(State #39/50) Sitting on a peninsula no larger than a tennis court, I watched gentle waves lap against the colorful, flat, stones of the shore. In both directions, a smooth, long lake filled the bottom of a u-shaped valley. Peaks of sheer gray rock rose up, beyond the blue water, beyond the conifer forests, until they mingled only with snow, contrasting against the sky. Over a hundred years ago, someone dubbed this park the “Crown of the Continent.” Though I’m one to ridicule overindulgent titles, I approve of this one. Glacier National Park is beyond an international treasure and, for a night, I got to lay claim to a little piece of the fortune.
I arrived at the backcountry office where rangers only issue permits in person and within twenty-four hours of your excursion; there wasn’t much left by three o’clock. The ranger said I could show up early the next morning and hope to get a site on one of the more remote lakes. But, after he assured me the open site on Lake McDonald wasn’t the dredges, I opted on the sure bet and am glad I did.
Like Yellowstone, Glacier was smoked in by surrounding wildfires. So, when late afternoon storms overtook the high peaks, I reasoned well, at least this rain will help with the fires. The next morning, however, I learned that lightning had caused multiple additional fires in the park. Furthermore, Glacier was not issuing any new backcountry permits. Yet the rangers still honored mine, proving again, it never pays to wake up early.
At the edge of Apgar Village, I geared up my canoe. There, my fellow tourists filled restaurants, gift shops and parking lots. Retirees meandered, children ran loose and folks of all kinds rented kayaks. A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses sat under a tent in an open grassy area. I felt their smiling, beaming, come-hither stares upon me as I looked at my feet and made a long, elliptical pass. I nearly walked into another group, thankfully, in ranger uniforms. “What’s that all about?” I asked. “Oh, it’s free speech or something,” an older ranger said, unwilling to hide his feelings. “Can you imagine the outrage if that was a Muslim group?” he asked. I saw his point, but changed the subject. “What’s the telescope for?” It was a dumb question as the sun was the only visible celestial object above us. I took a look, through the protected filter, and confirmed that the sun was both still round and still orange. I thought about egging on a fight between the rangers and Witnesses, or at least going to tell the group the good news that the sun still shone, but I had a lake to canoe.
Paddling away from the hubbub, I counted 400 consecutive strokes before stopping over a mile into Lake McDonald. Helicopters carried trailing buckets of water towards the new forest fire, which exhaled blueish smoke skyward from a mountain, adding to the haze. I made the other side of the lake and hugged the shoreline. Soon, the thick pine forests gave way to an old burn area. Beneath charred poles, juvenile pines, birch and flowering shrubs made their slow race towards the sun. I passed near a cliff and looked down at the clear water, which transitioned into deep glacial-blue as the bottom of the lake fell off into oblivion. I’m snorkeling today, I decided.
Arriving at camp by mid-afternoon, I kept my life vest on and explored with my bear spray out of its holster, finger near the trigger. Part of procuring a backcountry permit is the mandatory viewing of a twenty-minute video on grizzly bear safety. Typically, these are the types of videos people scoff at, but the entire room remained attentive. We only broke the silence when the narrator said, “play dead if it’s a defensive attack… However, fight back immediately if the bear starts to eat you.” Those words, said with utter sincerity, forced the room into nervous laughter (more on Grizzly safety below).
I made my rounds, investigating the cooking area, the food storage, the pit toilet and the tent sites. As instructed, I took my food and toiletries and strung it up on the 20-foot post, lashing it taught. Hot and done with camp chores, I made myself a whiskey/lemonade drink and grabbed the snorkel. I peered into the water from the shore; polished stones gave way to a sandy shelf, which sloped down at forty-five degrees into the dark blue. I tossed my snorkel gear in the shallows, counted down from ten and executed a surface dive into Lake McDonald. Oh, the glory.
Reveling in the cold shock, I snorkeled to the edge of the slope. There, I dove to colder depths to fetch stones and handfuls of white sands, which I let pour through the water column and return to the bottom. Beyond the sheer novelty of snorkeling in Montana and in a park named for huge chucks of melting ice, it, simply put, felt fantastic. Feeling clean for the first time in days, I walked onto the beach, plopped into my canoe chair and thrust my feet into the sun-warmed pebbles. I leaned back and stared at the high peaks across the calm mountain sea, letting the whiskey and sunshine exercise their warming effects. Again, oh, the glory.
Curious about the land I looked upon, I pulled out the National Park pamphlet and poured over the map. I was impressed by Triple Divide Peak, which separates water flowing down to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Pacific and up to Hudson Bay in Canada. I read about the flora and fauna and human history. Then I came to the depressing, but impossible to ignore part — the glaciers, the namesake of the park, are vanishing and it’s due to man-made climate change.
The melting glaciers in Montana aren’t the most worrisome impacts of climate change (like droughts, severe storms, floods, coral bleaching, sea level rise, etc.), but have become a tragic barometer for the warming planet. It is not hyperbole to say I’m glad I saw them now, in 2017. There were 150 estimated glaciers in 1850, 50 in 1968 and only 25 remain today, most of which are wisps of their former glory. Current estimates have them disappearing by 2030, which gives us thirteen years to workshop a new name. Perhaps, The Park Formally Known as Glacier?
I looked up from the brochure and noticed the air was clearing to the east. The smoke that, an hour before, hung thick above the distant tree line, creating a 2-d movie set backdrop, had lifted from the high mountains, leaving them with more color, texture and depth.
I enjoyed the tranquility before a tour boat interrupted, passing a few hundred yards out on the lake. The sound of a guy yammering on a microphone carried over the water. Immediately, I hopped up and began dancing, with wild exaggerated moves, to unheard music. Unbuttoning my long sleeve shirt, I helicoptered it above my half naked body before commencing further lewd stripper routines. I’m unsure if any of the twenty passengers saw, but I hope, with all my might, that a sweet old pair of birders from the mid-west got a glimpse of true wilderness in action.
Twilight fell and the mountain across Lake McDonald glowed red with flames. With night coming, the choppers ceased, allowing the fire to flared up. I canoed in the growing waves of dusk, watching it grow and spread. Back at the dark campsite, the thought of bears pressed upon my mind; I never imagined I’d be alone in Grizzly country. “In summer the bush fires rage and rage and rage on such beautiful days!” I sang, hoping to frighten off any bears. Un-mauled, I crawled into my tent, peered out the screen window and said goodnight to the lake, the bears and the burning mountain.
I woke up the next morning to another sunny, yet smokey day. I packed up, policed camp and launched Rider around noon. I stayed along the shore and, again, snorkeled near a cliff and above an underwater ledge. Approaching the takeout, I muscled out the last half mile and beat a kayaker to the landing. Partly tan, mostly red and fully glistening with perspiration, I peacock-ed around the landing as I loaded up my gear and boat. I must not have been the physical display I imagined because the other park goers went about their business as if not in the presence of a shirtless, canoe demigod. I didn’t take it too personally as it’s hard to compete with the surrounding National Park. With hours of light left, I headed up to the alpine zone to hike, see the mountain goats and view what remains of the ancient ice patches. Crown of the Continent indeed, I thought. Now, I implore you, go see the glaciers while you can.
My Take on Grizzly Safety:
Grizzly bears don’t set out to hunt and eat humans. Typically, they want absolutely nothing to do with us. People and bears alike, get into trouble when they learn to associate us with our tasty pic-a-nick baskets. A fed bear is a dead bear, as they say (once a bear links humans with easy food they become problem bears. Sometimes they can relocate them, but often they have to kill them once they’ve been conditioned to raiding trashcans and campsites.
Most attacks are defensive and are a result of people surprising a bear or, most dangerous of all, coming across a mother with cubs. Therefore, they instruct people to talk loudly, clap, bang rocks, and do whatever you can to ensure you don’t surprise a grizzly. If you do come across one, you’re supposed to hold your ground, and talk in a low and neutral voice. You don’t want to seem like a threat, but you also don’t want to appear submissive. Most charges, I’m told, are bluffs. Still, you’re supposed to hold your ground (while not encouraged, crapping your pants is acceptable). But, if there is a second charge, it’s the real deal. Bear spray, (pretty much just pepper spray), is an important last ditch deterrent. Rangers stress you need to have it on your hip and ready to use in an instant (they can’t stand seeing it packed away in a backpack, as it does you no good). I wore it on my hip and, when in high brush, kept it in my hand and ready to go. If you do, make sure you’re up wind and spray it low to the ground. When a bear charges, they come on all fours and the spray will drift up. If used correctly, the spray will deter the bear. But, unlike some people and their guns, you really hope you never have to use it.
Lake Stats and Fun Facts:
- McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
- Miles Canoed: 12
- Dates Canoed: 8-11/12-2017
- Weather: Smokey, sunny, warm with a breeze coming on in the evening.
- Elevation: 3153 feet above sea level
- Launch/Takeout Point: Apgar boat launch (48.528546, -113.99156)
- Campsite: MCD campsite (48.593965, -113.925516)
- Songs Sung on Lake: Same Jeans by The View, Don’t Let It Bring You Down by Neil Young and The Wine Song by the Cat Empire.
- Thanks to Sam and the other Rangers at Glacier Backcountry office for all the advice and convincing me that the MCD site would be stunning.
- Birds: 2 Bald Eagles, Mergansers, Raven, Rufous Hummingbird, seagull
- Mammals: Beaver, chipmunks and a vole
- Noted Species: Gray Wolf (night before I got on river I saw one way down a dirt road just outside the park), Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Mountain Goat, Lynx, Bull Trout (native), Roufus Humming Bird and Long-toed Salamander
- Dominant Vegetation: Lodgepole pine, Ponderosa pine, Douglas Fir and Aspen in the drier areas along the shore. In the shade of the mountains on the southern shore, Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar grow
- Ecoregion: Canadian Rockies, (41c) Western Canadian Rockies
- Current Threats: Climate Change, Aquatic invasive species (zebra mussels, etc.)
- Trash collected: cigarette butt, a few plastic ties and piece of foil.
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3192 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign