Land of Bears

From the name, you’d think that Glacier National Park is a frigid landscape perpetually covered in ice and snow, shifting glaciers, and maybe a few mastadons. Well, it’s not really, but it can be cold, and there are plenty of large mammals. In fact, in spring (which occurs in August), it’s covered in lovely wildflowers.

“Rocky Mountain Spring” ~ Logan Pass, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 23mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 2.0 sec
Processing: Bracketed and blended
Notes: Due to light wind I bumped the iso to 400 to help reduce plant blur

Spring overlaps with fall (there’s no real summer), which is when countless berries tempt me, you, and the Grizzly Bears. Oh yes, there’s lots of bears, that’s why many people come to the park – of the 800 estimated Grizzlies alive in the States in 2001, 350 were within Glacier National Park. The bears are big and scary (but so cuddly looking!), and there’s warnings posted all over the park. So much so that many visitors are too scared to leave the car, let alone go out on an extended backcountry trip. But without spending nights in the wild and carrying your supplies over one mountain pass to the next, you simply don’t experience what the land has to offer. So my girlfriend Ali and I headed off on our long anticipated 8 day trek along the Continental Divide.

Our trip started in lovely Canada, with a ferry trip across Waterton Lake, which promptly took us across the 49th parallel and back into the US. To alleviate any doubt over the border’s position there is in fact a clear-cut swath about 20 feet wide across the park. And yes, upon arriving at the Goat Haunt Ranger Station at the head of Waterton Lake we had to present our passports to the US border patrol. The first night we spent just half a mile away, and the next morning we started up to Stoney Indian Lake. Along the way we gorged on the plentiful thimbleberries and huckleberries. There were so many, in fact, that we dedicated a nalgene to a huckleberry collection, and over the course of the next eight days we picked and ate about half a gallon of huckleberries – what a delicious treat to have so many fresh fruit/berries in the backcountry! In the mornings we loaded our granola and oatmeal with a generous handful of the berries, and spiked our evening hot cocoa with thimbleberries and Kaluha. By the way, tortillas (or crackers) with nutella and huckleberries makes for a fantastic snack as well.

Huckleberries for breakfast!

The berries (and Kaluha) kept our spirits up during the poor weather, of which there was plenty. Half of the days it was raining or sleeting, and the last day it started to snow. The trailmix was of course a good cure for the atrocious weather as well, and despite the dismal conditions I was a pretty happy camper when it was snack time!

Snacktime in the rain.

The Rockies are notorious of strange (and bad) weather – a few years back apparently the weather turned from being 90 degrees one day in late August, to snowing 3.5 feet a few days later. Trudging through the rain it was harder to appreciate the rugged mountains. But by our 4th day the weather improved a little – after 14 mile slog through incessant rain. Fortunately it stopped that evening, allowing us dry off our gear and huddle in our orange Black Diamond home (that photo is actually from our Canada trip – the American backcountry sites are a little more wild… no tent pads). It was a cold and trying day, and I had to wrap Ali in both of our down bags to stave off hypothermia.

The mobile home.

The following morning the storm somewhat started to clear, providing a rather spectacular sunrise at Helen Lake (an 8 mile roundtrip detour off the main loop), though the best show of color was of course in the opposite direction of the exciting scenery. The red rock you see is entirely natural, a result of the sedimentary deposits made by rivers flowing into a shallow sea that covered what we now know as the Rocky Mountains about 800-1600 million years ago. Then, starting about 160 million years back, shifting tectonic plates cause the land to buckle and rise out of the sea over the course of the next 100 million years, forming the Continental Divide – the Rocky Mountains. Glaciers and running water began to carve out the mountains, forming giant U-shaped valleys, deep glacial lakes, and ragged saw tooth mountain ridges. On one side of the Divide the water flows East, and on the other West – hence it’s called the Continental Divide. You can in fact hike it from Mexico to Canada, just like the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), a 3100 mile long trail (though it’s not completely finished yet).

“Red River Rush” ~ Glenn Lake, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 24-105mm @ 100mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/8, 1/13th

“Helen Falls” ~ Helen Lake outlet, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 17mm, polarizer, 2-stop hard ND, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 0.5 sec
Processing: Bracketed and blended to carefully select the best moment of sky, and the right shutter speed and timing on the waterfall.

The trail we were hiking – the North Circle trek, also known as the Ptarmigan/Highline trail, is one of the most spectacular trips one can make in the US (according to various backpacking route ratings). As such, you’d expect the trail to take you up into those jagged peaks, well, it does. And fortunately it wasn’t raining and hailing when we left Helen Lake the next morning, though the gray sky and high winds were a far cry from the predicted 75 and sunny. The trail led us up along many switchbacks, and finally onto the side of the rocky cliffs – the trail was literally chopped out of the mountain side, leading to the Ptarmigan Tunnel, carved straight through the mountain to the other side of the range – a most epic mountain trail!

Ali on the Ptarmigan trail.

We didn’t see any Ptarmigan (chicken sized bird) on that section of trail, but we did find one later. First, however, we crossed paths with the flagship wildlife of Glacier National Park – the temperamental Grizzly Bear. I don’t really understand why these animals are so big, ferocious, and irritable, as they’re basically just overgrown deer with 6 inch claws, but it’s best not to upset them. Both Grizzly and Black Bears are 90% vegetarian, so why do they sometimes act like fierce carnivores? Such a large animal living off of berries has got to just spend the whole day eating, maybe that’s why they’ve got such a temper; they’re just tired of eating! In any case, this particular berry-eating bear seemed to be pretty content to just snack on the berries, and ignore us tourists. Though the following morning the trail was closed due to bear activity…

“Grizzly Bear” ~ Ptarmigan Trail, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 100-400mm @ 400mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 800, f/5.6, 1/250th sec

Bear Danger!

The name Grizzly Bear comes from the grayish blond hairs it sports on its back – it has a somewhat ‘grizzled appearance’. It would have made more sense to call it a Grisly Bear, which would imply that it inspires intense horror and fear.. strange coincidence eh? (the word grisly is from the 12th century, predating the Englishman’s knowledge of Grizzly Bears). Soon after passing the bear we arrived in Many Glacier – a wildlife seeking toursists’ mecca for Grizzlies, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, and Moose – the charismatic mega fauna of America. Scattered about the park you’ll find a number of mountain lodges or chalets, a result of a historical effort to promote American National Parks to rich tourists around the turn of the century (19th-20th that is). After taking the Railroad to the Rockies they’d hop onto a horse and trek from chalet to chalet, oohing and ahhing at the beautiful mountains while being wined and dined in fancy mountain establishments. This was America’s attempt to lure its citizens to stay within the country for vacation rather than going to Europe for the Alp experience. As a result, the trails and infrastructure of the park is well maintained and regulated, much more so than the wilder parks further west such as King’s Canyon, Olympic, Mt. Rainier, the Cascades, etc. The Grizzlies no doubt add to the park services’ interest in keeping track of everyone who enters the backcountry. I rather prefer the freedom I’ve found in the other parks I mentioned. Anyways, Many Glacier was one such location, and we took advantage by gorging on pizza and beer halfway through our trip, so there’s a good side to encroaching civilization in some sense.

The following day took us past more Moose and Bear country, and we spotted a mother Moose with two calfs (usually they only have one, so this must have been a good year!), and a second Grizzly bear (this time much further off the trail). We made our way over Swiftcurrent pass, where we found the remnants of last winters’ heavy snowfall. I spent some time inside a water carved ice tunnel looking for strange shapes. It’s going to be hard to beat my Frozen Paradise image I took in Olympic National Park a month or so back, but I did find some intriguing lines that made for an interesting abstract.

“Icy Lines” ~ Swiftcurrent Pass, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 26mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 2.5 sec

The trail led us to the next historical chalet in Granite Park (there’s actually no granite here, again, it’s just a name). No fancy dinner or breakfast for us here though, we had a proper backcountry site unlike the reserved spot among the car campers we had to use at Many Glacier. We spent sunset drinking hot cocoa and watching the changing light on the rocky mountain crests. If you look carefully you’ll note that the center peak is the same as in the first image.

“Rocky Mountain Crests” ~ From Granite Park, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 100-400mm @ 150mm, tripod, 2-stop hard ND filter
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 1/6th sec

The next day was most exciting, mostly because we finally had some reasonable weather – we even saw a few patches of blue sky! Hiking along the Highline trail, a scenic path cut into the mountainside, I heard a soft peep and saw something fluffy scurry past my feet. Apparently we’d stumbled onto a Ptarmigan family! They were totally unafraid of us, it seems their primary predators are airborne as momma Ptarmigan was constantly looking up and got pretty scared when a hawk screamed not too far off. Afterwards she settled down a bit, and while it might look like she’s a hard rock singer screaming her heart out, she was in fact just yawning. Ptarmigan are particularly neat because they completely change their plumage for winter and summer, being completely white in the winter and mottled brown/gray in the summer to better blend in with their surroundings. This particular gal was already showing signs of the white winter feathers coming through.

“Ptarmigan” ~ Highline Trail, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 100-400mm @ 365mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 800, f/11, 1/125th sec

Many long miles later we arrived at our camp at fifty-mountain, one of the most scenic camp spots of the trip in my opinion. The deer seemed to think so too, and over time they’ve become incredibly brave. In the middle of the night one stuck it’s head into our tent (well, in the vestibule area), and pulled out one of my socks. These deer are crazy for salt, and will chew on anything that has any sweat on it – we passed one chewing on someone’s expensive sunglasses and croakie. But why it wanted my sock, I honestly can’t understand. Sure they’re sweaty, but boy do they smell. Under no circumstance would I ever consider sucking on one of my socks for salt! Before settling in for bed, of course, there was the sunset. Surrounded by mountains it wasn’t hard to find a nice location to shoot – make that two nice compositions.

“Desert Mountain” ~ Mt. Kip, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 23mm, 2-stop hard ND filter, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/5th sec

“Rock of Ages” ~ Fifty-Mountain, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 28mm, 2-stop hard ND filter, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1.3 sec
Processing: Bracketed and blended this one in addition to the filter to get the exposure balance just right.

Fortunately it’s pretty easy to keep Ali entertained, and as long as she’s warm and has a book she’s content to wait for me to be creative. As soon as the books run out though, it’s a different story! The rare moment of sun here was certainly welcome of course.

Ali in her element: reading outside in the sun, with a warm hat on.

The next morning we woke to the soft and menacing pattering of hail stones and snow on the tent. Other hikers who’d only left civilization the day before said it was supposed to snow 6-8 inches over the course of the day. Our itinerary said we’d be camping at Kootenai lakes, but with that kind of weather prediction we figured it’d be best to get an early start and hike the extra 3 miles to get out while the weather was still moderately acceptable. We did make a stop at Kootenai Lakes for a few hours to look for Moose – it’s one of the best habitats for them in the area. Soon after arriving we spotted a big Bull Moose, and after much patience I got the shot I was looking for. The water dripping from his mouth after foraging underwater is called moose drool, and yes, there’s a beer named after it, it’s pretty good too.

“Moose” ~ Kootenai Lake, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 100-400mm @ 400mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 400, f/5.6, 1/320th sec

We booked it out the last 3 miles, and warmed our feet at a gloriously warm hearth while waiting for the ferry. 75 miles of hiking and 2 vertical miles up and down later we were back where we started: civilized Canada – home of the glorious Tim Horton’s. You could try to compare Tim Horton’s to Krispy Kreme, but the comparison would fall way short. Tim serves tasty sandwiches, soups, and, of course, doughnuts (and Timbits, doughnut holes, and you can 40 of ‘em for about 5 loonies (Canadian dollars)!). They’re not without quirks of course: they are impressively unorganized (sample size of 2), and our cashier was a 12-year-old boy… Anyways, Timbits in hand, we crossed the boarder, back into Montana, about half an hour before the border crossing closed. On this 6th US/Canada crossing we made in the last two weeks we finally met a cheerful border patrol. He was confused that our only souvenirs from Canada were the Timbits, but he joyfully recommended some nearby hotels and the McKenzie River Pizza Company, where we found a tasty meal including a Thai inspired pizza dish.

Before leaving the park for good I went back to explore one more spot – of course the tourists were swarming about, since we’re talking within 5 min from the road – but with my passion for red rock canyons, I couldn’t pass up Avalanche Gorge. The gorge brings to mind an almost tropical Utah slot canyon, with gushing turquoise waters and lush green trees growing on the red rock cliff sides.

“Tropical Utah” ~ Avalanche Gorge, Glacier National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 19mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/14, 4.0 sec (primary)
Notes: For the water I used an alternate exposure at iso 800, 1/4th second

My summer adventures are, unfortunately, starting to wind down. Though I must say I look forward to sleeping in the same place for more than 1-2 consecutive nights (though it’ll take some getting used to not being on a hard surface in my sleeping bag with a small orange walled home). Next I’ll be stopping in Yellowstone for a few days, a short excursion to the terrestrial Idaho Moonscape, and a few recovery days in Salt Lake City before I head back to California. I hope you enjoyed your virtual journey through Glacier National Park, though it really isn’t the same as smelling the flowers, clutching the pepper spray in fear of the bears, and sloshing through the muddy pools we call trails.

One Response to Land of Bears

  1. Daniel says:

    My family lives in Canada and I must say your posting is both articulate and interesting.

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