St. Mary – Our Northern Exposure to Glacier National Park

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Cinnamon Bear just outside of St. Mary

We arrived in St. Mary, Montana and the northern end of Glacier National Park almost one month from the day we left Clemson.  Our camping location in St. Mary placed us just between the Going to the Sun Road eastern entrance to Glacier National Park and the Many Glacier – Swiftcurrent entrance to the national park. We thought we spotted our first grizzly bear as we approached our campground, but it was a young cinnamon colored black bear. After arriving at our campground we made a trip to Swiftcurrent Lake and grabbed a quick lunch at the Inn’s restaurant. It had already been a long day and we just wanted to get the lay of the land, so we decided to return to the campground to relax. We spent part of the evening talking with our neighbors, Joe and Linda from Utah.  We have been blessed with many nice neighbors on this trip.

The next day we left early to drive over the Going to the Sun Road which just opened after a recent avalanche of snow fell onto Logan Pass – the road’s highest point and a hub for many trailheads. Going to the Sun Road is one of Glacier Park’s major attractions with never-ending views of snow laden mountains, glaciers, valleys, waterfalls, and animals.  Going to the Sun is a 50 mile long curving road of various elevations, hairpin turns, steep rock walls with snow melt falling on vehicles, and even steeper drop-offs on a narrow two lane pavement with minimal room for driving error. This was a fun road for me to drive, but probably not so for those afraid of steep cliffs and narrow passages. Between looking at the amazing natural beauty of the terrain and trying to avoid careless drivers, my head was constantly on a swivel.

The Logan Family with us at Lunch Creek

Our initial drive was east to west along to road, and one of our early stops was at hiking trail and water feature called Lunch Creek. We tried to wear something each day that indicated we were from Clemson, and people always approached us asking us about Clemson University, saying “Go Tigers,” or stating “We sure are glad you beat Alabama” – it really was funny how many people said that! During one of our early stops at a waterfall area named Lunch Creek, was a man named Lance asking about my connection to Clemson. It turned out that his wife, Rachel, is Terry Don Phillips’ niece.  For those reading this who are not Clemson fans – Terry Don is the former Athletic Director for Clemson. We had a group picture taken, and emailed it to Terry Don’s wife, Tricia Phillips, for our “small world” connection.

Anna at Logan Pass

We continued on to Logan Pass where we were greeted by mountain goats, and a lot of snow still piled high. Trails to several of the hikes that we were interested in taking were closed due to an abundance of snow.  Snow bridges formed along the trails with passing water underneath that could allow the bridges to collapse taking the snow and the people on top of the snow down the mountain… I believe we’ll pass on that one every time! We drove through the east and west tunnels, along the weeping wall, past Avalanche Creek and on to the Lake McDonald Lodge for lunch. We picked up a couple of items at the grocery in West Glacier and then headed back across the park again to return to our campground.  Everything looks different from the opposite direction.  We were able to see falls, glaciers, and valleys that we could not see coming from the east. We grilled and relaxed early in the evening before finishing up some necessary chores – yes you still have to do chores on vacation – if you are camping.

The next morning it was time for another outdoor breakfast. Yum! I think we took a little too long though, because when we tried to enter the park (around lunchtime) for our next hike, the park rangers closed the road (right in front of our car!) due to overcrowding. The ranger told me it was like a crazy house in the parking lots everywhere and they would reopen the roads after some of the crazies departed. We went back to the visitor where we met a real nice couple (Chris and Pam) from Florida. They fly to Missoula, MT every year and then lease a Harley Davidson to cruise around on for a week. I thought that was pretty cool… Anna, not so much! Chris and Pam shared many storied with us while they waited for the road to reopen. We looked around the area and then returned to the campground where we met our new neighbors, Jim and Louise from Arizona. They had some interesting stories from the years they lived in Alaska.

Moose in Fisher Cap Lake

We were up early the next morning for a hiking adventure to Fisher Cap Lake and Red Rock Falls. We took Jim and Louise with us to share in the adventure. Jim was a good safety lead hiker because he kept yelling “Yo Bear” about every minute or so… you don’t want to surprise Yogi or Boo Boo – you could have a bad day. While pretending not to get lost around Fisher Cap Lake, we ran across a mama moose and her calf.  We enjoyed watching her constantly going underwater for 3-5 minutes at a time and then shaking all of the water off her head in a swirling motion. She was joined by her calf who was hiding in the willows when she left the water.  Something must have spooked them because they took off running like crazy.

Red Rock Falls

We all headed to Red Rock Falls after Fisher Cap.  It was a good hike and the falls, while not big, were pretty. Other hikers told us that a Grizzly with cubs had just crossed the trail in front of us, but we didn’t see a sign of one. We are beginning to think this whole thing about Grizzlies is just a marketing scam to sell bear spray. I have a little advice for anyone contemplating hiking in Glacier, and that is to run up and down the bleachers at a nearby football field for six months just before coming. Even the hiking trails that are three miles long and only have 700 feet of elevation change go up and down eighty feet more than thirty times over the distance. That’s like a gazillion feet of elevation change. When you factor in the high altitude, some unusually warm days, and then load up with 15 pounds of equipment… heck, I’m almost out of breath just typing it!

Virginia Falls

The next day was July 4th. We declared it a total day of rest. We slept late (7:00a.m.), read, looked over photos, and rested more. Jim and Louise invited us over for a skirt steak dinner with all the fixings. A little red, white, and blue ice cream social (strawberries, vanilla ice cream, and blueberries) topped things off afterwards. We needed the rest, because the following day was a long hike down with a return hike that took my back to another planet for a couple days, and raised a blister on one of my toes that kept screaming nasty things to me.

We hiked the trail to St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls. Saint Mary Falls had a bridge and beautiful surroundings. Virginia Falls was powerful spraying mist into the air for a quarter mile – making it difficult to keep my camera dry. The temperature this day rose above 90, and I felt every degree of it. Breathing on the uphill portions of the hike became labored.

On July 6th, we drove to Many Glacier to reserve a boat for Saturday morning. We had lunch at one of the local restaurants and then returned to the campground. We no sooner sat down to read and catch up on some computer work when the entire family across from us came flying out of their camper. The dad looked like he was vomiting, the mom and two sons were coughing, and the little girl was screaming and crying hysterically. I ran over to see if I could help. It turned out that the little girl (a 5 year old) was wrestling with her two brothers when she fell on top of a back pack and the bear spray exploded. She had quite a bit of spray all over her body, and the large number of mosquito bites she had provided a path for the irritant to make her burn in many places. Although her clothes were soaked, she was adamant about “not getting naked” outside. Her mom was a physician (FP), and I was a nuisance, so she was in good hands. The little girl came over the next day to thank me for helping her!

Black Bear in Waterton Lakes

After the fiasco, we decided to drive into Canada to look around Waterton Lakes National Park in an attempt to find a decent place to camp the following week (all of the good campgrounds were already booked up when we tried to make our reservations last January. Although we didn’t find a campground until a couple of days later, we did have a nice meeting with a black bear when we started our return trip. He just walked alongside our car, but when we started talking to him, he just stopped, sat down on his bottom and looked right at us, and proceeded to scratch his belly. We both had a good laugh while watching him (or her).

Camper was starting to get pretty dirty from all of his outings. The dirt here is like powder and it gets into and onto everything. The people up here don’t wash their dogs and they don’t wash their cars (trucks). We made the decision to drive to Kalispell 2-1/2 hours to get Camper bathed, and do a little grocery shopping (they also don’t have real grocery stores here. We were able to get the car washed and even eat at a brand new Chick-Fil-a before returning to Glacier. There was a major accident in Browning, MT (on the Black Feet reservation just when we returned to our campground. The accident took out all electrical power in this part of Montana for five hours or so. It would have bad if Camper was home alone since the temperature that afternoon was above 100 degrees.

Saturday we took a boat ride across Swiftcurrent Lake, then hiked a short distance to Josephine Lake, then hiked a couple miles to Grinnell Lake and back. We couldn’t go all the way to the glacier due to heavy snow along the trail. It was a good day. The boat ride and the hikes were ranger led. She was very informative and was also a good “Yo Bear” yeller.

Anna on Hidden Lake Trail

We had our biggest hiking challenge on Sunday. We drove to the top of Logan Pass and then hiked to the Hidden Lake overlook. We met a fellow CNPA photographer (Lew Brown) from North Carolina in the parking lot before we started and he asked if he could join us. We weren’t allowed to go down to the lake because of aggressive grizzly bear activity (I’m not sure what defines aggressive activity). It was about 45 degrees and the going was painstakingly slow. The snow was plentiful, deep, and extremely slippery at points. Most of the hike to the overlook was uphill. Our hiking poles and camera tripod would often go down a couple of feet into the snow and had to be wiggled to dislodge. I fell one time on the ascent and had to dig my camera out of the snow. Anna fell seven times on the way down. Yes, I said seven – a new GNP all time record! She’s just so cute. It seemed as though I was always turning around to find her sitting on her bottom on the snow laughing like a kid! One area we crossed (both ways) was extremely narrow and slippery.

Bearhat Mountain from Hidden Lake

The view of Bearhat Mountain across Hidden Lake from the top of the overlook was breathtaking. I was also greeted by a couple of mountain goats. They were so habituated to people that they would just run by a couple of feet from us. On the way down, Lew fell several times, once severely injuring his left ankle. He made it down the mountain but it was a very difficult descent for him.

Cinnamon Bear in Waterton Lakes

We had to relocate our Little Tiger Van the next day, due to a reservation shuffle, so we lost most of the morning. We decided to head back up to Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada to locate a campground we were able to make reservations at for later, and to look around the town area. On the return trip we once again had a bear sighting.  From the field we thought is was a Grizzly with two cubs. We were almost two hundred yards from the bear, and determined that it was probably another cinnamon black bear with two cubs after the pictures made it to the computer.

We are having some LP work performed on the Little Tiger Van in the morning and will stock up on a few supplies. Then we are headed to Canada for the next month or so. Waterton Lakes, Banff, the Ice Fields, and Jasper are all ahead of us. We have no idea what type of communication will be available to us as we continue, but will do our best to stay in touch.

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