Thursday, January 04, 2007


The Swiftcurrent Trail

I head back up the road to re-enter Glacier National Park at a place called Many Glacier. On the way there I pass the fire camp, at the north end of Lower Saint Mary Lake. There are little plumes of smoke rising up here and there among the trees, and no particular end in sight for the guys fighting them, and the shantytown they're living in for the duration does nothing to make the job seem more romantic.

At the park entrance I upgrade my week-long pass to an annual pass for another handful of money. Rand McNally's showing me lots of parks to see out here, even if the calendar's not showing me many days to do it in.

The road to the trailhead runs alongside Swiftcurrent Creek, which I'm telling you mostly to get the name "Swiftcurrent Creek" into the blog. Here's a picture of it:

...which I wish were better. And I will tell you now, so you're not disappointed a few lines from now, that although I've been totally delighted with the camera John lent me this summer, Glacier National Park immediately brought it, or me, or the both of us, to our knees. I'm just not up to capturing its - well, choose your trite expression: glory, grandeur, immensity, majesty, all of the above. Maybe nobody is. North Dakota I loved, but I will tell you that if you're not up to the drive you can rely on my pictures to fill you in. Glacier, you pretty much have to see for yourself.

And I will also tell you now that I had written an earlier version of this, which was summarily lost when the wi-fi connection failed at a trendier but less blogging-friendly coffeehouse, and which was, I feel certain, far more poetic and insightful than this that you're reading now. What can I say? We all of us live subject to fate, and chance, and circumstance, and the best we can do is to try to live our lives in such a way to make those things work in our favor. Which just means I have to try to do my best work now.

And while I'm digressing, to Kathy: This is the first day of the new schedule. And welcome home.

Driving alongside Swiftcurrent Creek, you pass one of those grand old hotels that dot the national parks of the West; I'm feeling behind this morning, owing to my stop for conversation and huckleberry pie, and so all you get is a distant snap of the exterior. I'm sure it's nice, and even if it's ordinary the view out your window isn't likely to be.

I finally park by the trailhead, where I find a phone and call cousin Dave to advise him of my schedule; I'm expecting to be in Missoula by late in the evening, I tell him. We talk about trails to hike, and he recommends the Swiftcurrent Trail, which travels along a chain of lakes and affords a decent chance of seeing moose. The park guide informs me that I stand little chance of finding solitude there, but, well, bears. That might not be a bad thing. Just in case, I stop in to ask the friendly park ranger. I'm hiking alone, I tell him; should I really sing and talk and annoy my fellow hikers? Annoy away, he says. I leave a note and a map of my route in the Element, pull on my boots and pack a bag with gorp and water, and head up the trail.

I'll spare you endless narration and assume that even my pictures are worth some hundreds of words:

(Do me a favor, by the way, and at least click on the images and look at them full-size. They're slightly less inadequate that way.)

After a few miles, I get to the point where the time of day, as well as probably my stamina, dictate that I really ought to be turning around. I have lunch on a rock beside one of the streams that become Swiftcurrent Creek, and St. Mary Lake, and eventually the Missouri, I suppose, and try to determine the best course of action from the Park Service's utterly lame map. But there's really not much worth debating, 'cuz I'm at the foot of an immense chunk of rock that's demanding to be climbed.

So up I go. And am rewarded with this:

And then the trail starts looking like this:

... and since the aforementioned lame map gives no reliable indication of whether it's half a mile or four miles to the top of the cliff, I decide it's time to start heading downward.

I meet lots of nice people along the way, which is good because it allows me to stop singing "The Happy Wanderer" over and over again and have some conversations. (Before I go hiking in the Rockies again, incidentally, I'm going to learn more than the first verse. And by the way, you'd think there would be a little more consensus about what the lyrics are, even in translation. And that the world could decide whether it's "Val-deri" or "Val-da-ree" or "Falleri," for which you'd think the original German would suffice. It's also worth reading the Wikipedia entry to learn that the Montreal Expos played "The Happy Wanderer" to celebrate offensive explosions, while their fans sang along. This perhaps goes a long way to explaining why there is now baseball in Washington.)

So anyway, those nice people. I meet them. There's a big group near the top of the cliff, or at least as close to the top of the cliff as I get, and they lend me their binoculars to look at the mountain goats and bighorn sheep in the picture here. See them? If you zoom in about 12 times you'll notice some white pixels, just to the left of that big cleft toward the left side of the picture, that I think are the sheep.

The nice people commiserate with me as I do what I can with first aid tape to repair my shoes, which have suffered a blowout structural failure in an inconvenient location.

And another couple and I stop when we reach the proper altitude and pick a few huckleberries that the bears have missed, and maybe I'm in need of an energy boost or maybe they're just good.
And I meet a German couple, who are not singing "The Happy Wanderer," national heritage be damned, but they're quite pleased that I stopped to pick up her flip-flop on the way up. We pause, at an absurd altitude where I have to rest every fifty paces or so, and try to decipher the damned map and gauge the hours of sunlight left and figure how many more switchbacks there are 'til things level off.

This is as close to the source of the Missouri as I get today. They keep on at least a few more turns, but I head back down.

On the way down I meet a ground squirrel, which is not a bighorn sheep, it is true, but is somewhat more visible:

Back on level ground, or anyway more nearly level ground, I bump my way back trying not to think about how many hours it took me to get to that particular tree. An older couple are looking through glasses at a moose, walking along one of the lakes, and let me have a look. He scolds me, in a grunty mumble, for not being able to find it quickly enough. While I'm searching, and finally find it, he feeds nuts to a squirrel and scolds it for not being grateful enough. "Now come on, that's a perfectly good almond there," he grunts, sounding, and looking, so much like Jack Germond that it occurs to be that maybe this is what Jack Germond is doing in his retirement. Although it then occurs to me that Jack Germond doesn't really have the physique to go on six- or eight-mile hikes at altitude.

My direction of travel brings me closer to the moose, and rounding a corner I get a clear view of it. When I was six or seven years old, my family did an overnight hike in the Tetons, and on a rainy August morning in a place called Cascade Canyon, my brother and I came through some trees, not singing German children's songs, and almost ran into the hindquarters of an immense moose smack in the middle of the trail. Of course, most moose are immense to a kid that age, I suppose. Being six and eight, or seven and nine, whatever, we commenced to hollering, and ran off to scream to everybody else what there was to see just ahead, with predictable effect on the object of our interest. Everybody else was pretty excited at seeing an immense moose a mere twenty or thirty yards away, while Will and I expended considerable energy to convince them of how much more big and close it had beenand I tried to ignore the knowledge that I'd blown it in my excitement. I think every minute I've spent in a place like Glacier has been an effort to find that moose straddling the trail again. And today I consider that if you see a moose from even a quarter mile away, you'd better take the picture, because you might not get a better chance.

Today, though, I'm lucky. The moose viewing gets better and better, and I follow the little spur off the trail that leads down to the edge of the lake, and right there are momma and poppa and little baby moose.

A trio of folks, one of them from Albuquerque, accompany me most of the way back. There's considerable talk among the crowds on the trail - and "crowds" is a bit much, but there are definitely favored resting points where ten or fifteen people will be gathered - of a grizzly that crossed at the falls a few minutes earlier.

The photographer among the trio dis
misses the likelihood that it was a grizzly; probably just a black bear. He's local, and spends a lot of his time on the trails, and carries a camera roughly the size of a Navy vessel's anti-aircraft gun. He's seen a lot of grizzlies, and can afford not to be disappointed at this missed opportunity than I can.

We wait a bit by the falls, and watch a kid undeterred by really cold water, but the grizzly, if it was one, is done with photo ops for the day. So after a while we head on down the trail, and after another while we reach the point where my pace and theirs diverge, and the woman from Albuquerque and I make the "next time you're in" sort of promises, with no real way of following through on them.

Finally the pines turn to birches, and I pass a memorably indecisive tree, and I find myself back in the paved part of paradise. The Element is patiently waiting for me where I left it, and never before on this trip have we been so glad to see each other. There's no pass over the ridge up this canyon - none other than the one I turned away from, at least - so we head back out to the main road, traveling along the banks of Swiftcurrent Creek one more time.

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