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

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.

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