Mountains and Glaciers and BEARS, oh my!
I didn’t know what to expect from Glacier. Even though we had been researching national parks for nearly a year, I only saved Pinterest ideas, looked at pictures, and read about cool things to see and do.
The drive into the Tetons is something I’ll never forget, but the initial drive down Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road has been pulling my heart strings ever since. I had never seen anything like it, it was sunset and the sky was an array of bold warm colors, the mountains and canyons looked as though they were placed perfectly for show. I was the lucky one sitting passenger, spending most of the drive with my head and upper body out of the window, taking as many pictures as possible and trying to explain to Chris what I was seeing. Every time I gasped Chris would shout “IS IT A BEAR HON!?” (it never was). I wish we’d recorded our reactions.
After that unforgettable drive in, we stayed at St. Mary’s campground at the opposite end of Going-to-the-Sun Road (the east end). That worked out kind of perfectly – how the sun vanished as we finished the route, and a campground awaited us at the end of the road.
The weather shifts across the park were Gemini-level sporadic – warm then cold, calm then torrentially windy. We were on the wrong side of that shift, and while we were used to camping in low temperatures by then, this night was cold. The winds were so strong I woke up 19 times to have Chris double check we weren’t the cow from The Wizard of Oz. But we have a fucking Marmot so cancel that idea MOTHER NATURE.
The next day we drove back west across Going-to-the-Sun Road to Apgar Village. This was a common theme; we must have driven down and back this road 69 times during our stay, since the two open campgrounds were at either end of the 50 mile byway. The drive proved still amazing in the daylight, and we spent the ride gathering ideas of spots along the way that we wanted to checkout later in the week. The weather this particular day was shittier than Chris after Mexican night, so we settled on hiking a 6.2 miler to Avalanche Lake.
After our warm-up hike we went into town (West Glacier), grabbed food to cook, and headed back to Apgar Village to set up camp. This was like the first time we set up camp before dark since idk THE BADLANDS, so setting up was a challenge until we put on some blindfolds and were back to business. Maybe I’m lying, but point being we’d been getting a little too used to pitching the tent in the dark. On top of that our lantern turned bunk, so special thanks going out to the lunch ladies back at Pine Hill Elementary for fillin’ my tray up with carrots despite my demands to substitute chicken nuggs because YUH GIRL has got superhero-level night vision.
This was supposed to be our full hike day, but the timing didn’t work out for us because…
- We overslept after Chris threw our phones into the fire pit when the alarms started going off
- As human people, we require water to live and forgot to fill our dromedary beforehand, and the next water spot was 18 miles! from Logan Pass (where the trailhead began)
- When we finally got our shit together it was 1:00 PM and we’d have to finish a big chunk of the hike in the dark among foraging fluff monsters preparing to hibernate. So cancel that shit-biscuit
Luckily we were in friggen Glacier National Park so we had plenty of other things to do. We decided to drive on the lovely Going-to-the-Sun Road (again) but this time hit up all of the points of interest along the way. AS FOLLOWS:
Starting East at St. Mary’s Lake –
We wanted to continue our trend of going out with a bang at each park, so we researched if you only had one day in Glacier, which trail would you hike? One hike kept popping up: The Highline Trail. So we checked out some pictures. It was love at once.
This hike begins along the ridge of a very thin, even steeper cliff. The same cliff where this guy was stranded on a random rock two years ago because he was cornered by a grizzly bear.
Oh! And speaking of furry death machines, they had closed the trail off just WEEKS before we got there because of too much GRIZZLY activity. All this was enough to fuck my mind-world, but not enough to stop us.
After about 8 miles of world-class scenery, we reached “The Garden Wall” –a giant, well, wall of rock (false advertising is a bitch, man). This wall had a trail that lead to an overlook of Grinnell Glacier, (and of pretty much the whole world), which we really wanted to see. The trail was extremely thin and once again alongside a steep cliff. In one mile, the trail gained 1000 ft. of elevation, and bombarded us with eye-adjusting views of the park.
You don’t realize how vulnerable you are until you’re trying to hold onto the edge of a ROCK WALL to keep the wind from blowing you into oblivion while trying not to slip on the wet rocks underfoot. This was far and away the most strenuous part of the hike, that includes the descent as well as the climb.
Now, before I try to describe the indescribable beauty of Grinnell Glacier waiting for us at the end of this body-beating wall, let me rewind for a minute…
We knew we wanted to see Grinnell Glacier and we knew it was along the Highline, we just didn’t know exactly where the corollary split off. Well, this is how we discovered it:
We were eight miles deep into the wilderness when we saw a bighorn hangin’ out, minding his own business. Naturally, we stopped to taking some pics, feeling #blessed to see some cool wildlife. Meanwhile, our gramma friend Mary was snapping some shots of the sheep, talking about ‘now how she just needed to see a bear!’
“DON’T YOU JINX US MARY,” I screamed, as Chris physically restrained me, “TAKE IT BACK!”
Literal seconds after this, we hear yelling in the distance. We look up a couple hundred yards to see a tiny dot of a man on a rock waving his arms. This was the same man who had ran past us on the trail a couple miles earlier — a grey-bearded elderly gent, rocking a pair of bright red short-shorts and an athletic tank, with headphones in and a gun holstered on one hip and bear spray on the other. For obvious reasons we nicknamed him coach.
“I think that’s coach,” I said.
“I think he’s yelling bear,” Chris said.
My heart jolted, but at this point I was simply alert, not afraid, since seeing is believing (hear that, Santa?). Coach continued on his way and disappeared soon-after as the trail turned out of sight toward the mountain pass. I prayed he was okay. At the time, we had no idea there was even a trail up there, so I figured he’d just base jumped off the peak to escape a killer stuffed animal.
We sat and stared for a minute, squinting to try to spot the bear. Sure enough, we watched in amazement as a gigantic grizzly strolled out from behind the bushes.
Heart begins to palpitate. Alert becomes afraid.
And then, “CHRIS THERE’S ANOTHER ONE!”
Early onset heart attack. Fear becomes terror.
And then, “HOLY F*** WHAT THE F***ING F*** CHRIS THERE’S THREE!”
Heart tears through chest. Terror becomes hysteria.
“CHRIS THERE’S AN ARMY OF THEM THEY PROBABLY HAVE US SURROUNDED WE NEED TO GO WE NEED TO GO OH MY GOD CHRIS THERE’S SO MUCH I STILL WANT TO DO I NEED TO SEE MY DOG AGAIN!!!”
Three humongous grizzlies, strolling along the mountainside trail, tracing Coach’s footsteps.
First thing that comes to mind is the bears take notice of us, run down the mountain, and it’s a human feast. I blacked out.
Only to be snapped out of it by Mary’s old ass, screaming as she took her grizzly money-shots. I guess she got what she wanted. It was hard to be happy for her in that moment.
Thankfully, she had another two people in her group, and a couple around our age were with us too – seven of us total. I was ready for war. Then the group gave me a grizzly bear intervention – being in a group is good, noise is good, surprise is bad. We outnumber the bears. We had bearspray for days.
Heart rate drops. Hysteria reverts to terror.
Chris pulled out the binoculars and we scoped them out for a bit. It was a momma sow accompanied by what appeared to be two grown-ass adult cubs because they all looked fairly similar in height and weight. Way to cut the umbilical cord mama bear…
Between begging the Old and New Gods for my life and promising to be a good girl forever and ever, we noticed the bighorn crouched down, frozen behind some shrubbery, probably reciting the same prayer to the Sheep Gods.
The grizzlies were walking along the Garden Wall trail and I thought – no way IN HECK are we are taking that trail anywhere. A few steps later we reached a sign pointing toward the Grinnell Glacier overlook. It was the same trail.
After moments of pondering how much we valued our lives, we agreed to carry on as planned. YOLO has been one of our cliché mottos of the trip. Or in this case,YOLUYGEBAB (You only live until you get eaten by a bear). Laugh and applaud, plz & thx.
The younger couple followed behind us, bear spray in hand, and a calm exhilaration replaced terror. That is until the couple decided to go back down due to strenuous climbs and grizzly activity. Terror seeped back into my bloodstream. On their way down, they passed another couple headed our way, so we decided to wait for them. They were an awesome couple from Ireland who had just come from Banff and Jasper (our next destination), so we got some good tips and advice from them, and their conversation and funny accents killed that last bit of pesky terror once and for all.
As we approached the peak, an adorable-ass nature family from Washington state told us we just missed the bears swimming down in the glacial lake below us! Fer cute.We couldn’t be happier to reach the top.
Glacier never stopped surprising. Never stopped amazing. The view from the top overlooking the Grinnell Glacier was the perfect relief from the intense moments leading up to it.
On our way down we saw the same bighorn finally work up the nerve to come out of hiding and continue on his way. I looked at him, he looked at me, we wept in each others arms. I’ve never felt more connected with an animal in the sheep family before this day. We understood each other. I can’t help but feel sad that he has to endure such fear every day. Anyway, moving on.
9 hours and 14 miles later – we reach the bottom.
What the fuck just happened.
I should also mention that at mile nine of our hike we veered off the Highline to another trail called “The Loop”, a four mile trek back down the mountain. So instead of heading back the same way to where we started, we popped out at a different location along Going-to-the-Sun Road, miles away from where we parked. This meant hitchhiking at sundown – YAY!
Mary and her ragingly old friends were kind enough to give us a ride back to Logan’s Pass – even though they were going in the opposite direction. The car smelled of cat piss and a casserole of human sweat. I could feel Chris’s eye tears dripping on my shoulder as I wiped my own. We were spent.
Taking our boots off never felt so good.
Canada, we are ready for you.