Thursday, July 27, 2017

A week's worth in Glacier and Great Bear

A "selfie" at Dickey Lake in Great Bear Wilderness
My wife took off for a week in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with her hiking group, so I took a solo run to Glacier Park and the Great Bear Wilderness.
Although Great Falls is filled with smoke from the many fires, the area I chose was clear and less hot.
In the park I backpacked into Morningstar Lake in the Cut Bank Creek drainage and went for a look at Ole Lake via Firebrand Pass, and in the Great Bear traversed Grant Ridge and was challenged by brush on the hike into Dickey Lake.
The park was quite full of tourists and campers and I found myself irritated by the crowds in East Glacier Park, which has obviously been "discovered," transforming it into a busy hub rather than a sleepy byway.
I camped one night at the park's Two Medicine Campground, but opted for the less busy and quiet Red Eagle Campground near the Two Med damsite at the turnoff to the park.  This Blackfeet run site is pretty disorganized and rustic, but the scenery (Scenic Point and Rising Wolf mountains) is stunning.  I hope the Blackfeet are successful with this.  This part of the park needs more campsites than the Two Med campground.

Finally, Morningstar Lake

Dawn breaks over Morningstar Lake in Glacier's Cut Bank Creek area

One of the two moose I had in camp, just a few yards from my backpack tent
I had been trying for a backcountry permit to backpack into Morningstar Lake for the past 10 years.  I was lucky enough to score one on this trip and thoroughly enjoyed the trip.
It is roughly 7 miles into the lake via Cut Bank Creek, but I added another 3 miles after setting up camp and going on to Pitamakan Lake.
I had seen Pitamakan Lake from the high ridge above it many times on annual Dawson-Pitamakan hikes, but had never been to the lake.  It was well worth the extra effort.
The camp at Morningstar Lake is very lovely, the lake more a beaver pond.  I did see a beaver at work there as well as two young bullmooses who grazed within 100 feet of my camp.
The walk from the Triple Divide/Pitamakan trail junction is open and lovely, showing off spectacular waterfalls, and Bad Marriage, Eagle Plume, Medicine Grizzly and Red mountains.
It was a hot hike, but it cooled off at night with strong breezes blowing through camp.
I was joined by a couple from Minneapolis who were going into Medicine Grizzly Lake, a nostalgia trip for the husband who had been taken there as a child.
When they left me at the Pitamakan junction I was joined by a Michigan hiker on his way to Two Med.
Folks in camp were not friendly and I did not meet them.
In the morning I walked out, passing maybe four groups on their way to Triple Divide.

Grant Ridge traverse in the Bear

Great Northern Mountain, highest point in the Great Bear, dominated the western horizon 
The large glacier on the north face of Grant peak in the Bear

Another selfie, this one at the Grant Ridge high point with southern Glacier Park peaks as backdrop

Over the years I've been trying to hit the various U.S. 2 portals into the Great Bear Wilderness and Glacier Park.
Grant Ridge traverse was one of those portals.
It begins at the Stanton Lake trailhead/parking area and climbs the west side of the ridge, breaking through at the ridge top and then returns via a walk down the top of the ridge that descends to the east and a hidden trailhead just off Highway 2 about fourth-tenths of a mile from the Stanton trailhead.
It was a perfect hike for a blazing hot day.  I was in the trees for most of the day, which opened in strategic parts revealing breathtaking views of Great Northern and Grant mountains, the two monarchs of the Great Bear.  Ripe huckleberries helped, too.  Where the trail to Stanton Lake splits, the Grant Ridge traverse is the left for and there is a wide stream crossing.
Once I hit the ridge line I got stunning views of Glacier Park's southern boundary including the St. Nicholas spire and two of the park's 10,000 foot monster mountains ---- Stimson and Jackson.
On the way up I could see milky green Stanton Lake recede as I climbed.
I did not see another person on this 11 mile roundtrip trail.  I gained and lost 3,700 feet.

A look at Ole Lake

Eagle Ribs peak dominates northwest skyline as seen from Ole Creek trail

Summit and Little Dog mountains above placid Ole Lake
Over the years I've returned time and again to Ole Creek, mostly hitting it from the U.S. 2 Izaak Walton Ranger Station.  Other times from the Fielding portal, which requires crossing the railroad tracks near the Snow Slip Inn.
I've been to the Ole Creek campground, and used Ole Creek to reach Scalplock Mountain and the boundary trail.
But until this trip, I had never been to Ole Lake at its head.
I had seen Ole Lake from the top of Summit Mountain.
I decided a long hike via Firebrand Pass would be my route to this remote backcountry lake and campground.
It meant starting at the Lubec trailhead, which required railroad track crossing.
I love the hike to Firebrand,  some 5 miles and a gain of 2,000 feet, but I had never been down the other side of the pass, and it was just too inviting not to go.
It was a hot and clear day, but for the first time in many years there was no hard west wind blasting me at the pass.
The surprise was how steep the pass is going down into Ole Creek.
Another surprise are the animal trails that criss cross the mountainsides.  It gave me some pause to decide which of the trails was the Park Service's Ole Creek trail.
It was another 3 miles down to the lake, the first 2 miles out in the open with terrific views of the back sides (north) sides of Summit and Little Dog mountains, so prominent from Marias Pass, and hidden and striking peaks like Eagle Ribs, Despair, Barrier Buttes, Soldier, Battlement and Skeleton.
I passed loudly through dense (grizzly) forest for another mile before reaching Ole Lake, a beautiful dark green lake in the shadow of Skeleton, Summit and Little Dog peaks.
I stayed awhile to drink in the remote beauty of this area before turning around the climbing back out to Firebrand and then Lubec.
To my great surprise I had seen no one all day long on this high summer day over 16.4 miles.
I had gained and lost almost 3,800 feet on this trek.

Dickey Lake in Great Bear

This snowfield calved into Dickey Lake while I was there

My first view of the lake
Chalk up another hike from U.S. 2.
I had seen the Forest Service signs for Dickey Lake for the past 45 summers, and avoided it, thinking that a lake so close to a highway and Glacier would be overrun.
In fact, it was the last hike of my trip and I wanted something easy to do after my hike to Ole Lake the day before and saw that it is only 5.4 miles in length roundtrip.
Boy, did I get my signals mixed up!
It turns out that this is a very challenging hike despite its brevity.
This hike is located just one Forest Service Road west of Essex, and three miles up a logging road to a cramped parking area on the road itself.  Forget parking at the trailhead, some 75 feet above the logging road.
There's a wade across Dickey Creek.
It didn't take long for this overgrown trail to close in on me and I found myself walking in thimbleberries, elderberries, cow parsnip, alders and stinging nettles above my head.  I found the trail by feeling my way forward in a small rut.  There was no way I could see a "trail" most of the way.  
There were occasional glimpses of what was to come ---- a headwall with a big waterfall that I knew I would have to ascend to reach the lake.
At one point I lost the trail altogether in a large fern thicket that tossed me about.
This is where I think I lost my bear spray.
That gave me plenty to think about as I thrashed about in some of the most prime grizzly habitat I've ever seen.
At the headwall, the vegetation became less intense, and to my surprise there was a pretty good, but extremely steep climbers trail for the final two-tenths of a mile and 600 feet of vertical.
With several vegetable belays I reached the lake and felt that I had accomplished something and was richly rewarded with a great view.  It had taken me 3.5 hours to cover the 2.6 miles to the lake!  Because I knew the route on the way down, it took me 2 hours and 15 minutes.  I had gained and lost just 1,400 feet. 
Some easy hike!
At the south end of the lake are a couple of snow fields, one which calved into the aqua colored water with a crash while I was there.
High above there were waterfall rivulets coming off other snow fields.
I drank in the beauty of the area for more than an hour before my most tentative trip down the steep headwall.
I'm not sure I've ever seen such a crude Forest Service trail.
But what the heck, this is wilderness, man.
The waterfall at the Dickey Lake headwall

This was my "trail."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Old favorites: Patrol, Route Creek Pass, Our Lake, Pioneer Ridge

Enjoying a gorgeous day at Our Lake

Mark Hertenstein fights gale-force winds just below Route Creek Pass

The new Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary sign on Patrol Mountain Trail 

The past couple of weeks have been filled with family obligations and a trip to the Calgary Stampede.
But, I still managed to get out and enjoy quick trips to old favorite destinations in the Front:  Patrol Mountain, Route Creek Pass, Our Lake and the Pioneer Ridge in the Little Belts.
Of note are the new Bob Marshall Wilderness Area boundary signs posted on Route Creek and Patrol Mountain trails, reflecting the boundary changes made by the Heritage Act two years ago.
Particularly surprising is the wilderness sign immediately at the beginning of the Patrol Mountain trail near the trail head on Straight Creek.  It is a nice, large new sign that adds "Helena" to the name of the Lewis and Clark National Forest reflecting the administrative consolidation of the two forests.
The boundary for the Bob on the Middle Fork Teton River is now four miles up the trail toward the pass rather than the pass two miles further up the trail.
The Our Lake boundary marker is a simple marker that could be easy to miss, and about a mile from the trail head.
Each visit to the Front reinforced how special this area is.  I find myself savoring, rather than rushing through the hikes, more intent on the experience rather than the destination.
We experienced gale-force winds on Route Creek, where we abandoned plans to climb Old Baldy.
A large grizzly track not far from a scat pile filled with undigested buffalo berries

 We found many ripened buffalo berry bushes, and a nice grizzly track and some scat with undigested berries.  Smoke from forest fires filled the air on our way to the trailhead, but otherwise we had a pretty clear day.
Samantha Chapman was on her day off and away from the Patrol Mountain lookout, so I missed her for the first time in many years.  I think this might be her 15th or 16th year at the lookout.
We took neighbor kids up to Our Lake and found some snow remnants at the large waterfall fed by the lake.
I did the 5-mile Pioneer Ridge loop with a Colorado hiker in town for a family reunion.
The Patrol Mountain lookout cabin 
The large waterfall below Route Creek Pass

Monday, July 03, 2017

Testing myself: Mount James in Glacier

Beargrass at the foot of Mount James

On the summit of Mount James

More views from the top

Hiking to Triple Divide Pass in Glacier Park is a challenging day hike.  It is 14.6 miles round trip with an elevation gain and loss of 2,500 feet.
But just like the TV ads that sell gadgets, "wait, there's more," when you reach the pass.
If you're like me, you're lured to consider Triple Divide, Razor's Edge or Mount James peak, all reachable by routes from the pass.
While I had set out for a simple day hike to this breathtakingly beautiful pass, I noticed that the southwest ridge of Mount James (elevation: 9,375 feet) was bare and climbable.
Mount James is the big boy at the head of the Cut Bank Creek Valley in Glacier.  It can be seen from U.S. 89 as you drive from Browning to St. Mary, and it is clearly visible looking up the Red Eagle Valley from Going to the Sun Highway.
It is large, tan scree and talus pile from the pass.
It also looks deceptively close from the pass.
That was my mistake.
While it is another mile-and-a-quarter from the pass, it rises another 2,000 feet over that distance.
At the pass I met a couple of recent high school grads from Northern Virginia on their way from Atlantic Creek backcountry campground to the foot to Red Eagle Lake.
I encouraged them to join me for the climb from the pass, and to my surprise, they did.
I didn't think they'd want to climb with someone old enough to be their grandfather.
What was impressive was that they did the climb with full backpacks!
Since it had been more than 20 years since I did this climb, I had forgotten what a pain in the ass the diorite (black rock) spires were to traverse.  I remembered that skirting them to the south would be a much better route than fighting them and the tangle of trees that protect their flanks.
It was a very hot day, but we had breezes that became cooler as we neared the summit.
The views from the top of this mountain are as good as any in the park:  three of the park's six 10,000 footers were in clear view ---- Stimson, that dominated the southwestern horizon, Mount Jackson with its glacier fields, and Mount Siyeh.  We looked down on the various valleys of the park, marveling at the alpine lakes, the snow fields.  Off to the east were the Great Plains, shimmering like an ocean on the horizon as far as the eye could see.
There were very few hikers on the trail throughout the day, and no one else but the three of us on the peak.  Early in the day I met a group coming down from the pass, 11 Continental Divide Trail hikers going from north to south, who hoped to complete their hike by November.
I saw three bighorn ewes, and a mama and two small mountain goat kids and one pile of bear scat.
This hike was a test for this old man.  At the end of the day I had gained and lost 4,800 feet of elevation and covered 17 miles.
I was really pooped from the experience!
I had to get off the trail to let this bighorn ewe pass

A weeping wall along the trail thoroughly soaked me as I pass under it