Heading Through Glacier National Park (PNT pt. 3)
I entered Glacier National Park and for the first time in over a week I was alone. Those that I had been lodging with for the past two days strayed behind and I did not again see them. Instead, my peace was only broken by two women doing trail maintenance. They seemed to scowl at me as I walked past. I waved and kept my head down. Both of them were very pretty, but I suspected they were not pleased that I was hiking through on the muddy trail, ruining the tread. That, or I was simply ruining their own peace and solitude. Not many people could be entering the park from that entrance. I felt bad about the group of ten hikers about to descend upon them.
The rest of the day felt very casual; easy hiking through rolling meadows, lush with summer wildflowers, the snow capped peaks all around me and before me as I strode further into the valley. My dreams of mountains had suddenly been realized. I was home, and in a strange place. The snow on the peaks did not even look that bad, so I kept reiterating in my mind as I walked.
When I left the path the CDTers were following, I came to the swinging bridge across the Belly River. These bridges are quite fun to run across, but it is wholly undignified. As I saw a hiker upon the far bank repacking his pack, I regrettably thought better of it. He appeared to be an older gentleman who I estimated to be late forties, early fifties, and I rightly assumed that this was Eric, the other hiker starting the PNT. I stopped briefly to chat with Eric on the other side of the bridge and felt rather put off by the encounter, I felt tired and annoyed, as if I had been interrogated. I later found that I liked Eric, but first encounters are sometimes hard to gauge. I left the spot before he did and continued on.
On my walk, I lunched at a roaring waterfall down below the trail. The snow melt had it raging and it was a sight to behold. It was my first meal back on trail and I took a moment to absorb the familiarity of the thing, settling back into an old routine, watching the ants to make sure they did not get into my potato chip bag. Two women came up behind me and briefly startled my soul from my body. We laughed about it, and I begrudged being easily startled. They were starting the CDT, but had to go off their route to camp the first night because it was the only permit they could get. Technically our routes should have aligned almost until Waterton Lake, but again, because of the closure from the dead cattle, all the CDTers were doing an alternate and road walking around the park.
Eric passed at some point while I was lunching and the next people I met were another two CDTers who had to go off their route because of permitting. They had to go even further off than the two women I had just met a few hours previous. I sat with them for an hour and ate a snack, talking of what we would, and nothing very interesting at all. I found them rather odd, but I’m sure they found me the same. One of them was a rocket engineer, and I was impressed, though he could not have been much older than myself. The other worked at REI, which for all of us who work at REI meant there was a good deal of small talk to be had between us.
The Motivations of Park Rangers
I continued on and caught Eric in camp as he was finishing dinner. He sat with me as I ate mine and I quickly warmed up to him.
“I think Rangers like to make shit up,” I said, shaking my burrito like a fist. “I think they try to make conditions sound way worse than they really are to scare people off. Makes their jobs easier. But what it really comes down to is your comfort level. The level of bullshit your willing to put up with, right? You know what someone told me? Apparently a ranger said, ‘It’s your right to die in the National Parks.’ Told me that they can’t not issue you your permit, just try and dissuade you in going.”
Eric raised an eyebrow at that. “Everyone has a different skill and comfort level,” he said with a light Philly accent. “I think the rangers understand that.”
I just shrugged.
To the Pass
We camped next to the lake that night and in the morning everything had soaked through. Even our sleeping bags in our tents were wetted out. I was packed and heading out of camp as Eric began to emerge from his tent, a two person Nemo Hornet. Great tent, though the cutaway rainfly has always sketched me out.
“Aren’t you going to eat breakfast?” he asked me.
I held up a bag of trail mix as I began to walk out of camp. “See you up there,” I said.
The climb up to the pass was a slow six miles. I was overwhelmed by the sensation that the valley I was climbing out of looked uncannily like other valleys I had walked through in Glacier on my previous visit. That did not matter though, as I soon hit snow, just a couple of chutes at first, easily traversed, and clearly walked over by a grizzly with paws the size of my face. However, after a few switchbacks, the ground was completely buried. I soon found myself climbing straight uphill at a steep angle across the snow. I followed the grizzly tracks as they led me around a steep embankment and up to the second tier of the pass. The going was slow. I had to kick my feet deep into the snow and scrape out steps to move upward. Often I would step where the grizzly had, just to get a little extra purchase.
Upon the second tier I searched out the tracks and they led me along what would have been the trail were the trail unburied. It was at this point that I realized there was a smaller set of bear tracks intermingling with the larger. These smaller tracks were usually obscured within the track of the adult, but every now and then one of these prints would linger outside and be noticeable. I thought keenly of the allegory of following bear tracks…
You are walking along the path when you come across a set of bear tracks. As you follow them along the path you notice fresh scat, and then fur. Suddenly, you come around the corner and there is the bear. It eats you. The end. I’m not exactly sure that is how it goes, but you get the point.
I came to a stream crossing and as I started to climb the slope on the other side I realized there was no logical place to go. The track on Far Out said I was supposed to go around the embankment, which was nearly vertical. I could not see around it, so I backtracked, looked around, and then decided to go straight uphill to see what I could find. It was extremely steep, and each time I tried to step I would slide back down the slope. I had to work my way up slowly, digging steps, one at a time with my ice axe. The snow had softened on top, if it had ever frozen back over in the first place, but beneath that top layer of slush, was ice. I think this proved for the best with how steep the angles of slopes I was climbing were. I started to think about the ranger asking me if I had crampons. I wondered briefly if he might have actually known what he was talking about.
This went on for awhile. A long while, with which I should not bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, at some points I was frightened, and by the time I reached the third tier of the pass my right arm was spent from having to claw at the snow and ice with my axe.
I climbed out of the bowl of the third tier and stopped for lunch on a rocky melted patch. I was out of tree line, where the sun would hit for most of the day and was able to melt away the snow. Here I lunched and dried my tent and sleeping bag. The whole experience was quite satisfying and I felt myself growing more and more at home by the moment. I listened to Modest Mouse and watched the valley below for any signs of Eric coming up behind me. Suddenly I was taken off guard by a terrible roaring thunder. I looked around and saw nothing of it’s source, but I knew what the sound was. Avalanches were sliding off the slopes from the peaks around me in the bowl. I was out of harms way where I sat, but around the bend I heard several occur while I sat and ate lunch. After lunch I got up and continued up the pass, and during this time I saw at least a dozen small avalanches that would fill the valley with their roar.
Again, grizzly tracks led me to the top of the pass. I gave a shout of triumph as I cleared the top of Stoney Indian Pass and saw the frozen valley on the far side.
“Fuck,” I said, seeing the sheer drop I had to descend.
The trail was buried and there was only a vertical embankment of snow. Looking around I saw where the grizzly had made their way down. From the looks of it, the creature had clearly slid awhile. I groaned and worked at finding my own way down from further up and then coming back down across the slope, eventually meeting back up with the grizzly’s tracks. Following the tracks down the rest of the way I leaped and slid, the snow swallowing me with each step and too soft to attempt glissading down.
At the bottom of the pass sat a frozen lake. A frozen lake will make me nervous at the best of times, but the trail was just as buried and moved around the edge of the bowl up a steep snow covered slope. I was already tired of snow, though there was so much more of it to come. I looked out across the frozen lake and the grizzly tracks that clearly made their way across it. I figured that if the ice could bear the grizzly’s weight, it could probably bear mine. I tried to think of the exact physics of weight dispersion, a bear compared to myself. I figured that I had much more vertical weight concentrated on a smaller point, made worse by the heavy backpack I carried. The thought was not comforting and I held my breath as I made my way across. There was no incident until the other side. The fringe of the lake was thawed in a wet slush and my feet sank in, soaking them completely. I cursed and leapt out of the water, scrambling up the snowy bank and away from the lake.
I pushed down into the valley, out of the snow, and towards Waterton Lake. I was excited to arrive there, since I knew it had excellent cellphone service from my time on the CDT. As I came upon the resort there I spotted a black bear lying lazily among the dandelions, enjoying a feast there in. I began shouting at it.
“Hey bear! Hey bear! Hey bear!” I shouted at it, banging a stick on a tree. It just looked towards me like it couldn’t see me and went back to its meal. “Hey bear! Yeah, you, bear! Hey! I’m talking to you!” I picked up some rocks incase things got messy and started walking towards it.
Now, I knew in the moment that this was a stupid idea. Everyone had been saying that the bears had just come out of hibernation and would be hungry because of all the snow. The last thing you wanted to do was get in between a bear and its meal. Then again, that bear was in between me, cell service, and a place to sit down. I felt I could take it. I kept approaching, yelling all the while, sometimes hooting at it like a mad ape. I felt very ape like, asserting my dominance and right to the territory. I got within a dozen yards of the bear and I think that was when it finally saw me. It sprang up and loped away as fast as it could.
“Aw. Look at you! You’re so cute!” I began to whistle to myself contentedly as I walked down to the lake.
The bear had not run far and I found myself walking behind it down the path as it lumbered along, picking out a new patch of dandelions to settle itself down into. It heard me walking behind it, turned its head to look at me, then bolted. It occurred to me that even a mouse when driven into a corner will try to bite, but the bear and I just happened to be going in the same direction. I came to the gazebo and it spotted me one last time, taking off up the hill. I laughed with a bit of mad delight.
As I sat in the gazebo, updating the world on the trail conditions and my aliveness, the bear came back and lay down among the field of dandelions. I was content to leave him there, and for a while I had a friend.
Don’t Play With Knives
I moved on to my campsite after dinner, crossing over the Waterton River on another one of those swinging bridges. This time I ran across. I found that I was the only one in the campground. I waited and waited and Eric never showed up. I started to wonder at that. I wondered if the day had proven too long for him and maybe he had stopped at an earlier spot. Or, perhaps he had been taken by the spirit of the trail, as I was, and moved on to the next site, I having missed him since I was down at the lake. Either way, I found myself alone, and so I would be for all the next day.
In my tent that night I worked at patching holes in my tattered tent. I had been cutting strips of DCF (Dyneema composite fabric) tape with a pair of nail clippers and resolved that using my knife would be faster. I had a brief flashback to slicing a massive hole in my vestibule while cutting a piece of parachord in my tent, two weeks into the AT and over five years back. I reassured myself that I would be careful and try not to cut towards the walls. Cutting a huge fresh hole while trying to patch little old ones would not be without its irony. First try, I managed a deep slice into my thumb that bled readily. Instead of using the tape to patch the tent I used it to wrap my thumb after sucking on it and cleaning it out with water and hand sanitizer. A joke played in the back of my mind. Something about why I do not carry a first aid kit; because why would I need Band-Aids in the backcountry?
“I have my wilderness EMT certification and can make do with all the things I already have in an emergency,” I recalled telling my coworker Brenda, who teaches wilderness first aid. Well, that much would have to be true.
Miguel the Snowman
Brown Pass the next day was a much easier beast to manage than Stoney Indian. There was a dense and brief bushwhack at the base of the pass. A wall of snow blocked the trail around the small pond and I had to find another way. At the top of the pass I looked north towards the alternate around Kintla Lake. There was a warning on Far Out about its difficulty if there was a lot of snow. I laughed at the sight of it and moved on without a second thought.
Before a started to descend Brown Pass, I came across a swathe of the fresh snow from several days before. I could not help myself and I spent the next thirty minutes building a snowman. I had not done such a thing since I was little, and it was always a difficult thing growing up in Raleigh, NC, where at best the yearly snowfall is half an inch. I sang an off kilter rendition of Frosty the Snowman as I placed my hunting cap on the snowman’s head, dubbing him Miguel, my only friend in this lonely wilderness. Before I left, I said a little blessing over him and wished him luck as I continued on.
That’s Just Descending With Extra Steps
Descending the pass I made a very stupid decision, as I am wont to do on occasion. Honestly, it’s amazing that I am alive after all these thousands of miles on trail. Who is it that decided to leave me unsupervised like this? Anyway, I looked at the snow all around me, then I looked at my topos, and decided that the topos looked a lot less steep on the left side of the falls as opposed to the right side where the trail ran down. The trail eventually cut across the stream further down and would be on the left side anyway, so I figured that, if everything was covered in snow anyway, I’d be better off going down the left side.
I started my long descent and bushwhacked down about half a mile before coming to a cliff. Well, I had been in this situation more than once. It seems a common theme that my longer bushwhacks should go awry. I looked out across the falls, which were of course not crossable, and saw that the entire right side was melted out. The switchbacks were totally clear going all the way down from the top. Though it pained me, I began my ascent back to the top and descended down the proper side. There was a lot of cursing and fighting through dense shrubbery, some springy rhododendron type plant that grows in closer quarters and in abundance, chiefly barring my path.
Floods from Montana
Down the switchbacks on the other side I eventually came to the stream crossing. It was rushing, with falls crashing right into a deep pool in the center of the path. I stared at it blankly for several moments before finding a sturdy stick to cross. The pool was waist deep and the falls crashed into me, but the boulder that held in the pool slowed the rush of water out of it and there was no great struggle in the short crossing. I held on to my sturdy stick in case there was more crossings further on. I had not yet come anywhere I felt that there could be chest deep flooding as the ranger had warned. That could only come soon.
It turned out I was right and I came to a trail washout. The trail simply cut off, dropping at least seven feet vertically into the river. I searched upstream and bushwhacked a short way to a dead log to cross on. This was not possible at the next washout as I found myself fording a stretch of waist deep water. There were two more washouts along the way. These, however, only led to me bushwhacking and not having to actually get in any water.
Last Night in the Park
Eventually I made it to the Bowman Lake Head campsite. I would leave the park in the morning and have made my way through a day in advance of what my permit said. I had not seen anyone in the park since leaving Eric some nearly forty miles before.
As I walked into the campground I spotted a green, two person Nemo Hornet set up at one of the uphill sites. I whooped excitedly, but got no response, so I continued on.
Once I reached the main part of the camp I found a few others gathered around finishing dinner. There was a dad and his kid who had hiked in from the parking lot and were doing an overnight, and there was another guy in his mid thirties who had taken his motorboat in from the other side of the lake. Seeing these people was surreal to me and some of the madness from spending the last two days alone had not quite left me upon our meeting. I asked excitedly if the Nemo Hornet belonged to anyone.
“That’s mine,” said the guy with the motorboat.
I nodded. “It’s a great tent. I have heard good things. One pound, fourteen ounces. Pretty good for a two man.”
“What kind of tent do you have?” he asked me. An awkward question at the best of times.
“Uhm, I have the Protrail Li, from Tarptent,” I said.
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s a smaller company.”
No one at the campsite seemed much interested in talk, and we all parted ways soon after. I found my way to my campsite and settled into my tent, a light drizzle beginning to fall, and content to know that I would be out of the park in the morning.
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