Friday, April 23, 2010

Cheating death in Glacier

 Excerpted from my online book: Glaciers to red rock: U.S. 89.

I was probably a couple of miles from the trailhead (not to mention my car and the nearest human being) when it hit me – it could be days before they find my body.

I was hiking near the St. Mary River in Glacier National Park in mid-spring. Snow still covered the trail in spots and Logan Pass was still under several feet of the stuff.

This is grizzly country, and the farther I got from the trailhead the more I began imagining hearing the sounds of bear paws in the woods. I was alone, no pepper spray, not even a bell on my pack to warn the critters I was coming. I cursed my stupidity and quickened my pace, but I kept going – wet palms notwithstanding.

Light, cold rain began falling and I confronted another threat – freezing to death in one of Glacier’s common spring snowstorms despite my pack full of rain gear and the extra insulation I’d managed to pack onto my body during my own version of winter hibernation. Paranoia was getting the best of me. The rain stopped, I wiped my glasses dry and trudged on.

I finally achieved my objectives – getting pictures of St. Mary and Virginia falls – and made it safely back to my car. Hadn’t seen so much as a porcupine. “Cheated death again,” I thought out loud as I opened the back of the car and slid my pack off my shoulders. Mine was still the only car parked at the trailhead. It could, actually, have been days before I was found had I run into a grumpy grizzly, still hungry from hibernating. I vowed to never hike Glacier alone again, a vow I’ve proceeded to break several times.

Indeed, later the same day I took the quarter-mile walk to Running Eagle Falls in the Two Medicine region. Parts of the trail were snow-covered, but it was packed hard from use. Still, I was alone again. I shot four or five frames of this unusual double falls (one stream of water pours off a ledge and another tumbles through a hole in the rock, though in spring it was hard to differentiate the two torrents) and skedaddled. Cheated death again.

I hooked up with U.S. 2, which took me around the south end of the park and to the west entrance. The next day I saw bears – two black juveniles, high above Going to the Sun, apparently taking turns sliding down a snowfield. I was grateful to run across them from a distance of several thousand feet.

I’ve had that eerie feeling at Glacier both before and since – hiking alone, far from the road, wondering what might be eyeing me from inside the forest. It’s not an irrational fear. There are human encounters with bears at Glacier every year, and not all of them end happily. Hiking with a partner or group is a better idea than going solo, but sometimes there’s just no alternative.

Not all the action is on the hiking trails. My wife, Kathleen, and I once sat for an hour near Swiftcurrent Lake on one of these roads watching a young black bear nonchalantly make his way down a riverside. Moments before, we’d watched through a telephoto lens a grizzly contentedly eating berries on a mountainside above the lake. In both cases we were only steps from the road.

Still, seeing the backcountry on a hiking trail is what Glacier is all about. From hiking trails I’ve run across moose, deer and mountain goats and seen mountain landscapes, lakes and waterfalls that really defy description. Kathleen and I hiked the gently sloping trail through cedar and hemlock to Avalanche Lake on the park’s west side, where we sat in the mid-day sun watching water stream toward the lake from snowfields high above us. I’ve hiked over Logan Pass down to Hidden Lake, where the mountain goats were so numerous I lost count. There are many hikes left to take – Iceberg Lake, Highline Trail, Red Eagle Lake. I’ll never get to them all.

I’ve visited Glacier in spring, summer and fall and I like spring the best, even though the top of the pass is snowbound and impassable. In late May, water pours from snowfields and glaciers in every conceivable fashion – over cliff faces, into granite chutes, through stream and river channels and down the side of solid rock. Few people venture into the park this time of year, which suits me fine.

If you must visit in the summer, it’s still possible to avoid the crowds. Just walk a quarter mile up any trail and you’ve left all but a handful of the park’s visitors behind. Fall is fine, but there’s precious little water moving and the season’s first snowstorm is bound to pounce at any time.

There’s a spot near Lake McDonald on the west side of Going to the Sun where Avalanche Creek shoots between giant, moss-covered granite boulders. The water is blue-green and swift and time-exposure photos taken of this scene give the water a milky, incandescent appearance. I wanted such a photo for my collection.

The day after my hike along the St. Mary River, I was at the Avalanche Creek trailhead. Sure enough, the parking area was bereft of cars. Still, the lighting was good – overcast but not too dark. The lack of contrasting light would allow for a long exposure, meaning I could capture a majority of the scene without under-exposing or over-exposing parts of it. A light mist fell.

I grabbed my camera backpack, donned my raingear and slung my tripod over my shoulder. It was a short walk, perhaps 15 minutes. But I could swear I heard twigs snap in the woods.

I got to the Avalanche Creek bridge, took my readings and made a half-dozen images. Between shots I stood up straight and looked around, just to be sure. When I got back to my car, there was no one in sight.

Cheated death again.

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