Surrounded By People, Setting Off Alone (PNT pt. 2)
I entered Glacier National Park with a coterie of ten other hikers, of among the near thirty hikers that were staying at the Looking Glass hostel in East Glacier Village. I, sole among them, was setting out to start the Pacific Northwest Trail, an early season starter. The rest were all heading CDT sobo (southbound). Before arriving in East Glacier by train I had been in contact with another hiker by the name of Eric, who said that he would be starting the same day as I, and was looking for other hikers to split the cost of a shuttle to the Chief Mountain trailhead. Eric, however, as I found out from the hiker grape vine, was staying at the Glacier Lodge, and so I would not meet him until the first night on trail.
Arriving back at East Glacier and at Looking Glass was a bit surreal. I had only left the same spot by the same train, Portland bound, nine months prior. In my head I felt that there was an odd disconnect; that I could blink and the nine intervening months may not have even happened. In the absolute material realm of my existence, I was back where I left off, ready to continue walking, now headed west instead of north.
My stay at Looking Glass lasted two nights. My first night there I interjected myself into a group of other hikers who were planning on driving to the Two Medicine Ranger Station in the morning. One of the hikers, by the name of Steele, was, by his own admitted misfortune, only taking a week from work to hike the Glacier section of the CDT with his PCT trail family. Seven of them, including him, had made it to East Glacier as a group to start the trail together. He had a car though, and as East Glacier seemed void of tourists heading into the park, it was my own good fortune to be allowed to join them in grabbing permits.
When we woke the next day it was snowing; high winds and flurries that obscured the mountains. I had to pee the whole car ride to Two Medicine and was admittedly too afraid to pee beside the Ranger Station once we got there. Park Rangers have been translated in my mind as Forest Cops. I don’t trust them, they make me feel like I’m doing something wrong when they have no right to, and I have seldom had a good experience talking to one. Overwhelmingly, Rangers only speak to you at two times, first, when you are getting a permit, and second, to make sure you have that permit. Yeah, I get that it is their job, but no one likes a narc.
Holding it in
There were two rangers at the Two Medicine station issuing permits. The first was a stout blonde woman who seemed very insistent that the conditions were too bad, snow too deep, rivers impassable, and everyone should rethink heading out tomorrow. The other group spoke to her. I stood outside by the walk up style window speaking to the other ranger, a squat and scruffy bearded, dark haired man, who seemed incredibly nonchalant compared to his partner. I held my hands in fists under my armpits and tried not to shiver, lest he think me weak and refuse me my permit. The ranger was pleasantly surprised that I had been issued an advanced permit, since it seems thruhikers attempting to get walk ups is the norm. This was what the other group of seven was trying to do. It is admittedly what I did when I came through Glacier last year.
“Name on permit?”
“I got you here. You have bear spray?”
“An Ursack with the Opsack liner?”
“Ice axe and crampons?”
I blinked. Crampons? I’m not going to need crampons for this am I? “Yes,” I lied.
You got to be fucking kidding me. “No, I do not have wag bags. You think I will need them?”
“Well, all the campsites are still under winter status, if you can dig out the privies, that would be preferable, but if you bury it, it will just get uncovered when the snow melts.”
“No, I understand that. But, is there really that much snow?”
The ranger just shrugged. “Get yourself some wag bags before you head out.”
I nodded noncommittally. Looking up at the mountains the day before, the snow had not really looked that bad. Now they had a white dusting, but still it had been nothing worse than I had dealt with before. Also, I had lied. Twice, actually. I had micro spikes instead of crampons and I did not actually have my bear spray yet. I had just found out that morning that the hostel was reselling all the bear spray left in the hiker box from the year before. Ten dollars a pop. Kind of seemed like a scam to have to buy back my bear spray, but better than paying fifty dollars for a new can.
“Any other gear you got?” the Ranger asked.
“I have an Inreach Mini and one of those avalanche tag thingies.”
“It uses like LIDAR or something to find you under the snow.”
“A Recco tag?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
The ranger grunted, almost a laugh, and smiled at me like we were having an inside joke. “That’s not going to help you.”
I nodded solemnly. “I know, it’s for recovering your body. My stepdad bought it for me.”
The ranger grunted again. “Are you familiar with Stoney Indian Pass?
“Um, no. No, I don’t think so.”
“Alright, the route over Stoney Indian Pass is going to be high angle snow travel over three tiers of waterfalls. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I said, not really paying attention. The group that had brought me to the ranger station was heading back to their car.
“Don’t worry, we won’t leave without you!” they called out. Thank god, I was freezing.
“Have you already seen the backcountry video?”
“Huh? Oh, uh, yes.” If you have never seen this video, it has the very iconic line (“When the bear starts to eat you.”)
“Alright, let me write down your sites. Do you have any other questions?”
“Are the bridges all in along the route? Belly river and Waterton?”
“Belly river is, let me check to see if Waterton river is up.” He went back and made a phone call, coming back a moment later. “The bridges on your route are all up. Here, come inside and check that these are all right.”
I walked into the ranger station out of the cold and did a cursory glance of the sites the ranger had written down on my permit.
“Seems right.” I said quickly. I did not want to hold up the others.
“And what’s the first thing you do when you get to camp?” interjected the stout blonde ranger as I was starting to go.
“First thing I do when I get to camp? Set up my tent, hang my food, and get into my sleeping bag as quick as possible to get out of the cold.”
“Close,” said the ranger I had just got my permit from.
“Are you sure you have seen the backcountry video?” said the other ranger.
I just looked at them, confused.
The ranger who gave me my permit sighed.
“Hang your food first when you get to camp. We don’t want people eating in their campsites.” The whole thing felt a bit patronizing.
“I eat before I get to camp anyway,” I said as I backed out.
In the car I found that the other group had not gotten a permit. The female ranger had talked them into waiting another day, despite their being plenty of space in campsites. They ended up getting a permit for the next day anyway, and we all got a shuttle together to the trail, but I’m not really sure how all the details worked out in the end. We drove the long winding road back to East Glacier and the moment the car stopped I ran inside and took the longest piss of my life.
Hikers in Waiting
The group of us had woken up early, so we had the rest of the day to twiddle our thumbs and stare at walls. I figured I would not be having much human interaction once I left the hostel, so, naturally, I went about trying to become friends with everyone. For starters I got four people to play D&D with me. Mostly again from that group of seven who were all starting together, but three of the four players already had prebuilt characters on their phones. As I had a forty page word document of lore and setting notes I had been working on for the last month, it all came together crisply. The characters were Terry, Widdershins, Billthalas, and Kreeser. I, unfortunately, do not remember the race and class of all the characters, but we all joyfully spent the next two hours roleplaying out the slaying of a water elemental in the flooded Tanath forest in the land of Zarathustra. That’s Zoroastrian, not Niche, thank you very much. The elemental was slain from the inside by an eldritch blast through the head. Other details are escaping me.
The rest of the day was spent slowly going mad. Even more mad, I should say, and not very mad at all, considering the coming days. I spent my time drifting in and out of conversations, getting to know strangers I may or may not ever meet again. We talked of books, of beautiful places, what is happening in space and on earth, of past loves and the ones who got away, of stupid decisions, of smart ones, and, of course, of the mundane.
Jared (B-minus), my friend from the train, was going to go off with some other folk (Spoon and Mowgli) to go get permits from the Apgar Ranger Station. B-minus planned to start his CDT sobo from the west side of the park and tag the Waterton Lake border monument, before crossing to the other side and heading south for the road walk. The southern half of the park was closed because, reportedly, twenty cows had walked up into the valley and frozen to death over the winter and now their rotting carcasses were attracting bears. All of the CDTers were having to do an alternate around the edge of the park coming out at St. Mary’s.
Well, turns out B-minus has a friend he is starting with who is already over in West Glacier and he grabs the permit for the two of them. As night rolls around, B-minus and I are hanging outside and he shows me a text from his friend. Another park ranger apparently chewed out the ranger that had issued B-minus’s friend the permit, citing chest deep flooding north of Bowman Lake. This is, of course, my route.
“I don’t believe it,” I said, shaking my head.
“It’s probably exaggerated,” B-minus replied with a shrug. “Having been a ranger, I remember the kinds of things we would say to discourage people.”
“Chest deep flooding, huh? Sounds exciting.”
“Apparently the ranger tracked my buddy down to tell him. And when my buddy asked why they issued him the permit, then, the ranger replied, ‘everybody has a right to die in the national parks.’”
“It’ll probably be fine.”
“Yeah, you’ll be good.”
“So when we cross paths on our way through the park I’ll know that the flooding isn’t actually that bad.”
“We’re actually thinking about getting a new permit.”
I walked back inside and sat down to think. All-In came up to me and asked how I was doing. I told him. I liked All-In. He had a certain charisma and had done the PCT the same year as me, though we had never met.
“You’ll figure it out,” he said. “Have you looked at the topos?”
“I don’t even have them downloaded,” I said. “But it’s a valley and I’m worried it might have some sheer walls on the side of the lake the trail goes.”
All-In nodded sagely. “Go outside and download the topos.” There was wifi at the hostel, but you could not access it unless you were outside. I went outside and downloaded the topos. “How’s it look?” he asked when I came back in.
“It doesn’t look to bad, actually. Looks like I could bushwhack uphill of the trail if it’s really flooded. Doesn’t look too steep.”
“There you go.” He took a look at the topo. “That doesn’t seem too bad.”
This was vitally important. Bowman Lake was my exit point, and if I could not go out it, I would be backtracking all the way out the way I came. That would add on at least two or three extra days.
“It’ll be fine,” I muttered to myself. B-minus came with me while I went to grab an extra day of food from the corner store. Just in case.
Adventure Waits for No One
I said my goodbyes. Gave away the weed I had been gifted and the tobacco I had bought on impulse.
“Nah, I can’t take that from you, man. You’re gonna need it,” said Spoon.
“I’m gonna be breaking trail, and I don’t really smoke anymore,” I said. “I don’t think I should be stoned at all during this next section.”
“That’s a good point,” said Spoon. “But are you sure?”
“I’ll take it!” Mowgli spoke up.
I handed it over to him with a grin and a nod.
“Ah, alright,” said Spoon. “Thanks, Captain Jack.”
And soon the rest of us were off on our way to the park entrance. It was an hour and a half drive to the Chief Mountain trailhead. The morning was pristine. Beautiful. A rainbow rose from the valley as we drove up the mountain pass. The rainbow rose up, up, out of the valley like smoke.
Try Not to Piss Off the Canadians (Please)
As it happens, CDT sobos start at the same spot as the eastern terminus of the PNT. It’s easier to start from the Canadian border there than to hike all the way into the park and tag the border at Waterton lake. We were being driven up by a Blackfoot man from the area, I believe his name was Ty, and he had just started to warm to us and tell us stories of the area and his tribe, when we arrived at the trailhead.
“The monument is over there,” Ty said, pointing out of his windshield and letting us out of the truck. “Just don’t cross the gate. It pisses them off.”
As a horde, eleven of us made our way down to the border monument and started taking photos, the now iconic border cut in the background as we each in turn posed with the monument. I did not even see the Mounty approach.
“Did the Americans say you could be over here?” he snapped at us in that crisp north woods accent.
Everyone froze and fell silent, looking at each other in confusion.
“No, I guess. We were just getting pictures with the monument. We’re thruhiking the CDT,” someone said.
“Well, you better get back on the other side of the fence. Otherwise the American’s will come down here and raise all kinds of hell. You’ll be in real trouble then.” The Mounty was clearly very upset.
“Sorry, sir. We didn’t realize, sir. Of course, sir.”
Two things occurred to me at that moment. First, we had all crossed the fence after being explicitly told not to, whoops. And second, there was another monument, on the other side of the gate, on the other side of the road and we had all missed it. I could not help but laugh out loud when I saw it, which I immediately realized was a mistake, as the Mounty huffed, pulled out his phone, and started to call someone. I booked it back up the hill and into the woods as quick as I could. The rest of the party stopped and spoke of all getting high before setting off. I only shook my head and thought of government spooks before vanishing down the trail and never seeing any of them again. And so, the journey had begun.
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