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.