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.

 

 

 

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