Running Eagle Falls before we left since Sam likes the water flowing through the cave so much.

Boat ride across the lake
Boat ride across the lake

The only activity we weren’t able to do that we’d hoped is taking the kayaks out on the lake. It was far too windy to be safe, or fun. My hope is the next time we head that way I can figure out how to strap our own kayaks to the top of the car to at least paddle around Pray Lake, which is far shallower and usually calmer than the tumultuous main lake.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This initial adventure was a definite success. We did not want to pack up camp and leave, but it felt better knowing that we will make this an annual tradition. As a matter of fact, Sam and I are already looking at the map to decide where our next trip will be.

Loving it!
Loving it!

 

Kids’ Hike in Sun Canyon

Hiking in the Sun CanyonI’ve long loved the Sun Canyon area roughy an hour and a half southwest of us. Years ago we looked for grizzlies and mountain lions in this region while working on films for National Geographic, and it was always a pleasant change of scenery for me versus fighting crowds in Glacier or the Canadian parks. Even when I lived in Kalispell in post-filming days, I always wanted to find a way back. One year, friends and I hauled our horses over and stayed at Sun Canyon Lodge for a few days riding and enjoying the gentle breezes of the region. (Translation: gale force winds that literally took your breath away and made you hang onto your hat.) It’s a wild and fun place to be, and as part of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act passed at the end of 2014, it’s going to stay that way.

This year we’re focusing on spending more time in this area, particularly since Glacier is undoubtedly going to be loved to death this summer. Last season over 2.4 million visitors came to relish in its beauty, and while I can’t blame them one iota, it’s just too much at times.  The Sun Canyon is the perfect place to go to hike without the crowds.

Pictographs in Wagner Basin
Pictographs in Wagner Basin

Since I’m still learning a lot of the trails in in the Sun Canyon area, I was delighted when the Montana Wilderness Association offered a kids’ hike to the area this spring led by Len and Deva. We’d already visited the impressive pictograph wall, but I had never hiked the easy, but beautiful, Wagner Basin.  It was one of those situations where I knew were Wagner Basin was, but I wasn’t sure how to get over to it. Without question, I was very grateful to be able to follow experienced folks to lead the way.

The skull tree
The skull tree

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Shortly into the hike, Len pointed out a few pictographs along the cliffs. You wouldn’t know they were there unless someone told you, or you simply were keen enough to specifically look for them.  From there we hiked to the renowned skull tree, which is a short 1/2 mile from the trailhead, where local artists paint natural history scenes on animal skulls and leave them on the tree. The talent represented in this simple art exhibit is magnificent. Since I completely lack these skills it never ceases to amaze me when an artist can bring out the details of feathers or fur, or the gleam in the eye, of our native wildlife. Beyond the skull tree, we took a look at the old beaver dams and discussed their impact on the ecosystem, then traversed up the hill. This is when it really got fun.

Hiking up the slope
Hiking up the slope

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Bushwhacking through the aspen.
Bushwhacking through the aspen.

We didn’t go as high as we could, by any means, but it was enough of a climb to gain a terrific perspective on the area. The arrowleaf balsamroot was starting to bloom, and I suspect in another week the area will be absolutely bathed in happy yellow flowers. From there we decided to bushwhack over to the opposite slope for a different route. Tromping through the thick aspens and trying to find a game trail to follow was a blast for the kids. They were in their glory. The proverbial cherry on top was when our youngest, John, found a dandy deer antler. He was ahead of me winding our way through the small trees and shrubs, when he spotted it sticking up out of the mud. Oh man, was he excited! That totally made his day.

First antler find
First antler find
There was always something to check out.
There was always something to check out.

Besides the gorgeous scenery, what was so neat about this region is what the kids found. They picked up snail shells (big ones!), bones from animals lost this year or in previous ones, ants trapped in sap, flowers, rocks, and caterpillars. Whether you looked up or down you were going to see something interesting. The hike back to the rigs through the open slope dotted with flowers was simply spectacular, and it was pleasant to be able to chat with fellow hikers on the way down while the kids bounded along yelling out new finds.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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The second leg of our adventure started at the big pictograph display, and traveled along the river to the bridge we crossed to go to Wagner Basin. It’s beyond beautiful at this time of the year with the bright green leaves and high, running water. Everybody, including the boys, talked as we walked along this easy trail remembering the day’s finds, as well as reminiscing on past experiences. The bonus find of the day was the small garter snake in the middle of the trail. And while the boys wanted to take him home, we made sure he made it safely back to the rocks.

Walking along the Blacktail - Hannan Gulch connector
Walking along the Blacktail – Hannan Gulch connector
Garter snake
Garter snake

Once we arrived at the bridge, the kids and I waited as the drivers took Len’s vehicle to shuttle back to the other cars at the parking area near the pictographs. In the meantime, we walked over to a group of aspens that Len pointed out to find the bear claw marks on one of the trees, and I did my best to keep the younger kids (including ours) away from the river for fear that my friend Julie would never speak to me again if she returned to find wet children!

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Overall, it was a phenomenal day. The kids were happy and this will undoubtedly be the topic of many conversations in the future. They loved the adventure of bushwhacking through the aspens, and relished in all of the interesting plants and animals (even if it was just parts) they found.

Gibson Reservoir
Gibson Reservoir

On the way home, we spotted a fox den along Rt. 21.  Sam spotted one of them on our way to Augusta, then Grant saw two sitting outside the den. (Unfortunately, it appeared that their sibling was squished on the road.) We turned around to have a better look and was able to take a couple of photos. They are so unspeakably adorable. It was a nice way to wrap up the adventure.

Fox pups at the den.
Fox pups at the den.

 

Many Glacier in May

Many Glacier is one of my favorite places in Glacier National Park, and in my opinion, the springtime is the best time to be there. Besides the dramatic landscape, there are often moose, bighorn sheep, and bears to be found making it one of the best areas to view wildlife, especially before everyone and their mother arrives. So when a friend said her dad was coming out for a visit, we decided we needed to make an early trip over there to hike with the kids.

Beautiful stream on the hike to Red Rock Falls
Beautiful stream on the hike to Red Rock Falls

 

I envisioned the typical awe-inspiring scenery and being able to spot the consistent moose in Fishercap or Red Rock Lakes. Every time I’ve been there over the past couple of years, we’ve seen them. They seemed almost as standard as the deer. At first, it looked like that plan would materialize. Initial weather forecasts called for partly cloudy conditions, a slim chance of rain,  and 70 degrees. As the day drew closer, the predicated temperature dropped and the chance of rain increased. By the time Friday morning came around, we were praying the hard rain was going to hold off like the meteorologist said.

With a 3 hour drive one way, it’s not as if you want to be over there and decide to turn around, but we ventured forward despite the ominous skies. On the way over, we experienced drizzle, fog, rain, and even large flakes of snow practically blowing horizontally. I was seriously dismayed that our day with 7 children (5 ages 9 and under) would be a complete wash out.

The weather was less than beautiful.
The weather was less than beautiful.

It was still drizzly and a brisk 48-ish degrees when we arrived at the ranger station, since those are the only restroom facilities open at this time of the year. (They are brand new and very nice, by the way.) While taking turns for a pre-hike potty break, we told the rangers who were waiting in a nearby vehicle our plans to hike to Red Rock Falls. One shared that the trail was just opened that day. It had been closed due to grizzly activity for an unspecified amount of time. Yet, as she said, with so many kids making noise and multiple cans of bear spray, we should be fine. She was right. We thought we heard a huff in the bushes near Fishercap Lake, but never saw a bear, nor even a moose.

There wasn't much for wildlife but the green was gorgeous.
There wasn’t much for wildlife but the green was gorgeous.

The 4 mile (round trip) hike was great despite the weather. Everyone seemed warm and happy. The younger kids were running back and forth between adults looking at plants, flowers, and cool rocks. There were a million questions, comments, and never a quiet moment, but to have the kids out, even when it was drizzly and chilly, was worth the adventure.  We passed just a few people on the trail, unlike the hundreds during the summer, and the green of the early aspens is beyond gorgeous. Even though we didn’t have the huckleberries to snack on while we walk like we did when we hiked this trail in July a couple of years ago, it’s even more special at this time of the season.

Running down the trail
Running down the trail

When we reached the falls, we ventured down a path to gain a better view and to enjoy lunch in a spectacular area. A water ousel sat on the rocks near the extraordinarily powerful waterfall, and it was rejuvenating to stop and chat for a while.

Water ousel perched on a rock near the falls.
Water ousel perched on a rock near the falls.

After eating, we continued up the trail just a short ways to “the big rock” where the kids climbed up (giving me a heart attack since I knew how slick the stone was from the rain) before we decided to head back to the vehicles.

Climbing the big rock
Climbing the big rock

By the time we were nearly at the end of the trail, the pace was a bit slower for the younger kids who required a bit of cajoling to keep them moving forward without complaint. (Thankfully we had the most awesome grandfather of a couple of the boys there who was the best person to keep them laughing and hiking.) And when we arrived back at the ranger station to visit the restroom before heading home, the ranger showed us where there were tiny bats tucked behind the siding on one of the buildings. Even though we didn’t see any of the megafauna I had hoped to spot, bat sightings are definitely worth the stop.

A seemingly unlikely place for bats.
A seemingly unlikely place for bats.

This little jaunt just goes to show you that you don’t have to have perfect weather to have a good time. And while the weather might be a bit more erratic in the springtime, it’s still the best time to be in the park.

 

Bicycling Going-to-the-Sun Rd. in the spring

Last weekend we went to the west side of Glacier National Park to bicycle Going-to-the-Sun Rd. before it’s open to vehicle traffic for a special Mother’s Day weekend.  This is one of my favorite times in the park since everything is a glorious green, and it has a completely different feel than in the mid-summer when millions of visitors descend upon it.

Spring is a special time in Glacier National Park.
Spring is a special time in Glacier National Park.

I lived just outside of West Glacier for many years, and always enjoyed taking the bike to the park in the spring. It is decidedly busier now. Parking at Avalanche Creek was akin to a the mayhem in the summer, except that the campground was open for vehicles to park for the day so folks were pulled in wherever they could fit. To reduce the congestion of the area, the Glacier National Park Conservancy obtained a grant to put two bike shuttles on the route between Lake McDonald Lodge and Avalanche. They can haul up to 16 bikes at a time, and run every 20 minutes or so. They weren’t well used when we were there, but of course, it was their first day in operation. I do hope that, like the shuttles that run in the summer, more people take advantage of them.

Hiker/biker shuttle
Hiker/biker shuttle

We opted to brave the parking situation since we were on a bit of a time crunch, and even cycling our way out of the campground was a challenge with the amount of traffic streaming in to find a spot. (Another reason to use the shuttle the next time.) But once we made it past the gate, it all changed. It was only hikers and bikers on the peaceful road. The newly leafed out trees created a brilliant green canopy over the road as we peddled along enjoying the sound of McDonald Creek instead of traffic.

Grant giving John a little extra help making it up the road.
Grant giving John a little extra help making it up the road.

It’s a slight grade starting out from Avalanche. John did enjoy a bit of help from Grant heading uphill, but overall did just fine making our way up the road. We stopped at one of the pull outs to walk down to view the roaring waters of McDonald Creek along an obviously newer trail and step system, undoubtedly funded by the Glacier Conservancy. It looked fantastic. 

The ride back was an easy coast. Of course, being a mother who typically looks at the worst case scenario, all I could envision was one of the boys careening out of a control as they sped down the hill ending up in the waters of the creek. Thankfully, they worked those brakes and made it down safely. 

We didn’t spend as much time as I would’ve liked on that absolutely perfect day,  but I’m hoping to make it back over there in the near future to enjoy the road before it’s open for everyone.

Weekend Winter Getaway

A couple of weeks ago friends invited us to join them a the Glacier Wilderness Resort near Essex where they own a timeshare week, and make a point to spend time there every winter. Even though I worked at the Izaak Walton Inn many moons ago, and have driven past the Glacier Wilderness Resort at least a thousand times, I had no idea it was such a lovely place to stay. The cabin was large and comfortable with pretty much everything you needed (except for food and such, of course). And the hot tub on the porch was a big hit with the boys. The Lodge has a nice little fitness room, pool table, and reading area. There’s even a swimming pool that’s kept at 95 degrees F. It’s truly everything you’d want, and it would be easy to spend a week without leaving the grounds. 

Shortly after we arrived, which involved driving in blizzard conditions over Marias Pass, we donned our snowshoes and headed out on the trails behind the cabins. A short walk took us to a beautiful waterfall where the bridge allowed us to walk close to the flowing water behind the snow. We continued a little bit farther, but the lure of opening birthday presents for our youngest got the better of him, and it didn’t take long before he wanted to go back. Even though it was a brief walk through the beautiful woods, the possibilities didn’t escape me. 

By the next morning the weather had improved so we decided to head to Apgar and Lake McDonald to snowshoe or ski on Going to the Sun Road.  The winter in Glacier is one of my favorite times to be there because it is a completely different world than the insane overcrowding during the summer. It was a popular place on that particular Sunday, but it was nothing compared to what the parking lot looks like in July. 

We parked at the end of the parking lot at Lake McDonald Lodge, where there is a great vault restroom you can use before you start your trek. (This is important stuff to know!) Our eldest and I put on our skis, despite the slick conditions. John started with snowshoes, but switched to skis. Even then, he was resistant, and his dad ended up pulling him with a ski pole for the entire 3 mile trip.  We went down to the bridge at the head of Lake McDonald where we grabbed a snack, and spotted a large whitefish in the water below. It was absolutely gorgeous blue-sky day, and I thought it was very interesting that our trip back to the car took half the time as it did to reach the bridge. 

Being outdoors at any time of the year refreshes the soul, but it’s especially rejuvenating in the middle of winter when outdoor recreation is often limited by inclement weather or shortened days. It was a fantastic opportunity to show the boys how beautiful it is, and how fun the winter can be.

Fishing the hard water on Holter Lake

Ice fishing is one of those activities that makes winter pass a bit more quickly, and depending on the thickness of the said hard water, might make your life pass more quickly, as well.  But it’s my husband’s favorite type of fishing,  so we occasionally join him during the season.

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Those occasions mostly depend on the ice conditions. While the standard recommendation is ice is “safe” for people walking on it around 4 to 6 inches thick, I’m more comfortable with an excess of 9 inches after we’ve had days of sub-zero temps. We had cold temps the previous weekend, but when it warmed up to the upper 30s for a couple of days, I’ll fully admit that I was a bit anxious. Rationally, I knew it wouldn’t melt the ice significantly, especially since it was freezing at night, but that lovely warm sun nagged at me that the ice was weakening. Thankfully, my concerns were for naught as it was a good 11 inches thick where we went on Holter Lake.

Catching trout

Holter has been fickle this year. One day people will limit out at 50 really nice fish per person (we’re talking 8-10 inch perch); other days you’re hard pressed to hook a couple. Yesterday was the latter. We had multiple lines in the water, but didn’t catch anything except a 10 inch trout and a single perch.  Yet, it was a mild day with a little sun to make it nice, and with thick ice under our feet, it was still a good time for the most part. (I have to add “for the most part” since a few brotherly squabbles turned into some somber moods.)

While they fished, I took the opportunity to clip into the Nordic skates once again to see if I could at least stand without falling. I tried them on Gibson Pond last weekend with the realization that I didn’t have a clue how to move forward.  I had John pull me along, then I bit the ice. (Or, as John says, “Mom fell on her tush!”) So I came home and looked at videos to see how these things work. The big difference is you ski skate with these. They’re not figure skates where you push off with your toe, and once you get the hang of it they really look amazing and effortless. I’ll keep working on it so hopefully I can get to the point where I can be off skating while they’re fishing (if the bite is slow… if it’s on I want to be there). Nordic Skates

I didn’t do anything too exciting yesterday, but managed to shuffle around in circles without taking a dive.  As Grant reminded me, he really didn’t want to have to drag me off the ice, which was probably a good 1/4 mile walk just to the trailhead back to the truck, and I fully agreed. They did feel better, and I can see how these can be a whole lot of fun once I get my “ice legs.”

Overall we had a great day outdoors. It’s always good to take this time  outside with the boys. We saw osprey and heard them call, watched dozens, if not hundreds, of geese fly in and land, and spotted numerous duck species. They always learn something from these outings, and they’re going to remember these things.

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So with warming weather in the near future, I’m not sure if we’ll make it on the ice again this season, but we’ll undoubtedly be fishing the open water within a month, and hitting the hiking trails before we know it!

Embracing winter

Winter can be rough on people, and I must admit, that I can whine along with the best of them when the temperature plummets and the snow falls.

IMG_1591When you look at it,  it’s simply not that fun to have to put on snowshoes to take care of the chickens, or to take 10 minutes just to dress to feed the horse. On the other, there really are a lot of fun activities that we can only do in the winter. So I’m making a concerted effort to change my attitude. The reality is, winter isn’t going anywhere, and complaining about it does nothing to make it better.

IMG_1740Obviously ice fishing is a sport best done when it’s been very cold for a considerable amount of time. When they’re biting, you don’t notice the weather. And, to add to the fun on the ice, this year I’m experimenting with a pair of Nordic skates. They’re fast, more stable, and can glide along the rough surface of the frozen lakes. Hopefully, I’ll be able to cruise around while waiting for the bite to come on, although I’m guessing I’ll be the go-to person for tip-up duty.

Sledding is a simple adrenaline rush for those of us who aren’t used to swooshing down the ski hill. It’s great fun, and a tremendous workout hoofing it back up the hill.  Plus, it lets you feel like you really earned your hot cocoa.

IMG_1593Along these lines, although preferably with less of a thrill unless you find yourself on a steeper-than-desired incline, cross-country skiing can take you places deep in the woods or the prairie, allowing you to really get out and enjoy this peaceful time of the season. Or, if you totally want to keep your feet on the ground, strap on the snowshoes. They’re kind of like the tanks of winter travel. While they’re not as graceful as skis, they certainly are stable and reliable.

This year I’m looking on the bright side of winter. Every opportunity will find us out either skating on the local pond with our friends (since an impromptu hockey game can’t be beat for winter fun), or snowshoeing in the nearby National Forest or Glacier National Park. Winter won’t last forever so it’s time to wring every bit of enjoyment out of it as we can. You just have to make the best of what winter has to offer. Grisak