Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Fall in Glacier

Autumn colours

There was a real chill in the air as we stepped off the plane in Missoula, Montana in mid-September. It was our first taste of fall and quite a contrast to the warm coastal breeze we'd left behind in California. We were travelling to Glacier National Park, where the Rockies cross the Canadian border, forming the Continental Divide and watershed of the USA. Glacier was to be our final hiking destination in the states, and we had about 10 days to explore this compact but impressive group of mountains.

Missoula's leafy suburbs
Before we disappeared into the hills we spent a day in Missoula, a very neat college town with manicured lawns, picket fences and large white clapboard houses. A rocking chair on the veranda, usually dwarfed by a huge american flag flying over a perfectly striped lawn finished the suburban picture.
After lunch at a pavement cafe, we set off around the town on bicycles. We'd longed to cycle in the USA but rental is usually $35-40, so for two it works out as more than hiring a car and was definitely out of our budget. Thanks to a council scheme, here in Missoula bikes were free to rent, and it was the perfect town for cycling. We followed a route along the rock-strewn river, lined with birch trees on the turn from pale greens to autumn yellows. The University of Montana campus felt familiar from dozens of films, with students sitting on the lawns or cycling by with a textbook under one arm. 

Supporting the Ospreys
It was a quintessentially American day in small-town USA and we finished it off with a baseball game- the Ospreys vs the Raptors. It was our first ball game and a really fun experience. The players lined up on the pitch and we all stood to sing the national anthem, before the home team's mascot, Ozzie Osprey, ran on to dance around the pitch. We were lucky enough to be seated next to a friendly Missoulan who had written the sports column for the local paper for many years, and was the perfect coach to explain the rules of the game to us. To me, it seemed basically like rounders, but with comically padded outfits. It was freezing huddled up watching the game, and gave us a taste of what camping up here this late in the season would be like. In fact, the next morning we woke to a layer of frost on the tent.

We had partly chosen to visit Glacier as we could get there by public transport- a real rarity in the states. Well, almost get there. After a bus to Whitefish we were tantalisingly close, and rather than wait in town for a day for the next train (Glacier is on the Chicago-Seattle line) we took our chance hitch hiking, despite it's dubious reputation in this country. Our first lift was with a very friendly but slightly manic character who took his eyes off the road to turn around and talk to us a bit too much. With a sigh of relief, we were back on the side of the road at a junction, where 200 cars passed by before we got a very windy ride in the back of a pick up. Finally, we made it to the entrance of Glacier in a retired local's car, with his hairy springer spaniel slobbering all over me in the back, bemused but happy to have her seat                                                                          taken up by rucksacks and new friends.

That afternoon was spent in the wilderness ranger's office trying to come up with a plan for our hike. Unlike in the Sierra Nevada, here we would have to camp in a set backcountry campsite each night, with very limited spaces which had to be prebooked and are often full- the idea being to preserve the wilderness experience, but at the cost of any flexibility for the hiker. The advantage of rocking up so late in the season was that we could put together an itinerary without too many 'computer says no' moments. It was frustrating to later find out from other hikers that the computer system is completely out of tune with the real situation in the park, with many 'full' campsites actually being empty.

Route planning!

After a pre-dawn and freezing cold wait for the office to open to get our permits, we were happy to have any sort of a route, let alone a very promising 90 mile circuit through the centre of the park. 
On the trail in Glacier
First though, we had a 2 hour hitch to reach our starting point, and a 15 mile hike to our first campsite! It was a lot easier to get lifts within the park, and we were kindly deposited along the spectacular 'Going to the Sun' road to begin our 9 day route into the heart of Glacier. That first afternoon's walk over Ptarmigan Pass was a great introduction, with clear streams falling into pools and the purple tinted cliffs of the mountains interspersed with patches of snow, above dark valleys thick with pine forest. It was a wonderful time of year to be out walking- cold mornings but crisp, clear autumnal days. The blueberry, huckleberry and raspberry bushes that carpeted the forest floor were dyed deep red and yellow and the contrast with the green of the pine forest was gorgeous.

Crossing Gunsight Pass
After all our time on trail in the Sierras, it was ridiculously easy to get back into the swing of hiking and camping. The route had a fair amount of ascent and descent but never felt difficult, the hardest parts being some longer stretches through forest where we would get frustrated at the lack of any view. The high stretches and climbs made up for it with some classic vistas; small glaciers clinging to mountainsides, an impressive cirque with waterfalls cascading down the cliffs and extensive mountain panoramas across the valleys.

Backcountry camp facilities!
Walking all day felt entirely normal and setting up our tent and cooking our usual trail food was second nature. The set campsites weren't as special as our wild camps on the John Muir Trail, but they made the experience a lot more social, sitting around the cooking area chatting to fellow hikers each evening. Everyone was american, and most had been visiting the park for many years.
Bears were a common subject for discussion as we sat around the campfire. Glacier is home to quite a number of grizzlies as well as black and brown bears, so bear safety is a serious consideration here. Everyone carries a can of pepper spray, at the ready in case of attack (some of the more paranoid walk with it in their hand at all times!). Cooking areas are kept separate from camping areas, food must be stored high on ropes suspended between trees and you are advised to make a lot of noise while you're hiking. Bears don't like surprises and most attacks are defensive, as a result of a bear feeling cornered on a trail.

That would be for our campground then...
We walked along clapping and calling 'HEEEY BEEAAR', and always had one eye scanning for something large and furry, especially when we stopped to pick blueberries to supplement our oatmeal breakfasts. After a week of these precautions we were actually very pleased to have a bear sighting, happily from a safe distance. A ranger had warned us that a large grizzly was on our trail, and probably about 10 minutes ahead of us. So we proceeded cautiously, with a lot of singing and clapping. We saw the bear about 100 metres ahead, and she hadn't seen us, so we could sit and enjoy watching her pause to effortlessly turn over small boulders as she ambled along our path. We felt very privileged to view such a huge, beautiful and clearly very wild animal in its natural surroundings. Other wildlife we saw included a curious baby pine marten, an owl, big horn sheep and my favourite- mountain goats. Straight out of Narnia, these guys are so perfectly designed for their environment- strong and sure footed, with a very cosy snow-white coat and curved black horns. The kids are extremely cute, following behind their mothers and staring at us with their big black eyes.

Super fluffy mountain goat family

Last sunset in the mountains
Our 9 days in Glacier went extremely fast, and before we knew it we were enjoying sunset from a high camp on our last night with a group of new friends.
After almost 3 months, our time in the mountains and national parks of the USA had come to an end. Finishing with a memorable swim in Lake Mcdonald on an unseasonally hot day, we headed to the station for the 'Empire Builder' train to Seattle.

After a day in the pleasant town of Whitefish, where we drank popular microbrewery beers at a rooftop bar with some lovely Montanans, we boarded our overnight train with another great guy, whiling the evening away over a glass of wine in the train lounge. Rail travel is very pleasant in the states (unlike Greyhound buses) and there was a holiday atmosphere on board. Practically every other passenger was heading to Seattle for a big American football game- the Seattle Seahawks were playing the Green Bay Packers, something to do with Monday night football, and apparently it was a big deal.

The original Starbucks in Seattle
So, onto Seattle- home of the space needle, Starbucks, and the Seahawks- but known to me mostly from years of watching Frasier. Our first impression was that Frasier would have his work cut out- the city streets were yet again filled with homeless people, a high proportion of whom clearly had psychiatric issues. Some of the downtown streets were literally lined with cardboard. Trying to ignore this was hard, but we stayed in a nice hostel and enjoyed visiting some of the arty, eclectic suburbs and city markets. We ascended a skyscraper to a Starbucks with a view (Starbucks began here, with the original coffee shop in Pike Place market still going strong), and I tried to get over the shock of having my hair cut off by an exuberant and distracted hairdresser while chatting about her wedding plans.

The city, like San Francisco, had some nice parts but didn't really live up to our expectations. It's the mountains, national parks and wide open spaces of the USA that left a great impression on us. The people as well, and particularly the chance to get to know the american side of the Stewart family. Karl's uncle Fred and his wife Joyce provided a home from home for us, and really made our 'American Summer'. We will always be grateful to have had a chance to get to know them, and the day we had to pack up and say goodbye felt like leaving home all over again.


Saying goodbye to Fred and Joyce

No comments:

Post a Comment