Sunday, August 17: Glacier National Park
Almost ten weeks after first crossing the border into Canada, we crossed it for the last time leaving Canada. We were both a bit sorry since it marked the end of the Alcan phase of our travels this year. We really hated leaving Alaska and talked sometimes about turning around and heading back. If money hadn't been so tight, we would have stayed longer. I think we especially regretted not following the Dempster Highway all the way to Inuvik. That would have been nice. But given the high gas prices in Canada and our bad tire, we couldnít risk it. I think we both felt that our return journey was faster than we wanted or expected. Between Jimís knee and a stomach upset that lasted several days, weíve done much less hiking than we intended to do. Instead we drove, enjoying the scenery and occasional wildlife sightings, but constantly on the move.
We did explore all the roads in Waterton, including a disappointing drive out to Cameron Lake. Itís not as scenic as the Red Rock Road (all in trees) and we saw no wildlife, just hordes of people. Cameron Lake is beautiful, of course, but there were crowds of hikers there and at the Wall/Forum Lake trailhead, so we didnít linger. We just kept going out of the park and back to the United States.
We ate lunch at the Park Cafť in St. Marys (not as good as I remembered) then drove back up to Many Glacier/Swiftcurrent and found an empty site at the crowded campground there. On the way, a bear jam alerted us to the presence of some bears near the lake. I got a brief glimpse of a sow and cub before they were hidden in the trees. A ranger shooed us off, though we werenít blocking the road.
It was another very hot day (90 degrees) so we settled in to the campsite to read in the shade. Around 4:00 we headed out for a short hike around Swiftcurrent Lake. It was a popular place. Some people were swimming in the cold water, others walking, and several people were out on the water in canoes or kayaks. We spotted a deer down by the water, but no other wildlife. We ate dinner at the Italian restaurant at the motel, then joined the crowd out in the parking lot watching a dark brown grizzly a mile or so away up on the hill. On the other side of the valley we spotted a mountain goat. Someone said there was another bear up there, but we never saw it. Instead, we got in the car and drove a couple of miles to a meadow where there was another big dark grizzly on the edge of the trees about 200 yards away. He was much easier to see than the tiny dot a mile above Swiftcurrent. We watched the bear for about ten minutes, until it vanished in the trees.
One odd occurrence: while Jim was talking on the pay phone in the parking lot, I watched the bear on the hill for a while, then came back to find out how Jim was doing. The phone next to him rang. Since it was interrupting his concentration, I picked up. A man on the phone said that his son was missing and had called from that phone several days before. The man was, understandably, very upset, since his son was supposed to fly home that day and they hadnít heard from him. He didnít know exactly where his son had called from and was trying to get some help finding him. I explained where the phone was located and suggested he call the ranger station to start a search for the missing backpacker. Since all backcountry campers have to have a permit, they should be able to track him down. (The next day we heard about a search starting for a missing hiker in the northern part of the park. Iím not sure whether it was the same backpacker or not. The timing seemed to be different, from what I read later. As far as I know, they never found the second missing man.)
Monday, August 18: Rest Day in East Glacier
We drove the short distance to the town of East Glacier, did laundry at the RV park, ate lunch at the Two Medicine Grill, then got a room at the Whistling Swan so we could get cleaned up and enjoy a quiet afternoon. I watched a little bit of the Olympics on TV and read while Jim worked on the computer. We enjoyed dinner at Serranos, then headed back to the motel.
East Glacier is in a period of transition: Serranos (the good Mexican restauarant) is for sale, the other main street restaurant has new owners who have turned it into a more generic restaurant than the old one (I was looking forward to the short ribs I enjoyed there in the past), and the laundromat on the highway is closed. Our friend Mark seems to be doing well at his enterprises though. His son Dalton is thriving, the store is busy and well stocked and the diner and motel really havenít changed much since we first came to East Glacier ten years ago.
Tuesday, August 19: Kintla Lake
We decided to head out to the northwest side of Glacier. Weíve never driven the road to Polebridge and were curious about that area. Unfortunately, by the time we reached St. Maryís it was obvious that there was a wildfire in the vicinity; the mountains were completely hidden in the haze. You couldnít see across the valley for all the smoke. It was very disappointing, because the drive along St. Maryís Lake and over Logan Pass is such a spectacular one. We did see several waterfalls and lots of wildflowers. Three mountain goats napped on a shady ledge above the highway, but not in a place where we could stop. There was road construction beyond Logan Pass, mostly a huge masonry project rebuilding the rock walls along the edge of the road. We were stopped for about 20 minutes at one spot, which was good because I was able to make lunch, but bad because I was desperate for a bathroom at the time.
Just before we reached Lake MacDonald it began to pour. The forecast for the next three days calls for thunderstorms, so it wasnít a surprise, but it made visibility even worse. We headed north anyway on the rough, sometimes very rough, road. It was paved for the first ten miles, then it became a gravel road, then unmaintained dirt with lots of washboard and potholes. The speed limit on the Polebridge Road is 20 mph, which gave us an idea of what to expect. The rain continued until we were past the village of Polebridge, then it cleared up so by the time we reached Kintla Lake the sun was out. We passed through a lot of burned forest, but also some pretty wide golden meadows and lodgepole forest.
The campground at Kintla Lake is a small one, only 13 spaces, so it was full by dinnertime. There is a pretty view of the large blue lake through the trees. We arrived at 4:00 so had time for a short hike on the trail along the lake. There is a good hike from Kintla over Boulder Pass to Goat Haunt that I would like to do someday when Jimís knees are in better shape. Itís 35 or so miles, one way. The problem with the hike is transportation, since there is no shuttle service to this part of the park. I wouldnít think it would be that difficult to hitch out though.
Wednesday, August 20: Helena
A rainy day, our first all day rain for a while. It was just sprinkling a bit when we woke up, so we ate a quick breakfast then headed south again. We stopped at the good bakery in Polebridge for a couple of cinnamon rolls and hot coffee, then continued along the edge of Glacier NP in a light rain. We saw a lot of deer in the meadows, first a doe and spotted fawn, then a group of six, including a buck, then another deer that crossed the road beside us. By Columbia Falls, it was pouring, but we needed some groceries so we stopped at a supermarket in town and then ate lunch at KFC. Diet Mountain Dew has been very hard to find, (we ran out three days ago) so our supermarket stop was a necessity.
We wanted to take a different route south, so decided on the scenic drive between the Mission Mountains and the Swan Range. Too bad we couldnít see much. The mountains were hidden in clouds, but we could still enjoy the golden meadows, farms, clear blue rivers and lakes. A few more deer were spotted grazing beside the road.
We drove into Lincoln to check out the CDT register there. It dates from 1989, so includes a lot of the hikers we know, though it seems that many donít sign in any more. Few hikers lately have put any helpful information on the condition of the trail into the register, which is a disappointment. Given that there was a big fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness last year and in Glacier the previous year, we thought that there would be some updates in the book. There wasnít anything on the big reroute near Butte either. Too bad, as the information would have been useful to hikers heading north.
From Lincoln, we drove over Flesher Pass, a CDT crossing, then down to Helena. Itís beautiful country with rolling yellow hills, some sage, and lots of conifers and aspen. We saw a couple of sandhill cranes in a wet meadow, a few hawks soaring overhead, and a small herd of elk strolling down a ridge toward a hay field and another herd in a patch of sage by the side of the road.
We ended up at an RV Park a few miles from Helena. It was quiet, with clean showers and intermittent WIFI. There was a huge and noisy thunderstorm after dinner, but it didnít last long.