Day 0: Way Early
The northwestern section of Glacier National Park is called the North Fork Area. It’s characterized by a primitive, rugged landscape: no paved roads, no fancy resorts, no espresso stands. Aside from a dirt road that loosely traces the North Fork River, the region shows very few signs of human life at all. That’s where we’d start our trip.
We’d drive two hours from Kalispell, Montana into the North Fork Area, parking our car less than ten miles from the Canadian Border. We’d spend our first day hiking 11.6 miles along Kintla Lake to stay at the Upper Kintla Lake backcountry campsite. Then, we’d hike along Boulder Pass, one of the most beautiful stretches of trail in America, and stay at Glacier’s famous Hole in the Wall, which is situated between Boulder Pass and Brown Pass. From there, we’d cross into Glacier National Park’s Goat Haunt Area, working our way east across the park until we linked up with the Continental Divide Trail, which winds down through the heart of Glacier National Park. But, before we could begin our journey, we needed fuel.
My friend Nick and I had three canisters of fuel for our stove on the counter of Kalispell’s Rocky Mountain Outfitter when the clerk asked us where we were going. When we told him about our plans to go through Boulder Pass, the clerk asked us, in a skeptical tone, Do you guys have ice axes? We didn’t. Don, isn’t there snow up in Boulder Pass right now? The clerk asked the man standing behind us. Four feet of fresh powder, the man said.
The man standing behind us, Don, had a thick head of gray-white hair and a mustache to match. He was the type of man who appeared to be growing stronger as he got older, as if he didn’t buy into the idea that he was supposed to grow frail with age. And his eyes were kind, when he crushed our dreams, telling us You guys can’t go up there without ice axes. I was there last week, and the snow was up to my waist.
Nick and I looked at each other, our eyes saying the same thing: Fuck.
How long are you guys in town for? Don asked us, as he unfolded a copy of National Geographic’s topographical map of Glacier National Park. If you’ve got a car for the week, I’ll show you guys where you can go. You guys are way early to be out here, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a great trip – we just might need to split it up into two or three smaller trips. And before we knew it, the guy who crushed our dreams only moments earlier was helping us to build a new one: day by day, site by site.
Dude, we’re so lucky we met that guy, Nick said to me as we walked back to our car. I looked back at him and said, through a smile, Fortuitous.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the man who helped us rebuild our dream trip to Glacier National Park was the owner of the store. In fact, Don Scharfe founded Rocky Mountain Outfitter forty years ago, back in 1976. And since the doors opened, he’s been in the same location in Kalispell: 135 South Main Street. In addition to being a walking encyclopedia on Glacier and an incredibly kind man, Don’s one hell of an alpinist, too. If you’re ever in Kalispell, I can’t recommend enough visiting Don and his shop, Rocky Mountain Outfitter, for any supplies or advice you might need on your way into the park.
Day 1: Into the Belly
We were applying for our backcountry permits when a park ranger asked us, Is there a reason you want to go via Lee Ridge? as if we were some sort of masochists.
We talked to a guy yesterday, in Kalispell, and he said we’ve gotta go that way. He said it’s beautiful.
We were at the Saint Mary Ranger Station, on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. We’d gotten up before the sunrise, left our hotel in the dark, and been driving for two hours to get there. The ranger station had only opened the day before. Fortuitous.
Here are your permits, the ranger said as she passed them over. They’re free, because the park hasn’t opened for the season yet.
Nick and I looked at each other for a second, without exchanging words. Way early, I thought, remembering Don’s comments back in Kalispell. And we were back in our car, heading north to the Lee Ridge Trailhead.
I’m terribly picky about the partners I choose for any adventure I go on, and I’m even more so when it comes to backpacking trips. The consequences of entering the backcountry with a lame partner range from just having a miserable time to potentially getting killed – depending on what you’re getting into. So, I tend to be overly judicious in who I’m willing to enter the wild with. This was my first trip with Nick. And, though I’ve known him for years, there’s always a little bit of anxiety when you enter the backcountry with someone for the first time, especially on an extended trip. But, any question of whether or not he was the right guy to be out there with went away as we approached Gable Pass, the apex of our first day of hiking.
I want to get up there, he said, looking toward the horizon of snow-capped mountains that we were approaching. I want to get up there: those are magic words for me. Anyone who’s gone on a hike with me knows my affinity for venturing off trail and up whatever cliff face, tree, or haystack that I can find. That kid who refuses to leave the playground when his parents call him in – that’s me. When Nick said I want to get up there, I’d been quietly thinking the same thing.
Most of my climbing is done without ropes. It’s done without a helmet or a crash pad. It’s mostly serendipitous: I find myself in the middle of a beautiful mountain range, I say to myself I want to get up there, and I go. I love the way that climbing like that forces total focus: if you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing, it can literally kill you. Climbing in that way isn’t so much about pushing past your fears, or pushing past your comfort zone – it’s more about finding your edge and confronting it. It’s about being totally present in every movement in your body; in the way the wind is blowing, or how the air pressure is changing. It’s about being fully cognizant of the risks you’re taking, about not taking stupid risks, and about knowing when to stop.
We made it to Gable Pass, and we took turns leading bouldering routes up Gable Mountain for over an hour. Nick and I made it to within a few hundred feet of Gable’s summit before we called it quits for our climbing session: some heavy clouds were rolling in on the horizon, and we knew we’d be in trouble if we were caught up there during a storm. We carefully descended down to our packs, which we’d left back near the trail, and hiked another six miles down to Cosley Lake – our campsite for the night.
Nick and I didn’t bring a tent with us. Instead, we opted for a couple of backpacking hammocks. Having used both, my general preference is pretty strong towards hammocks (over a tent).
What are the odds that you think it rains tonight? Nick asked me, as we were hanging our hammocks along the lake’s shoreline for the night. Nick was asking because he didn’t want to put up his rainfly, in hopes that he could look at the stars all night from his hammock.
The weather forecast earlier said what, 40%? So, I think I’ll go with that. We both started laughing, and Nick reluctantly set up his rainfly. We threw our sleeping bags into our hammocks, zipped ourselves in, and fell fast asleep.
Day 2: Johnny
I’m not sure which of the following things woke me up first: the rain, which was coming down sideways, pounding the sides of my rainfly; the thunder, which seemed to be shaking the mountains around us; or the lightning, which was lighting up Cosley Lake – but I snapped awake at one point in the middle of the night. After I realized that I was still dry, I burst out laughing. Nick was laughing, too. Hey, Matt, I joked, making fun of Nick, What are the odds you think it rains tonight?
When we woke the next morning, we saw two things that caught me a little off guard: snow had fallen at our campsite, and there was a bear a few hundred yards away from where we’d hung our hammocks, walking along the shore of Cosley Lake. The bear was far enough from us to feel safe, but it was a very real reminder that we were in the wilderness.
We broke camp after breakfast and began what would be the easiest day of hiking during our entire trip to Glacier: a quick 4.6 mile trek from Cosley Lake down to the head of Glenns Lake. Unlike our first night, at Cosley Lake, we would would be the only people camping at the head of Glenns Lake on the night we stayed there. And, after our bear sighting that morning, Nick and I decided that the only way to ensure our safety from being plucked out of our hammocks in our sleep by a bear was to hang our hammocks high enough in the trees that a bear wouldn’t be able to reach us. So, after a short hike to Glenns Lake, Nick and I spent much of the afternoon just climbing trees around the Glenns Lake campsite, looking for tactical advantages to hanging a hammock in one set of trees versus another, trying to decide if sleeping 15 feet off the ground posed more of a risk than it offered protection. Boys being boys, we finally decided to hang our hammocks closer to the ground. The tipping point? We were too concerned that one of us would wake up in the middle of the night, roll out of their hammock to go to the bathroom, and forget that we were fifteen feet off the ground.
While Nick and I were climbing trees, a small family of deer had wandered into the campsite. By the way they spread out and surrounded us, it actually seemed as though we had wandered into the deer’s home – not the other way around. What’s up, Johnny? Nick said to the largest one. And for the rest of the afternoon, they wouldn’t leave us alone. More joined, even. At one point, there were seven of them, and the whole time, Johnny never wandered more than 100 feet from where we’d hung our hammocks. As other deer approached us, he would huff and snort and charge them. We weren’t sure whether he was protecting us or whether he was saving us for his next meal.
Deer can’t kill us, can they? I asked Nick. We were both staring at Johnny, as if the answer was buried somewhere in his eyes.
I don’t know, man, Nick answered.
…On the bright side, I said, if the deer are here, then there probably isn’t a bear anywhere nearby, right?
And after that conversation, we realized that our hammocks weren’t high enough. They didn’t need to be 15 feet up in the trees, but we decided we didn’t want the deer to kill us in our sleep, either.
When we woke up in the morning, they were grazing directly under our hammocks.
Day 3: Teddy
We left our campsite that morning at the head of Glenns Lake and were bound for the head of Elizabeth Lake, about 12 miles away. The temperatures were dropping down into the low-thirties at night, leaving the air cool and crisp for the start of our morning hike. The trail was still wet from the previous night’s storm, which made for slow, muddy trail conditions.
An interesting aspect of the trails and the campsites in Glacier National Park is that a good portion of them seem to accommodate horses. In fact, one of the numbers listed on every campsite is the number of livestock that can be accommodated overnight. So, we weren’t totally surprised to see as much horse poop in the trails as we did. What was weird though, was to see the color of the horse poop we were coming across: it was black and green, as opposed to the hay-colored stuff we’d seen at the start of our trip.
I wonder if it has to do with the horses eating more of the vegetation out here, as opposed to just eating grains, Nick suggested, which seemed plausible to me.
But then things started to get weirder. After about twenty minutes of hiking, we came across a steaming pile of horse poop, right in the middle of the trail. For a horse to have pooped that recently on the trail in that spot, someone would have had to have ridden right past our campsite that morning. But, we didn’t see any horses ride past .
That’s weird, I said, the rest of our analysis going unspoken. And then, ten minutes later, we saw it. Right in the middle of the trail, fresh from that morning, was a picture perfect paw print from a grizzly bear. From heel to claw, the print was longer than my boot.
What the fuck… I said. And then, it all started to come together. No horses had ridden past our campsite that morning; but, in all likelihood, a full-grown grizzly bear had walked right past it. And the fresh pile of poop we’d seen only ten minutes earlier hadn’t been from a horse; it had been from the grizzly. Its paw prints were fresh, heading in the same direction that we were walking. Which meant… we were tracking a grizzly bear. And, apparently, it was walking right down the trail.
Nick and I froze and looked at each other for a good minute or two before we continued, both of us painfully aware of how screwed we were if we ran into a grizzly. Grizzly bears can run at speeds up to 35 mph, which means, you can’t outrun a grizzly – you just have to try to avoid a conflict as much as possible. But, if we ran into a one, and if it attacked us, we were only armed with a couple of folding pocket knives. We weren’t carrying bear spray with us… because we’re idiots.
And then, we saw another pile of steaming bear poop in the trail.
HEYYYYYY, TEDDY! Nick yelled. From what we’d learned before our trip, one of the best ways to avoid a bear attack is to avoid surprising a bear. And, one of the best ways to do that is to make noise as you hike. So, we spent the rest of our morning talking loudly, hollering out to our new friend, “Teddy,” whom we hoped to never meet.
A few miles down the trail, we’d reached a beautiful ridge and stopped to take in the view, take off a layer, and go to the bathroom. I’d set down my back, walked back down the trail to find a tree, and unzipped my pants when Nick said to me: Uhh, Matt… There’s a bear. And, sure enough, over my shoulder, there was a massive brown bear walking down the trail towards Nick and my pack. I should have known that the first time I saw a bear up close I would be in the middle of peeing.
Uhh, dude, you need to come grab your pack, Nick said to me, which the bear was closing in on. I turned and trotted over to my pack, trying not to excite the approaching bear; I didn’t even zip up my pants. The videos we’d seen on bear safety before our trip told us not to turn and run from a bear, as that can make them think that you’re prey, in which case… you become prey. Instead, if a bear approaches you, you’re supposed to back away and get out of their way. So, Nick and I started backing away, back down the trail we’d just hiked up, with my pants unzipped and our fifty-pound packs slung over our shoulders. And the bear kept coming down the trail toward us.
We figure we backpedalled for about a quarter of a mile, with the bear following close behind us, never more than 50 feet away, before we found a clearing where we could get off the trail. As soon as we could, we raced uphill, climbing over tree stumps, trying to find a place to hide before the bear caught up with us. We positioned ourselves behind a couple of fallen trees, figuring that they might at least make the bear’s approach to us more difficult.
We pulled out our knives, and I said to Nick, If this thing comes up here, and if it comes after us, we’ve got to try to kill it.
Oh, for sure, dude, and Nick pulled out his phone and turned on the camera.
I looked at him and turned my head, saying what the fuck are you doing? with my eyes. To which he responded, Well, if we’re going to die, I want people to know how it all went down. I’m a photographer. I couldn’t argue with that. And so we stood there, armed with a couple of knives and an iPhone, waiting for a bear to approach us. Nick pressed record on his phone and began narrating the final moments of our lives:
So, uhh… we’re in Glacier National Park right now… we just got chased down a trail by a massive, brown bear… Matt and I are hiding back in the trees, really hoping this thing doesn’t come up here right now…And then we saw it. It was coming down the trail, and it was less than forty feet from us. This was the first time we were able to see the bear’s profile, which looked even larger than it had from straight on. When it reached the section of the trail where Nick and I had veered off, it stopped and looked up the hill toward us – pausing to acknowledge that it had seen us – and then it continued down the trail. And it was gone.
That night, after we’d finally made it to Elizabeth Lake, Nick and I hung our hammocks right on the beach. If a bear came walking down the shore, as we’d seen on our second morning in the park, then it would be walking within ten feet of our hammocks. But, after knowing that a grizzly had walked past us that morning – and after running into a black bear on the trail – a part of us had resigned to just let things run their course with the park’s wildlife. It wasn’t so much that we weren’t still being cautious, but I think we both just sort of realized that we were the ones who were infringing on the bears’ home – not the other way around.
As we laid in our hammocks that night, our last night in the Belly Area, we started talking about how sweet it would be to be able to take a kayak or a canoe out onto one of the alpine lakes at Glacier. I wonder if you can rent kayaks over in West Glacier, I said, pulling up a copy of our map on my phone, not leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag. And on our map, I saw that West Glacier’s Lake McDonald was not only a huge lake, but that it was really close to the town of West Glacier.
Dude, how sweet would it be to rent kayaks at Lake McDonald, paddle out to a campsite there, camp overnight, and then paddle back in the morning?
It would be sweet, but we didn’t even know if you could rent kayaks in Lake McDonald. And, even if we could rent kayaks, we’d need to secure a backcountry permit for a site at there in order to camp out. And there were only two permits available for overnight camping in Lake McDonald’s backcountry, both of which were offered on a first-come, first-served basis. So, in order for us to get one, we’d have to be either the first or second people to arrive at a ranger station the next day to request a site there. But, we were still eleven miles from our car, and then another twenty miles of driving from there to the closest ranger station that issued backcountry permits.
We started doing some math on how quickly we thought we could get to a ranger station the next morning, and then we made an agreement: we would leave at sunrise, and we’d stop for nothing until we got to the ranger station. We didn’t know if the middle leg of our dream trip to Glacier was even possible, but we were sure as hell going to try to make it happen.