Heading back to East Glacier (Days 4-9)

Written from my phone while lying in my sleeping bag after long days of hiking; do me a favor cut me a little slack here and there, will ya?

 Day Five: We left Many Glacier around 8:30: comparatively early for this section. We were hiking six strong now that Paul and Colin had joined our little band.  We had a fairly easy walk the first few miles along Lake Josephine and past Grinnell Glacier. A few hours in we came upon Morning Eagle Falls thundering below the Garden Wall. The main plume is a vast cascade and flanking it are smaller melt falls that have created caverns for themselves to flow through in lingering snow drifts. Truly a magical place to stop for lunch and to dry out our socks and shoes from creek fords earlier that morning.

From the falls we immediately began climbing up to Piegan Pass. We had a few thousand feet up over roughly four miles, which we crushed in about an hour and a half. A three mile-per-hour pace is pretty good for a steep uphill less than a week into a thru-hike, and we were feeling pretty accomplished. We shared our hard earned views with a bunch of marmots and ground squirrels who were not at all shy around hikers.

At the pass we met a young ranger named Astrid, coming up from the south side on her way back to her lodging in Many Glacier. Turns out she was going to be a CDT southbound hiker this year herself but in the end decided she’d rather spend another summer in the park; hard to blame her, it’s heaven on earth. She continued the trend of Glacier Park rangers being shocked at our having traversed the Highline Trail despite the closure and shared in the boundless admiration for this legendary man named Neil whom I hoped to meet upon arrival in Two Medicine.

 East side of the Garden Wall from Piegan Pass

East side of the Garden Wall from Piegan Pass

The wind picked up and the temperature dropped, so we decided to start moving. It was just past noon and we had already hiked most of our miles for the day, not to mention it was literally all downhill to the Reynolds campsite where our permit bade us to post up for the night, so we simply moseyed down trail chatting and taking photos, stopping now and again to visit with the countless daywalkers who had left the safety of their autos back at the Going to the Sun Road to climb the far gentler northbound ascent to Piegan Pass.

 Piegan Glacier

Piegan Glacier

About halfway down to the road, all of us but Anchor took a break simply because we were on schedule to get into camp before four. Sitting at a trail junction, we met a man from Florida who has lived in Glacier for the last decade or so. He regaled us with stories of bears and helped us identify a lot of the plants and birds we’d been seeing the past week. He said he has a lot of footage of grizzlies in Glacier up on Youtube; I took a quick look but couldn’t find him up there (time in town is precious, you know, I have to write all these blogs on top of all my resupply, repair and recovery chores).

 Valley on the south side of the pass looking out toward the soon to be gone Reynolds Glacier

Valley on the south side of the pass looking out toward the soon to be gone Reynolds Glacier

When we reached the Going to the Sun Road, we found a very hyped up Anchor. “Saw a bear,” he said. “Was cruising downhill, saw lots of scat, came around a corner and there he was, walking down trail ahead of me. Slowed down, went around the next corner, and this time he looked straight at me. I smoked three cigarettes between now and then. No more hiking alone in griz country.”

We descended into mosquito hell and stopped not two hundred yards before the suspension bridge to our campsite to swim around some pretty cataracts. Even with the frigid dip we rolled into camp before five. We squeezed four tents into a two-tent site and Colin and Paul pitched their double tent beneath the horse hitch. Anchor got a fire going and we all cooked dinner as we threw out ideas for how to pass the next five and a half hours before it’d be dark enough to sleep. We landed on throwing rocks into a stump with a hole, among other good ol’ fashion clean fun activities. The height of excitement for the evening was relocating those four tents to the other two-tent site once we realized the site was surrounded by dead trees teetering in the blustery wind. Ah, the life of the thru.

Day Six: Less than fourteen miles today. Even after being in the front country for almost two years a fourteen mile day feels laughably short. Breaking down camp was a leisurely endeavor; I don’t think we got moving ‘til about ten. The trail brought us into another daywalker hotspot. LT, Anchor and I led up front with Toppy and the Detroit boys following not too far behind.

Top Shelf heard a woman say to her partner, after passing us, “Ugh! Did you smell those people?” And then, after passing Top Shelf: “Ugh! That one too.” Yeah, yeah, keep telling yourself humans smell like lavender and vanilla, friend. Whatever makes you happy.

We got to the waterfall that was drawing in all those tourists armed with massive DSLRs, selfie sticks and unimpressed visages from which our trail splintered off. Posted to a tree just beyond the junction was a sign that alerted us the trail was closed from the junction of the St. Mary Lake trail to Red Eagle Lake due to bear activity. Well, that wouldn’t do, as we needed to camp at the head of Red Eagle Lake that night and would have to travel that way to get there. We figured the sign was old or left up to deter unprepared hikers from going out on a long walk through a recent burn. Worst case, if the trail were actually closed, we could divert down to the town of St. Mary and hitch over to another trail head the next day.

Most of the day was spent skirting St. Mary Lake, which is massive, and swimming through thimbleberry and cow parsnip. Just before the junction taking us into the burn scar, we dropped down onto a little rocky beach to pass away the afternoon with more options for recreation than throwing rocks at stumps. We swam, ate lunch, napped… and threw some rocks. Every stone on this beach was made for skipping, it was amazing. Imagine the smoothest, most perfect skipping stone you’ve ever run your fingers over, nocked between your index and thumb and sent ricocheting off a glassy surface – then multiply that stone by, say, a hundred thousand, and you’re at this beach.

 Waterfront property on St Mary's Lake

Waterfront property on St Mary's Lake

We eventually motivated ourselves back up to the trail and moseyed up into the burn. The Reynolds fire was man-caused and swallowed the valley in a matter of five hours, according to some folks we ran into at camp that night. We passed the trail junction where the closure was supposed to begin and, not seeing any signs, decided to just keep on going. About a mile down the trail we ran into a ranger and my heart sank. I had a saying on the PCT: death before backtracking. I really didn’t want to backtrack and head into St. Mary.

“Y’all got a permit?” the ranger asked. He had a fishing pole, bear spray, and a hand gun; apparently NPS adopts the open carry laws of whatever state the park is in, which was news to me. “Oh wow, you’ve been out playing for a while. Bear spray, yup, looks like you know what the hell you’re doing.”

“We try,” said Anchor. And that was it. Onwards and upwards.

When we reached the foot of the lake we could see all the way up to Triple Divide Peak, a mountain that divides water into the Hudson (Arctic), Atlantic and Pacific drainages, and down to a tiny little stand of evergreen at the far side of the lake amidst countless skeletons of trees: our campground.

 The far (south) end of the lake is Red Eagle Lake Head CG - the tiny stand of live trees

The far (south) end of the lake is Red Eagle Lake Head CG - the tiny stand of live trees

Paul immediately strode out into the lake with rod and fly in hand and the rest of us filtered water and got our stoves up and running for dinner. Not long after we arrived, a hiker with a tiny frameless Granite Gear pack, long shaggy hair, matching beard and a “Hikertrash” visor strolled up. Definitely a thru-hiker. He introduced himself as Dirt: yet another triple crowner of relative fame within the community. Dirt is even one of the contributors to Yogi’s CDT book, the guide we all use to plan out our town stops and resupply strategies. He had just finished hiking the Appalachian Trail for at least the second time less than a month prior. Dirt had the opposite experience of the permitting system of Glacier NP; he was finishing up a 31 mile day. He’s a man of few words, but what few words he lets loose are certainly worth listening to. 

Not long after, a couple from Mississippi with massive packs strode in, looking totally depleted. We’d had campsites to ourselves the whole trip thus far. Anchor and I quickly staked out a spot for ourselves, Toppy and LT; Paul and Colin were back on their own permit now and had a site to themselves. It had been too windy for Paul to cast in the lake, so he came back in soaked and cold. The Mississippi couple was on their first real backpacking trip and had brought plenty of wine; they were happy to share with us in order to lighten their loads.

While we ate and got acquainted, a bull moose clomped into the lake and began rooting about in the mucky shallows.  I’d never seen a moose before and was eager to get a close look – not too close, of course, those guys are monster relics of the Pleistocene who could trample me in a heartbeat. He hung out for a few hours and eventually decided to trot through our campground, at which point I think we all appreciated his size and power for the first time - he came a little too close to our tents for comfort.

 Hey there big fella

Hey there big fella

Day Seven: Our Mississippi neighbors were supposed to be going over Triple Divide Pass as well, but were still in their tent when we packed up and left in the morning. The seven or so miles up to the pass can be summed up in just a few phrases: climbing, bear scat, blowdowns. Once we got close to the high point, though, we were afforded some breathtaking views of glacial lakes and were able to see the extent of the Reynolds fire we’d been crawling through.

 Triple Divide Peak

Triple Divide Peak

I came around the final switchback to find Laugh Track squatting down on the trail. I looked closer and there was one of the biggest marmots I’ve ever seen – it was licking her hand. Apparently there’s a salt shortage in the park this year and all the animals are seeking it out like crazy; the rangers have been advising everyone to pee on rocks instead of plants, as animals will dig out the plants in pursuit of more sodium…

 "Oh baby youuu, you got what I neeeeed"

"Oh baby youuu, you got what I neeeeed"

I got closer and the marmot came right up to me and went after my sweat too. So strange. Marmots are like beavers, guinea pigs and monkeys all wrapped into a goofy, whistling alpine critter. This one spent the better part of an hour getting up close and personal with all of us, and Colin gained its trust enough to scratch its back.

 Okay I was petting the marmot too

Okay I was petting the marmot too

Can’t say I ever thought I’d have this experience, despite having come across hundreds of marmots on the PCT. I could explain the extent of how comfortable it was around us, but you’d probably better off just watching this video… (wouldn't let me embed it, hopefully the link works)

https://www.facebook.com/louie.ferdinand.7/videos/679315998873800/

A couple out for the weekend, one from Bellingham, WA and the other from Germany, came up the pass to find this scene and were equally amazed. They had picked up a bag of trash that had fallen out of one of our pockets (tsk tsk bad LNT!) and brought it back to us, so were already on our good side. I laid down to get out of the wind and drifted off into half sleep when I heard everyone shout. The damn marmot had snuck up behind Anchor and snatched my trekking pole by the sweat soaked wrist strap and taken off up the ridge.

Anchor, Bellingham guy and I chased after the little rascal but he disappeared into the rocks. Not only do I value my poles for balance while fording rivers, swiping brush out of the way, poking mysterious substances and taking up to thirty pounds off my legs while going downhill, but the damn critter even managed to take that shortened trekking pole that served as my ice axe on the Ahern drift. Anchor and I kept climbing, listening for the sound of carbon pole smacking against talus, but came up with nothing. Fortunately, our new friend saved the day once again. He found the pole sticking out of the marmot’s little den and rescued it for me. Huzzah.

The rest of the day was comparatively uneventful. We traipsed on down to the Morning Star campground, which sat along a lake pressed against a high mountain wall. There was a camp set up there already but no one seemed to be around; I figured they must be out on a day hike and using Morning Star as basecamp.

Our friends from the pass came into the campsite about an hour after us. They were planning to go over yet another pass and camp at Old Man Lake but were understandably exhausted. We welcomed them into our merry little dinner circle and traded stories. The inhabitants of the mystery tent showed up shortly before sunset – my supposition had been correct. They’re an older couple from Wisconsin who’ve been visiting Glacier for two decades, and who are full of lovely stories from the park.

Day Eight: Two Medicine campground lay just eleven miles south of where we were camped. There’s a small store there full of junk food, cold drinks (beers!), souvenirs and a few hot food items, but nothing to write home about. Nonetheless, we were excited to get down there and indulge. We had a fairly easy hike up to Pitamakan Pass, past two stunning lakes, a family of mountain goats and, as it is Glacier, waterfalls. At the pass I raced up a side trail toward Mt. McCormick to shoot some wide footage of Top Shelf and Paul coming up the trail with the lakes and valley in the background. Once they hiked beyond the frame, I ran down the trail, feeling absolutely free without a pack on my back.

 

The area surrounding Two Med is absolutely stunning and easily accessible to even those who don’t want to hike a single mile on trail. If you ever go to Glacier, you’ll likely see it yourself, so I’ll spare you the description.

 Flinch Peak

Flinch Peak

We passed a lot of backpackers and daywalkers on our way down to the campground. One high school group had met some fellow thruhiker friends, Dora la Explorer and Dances with Chickens, back in East Glacier the day before. We were hoping to catch them in town before they headed south into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, so this was good news. When we hit the last trail junction to skip into town, we spoke with a foursome of Canadians briefly, who were stoked about our journey, while we waited for Colin to catch up. He told us his knees hurt so bad he was nearly in tears, which is not a good sign this early on in a thru-hike.

Anchor and Top Shelf cooked up a devious idea that had us all won over before they’d even finished proposing it: we get to Two Medicine, hitch down to East Glacier to eat real dinner and come back to finish the last ten miles of the section the next morning. Two Medicine is one of those resort-like car and RV campgrounds, so I had absolutely no problem with that.

We got ourselves some snacks at the store before heading to the road to stick our thumbs out. Laugh Track decided she felt great after eating and would rather just bang out the ten miles now and take two zeros (days with zero miles hiked) in a row in East Glacier. I knew deep down that she was right but my stomach overruled my brain.

 Two Med

Two Med

 

We caught a ride with the Canadians we had met up the trail, all five of us jammed into the bed of their truck with nine backpacks. Backpacker’s Inn, the hostel behind the Mexican restaurant, was full of hikers – many of them familiar faces from the PCT Class of 2014. All in all we counted something like 17 southbound thru-hikers that were in East Glacier that day: more than half of all the SOBOs this year!

 Anchor, Paul, Me, Laugh Track, Dirt, Dora, Dances w/ Chickens, Smokey, Top Shelf and Colin

Anchor, Paul, Me, Laugh Track, Dirt, Dora, Dances w/ Chickens, Smokey, Top Shelf and Colin

I absolutely destroyed a vegetarian platter and a couple beers while I caught up with old friends and discussed our respective plans for the next five to six months of hiking. Laugh Track showed up by 7:30. She won, oh well. I hung around talking trail til nearly midnight (real midnight, not hiker midnight which is either 9 or 10pm, depending who you talk to) before realizing I desperately wanted to sleep.

Anchor, Paul, Colin and I were staying at Brownie’s Hostel on the other side of town this time around. The hostel is above a deli and convenience store and being upstairs makes you really feel like you’re in Montana. In the 1800s. Every step creaks, the floor feels like it tilts when you walk, and the ceilings are low. The atmosphere was great. The bunks, though, the crowd staying there, and the Wi-Fi were less than fantastic.

Day Nine: Paul wasn’t interested in the ten missed miles and Colin, sadly, had decided his injury was too much and elected to go home to Detroit, but Anchor, Top Shelf and I had no intentions of skipping miles, especially in the first hundred. I’ll admit we were regretting our decision basically as soon as we woke up, though. We only had ten miles to hike back up to Two Medicine, followed by a hitch back down; the whole process couldn’t take more than four hours. There’s a fascinating phenomenon that virtually all thru hikers experience in town; despite being the very people hiking dozens of miles day after day over mountains, we transform into the laziest humans alive when within the boundaries of a trail town. For example: someone in town tells you the best breakfast you’ll ever have is at the such-and-such restaurant, which is a mile and a half walk, and you instantly know you’ll never taste that breakfast.

We finally got our butts into gear around eight and walked up past the Lodge and the first tee box of the golf course looking for the trail. A beautiful black dog came lilting toward us full speed as soon as we got past the Lodge parking lot. Apparently he’d followed Anchor and Toppy around town the previous night. Maybe he could point us the right direction. Laugh Track had just said to follow the jeep roads and the horseshoe prints.

 

After bushwhacking around a creek and definitely trespassing (on accident, of course), we found our way to the trail and started hiking north. We ditched all the gear we wouldn’t need back at Backpacker’s Inn, so our packs only had snacks and water (this is called slackpacking), but my legs still felt heavy. Having the dog trotting alongside served as a bit of encouragement, though. Eventually we tried to pull an Air Bud and shout at him to ‘go home,’ because there are no dogs allowed in Glacier in the park bounds and who the hell would strand a sweet little pup out in grizzly country ten miles from home?

 

It was a little heartbreaking to see his ears drop when Anchor shouted, but only til we realized he just began following us at more of a distance, trying to hide in the tall grass, his gregarious tail betraying his motives. Of course we caved and encouraged him to come with us. We eventually elected to just hike to Scenic Point and turn around to head back into East Glacier. Technically we were ‘skipping’ four miles this way, but we ended up doing higher mileage on the day anyway. I’m a sucker for a good dog.

 

When we got back into town, a local informed us that the dog’s name was Little Bear, and that he belonged to no one and everyone: the town mascot of sorts.

 The scenery changes down by E. Glacier

The scenery changes down by E. Glacier

 

I stayed in East Glacier for another day and a half, but zeroes are Bard’s time. I will say that I met with and interviewed the students and instructors of the Wild Rockies Field Institute Cycle the Rockies course: a summer class for predominantly University of Montana students in which the class bikes 700 miles across Montana learning about different energy sources and the social, economic and environmental impacts of each. There’ll be video of that sometime in the near future, so you’ll just have to settle for hearing that it was a fun-filled inspiring get together full of hope about the human response to climate change.

 

Oh, and I ate all the foods. So much foods. Mmm.