A Windy Day in Two Medicine

Autumn is one of the best times to hike, but as the days shorten and the school season intensifies, it seems there is less time to be on the trail. That’s why I was determined to head to Glacier this past weekend for a longer hike before the snow flies. 

Rising Wolf overlooks Two Medicine

Knowing what to expect in the fall

Weather is a key consideration at this time of the year, and while it didn’t appear that rain or snow would be an issue, with forecasted gusts closing in on 40 mph, we knew wind was a factor. Our initial plan was to hike to Scenic Point, a roughly 8 mile round trip with 2300 ft in elevation gain, offering spectacular views of Rising Wolf and into the Two Medicine Valley since the parking lot is usually filled very early in the day in July and August.

Exploring the side roads

During the summer, the goal is to leave Great Falls as early as possible in order to secure a parking spot, regardless of where we want to hike. In the fall, it’s not quite as pressing so we pulled out of town around 6:30, and made a stop near Heart Butte to pick up my friend, Rachael. I’ve driven past the Heart Butte sign off of Hwy 89 thousands of times, but never ventured that direction, partly because it was out of the way on my focused mission heading to the park, but partly because Heart Butte is the type of town where a high school sporting event is called because there is a grizzly eating a horse carcass at the end of the field. Heart Butte is on its own level.

We picked up Rachael who took us up the road that ends up just outside of Browning pointing out families and events along the way. It’s about 10 miles longer, but it’s like being introduced to the neighborhood, plus I’m a big fan of local history and knowing the back roads.  Expanding the journey is part of the adventure.

Starting Scenic Point

After stopping to watch a little black bear cross the road on our drive into Two Medicine, we arrived at Scenic Point shortly after 9. I was relieved that there was only 1 other car in the parking lot. We made our way up the trail, yet as we gained elevation, the wind was more brutal, sometimes knocking us off balance. We walked past my favorite tree, a limber or whitebark pine that died years ago, mostly likely from blister rust. It is huge, over a foot in diameter, for this particular area, and I can only imagine what it’s witnessed over the years (probably centuries). With gnarled, whitened branches, to me it is the symbol of wisdom and experience.  

After being blown and battered for over a mile along the route, we decided to turn around and try Rockwell Falls, which primarily winds its way through the trees. By the time we returned to the Scenic Point parking area, there were many more vehicles, but what really surprised me is the main parking area at Two Medicine was full just before noon. We had to park in the overflow parking area. The camp store is already boarded up and winterized. Plus, the dock from the boat is out of the water,  and the Sinopah is already tucked away in its boat house. Even though there were still a lot of people, these are signs that the season is truly winding down. 

Opting for Rockwell Falls

The walk to Rockwell Falls was pleasant and easy. Squirrels chattered at us on occasion, and I was amazed at the numbers of fall mushrooms. I could identify the boletes, but there were many more I need to research. The meadows once filled with flowers were warm golds and browns, although a few hardy asters still offered nectar to the remaining bees and insects. 

The mushrooms were prolific

The large suspension bridge on the way to the falls is always a highlight with a goal of not making it shake like crazy while crossing it.

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The falls were particularly lovely flowing with more water than expected at the end of the season, and many flowers, such as mallows and arnica, still bloomed along its edges. We grabbed a bite, took a few pictures, then had to continue back in order to be on the road early enough to drive in the daylight. (I’m not a fan of driving after dark around here, particularly since the deer are more active lately.) 

On the hike back, there was a cow moose feeding in one of the far beaver ponds. It took some maneuvering in one area to see over the willows, but we finally found a good opening to watch her and take photos.

We made it back to the car by 4-ish so made it home long before the witching hour happy to enjoy a pleasant outing in the park once again. While I like to go to an area with a plan, this day demonstrates that having the flexibility to switch gears often works out better. There’s no doubt Scenic Point is beautiful, but by visiting Rockwell Falls instead, we noticed the fall fungi, was able to have more conversations (because the wind would’ve drowned it out otherwise), and see the moose on the way back. That’s what I call a good day. 

Side view of Sinopah

The Not-So-Cliché Harlequin Romance

Harlequin ducks are a treat to see in Glacier National Park

Although grizzly bears earn a lot of the hype in Glacier National Park, it’s truly special to watch the few harlequin ducks that migrate to this area on the western edge of their territory. When you think about it, with roughly 1000 grizzlies in the ecosystem surrounding the park, versus the maybe 200 harlequins that visit for just a few months out of the year, finding harlequins is the greater challenge.

Learning from the best

My eldest son, Samuel, and I had the benefit of a veteran biologist’s experience when we took part in the Glacier Institute’s class on harlequin ducks taught by local wealth of wisdom and phenomenal photographer, John Ashley. (On a totally different subject, John authored the book, Glacier Park National After Dark, and is the founder of the International Dark Sky Association – Montana Chapter.) John’s worked with harlequins for over 30 years so he knows his stuff.

After a couple of hours of classroom work discussing their lifecycle and research on the birds, we piled into the Glacier Institute’s van, and headed to the Avalanche Campground to park. Even though this was the middle of May, it was Mother’s Day weekend, and the area was packed. Watching the evolution of visitation into the park for nearly 30 years, these early crowds always amaze me.

Searching for harlequins

From there we walked and talked looking for the smallish, sleek, gray, brown, and white male ducks, which are easier to spot than the drabber female counterparts. Walking along Going-to-the-Sun Road at this time of the year is a treat. It is typically gated at Avalanche allowing bicyclists and hikers, including a growing number of people keen on finding these colorful ducks. It’s quiet, everything is that beautiful spring green, and is truly one of the best times to enjoy the park.

After strolling a short ways up the road, we spotted several solo bachelor males. Harlequins are unique as the female pairs up with a male while they’re on the West Coast, which is where they spend the bulk of the year, and return to the area where she was born to nest and raise the brood. They are always side by side swimming together, feeding together, and flying back up stream together. Even though they don’t have a mate, the bachelor males typically arrive in the Glacier area in April and early May, and while they try to woo females, it never works.

With a little more walking, as luck and sharp-eyes would have it, we saw a couple of pairs. Some were traveling down McDonald Creek, while another pair was feeding in a pool. At one point a bachelor male put the moves on the female, but she was having nothing of it, nor did Mr. Harlequin tolerate the situation, continually shooing away the upstart. Eventually, the bachelor gave up, continuing on his lonely way up the stream leaving the pair to feed in the deep pool.

The importance of research

Harlequins are fascinating not only because they’re beautiful and relatively rare for this area, but because there is still so much to know. John’s research, as well as additional studies over the years, provide a better perspective into the life of a harlequin. After tagging birds with a locator, scientists finally found some of the exceptionally well-hidden nests, and have a fuller understanding of their migration patterns. This allows researchers to know what type of habitat and protection these birds need to continue to thrive in this region. John, and many other scientists, continue to work with these small duck to ultimately preserve it for future generations.