Friday, August 28, 2015

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.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

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...

Wednesday, August 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

Tuesday, August 18, 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.

Sunday, August 16, 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 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Hiking with an old friend

To start out my 3-week Montana vacation, my hiking buddy from the PCT, Arizona (his trail name), flew out to hike a few days.  Arizona and I met last year at Kennedy Meadows on the PCT, and hiked together through the High Sierra to Tuolumne Meadows.  I’ve missed hiking with trail friends. 
Arizona and Hemlock in Glacier National Park
Some conversations you can only have with other long-distance backpackers.  Butt chafe, pooping, etc.  I'd forgotten what it was like to be called "Hemlock."
Arizona jokes around with his bear spray.
We scrambled off trail because that’s what we do.  Just us and the rock and the scree, free and happy and everything is right with the world.
Above Avalanche Lake.
And then Arizona left, and I wondered if I made the right call not to return to the PCT this year.  Because I felt more lonely than ever.

But then I woke up and I was in Montana.  This beautiful place.  It pulls at your heart.  So I headed back out to the trail again...

Trail Information
Avalanche Lake
Packers Roost to Flattop Mountain

Monday, August 10, 2015

Plans for 3 weeks...

I am a planner.  So I make plans, and then watch them fall apart.  Or evolve into something else. 
Surrounded by fires and the thickest black smoke.
Earlier in the spring I though I’d be done with Montana by now, and heading back to finish the PCT.  I didn’t expect to fall in love with Montana.  Hadn’t imagined extending my AmeriCorps term.  Or deciding to forgo plans to hike a long trail this fall.  Once my heart got set on a 3-week Montana backpacking vacation and I'd worked out getting the time off, I certainly wasn't ready for all these fires.

My 3-week Montana vacation was nothing like I'd planned. 

Oh, the fires.  Closing so many trails.  The air thick with smoke, my sensitive throat burned, my eyes got red and puffy.  On the worst days, I got a panicky feeling that made me think “flee, get out of here, danger, escape” like a wild animal.  I contemplated leaving Montana, but then I realized that I didn't want perfect skies— I wanted to be in Montana, regardless of what came along with that. So, I hiked through the smoke.
Without the sense of purpose that a long trail or section hike can bring, I found satisfaction doing surveys during many hikes—mostly for Glacier National Park’s Citizen Science program.
Surveying for loons at Upper Kintla, Glacier National Park. Photo by D. Mayes.
I hiked a lot solo, but also enjoyed the comradery of several new and old friends.
Hiking with friends visiting from Philadelphia.  Piegan Pass, Glacier National Park.
I’m glad I opted to stay around Montana and see what I could here.  The time spent researching trails was worthwhile (even if they ended up being closed, like the Bob), and I still found some trails that weren't closed, especially in Glacier.
 These forests are adapted to fires, and regrowth happens quickly.  Flattop Mountain Trail in Glacier.
I’ll be posting some stories from my trips in the next few days…
Jumping above the smoke, Mt Aeneas, Jewel Basin, Montana.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Major shakedown hike

Will I be ready for my big three week long backpacking vacation next week?  Time for a shakedown!

First, gear testing.  I’ve got the same stuff I took on the PCT and AZT, due to my AmeriCorps budget (i.e. no new gear).  So I had to test out if the fresh superglue and patches will hold my old gear together.  So far, so good.
Did you really want gear photos when there are views like this?  Didn't think so.  You're welcome.
I did pull the trigger on a replacement toothbrush and new plastic ziplocks.  The new ziplocks were sort of shiny and smelled too clean, but hopefully I will adjust.  And they will get dirty soon enough. 

I next turned to assessing my physical fitness.  Actually, that’s a lie.  I really didn’t pay any attention because the scenery was too beautifully distracting.  I climbed up a mountain just to have somewhere to go and didn’t calculate elevation change until after the trip (4000 feet). I like climbing uphill. It felt good. I hope I get to climb some more.
Evidence that I do sometimes end up peakbagging, if only by mistake.
Without gear or fitness worries, I focused on practicing my skills.  My upcoming backpacking trip will take me to new and challenging terrain, so I want to be sure I am well versed in the techniques that will get me through.
Went for a swim to practice my cooling off and floating around skills.  Then worked on sitting by the side of the lake and watching water striders.
I tend to get overconfident in my botanizing and take unnessary risks like thinking I will see a plant a second time and not stopping to take photos if I think the lighting could be better in a little while.  This shakedown hike really made me dig deep and revise my posey bagging priorities.  Because really it's the mental challenges that are the biggest.
Huckleberry pickin and eatin.  Definitely need more practice.
Think I have the cloudwatching down.  Still not good at cloudwalking.  But will keep trying.
I will not be blogging from the trail and I’m not telling you where I’m going.  But I will say that I’m super duper excited that my friend Arizona that I hiked with on the PCT will be flying out to join me.  Yippee!

Trip notes
This was a solo dayhike in the Swan Range of northwestern Montana.  Not gonna specify where exactly because I only saw 2 other people and really appreciated the solitude.  Huge thanks to C. for telling me about this spot!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

My first grizzly

Two panicking women come RUNNING down the trail towards us yelling, "GRIZZLY!"  Sure enough, behind them was the bear, making his was down the Highline Trail behind them.

My first time seeing a grizzly bear, and it was off to a bad start.

I'm sure you all know that RUNNING from grizzlies is pretty much the worst thing you can do.  Getting the women to calm down and stop running was critical.

Fortunately, I was out doing a mountain goat survey with an experienced Glacier National Park Citizen Science volunteer.  She is a mountaineer and extremely knowledgeable about Glacier wildlife. 

We got everyone together, and started backing down the trail, talking in calm voices.  But the bear just kept coming down the trail towards us. 
I did not get a photo in the moment, but my drawing is totally accurate.
For those of you that know the Highline, we were about three miles from Logan Pass, on our way to Haystack Butte to do a mountain goat survey.  The trail is narrow and we were on a steep slope.  But we backed to where there was a place we could scramble up the scree to make way for the grizzly. 

The volunteer I was with kept everyone behind her and her bear spray outstretched while we tried to keep everyone calm.  She is one brave, awesome women!

There was a long moment where time stopped when the grizzly got close to us.  Was he going to charge us?  Where the panicking women going to start running again?  We were all relieved when the grizzly just kept moving on down the trail.   I never ever want to get that close to a grizzly again. 

The coolest thing was that the Citizen Scientist I was with was a special VIP volunteer and had a radio so she phoned the rangers to alert them to the bear. The rangers asked us if we would follow the bear to keep people away from our side and monitor where the bear went, while they sent a ranger up the trail from the other direction.  So, we abandoned our goat survey, and turned around to follow the bear at what we hoped was a safe distance.
On the Highline Trail with one awesome volunteer.
As we made our way after the bear (staying in radio contact with the ranger), we passed what seemed like a hundred people coming up the trail, and got their reports.  The bear was sticking to the trail.  Occasionally he’d get off to pass people, but mostly folks did what we did and scrambled aside for him.  What was alarming was how many of the people didn’t have bear spray.  Worse, a few were total idiots, not respecting the bear, and acting like they were in a zoo. 

Finally, we met up with the ranger.  The ranger told us that when the grizzly saw him coming up the trail, the sight of his gun made the bear finally run off the trail down the slope.   Rangers use special non-lethal bullets to haze habituated bears.  Apparently, this grizzly knew the drill.
This great park ranger took time to show us the special rubber bullets he uses and to educate everyone about grizzlies.  I really appreciate his hard work!
Overall, it was an eye-opening experience for me.  I was really glad I was with such a knowledgeable person who kept a level-head.  I think that the biggest risk was from being around other hikers that behaved so irresponsibly.  The grizzly was just wanting to travel on the trail.  It was sad that he was habituated.  But it was obvious that this was a product of the irresponsible behavior of the other visitors, and the fact that this area is so crowded. 
Afterwards, we went to Hidden Lake to do a mountain goat survey there.  We saw a bunch of mountain goats, but all I got was a photo of flowers.

For more information:

High Country Citizen Science Program at Glacier
Glacier National Park's info on bears