Glacier National Park, Montana: Day 21 of #MikeandTobyTravels

(Click on any photo to expand and click through as a gallery)

The 21st day of our road trip, current location Glacier National Park, Montana, dawned crisply cold with the sound of birds singing in the thin air of 8,000 foot elevation. I woke from the deep sleep that good tiredness and a chilly room and thick blankets bring on, feeling as grateful as I had when falling asleep. Mike was long gone, catching the dawn’s sunrise, and I was eager to get outside too.

I dressed carefully for the walk I’d planned down to the nearby lake, knowing it was the coldest outside we’d yet encountered. On went my special hiking socks, thick stretchy pants, a long-sleeved shirt, the weird thermal hoodie of a thousand uses, the green fleece tube they called a “buff” that I bought in the mountains of British Columbia but hadn’t worn yet, and of course my wonderful jacket.

Stepping outside, the light was thin and pure as gold dust filling the air, picking out the detail of color in nearby rocky bluffs and gorges. Unfamiliar birds filled the still air with music as I walked briskly down the road, watching tiny clouds, hovering above the forest like exhaled breath, swirling around the flanks of the spires and crenellations of up-thrust stone.

With the surrounding drama of the gorges, bluffs and plummeting waterfalls, it’s easy to miss the incredible variety of wildflowers here in Glacier National Park. Rocket daisies, bachelor’s button, black-eyed susans, statice, buttercups, ferns and everywhere, five-petaled wild pink roses—all of these riot along the roads and mass in the meadows, filled with hopping, chirping birds and hopping ground squirrels like a live Disney movie.

I walked to the dock where we planned to take one of the boat tours across St. Mary’s Lake, and enjoyed the perfect reflections of the nearby mountain in the turquoise water, the quaint old-fashioned motor launch adding a timeless note.

I took myself to breakfast, and as often happens on this trip, Mike read my mind and met me there without even returning to the cottage where I’d left him a note. Breakfast was excellent: a whole-grain waffle with fruit (me) and a bacon-and-cheddar omelet (him). Grabbing hat (me) and backpack carrier for cameras (him) and a couple of water bottles, we took off for the boat tour and hike.

This turned out to be a great way to get new vistas of the park from a unique angle. The ranger talked to us about the geology of the park (glacial upheaval put oldest rocks on top of mountains and newest at the bottom) and its road construction in 1910 (so many horses and mules died pulling loads that we passed Dead Horse Bluff, where they threw the carcasses off to avoid attracting bears to the workers’ camps) as well as the glaciers (150 when the park opened, down to 25 now, which are going to be gone by 2030 at this rate of thaw.)

We were supposed to hike with the ranger in a group, and I could tell Mike was restless at all the speechifying, and had gone out into the open bow of the boat where the info-mercial didn’t carry. The captain mentioned that we didn’t have to stay with the ranger, we could hike by ourselves and just be back by 1:00 p.m. When we docked at the drop-off point and Mike finally came back in, I whispered, “We can do the hike by ourselves. We don’t have to stay with the group. Let’s hop off and hurry out in front of the crowd.”

“I love you,” he said spontaneously, and hugged me. Apparently I’d read his mind, too.

So that’s what we did: hurried off the boat and down the trail so we could stop and take pictures, listen to silence and birdsong, and yes, miss out on an educational opportunity. But if there’s anything we’ve learned on the trip it’s this: Mike and I don’t like crowds.

The trail was fairly level and gloriously crowded with flowers, an inviting path of possibilities, with views of the lake around every turn. By walking quicker than the nature-talk group, we were able to make it to two crashing, aqua waterfalls instead of just one. All were the magnificent color that I’ve now learned is caused by the particles of stone carried by glacial runoff, particles that are too light to sink and thus color the water when light hits it.

We spotted a black bear forging the river on our way back to the boat, which gave everyone a thrill—but not as much as later in the day, after driving outside the park to upload my blog post, we went to the Logan’s Pass visitor center to take a little afternoon hike.

We walked the nearby hikes around the Center, trying to get a shot of the herd of bighorn sheep on the nearby butte, and put off by the herds of people milling to and fro. We were heading back toward the van when suddenly one of the bighorn rams trotted out of a nearby stand of trees. Toward us.

Mike plunked down the Rhino Chaser on its support monopod, and began shooting.  The ram, nearly causing a traffic accident as he crossed the road and a stampede of bystanders as he ambled through the grass toward the parking lot, passed so close to me I could have touched him.

Up close he was the size of a small pony, with a glossy buff hide and delicate legs, and he snorted breaths through narrow nostrils. His demeanor was casual as he moseyed along the perimeter of the parking lot. His eyes were golden brown with that eerie sidewise pupil, and he looked right at me contemptuously as I gaped, too surprised to fumble for my camera as others had the presence of mind to do. The horns were amazing, reminding me of nautilus shells curling back from his head, crown-like and heavy, and yet clearly just a part of him.

Four feet from me was a waist-high barrier made of logs defining the parking lot. The ram paused, looking at the cars in the lot and the milling, exclaiming crowd, and then bounced over the barrier with no apparent effort or even what you would call a jump—it was more like he simply levitated over it and then continued down the sidewalk, football-sized testicles swaying, regal as an emperor.

A young, pink-cheeked volunteer in a ranger outfit had stopped beside me, assessing the situation, and I asked, “What the heck is he doing?”

“Looking for antifreeze in the parking lot,” she said. “The ‘Pass Goats’ we call them, are so used to people that they come over here begging and looking for salt.”

As if to add credence to this, the herd we’d been trying so hard to get a photo of had come down from the butte. There were five rams in the herd, and they galloped back and forth beside the highway, performing for the crowd and looking over at the parking lot. None of them were as bold as the biggest, probably oldest one who was now clip-clopping between the parked cars.

“Yeah, they even follow people into the bushes because they’ve learned when people are going into the bushes, they’re peeing. They lick up the pee to get the minerals and salt in it.”

“Ewww,” I said. “I thought antifreeze and urine were poisonous.”

“In too big amounts, yes. But the sheep are voracious for salt and minerals and they’ll do anything to get them.”

Finally the big ram seemed to tire of his quest and pranced back across the street to join the other rams, and they trotted off into the forest.

“Where are the females?” I asked.

“The two sexes don’t hang out unless it’s mating time. The males have their herd and the ewes and babies are in another herd.”

I thanked her for the information and we got back into the van and drove back through spectacular Logan’s Pass to St. Mary’s Lake, where we threw some lures, went to the restaurant and had another great dinner, and then retired to our cottage for writing (me) and photo download and sorting (him.)

“I wish we had more time here,” I told Mike. “A whole week, even.”

“This is the first time you’ve said that,” he said. “I agree. Jasper was so big and spread out it was hard to get a sense of it. Banff we never really penetrated at all. Glacier Bay was mostly the water. But this park is kind of like Yosemite. It’s all close enough to enjoy.”

Regretfully, we spent some time plotting tomorrow’s course out of the park and toward Washington State, where we are meeting our kids for four days at a cottage in the San Juan islands, the perfect end to a great road trip. Even so, I wish I had longer to stay at two places on this trip: Cassiar Cannery in Prince Rupert, and this spectacular park with its perfect temperatures, great hikes, stunning scenery and accessible wildlife.

I guess we’ll just have to come back.

8 Responses to “Glacier National Park, Montana: Day 21 of #MikeandTobyTravels”

  1. Shalora

    Is that why the water is so blue? Interesting! Thanks for passing that along. 🙂

    The sheep performance sounds entrancing. Aren’t those horizontal pupils weird? It gives them a better ability to scan for movement across the horizon, useful for a prey animal. I never would have thought about there being salt or minerals in antifreeze. I know dogs and especially cats like it because it’s sweet, and it can kill them. I suppose part of why it’s not so bad for the sheep is simply the difference in the body mass…

  2. Janet

    Fantastic! So glad you enjoyed the park so much! What a treat seeing the ram so close and interesting info! I don’t like crowds either. Nice that you and Mike are so in tune to each other!

  3. Irene Jensen

    Yes, you have to come back to Glacier Park, plus some of the other beautiful sights Flathead County has..I would love to meet you when you do. There’s so much around here to see and do!

  4. Geneva

    Beautiful, what scenery! Enjoyed all your expressions of the scenery, made me feel as I were there with you. I wonder if the rangers put salt blocks out for the goats (?)
    You have traveled so far, into too many wonderful areas, with not enough time to enjoy, but your memories will always be there. Hate to see the end of the road trip, but know your visit with your children will be the perfect ending to a great adventure.
    I have thoroughly enjoyed your road trip blogs.
    Your FF
    Geneva.

  5. Larry Lynch

    Hi Toby, such wonderful descriptions and adventures! Why am I not surprised? I wondered if you were familiar with Nevada Barr’s mysteries set in the National Parks, including Glacier, starring her heroine, Park Ranger Anna Pigeon. Great stories!

    • Toby

      Hi Larry! Yes I have seen her mysteries but haven’t had time to read them! Some other vacation, perhaps. Thanks for following.