Thursday, March 6, 2008

Morning in Glacier

We headed north from Helena at about 11.30pm, after my show. We figured we'd get to glacier at around 4am in plenty time for sunrise.

Once we were off the interstate, we found ourselves winding through little towns that could be described as sleepy at anytime, but right now were literally asleep. Not even a teen reveler in search of fast food - which would have proved fruitless anyway - could be sen on the deserted sidewalks, and crafts stores boasting "authentic native americana" were barely visible in the dark, their neon signs sleeping in grey slumber.

We made it to St Mary Lake in plenty time, but not knowing exactly what time the sun would rise, we erred on the side of caution, and made it out onto our eastward overlook of the lake for 5.30 am, pitch dark and perfectly still. As we stood facing the Eastern horizon, we were aware somehow of the silent majestic mountains behind us, spreading around us and the lake in a loose embrace, sloping down to the banks with tall pines tat waited like us for the approaching sun, which at this point had sent up a thin band of gold across the edge of the horizon, slowly (very slowly) bleeding into the inky black, which slowly surrendered to azure.

Behind us, the quiet mountains were wearing tips of gold, as they've done on countless mornings, and the lake was beginning to stir; a cold breeze rippled the surface, and a family of ducks began their day, appearing from the bank and cutting their V formation into the water.

The tall pines stood like us, watching the slow procession of color rise from the horizon, and flanked each side of the lake like a silent choir bearing witness to the silent proclamation for the day ahead. The morning was upon us, and cold and tired , we hit the hay,and drifted into sleep, with shades of gold and blue behind our eyes, and the sound of breezes running through the pines.

The Hidden Lake Trail

HIdden Lake, the shortest and and easiest trail in the park, does not skrimp on spectacular views.
I guess it's called Hidden Lake because reaching the lake itself involves descending a soft gradient, allowing the mountains to surround you on every side.
Before reaching the lake, though, the partially board walked flat and grassy path into the mountain range is enough to banish any thoughts of the modern world from recent memory, at least mine; band mates and tour itineraries seemed to belong to some alter ego, and he was welcome to 'em. I was busy making new friends........

I met these two on a grassy bank, as did everybody else, about five minutes into the trail. Mom seemed to be shielding junior from a persistent breeze that blew over the rise, and as a steady stream of us t-shirt wearing bi-peds stopped to click a photo, exclaiming a cutesy "Aww" or two, Mom and junior sat completely non-plussed, with an exprssion that could have been described as boredom were it not for their quiet serenity. "Yes , they will gawp" they seemed to be thinking ' and they will click, "aaaw", and "ooh", and then they will pass. So be it."

Sure enough that's exactly what we all did, with a fresh batch of us slightly awkwad looking camera pointers coming up the rear.....

Heading onward in the afternoon sun, the fresh breeze fills the senses with the scent of wildflowers and the faint sounds of shallow brooks feeding the lake below, and as we walked surrounded by the grazing goats, swaying grasses and foraging marmots, we very naturally slipped into a slower, easier gait. Each step became a little more care free, and as one step led into another, the HIdden Lake came into view.......

The slightly hazy view was due to the forest fires that raged in other parts of the state, and we were left to imagine what kind of views a crystal clear atmosphere might have offered.

We headed down for a closer look, and the babbling brook we had heard earlier seemed like a good spot to take a load off, soak up he sights and sounds and forage in our backpacks for nuts and berries.
We ate to the sound of whispering pines, laughing, paddling children, exasperated parents, and birdsong, and for dessert, a long slow stretch across the warm rocks.

WE re-traced our steps back to the trail head, this time with the pre-lunch downward gradient turned on it's head and laughing at our burning thigh muscles. More than once on the climb didi i think of the bee in the jelly jar, and the valiant explorer of the downward trek was beginning to feel pretty whooped, and ready to run along home for milk and cookies.

On the way home we were treated to a lesson in love.......

Stage right , three males fight for the right to hold a tender hoof in theirs. Stage left, a wily pugilist lets 'em tire themselves out - looks like he's seen all this before.....

The whole trail is only 3 miles in total, and with very little gradient issues (none, if you choose not to descend to the lake shore), an easy stroll that does the heart and the soul good.

Grinnell Glacier Trail

Feeling a little emboldened by the relative ease with which we completed the Hidden Lake Trail, and after night's sleep so deep i think I left a permanent indentation on the mattress, I was ready for bigger things; the Grinnell Glacier Trail.
In any case, it's Glacier National Park, so where better to go see a glacier. The Park Ranger informed us that if we don't check one out now, we only have ten years before Glacier National Park would be more appropriately called Meltwater Park.
The Grinnell Trail is 12 miles around with a strong gradient in places and after teh first mile is constant.

As we came to the end of that first flat mile on a a narrow wooded path, we stepped out into the morning sun and a lakeside clearing , the blue of the rippling lake to our left, the slow incline to Grinnell Glacier to our right
The sunlit blue of the lake was not the only thing to or left:

There he was, about 20 feet from us, and the valiant explorer of yesterday's lake descent froze, clenching everything that could be clenched, with a million questions racing forward, screaming for attention like a class room of 10 year olds that all needing the bathroom at once:
"Does he see us?", "will he attack?", "What do we do?","Is he alone?" "Is my underwear clean?", "Is there anything behind us?","should we run?",""Which way should we run?"," Is my underwear still clean?", " "Is it too late to run?"

The bear seemed far more concerned with whatever he could find in the long grass to be bothered with us. As a matter of fact, he had a similar demeanor to the goats of yesterday; "more of these odd t-shirt types, must be that time of year" he seemed to be thinking, so we quietly and swiftly walked past with one eye over our shoulder and our pulse rates slowly relaxing.

The views on the steady incline became more and more spectacular, and somewhere up ahead within the next six miles, Grinnell Glacier itself. About half way up, we started to run into some early birds who were already on their way down, their faces red and sweating. "keep going" they panted heavily, "it's worth it."

What do they mean; "keep going" ? Of course we'll keep going. It's not Kilimanjaro we're climbing here. But , with each half mile, it started to sink in; this incline is not going away, and to our tired legs, it seemed to be getting steeper, and each mile seemed to be getting longer as we struggled in the midday sun.
The last half mile was tantalizing indeed. With each twist and turn , we expected the next corner turned to reveal panoramic views of the mighty glacier, complete with orchestral score blaring from the heavens, but instead , for what seemed an eternity, we were met with more rock and sheep droppings - i was starting to feel like a cross between Grizzly Adams and Franz Kafka.

Finally, our tired and parched bodies passed over a rocky ridge, and we were met with a welcome cold breeze from below. The glacier,or rather, what remains of it, hung below us in it's own meltwater, serene and beautiful, translucent and smooth as glass, sheltered as it was by the mountains on each side.

We stretched out on the flat slabs, warm from the sun, that ran down to the waters edge. I swung my water bottle into the freezing cold water, and no sooner was it full to the brim than i had it to my lips, dead bugs, bits of trees and all - i was parched, and to hell with the consequences ( don't try this at home.)
Luckily for me there were no consequences, save for the nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that at some point later in the day, i would be lying in the fetal position halfway down a mountain, screaming in agony and surrounded by strangers wondering why this strange Irish chap seemed to be having labor pains.

Thankfully, the descent from the glacier was uneventful and pleasant , and we found that we had evolved into the panting hikers, who said to others on the trail "Keep going. It's worth it."
Towards the end of the trail, we heard more tales of bear sightings from awkward, nervous t-shirt types like me, and at the end of the day, i had made some assumptions:

Most of us are nervous around bears, and rightly so.
Bears are not scared of us, and if anything, bemused by us, just like the goats.
The glaciers are nearly gone through no fault of the bears or the goats.
- as are polar bears, elephants, tigers....the list goes on.
Maybe our lasting legacy on this earth will be a complete absence of hundreds of previously thriving species, and an abundance of t-shirts.