In the winter everything looks different. Although I’ve visited the Porphyry Fire Lookout perched on the top of the slopes of the Showdown Ski Area in the Little Belt Mountains, I’ve never seen it in the winter since I prefer cross-country over the downhill sport. Determined to remedy this, I gave a shout out to my other adventurous friends and we made a day of it last Sunday.
As much as I am a summer person, with blue skies and no wind, glorious is a dull description of the conditions. Parking at the Kings Hill parking area at the top of the pass, we followed the closed road until we reached the Golden Goose, one of the mid-level ski hills at Showdown keeping to the right as we made our way up to a road that squirted around the back of the hill. Gaining roughly 1700 feet in a couple of miles cranks up the heart rate, but when you’re with excellent company, as we were that day, it goes quickly.
Hoarfrost covered the trees at the top creating a picture perfect winter wonderland as we headed past the lookout to the warming up at the top of the ski hill. We weren’t cold by any stretch of the imagination, but it felt good to sit in the snug building enjoying our lunches, homemade cookies packed to the top by Martina, along with hot cocoa purchased at the little cafe for some of the ladies. We spent close to an hour catching up and getting to know each other, as it was the first time we met for many of us, making it the perfect way to spend a Sunday.
The way down was much easier, and much quicker. We veered off the Golden Goose route taking the service road (which is the one typically open in the summer) to extend our trip since none of us wanted to be finished. And since we made it back to the vehicles in an hour, we decided to head to Memorial Falls a few miles down the road.
Memorial Falls, which is just outside of the former mining town of Neihart, is the go-to place for families with kids or for someone who wants a short hike with a big payoff at the end. It’s only 1/4 mile to the first falls, and an equal distance to the next ones. While we didn’t need snowshoes, micro spikes would have been very helpful as the trail was slick in a few spots. On the way back it was easier to sit and scoot – I called us the Memorial Falls Luge Team – rather than attempt to walk. But we all made it back without concussions or broken bones!
The week prior, my husband, sons, and I ventured into Memorial Falls finding them frozen over with the water running behind them looking like something out of a magical fairyland story. Seven days later, the falls were half melted. Winter is over, by any means, but the signs of spring are starting to peek through.
Besides having the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, the hike was special because of the company. Many of the ladies are fellow homeschool moms, one was a friend I hiked with over a year ago, and yet another was a wonderful woman I interviewed on the radio. I learned far more about her incredible character and impressive knowledge while we snowshoed than I ever did when we talked on the radio. A couple were friends of friends, but they instantly became part of the tribe. It struck me that in this world of negativity and quarreling spending a day pushing ourselves physically in this wintery landscape with positive, amazing women is exactly what we need to recharge our bodies… and our souls.
As a solar-powered being, it’s no surprise these short, dark days wear on my psyche. The cold is manageable. I’ve spent decades gathering gear and understanding how to stay warm. The snow is bearable to some degree; as long as travel isn’t required. There’s nothing to do about the dark, but to make the best of it.
Step into hygge-hood?
For the past several years, as winter approaches posts about the Danish tradition – actually lifestyle – of hygge litter social media. While this concept, which the closest explanation is the art of coziness, relaxation, and enjoying life, is appealing to many, it makes me twitch. I’m not a bundle up in a blanket, sip cocoa, and watch Netflix type of person. That sounds like a sick day.
What I do take advantage of during these long nights and short days are activities I should do, but often don’t when I’m up and running from dawn to the late dusk of the summer. When I pop out of bed between 4-5 a.m. (because I cannot stand just lying there ), I immediately turn on YouTube to watch Yoga with Adriene while I drink my powdered beet drink, or what I like to call, the blood of my enemies. After yoga it’s time for coffee.
Winter is tea time
Since being indoors more is inevitable at this time of the year when it’s well below zero and blowing 30 mph. And one of the best parts of winter is there is usually something brewing on the stove because I’m far less likely to walk out of the house allowing it to boil down to twiggy bits.
My chai tea addiction
The more aromatic option is a homemade chai tea that is stand-by throughout the season. This is a recipe I learned from Yoga with Adriene. It’s simple, warming, and uplifting even in the dark days. To 2 quarts of water, I add:
20 black pepper corns
4-5 cinnamon sticks
2 inch piece of ginger, washed and sliced into pieces
16 cardamom pods, slightly crushed
Typically, chai tea is flavored with honey and cream (or half and half), but it doesn’t have to be. The tea is delicious on its own, so I only occasionally dress it up with honey and sometimes both, if I’m feeling particularly indulgent. Truthfully, if I added honey and half and half to the amount I typically drink, there is no way to ski enough to burn off those calories!
Looking for cold-weather workouts
But it’s not all sipping tea during the long, cold months. We have snowshoes, and I’m making a list of places to take the kids in our Nature Club, as well as working on some more challenging outings with the grown up girls. The first trek on my list is Porphyry Peak in the Little Belt Mountains. This lookout at the top of Showdown Ski Area is a beautiful place to visit during the summer, so I’m looking forward to seeing it blanketed with snow.
We also like to make at least one trip to the west side to Essex and West Glacier during the winter to take advantage of the remarkable skiing opportunities on Forest Service land, as well as in Glacier National Park. Depending on the snow conditions, it’s a toss up between snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, but it’s always a beautiful and quiet time to enjoy the area.
Soaking in the winter vibe
While we’re in the area, it would be ideal to pop down to White Sulphur Springs to soak in the world-class hot springs. One of my goals is to experience all of the hot springs in Montana, but at the moment White Sulphur is my favorite. They are clean, but with that wonderful sulphur smell (I actually like it), and have 3 pools of varying temperatures. Whether it’s a day trip for a couple of hours in the pools, or an overnight stay at the hotel, soaking is one of our all-time favorite wintertime activities.
New bindings for the cross-country skis
While snowshoeing can take you just about anywhere, I really enjoy cross-country skiing. Roughly 25 years ago, National Geographic Television bought me Bushwacker XT Trak cross-country skis geared to haul gear off-trail looking for mountain lions. They’re wider than traditional cross-country skis with a metal edge, making them handy for either breaking trail in deeper snow or cruising on a groomed course. When I had issues with the boot staying clipped into the binding during one of our first snowfalls this year (since it started at the end of September), I considered buying a new pair. Then I noticed the prices. Ouch. Plus, I really like these skis.
Thankfully, a friend recommended that I take them to Bighorn Outdoor Specialists where they could put on new bindings. By the end of the day, Chris had the skis ready to go. At the moment, I’m using my old boots, which I don’t love because my feet get cold regardless of how hard I’m working, so I am saving for a new pair. Now all we need is snow! (I can’t believe I’m saying about that.)
Taking winter a day at a time
I don’t hide that winter is my least favorite part of the year, and I fully admit that I regularly check prices to Phoenix. Even a long weekend in Arizona would help diminish the dark season blues. But I’m also determined to make the most of every day by focusing on the best of the indoor activities, along with kicking butt outdoors at every opportunity.
From my perspective as someone who spent nearly 30 years in the park exploring its trails, geeking out over flowers, and looking for wildlife, their impact is obvious, even if most people don’t realize how much they do. From improving visitor services to supporting the Citizen Scientist program, their presence is critical in keeping the park vibrant, particularly in this era of millions of visitors.
Because I love what they do and frequently pester their executive director, Doug Mitchell, for article interviews, so I was delighted when he asked if I’d be a table host at the Glacier Conversations benefit in October. This is a chance to join Glacier enthusiasts and experts about their particular passion while raising money for their valuable projects. I’ve known many of the other table hosts for years, if not decades, and am tickled to be in company of a lot of truly impressive individuals.
If you’re in the area, join us for an evening of delicious food and terrific company benefiting a cause that is near and dear to so many of us. This is going to be a fun night!
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.
There’s good reason Iceberg Lake in Many Glacier is one of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park. With exceptional scenery, including a phenomenal wildflower display, it’s one of those trails that beckons you to keep going.
As part our of homeschool group’s Nature Club, we set up a hike for the weekend so more of the fathers could join us, ending up with 22 people, including 9 kids and a baby in a backpack. Moving this many takes more time than smaller groups, so we officially hit the trail by 11:30 a.m. enjoying absolutely perfect temperatures and bluebird skies. The kids led the way taking turns up front, stopping occasionally to allow the group to gather together, along with shedding the extra people who basically were caught up within our hiking train.
At 9.7 miles gaining 1275 ft. in elevation along the way, Iceberg is considered a moderate hike. The first quarter mile is a bit of a pull, but if you take it slow (especially with children) it’s simply a good warm up. From there it’s more rolling terrain that you barely notice being too busy looking at the outstanding beauty. Snow still hangs in the mountains above the green, lush valleys filled with flowers of all colors.
Beargrass dominated the scene this year with a display we only enjoy every 5 to 7 years highlighting the cycle for each individual plant. Huge swaths poured down the hillsides, and the air smelled mildly sweet from all of the blooms.
Not to be outdone, the bright orange Indian paintbrush put on quite the show in several areas, along with sticky geranium, mariposa lily, purple phacelia, valerian, thimbleberries, pink spirea, and the bright yellow cinquefoil. And where water was present in several areas, the ornate white bog orchids thrived along the side. Since many people consider orchids a purely tropical species, they’re surprised to learn that Glacier boasts 22 species of native orchids within its borders. This is just one of the beautiful example of these hardy and adaptive plants.
Since we hit the trail so late, it was a less than an hour before we stopped for lunch. Everyone was hungry, and the break allowed kids to chat and my husband to glass the slopes for mountain goats. Throughout the day he spotted well over 2 dozen on the mountains around us.
At roughly the 2.5 mile mark, Ptarmigan Falls is a popular place to rest and sometimes turnaround. But it was such a beautiful day that it didn’t seem nearly long enough to be out, and we continued down the trail to see if we could find snow. At another point past the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail junction (which was closed because of a carcass on the trail, plus the tunnel is weeks away from being opened) we considered heading back once again because impending rain looked to dampen our excursion. We had no problems with bears, even though we found distinct evidence of their past presence, and after enduring a brief storm with very big rain drops pelting us, we continued up the trail in search of snow.
Constant reports from hikers returning from Iceberg encouraged us forward, and heck, once you’re within a mile how can you turn back? Plus, the kids were going full steam, especially when we started running into the snow fields and avalanche chutes. Each one meant a new snowball fight, and as we were in total snow closer to the lake, they more resembled otters trying to cross the slick footing. The big game was who could remain upright. I joked with my friend that we traveled back in time during this hike. We started out in spring with beargrass and thimbleberries in bloom. Gradually we ran into glacier lilies, one of the flowers that bloom shortly after the snow melts, and eventually, we stepped back into winter.
Sam gave us a short report of the hike. It would have been longer except for a few technical glitches.
Iceberg Lake wore ice over 90 percent of its surface, and one of the kids learned how cold it was when he fell in up past his knees. Wearing jeans, he was chilled until they dried out on the way back. There were no brave hikers diving in that day like they do in the summer when icebergs on a hot afternoon are hard to resist.
As a lark, Sam and I put the GoPro under the water to gain a bit of perspective of the environment below the ice.
Since the boys were running out of water in their Camelbacks, we gave the new Katadyn BeFree water filtration bottle a try. So far we’re giving it a big thumbs up. The bottle section is soft, squishable, and lightweight making it easy to shove into the pack just to use for this purpose. It was easy to fill up the bottle, screw on the filtering cap, then carrying it to sip on along the way being able to refill at waterfalls and streams. It’s kind of difficult to keep in the bottle holders on the side of the backpack, but as long as you understand that, it’s a terrific way to have clean, cold water along the hike. And water from Iceberg Lake was delicious.
The return hike took on a brisker pace with few stops, except for potty breaks and to take pictures along the way, in an attempt to make it back to the car at a reasonable time since we had a 3-hour 15-minute drive ahead of us back to Great Falls. We were back at the trailhead within 2 hours and 20 minutes giving us enough wiggle room to swing into the camp store at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn for a few snacks to be on the road at 7 p.m. Instead of the leftover roast beef waiting at home, dinner consisted of Wheat Thins, yogurt, cheese, salami, and potato chips. Not exactly the healthiest fare, but it hit the spot with this hungry crew.
While going all the way to the lake wasn’t the original plan, I’m glad we did. The kids did phenomenally well, enjoying each other’s company and the ample snow for ammo. Sam already wants to return when the ice is gone and the icebergs decorate the water, so we’ll have to make that happen before the season is over.
I think the end of ice fishing season is within sight, especially if the record warm temperatures we’re flirting with persist much longer. Overall it’s been a fairly decent season for those of us who aren’t comfortable walking on water. From mid-December to mid-January the thermometer rarely cracked single digits, and we spent a whole lot of time below the zero F. mark; as a result, the ice, even on some of the more fickle lakes, is deep and solid. Even though the thought of falling through the ice evokes sheer terror in me, including dreams of such events on some nights before ice fishing, I’ve been comfortable on the ice this season. That says a lot.
Since Holter Lake, a reservoir about an hour south from here, is the place to be for perch fishing due to their record population numbers, along with some dandy trout, we ventured out for several attempts this year. Instead of bringing in dozens as in past years, we learned it’s why the sport is called fishing instead of catching. While we didn’t always come home with much to feed us, we did return with fun memories, which is what it’s all about anyways.
The first few times we ventured onto Holter it was extraordinarily windy. If Sam would have held the snow shovel firmly during one walk out to our fishing spot, I’m convinced he could have gained significant speed sliding across the ice. We were bundled in our winter gear, but the wind still cut right through us as we fished those first few of test holes. Once we decided to stay put, Grant set up the ice shelter and we stayed absolutely comfortable… especially with hot cocoa I brought along in the thermos.
When fishing is good, time passes quickly, but that’s not the case when the perch and trout are either not in the area, or seem to have lost their appetite. Today was one of those days. When we first set up, I caught a perch right out of the gate so we thought we were golden. I had another one on a short time later, but the hole had frozen over and it slipped off before breaking through the ice. Then it was crickets. To occupy ourselves I put on Luna the Wonderdog’s harness, and had her pull the boys (one at a time) on the runner sled. I had to run ahead of her to get her to go. I don’t think she’s going to qualify for the Iditarod anytime soon, but it was sure fun and heaven knows she needs the exercise.
For me, once the concern of the ice shattering below my feet pulling me into the icy water is allayed, it’s easy to have a good time whether we’re catching fish or not. In that respect, it was a good year.
One of my favorite interviews for this piece was with Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba who is the expert (I would say in all of North America, if not the world) on cold water immersion. He uses himself as a human guinea pig and performs research studies only found in my nightmares. But I’m amazed by his work and follow everything he does.
A lot of people think we’re nuts to be on the ice for hours during the winter, but as long as the ice is as safe as ice can be and we dress appropriately, it’s a good way to while away the winter days.
The cold that hurts is on its way. After a few days of relatively warm temperatures, meaning above 20 degrees F., it appears the deep freeze is on tap for the New Year.
Cold is not a new concept. Growing up in northeastern Ohio, it was common for me to play outside so long that my feet hurt to the point I had to go back inside to soak them in the tub before pulling my boots back on and heading out again. And, although typical winters didn’t amount to much, we tried to make the most of them. One year I fashioned snowshoes out of grapevine and yarn, and couldn’t wait until we had enough snow to try them out. Finally, drifts along the fence allowed me to tromp along learning the obvious flaws of my design and choice of materials. They made it a couple of hundred yards before disintegrating, but I was still enthralled with the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to walking on water.
Since moving to Montana 27 years ago, I learned about real winters. In Coram, the snow was so deep some years it required a front end loader to open up the drive going up to the greenhouse… in April. And I never knew Fahrenheit and Celsius evened up at -40 degrees until I saw it first hand. You could feel the cold coming through the walls that night. With months of weather that can kill you, you learn to adapt.
It’s all about the gear. With the right clothes anything is possible. When gathering ambient sound during a bighorn sheep rut during the filming of Giants of Jasper, it was -30 F, and at first I couldn’t believe we were actually going to film in those conditions. Yet, sheep don’t wait when Cupid reigns. Unfortunately, equipment does not like temperatures in that realm so it was a constant struggle keeping the DAT (digital audio tape at that time) running. As I sat there among the sheep, who milled around us like we weren’t even there, I coaxed the recorder to continue running by shoving it deep within the -20 F L.L. Bean parka, doing my best not to breathe and staying as still as absolutely possible. I also had to continually replace the chemical hand heaters since they don’t stay warm for long in those conditions. It was worth it, though, and was an unforgettable experience.
When I searched National Geographic for Giants of Jasper, I ran across these clips of some of the footage. It’s fun to see some of them once again.
This ram, in particular, was an impressive big boy:
Over the years, I’ve refined what works best for the given situation. It’s a balance between warmth and mobility, oftentimes with warmth winning, but newer materials make life a whole lot easier. I still have that -20 parka, but wear it only when it’s absolutely brutal, which hasn’t happened in years. So far this season, our coldest has been -23 F, but it’s nothing the 700 fill Marmot down jacket can’t handle, at least for short periods of time. When I’m heading to the barn during cold snaps like this, it’s typical to wear my Marmot snow pants (obviously I’m a fan of the brand), sometimes with Under Armor running tights, or truthfully, my fleece jammy bottoms because the one positive thing about the bitter cold is no one can tell underneath the snow pants! But that’s only for a trip to the barn. On top, I wear a thermal top, fleece, down vest, and the Marmot jacket along with a hat and mittens, my preference over gloves when it becomes really cold.
Boots are another serious consideration during this type of weather. I must admit, I’m very impressed by how warm the Muck boots keep your feet. As long as I’m moving, whether it’s walking or cleaning the stalls, my feet stay fairly comfortable. I also love my Sorels made by Kaufman and Co. in Canada that I purchased probably 25 years ago. I’m sure I found them in Banff one year, but I’m so disappointed they don’t make them anymore. My other heavy duty winter boot is a White’s pack boot meant for riding. The greatest drawback with this one is it takes a long time to lace it up versus just slipping it on and going out. As for socks, I go with wool. I adore my Arctic Alpaca socks from Alpacas of Montana, but since I wear heavy socks practically every day, I have an assortment of different brands. As long as they’re wool, I’m happy.
It’s been good to have a break in the weather in between cold spells to give us a chance to clean up. The chicken coop needed changed out, as well as the cat box in the garage. It also gave us all a chance to throw our cold weather gear in the wash to prepare for this next bitter round. Ready or not, here it comes.
While it is undoubtedly easier to snag a Christmas tree in town, for the past couple of years we’ve headed to the mountains to cut one out of the National Forest. We usually don’t come home with a perfect specimen, but walking through the woods, throwing the stick for Luna, and enjoying hot cocoa all make it a memorable experience.
This year I hoped to head towards Sun Canyon outside of Augusta simply because I wanted to see if I could find the bighorn sheep, but with an impending snow storm on the horizon, we choose to go to our typical tree-hunting grounds near Monarch in the Little Belt mountains. Many of the roads in the area are well-maintained, especially if there is a missile silo along the route because the Air Force keeps it clear, so it was an easy drive to where the best trees are found. Compared to other years, it didn’t take us long to find a suitable specimen. We did see one that looked nice, but it had a bird’s nest tucked in near the truck so we left it for next year’s bird family.
After cutting our tree, we tagged it with the permit issued from the Forest Service. Typically, they cost a mere $5 for each tree, but this year we were able to obtain one for free since our eldest is in 4th grade and took part in the Every Kid in a Park campaign. This is a wonderful program geared to encourage more kids to explore the outdoors. After answering a few questions, they are given a pass for the national parks (an $80 value), plus the Forest Service granted them a Christmas tree permit, as well. He was pretty happy to pull out his card to receive our permit the other day.
Since our search didn’t take very long we drove up the road to park to allow Luna and the boys to play in the snow. And, of course, the hot cocoa had to come out to warm their hands from snowball fights. It always tastes better when you drink it outside in the snow.
It was a quick trip this year, but it’s a mission accomplished. The tree is in the stand, and it’s adorned with lights. Now, as soon as the boys finish their schoolwork today, they’ll be able to decorate it. The Christmas season has officially begun.
I only started using hiking poles a couple of years ago after an avid hiker friend of mine told me how well they reduce the impact on your knees and joints during the descent. At first dealing with poles seemed terribly cumbersome, but it didn’t take long to find my rhythm and realize their benefit. Now I rarely hike without them.
My first set was an inexpensive twist-lock poles that did fine through a single season, but before long they didn’t remain extended very well, and one completely failed. Even the second set I received as a Christmas gift didn’t fare well this spring. It took only 3 hikes before one bit the dust. Of course, this is partly due to John smacking it on rocks and on the ground during our Grinnell Lake hike, but that’s all part of normal wear and tear, right?
So I took the leap and, after looking at several pairs, bought a set of Leki Wanderfreunds at Bighorn Outdoor Specialists for $79.95 each. That’s more than I ever thought I would pay for a couple of sticks, but the grips sold me. So much of our hikes involve a fair amount of down hill travel so I figured having ergonomic hand holds like these made the most sense for sturdiness and comfort. I discovered they surely did.
When we came down from Sperry Chalet on July 11, the switchbacks, which seemed so much steeper during our walk up, were easy to maneuver. I did have an issue tightening one of the poles, but figured it out to where it stayed in place for the duration of the hike. Plus, I am heartened that they have a 10 year warranty on the parts. I’ve read a number of reviews were the shock absorber system went out, but everyone said the company sent them a new part immediately.
Our latest trip to Preston Park in Glacier National Park gained roughly 1400 ft. in the 3.5 mile one-way journey, and the poles were particularly handy during the descent in several sections, and the boys thought they were pretty handy to use to hike up a snowfield.
The Lekis collapse into three sections to a total of roughly 24 inches, so they can be strapped to or stuffed inside pretty easily. Plus, they weigh less than a pound so their weight is negligible most of the time. So, if you’re looking for a decent pair of hiking poles, and I realize there are much heftier options, these are an excellent option.
Forget a spa day or a trip to Vegas. My friends are tough mothers. And I do mean this literally. Instead of kicking back in posh accommodations, every year we strap on heavy backpacks to test our mettle hiking into the ruggedly inspiring heart of Glacier National Park. Our first Moms’ hike was the long way into Grinnell Glacier; last year was the epic (and a bit smokey) journey to Granite Park Chalet, then over the harrowing heights of Swiftcurrent Pass; this year we miraculously secured reservations at the historic Sperry Chalet.
Built in 1913 as part of the chalet system created by the Great Northern Railway to encourage upper end tourist travel in the early days of the park, it is one of only 2 remaining. The others have since burned or were torn down by the park service over the years. The Sperry complex includes the large dormitory, dining hall, and very nice toilets which include a sink with running water where you can brush your teeth and wash your face at night.
After being closed from 1993 to 1999 due to sanitation issues (they were dumping the waste over the side of the cliff), once Granite Park and Sperry Chalets reopened after the hard work of the folks who formed a group called “Save the Chalets”, people understood the importance of these backcountry treasures. As a result, when the reservations open, it takes a considerable amount of computer savvy and patience to snag a spot. Three of us were on the computer as soon as reservation day opened in January, and it took at least 10 minutes continually attempting to submit the from before one of us was able to send in her request. Even so, she was still number 400+ in line, and was basically told, “We’ll let you know.”
After our confirmation, and paying the $171 a piece, we had 6 months of eager anticipation when we planned to work out, eat well, and be completely prepared for our July 10 trek. But being over- scheduled mothers and queens of procrastination, those plans melted into the realm of fantasy (except for one intrepid soul who managed to run pretty much every day). By the time July rolled around, we pulled our sorry selves together at the last moment, prayed the forecasted snow wouldn’t materialize, and headed to the west side of the hills.
We stayed with my longtime friend and former neighbor, Brenda, who has A Wild Rose in Coram. I was grateful she held rooms for us during this busy time of the year when an empty bed is hard to find anywhere near the park. During the evening we had a wonderful time visiting with her and planning our hike. We also walked down to my old place, formerly Shady Side Herb Farm, where I built 220 raised bed gardens out of stone in what seems like a former life. The house has since burned, but the shop where I sold my handmade dried arrangements, soaps, lotions, and other garden related goodies is now a cute guest cabin called “Mad Betty’s”. I love what Linda, the new owner of part of the property, has done to the place. We checked out the old gardens on the hill, and I’m shocked to see the lavender growing everywhere, as well as the oregano thriving at epic levels. Only the tough survive in these parts!
It rained Saturday night, but Sunday could not have been more gorgeous. Cool and damp conditions led us through the forest where everything was clean and crisp. We truly could not have asked for a more perfect day to hike. Brenda and I hung in the back for some time catching up over the years we haven’t seen each other in person while stopping occasionally to take in the incredible beauty of the area.
The first part of the trail is a pretty good pull that gets your heart pumping, but we took it fairly slow, partly because it was such a great opportunity to take photos. For a short while the trail is rather easy, then the switchbacks begin. I seriously lost count of how many there were. I remember one, then a really long one, then another and another. At one point you can see the chalet, but it dawns on you how far it really is, so it’s best to just keep your eyes ahead of you, which is really not hard to do between the abundant wildflowers and wildlife.
We saw a marmot and had a friendly mountain goat right along the trail where we were ultimately sandwiched between her and a trio of mule deer bucks. No one seemed bothered by the others’ use of the trail and for some time the goat followed us.
At one point we did need to step to the side to allow the mule teams to pass us on their way back down the mountain. The wranglers and their mules are the lifeline of Sperry to be able to secure supplies to keep the chalet running throughout the season. They had large plastic trash cans mantied, as well as odd-shaped items such as the propane tanks, to those sure-footed and rugged animals. A good wrangler can pack just about anything.
The last third of the hike up was slow and steady, and we were thrilled to see the stone buildings up close. Our greeting was warm and friendly with a big pitcher of lemonade to quench our thirst, and since we were famished several of us enjoyed an excellent bowl of chicken soup with homemade bread. Brenda was smart and grabbed a piece of the pie, which sold out in short order that day.
After finding our room, we scattered to read or relax for a few hours before hiking to Lincoln Pass in the late afternoon. This is the way we would’ve arrived if we would have hiked in from Gunsight on the east side, and after seeing the utter beauty of the area, I decided I have to make that trek some day, preferably sooner than later. We saw more goats along the way who were obviously not intimidated one bit by our presence.
By the time we returned to the chalets, we were all famished, and I think we were the first ones waiting outside the door of the dining hall for them to call us for dinner. It did not disappoint. We started with a Mediterranean salad and pumpkin curry soup (which I seriously need to reconstruct), followed by Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, broccoli, cranberries, homemade bread, and ended with apricot cake. Coffee or hot cocoa were the hot drinks, along with water or lemonade. I haven’t eaten that much in ages, but every bite tasted so good, I wasn’t going to worry about the calories I consumed. Everything was amazing, and I am beyond impressed at their cooking and baking skills.
Coffee hour started at 8:30 so we dashed back to the dining hall through the rain to sit by the fire, visit, and read. They had beverages for everyone, and made popcorn for one last snack of the evening. I skipped the cocoa and such since I really didn’t want to have to make a middle of the night trip to the toilets, but the popcorn tasted really good. One surprise we had was a couple of young men in their 20s who arrived right around 8:30. It had started to rain rather hard, and they were terribly ill-equipped wearing only shorts and t-shirts. I didn’t notice any backpacks, bear spray, or even water. The chalet always keeps a room open for wayward hikers in the case of an emergency, but they didn’t want to stay. With a 3 hour hike back down, in which it would be dark and most likely very wet the entire way, the cook at the chalet pulled trash bags over their heads (cutting a head opening at the end, of course), gave them coffee to warm them up, cookies for the trail, and flashlights for each of them. Being a group of mothers, we were concerned, but relieved that we didn’t find any bodies or hear of a bear incident after it was all said and done. This was the opening day of the chalet, and I have to wonder how many unprepared people the staff sees throughout the summer. I’m sure these guys were the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
One of the greatest treats of the chalet was to be able to sleep on the new mattresses. We were told these were the first new ones in 50-60 years, which is understandable since it’s no small feat to move out the old ones or bring in replacements. It would be tough to do, even on the best of mules, so they had to employ helicopters for the job. Knowing the park service, I can only imagine the heaps of paperwork and environmental impact statements required to accomplish such a task, but I am grateful for whomever took on the project. Although the temperature dropped considerably when the weather moved in, and there is no heat in the dormitory building, we were all completely toasty under the ample blankets of the beds. I think every one of us slept very well.
As is common in the park, the next morning was completely different than the day before. The clouds were so low we could barely see the dining hall from the dorm, and the mountains were completely obscured. Our plans to hike to Comeau Pass were thwarted for this trip, but we have full intention to do it the next time.
Breakfast was as wonderful as dinner with eggs, bacon, and pancakes all made to order. Lunches with sandwiches and extra goodies were prepacked for us and ready to go whenever we decided to hit the trail. Our hike back was much easier, and it was very comfortable despite the dampness. Once again, everything seemed clean and fresh with the much welcomed moisture.
After a pit stop at Lake McDonald Lodge, these happy hikers checked in with family and pointed the car east to head back to Great Falls. Of the 3 summers of “Moms’ Hikes” I have to say that this has been my favorite. It was a terrific group of friends, made extra special with Brenda joining us on our hike up (she took a nap and hiked back down – that’s nearly 14 miles – the same afternoon), along with excellent food, historic accommodations, and the incredible beauty of the area to create cherished memories. And now I’m ready to do it again!