Patsy and I are Sierra Club members. When a call for Sierra Club volunteers to go work at Glacier Park came along, we decided to go. There were two types of activities offered; trail repair and counting animals. Since we are both getting long in the tooth, we decided that trail repair might not be the best choice for us, and we volunteered to count wildlife and to help replant a hillside.
We left Las Vegas on a Friday, figuring we would drive about three to four hundred miles a day, and get to Kalispell, Montana ( a town just outside the park), in time for our initial gathering and pot-luck. I always like a potluck dinner.
Weather conditions started out nicely, but we ran into roadwork outside Salt Lake City. We drove through a landscape filled with Black-Eyed Daisies, pastures with horses and cows dotting the countryside, and big, orange, ugly, traffic barrels. At one point, we drove through twenty miles of single lane roadway, with those darned barrels blocking the other lane. Sometimes, the barrels would be on the dividing line between the lanes, and sometimes they were set further into our lane, so that we had to drive with one tire on the rumble strip at the side of the road. It was aggressive barreling, if you asked me.
We spent the night in Butte, Montana, which normally would not rate a comment. However, we had to gas up before we went on, and I went in to the Snake River Roasting Company for a cup to go with us down the road. When I finally got a chance to take a sip, I was surprised at the rich, complex flavor. There was a nice chocolate-y flavor, followed by an almost mine-like after taste. Wonderful! The company is on line, so I may order some coffee from them.
I should describe Glacier Park for those of you who have never been there. The park sits on the border between the United States and Canada; it belongs to both countries. The park is an International Peace Park. The other name for the park is the Crown of the Continent, not just for its being so high – it sits in the Rockies – but also for its sheer beauty. The mountains are towering limestone edifices, carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. There are still some small glaciers high on the mountains, but they will probably be gone by 2050, given the current global climate change. Even so, there is enough melt runoff, that there are waterfalls all over the place, and there are lakes, rivers and streams everywhere. Going-To-The-Sun Road is a road that cuts across the park from east to west, and is a spectacular road to drive. The name has a couple of possible origins, including a Blackfoot legend and a story about prospectors in the 1800s, however, if you drive the road, you will probably come up with your own explanation of the name. Speaking of that, there are big red tour buses, called Red Jammers that will take you on a four-hour tour of the park, including over the Going-To-The-Sun Road. The buses came to the park between 1936 and 1939. They are still in use, but have been completely renovated and restored.
We did get to the park on time to set up our tent and then go to the farm of Ed and Marge Rothfuss, where they raise burros and run a bookstore. The bookstore is one of those old-fashioned places, crammed packed with books and so many other things it almost becomes an Olde Curiosity Shoppe. For instance, there was a dry goods scale sitting on top of one bookshelf, and in it sat a rag doll that looked like a crow, complete with a yellow bill. The crow also had button eyes and wore a long black dress, which seemed fitting.
We had our dinner out in the back yard, and a ranger came by to tell us what we would be doing for the next few days. Two of things that came up while she was talking were the Huckleberry pie she brought to the dinner and bear spray… just not in the same sentence. We were in Huckleberry country, at what seemed to be the height of the berry season. We would see signs all along the road advertising fresh picked berries, Huckleberry pies, Huckleberry ice cream, and homemade jams and jellies. However, as thrilled as we were with the fresh berries, we were also in bear country, and bears do love Huckleberries.
After our dinner and our orientation talk, a brief storm hit. The wind blew small pinecones off the trees around the Rothfuss household, hitting the house with enough force to sound like firecrackers going off. By the time we caravanned back to the campsite however, the storm had passed and we had a soggy but calm night. Patsy and I were a little less than thrilled to find that the restrooms (real restrooms, not outhouses) were quite a distance away from our tent. This meant that in the course of things, we would have to get up in the middle of the night, crawl out of our warm sleeping bags, walk about one city block away to the facility, and then back again. All this in the dark, bear-infested forest! To top things off, some of the storm came back and it rained a couple of times during the night, so the walk was even more interesting. By the way, if you are walking in wet, bear infested woods, a flashlight is more useful than a small LED lantern.
The next morning, having survived the walk in the forest and the potential bears along the way, we went to the Park Headquarters, where we were told about what we would be doing, shown pictures of the animals we were supposed to count, and issued binoculars, spotting scopes, a GPS unit, and… Bear Spray! A different ranger was supposed to tell us how to use the spray, but it took a while for her to get back to us. Everyone was curious about the canisters, so we looked them over carefully.
Let me tell you about a bear spray canister, at least the kind that the rangers passed out to us. The thing is about the size of a PAM cooking spray canister, with a black ring handle and a lever on top. There was a yellow safety cover over the trigger, which you removed by sliding it backwards. When you have to use the spray, you thumb the cover off and press the trigger when the bear is about twenty-five feet away, if it is still coming toward you. (Note: twenty-five feet is about the distance of a light pole if it were lying on the ground.) One of our workers was very concerned about how to operate the spray. I showed her how easy it was to remove the safety cover – she stepped back as I did this. When I handed her the now armed canister, she looked it over and let her thumb rest on the trigger… I stepped back then. When nothing happened, we put the safety catch back in place, both of us satisfied that we could hold our own against bears.
Our orientation was supposed to take only a couple of hours, but for various reasons, took all morning. By the time we were ready to go and drove to our first animal count area, it was already afternoon.
Our first assignment was to count picas. Picas are relatives of rabbits, but look more mouse-like. They have round ears, no tails, and are about the size of a softball. Since picas do not hibernate, they pile up vegetation of all sorts into what the ranger called “haystacks.” Our job was to try to see picas, and lacking that, to find wither old or new haystacks, or piles of scat. By the time we got near our observation area, however, it was getting toward late afternoon, which meant we would have to hike a mile or so up a hill side, walk around rocks and boulders looking for evidence, and then get back down to the trailhead, all without twisting our ankles. Given the time of day and the distance we still had to hike to get to the tallas slope where the animals lived, we decided that hiking along the trail a way and listening for the “eep, eep” call of the picas would be about all we could accomplish. Even with that, we got back to camp just as the sun was going down.
We were not supposed to leave food out of the bear-proof storage cabinet, and not wear anything that smelled, like no perfumes or after shaves and such; bears are attracted to things like that. With that in mind, I took the evening trash down to the dumpster at the end of the road. It was dark, and I had only one of our little LED lanterns for light. As I got further and further away from camp, I became more aware of how isolated we were, and how I had not brought my bear spray with me. Finally, I saw something gleaming in the distance.
Could those be eyes looking at me, I wondered as I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise.
I knew that if there were an animal down there looking at me, it would be more afraid of me than I was of it – except for a bear, of course – so I kept on walking. By the time I got to the dumpster, I could see that what I thought might be eyes were just pieces of reflecting tape. Good thing I hadn’t run back to camp with a story about animals hanging around down the road!
After dinner, we went down to the lake to hear a Ranger Talk. Tonight’s topic was about the Blackfoot way of the world. The speaker was a Blackfoot, and he told us many interesting things about the Indian way of living. One of the more interesting things was that he explained what Crazy Horse meant. It was the closest that Whites could come to a horse that could not be tamed or closed up. I suppose Free Spirited Horse would have come close to the idea.
We got up early so we could get to Avalanche Lake for our next assignment, looking for Mountain Goats. The signs at the trailhead said that the lake it was two miles in, but that is a line-of-sight distance. When you count the ups and downs and all the twists, it was more like three miles. Along the way, we passed a place where Avalanche Creek boils around in a circle before rushing further down the mountain. It is truly awe-inspiring in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. Our hike took us through a place where some large trees lay scattered around on the ground, apparently, due to an avalanche from Mt. Cannon in 2010 and a microburst (a localized violent downburst of air) that downed more trees in 2011.
The Trail of the Cedars is a short, wheelchair accessible walk that joins the Avalanche Trail. Both are extremely popular, so the foot traffic is very heavy, despite the dips and all. You will encounter every age and condition of hikers along the trail, although we did not see anyone using a walking frame or crutches. Some of the hikers moved at a clip, while others mooched along, as we did.
At the end of the trail is Avalanche Lake, our destination. The lake sits in a bowl formed by ancient glaciers, and is surrounded by high mountains. There are still some glaciers near the peaks, although they are small now. We could see three or four waterfalls, feathery against the grey limestone, bringing melt-water down to the lake.
The ranger gave us a GPS unit to locate the spot where we were supposed to do our searching for the mountain goats. Each of these searches takes place at the same place. The search area is then divided into quadrants, each of which we were supposed to scan for a given period. If we thought we saw an animal, we would use the spotting scope, also provided by the ranger, to verify what we found. I thought I saw a goat almost immediately when we started to scan the mountainsides. Looking at it through the scope, however, it was only a goat-like rock. You would be surprised how many goat-like rocks there are on a mountainside.
Mountain goats are large animals, with white hair; in fact, there is a book about them called “A Beast The Color of Winter,” by Douglas Chadwick. The book is available at Amazon if anyone is interested. The white hair makes them stand out against the cliffs, which would have made them easier to spot if it weren’t for those darned white rocks. Both males and females have beards and sport black, curved horns… my rock did not sport horns.
I have mentioned bears once or twice in this log, because you never know when one would show up. Given that, it was surprising that, when we reached Avalanche Lake, there was a half-naked man sprawled out flat on his back. He was on the other side of the lake, completely away from the rest of the crowd that might have kept any bears in the area away from him. I would bet he also had on sunscreen that smelled like coconut or chocolate. I suppose some people don’t think about things like bears and what risks they are taking.
We did our survey without finding any goats, but we did find more goat rocks than I care to remember. We ate our lunch by the side of the lake and then headed back down the trail. Although the hike is supposed to be moderate, my aching muscles reminded me that first, I had not been hiking for several years; second, that walking around a golf course is not the same thing as hiking; and finally, that steel-toed boots were not a good idea. I had chosen them for some reason in the w-a-y past, who remembers why. The boots felt like they added five pounds to my body weight (4.3, to be exact). By the time we got back to our cars, all of the above-mentioned facts were weighing on my mind as well as my body. I resolved that if we were going to do this again, I would have lighter and more comfortable boots… and maybe get outside for a hike more often.
Dinner that night was under a lovely, un-cloudy sky. We had a campfire and sat around telling stories while we waited for the second crew of our workers to get in. They had gone to another part of the park, one that involved a much longer hike in and out. My legs told me this would not have been a good walk for me. The crew eventually got there about the time we were ready for bed, but some of them had stopped for a pizza on the way home, so they were in good shape.
We had to have out truck serviced. Patsy and I spent the morning in Whitefish, sitting in a garage waiting room. The selection of magazines was interesting if not eclectic, evenly divided between those for businesswomen and hunting/fishing. They did have excellent coffee and fresh bagels with cream cheese, which gave us something to think about besides jobs and guns. Maybe the northern states just like rich coffee, or it could be that the Seattle atmosphere has crept in-land, but the coffee at the garage was the best I have ever had at a dealership; it was almost worth the wait. Las Vegas garages should take note.
After leaving Whitefish, we went to the worksite where we were supposed to replant a hillside, up the Going-to-the-Sun toward Logan Pass. It was slow going because the road twisted and turned like a snake. The speed limit varied between thirty-five and fifty-five miles per hour, depending on the area. Since there was rock on one side of the road, and steep hillside on the other, turning a corner required some attention. We frequently found other drivers over the centerline and coming toward us, and we met Red Jammers twice on the way up.
Near the top of the pass, we found our crew with safety vests pulled over their shirts and bent over, planting grasses and shrubs. Patsy and I grabbed some vests and gloves, and then went to work. I had never used a Pulaski Ax before, although I had heard of them. A Pulaski is like a pickax, but with an ax head on one side and an adze on the other. We used the adze head to scrape into the rocks and dirt so we could plant the seedlings; the hillside was almost all rock. After chopping and shifting stones, it was hard to find enough dirt to fill the hole back up after we put in the plants.
We became another roadside attraction, as our work area was below a lookout point. People would stop at the point to read the information tablet and then ask us what we were doing. One of our crew wanted to tell people that we were working off DUI fines, but I don’t think that happened.
By the time we were done with the scraping and planting, my body was again telling me that not only had I not done any hiking lately, but also I hadn’t been using garden tools much either (ha, like a Pulaski was a garden tool). Anyway, we drove back down the pass, again on more of the twisty-turny roadway. After three days of driving like this, I have decided I am tired of twisting roads. They don’t do anything for me; they just make me twist and lean with the curves. You would think there would be some exercise benefit to the shifting around, but all that motion did not help my waistline one bit.
There were no showers in our campground, and so we had been going to the KOA campgrounds to use their showers. After digging holes for plants and then swerving down the mountainside, we headed for the friendly neighborhood KOA.
This would be our last scheduled day of work. There was an optional fourteen-mile hike on Friday, but we decided to give this a miss. Today, we were going to gather seeds from the Star Solomon Seal plant. The nursery people would use the seeds to propagate new plants for more restoration; this is an ongoing activity – propagation and restoration. As with everything else, we gathered from documented areas so that when the time came to use the seedlings, they would go back into the same general areas they came from.
The Star Solomon Seal is an interesting plant. It has an arching center stalk, with leaves about an inch thick and spaced alternately along the stem like a feather. The flowers are much like those of a Spider Plant, but it was too late in the season for flowers. The seed pod start out as big around as the tip of a little finger, but finally gets down to a red berry about the size of a fat b-b. We walked around in our reflective safety vests, lifting up leaves to look for the berries. A couple of the places we looked were in campgrounds, so again, we were asked a lot of questions about what we were doing.
The Solomon Seal grows in patches. The foliage was mostly tan colored this late in the season, but there were still a lot of green leaves too. Since the berries were on the end of a stem, above as well as underneath the leaves, it was possible to come right behind someone who had already worked a patch pretty well, and still find more berries.
Patsy and I worked until the afternoon, when we had to go back into Whitefish again. We wanted to be done with our business because a ranger would be coming by the campsite in the evening to thank all of us for our time and energy. On the way to our campground, we listened to the radio and heard about a camper in California who was killed inside his tent when a tree fell on him. We had been keeping an eye on the weather, and when the ranger got to the camp for our big thanks, the wind was picking up. The woman ranger passed out some thank you gifts, and then left just before the storm hit.
We watched as the wind picked up and blew leaves across the rod. The big, tall trees right behind our tent were swaying so much, that we decided to go sit inside our truck rather than go back to the tent. Things got wilder, with branches hitting the side of the truck, until the electricity to the restrooms went out. We decided this would be a good time to go have dinner somewhere else, so we headed over to Apgar Village, a few blocks away from our campsite.
Apgar Village is the tourist place; with an ice cream parlor, a restaurant, and a general store… of course they also had tee shirts for sale. We thought we could have a nice dinner in the restaurant while we watched the storm blow across the lake, but that didn’t happen.
There were trees on the road as we drove out of the campground, and the lights were off in Apgar, so we left the park and went toward Columbia Falls. The lights were off all along the way, but we finally came to a place called Grizzly Grill. It had lights and it advertised pizza, a good combination.
I don’t know what it is with these people and their bears. They have statues of bears, signs with bears on them, and places with bear names, like our grill. A&W Root Beer even had a billboard of two kids waling arm-in-arm with a bear wearing an orange sweater. Maybe he was taking them to lunch… like his.
I don’t think this anthropomorphizing bears is a good idea; grizzlies are not nice animals. One of our friends calls them the gang-bangers of the bear world. So why do people make a big deal out of something that would eat your face as soon as look at it? Maybe it’s a case of whistling in the dark.
There is not much more to tell. By the time we got back with the remainder of our Mediterranean Pizza, the lights were back on, and the wind had died down. We did have a sprinkle or two during the night, but nothing dramatic. The next day, some of us had cold pizza and hot coffee for breakfast. We had our tent packed up and we headed out of the park by mid-morning. We stayed in Butte again on the way home, and I got a chance to stop at the Snake River Roasters once more. This time their dark brew had a woodsy, cedar-y back flavor; if I lived in Butte, I would be a regular customer.
While we were in the park, I got tired of twisting roads, but out here on the prairie, the roads are long, straight, and boring. In some places, we passed green fields that reminded us of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, but other places reminded us of the high desert in northern Nevada. The trip back home was uneventful. We had a couple of rainstorms and such, but nothing that gave us any concern. We got home in the afternoon, just in time for a nap.
Well, that’s another trip finished, I hope you all had fun and enjoyed the log. Thanks for coming along, and as usual, if you have any questions, please contact me.