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.

 

 

 

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!