Aka, another northern traverse. Bowman-Browns-Goat-Stoney-Belly-Chief Mountain. Similar to and as good as the route from last year.
If you want more beta on the park, my BPL trip guide was just published. ($$ required.)
Danni had invited Meghan to come backpacking, and Amber was going on the eight day trip across Glacier, too. So I learned when Danni picked me up at the mighty Glacier International Airport last week. Though still woozy from my flight delays and “sleep” on the red-eye from Anchorage to SLC, and reeling from the heat as we stood outside waiting for the baggage carousel to fire up, I nonetheless reacted to the news of a big hike like a dog to bacon. They had space on the permit for four, but only three signed up. I’m sure I’ll have energy and my feet back in four days…
That was Tuesday. When Friday rolled around I was only mostly unpacked from Alaska and had been on the rivet just sleeping and sorting things out at work. The crew was picking me up at 715 the next morning. I threw together my kit and three days of food, a process which is mostly autopilot by now, and added four community beers for good measure.
Danni had won a permit in the spring lottery, a step which makes long trips in the high season a lot simpler, though actually getting your request is not guaranteed. Our question was whether to go forth with the original plan to start at Kintla, and butt up against the possibility that snow and ice on the east side of Boulder pass would shut us down. We had axes, but Meghan and Amber had limited practice in their use. The ranger warnings were more histrionic than usual, and after much contemplation we switched to Bowman. I was hiking out Monday, but having to backtrack from Kintla would put a serious kink in the plans which would be hard to fix. Originally I was hiking out Bowman, with no more than 16 miles a day. Now M was picking me up at the Belly TH, with 50+ miles over three days. Sure, why not.
I’d never hiked up Bowman, always out. The lake stretch seemed a lot shorter as we chatted merrily along, and while the ascent to the pass was hot and muggy, the views and conversation distracted and distance collapsed.
I (almost literally) ran into a couple from Wisconsin a hundred yards from camp. They warned of mosquitoes, which when it comes from such a source you take seriously. Our crew had strong midwestern roots (alums from UW-Madison, Beloit, UW-Eau Claire, and Grinnell) so we got along well, at least until they asked about fly fishing and that took over the conversation. We teamed up to deal with the quite bad bugs: Amber gave Meghan a headnet and let me bunk in her tiny tent (I brought a tarp and bivvy only). We retreated down the trail to cook dinner, as the Brown’s Pass food area is located amongst pines designed to ensure protection from any breeze whatsoever. The bugs were still there, but tolerable, and we ate and went to bed early.
Stream crossing on day one. During our trip with the other Megan in June that log was almost underwater.
Everyone slept deeply through the clear night. Amber and I left the fly off the tent entirely, as the sky stayed clear and the coffin-like dimensions promised egregious overheating without serious ventilation. Hilarity ensued come morning as I tried and failed to find a way to put on socks without kneeing her in the ribs. The bugs came back out before we gotmoving, so headnets on we retreated eastward over the pass to make breakfast at a more pleasant location.
Down by Thunderbird Pond things were more civilized, though at 830 it was already almost too hot for proper coffee, as well as spectacularly, militantly bluebird. Our future roasting on the hike up to Stoney Indian was obvious.
The trails in Glacier are deceptive, not so much in how difficult they are but in why they are difficult. The ascents are almost always moderate and usually shorter than you’d think, at least on trail. The trick is that the trails are too good; the hardpacked dirt and gravel beat the feet mercilessly. Every big-miles summer trip I’ve done in the park has seen sore feet be the limiting factor towards the end of the day. With two big descents to only one climb, today would be no different, so swimming would have to at least wait.
We ran into Ranger Sally east of Janet, and had a nice chat. The number of backpackers was generally astonishing, at least to me. The ten weeks from July to early September are a different world out here.
Relaxing backpacks are not always relaxing, there’s a fine balance between breaks to recharge the body/mind and delays which lead to long days and thus wear down the mind/body. We took a leisurely breakfast as mentioned, a leisurely lunch by the lake at Boat Haunt (not a typo), and a second lunch at Stoney Indian lake. All were necessary, as my weak feet swelled and I almost bonked in the heat (sorta) trying to gap Meghan and test my fitness on the way up to the lake. The results of this last experiment told me what I already knew, for a variety of reasons, I was not at full power. I ate salty almonds, my last clementine, and cooled my feet and head in the lake. Regardless of how any of us felt, we had miles to go before we slept.
I knew we’d rally, barking feet and all, as the descent down from Stoney on the east side is one of the best trailed stretches in the entire park. The multi-layered descent lays out a course of waterfalls, tundra flowers, stream crossings and sublime vistas which, like the transitory creation which is the pinnacle of a pastry chefs career, cannot be captured in words or on film. For several miles all aches and pains were forgotten to the marvel of just existing with fellow humans in such a place.
The Belly trail is a bit wilder than most others in the park, with three unbridged stream crossings, the lowermost of which can be rowdy. It’s swift, with big foot eating cobbles on the bottom and a series of nice cascades to contemplate being flushed over should you tip and be fortunate enough to keep both feet free. For us the problem part was only six feet wide, but thigh deep on me, who had more than a few inches on everyone else. Danni, who is a good eight inches shorter, wanted no part in it. There’s an alternative crossing a bit upstream, which would work fine if the exit on to the northern bank weren’t into 8 foot willow shrubs. I helped part the willows for the crux exit, and led ~50 feet back to the trail.
“Was that like Alaska?”
“That thick, but twice as tall, with Devil’s Club, and a mile of it on a 50 degree hillside.”
The descent into the trees and brush to our campsite at Mok Junction was predictably mind-warping. Side hilling through the trees, back in the tall brush, hungry, sleepy, and just wanting to be done. We didn’t have far to go, and tried to shorten it as much as possible by passing expletives back and forth.
The mind meld of misery lifted spirits and soon enough we were cooking dinner, hanging food, pitching tents, and going to sleep, easily. We put my tarp over the tent, as going unprotected two nights in a row was tempting fate. Everyone was awakened in the deep of night to the most spectacular, rapid fire lightening show I’ve ever seen, with thunder pinballing between the peaks overhead and light bursting faster than seconds like camera flashes through the trees. As hard rain fell quickly I went back to sleep.
The next day I left the crew, though they insisted on hiking (quickly, I had to meet M) down to Cosley and our separation point. Meghan wanted a full-time tour guide and tried to get me to stay for the rest of the week, but I had work and no food and feet which were increasingly problematic. Once I passed the Belly ranger station and slowly slowed across the many meadow crossings I was forced to further contemplate the obvious: whatever odd injury I did to my foot in Alaska was still present, and my shins, calves, and the bottoms of my feet were aching badly. No doubt my bodies way of saying that while I may continue to have my fun this summer, the dilettante ways will not go unpunished. My body, deeply flawed as it has become, demands fixing.
In all fun, transitory or permanent, there is a price to pay.