Thursday, August 16, 2018

Backpacking in Glacier as fires move in

Gordon Whirry and Mark Hertenstein relax in Red Eagle Creek cool on a hot hike

A moose encountered on hike from Red Eagle Lake to Triple Divide Pass

Morningstar Lake's snowy source

Brother Dan fell in Old Man Lake and got a REAL bath 
Old Man Lake beneath Flinsch Peak

Smoky Goose Island in St. Mary Lake after Howe Ridge Fire blew up

Colorful Otokomi Lake

Goat Mountain outlined in Howe Ridge Fire smoke
Brother Dan on Pitamakan-Dawson portion of hike

I just finished a five day backpack in Glacier National Park with a side trip to Otokomi Lake that began with heat and smoke and ended with fire.
It was a trip with my Chicagoan brother Dan and Great Falls hiking companions Mark Hertenstein and Gordon Whirry.
We covered more than 40 miles on the backpack trip and then without Mark another 10 miles back and forth to Otokomi Lake.
The backpack trip went from St. Mary Lake to Two Medicine Lake and included backcountry campgrounds at Red Eagle Lake, Morningstar Lake, Old Man Lake and No Name Lake and the thrilling Continental Divide walk between Pitamakan to Dawson passes.
When we entered the park the views were obscured by smoke from fires burning in most of the states south of and bordering Montana to the West.
I had been apprehensive about the trip because the forecast called for 106 in Great Falls on one of the days we'd be on the trail.
Although our first choice was for the Highline Traverse beginning and ending at Many Glacier, we later agreed that this East Side of the Park hike was entirely satisfying and probably better than our first choice.
Dan Kotynski (left) with Tom Kotynski on hike 
As we did last year, Gordon and I switched up our permits when we checked in at the Two Med Ranger Station, adding No Name camp and extending the permit by a day.
We were so glad we did as No Name, a lake I had sped past many years on previous hikes to and from Dawson Pass, turned out to be the best camp with fantastic views of mountain goats playing in the colorful cliffs above us on Pompelly's Pillar.
We also saw goats in our Morningstar camp, moose on the trail and in Morningstar camp, and bighorn sheep on the trail above Old Man Lake.
The huckleberry pickings, however, were pitiful.  The bears had obviously beaten us to these treats.
Our toughest day was the nearly 14 miles to Morningstar Lake from Red Eagle Lake, where we gained more than 3,000 feet going through Triple Divide Pass in heat that we measured at more than 90 degrees.
My water filtering "Switch Mini" turned out to be inadequate for such an ordeal and I put it aside and threw caution to the winds as I drank water straight from the sources I found along the way. 
So far so good giardia-wise.
The Red Eagle to Dawson Pass portion of the hike is lightly traveled but enormously scenic, with several creek crossings on wood and cable suspension bridges.
Our greatest excitement came at Old Man Lake, three nights into the trip, when there was a loud thunder and lightning storm that caught us without rain flies on our tents.  There was a made scramble to get them on in the dark to keep us dry.
I knew immediately that this would clear the air and drop the temperatures, but that there would be fire.
There were also high winds as we made our way from Pitamakan to Dawson, a precarious walk even without wind on a trail that hangs from the sides from Morgan and Flinsch peaks high above the Nyack valley.
This is where the scenery,  some of the best in the park, is most thrilling, revealing views to the center of the park and massive glaciers in the vicinity of Mount Jackson.
While wobbling my way I noticed to the north and west that a fire had blown up and it proved to be the Howe Ridge Fire.  When we got out we found that the Going to the Sun Road had been closed west from Logan Pass to Apgar campground, that nine historic structures had been burned on the west shore of Lake McDonald and the lodge and area had been evacuated.
While the temperatures had dropped the park's air once again filled with smoke.
No Name Lake was magical and we enjoyed the mountain goats and only one other party of two backpackers camping there --- real solitude!  We scrambled a moraine beneath the cliffs to get a better view of goats before breaking camp.
Throughout our trip we were entertained by backpackers from Great Falls and Helena with whom we had some connections.
When we got to Two Med campground we found it overrun by campers, hikers and tourists.
Likewise, in East Glacier Park, there were crowds like I had never seen before.
I can only guess that the folks driven from the West Side by the fires would be crowding the East Side.
Mark left us and we were lucky enough to find a camp site in St. Mary at Johnson's Red Eagle campground.
Before departing for Great Falls on Day 7 we did the 10 mile hike back and forth to the extremely colorful Otokomi Lake,  with a backdrop of high, red, argilite cliffs.  The lake is translucent emerald with a red shoreline.
The hike took us through the 2016 Reynolds Fire that burned just short of the Rising Sun campground, cabins and lodge where the trailhead began.
Although I carried a relatively light pack (in the neighborhood of 20 pounds), I think my backpacking days are numbered.  Even that small amount of weight may be too much for this septuagenarian.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Glacier again: Siyeh Pass to Sunrift Gorge

The view from Siyeh Pass south looking at Sexton Glacier

Mary McCartney wets her cold neck wrap in a snow-fed spring

Mary McCartney coming down from Siyeh Pass

A careful crossing with Martin coaching his Mom

On the high approach, with Piegan mountain and glacier behind us

Martin and Mary climb toward a high point at the pass

Matahpi Peak sits at the top of Siyeh Pass

One of the many waterfalls in the red Sunrift Gorge coming off Sexton Glacier

In the Reynolds Burn above St. Mary Lake
Against my better judgment because of the crowds and the smoke, I returned to Glacier on Thursday to hike the spectacular Siyeh Bend/Pass-Sunrift Gorge 10-miler.
To my great surprise, the trail was neither crowded nor smoke-filled.
We got one of the clearest days of the summer in the park because high winds (provoking a Red Flag Warning) had blown the smoke out onto the Plains.
I almost decided against returning to the park because of the smoke out on the Plains.
I had traveled to Cut Bank where I took in the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks presentation of "Othello" in the city park.  The local business community had made this a special treat by serving free picnic suppers to anyone who showed up.  The presentation, as usual, was superb.
After the play I traveled north and west 80 miles via Browning and the Duck Lake cut across road that delivered me to my cousins' Many Glacier campsite where I had stayed the previous week with them.
The temperature had been 97 on the Plains and only in the mid-60s in the park.  What a welcome relief.
We took the park bus to the Siyeh Bend to begin our hike and had the trail to ourselves until nearly Preston Park.
The Piegan Glacier to the west and Siyeh and Cracker peaks to the north were the outstanding features of our hike to Siyeh Pass.  We were passed on the trail by two climbers, male and female, who ended up climbing Siyeh AND hiking the pass and coming out the Gorge faster than we did the hike.  They must have gotten more than 5,000 feet of quick elevation gain.  Oh, to be young and strong again!
We lounged at the Pass, enjoying the snowfield below us and the remote Boulder Creek drainage to the east below us with its tarn and lake.
Cousins Mary and Martin then climbed a high point from the pass and we started down the glorious east side drinking in the the views of Sexton Glacier on Going to the Sun Mountain and the Red Rock Canyons below us.
We had fabulous, clear views of Little Chief, Mahtatopa and Red Eagle Mountains to the south above St. Mary's Lake.
Along the trail we passed a couple of fresh piles of grizzly scat, full of (probably) huckleberries, although we didn't see any ripe hucks ourselves.
I had hoped we would catch the wildflowers in their full glory, but it was past their peak, but still terrific, particularly the magenta-colored Indian Paintbrush, deep-blue Gentian, purple Penstemon, and varieties of other yellow flowers including emerging Blanket Flowers.
Our only worry was that in enjoying this floral show we might miss the final buses of the day, but that turned out to be needless worry as we caught a 6 p.m., and we were out of the park by 6:30 p.m. and on our way back to Great Falls.  Our last mile was walking through the 2016 Reynolds Fire Burn and reveling in the forest's regeneration.
Of course, the hike was sweetened by the company of my McCartney cousins, Mary Irene and her son Martin Suarez, both of Minnesota, who showed up ready and able to hike for nearly 10 solid days!
Come back Mary and Martin.  You are already missed!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Lots of hikes, Glacier overcrowded

Hikers at the top of Bridger Baldy's "false" summit

Cousins Mary and Martin cross a rickety rail trestle at Sluice Boxes State Park

Me with my cousin Mary McCartney at Our Lake in Front 
One of two mountain goats who joined us on the Our Lake hike

The waterfall coming off Our Lake

We watched a lightning storm come in at Granite Park chalet in Glacier

Alpine glow over Heaven's Peak across from Granite Park chalet

Katie captures some of the scarlet Indian Paintbrush that covered the hill from Granite to the Loop
The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of visits and hikes.
My cousin Mary McCartney from Owatonna, MN and her son, Martin Suarez from Minneapolis, have been visiting and we've done the Sluice Boxes State Park, Our Lake, and Granite Park Chalet (for an overnight via the Hi-Line Trail from Logan Pass).
Their visit came a couple days after Katie and I visited Bozeman and while she was attending a meeting I climbed Baldy in the Bridger Mountains above the "M", gaining 4,200 feet and severely dehydrating on a 95 degree day when I ran out of water.
I'm still catching my breath and recuperating 10 days later.
I had warned my cousin that Many Glacier had been "discovered" and she might have trouble finding a camping spot.  She had visited several times before and stayed at the Many Glacier Campground and had never had difficulty getting a spot.
On her first day she arrived at Many Glacier and found a large line of cars at the gate and a full campground at 9:30 a.m.
She stayed at the Blackfeet's refurbished Chewing Blackbones campground instead and found it a good experience.
However, she really wanted Many Glacier and got up the next morning at 4:30 a.m. and found a line of seven cars already at the gate.  Once inside the gate it was a waiting game as people packed up and left the campground.  There was a line formed at the campground  rangers directed campers to specific sites.  She was lucky to get one.
I arrived the next day and found hordes of people at Many's entrance.  Likewise, folks were lined up at the campground, waiting to get in.  Parking at the trailheads was so crowded that people were parking in the grass, risking expensive Park Service fines.
Even Two Medicine, where in the past years you could fine campsites, the campground now fills up by 9 a.m.
I told Katie that in future years I'll treat Glacier as I do Yellowstone, visiting remote parts and staying away from the core until the Fall or go early in the season.
I'll take one more shot at the park next week when my brother Dan from Chicago arrives and we do a four day trip.
Next year will be different.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Quiet Glacier, Our Lake

At Our Lake in Front

Mount St. Nicholas from Scalplock Lookout in Glacier

On the colorful Scenic Point Trail walk through to East Glacier Park
We had a wonderful weekend in Glacier Park thanks to friends Camille Consolvo and Mike Dannels who shared a cabin in East Glacier Park with us.
We shared two old favorite hikes with them off the beaten path in hopes of avoiding crowds while having the Glacier experience.
I think we were successful as we climbed Scalplock Mountain just north of Essex on the flank of Ole Creek the first day and followed it with the 10 mile walk through from Two Medicine Lake to East Glacier Park via the Scenic Point Trail.
While Glacier is at its peak season right now we saw only about six parties climbing Scaplock, which offers outstanding views of the park's southwest, with the St. Nicholas Peak Matterhorn most prominent, and two folks at the very end of the Scenic Point walk-through.
Meanwhile, the tourists keep coming through the turnstiles, crowding the famous trails.
Both of our weekend hikes offered amazing views and lots of solitude to boot!
On Wednesday we got out for a hike to Our Lake in the Rocky Mountain Front with Wayne Phillips' Wednesday Walkers group.
Despite 90+ heat in Great Falls we had relatively cool weather helped by some wind and enjoyed clear skies.

Friday, July 13, 2018

High summer in the high country: Patrol, HQ-Our Lake traverse, Mortimer-Big George loop

Gordon Whirry beneath Patrol Mountain Lookout cabin

Trail damage on Straight Creek on way to Patrol Mountain

The classic photo from the saddle between HQ Pass and Our Lake 
My "selfie" on top of Peak 8780 above Our Lake

Plenty of snow and avalanche debris still in basin below HQ Pass

Arsenic Peak at head of Big George Gulch

Sticky Geranium wildflowers patch near foot of Big George Gulch

Plenty of water in Gibson Reservoir as evidenced by these submerged cottonwoods

The recent flood created this gorge at Norweigian Gulch in Sun Canyon
The weather has warmed up, the snow is melting and many of the flood-damaged roads have been repaired, allowing access to my favorite hikes.
I checked out a couple of roads this week that took big flood hits three weeks ago when the mountains were socked with rain.
Benchmark Road is fully opened out of Augusta and in great shape.  This delivered me to my annual Patrol Mountain hike on Sunday.

Our Lake-HQ Pass Traverse

The South Fork of the Teton River has been sufficiently repaired to allow me access to the Headquarters Pass trail where I did the Our Lake-HQ Pass Trail traverse Monday, climbing  in route mountains 8,780 (feet) and 8,485 from the saddle in the middle of the traverse.
There are tons of water in Our Lake and a large snowbank beneath its falls.  The alpine basin beneath HQ Pass is loaded with snow and avalanche debris.
I found the mountain-tops on both hikes clear of snow, but the skies were less clear as the haze of wildfires from California and Nevada have been drifting into Montana, polluting the skies.

Patrol Mountain

We had hoped to find Samsara Chapman Duffey at her post in the lookout tower on top of Patrol, a post she's had about 15 years.  Usually she begins her fire watch on July 1, but the wet weather and lack of fire danger has postponed her arrival.  I spoke to her later and she said that she has been helping get other lookout posts ready, like Beartop and Prairie Reef (where her father is returning).

Porphyry Peak in Little Belts

After those hikes I took a "break" Tuesday and climbed to Porphyry Peak Lookout in the Little Belts from Kings Hill Pass, but like Samsara the ranger was on break and I missed her.  I proceeded to White Sulphur Springs, where I took a break, soaking my tired bones in the hot springs.
On Thursday, an extremely clear and somewhat hot day, I thought a climb of Steamboat was in order and via Augusta checked out the road conditions:  Elk, still closed;  Smith, open, but who knows what kind of condition that road is in;  Dearborn, still closed.  So Steamboat was out.
I decided that perhaps a loop hike near Mortimer Gulch might be the thing to do.
However, it was getting late and time wouldn't be on my side.

Mortimer-Big George Loop

I would have liked to do the traverse around Mortimer Peak, but when I added up the distance it came to nearly 18 miles.
So, instead I decided to explore the Mortimer-Big George loop, which I estimated in the 13 mile range.
This involves doing the Mortimer Trail to the Big George cutoff and then finding the Big George Trail.
Trail signs at various junctions on hike are missing, which makes navigation tricky.  Thank goodness for my GPS.
I went to just below the pass opposite Arsenic Peak before deciding I hadn'd found it.
I doubled back and headed downstream through the trees and eventually picked up the trail.
The trail at Big George is pretty rough.  The animals had found it before me, churning it up. That hardened into lumpy obstacles that were tough on the feet. There were lots of deadfall across the trail.  It seems as though this trail is really a packer trail for hunting season.
I cut the trail above Big George Gulch and connected to the trail that follows the Gibson Reservoir shoreline.
The prettiest parts of Big George are at its head beneath Arsenic and at its foot above the reservoir.  Both were resplendant with wildflowers and vast, open views.
This is real wilderness country and for the life of me I don't understand why it is not within the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area boundaries.
The hike ended at 15 miles with just under 3,000 feet gained and lost.

Friday, July 06, 2018

After the Kenow fire: checking out Waterton

A black bear gets ready to get into some trouble

Fireweed, fire and Mount Vimy

The trail to Bertha Lake was hit pretty hard by fire

Bertha Lake's shallow end is underlain with bright red arguillite.

The head of Bertha Lake is an ampitheater of mountains

The view toward Mount Cleveland and the U.S.

Lupine light up the field beneath Mount Vimy
Waterton National Park has been on my mind since last fall when the Kenow Fire tore its way through the park, burning some 50,000 acres --- 80 percent of the park ---- before the Fall storms exstinguished it.
I had been anxious to see the aftermath.
I knew that the townsite had barely been saved.
But, I didn't expect its quick rebirth.
Yes, most of the park is still closed.  You can't drive to Red Rocks or Cameron Lake and hike the trails in those areas, like Akamina or the Carthew Alderson point to point. I hear that one stretch of one-mile of backcountry trail had some 1,700 burned trees across it.
From any vantage point, but particularly from the Prince of Wales Hotel, you can see how the fire burned to the edge of the town and got everything else.  The Visitor's Center was burned to the ground and a new one opened in the old post office downtown.  The Prince of Wales was lucky to survive.
What we saw this past weekend was one of the most glorious blooms of wildflowers I had ever seen.  Grass is back and offering a vibrant counterpoint to the gutted out burn areas.
The blue/purple lupine and magenta colored fireweed are particularly colorful.
The Bertha Lake Trail and Boundary Trail are open.  You can walk up the Red Rocks Road and access side trails, like Belleview and the Crandall Lake Loop.  The Crypt Lake hike is still going since the south side of Waterton Lake wasn't burned by Kenow.
Black bears are everywhere.  We saw 11 in the two days we were there, nine on one day including a Mama bear and three darling cubs.  Many were cinnamon colored.
On day 2 we did the 3.6 miles walk up to Bertha Lake above the north shore of Waterton Lake, passing two gorgeous waterfalls.  Once there, in a giant cathedral, framed by high, colorful peaks and waterfalls, we traversed the lake, adding another 2.5 miles to our hike.  People congregated at the falls, a few more at Bertha Lake, and we were the only hikers who went around the lake, enjoying the debris of two avalanche chutes, more falls and solitude in an alpine cathedral.  There were copious signs that grizzlies had just been in the area ---- fresh piles of steaming scat.
The shopkeepers in Waterton told us they had been adversely affected by the fire;  that tourists have stayed away.
In early morning the Waterton Main Street was literally abandoned, something I had never seen before.  By afternoon, things picked up, but nothing like the bustle I was accustomed to there.  The campground seemed to have plenty of tents and campers, though.
We stayed at a bed and breakfast in Mountain View, about 15 miles east of Waterton and one evening went to summer theater in Cardston and thoroughly enjoyed its presentation of the musical, "Newsies," the 1895 New York City newsboys' strike.
Waterton is one of my favorite outdoor venues.  We'll be back.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Walling Reef Lake

In front of Walling Reef's towering cliffs

Gordon Whirry enjoying a break above the lake

The gorgeous hike out
I hadn't really thought much about the Walling Reef Lake hike until it was profiled in Douglas Lorain's new book "100 Classic Montana Hikes" (Mountaineering Press).
I bought the book when he visited with the Montana Wilderness Association at its annual Summer Wilderness Walks Kickoff in early May.
He recommends it as a backpack trip in this area south of Swift Reservoir and below massive Walling Reef.
I can see why now.  We did it Saturday in a day hike and covered 16 miles and gained and lost more than 5,300 feet along the way on this 12 hour trek in the Rocky Mountain Front.
That's a heckuva day for the two of us who are 70, and the "youngster" in our group at 64.
But we were richly rewarded with spectacular views of the Walling Reef wall and a jewel of a lake sitting beneath that wall.
What we hadn't counted on was a tremendous walk through the Strawberry Fire burn that scorched most of the area along Phillips Creek Trail last August and September, burning more than 20,000 acres.
The burn was severe enough that we gave up on the trail in places and went cross country.
The scenery on the hike, despite the burn, is most beautiful;  from a hike along the reservoir's shore to Hell Roaring Spring at the Phillips Creek junction and spots in the burn open for views Bennie Hill, Mounts Sentinel, Richmond and Poia in the Badger Two Med.
The east face of Walling Reef is the best, though, with the towering cliffs and views, particularly to the north all the way to Glacier Park.