Lolo National Forest
Thursday morning came and the inside of the windows had fogged up. A hazed view of green and brown surrounded the car. No bears had come in the night, I concluded, since the doors of the car were still intact. I cracked the door open, reached for my flip-flops and stepped on the soft earth of the campsite. Tall pines, wild flowers and berry bushes covered the landscape. We were in Lolo National Forest. I didn’t know much about the place. It’s in Montana and I’d heard only one story of it, from our friend Jake.
Jake was tent camping with a few friends in Lolo. They’d had a pretty normal trip in the wilderness, hikes and all. He went to sleep, a few young men jammed in the same tent. In the still and the dark of the night he was woken to the sound of grunting. An animal was walking around his tent, big enough to make the ground move when it took a step. He was still is his sleeping bag, nearly petrified. It went on for hours like that, or minutes, he couldn’t really tell. In the morning he found tracks, from a grizzly. He went on to find that LoLo National Forest is, in fact, a protected Grizzly habitat.
All this about Jake’s laying awake with a Grizzly outside his tent to say that I heard nothing, and saw nothing and laid awake waiting with my bear spray on our first night in the Montana wild.
We’ve converted the back of T’s car to work as a bed. Not unlike our living arrangement in New Zealand. At night we move the cooler and camp stove to the front seat and during the day we move them back. It’s convenient. It’s rain-proof. It’s probably bear-resistant, though I wasn’t too confident at first.
From Lolo we drove North. The sky was a blanket of clouds was scattered with darker more ominous ones that threatened rain. Below sat fields of green, fresh with young grass. The road ran alongside the flathead river which was a piercing blue even with the grey above. Its waters are snow and glacial melt, beautiful and magnificently cold.
Once the road reached flathead lake, T told me that “There are mountains over there, it’s better if you could see the top.” The clouds disappointing him that whole day. I was sure they’d be a better view with blue skies too. On we went, past the enormous Flathead lake. We drove through Kalispell, with a population of 20,000 it’s a big city by Montana standards. Just a bit further North and we reached the entrance to Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park
Glacier’s West entrance is flanked by little huts that the Rangers stand in. The eager young Ranger that sold us our entrance ticket explained that he didn’t know when Going-to-the-Sun Road would open. You see, it could be tomorrow, it could be next week. There’s snow. It’s been snowing on the pass today. So, they’re working on it, but there’s no knowing really.
The road cut through steep mountains; greenery encroached on it, berry brambles pilled on top of each other, spilling over the edges of the pavement. Cedars stretched upward and only peaks of the sky came through from above. A clearing in the trees here and there would allow a little peek of Lake McDonald. We warmed by a fire in the lodge and set out to find a campsite.
Rain spat here and there while we cooked dinner, and on through the evening it increased, sheets of water fell. Lightning cracked and eventually hail poured in place of rain. We were so glad to be curled in the back of the car playing cards instead of praying that our tent would hold up to the wind and hail. I think a dry sleeping bag is the best kind of sleeping bag.
Friday morning brought with it bird songs and sunshine. Somehow, through the storms of the night before Going-to-the-Sun road opened. Breakfast could wait. As John Muir once said “the mountains are calling and I must go.”
Going-to-the-Sun road is not for the transportation of people from one side of the park to the other.
It’s for much more than that… for moving people from chatter to breathlessness, busy to awestruck, distracted to serene.
Its constant bends and shoulder-less cliffs remind me of my own mortality. How incredible the view is. How precious life is. How fortunate I am to be alive and to witness this creation. No matter how good my photos turn out, they will pale in comparison to the real thing. It’s worth while, I think, to often do things that pictures cannot encapsulate. It’s worth the time to leave habits behind and create, explore and experience something new.
Beginning the drive, mountains and trees occupy the view. Tall and immovable above, all I could do is look up at them, The road climbs upward passing streams and waterfalls until only peaks of mountains are above, the mighty trees and persistent greenery have become valleys below. Ancient peaks carved by ice and time cut into the sky. Jagged edges are dusted with snow and the crisp air wanders carrying puffy little clouds off of them.
Climbing just a bit higher the road passes over the continental divide. It’s just over a mile-high and in mid June it’s still snow-packed and frozen. Mountain goats live here but with their white coats I never spotted one against the snow.
Further east is St. Mary’s lake. Brilliant blue is contrasted against the rugged mountain tops. The wind whipped across the water, and over the plains that border the lake. Tall grass tossed around, the landscape here seemed completely different from the lush western side of the park.
Hail and thunderstorms rolled in over Lake McDonald every evening. Most of the campground sites in the park don’t take reservations so we were able to get a great spot along the shore of the lake even on a spontaneous trip. From there we launched for hikes and lake-side walked. We cooked at our picnic table and camp-stove. We sat with new friends by the fire and watched the wildlife. The deer seemed to just come to us.
After nearly a week in Montana we saw several bucks, a few squirrels and prairie dogs but for all my bear-spray toting, we never saw a grizzly or a black bear.
T says there is a simple enough explanation for all that, we had no picnic basket.