Moderate 36 mile multi day backpack, Glacier National Park
“Oh my God, where are we?” I looked at Sandy, and she looked at me…both of us mirrored the other’s sickly, panic stricken expressions on our faces. We looked down at the snow under our feet, too hard packed to show tracks, and saw no footprints whatsoever. As 16 year olds will do, we had been talking nonstop about this and that and never even realized we had gotten off the trail! Daylight was fast leaving us, and yet as far as we could see, there was no sign of trail in any direction, and most importantly…there was not even the tiniest sign of trail or footprint seen back in the direction we had been coming from! We split up a bit and combed every square inch of the snow covered meadow we were in to no avail. We were hoplelessly lost. Despondent, scared and knowing we had not much daylight left, we had not a clue what to do to help ourselves! Would we be forever lost, eventually fading away to have only our bones found in the melting snows of spring? What could we do to find our way again?!
Summer of 69 and most kids are in the throes of what later will be called “The Summer of Love” which began in 1967 and ended in 1969. Despite hearing about all the activity and witnessing the changes happening around me, or maybe because of the upheavals in the youth culture in this country, I had but one goal on my mind…to experience all I could of the high wild places untouched by human hands that I could get to! I had come to live in Montana during high school by the grace of my best friend’s parents who took me in and spent some time civilizing me. During that time for whatever reason, they let my “sister,” (their daughter) and I go backpacking for 5 days all by ourselves in Glacier National Park, even though I had only been backpacking twice in my life by this time, and Sandy had never been.
I’m not sure what actually brought up the topic of backpacking, but I distinctly remember Sandy saying her brother had a backpack and sleeping bag and equipment she could use, so we went to the storage attic in the house we were living in on Prospect St. in Helena to retrieve it all. Sure enough, Michael had all the equipment Sandy would need and all we had to do was convince our folks to let us go, that we could take care of ourselves “out there” and not get lost, and come back in one piece. Surprisingly enough, they consented without a struggle! So, we packed our gear, loaded our beloved “Itsey Bit” MG Midget and off we went to Glacier National Park. We arrived midmorning at the ranger station and pushed thru the wood framed screen door approaching the ranger behind the old wooden counter to ask about a permit. He didn’t take too many words telling us all the trailheads were closed. Still early June, the snows still lay thick on the passes. I’m sure it must have been Sandy’s cute smile that convinced him to help us find something, as he pulled his hat off, scratched his head and put his finger on the map under the glass tracing out different trails looking for any options for us other than sending us away disappointed. Finally he looked at us, and said there was maybe one trail we could try. It would take us in a nice loop from Piegan Pass trailhead off the famous “Going to the Sun” road, below Mt Gould on the Garden Wall, over Piegan pass itself, past Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier and other lakes whose names escape me now, over another pass called Swiftcurrent Pass and back to the trailhead via the highline trail passing the Granite Park Chalet, where pampered guests stay who are willing to hike a tiny bit down the trail to stay in the delightfully“rustic” chalet . We had not one clue what any of these places were, but we felt honored that he had faith in us to make it through the snow covered passes and trails, so we jumped at the opportunity he was giving us, and somehow it never managed to come up that we were a party of one brand new hiker and another still “wet behind the ears” hiker! And, it never occurred to us that there was a reason these passes and trails were still closed to hikers. But, with permit secured tightly in hand, out the door we went, to the car and up the road to the trailhead parking.
Hoisting our packs onto our backs, we headed across the road and down the trail. We were off on our adventure and were excited to see all that we would see over the next 5 days!
Our first adventure led us across the road we came in on and thru the trees into the snow where we had to criss cross the forest a few times to find pieces of trail or tree markings to lead the way. At one point we found a short piece of plastic taping much like the police use for crime scenes marking the way. Some cross country skier must have left it earlier in the season. Never dawned on us that we’d be wishing for more of that later!
Coming out of the trees and into the sunlight, our eyes feasted on a variety of light colored rock that we’d be crossing on our way to the base of our first real challenge…a ridge traverse! Eagerly we headed towards the rising trail in front of us, enjoying the warm morning sun and the knowledge that we had 5 whole days in front of us to play out here in! We chit chatted away as we made our way up the long steep pass. Then somewhere near the top Sandy stopped. I turned to see why her voice had faded away and when she told me her cup was gone, my voice faded away too. Being in grizzly country, we had hung our metal cups on the outside of our packs to bang and ping away as we walked to warn the bears of our approach and hopefully get them to avoid us. I looked at her pack in consternation, and sure enough, her pan was gone. These shallow wide cups, fondly called “sierra club cups” by old time backpackers would serve a backpacker well for all foods and drinks. No need to weigh yourself down with a heavy mess kit when you have a sierra club cup. But, five days sharing one cup was not an option, so, since it was Sandy’s cup that had gone missing, she volunteered…insisted really…to run back down the trail to find it. I found myself a rock to sit on to wait with the packs so Sandy could run back down the trail unencumbered by her pack . If our parents had only known how reckless we were separating like that…
I waited patiently at first. It didn’t take long though for my imagination to run away with me. What ifs ran through my mind in cascading avalanches! But, none of those fears I had created came to fruition, as in what had seemed like hours, but was probably only 20 -30 minutes, a tired Sandy appeared back in sight waving the cup back and forth in a half hearted gesture of glorious conquest. I was simply glad to have her back safe! Separating was not something I’d be talked into easily again.
We hoisted packs once again and meandered over and down the ridge we were on, recovering our spirits and once again enjoying the day. We crossed a rocky plateau and started up our next climb of the day, which spread before and above us. And as we walked, our gaze wandered up the pass ahead of us calculating the efforts needed to get over this pass. Suddenly, in unison we both stopped dead in our tracks. There in front of us to the right of the pass climbing the steep rocks east of the pass, was a herd of white mountain goats! We both exclaimed excitedly over these agile animals climbing up the steep cliffs grabbing the tiniest shelves of rocks with their cloven hooves! A couple of kids frolicked on rock so sheer we wouldn’t have dreamed of being up there! What fun! What beauty! What an incredible first wildlife sighting for our trip!
Feeling blessed for our fortune in having sighted that herd, we continued walking thru the light of day, chattering merrily about this and that as girls will. It was just as the afternoon shadows were lengthening and the day was headed towards the night, that we realized we were not on a beaten path any longer. I’m not sure who pointed it out first, but we both certainly looked at each other in consternation. We had been chattering away so much that we hadn’t even realized that we had been walking on snow packed so hard into ice, that not the tiniest trace of foot prints showed. We had no clue when we had last seen trail! At first we wandered back and forth looking for any brief short patch of trail that might be peeking through the season’s melting snow. We spread 20 and then 30 feet apart and tried the same. Nothing! Slowly realizing we could be in big trouble here…we discovered we didn’t even have a clue which way we had come from. Though we were in the open at this point, we had been wandering in and out of tree cover and on this ice for so long that the last piece of trail could have been a mile back for all we knew. It was obvious to us both though that we were nowhere near any trail now. Having not the faintest idea which way to go, we were stumped. We talked of staying put. We tried to use the only compass we had, Sandy’s beloved brother’s compass, but to our horror we discovered we had broken it somehow. Finally, not really knowing what to do, but not wanting to just sit and wait as no alarms would be sounded for 5 days….we kept walking! Both of us were very worried. Chattering ceased though, and we focused on nothing but finding the trail. Eventually we were forced to give up finding the trail thought. So, we made the decision to walk, and stuck to it. And once we made that decision, we did not argue about it. It was a mutual decision. We then hiked until nearly full dark. Panic was our constant companion. Hiking mostly through flat meadow and intermittent tree cover, suddenly a small hill loomed in front of us in the darkness. We decided to climb it tired as we were. Perhaps we could see a little more of what was around us from that rise. We also decided we’d have to make camp very soon, for hiking in the full darkness would be even more foolhardy as hiking blindly lost had been. We topped the rise….and there, spread before us in all it’s glory, it’s gentle waters lapping the shore and shimmering yet in the spare light of twilight, was Grinnell Lake.
Grinnell Lake was our destination so much earlier that morning! Two happier girls you would not find! The two previously totally lost and scared girls stood there in the twilight sighing and immensely and immeasurably relieved. We looked at each other, we looked at the lake. And we knew, beyond a shadow of any doubt how lucky we were to be standing there in that exact spot looking at that exact lake after having been lost for hours in the wilderness! With renewed energy we hastened down to the lake, and picking a wonderfully flat clean spot to throw down our gear, made camp!
That night we feasted on and relished a typical backpacking dinner that no self respecting person would touch in civilization. We built a campfire to celebrate the existence of our wilderness skills. For though we had been lost for hours, and found our way completely and totally by accident and sheer luck, nevertheless…we made it!
We fell asleep laying in the open gazing up at the stars and talking, though we were so exhausted I don’t know how two words came out of either one of us.
(Sandy sitting in the morning sun at Grinnell Lake)
In the morning we awoke refreshed and ready to go! Breakfast was the first order of business, and that is when Sandy noted with dismay that there were holes and shredded fabric in several spots in her trusty pack. What could have happened? We both puzzled over the mess, and it didn’t take too long to realize some nocturnal creature had very much enjoyed Sandy’s trail mix…and had gone to great lengths to pull it out of her pack…thru material and zippers and the plastic bag it was in. The trail mix was unsalvageable…the pack we managed to patch together. A pocket or two remained useless, but with a little mismatching thread from an emergency sewing kit, the pack bag itself would still hold her gear.
Eventually we packed up and headed up the trail. Finally our boots were marking time on a well worn path once again!
A day or so later, approaching a large lake and a spur trail to the historic Many Glacier Hotel, again we were talking and meandering down the trail that now cut through low lying thick brush for quite some time, when as one we stopped dead in our tracks. Right smack in front of us was a creature seemingly so large and so wide that he took the whole single track trail up in front of us. Slowly we backed, giving way to the animal making it’s way toward us. Having never seen a porcupine before, and not realizing how big they can be, it actually took a moment for us to realize what this strange looking animal pushing us back up the trail was! For that is exactly what happened….the porcupine had no interest in us, and simply no fear either, and was clearly used to getting his way! And we were not going to be the exception as we let him push us back. We backed until we found a narrow place to squeeze through the bushes and off the trail. The porcupine meanwhile gave us no thought whatsoever as he meandered on his way past us on whatever mission he was on! We slipped back onto the trail, shaking our heads at how easily he had maneuvered us and grateful and excited yet again for being able to experience something so awesome and wild!
(View looking down on Bullhead Lake...that night's destination)
As our trip neared it’s end, we had one last night. We had had a long day including many miles and had hiked way too far and into the night. Realizing we weren’t going to make it to the camp we had yearned for, we pulled off into a wide spot near the trail and started to set up camp. Before we got too set though, we heard a voice calling out to us. Stopping what we were doing, we took time out to meet Ray. Ray was about our age and was traveling across the country. That got our attention! Ray said he had a camp set up a few minutes away and that maybe we should join him at his camp, explaining that a grizzly had attacked a young girl our age the week before at exactly the same spot we were camped! Sandy and I looked at each other and decided Ray was less threatening than the grizzly that frequented this area! So, we repacked our gear and followed Ray to his camp. A cozy fire was already set and we had a fun evening swapping stories!
(Sandy, morning at Bullhead Lake Camp)
In the light of morning, we all ate and packed and started hiking. An easy 13 miles greeted us…all downhill! We hiked past Granite Park Chalet, a rustic backcountry lodge in Glacier accessed only via foot. Switchbacks and panoramic views were our constant companion that last day in stunning Glacier National Park and all too soon we reached civilization.
For two young teens, the memories of an adventure of a lifetime were our reward for all the hard miles we hiked. The only casualties were a silver dollar sized blister on one of my heels, and a few handsewn seams on Sandy’s pack. And the mishaps we had, served as valuable lessons in the backcountry for years to come!