And the Grizzlies make the trip complete. Well, almost…

There I was on my last day in the park.  I hadn’t had an “up close encounter” with a grizzly and I was leaving the very next day (though that reality hadn’t really sank in yet).  I started this trip on August 17th from the Gunsight Pass trailhead in Glacier National Park.  I usually hike Gunsight Pass (20 miles, point to point) as a day hike, but I wanted to lengthen my stay this time.  I snagged a permit at St. Mary the night before and packed my pack for one last night in the backcountry before I would board the plane and face another long year away from paradise.  I took the shuttle from Apgar Village where I said goodbye to my friend Lacee, who came over from Spokane to spend several days with me.  Lacee is like a sister to me (my Washington-Montana twin).  Lacee and I met when we both moved to West Glacier to work in the park for the summer.  Each summer we meet back up in Glacier for some hiking, biking and hangin out!  One winter we even met “halfway” in Vegas for a weekend trip!  She is one of those friends I can not talk to for two months then we pick right back up where we left off- definitely a kindred spirit.  Anyways, she left the park for Spokane around noon that day and I took the next shuttle to Gunsight Pass trailhead. 

I rode the shuttle bus from Apgar to the trailhead, which is about an hour and a half ride.  I jumped off the shuttle, grabbed my pack, hoisted it on and set for the trail.  I had been walking for about an hour when I noticed a HUGE huckleberry patch.  I stepped off the trail, took off my pack, grabbed a ziplock and started picking.  In the park, visitors are free to pick and personally consume huckleberries, up to one quart per person per day.  Lucky for me, I found a quart-sized ziplock bag and filled it to the rim.  I would make huckleberry pancakes the next morning for breakfast!  A couple of guys from Missoula, MT (though not originally from Missoula) joined me to pick the berries.  It turns out they were counselors at an outdoor residential treatment center for teens.  We had a lot in common, so we picked berries and chatted for a while then the three of us set off for the rest of the hike to Gunsight Lake together. 

We arrived at the lake a couple of hours later, after several brief stops to pick berries.  I LOVE hiking with people who like to soak it all in!  This was my last overnight in the park and I wasn’t going to rush through it.  I had given this hike a full two days with good reason.  We got to the campground and hung our food on the “bear” pole and went to pick our sites.  I chose a site above the lake, looking down on it, with incredible views all around.  I pitched my one man Sierra Designs Light Year tent and lay my fabulous zero degree sleeping bag inside.  I headed down to the food prep area to make some sort of pasta concoction, which would be my last backcountry meal in Glacier until 2011, when the park will turn 101 years old. I WILL be back.

At the food prep area, I met a quirky artist who called himself “Mayor of Gunsight Lake.”  He spoke about his love of the park, about the number of summers that he has returned here, about the specific names of various peaks and drainages and about the “insiders” knowledge of this amazing area of Northwest Montana.  Little did he know, he had met his match.  I began to converse with him about the “little known facts” and “secrets” of Glacier.  I saw the lightbulb go off, “Ah hah!!”  It was as if instantly he understood, “You are like me…  You are in love with Glacier too!  You are obsessed just like I am!”  It’s not very often that I meet other people like that who really get it.  I was lucky enough on this trip to meet both Mark (the artist), and Brigid and her boyfriend Mark from Saskatchewan.  Brigid and Mark are both teachers in Saskatchewan, who spend 6 weeks every summer mostly in the backcountry of Glacier. 

The next morning at daybreak, as I was cooking my breakfast of Huckleberry pancakes, I heard a noise.  I looked up from my camp stove and saw three hikers coming down off Mt. Jackson.  I looked again… I saw a MOOSE!  A huge one!  The hikers backed off and stood still.  I grabbed my camera.  The moose walked right in front of the lake.  The hikers climbed on a boulder near the lake to get a better glimpse.  I took about a hundred pictures!  The moose was amazing!  Finally I was having some close encounters with some of Glacier’s awesome wildlife! 

After the excitement of the moose, I finished my breakfast, packed up my camp, said goodbye to Mark the artist and set off to climb Gunsight Pass.  Gunsight Pass is roughly 3 miles and 1,600 feet above the lake.  The hike up to the pass is absolutely stunning with cascades flowing everywhere and several scree fields and snow crossings.  Yes, snow… even in August… while hiking in shorts… and sweating!  Looking back is Gunsight Lake below majestically framed by the peaks of the Saint Mary valley and ahead is Gunsight Mountain with its intricately cut striations.  I could see the pass in the distance, and began to anticipate what was waiting on the other side… Lake Ellen Wilson! 

Just before I reached Gunsight pass I met a fellow hiker, a mountain goat!  The mountain goat is the “official symbol of Glacier National Park.”  They reside in the steep cliffs of Glacier in the higher elevations and have an amazing ability to climb steep, rocky slopes.  Some of the trails you may find in Glacier’s high country are not trails at all, but goat trails that are built and maintained by Mountain Goats and Bighorn sheep!  It’s almost like he walked up to me and said “Hey, wanna take my picture?”  I snapped about 30 pictures as I stepped up trail so he could waltz by.  Finally, after deciding to bypass a sketchy snow field by climbing the scree above it, I reached Gunsight Pass!  And I was captivated- by Lake Ellen Wilson. 

It doesn’t matter how many times I have been to Glacier, or how many times I have seen the EXACT  same spot.  Every single time I experience this place it is so different, and every single time it captivates me more.  It brings me back again… and again.  I think I took over a hundred pictures of Ellen Wilson before I even saw the family of mountain goats behind a boulder in front of the lake, which claimed another 60 or so shots!  From Gunsight Pass I continued the hike to Lincoln Pass (elevation 7,050), stopping only to ditch my pack and poles to scramble up Lincoln peak.  The view from here is amazing (seen above)- Lake Ellen Wilson, 1,344 ft. Beaver Chief Falls and Lincoln Lake.  It is truly breath-taking, and cannot be captured in a photograph.  I think knowing that Ellen Wilson feeds to Beaver Chief Falls and Lincoln Lake always intrigues me even more.  Having seen this view from atop Lincoln peak and from below at Lincoln Lake puts it all into an amazingly beautiful perspective. 

I always like to take a little extra time when I get up to the peak, eat my lunch, soak it all in.  The views are 365 and the Lake McDonald valley lies beneath.  I ALWAYS think of one of my favorite Dave Matthews Band songs   “I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves wondering if we had spent our living days well.  I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves dreaming of things that we might have been.  Would you not like to be sittin’ on top of the world with your legs hanging free?  Would you not like to be… ok, ok, ok?”  – Dave Matthews.

When I got back to Lincoln Pass from the peak to grab my pack and poles I noticed that they had been chewed on…. by a MOUNTAIN GOAT who was staring at me from the pass.  Ugh! Crazy rascal!  He was so cute though… hard to stay mad!  I continued the descent to Sperry Chalets, passing many of Mr. Goat’s friends along the way.  I stopped by the dining room for a slice of pie and a glass of lemonade.  Afterall, this trip was for enjoying EVERY moment!  I looked through a few photography books on Glacier, filled my water bottle outside the dining room and began the 3,300 ft. descent down the Sperry horse trail to Lake McDonald Lodge. 

I stopped to change from boots to Chaco’s about three miles before the end of the trail.  This trip I had covered almost 100 miles, and much more than that if you count the cycling tour I took over Going to the Sun Road, and my feet were DONE.  That is when it happened.  I was seated changing my shoes and I heard a rustle in the bushes down trail to the left.  I looked up and stood up at the same time.  I saw ears.  I grabbed bear spray, safety off.  I took three steps back, while simultaneously seeing momma Grizz walk onto the trail.  She looked at me.  I looked down.  Two good-sized cubs followed behind her.  My heart was racing.  She looked right at me as she crossed the trail, her cubs following closely behind her.  It hit me.  Should she attack, I should have my pack on.  I took a step forward.  I thought better of it, I took a step back.  I took another step back.  She continued to cross the trail and make her way up the hill to my right, her young following all the way.  Somewhere in the middle of all of this I grabbed my camera.  I thought, no one will ever believe that I was this close and not only lived to tell about it, but was 100% unscathed.  I took three pictures, one of them turned out.  There it was.  I had proof.  And my trip was complete.  Right?!  Well, the truth is that no trip to Glacier is ever complete, no matter how amazing or awe-inspiring.  I was merely blessed once again, by an amazing memory to tuck into my stash of wonderful Glacier memories.  Moments that I will cling to always.  Moments that with a photograph, a scent or a simple mention take me back.

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Montana Moments- Ptarmigan Tunnel

So, I’ve been hesitant to post any new entries because I REALLY need to get all of my Glacier photos organized so I can easily find which ones I want to add to my posts.  I guess I should have organized them before making this blog public, but if I had done so that would push me back a good 5 years!  So, here goes.  From now on, I post when I’m inspired to instead of waiting for the perfect culmination of photos, quotes, stories, etc.  Life is for living.  As Matthew Arnold (whoever he is) said, “Life is not having and getting, but being and becoming.”  I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Arnold. I once told someone who asked me what I wanted to do, “I just want to BE.”  They told me I couldn’t “Just be.”  Well, I couldn’t DISAGREE more.  Here I am being and becoming, and thanks for following along.  Someday I’ll come back in here and post pictures, but for now the links to fabulous photos will have to do!

I was on my long run Monday evening, following along the Rocket City Marathon route when I had a Montana moment.  It is not uncommon for those moments to pop up in everyday life and bring me right back to Montana.  Too bad it never lasts over a few seconds.  If someone ever really figures out how to teleport me there for longer periods of time, then let’s talk!  Until then I’ll take the Montana moments when I can get them.  Back to the marathon route…  I came to the section at miles 7 and 21 on the out and back course where the route goes under the tunnel by Whitesburg Elementary.  Instantly, I was at Ptarmigan tunnel in Glacier National Park.  I was running towards the tunnel, wondering what would be inside, wondering what would be on the other side, in my mind taking one last look at Elizabeth Lake, Helen Lake, and the entire Belly River valley.  I was eager to see Ptarmigan Lake on the other side, to maybe get a close look at the moose or mountain goat that frequent the area.  I was running through the man-made Ptarmigan tunnel, which had been built in 1930 by two opposing steel jack hammers.  The 250 foot long tunnel, which connects the Belly River drainage to Many Glacier is at an elevation of 7200′ and the views are absolutely spectacular!

There is a heavy iron door on either side of the tunnel that is locked from October 1 through mid-July when the high elevation snow melts enough and Park Rangers declare it safe for passing.  The hike from Elizabeth Lake to Many Glacier, where food and lodging services abound, is moderately strenuous gaining 2518′ over 9.8 miles.  For a split second I was there, in the moment, in Montana.  I’m thankful for these Montana moments and for the experiences I have had that keep the memories within reach.  Visit Glacier and visit Montana.  I did, and my life is forever changed because of it!

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Alabama snow, Montana memories…

Winter snowstorm 2011Huntsville, Alabama made weather history today for the third biggest snowfall for the area EVER!  Yes, I said Alabama, where the summers are typically described as hot and humid and winters as sunny and mild.    I never thought I’d use my crosscountry skis in the south unless I went to the mountains of North Carolina or Tennessee.  I was proven wrong, and given the gift of 8 inches of fresh, beautiful, powdery snow here at my dad’s place in Athens, AL.  We’ve been snowed in all day and my office is closed again tomorrow! 

I was so excited last night that I had a hard time getting to sleep.  There was a fresh, beautiful blanket covering the ground when I went to sleep and when I awoke, 8″!!  I got up before daylight, made a small pot of coffee, ate a quick breakfast and grabbed my skis.  I went down the hill in the backyard and skiied out to the trees and stopped.  I looked around.  I smiled.  I couldn’t believe it!  All of this snow in Huntsville, Alabama?? Unbelievable.  I took off down Mooresville Road, which runs flat and straight south all the way to I-565  seven miles from my dad’s house.  I didn’t make it to I-565 or even to the small unincorporated community of Belle Mina, but I skiied and enjoyed the snow for a solid 3 1/2 hours before returning to my dad’s place for a hot cup of coffee and another round of breakfast!  The rest of the day was spent building a snowman in the front yard and napping on the couch.   

I couldn’t help but let my mind drift back to Montana and the winter I spent there in 2005-2006.  I went to The Sportsman Ski Haus in Whitefish, MT with my friend Christy to rent a pair of cross-country skis.   I had so much fun that I went back to rent them again 3 times that week.  The third time I went to return the skis, I held them with a death grip.  The guy at the ski shop asked if I had fun.  I told him that I was REALLY sad about having to return them, REALLY sad.  He told me to talk to the rental shop manager because sometimes they sell older rental skis for a good price.  I immediately took the name of the manager and called the very next day.  He told me to come on down and we could try to work out a deal.  That day after work I stopped by the Sportsman, got a killer deal on some Fischer BCX Outback Crown skis complete with backcountry bindings, a pair of nordic ski poles and some ski boots.  The Outback Crown is a traditional touring ski with metal edges for better tracking on both groomed nordic center trails and gentle backcountry trails or snow-covered roads.  The skis were perfect, and after three times renting them I finally had a pair of my own. 

Throughout that winter I skiied about 4 days a week, sometimes more, occasionally less.  A couple of mornings a week I would ski before work.  I’d get up just before sunrise, drive up to Big Mountain (or Whitefish Mountain Resort as the new owners are trying to rename it), ski the nordic trails and then head back down the mountain to get ready for work.  Sometimes I would even hit up the golf course after work, which is illuminated by lamplight and track set for both classic cross-country and skate skiiers.  On the weekends, it was off to the park for a full day of exploring Going-to-the-Sun Road.  What drew me  to cross-country skiing was the solitude of being in Glacier and seeing it in an all  new light, while everyone else was sitting on some ski lift atop Big Mountain waiting for a spot on the downhill runs.  

The west side of Going-to-the-Sun Road closes from Lake McDonald Lodge to the east side at St. Mary when the park concessionaires close for the winter and snow accumulates making the roads impassable until late spring.  The road is open from Apgar Village to Lake McDonald Lodge and nordic skiers can be found skiing the 4 mile (one-way) portion of the road from the lodge to Avalanche Lake trailhead and sometimes beyond.  One of my favorite winter traditions in Montana was skiing under the full moon, with a thermos of hot chocolate and a headlamp that was never needed.  That winter was the first real winter I have ever experienced and it forever lives with me.  Memories of that amazing Montana winter came flooding back as I skiied down Mooresville Road.  If this could happen in Alabama every few weeks, I think I could get used to the place.  Until then though, I’ll be missing Montana…

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This blog is more of an outlet for me to live vicariously through my past and dream about future time spent in Montana than anything else.  It’s more of a place that I can go when I can’t physically be in my paradise.   I first visited Montana in July 2001, when my granny, aunt and brother invited me with them on their annual Glacier trip.  My granny and I had planned to take a month vacation to Paris, London and Amsterdam and when all the mad cow madness hit, granny got nervous about travelling abroad and invited me to go to Montana with them.  She said we could plan to go to Europe in a few years when things settle down a bit.  We still haven’t taken that trip, and I am absolutely fine with that.  Montana calls every summer- and every summer, I return. 

Little did any of us know, this trip would be one that would change my life forever.  I grew up as a dancer (ballet, tap and jazz) and a cheerleader and I was always viewed as “girly.”  My granny was surprised that I turned out to be as outdoorsy as I am, as she always said “You didn’t like bugs when you were little, and you always wanted to go on cruises for vacation.”  Well, truth be told I STILL don’t like bugs, but we do coexist on the trail!  And, I would still love to go on another cruise, IF I could pry myself away from my beloved Glacier for a summer!  I truly don’t see that happening any time soon! 

Back to that first trip.  I remember being so excited about the trip and buying hiking shorts, a small pack and a Nalgene bottle. I could sense a little apprehensiveness in my invitation to a place that the rest of my family already knew and loved. Would I be that girly girl who cramped their style?  Would I be too scared of bugs, or a whiny brat with blisters when we went hiking?  Would I even care about the mountains and the lakes and the mountain goats?  Would I see the place as amazingly as they all see it?  It meant a lot to me that I was asked to go to Glacier with them that year.  And when I arrived and saw Lake McDonald for the first time, my life was changed. Forever. 

Dustin (my brother) and I woke up almost every morning to watch the sunrise come over the lake.  We would sit there freezing, just talking and waiting for the sun to rise over Stanton,  Mount Vaught and Mount Brown.  It was the most incredible place I had ever seen.  I still hadn’t even been on my first hike, or even ridden up Going to the Sun Road; let alone ventured into the remote backcountry on a solo 5 night backpacking trip, which I would later do for the first time in the summer of 2006.  And this is Grizzly country, people!  I was right there, sitting on the pebbly beach of Lake McDonald and I was in love- with Glacier.

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