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.
In the first week of August we decided to brave the Glacier National Park traffic to hike to Preston Park for the glorious wildflower display. An earlier attempt, pre-insanity traffic level, was thwarted due to avalanche danger at the end of June. It all worked out since the botanical display truly couldn’t have been better.
As I mentioned, the greatest challenge for this hike at this particular time of the year is finding a parking space at Siyeh Bend. The 11 of us left Great Falls around 5:40 a.m. heading to Valier, where we discovered the gas station (and subsequently the much-needed restroom) was closed until 7 a.m. Since there’s no way many of us could have made it to Browning, we found the campground along Lake Frances. It’s good to know there is a back-up.
My friend Rosanna met us along the way, and then we condensed bodies and backpacks in vehicles at the St. Mary Lodge before continuing to the trailhead. We made it to the trailhead shortly after 9 a.m. and it was already pretty tight. It’s a good thing we didn’t dawdle, or we would’ve had to go with a new plan.
It was a chilly start, but a lovely walk along the creek. Not long after making our way along the vegetation, we gradually climbed in elevation through the forest. Huckleberries lined the trail, although ripe ones were sparse since the peak was at least a couple of weeks away. We did find thimbleberries to snack upon along the way, though, so Sam was happy to finally be able to try them.
It was just over a mile before we reached the first junction where we could either head towards Siyeh and Piegan passes, or mosey back to Going-to-the-Sun Rd. We went left to continue through the forest and meadows brilliant with a crazy riot of wildflowers. Along the way, we also had a good view of Piegan Glacier.
After just shy of another mile and a half, we reached the junction where we could go left for Piegan Pass (and ultimately Many Glacier), or veer right to Preston Park and Siyeh Pass. The kids were getting hungry by this time, but thankfully it wasn’t long before we reached a pond and stopped for lunch. It was a beautiful spot only sullied by the voracious horseflies that also thought it was a dandy place to be. They were vicious. John said he thought they would all look like they had chicken pox by the time we returned. After a brief lunch a few of the kids waded in the shallow, warm water trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the biting menaces.
The allure of Siyeh Pass was too much for part of our group who decided to hike the .9 mile (one way) to the top. Once they headed off, our group finished playing around the pond, then decided to try to reach a snowfield. I called off our first attempt as it led us through thick brush since it was an ideal place for bears to be snoozing. So we continued down the trail a bit longer in search of an area where we could access a snowfield without risking life and limb from waking a grizzly.
After crossing the creek by stepping from rock to rock and making a leap at the end, we walked to a nearby snowfield. It was a hot afternoon, and the boys were in heaven. Another couple joined us and asked me to take their photo at the edge of the snow before settling down for lunch. This was their mistake. Of course, if there is snow, there are snowball fights. John went to pelt Sam with one, and the unfortunate lady was positioned between John and his target. She caught the snowball upside her head. To say she was startled is an understatement, but thankfully she was gracious about the entire incident. John apologized profusely, and Sam even said he was sorry for his brother’s bad behavior. She said, “Who else can say they were hit in the head with a snowball in August in Glacier National Park?”
Before long we saw the rest of our party returning from the saddle, so we reconvened at the creek before heading back down the trail. I think we finally reached our vehicles by 3:30 or so. We made good time even with spending longer to explore the saddle and snowfields.
I have to say that the area around the stream and snowfield is some of the most scenic areas in the park. Our friends who went to Siyeh Pass said the views didn’t get much better, although I’m sure if you continued up and over to the other side there would be a brand new gorgeous view. I absolutely adored the abundant wildflowers and beautiful landscape. Without a doubt, we’ll be back to Preston Park.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.