Hello from… St Mary, Montana.
This is our fifth and hopefully final day in this tiny, tourist trap of a town. When we awoke this morning, at the ripe morning hour of 9:40, the sun was shining, bright and warm. The wind was still blowing in great gusts as it had the night before, but it seemed like it was blowing these wet heavy clouds away for good…
2:00 pm, and more clouds have blown in.
Since we’ve arrived, we’ve been teased by this great state. While the forecast always seems to grow worse- more rain, snow shutting down the shuttle road, snow above 5,000 feet- the clouds have lifted just enough to show us what magnificent mountains they’ve been hiding for days. The day we arrived in Glacier National Park, the cloud cover was so low and thick that if we had driven through, we wouldn’t have known any of the magnificent peaks were even there.
Moving to Montana Soooooon…
Our first day in, fresh off of Amtrak, we reserved a backcountry permit for the night in West Glacier with a somewhat irritating park ranger.
Not that we walked in and started bragging about all of our hiking experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail, but we did mention that we’d hiked 1,500 miles of mountainous terrain in the past three and a half months. At this point, we understood our fitness level at different altitudes and elevation gains quite well and we were confident we could handle the passes in the park. Despite this, the ranger seemed not to believe that we could cover a 60 mile hike in four days- that’s only 15 miles a day- and kept insisting that our hike needed to be broken up in two 4-day segments.
We opted to spend the night at a lake on the other side of the park with a 6 mile hike-in, and just to get the rest of the permits later. We hopped on the park shuttle, which travels along the famous “Going-to-the-Sun Road,” and watched as the weather became more and more foggy the higher up we went. By the time we arrived at Logan Pass, we could barely see 15 feet in front of our faces- and had no idea that there was even a large cluster of buildings, the Visitor Center, just up the hill.
Finally the next shuttle arrived, and headed down to the St. Mary Visitor Center at the eastern edge of the park. Once there we encountered a much more reasonable ranger, who seemed both familiar with long distance hikers and the terrain of the trails along the northern edge of Glacier National Park.
Light rain began to fall outside and we ascertained a weather update from the rangers- rain, more rain, falling temperatures, and snow at high elevations.
True to our nature, Nikita and I located the cheapest lodging nearby and booked a room for the night. There was no way we were going to camp next to a lake in those foggy, rainy and freezing conditions. As the weather worsened, we would end up staying in the room for 2 days and moving out to a nearby tent site once the rain stopped and while we waited for 7 inches of snow up on the passes to melt.
We’re not in California anymore, I thought.
We’ve had plenty of time to discover the quirks and culture of St. Mary, prowling the main drag day after day in search of an open establishment with coffee and passable wifi. The coffee is expensive but drinkable, the wifi barely works.
Due to the harsh, snow-socked winters and the overall lack of civilization, the town lives a predominantly summer-only existence. Teens and college students from overseas flock to the areas around the park to work for the summer, seeming to imply that there is a sufficient lack of local work force to employ at the overpriced lodges and restaurants that sustain seasonal tourism. By the end of September, the families have all gone home to go to school, and the RVers have driven out to safer roads and mostly, back to Florida.
Then winter sets in.
The Continental Divide gashes its way through the western edge of Montana, taking up a sizable minority of the state’s total area for the Rocky Mountains and its many subranges and leaving the rest for the Great Plains. While the parts of the state west of the Divide remain sheltered by the expansive mountain ranges and experience a milder climate, the eastern area is blown frigid as wind travels unencumbered across the vast Great Plains, somewhat exhausting itself among the staggered peaks and valleys of the Rockies.
The coldest recorded temperature in the Contiguous United States was in Montana (-57 degrees), and experiences extreme fluctuations in weather and temperature, because there is wind basically blowing into it from every direction. Throughout the winter, snow literally piles it on. Along Going-to-the-Sun Road there is a natural feature lovingly called “The Big Drift,” which is essentially just a massive snowdrift that can grow over 80 feet deep. It can take over a month to plow this one section of road.
This is all not to say that people don’t enjoy the winters. With a job description that sounds exactly like the plot of The Shining, a young couple are the “winter keepers” of the Many Glacier Hotel, which lies deep in the heart of Glacier National Park and becomes snowed in (hello, Big Drift) for the winter months. The winter of 2014-2015 was their first year manning the hotel, and they kept up a blog of brief posts and photos of their experiences living holed up in a snow-lover’s paradise. It’s one of the cooler things I’ve read in a while: A Winter at Many Glacier.
Their descriptions of the winter environment of Many Glacier have helped me to understand that there’s only a slight difference between places that are deemed “rugged” and those deemed “bleak.” The difference, and it is key, is the presence of natural beauty.
Scouting Logan Pass
This morning, Randy, a seasonal worker at the campground we’ve come to really like since, well… yesterday, offered us a ride up to Logan Pass. The pass had been closed since our second day due to 7 inches of snow, and had just reopened after being plowed. He was going to take some pictures and check things out. Of course we would go, we had absolutely nothing better to do, but we also needed to assess the weather and situation on the trail, and Logan Pass is where we planned to start. We rode with Randy up to the pass in his truck, with his two Karelian Bear Dogs, Rika and Nika, in the back.
Since being on the trail, I’ve been away from my fur baby (most people who know me and my dog Riley will acknowledge that I actually do treat him like he’s my child) and miss my dog so much I’ve developed such an acute desperation for canine attention, that it might warrant some concern. Obviously, I was ecstatic when I saw his two dogs, even more so that they would be riding with us up to the pass. It’s enough for me just to be near their happy, wagging dog bodies.
On our ride up through the mountains Randy told us of how he had sought out the specialty bear-chasing breed, going all the way to Finland where it originated. The dogs are fearless hunters and true to their name, aggressively pursue large game, including bears.
I learned of Karelian Bear Dogs- and their penchant for tracking and corralling one of the wild’s most fearsome beasts- from a quick Google yesterday when Randy had first told us about them. Looking at Rika and Nika in the back of the truck though, it was hard to imagine them as anything other than the sweet and excitable doggies they were.
National Parks with large bear populations, and predictable bear management problems, have used the dogs to deal with wild bears. Though Randy tells us that Glacier no longer uses Karelians, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains an active Karelian Bear Dog (KBD) program. You can read more about it here and here.
“I don’t even carry bear mace or a gun with me anymore,” Randy explained. “I just bring the dogs.”
Randy is somewhat of an asset to the park. In his time spent in Glacier National Park and St. Mary, Randy would receive calls to assist park rangers with bears, often with his two dogs.
“Sounds like the park calls you when they have bear problems,” I said.
“Yep!” he laughed. “They all have me on speed dial.”
Turns out Randy is somewhat of a bear expert, even without the dogs, and though he talked about bear encounters, even very disturbing ones, he was surprised when we told him he was scaring the bejesus* out of us. He then told us that though he was certain we would see grizzlies, but that we would have no problems. Personally, I think he’s been a little desensitized after so many bear experiences, but he offered solid advice and reassuring statistics.
As the truck pulled into Logan Pass, I recognized the same, cloudy parking lot where we had shivered waiting for the bus just a few days’ prior. It was windy yet sunny down in St. Mary, but cold and snowing at the pass. Snow was piled up onto the edges of the road- not a good sign for us.
We headed over to the Highline Trail head, the first trail of our charted journey, and through the blanket of snow saw tracks that led to a mist-shourded grove of trees. It was unlikely that someone had hiked the entire 15 miles to the end at Many Glacier, and with so much snow on the ground we would have a hard time finding the trail.
Randy, Nikita and I stepped onto the first few feet of the trail and toed the slushy padding of snow with our feet.
“Guess we’re waiting another day.”
As we came out of the pass and drove back into St. Mary, cars were stopped along the side of the road.
“Must be a bear,” Randy said.
Sure enough, peaking out of the tall grass on the hillside across from the lake was the unmistakable head of a black bear.
The dogs stood up on the sides of the truck bed and sniffed enthusiastically.
“They smell it,” Randy said.
The bear paused to glance at the 5 or so cars that slowed and stopped to look at him, but went straight back to chowing down, just like Randy had told us the bears would do. After so many weekends on the Appalachian Trail and 4 months in the mountains of California and Washington, this was our first wild bear sighting. Ever.
*There is an official, correct spelling of bejesus? Yes, Pages autocorrected my incorrect spelling: bejeesus. Just thought everyone should know.