Sunday, September 20, 2015

Gunsight Pass

A classic overnight backpack in Glacier National Park- Gunsight Pass.  WITH FRIENDS!
Hitchhiking from McDonald Lodge to Jackson Glacier Overlook.
Deadwood Falls.  We hypothesize that they have given the prettiest places in Glacier unattractive names for the purpose of trying to decrease visitation.
One at a time.
Just as we were wondering what makes a glacier different from a snowfield, we meet three volunteers who can answer our question: glacier MOVE, and are greater than 25 acres.
If gale force winds weren’t making us feel unstable enough, remains from a recent snowfall keep us conscious of gravity.
Why are the rocks so many colors?  No geologists showed up to answer this question, unfortunately.  Will need to research geology references for this area.  Anyone have recommendations?
Having trouble fitting all this NATURE into my camera.
"Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower." -Albert Camus
Folded strata of Gunsight Mountain.
Switchbacking down the cirque to Lake Ellen Wilson campsite.
Habituated mountain goats circle our campsite during the night and brush against tents/ tarps, seeking salt from our urine and sweat.
Another camper reported being stalked by goats on his 3 AM trip to the privy.  He joked about it in the morning, but said it wasn’t funny when he was in the pitch dark wearing only his boxer shorts!
Overall, this was a gorgeous hike and I'm delighted to return to Lake Ellen Wilson after my first "failed" attempt to camp here.  Much better this time with friends. 

More on mountain goats
Reading Chadwick's A Beast the Color of Winter, has given me a much better understanding of the goats.

Read Glacier National Park mountain goat action plan here.

Here is another article about the habituated goats in Washington with more about why they are attracted to urine. 

Do your part around habituated goats-- try to pee in the privy, and if not be sure to pee on rocks (to prevent goats from digging up plants).

Kintla to Bowman, Part 2

Every backpacker we passed our first day told us about the grizzly at Hole in the Wall campsite.  
We had permits our second night for Hole in the Wall Campsite.
Some said they passed close to him on the spur trail between trail and campsite.  Others said he hung around the food prep area at the campsite.  A few said he was a “friendly” bear.  None of this sounded good to me.  I’d rather stay far away from grizzlies.  Twice I have not camped in sites that I had reserved after learning of bear activity there the night before.  But D. was excited about seeing a grizzly and wanted to get a photo.  And we had one more mountain goat survey.

When we descended into camp, we got lucky and the grizzly was far away from the camp and trail.  We met M. who had been watching the grizzly and we were glad to be sharing the site with another camper.  We turned into bed early.

M. had a story in the morning though!  When he’d unzipped his tent at about 6:30 AM, the grizzly was right outside his door.  After a moment of being face to face, the grizzly ran off. 

After packing up, D. and I scanned the valley with our binocs to locate the grizzly before we left camp.  Hole in the Wall campsite lies at the bottom of a hanging cirque lined with huckleberries like a huge berry bowl with the main trail at the rim of the bowl.   Would the grizzly be on the spur trail that we needed to take back up to the main trail? 

“There are two grizzlies now!” I am horrified.  We watch them move closer together, foraging for berries.  They bluff charge each other, and their grunts and growls can be heard all the way across the valley. 
Two grizzlies!  Photo by D.
It is like watching a nature video, but it is real and there is no screen.  Boundaries of trail and campsite are an illusion.  Was the territorial behavior causing hormones to surge in their veins?

The other campers all agree to hike out past the grizzlies together.  The five us us form a tight line.  We loose sight of the bears as we drop down into the bowl.  We sing and make noise, bear spray clutched in our hands.  Ever turn is a blind turn. 
D. leading the way with her bear spray out on the narrow trail.  She's one brave woman.
And then, there he is, right above the trail behind some small trees, right on the switchback.  JUST KEEP WALKING AND DON’T LOOK DIRECTLY AT HIM.  We hold our formation, tight, bear spray out. 
Of course we were all gripping our bear sprays, so no photo, but the grizzly, like this one, was right behind the small trees directly above the trail. Artwork by Bev Doolittle.
There he is, so close I could reach out and touch him.  The grizzly could reach out an touch us too.  But he doesn’t.  Then we are past.
Looking back at Hole in the Wall Campsite after we made it past the first grizzly.  I remember having a vague sense that the area was scenic and that I was missing the beauty.
Where is the other grizzly?  A steaming pile of scat on the trail provides part of the answer.  I spy him down below the valley below Brown Pass.  Or is it another grizzly?  How many are there? 

At our goat survey site, the other hikers hurry ahead.  I scan the cliffs for goats while D. keeps her binocs trained on the grizzly.  He’s grazing for berries and moving in our general direction.  I’m suppose to look for goats for a full hour.  I manage two full scans of the cliffs.  My pulse thundering the minutes ticking by.  It’s only been 15 minutes but the grizzly is now too close.  We abandon the survey and hike on.
Going down Brown Pass, happy to be leaving the grizzlies to their berries.
I don’t understand the people who called them friendly.  That strikes me as disrespectful.  On the other hand, it was fascinating to watch them so long through binoculars across the valley.  To see how fast they ran when they charged each other.  I wonder if it was right to camp there though.  They have so little space.  I felt like I was encroaching on their home, overstepping. 

Moving to Montana, I didn’t realize the ramifications of being in grizzly territory.  I know my imagination probably runs too wild.  Statistically, problems are rare, and I’m still much more likely to fall off a cliff or get hit by a car.  Maybe it’ll get easier over time.  This place is so gorgeous, it feels worth it… at least most of the time.

Kintla to Bowman, Part 1

The backpacking trip from Kintla Lake to Bowman Lake over Boulder and Brown Passes is one of the most spectacular in Glacier National Park.  We didn’t know if we’d see anything with all the fires, but we were signed up to do mountain goat, loon, and pika surveys for Glacier’s Citizen Science Program, so we decided to brave the smoke.
Still Waters, my old (hiking) partner from way back when, drove up from Colorado to visit.   
I was also backpacking for the first time with D., another citizen science volunteer who would be showing me how to do the pika surveys.

Kintla and Bowman Lakes are tucked away in far northwestern part of Glacier National Park.  The unpaved North Fork Road out there is notorious for being washboarded out— but it keeps this area quiet and preserves the experience.  We drove out the night before our backpacking trip to car camp at Bowman Lake.
Hanging out at Bowman Lake Campground
The smoke was thick above Kintla and Upper Kintla Lake.  Fortunately, it didn’t interfere as much with our surveys but at times it felt like it made it harder to breathe.
Smoky surveys.
We didn't see pikas or hear their characteristic "eek" calls, but we did find their little round scat.  I'm sure you're glad I'm including this exciting photo.
Smoky but still gorgeous views on the Boulder Pass Trail.
Feeling on top of the world at Boulder Pass.
For the excitement on our second night...  See Part 2...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Harrison Lake in Glacier

My original plan had been to hike in the Bob, or a section of the CDT in Montana.  But with all the fires, I can't figure out where to go that isn't closed.  Smoke is thick and I can't think straight and I just want to be hiking.  So off for another mountain goat and loon citizen science survey in Glacier National Park, because at least that way I'll know I'm doing something worthwhile.

10 AM 
I see him before he sees me.  I say hey bear and he runs off.  I like that.  It is reassuring that not all bears here in Montana are bossy and bold like that one from the Highline.
Doing loon and mountain goat surveys for Glacier's Citizen Science Program.
4:40 PM
At the head of Harrison Lake, one adult loon is swimming and diving.  I record the time and location on my survey sheet.  Then, I loose sight of him. Where could he have gone?

5:03 PM
At the mountain goat survey site, I see no mountain goats.

5:34 PM
Still no mountain goats.  Oh well.  I tried.

6:46 PM
Back near the campsite, on the shore of the lake, looking for the loon again.  Instead, a moose on the far shore perks its ears, looks around, and walks into the water.  It’s swimming!  Then, it starts swimming in my direction.  Do you know how fast moose swim?  Why is the moose swimming towards me?
That speck is a moose and it's getting closer.
I get scared when I remember stories I've been told of aggressive moose.  I don't know anything about moose.  Was it just out for a dip to cool off?  Or was it coming to check me out?  Are they territorial?  What are you suppose to do if you encounter a moose?

I dart back to my campsite and hide in my hammock.  Maybe it won’t find me. 
Nothing bad has ever gotten through my camo cuben fiber fortress.
7:26 PM
I feel silly being afraid of a moose, so I creep back down to the lake.  The moose is still swimming but now down-lake, making a wide circle back to the far shore.  It leaps up on the bank and disappears into the brush.

8:12 PM
The lake grows calm as the sun goes down.  Mating dragonflies buzz by.  Everything is beautiful and eerie.
Smoke hangs low between the mountains.
8:25 PM
Why aren't there other people here?  I’ve see no one else all day.  Isn’t this suppose to be the height of tourist season in Glacier National Park?

This is only my third solo backpacking trip in Montana.  Last year I camped countless nights solo on the PCT solo.  Why does it feel so uncomfortable to be solo out here?  I wish Arizona were here.  I wish anyone were here.  I wish I had other hiking friends in Montana.  I wish this place weren't so freakin gorgeous and wild.  That the views didn't bring me to tears and the climbs didn’t make my heart sing.  I wish this place didn't make me FEEL so much passion and longing and heart wrenching fear.  I wish I weren't so curious to learn Montana’s secrets: why the moose swims, where to goats are, where the loon disappears to.

I climb into my hammock.  Everything smells like dirty hiker.  It is the same stuff I had on the PCT.  My long underwear has holes from when I got scared going down Glen Pass and slid on my butt.  I sigh at how many times I've been scared.  Why do I keep putting myself in situations where I'm so uncomfortable?

12:00 Midnight
I awake to breaking branches and rustling too big to be a chipmunk.  It’s getting closer so I try not to breathe.  Images of the bear and moose swirl in my head.  Please don't let claws slice through my tarp.  The rustling moves past.  My watch says exactly midnight, how horror movie corny. 

12:43 AM
I remain awake listening to the silence.  Trying to convince myself the sounds are a large bunny, plump with huckleberries.  Being out here alone makes life vivid and real.  I have to quiet the fears, trust my instincts, tune into this place.  I count the sounds around me, slow my pulse, pull my quilts around me, and fall asleep again.
After surviving encounters with bears, moose, dragonflies, and loons, my last feat is to ford the mighty Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
5:30 AM
I realize with the clarity of morning that the battle is "Joan vs Joan's Fears" rather than "Joan vs Beasts".  What's scary is the prospect of giving up on Montana, of finding it too exhausting to be in the home of these large (and small) creatures, or of deciding it's not worth pushing beyond the comfort zone.

For more information 
Harrison Lake in Glacier National Park: Pick up directions to the ford from the backcountry permit office in Apgar.  From the ford, it is a brushy 6.3 miles to the Harrison Lake campground, following the Boundary Trail and then turning off onto the Harrison Creek Trail.  Permits are required.  Walk-in permits are easy to come by when there are fires everywhere.

Check out Glacier’s Citizen Science Program

Friday, September 18, 2015

Extreme Huckleberry Picking in Dragon Country

“Close your eyes and let’s count how many sounds we hear."

It's a game we play with the 2nd and 3rd graders on interpretive hikes at my park.   Most kids hear birds, buzzing insects, and the wind.  But one boy said he heard a dragon.  I enjoy these kids that have active imaginations, that are inquisitive and curious.  Sometimes we adults can get too serious in our pursuits, and forget how to play.
Out in the Jewel Basin of northwestern Montana, E. and I hear the lapping of waves and my rumbling stomach.  There is a splash that might be a fish jumping.  Or could it be a baby sea monster?  In the daylight an imagination can be fun.  It's less amusing when backpacking solo, imagining the sources of night sounds.

We play another game- Extreme Huckleberry Picking.  We are totally bad-ass, showing off our berry-picking agility and athleticism.
 Dramatic lunges during Extreme Huckleberry Picking.
Never heard of it?  Guess it is too new to have been picked up by TV channels.  But believe me it is exciting and requires skill and cunning. 
Extremely Large Berries.
It’s fun to compete against (unseen) bears, and berry-eating dragons.  And exercise our imaginations.  I guess I've completely given up all pretense of being a serious hiker.  I guess it's more fun to be extreme huckleberry picking in dragon country.  Isn't 'fun' what life is about, anyway?
Dragons probably charred this when protecting their berry patches from hikers.  Or it could have been a fire...
About this place
Jewel Basin
Blackfoot Lake Trail

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sperry Glacier

Despite my love for planning, I’ve noticed that knowing the exact elevation profile and trail description takes away the sense of discovery.  What would it be like to be an explorer? 

           “I’m going up to Sperry Glacier.  I will be back tonight” I text my friend/ emergency contact.
           “How many miles is that?”
           “No idea!”

In a rare departure from my usual way of through planning and reading every trail description, this trip I just set out with just a topo map of Glacier National Park.  I skipped the trail descriptions and looking at guidebooks and blog posts and photos.  I just knew it would involve climbing.  Which I love.

I passed by deep blue lakes and mountain goats-- didn't expect any of this!
There were more lakes right before the pass.  I couldn't believe the colors!
Since I didn't read the trail description, this part was a complete surprise. 
When I got up the stairs... The expression says it all...  I'm excited about EVERYTHING.
I scrambled around on the rocks for a while.  Totally made me feel like I was a real explorer.
The glacier was so huge... like GLACIAL huge.
One the way back down, I tagged along with this women's hiking club for a while, as we passed by the mountain goats.
I liked that by traveling in this more unplanned way, free of expectations and someone else's trip descriptions, some things remained a surprise until I got there.  I could do a more challenging hike that stretched my abilities.  I could meet the terrain with a clear mind.  A refreshing way to experience a trail.

Of course, I’m not recommending skipping the plan ahead and prepare step altogether!  Assess trail conditions and be able to find a hike that is at your skill level.  But for me, studying the topo lines on my map showed this trip suited my skill level, and I felt comfortable enough to skip the trail statistics and hike description.  Going off-trail would have been a different story—I don’t do that in Glacier when I’m solo.  But for established trails, I am confident in my ability to gain significant elevation.  I'm just advocating a slightly different approach to planning, to keep things fresh.  See what works for you!

About this hike

Started at Lake McDonald Lodge, climbed to Sperry Chalet, and then took the Sperry Glacier Trail over Comeau Pass.  Most people don't do this all in one day cause it turns out that it's over 5000 feet elevation gain.*  This website tells how to break it down.

* But if you don't know this in advance, I totally think it really wasn't that bad.  But then again, that could be the reason that I have trouble finding (and keeping) hiking buddies.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Swiftcurrent Lookout

Upward, past windblown trees, above treeline, into the clouds.  A land of boulders and screefields.  With limited visibility, I have no sense of how far I have left to get to the summit. 
There is just the cold.
How will I count mountain goats in these clouds and smoke?  I didn’t know, but Swiftcurrent Lookout is my survey site for Mountain Goat Days, an annual event for Glacier’s Citizen Science Program.  Volunteers around the park cover as many of the 37 goat survey sites over the weekend.

I brace against the wind, put raingear over my long underwear and down coat, and keep climbing.  How do mountain goats thrive on these steep, towering peaks in the middle of winter?  This is only August.

I am surprised to see someone inside the firetower.  The volunteer who mans the fire lookout takes pity on me when I tell him I am here for Mountain Goat Days.  He invites me inside, saying the weather will clear out at any moment.
Showing me how the firefinder is used to triangulate fires.
I listen as he checks in with the other firetowers up and down the continental divide.  I try to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, but curiosity sometimes gets the better of me.  I flip through his books as a I wait, and listen to his stories, feeling very lucky to have met him.  A patch of blue sky appears only to close up the next moment. 

“Just keep waiting,” he says. 

So I wait.
Three hours later, he leaves to resupply in town after his 14 day stay at the tower.  He has been volunteering here for 7 or 8 years.  “The weather will lift at any minute,” he says as he departs, “Don’t give up on your survey.”
Waiting and watching.
I am alone on the top of the mountain in swirling clouds.  Fingers and toes succumb to the cold, growing numb as they do.  I wait another hour.
Cliff faces materialize out of the clouds. 
Being able to see forever from Swiftcurrent Lookout.  Everything is beautiful. I can count mountain goats.
How many mountain goats could be tucked away behind all these peaks and rocks?  How can I hope to see them?
On the way back down, it becomes impossible to imagine the cold of a few hours ago.  Change happens so quickly, it takes your breath away.
More information

Glacier National Park's Citizen Science Program
Swiftcurrent Lookout