Before I get to the park, I have to tell you about the drive. We exited I-15 about 90 minutes north of Helena, picking back up on US-287 after a short interstate interlude. While we only saw three highway patrolmen since leaving Kansas, speed limit signs on 287 were nowhere to be found. After five miles or so, we took bets on the number of mile markers we would pass before seeing a speed limit sign. It's important to note that the speed limits along US-anything north of Yellowstone are more like cynical dares than physical constraints. The mile markers kept climbing. I knew a Barney Fife wannabe was just over the next hill or around the next bend waiting to bring the hammer down. "60 seems okay," I told Amanda and Jessica as we drove past mile marker after mile marker. "Speed limit 70!" someone shouted. Amanda's bet (12) was largest, so she won by default. We were on mile 22.
I began to accelerate when we saw a storefront in the distance. That was a relief; we had not seen another human for nearly a half-hour. I slowed and pulled into the parking lot. We had half a tank of gas, but that's living on the edge in a place where it's nothing to go for 50 miles without seeing another soul. As we got closer to the store, two movies came to mind: The Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "Nathan, I don't think this is a gas station" Amanda suggests nervously. "Is that a guy splitting wood?" I ask. "The sign says private residence," Amanda replied. Jessica somehow read my mind. "This is how every murder movie starts." A shirtless man stopped chopping wood and looks up to see us trespassing on his gravel driveway/parking lot/front yard. The Prius has a 'Power Mode' button. I checked my mirrors, and hit engage. "Not getting murdered today" I said to myself as we raced up to and well past 70 mph.
We drove a few miles and decided that we had to stop. The view was simply too good to pass up. I found an asphalt turnoff and pulled over. I took a break, Amanda snapped pictures, and Jessica turned cartwheels down the street. We all handle near death murder experiences differently I guess. About that time, Jessica sees a truck top a hill in the field across the highway, and it was coming our way. I watched it for a while. "It must be a rancher or someone who works for him. I'm going to talk to him." I yell out to Amanda and Jessica who have spread out around our parking spot by this point.
"Hello, we were just driving through and decided to stop for a few pictures. Do you live around here?" I ask a rugged looking man who appears to be in his mid-50s. "Yeah, this is my property. I have 24,000 acres and 1,100 head of cattle." I looked around. The fields were empty. "Well where are they?" He laughed and told me that they were in the summer pastures in the mountains. We exchanged introductions and continued. "How do you get them down here?" I asked. Larry told me that his brother owns the neighboring 24,000 acre ranch. With help from his brother, his brother's sons, and a couple other farmers from the area, they roundup and drive the herd down on horseback every year for market and winter feeding. "What about crime around here... What do you do if someone stirs up trouble?" I asked. "We're pretty heavily armed out here. We have the deputy a few miles up. If he's not around, then highway patrol is usually available. If no patrolmen are in the area, then someone from Helena is sent up." That was incredible to me. We passed through Helena nearly two hours before. By this time, Amanda and Jessica walked up. "What's the deal with the house/store a few miles back? I was going to use the bathroom, but I couldn't do it there. We thought we were going to be murdered" Amanda joked. With a straight face, Larry pointed out that "You could have used the bathroom there if you were quick about it."
Here are several photos of Larry's property, US-287, and our first views of Glacier.
We got on the trail just before lunch. The hike is around 10.5 miles round trip and gains 2,300 feet in elevation. Loud talking is the best way to avoid surprising a bear on the trail. We were mostly alone the whole hike and had been around each other every waking hour for nearly a week at that point. Topics exciting enough to keep us talking loudly for hours on end were spent days earlier, so we came up with a few bear-away songs and warnings to remedy the issue.
- "Roll call. Amanda?! Nathan?! Jessica?!" belts Jessica a couple miles into the hike. The person who initiates the call has to account for him/herself too.
- "BEAR!" Amanda screams. "AWARE!" another yells. The rangers around Glacier spend their spare time inducing bear-based panic attacks among small children. They often remind visitors be vigilant and 'bear aware.' Aware indeed.
- My contribution was to sing songs about 'big, fat grizzlies' to the tune of the Camptown Ladies. The gist is that the 'big, fat grizzlies' do something followed with a gravely 'rawr, rawr... rawr, rawr' per Jessica.
I came away with two important lessons from this hike. First, the current weather is not a good predictor of the conditions around the corner or a few minutes into the future. Second, distances are always longer than what they appear. (Did you spot the hiker turning the lower switchback in the second picture above? He's the black dot on the curve.) The tunnel is only 250 feet long, but the conditions on each side were near polar opposites. It was snowy on both sides, but the sun greeted us when we exited the tunnel on the other side. As with Sky Pond, the weather deteriorated quickly while we explored the tunnel, forcing us back the down the mountain. We had to return the same way we came up. The fourth picture above shows the difference in the weather when we hit the snow (picture 2) from the mouth of the tunnel (fourth picture).
We visited the Grinnell Glacier on the second day in the park. We took boats across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine and hiked 8 miles round trip. Park Ranger Monica guided a group of 20 or so hikers (including us) to the glaciers. The others must have been tired or slacking on their bear knowledge. They were way too quiet. Amanda, Jessica, and I took attendance, screamed "BEAR!... AWARE!", and worked on our original composition, "The Big, Fat Grizzlies," on the ascent and descent. You're welcome silent hikers.
We ended the day with well-deserved beers at on the deck at the Many Glacier Hotel. As we unwound, we met a drifter named Jessee. He noted that all the campsites were full for the night. I told him we had plenty of space at our site for a third tent. No clue what was going through my head. I must have just been glad to be off the mountain. Whatever the case, Amanda and Jessica were not impressed. Turns out, Jessee was extremely sketchy. Never would have guessed that after getting to know him for 3.5 minutes in the middle of the Montana wilderness. Thankfully, he didn't murder us. We're all laughing about it now. Jessee made the last night of the trip our final adventure.
Here are a few highlights from the Grinnell Glacier hike.
We pulled into Seattle later that night. Jessica helped Amanda and I move into our new place the next day. I had all the electronics setup by the end of the day, including our Apple TV. Our screen saver flips through National Geographic's nature sequence. I noted familiar scenes from the week before.
Roll call... Amanda? Jessica? Nathan?