The summer of heat and smoke

With over a million acres of Montana up in smoke during one of the hottest and driest summers in memory, it was a challenging season for hiking or doing much outdoors. Even after a healthy dose of precipitation this spring, the faucet turned off by mid-June and when the heat turned up,  all of that beautiful greenery turned to tinder.  The terribly hot (even for me!) weather combined with smokey conditions, kept us grounded.

Sperry Chalet dormitory in 2016

The greatest heartbreak of this record fire season was losing  the dormitory at Sperry Chalet on August 31, 2017. The Sprague Fire, which had been of little concern for weeks, blew up on this fateful night and the firefighters couldn’t keep it at bay. We knew it was a special time when friends and I stayed there in 2016, but we had no idea those new mattresses we enjoyed would only last a year. Thankfully, crews have stabilized the stone walls of the chalet to brace the structure to endure the winter, with progress to hopefully restore the hotel continuing in the spring thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

The second challenge this year was the record number of visitors to Glacier. When we went on a hike to Red Rock Falls in July, the amount of traffic shocked me. Cars were parked probably close to a mile up the road from Swiftcurrent when we arrived back to the parking lot in the early afternoon, which was something I’ve never seen before. By the end of July to the first part of August, I began hearing reports of visitors being turned away at the gate at Many Glacier, as well as parts of the North Fork. At first I thought they were erroneous, but after folks I knew were turned away, I realized Glacier had reached its tipping point.

Even with the challenges of too many people and too much smoke, we still managed to enjoy a few good hikes. During the first part of July, friends and their kids joined the boys and I to hike to Aster Park Overlook in Two Medicine.  It was a super hot day, but we still spotted a moose and the kids cooled playing in Two Medicine Lake after our short hike.

Cooling off in Two Medicine Lake

In mid-July, 4 friends and I climbed up to Scalplock Lookout from the Walton  Ranger Station near Essex with a group of friends.  I’d been up there years ago on Kelo, but riding the nearly 5 miles with an 3175 ft. elevation gain is a far different experience than hiking it.

Scalplock lookout

We got a late start on a forecasted hot day, yet a breeze kept us comfortable most of the hike. Huckleberries also helped keep our interest and the bear grass was beyond gorgeous once we reached higher elevations. Even though it was a heck of a pull, it was absolutely worth it for the remarkable views at the top.

Views from Scalplock

At the end of July, a group of us – with all of the kids in tow – went to Red Rock Falls. Beautiful weather, lots of huckleberries, and a cow and calf moose right alongside the trail were the highlights of the day.

Cow and calf right off of the trail

In September, my best friend, Stefani, came out for a couple of days of hiking. The smoke was a significant concern, but we lucked out with a beautiful first morning. Driving into the Many Glacier Valley we saw an enormous grizzly – it was so large at first glance I thought it was a moose – in Sherburne Reservoir along the shoreline followed by a cow and calf moose farther up the road. After grabbing a delicious breakfast sandwich at Heidi’s in the Many Glacier Hotel, we hit the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail by 10-ish.  The Iceberg/Ptarmigan trail is always impressive, although it wasn’t close to the stunning beauty we enjoyed during our June hike to Iceberg with all of the bear grass in bloom.

Heading to Ptarmigan via the Iceberg Trail
Switchbacks going to the Ptarmigan Tunnel

Yet, you truly can’t go wrong in Glacier. From the cut-off to the Ptarmigan Tunnel it’s a fairly steady climb through the trees before opening in a cirque. Ptarmigan Lake would be a nice stopping point, although being so close to the tunnel, you simply have to keep going. The switchbacks are a bit of a  pull, but I stopped to chat with other hikers, as well as look for bighorn sheep and other animals.

Going though the tunnel

The 240 ft. long tunnel, which I’ve wanted to see for years, is definitely worth the exertion. It’s impressive, particularly since it was cut through the mountain in the 1930s, and you know there wasn’t the modern equipment used today. And even though we were hot from walking along the open, rocky slope walking through the tunnel quickly cooled us, and we were nearly chilled having a snack on the other side out of the sun. The views on the north end of the tunnel are amazing looking at Elizabeth Lake and the valley heading to Canada. I wanted to keep walking.

Elizabeth Lake
Smokey evening

We spent the evening at my favorite east side home base at the St. Mary KOA in one of their cabins. My friend, Jennifer, joined us that evening, and after a delicious dinner at Johnson’s Cafe (and to answer the question… yes their “good soup” is excellent), Stef and I hit the hot tub to soak our weary muscles before hitting the sack. With a sow and cub seen at the entrance of the KOA before we turned in, none of us made the dash to the restrooms in the middle of the night!

Dusty boots are the sign of a great day

Day two was the long way to Grinnell Glacier because, even though it was September (normally not a busy time), we could not buy tickets on the boat. I even tried reserving tickets days before we went over there. It demonstrates the level of activity anymore.

Black bears on the slope above Josephine

It was a beautiful, although hazy, morning and we enjoyed our walk along Swiftcurrent and Josephine. At one point along Josephine, we noticed the boat stopped, as well as a group in front of us, and once we got up the trail a ways, we saw the two black bears feeding up the slope. It’s always good to see.

Grinnell is a classic, wonderful hike in Many Glacier. It’s easy to stop and take photos along the way, plus wildlife is typically abundant. We didn’t see any grizzlies, yet we spotted moose, ptarmigan, and a group of bighorn sheep rams nibbling on the mountain ash. Grinnell Glacier, or rather the lake surrounding it, is magical. We hung out on the shore, and I was so warm that I dunked my head in the icy water before we headed back down the trail.

Banff Springs

One of our final, bigger trips for the season was a trek up to Banff.  One of my all-time favorite programs I worked on for National Geographic was ‘Urban Elk’ where we filmed the bulls charging people and generally wreaking havoc on the community. While the elk are still in town, and they remain problematic, it doesn’t sound like the situation is quite as harrowing.

Banff is as beautiful as ever, although the amount of humanity shocked me. (This seems to be the theme this year whether it’s Yellowstone, Glacier, or Banff.) It was mid-summer levels in mid-September. Of course, we had to tour the Fairmont Banff Springs, take my mother on a few short walks, and peruse the unique shops in downtown Banff.  We also explored the Cascade Gardens near the admin building. Even though a frost already nipped the blossoms, the incredible stone work indicated how gorgeous it is in the summer. I really need to go back to see them at their finest.

Love the street signs in Banff
Cascade Gardens

The summer didn’t turn out as I originally planned, by any means, and I decided  in a huff that I wasn’t going to make plans for 2018 just to cancel them. But after my little hissy fit, I can’t resist. In Glacier, friends and I have our eyes on a couple of overnight (or two) hikes, including a remote lookout. We’ll have to make a point to spend time there early in the season, or book somewhere to spend the night instead of trying to rush to a trailhead to find a parking space.  I also want to go farther north out of the touristy areas. Being in Banff reminded me of how much I love northern Alberta, so I’m already looking into options for the entire family to explore the area.

In the meantime, you’ll find me in the gym improving my cardio and strength, in the kitchen preparing dehydrated meals to take on our adventures, and undboutedly pouring over maps dreaming of a summer without smoke.

 

 

 

Kids’ hike to Iceberg Lake

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.

We had quite the line of hikers.

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.

Flowers lined the trail.

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.

Each beargrass plant blooms once every 5 to 7 years.

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.

White bog orchid
Thimbleberry, spirea, and valerian
Indian paintbrush, cinquefoil, balsamroot, mariposa lily

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.

Looking for mountain goats

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.

Bear sign (albeit old) was pretty obvious
The sign at Ptarmigan Tunnel Junction

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.

Glacier lilies
The first avalanche chute
The kids loved the snow

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.

Intrepid explorers at Iceberg Lake

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.

Giving the Katadyn BeFree a try

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.

Climbing the snow field above the lake
Hiking back

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.

A beautiful hike at any time of the season

Hike to the wildflower paradise of Preston Park

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.

St. Mary Valley
St. Mary Valley

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. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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?”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Giving the Leki trekking poles a try

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.Descending the Highline Trail

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.

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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.

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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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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Annual Moms’ Hike: Sperry Chalet 2016

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.

Sperry Chalet dormitory
Sperry Chalet dormitory

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.IMG_4558 (1)

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.

A Wild Rose in Coram
A Wild Rose in Coram

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!

Hitting the trail
Hitting the trail

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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.

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Crossing Sperry Creek
Crossing Sperry Creek

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.

The chalet from a distance
The chalet from a distance

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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.

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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.

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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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking at McDonald Lake
Looking at McDonald Lake
The dormitory
The dormitory

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.

The goat had to check her out to see what she was doing
The goat had to check her out to see what she was doing
Lincoln Pass
Lincoln Pass

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.Clouds rolling in

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.

This wasn't our room, but all were very similar.
This wasn’t our room, but all were very similar.

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.Low clouds in the morning

You can barely see the dining hall from the dorm.
You can barely see the dining hall from the dorm.

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.Hiking into the mist

Bear grass in the mistAfter 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!

Sperry Chalet
Sperry Chalet

 

 

Mother and son camping trip

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

Packed and ready to go
Packed and ready to go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Eagle Falls
Running Eagle Falls

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

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

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

Bird walk
Bird walk

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

Boat ride across the lake
Boat ride across the lake

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

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

Loving it!
Loving it!

 

Many Glacier in May

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running down the trail
Running down the trail

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

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

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

Climbing the big rock
Climbing the big rock

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Hiker/biker shuttle
Hiker/biker shuttle

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Winter Getaway

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

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

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

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

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