With a free weekend and a little apprehension, Andrea and I found ourselves in the Apgar backcountry office deciding on a permit to allow us to camp for two nights in Glacier National Park. We had a few ideas based on some online research, but we had no idea if we could obtain the permits or the condition of the trails. The backcountry campsites have between two and seven sites with the most popular filling up quickly during July and August. The earliest we could try for the permit was 24 hours prior to our departure, so 8am on Thursday morning. Unfortunately, Andrea was working until 10am so we could well miss out on what we wanted.
Our preferred hikes were either in at Kintla lake and out at Bowman lake, with both Boulder and Brown passes to contend with, or in at the Highline trail and out at Packers Roost, both located on the Going to the Sun road. The first option left us with some way of trying to get back to our car 20 miles along the road from where we started, and the second, we found out just prior to making the reservation, had two warnings on the route due to steep snow coverage high on the continental divide. We ended up with neither, and after milling around undecided for over an hour, chose to start at the Chief Mountain trailhead, and finish at the Swiftcurrent Lodge in Many Glacier. This route required us to take a $15 per person shuttle to the trailhead, located about 25 yards of the US/ Canadian border – our Pathfinder, Going Broke, would now be waiting for us at the Swiftcurrent Lodge.
Leaving permits to the last minute is something unavoidable for us as we never know where we’re going to be from one week to the next. However, checking the status of our camp stove was an expensive procrastination! After setting fire to the old pump at the bottom of the Grand Canyon many months prior, I had purchased a new one but totally forgot about it – whilst prepping everything the night before our hike I put the pump in the fuel bottle and tried to hook our MSR Dragonfly stove up. Guess what, the pipe on the stove was too big for the hole in the pump! A little research showed that I had bought the standard pump and needed the Dragonfly specific one. Fortunately the rafting center along the highway sold MSR stoves, albeit the Isopro cartridge type – this new setup worked a treat, came in the smallest packed size, although it now meant that we would have to buy cartridges instead of filling a bottle with a liter of cheap gasoline.
9 miles from Chief Mountain to Cosley lake campground
Fortunately the trail was mostly downhill and we didn’t have too many miles to hike to our campsite because we didn’t start hiking until 3pm. We started the trail with a few other hikers. One of the men we met on our transport was hiking to Butte, MT along the CDT. We felt a bit inferior when he said he was hiking 400 miles!!! We were only going 30 miles over a weekend compared with his 6 week trip. Andrea and I didn’t really enjoy this trail. There were no outstanding viewpoints and we felt hidden in overgrown weeds. There were a few stretches of the trail with beautiful wildflowers which we always pause to enjoy. We were glad to make the turn off from the popular Elizabeth lake trail towards Cosley lake, but it was definitely a time for talking, clapping and yelling “hey bear” as we hiked along the narrow path. Upon our arrival at the campground, located right on the shores of the picturesque lake, we discovered we’d have company in the first night in the Montana backcountry. We had a wonderful time sharing stories and adventures with this couple from California
We now had to remember what we learned from the backcountry video in the permit office – what do we need to ensure goes in the backpack we’re hoisting fifteen feet off the ground at the food storage area? We definitely don’t want anything with an aroma with us in the tent tonight! Some people even recommend removing the clothes you cook in and storing them away from the sleeping area, something we decided not to do, after all we had eaten freeze dried crap and not salmon for dinner. Into the bag went all our food, cooking equipment, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and trash, with everything else tucked away under the tent’s flysheet.
6.7 miles from Cosley lake to Elizabeth lake head campground
After a so-so night’s sleep, stirring with every crack of a twig and wind blown tree branches, we found that it wasn’t so bad being trapped inside a tent with man-eating grizzlies in search of the next victim to drag from their sleeping bag! We really could get used to this; the peacefulness that comes with being off the grid in the wilderness. We said farewell to our new campsite friends and headed back along the shoreline of the lake to the Cosley Lake cutoff trail before rejoining the Belly River trail to the foot of Elizabeth Lake.
Skirting a mile and a half around Elizabeth Lake, knowing that we would have to back track again tomorrow, was a little frustrating – something that comes with not confirming permits early enough. The foot of the lake campground was full for Saturday night, hence the reason for having to hike to the head of the lake. We found out the following morning that not everyone sticks to their planned itinerary. We met a fellow camper who couldn’t be bothered to hike around the lake so decided to stay at the foot, probably taking another camper’s site in the process!
Arriving at our campsite before lunch meant we now had almost the entire day to explore and be lazy. This day was certainly not as pleasant as the previous. The temperature had dropped and winds picked up making the lake look a lot less desirable for a dip. We thought about hiking on to Helen’s Lake, but the trail was overgrown and not so welcoming so we decided to stay put, gather wood, and siesta. A two hour nap in the middle of the day was not going to assist with our evening’s sleeping pattern, but both of us found it easier to sleep during the day than at night, something about not being able to see the bears at night.
We were so excited to see that campfires were allowed in our campsite! Andrea was praying for marshmallows to fall from the sky! I don’t think she’ll forget them next time. We’re still not sure why fires are permitted at one location over another, especially seeing that wherever we had been in the park looked highly combustible. It wasn’t exactly cold out, but having a campfire did keep us occupied for a couple of hours until another early turn in.
17 miles from Elizabeth lake to Iceberg/ Ptarmigan trailhead
We had made it through the night unscathed. How? We have no idea, but we both felt ready to take on the biggest day so far. The weather looked far from accommodating so we rapidly torn down camp, lowered the hoisted scent bag, and enjoyed our last oatmeal breakfast before heading out. The first mile and a half had us retracing the previous day’s hike around Elizabeth lake and back to the ‘foot’ campground before a steady 2400’ climb through forest and open hillside to Ptarmigan tunnel.
The morning continually looked like rain and the higher our elevation, the windier and cooler it felt. We finally arrived at the Ptarmigan Tunnel and hoped that our exit would lead us into the Garden of Eden, with beautiful blue skies, friendly Grizzlies, turquoise streams and multicolored wildflowers. It wasn’t quite what we planned. Andrea was freezing and had to borrow gloves from a day hiker at the top. They also offered us cheese and pepperoni on crackers which was a treat since our food was running low. The wildflowers and views from the top were stunning; the tradeoff being that day hikers were all heading in our direction abruptly ending the tranquility we had enjoyed the past couple of days! The sun was now out and the wildflowers were showing off their colors with beautiful shades of red, purple, yellow, white and blue populating the hillsides and meadows.
Only a few miles before arriving at our departure point we made the decision to take a side hike up to Iceberg Lake; everyone we met on the trail said it was a “must do”. Signs at all the trail intersections said not to leave backpacks unattended so this 4.2 mile out and back became an extension of our three day backcountry weekend. We were definitely the only hikers carrying oversize packs!
Iceberg Lake, with the sun illuminating it and showing off its amazing blue color and occasional iceberg, did not disappoint. Too bad the receding glacier wasn’t as majestic as it once was, leading us to only imagine what this lake was like hundreds of years ago. This was the perfect venue to chow down the last of our rations and prepare ourselves for the final five miles to the trailhead.
All that remained now that we were back in civilization was to scrounge a ride to Many Glacier Lodge, the resting place for “Going Broke”. Andrea suggested walking it, whereas I was all about hitching, especially after having walked the last ten miles in Chaco sandals due to blisters! Luckily, we had met a couple on the trail and he was wearing and IM Louisville hat. It was a great way to start a conversation and we made some quick friends. IM does that! They finished their hike at the same time as us and we asked if they could give us a lift. They were more than accommodating and cleaned out the back of their rental car. I wanted to kiss them. We’re both really excited about hitting the backcountry again, even more so after this outing went without a hitch. Next time we go in at Kintla Lake, exit at Bowman Lake, and hope we have a ride between the two points.
July 10th – July 12th 2015