I had a few simple goals for my visit to Glacier National Park.
- Stand on a glacier
- Unplug for a few days
- Not get eaten by a grizzly bear
The first two I could do without achieving, but the third goal seemed a little more important.
I had never been to Glacier National Park and other than spending a few minutes reviewing Google Maps, I didn’t really know what to expect. I made a quick stop at the visitor’s center and looked over the wall of photographs, mentally taking notes of the places that I wanted to see. First on the list, the Going-To-The-Sun Road.
The Going-To-The-Sun Road is a 53 mile stretch of highway built in 1932 to connect the east and west sides of the park. It is cut into steep cliffs and crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. The byway is closed in the winter due to heavy snow and luckily I had arrived a few short weeks before it would become impassable. Up to 80 feet of snow can drift across Logan Pass in the winter, and in heavy snow years it can take up to 10 weeks to plow the highway before it is open to the public. I wanted to make sure to be long gone before the first snowflakes appeared.
Crossing Logan Pass I descended to Saint Mary Lake where a forest fire had ravaged the mountains. The landscape was desolate, scorched, and dead, but I spotted one small purple flower blooming among the devastation and was reminded that in nature, death also brings life, and wildfire is part of the natural cycle of the forest’s existence.
I stopped at the Saint Mary Campground and reserved a spot for the night. The camp host gave me a permit and said “The campground will probably close tomorrow morning because of a grizzly bear in the area. Just be careful tonight.” Uh…okay.
I set up camp, cracked open a beer, and settled in. A Park Ranger stopped by and confirmed that the campground would be closing in the morning “due to above normal grizzly bear activity”. I thanked him and wwaaaaiiittt a minute. How did they know the grizzly bear will be “above normally active” in the morning and not overnight!? I cooked a quick dinner, updated my progress on my wall map, drank a few PBR’s to call my grizzly nerves, and drifted off to sleep, dreaming of honey and snickers bars, hoping the bear couldn’t smell them from my dreamworld.
The next morning I drove to Many Glacier Campground and reserved a campsite, laced up my running shoes, stuffed my bear spray in my running pack, and went exploring. Iceberg Lake was a 10 mile round trip trail that passed a waterfall and dead ended in a glacial lake surrounded by towering 3,000 foot tall sheer rock walls. When I arrived I was mesmerized by the light blue water and rocky amphitheater, but a little bummed by the lack of icebergs. Still, it was magnificent.
I returned to the campsite and contemplated walking over to the village to take a warm shower. Campers could pay $2.00 for 8 minutes of hot water, and that sounded nice, but I considered the options. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford $2.00, on the contrary, I could easily pay for a shower. Instead, I weighed out my “wants” and “needs” and decided that if I could manage with cold showers from my solar bag while on the road I would do just fine with it here too. So, I filled my water bag, tried unsuccessfully to warm the water in the sun, and shivered through a cold shower. There, I had proved it to myself. What had I proved? I don’t really know, but I was clean and for once a warm PBR sounded way better than an ice cold one!
The next morning I hit the trails early in search of a glacier to stand on. I ran by Swiftcurrent Lake, Lake Josephine, Grinnell Lake, and climbed the steep trail to Upper Grinnell Lake. The mountain walls closed in around me and I reached a summit to see a wide panorama of a bright blue glacial lake, a glacier, and icebergs, lots of them, strung across the lake. Finally, icebergs! Iceberg Lake had none, but Grinnell was coming through for me!
I rock hopped across a vast open valley to the edge of a shrinking glacier. Most experts believe that Glacier National Park will be glacier-less by 2030 due to the slowly rising temperatures of the earth. This could be one of the few times I would be so close to an actual glacier and I wanted to explore. I had been reading enough adventure books though to know how dangerous glaciers can be, especially when adventuring solo, so I tiptoed only a few feet onto the ice to get photo evidence that I had actually stood on a real life glacier, then returned to safety.
I sat by the lake for more than an hour, enjoying the scene, dipping my feet in the ice cold water, and watching a large iceberg shift and roll over. I ran back down the trail, stopping to chat with people I had passed on the way up including a 71 year old gentleman who said he has been making the hike up to Grinnell Glacier at least once a year for the last 40 years. Back at the campsite I treated myself to another cold shower and laid in my hammock, reading the afternoon away.
The next morning I packed camp and drove north. Canada was just a few short miles away and I figured I needed to at least stop by and say hello to our northern neighbors. When I pulled Tantor up to the border the guard started his standard line of questioning. Not satisfied with my answers he pointed to the office and I parked to go have a conversation with the senior officer. He asked lots of questions about drugs, alcohol, jail, if I had a ‘real job’, if I had ever been fingerprinted, and if I was coming to their country to sell illegal things. Interestingly, they barely let me answer the “Do you have $10,000 with you?” question. Must be the homeless hippy thing.
Eventually they let me in and I drove to Waterton to see the Prince of Wales Hotel, Cameron Lake, and the gorgeous Canadian Rockies. After lunch I made the return haul to the United States, expecting the reentry to be easier. Instead, the Border Patrol guard asked me the same line of questions about drugs, alcohol, jail, if I had a ‘real job’, if I had ever been fingerprinted, and if I was coming back into my country to sell illegal things. Then he asked if I had bought the van from someone. Uhhh, yeah, he really did ask if I (31 years old) had bought a 1985 VW Van (30 years old) from someone. “No sir, I actually bought the van from the dealership up when I was 1, I have the dealer tags to prove it.” He didn’t like my sarcastic reply and sent me inside. Crap.
The senior officer asked me more questions, then made me sit in the office as he went out to search the van. He found my emergency stash of $20 hidden in the glove box and confiscated the oranges that I had bought in the United States and was trying to bring back to the United States. He said I was free to go, and as I opened the office door I paused and said “Quick question, is it me, my long hair, my hippie van, or something else that made you guys search me?” His gruff grunt and blank stare made me realize the error of my ways. I flashed the peace sign, said “¡Hasta luego!”, and scampered back to Tantor to drive south before they changed their mind about letting me back in.
Back in the homeland I drove through Glacier National Park to Kalispell to catch up on emails and work. Michelle Abnet, my friend from high school, was also in Kalispell on vacation visiting friends. I headed over to their house for dinner and we spent the night catching up on old times, sharing travel stories, and drinking a few too many beers.
From Kalispell I toured south, taking scenic routes and following ghost town signs along dirt mountain roads. Eventually I made it to Missoula, MT, a place I had always wanted to visit. I spent a few nights urban stealth camping around town, holed up in coffee shops working, attending a Rotary Club meeting, and getting an oil change for Tantor. From Missoula I drove east, spent a day working in Butte, and finally crossed the Continental Divide for the last time on my summer vagabond tour.
I rolled into Bozeman and found a place to park and get some work done. My cousin Mason was attending school in Bozeman and I looked forward to meeting up with him. We grabbed some food and planned to head out to the park to slackline but a thunderstorm moved in and trumped that idea. We grabbed some cheap beer and watched the football game with his roommates at his apartment. The next morning I awoke to snow covering the mountains around town, saw my breath inside my van, and realized it was definitely time to head for warmer weather. I rolled out of town heading south, out of Montana, into Wyoming, and back into Yellowstone.