Personal Journey: A trip to Glacier National Park

After a few years of missed chances, an opportunity arose for my son Brendan and me to take a trip to Glacier National Park in early September.  During our visit to Yellowstone National Park in 2014, we’d spoken to some of the park employees who raved about Glacier, considering it more dramatic than Yellowstone.

In my late 50s, I was grabbed by the urge to see more of our National Park System. Since then, I’ve notched Zion, Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, and was anticipating Glacier.  My son has been a regular companion, as he has an appreciation of these national wonders.

We love these excursions, and fancy ourselves rugged outdoor types.  This is mostly an illusion.  After a few miles of hiking, I imagine a park bench, a hoagie, and a drink.  Brendan never objects when I suggest turning around.

September in Montana this year was different.  Being from Pennsylvania, I’ve never understood the impact of the annual forest fire season in the West.  Our arrival in Kalispell coincided with what has been called the worst fire season in 50 years.  Stepping off the aircraft, we smelled it immediately — an acrid, burnt-pine scent.  After claiming our bags and stepping outside, we saw it.  What looked like an early-morning thick fog was actually smoke from the burning mountains.

The locals admitted it was bad but went about their business.  A few road workers wore masks, a few tourists as well.  On the whole, there was no alarm.  Only after a few days did we understand that, given its annual occurrence, fire season in the West is seen as nature’s way of clearing and regrowth.  That’s not to say it’s not taken seriously.  The business of firefighting encompasses an army of firefighters, forestry experts, meteorologists, politicians, volunteers of all stripes, and both land and air equipment.  And 2017 brought the greatest challenges in years.

During our six-day stay, the western gate of Glacier was closed due to the Sprague fire.  Days before our arrival, the fire had destroyed a historic landmark, the Sperry Chalet, built in 1913.  The hiking community felt this loss deeply.  News later came of plans to rebuild the chalet.  Everything needed for the rebuilding would be brought into the remote mountain site on horses or burros, as in its initial construction.

Due to the fires, the dramatic Road to the Sun was inaccessible from the west.  So we drove to the east gate, hoping we could reach Logan Pass going east to west on the Road to the Sun.  Logan Pass sits on the Continental Divide and provides excellent trailheads for hiking deeper into the park.  When we arrived, the air was clearer than in Whitefish, a little ski town where we were staying, but the mountain peaks were shadowy and the valleys opaque.  We made a short hike on the Highline Trail but turned back after 30 minutes due to poor visibility and air quality.  A few hardy backpackers could be seen emerging from the smog like ghostly beasts.  But our luck changed the next day.

Based on a tip from a local in Whitefish,  we headed up the North Branch of the Flathead River.  After driving 30  minutes, we saw the welcome hints of a blue sky and a muted sun shining through the haze.  Two hours north, we pulled into Polebridge, Mont.  A northerly breeze had blown the smoke away, and we entered the Polebridge gate of Glacier Park.  Just before  the gate, at the Polebridge Mercantile store, the cashier advised that Bowman Lake was only six miles but that the road was “a little rough.”

Any trip to Bowman Lake requires stopping at Polebridge Mercantile.  This old settlement takes you back to the early 1900s and offers fresh and delicious baked goods, camping supplies, cabins, a bar, picnic tables, and entertainment.  It also has  a 250-gallon gasoline tank with a 1940s-style pump in case you’re running on fumes.  Check the tank before heading to Bowman Lake. Though the distance is short, you might find your MPG suffers on the rough mountain road.

After bouncing and climbing and steering around boulders for nearly an hour — sorry about that, Enterprise — our two-wheel drive rental sedan arrived at the lake parking lot.

Belting our bear spray, we took to the woods.  Within minutes, a pristine glacial lake appeared, protected by mountains whose peaks were scratching the bellies of puffy clouds.  A full sun was showering its rays over the lake.  The site was nearly abandoned.  A few friendly folk passed by and smiled knowingly at us, in quiet acknowledgment at the shared luck of finding this perfect spot so free of crowds.

Our lungs quickly cleared of burnt-pine particulate, which was replaced by fresh pine air.  We took off on the trail that skirted the lake.  After a mile or so, we met hikers coming the other way who advised they had seen signs of bears.  We ventured on, glancing left and right with great frequency.  We checked the bear spray and studied the printed instructions.  Our ears perked up.  A rustling in the brush a few yards from the trail caused a pause.  Then we came upon fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail.  Based on this sighting, we huddled for a moment and quickly resolved to reverse course.  Better to enjoy the lakeside breezes and wade in the cold shallows nearer to the parking lot.

At 4,030 feet, the lake water temperature was great for wading, and OK for a quick dip.  The lake bottom was carpeted with colorful smooth pebbles that were perfect for rock skimming.

Returning to Whitefish, we knew the trip had been salvaged.  After the first days of haziness, the lake and mountain air swept away any doubts we’d had about the trip.