Day 4: Off and On and Lost and Unfound
Nick and I woke with the sunrise and were practically running up the trailhead from the head of Elizabeth Lake to Chief Mountain, where we’d parked our car three days earlier. Running in bear country is a big no-no, since the most likely way to wind up in a dangerous situation with a bear is to surprise one – which, as Nick and I learned the previous day, is all too easy to do while rounding a corner or cresting a hill. But, Nick and I were literally chasing a dream of ours: to kayak across Lake MacDonald to the backcountry campsite, there. So, as we ran the 11.1 miles from our our car, we took turns calling out to the furry friend we hoped not to see again:
We got back to our car by 11:30, and started driving south down highway 17 toward the St. Mary Ranger Station. Thirty minutes later, we were there, on June 1 – the first day of the open season at Glacier National Park.
Please tell us you’ve got an open campsite at Lake MacDonald, I said to Oliver, the ranger who’s name I’ll never forget.
Uhh, actually, you guys are in luck – I do, he said to us.
Fuck. Yes. The dream was still alive. Now, all we needed to do was find a place that would rent us a couple of kayaks for the next 24 hours and we would be on our way.
Perfect. We were hoping to do one night out there, and then another two nights somewhere else on the west side of the park. Go ahead and start on that permit, and then we’ll file for another one once we figure out where we want to go on the west side.
Backpacking permits in Glacier are separated into trips based on where you’ll be able to continuously hike to: meaning that any time you return back to your car, you need a new permit. Our plan was to do one night at Lake MacDonald, come back to our car, and then drive up to the North Fork Area for a night or two at Bowman Lake and Quartz Lake.
Okay, so, I think we know where we want to go for our second permit. Do you need any other information to wrap up our spot at Lake MacDonald?
Oh… Shoot… I’m really sorry, guys... It looks like someone just took the spot at Lake MacDonald… I’m really sorry… Today’s my first day… I must have not put you guys down right for the spot.
...From euphoria to you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me. I was deflated, thinking, This is bullshit! We deserve that spot! Nick was so pissed he walked out of the ranger station, leaving me and Oliver to figure out what to do next.
Okay, well, why don’t you work on our permits for the North Fork Area, and I’ll re-visit the map and figure out where else we can go.
With Oliver back at the computer, I went back to scanning the map of trailheads and campsites to figure out where Nick and I could get in and out of easily for a night of camping in the West Glacier area – but there was nothing that looked exciting. Having your dreams crushed sucks. Nick came back in from the parking lot, and we kicked around ideas for a few more minutes about where we should try to spend the night. Then, Nick said:
Before we book a site somewhere else for tonight, can you check one more time to see if Lake MacDonald is really full for tonight? Maybe a spot opened back up or something?
And, I kid you not, Oliver said, Oh, wow, it looks like a spot just opened up. Do you guys want to take a night at Lake MacDonald?
I put both my hands on the counter, looked Oliver square in the eyes, and with the sincerest donotfuckthisup look in my face, I said to him: Oliver, book us the campsite. And then we walked out, permits in hand, dream still alive, headed full speed to Lake MacDonald to find a couple of Kayaks.
Oh my God, that’s my dream trip. That’s what the owners of Glacier Outfitters told us.
So, you’re saying we can do it?
Totally, the campsite is right on the water.
Nick and I exchanged smiles, like two boys who were about to get away with something, and we walked back to our car to move all of our gear from backpacks into drybags, throw on shorts, and launch our kayaks from the south end of Lake MacDonald in search of our campsite.
After getting snowed on during our first night in the park, it felt surreal to be paddling across an alpine lake with our shirts off. We got on the water at 4:30 in the afternoon, and it was still almost eighty degrees outside. Nick was gliding across the water like a Colombian Pocohantas; I was moving across the water with the grace of a cow in a swimming pool. It was my first time in a kayak. But, despite my ego struggling to comprehend how I could be so damn slow in a kayak, it felt incredible to be out of hiking boots and on the water. It was a new mode of travel for me, and that novel feeling of exploration is the most amazing drug I know.
From what we were told about the lake, we actually knew very little about how we would identify our campsite. Despite the company we rented boats from telling us that kayaking out to the campsite was their dream trip, and that the site was indeed accessible by water, they weren’t able to offer us any specific landmarks that we could use to identify it. We spoke to another guy down near the docks where we took off from, and his only guidance for us was that the site was farther out than the farthest point we could see from the shore.
We’ll find it, we said, just happy to get out on the water, and we pushed off with the wind at our backs. But after three hours on the water, we still hadn’t found the campsite. Each time we reached a point, we seemed to turn a corner and find that the lake was much longer than we originally thought. More, we realized that finding a primitive backcountry campsite that was only large enough to house two tents would be nearly impossible – especially since we were one of two groups of people that had a permit for the site. After four hours on the water, with the last light fading into darkness, we still hadn’t found our campsite.
Dude, we’ve gotta get off the water, I shouted up to Nick, who was still gliding effortlessly across the water, about a quarter mile up ahead of me. At that point, we had almost reached the northern end of the lake. As the sun set, it took the warmth with it, and temperatures on the water dropped nearly thirty degrees from when our afternoon on the water started. Nick and I were still just wearing shorts – neither of us had a shirt on – and the only thing keeping us warm was the fact that we’d been paddling across the lake for four hours.
We conceded that we must have passed the campsite, and ] we headed for a beach along the northwestern section of Lake MacDonald to call home for the night. We ran our kayaks into the shore, made dinner, and hung our hammocks on a couple of trees that jutted out over the water. No clouds in the sky meant no need for rain flies, leaving us hanging over the lake in our hammocks, rocking to sleep with the evening breeze, beneath the milky way. It’s a night that I’ll never forget.
We’re going to need to get up before the sunrise tomorrow morning, Nick said to me after dinner. It took us about four hours to get out here, and we had the wind at our backs the whole time. Even in neutral conditions, it’ll take us way longer to get back in; if we run into headwinds, we might not get back at all… I knew he was right. I was worked my ass off all afternoon just to stay within earshot of Nick; and, like he said, the wind was at our backs for the whole time. So, we each set an alarm on our phones for 5am the next morning, and then we drifted into a deep sleep.
Day 5: Broken Glass
The next morning, we broke camp in the dark, under a star-lit sky. We pushed our kayaks out onto the glassy lake surface and started making our way south. If the outfitting company we rented our kayaks from was right, then we would need to kayak about 11 miles to get back to our car. We were the first ones on the water that morning, and I almost felt guilty dipping my paddle in the water – the way that each stroke disrupted the clear reflection of the surrounding mountains in the water.
We were an hour into paddling back when we stopped to stretch our legs and fill up our water bottles at a nearby beach. This is unreal, we kept saying. We paddled along the shoreline, taking pictures of the bald eagles that were perched in the trees along the water.
Another hour went by before the clear skies we’d started with were covered up by dark clouds. The wind picked up; it was blowing straight into our faces; it started raining sideways. The current picked up, and it pushed against out kayaks. We were paddling twice as hard and barely moving through the water. The glassy surface we’d started with was shattered into choppy, rough water. And suddenly, the concerns we’d had the night before – that the weather might turn against us and leave us unable to make it back to our car – started to feel all too real.
We pulled off at a beach to take refuge from the storm. Maybe it’ll blow over, I said to Nick. The severity of our situation was compounded by the fact that we hadn’t packed our kayaks for a storm. With the weather forecast calling for clear skies and temperatures in the seventies, we’d packed light in favor of faster kayaks: neither of us had brought shoes or pants; Nick didn’t pack a shell, and his shirt was soaked from the rain that was driving us back to where we’d started our morning. My life jacket, which had been on underneath my rain shell, was the only piece of dry clothing either of us had left. I gave it to Nick to help keep him warm, while we huddled under a tree and strategized a plan for getting back to our car.
We’ve gotta stick as close to the shoreline as we can, he said. Let’s stay close to each other the rest of the way. We’ve got to make sure we’ve both got life jackets on, with how rough the water is… Let’s see if we can paddle in 15-20 minute increments, and just holler if you need to take a break. Let’s take this thing down one point at a time. We split a Clif bar, and then we were back on the water.
When we resumed our return voyage, the conditions were even worse than when we’d stopped. The waves on the surface had worked up to about 24 inches; the nose of my kayak was fully submerging into the lake as each one broke across the front of my boat. But, for some reason, in the midst of the chaos, I looked over at Nick, and we both just started laughing.
I went to a North Face event once, with legendary alpinists Conrad Anker and Mark Synott. Conrad talked about how the most important thing in a climbing partner was a positive attitude. The gist of his point was that, inevitably, you’re eventually going to end up in a shitty situation. In situations like those, he said, having a positive attitude is often the difference between making it and not making it; in some cases, it's the difference between even trying to.
That morning was my second time ever in a kayak; Nick and I were paddling into 20 mph headwinds; it was raining sideways; the waves we were paddling into were filling our kayaks with water every time they broke across our boats; and we were still more than an hour or two from our destination. And, in the middle of the storm, we were looking at each other and laughing: it was our way of keeping positive in the middle of a gnarly situation.
After another hour of paddling along the shoreline and slowly creeping towards home, we reached the final point of our journey. We looked across an open bay toward where our car was parked, and I said to Nick, Let’s just go for it. We hadn’t stopped in almost an hour. He looked at me and said, Let’s do it, and he led the way. We charged across the bay, invigorated by the fact that we could literally see our final destination for the first time all morning. We were shouting to each other about how good the hot cocoa in West Glacier was going to be when we made it back to our car. We didn’t stop paddling until we hit the beach where we’d started from the day before, almost 45 minutes later.
When we hit the beach, we didn’t say anything for a few minutes. I drove my kayak into the shore next to Nick, and we just sat in our boats, taking it all in. We were fried. We were soaked. And yet, the cold and the wet and the fatigue felt so damn good. There’s something about pushing yourself past your physical and mental limits that’s intoxicating, and that's where we both were.
We shook hands, headed up to our car, and started the two-hour drive toward the Polebridge Ranger Station. We still needed to hike another seven miles to Bowman Lake before we’d be at our campsite for the night.
Nights 5 & 6: Out
Bowman Lake, where we finished our trip, was like a vacation. We spent our final forty-eight hours in Glacier, there, enjoying the opportunity to stay in the same place for two nights-in-a-row. We were essentially out of everything we’d started the trip with: from clean clothes to snacks. But on our first night, we made friends with an awesome couple who was traveling to Denver, and we got to know each other huddled under a tree, hiding from the rain, mixing the last of our hot chocolate with the last of their whiskey.
In the weeks since I was in Glacier, I’ve found it hard to write about the trip – mostly because I’ve felt like words will inevitably fall short of fully capturing the essence of the experience we had there: like on our second night at Bowman Lake, when Nick and I met a couple from Bozeman, Montana, sitting around a bonfire; there aren’t words I know to describe how I felt when, at midnight, we all jumped into their canoe and paddled out into the middle of the lake under the light of the Milky Way. My words can’t aptly describe how serene the night was, or the way the stars reflected off of the lake and lit up the snow fields on the mountains that surrounded us.
But I can't wait to go back.