Tuesday, September 11, 2012

GLACIER National Park—Rock, Ice and Water

By Chuck

Yesterday, the weather was perfect. I was in a short sleeved shirt most of the time. But, the weather reports for today were somewhat ominous—high winds and intermittent rain. However, our plans had been made weeks ago; so, we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

The first stop on our 8 hour Red Bus tour was McDonald Lodge. Built at the turn of the last century by the same architect who designed the Old Yellowstone Lodge, it is a lovely reminder of that era.

One of the cottages for McDonald Lodge

This is our Red Jammer. The nickname comes from the practice of double-clutching and jamming the vehicle into gear in the early days of use—beginning in 1937. These days we drive in automatic shifting cars with newer engines, refurbished by Ford, and with financial assistance from other sources. This conversion allows the vehicles to use either ethanol or propane. There is a warning sticker on the driver’s visor that says to keep the tank full, otherwise the automatic switch between fuels may not take effect properly.

Although other parks use similar vehicles, the distinctive color of the buses in Glacier NP comes from the color of a local berry—the Park manager shipped sample berries to the manufacturer to ensure a perfect match.

Before leaving on our tour, we inspected the inside and the rear of McDonald Lodge.

Lake McDonald

Chuck in full open-air bus regalia, preparing to leave.

Nigel, our excellent guide, introduced us to Goat’s Beard, found on many of the local trees and very similar to Grandfather’s Beard or Spanish Moss.  There is also a black variety called Bear’s Hair.

This unusual formation is formed from micro-organisms trapped as the inland sea disappeared many millions—or is it billions?—of years ago.

There are dozens of peaks over 10,000 feet in Glacier. This one is Heaven’s Peak.

McDonald Valley as seen from the road.

This is the part where we began to appreciate leaving the driving to them—Nigel, in our case. It was white-knuckle time for quite some distance as we drove the 52 mile length—and beyond—of Going-to-the-Sun Road. A unique feature of this magnificent road is the fact that it has only one switchback; the road was designed to showcase as much of the incredible views as possible. This was due to the input of a junior surveyor who challenged the original plans for a series of switchbacks taking drivers straight up the mountains. Angry at first, the powers that be eventually agreed that this opportunity was not to be missed.

A Bevy of Buses

Our highest point along the route was Logan’s Pass at 6,646 ft. It was here that we began to experience the predicted high winds—though it had not rained, yet. We opened and closed the top of the bus several times as we encountered clear weather, then rain, then hail. But, the wind never stopped, it just varied a lot. It was 42°F at noon.  On the return trip, the temp had lowered to 35°F, and there was a dusting of snow on the surrounding mountains.Thank goodness for the provided wool blankets!

This point took us over the Continental Divide. I was surprised that the heights along the CD passes we have crossed were not higher. Since there are so many very tall mountains and ranges in this part of the country, I had expected something approaching 12,000 feet. Oh, well; live and learn.

A unique feature of this area is that it has a triple divide. The Continental Divide flows West on one slope and East and South on the other. But, the Hudson Divide—who ever heard of this?—flows North and East, draining into Canada’s Hudson Bay.

Logan's Pass

Typical majestic view along the way. On the Eastern side of the Divide, the weather is drier, windier, colder. The snowdrifts can reach 70-100 feet. Nigel told us of a train being blown off the track by 125 mph winds!

Jackson Glacier, our first sighting, viewed through the bus window—since it was too cold to get out at this elevation. The sad truth is that, in about 100 years, the number of Glaciers has shrunk from 150 to 26. Naturally, the size of those that remain has also diminished. Nigel, our politically neutral guide, explained how there is almost universal scientific agreement about the fact of global warming; the difference of opinion centers on whether the industrial age is a major contributor or this is merely a natural cycle. It is alarming that the rate of change is increasing and that it is worse in Northern climes and high altitudes. One glaciologist told Nigel, our knowledgeable driver, that they would all be gone by 2030!

Sherburne Lake, below, is a man-made reservoir capturing glacial melt for use in times of low water. Because of the minerals captured in glaciers, the water has a beautiful green appearance in sunlight. The major lakes in the park permit many kinds of boats, but Jet Skis are forbidden.

Speaking of outdoor sports: Mountain climbing, here, requires special techniques, due to the brittle shale rock throughout Glacier NP.

Swift Lake with tiny island

Roadside view

One of the many spiritual mountains in the area is Heavy Runner, named after an honored Blackfoot Indian Chief who was killed in the Baker Massacre by U.S. soldiers, despite having a Federal amnesty paper.

We arrived at our luncheon destination, Many Glacier Hotel, at 1pm. By this time we were cold and hungry, so we went top tier and headed directly to the dining room, for the view and good food. We’re very glad to be so quick and light on our feet, as many people behind us had to wait to be seated and served.

Many Glacier Hotel

Claire’s choices—Potato Corn Chowder and a Veggie Flatbread Sandwich plus hot tea

I had a Provolone Hamburger with Fries.  No photo necessary. Predictable choice.

Our luncheon window view

McDonald Falls on our return trip

We really enjoyed Nigel, his excellent presentation, and the many stops he made along the way for photos and experiences.  Several times he went out of his way to try to find a mother bear and her two cubs that had been seen by others at the Lodge.  We also stopped when he saw a group of people pointing and snapping photos—a sure sign that something is afoot.  Turns out it was a Grizzly bear; but we saw just the tail end of him as he disappeared into the bushes.  A ranger stopped and questioned us about it, made it clear that we were too close to the bear and asked us to leave saying we had frightened the bear.  He was carrying a radio transmitter antennae for tracking the bears, and seemed very annoyed—or perhaps just tired of tourists.  Nigel felt bad that he had been so caught up in the excitement that he neglected to maintain a respectful distance.  Apparently, Grizzlies can run 35 mph! By the way, you can tell if a bear is a Black Bear or a Grizzly by the way it follows you: If it climbs up a tree after you, it’s Black; if it pushes the tree over, it’s a Grizzly. Actually, Grizzlies are larger, have a dish shaped (concave) snout and have a hump on the back. Also, Black Bear claws are 1 ½” long and Grizzly claws are 4”—but, if you can tell this, you are already far too close and it is too late to use your bear pepper spray. 

We're in Great Falls, Montana now, a reasonable drive which gave us the afternoon to explore and go for a walk.  Have we mentioned the strange driving in this state?  The speed limit is 75 mph (60 at night) but everyone seems to just toddle along.  We drove for some time behind a guy going 60 until we could pass him.  We're pretty much in the windy plains for now.  Along the way we passed this coffee place.

The long and unwinding road

Big Sky Country

 The Falls, formerly known as Great.

River Walk (it's there, over on the right)

Skate Park

Amazing dog park with jumps and other training devices

We haven't mentioned that we are, roughly, following the Lewis & Clark Trail on this portion of our trip. So, it was no great surprise that we ended the day with dinner at Clark & Lewie's. This was after checking out the Sip n' Dip bar that boasted mermaids swimming in a giant aquarium.  Unfortunately, they only perform on Saturday nights; so we settled on the restaurant, downstairs.  I ordered a Pig's Ass Porter over the Moose Drool Brown Ale, based on the waitress' recommendation.  The names sounded interesting and both were on tap—my universal choice over bottles and cans. Dinner fare: Veggie Burger and green side salad with huckleberry vinaigrette for Claire. Buffalo Burger with tomato soup for me. 

Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.  ~ Susan Sontag