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.

 

 

 

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.