Throughout this road trip it has been an unofficial mantra of mine. I repeat time and again, “If only it were twenty degrees warmer.” If the mantra varies it is only to increase the temperature. “If only it were forty degrees warmer.” I never did specify what would happen if it were to become warmer. It was just a general desire to be more comfortable. And to be comfortable wearing less clothes. Montana was the answer to my dreams. Not right away and not all the time but I did dig out my flip flops and cycle my tank tops to the top of the clothes bag. What a relief to know that we didn’t miss out on summer as we know it entirely!
Our re-entrance to the United States was as smooth as silk. Aside from the standard inquiries about our vegetables (half a bag of potatoes) and guns (sexy biceps) the only thing the border guard wanted to know was what we did for a living to be able to afford this road trip. I think he was a bit disappointed to find out that we were just a couple of humble civil servants with a knack for living deeply within our means. Having cleared customs with little fanfare we headed into Montana to seek out a place to sleep for the night. We pulled into Upper Stillwater Lake Campground after dark to find ourselves the only people in the campground. This was a free campground with pit toilets, fire pits and poles upon which to hang food for those camping without a vehicle. We used our Maglite to explore the different sites available to us. We chose one that looked like it would have a lake view come morning and deployed the rooftop tent. Upper Stillwater kept our attention for three nights. Scott used the time to work on his music projects and I migrated from one patch of sun to the next trying to stay warm. The two highlights from this campground were the minks who frequented the beaver lodge by the boat ramp and the nearby running trails that lead to beautiful and deserted lakes.
We had been reading about the wildfires that were affecting Glacier National Park and had considered passing it by and heading straight south but we had bought an annual National Parks Pass and felt like we needed to break it in (all of the national parks we visited in Alaska were free). We popped in to the west entrance to find that most of the open trails were best accessed from the east side. We hung around there and used their free (and super slow) Wi-Fi long enough to publish a blog post before heading over to the visitor’s center on the other side for good trail recommendations. When we arrived, the visitor’s center was closed for the day. All of the land outside of the park on the east side belongs to the Blackfeet Indians. I didn’t feel comfortable poaching camping on the reservation without an invitation so we opted to try our luck finding a spot in one of the official campgrounds in the park. When we pulled in the sign said “full.” We drove in anyways just to check it out and lo and behold they still had one site free. We snatched it up and set to cooking up potatoes and toasting to our good luck.
The next morning, we went to the visitor’s center and Scott took the reins on planning our hike for the day while I stared at my phone with the fervor of a person who has been outside of cell service for a week. Scott found us a point-to-point hike linked by a free shuttle that would have us circumnavigating Going to the Sun Mountain. It was an 11-mile hike with about 3000 feet of elevation gain. We shared the shuttle with a couple who had just finished the hike and they told us about the 800 lb. grizzly bear they saw digging feverishly just below tree line. This excited us as we still had not yet had a brown bear sighting on this trip. Maybe this would be our lucky day! As usual, we were getting a late start. We hit the trail at 2:30pm. If we kept a good pace we had a high chance of getting back to the truck before nightfall. We had not hiked more than a quarter mile before we passed a sign advising that we carry bear spray and know how to use it. No problem, we were old hands at this bear country hiking thing by this time. We were both packing a can of spray and knew enough not to rely on the tinkling of bear bells to herald our arrival in their habitat. To make the bears aware of our presence on this hike we took turns making up marching songs inspired by Bill Murray in the movie Stripes. Luckily, we didn’t pass too many other hikers. As the trail ascended out of the trees and up along a saddle next to Going to the Sun Mountain we kept searching the landscape for a brown bear sighting of our own. We eventually had to abandon our search and focus our energy on not being blown over as the wind strength increased with the rise in elevation.
Following the switchbacks, we continued up past the saddle and around the mountain top to behold one of the most pristine landscapes of our trip so far. Vibrant jagged red mountains layered with golden peaks surrounded a green valley with a meandering stream flowing out into the distant plains. Shadows of clouds raced over the mountainsides. There was absolutely no evidence of human activity in that view. No trails, no distant roads, no powerlines, no dams in the river. We had a rare glimpse of mother nature untainted by the hand of man.
We took shelter from the wind under an outcrop overlooking this magnificent view and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with frozen fingers. We lingered as long as we could stand but the wind eventually found us huddled under those rocks and scoured us off the hill. We turned from that beautiful view to another beautiful view. The trail took us past krummholz and folded layers of rock in shades of red and purple. Add to that vast glaciers clinging to distant canyon walls, pouring their meltwaters into the river below through delicate waterfalls and that is just a glimpse of the beauty we had the pleasure of passing through.
The wind was unrelenting as we descended through the canyon. I had to hold my hat to my head for much of that section of the hike. It whipped our voices away from us as we had moved from marching songs to trading off singing songs by The Who. We were passing evidence of recent bear activity (fresh scat and excavated squirrel holes with moist soil piled nearby). It is especially important to make noise when in areas of thick brush, when near a stream and when it is windy. We were walking through the perfect conditions for surprising a bear. Once we had exhausted our knowledge of The Who we moved on to singing the songs provided by my mental radio (which is stuck on the seek function through the best and worst of the eighties). It might seem odd that we were so bent on seeing a bear yet taking every precaution to alert the bears to our presence thus reducing our chance of seeing a bear. It is all about the distinction of having a bear sighting and not a bear encounter. Our efforts worked. We arrived at the trailhead for Sunrift Gorge, where we left our truck without any ursine interaction. Could have been fun!
That night we headed towards the Two Medicine Lake area of the park to try our luck with finding last minute camping. This time a full campground really was full so we headed out of the park and got a site at Red Eagle Campground. It was far nicer than the campground in the park. So much more privacy and we had a little stream running through our site. The only down side was that the facilities were standard outhouses that had been recently serviced. They had overfilled the catchment which caused some unfortunate blue splashing upon an unwary user… Anyhow, we enjoyed our stay there but wanted to get one more hike in at Glacier before leaving the area. We packed up that morning and moved camp into the park that now had some availability. We found a trail that left from the campground so we set up camp and headed out. It was a real treat to know that we would be returning from the hike and our house would be already built.
We decided to take a mellow 10-mile hike to Upper Two Medicine Lake that day. It had only about 300 feet of elevation gain. Literally, a walk in the park! Before we left, a volunteer ranger named Pam dropped by our campsite to have a discussion about what bear safety means in the campground. She was preaching to the choir but she peppered the conversation with enough wildlife trivia that we were enthralled. Also, cute stories about her kids singing show tunes to ward off bears on the trails led us to feeling we had met a kindred spirit. Pam let us know that the bears were in a state of hyperphagia (eating 22-24 hours a day) in preparation for hibernation and that the berry crop was less than bountiful that year so they seemed to be a bit more volatile as of late. Cool. Good to know. Pam left our campsite with a twinkle in her eye telling us that she was glad we came to Glacier Park. She said people come to the park for a reason and that we were meant to be there for one reason or another. Fair enough. We left our camp in search of a gentle hike, and perhaps, some of the profundity Pam had alluded to. The hike was a complete divergence from the prior day’s high alpine pass. We sauntered over soft duff in the forest communing with benevolent grouse and gregarious chipmunks.
The views were few and far between but the vibrancy of the forest made up for the lack. The trail was heavily trodden. We passed other hikers every 15-20 minutes. Some of them had seen bears (!) and some of them were focused solely on the patch of trail directly under their noses. When we approached the area where bears were reported we slowed down listening to the sounds of the forest hoping that we would get a glimpse. We heard cracking of branches but saw nothing. We were at a junction where we could continue on to Upper Two Medicine Lake or we could change our plans and climb a somewhat significant pass to visit No Name Lake. Scott asked me what I would choose if he weren’t here. I was feeling empowered by the relative ease with which we had crossed the prior day’s steep adventure and said that I would go up the pass for sure. So, we changed our plan at that moment. No longer were we going for a flat 10-mile hike, now we had a somewhat significant climb in our immediate future. The switchbacks were steep and well-engineered. We met a handful of other hikers headed the opposite direction. All of them were overtly exhausted. Some were hoping to catch a boat ride back to the trailhead from one of the tour boats that cross Two Medicine Lake multiple times each day. We were breathing hard and making up silly songs about bear poop when it happened. I call it “The Chuff.” I was about three feet in front of Scott, surrounded in brush that was thick and tall when an incredibly loud huffing exhale coupled with a ground slap that reverberated into my very soul stopped us in our tracks. We had invaded the personal space of a grizzly bear. I found myself about 6-7 feet from a bear that was not happy with my presence. I could not see the bear through the bushes but there was no doubt in any cell in my body that we needed to leave. We told the bear that we couldn’t stay and slowly backed away. I kept looking back at Scott making sure he had the bear spray out and ready. He did. Once we had increased the distance between us and the bear we paused so that I could get behind Scott. I must admit that the idea crossed my mind much earlier to grab him and use him as a human shield but I resisted. It must be love. Eventually we turned around and hiked back the way we came. We left that trail without seeing a lake and without a bear sighting. But we did get our bear encounter.