By CHRIS PETERSON
Hungry Horse News
It was just thunder in the distance. No big deal, you thought. Then closer and closer and then right above you, with big fat drops of rain, high winds and a little lightning mixed in.
The tree trunks on the Lincoln Lake trail knocked together, swayed in the wind. The ground at your feet was bright green with moss and every once in awhile a mushroom bigger than your first punched through the green. The first rain shower pounded down. You dropped your pack and put on a rain jacket. The rain let up. It always works that way.
The Lincoln Lake Trail is a steep way to start a 100-plus mile hike. You’re doing this journey in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. It’s mid-September, but it feels more like October.
The first day is the worst day, you think as you slog up Snyder Ridge through the trees. The pack is heavy. Your legs are grumpy. You top the ridge and then start the slow glide down the other side and then up through even thicker forest to the lake.
Lincoln Lake is not a prime destination in Glacier. It’s in a bowl and even on the sunniest days, it gets dark in there. The rain pounds down and then the sun comes out which stirs the atmosphere up and then rain pounds down some more.
You discover something along the way: The rain pants you paid a pretty penny for just a couple of years ago don’t work. If anything, they suck up water.
At camp another discovery: The tent, which is normally bomb proof, is leaking at the grommets where the poles go in. Nothing major, but enough to get a small seep of water in each corner.
Rain aside, you get the bright idea to bushwhack around the lake, get a closer look at Beaver Chief Falls, which courses down a massive headwall from Lake Ellen Wilson above. The edge of the lake has a “social” trail for a short while, but you run into numerous downed trees, jack-strawed above the shore.
In any other lake, you might just walk the shoreline, you can’t get any wetter than you already are, right? But Lincoln Lake has no shoreline. A half step from the shore the water is well over your head. Shoot, you can’t even see the bottom.
You are not alone in this assessment. One hundred and six years ago, Norton Pearl, who would later become one of Glacier Park’s first rangers, hiked into Lincoln Lake. His diaries are chronicled in the book, “Backcountry Ranger, the diaries and photographs of Norton Pearl” by Leslie Lee. Lee was Pearl’s granddaughter.
The following is an entry from his diary on July 24, 1910: Went around the lake after fishing. It is some ruf (sic) hike all the way around. The falls are a great 1,500 feet above camp. You have similar problems. The hike is up the scree and around the brush and through a boulder field and finally to the falls, which aren’t nearly as big up close.
Still, it’s beautiful.
The bushwhack along the south shore is a bit easier.
You see an elk on the slopes above and sure enough, there’s an elk trail close to the lake that you can follow most of the way back to camp.
Pearl the next day would go up the headwall to Lake Ellen Wilson (it was called Windy Lake in 1910). You look over the route. It seems doable, for sure, but if you do the short cut, this will no longer be a 100-mile hike.
The rain continues on and off. But that night you sleep warm and dry. You’ve devised a system over the years. The wet clothes stay in the wet pile and the dry clothes, including the sleeping bag, stay in a garbage bag until it’s time to sleep.
This works well as long you don’t mind putting on wet clothes in the morning. Wool is warm when wet, sure, but it’s still no fun to strip out of dry clothes in the morning to put on frigid socks, pants, shirt and underwear.
The next day it’s not much better come morning. The rain is a drizzle and then stops altogether. Fog rolls in. You’re headed up to Sperry campground for the night. The walk up isn’t much fun. The trail is steep and a little bit boring. Still, by the time evening rolls around, the clouds have parted and the sun is out. This at least dries the tent out and most of the soggy clothing, save for the socks.
You eat at Sperry Chalet that night. Dinner is roast beef, noodles, gravy, vegetables, tea and cherry chocolate cake, all for $30.
It beats Clif Bars and packaged pasta.
While at the chalet you see a friend and he loans you a pair of gloves after you discover you only have one decent glove in your pack and a pair of thin cotton ones that a friend loaned you before the trip started.
You always forget something.
Sleep comes easy. The next day starts out cloudy and cool, but no rain. You go up and over Lincoln Pass to Lake Ellen Wilson where everyone the day before saw a grizzly bear. But you only see a nanny mountain goat and her kid. You watch them waltz down to the lake.
Bears? What bears?
At Gunsight Pass you meet three sisters from Kalispell. They had plans to climb Mount Jackson, but Jackson, just above the pass, is covered in snow from a storm a few days before.
You talk them into sitting on a rock so you can take their picture.
The Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier is one of the most historic routes in the Park.
According to Lee, the trail was first cleared in 1903 by a group of University of Minnesota students. But you suspect Native Americans went over it long before that. By 1916, many of the trails we hike today were already carved into Glacier’s landscape.
At Gunsight Lake you run into other hikers. When you left, the extended forecast was calling for better weather.
But things have changed.
“Supposed to rain and snow tomorrow,” one group warns.
You ask another guy a little bit later, a red-head with glasses.
“Fifty percent chance of showers,” he says.
You choose to believe him.
But at 5 a.m. the next morning at Reynolds Creek there’s a pitter-patter of rain on the tent and it grows steadily. By the time you break camp it’s pouring. Destination is Red Eagle Lake.
You put your head down and walk hard. You cover more than 14 miles in six hours. Not bad for a full pack with a 400 mm lens on top.
The camera and big lens alone weigh 10 pounds.
At Red Eagle Lake there’s a fire smoldering in the pit. You’re drenched to the skin from the waist down. The rain pants are completely worthless.
You stoke up the fire and start to dry out.
The rain is spitting, mixing with snow. Snow line has dropped down to about 200 feet above the lake.
You eat a Clif Bar. They’re beginning to taste good, which is a testament more to the strength of your hunger than their taste, which resembles cardboard.
A figure comes up the trail. He’s all smiles. His name is Roger or Randy or something like that.
He explains he was camped here this morning, but their permit had them at the upper end of the lake the next night, so they moved.
The rest of his friends are out hiking, but Roger decided to come back and sit next to the fire.
The weather is awful. You get your chest dried out while your butt gets wet. Then you turn around and dry out your butt while the rain hits your chest.
But with the fire stoked up, you do manage to get all but the wettest clothing dried out.
“Mind if I fire up a bong?” Roger asks.
You laugh out loud.
“I don’t care,” you say. Live and let live.
Roger takes a few hits of Mary Jane.
You pass the time shooting the breeze and gathering firewood. There’s no shortage of wood. The Red Eagle burned through here 10 years ago and there’s downed trees everywhere.
Roger announces he’s going to take a bath.
“I brought clean underwear for every day we’re out here,” he said. “We’re out here for four days. I’m taking a bath.”
He strips down, wades out in the lake, washes off and goes under the water. He pops up like a pink moose and is done. Gets dressed and is back to the fire.
The snow level drops further.
That evening the rest of Roger’s friends come to camp to sit next to the fire as well. For an hour or so, the rain and snow stops entirely.
But then it picks back up again. You all say goodnight. At 4 a.m. it’s snowing at the lake level. The route the next day calls for you to go up and over Triple Divide Pass.
But by daylight it’s obvious the snow is pretty deep up there — at least a foot— and without some way to keep your legs dry, you’ve got a pretty good chance of freezing to death. So you bail and head out to St. Mary, 43 miles short of your destination. You call your wife to come pick you up. While you’re waiting, you take a nap along the St. Mary River. Hoofbeats awake you as three moose splash across the river. It’s the most wildlife you’ve seen in 24 hours.
The next day you go to Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell and buy a good pair of rain paints — heavy duty Gore-Tex. A few days later a friend gives you a ride back to the Red Eagle Lake Trailhead. This time you’re determined to finish, snow or no snow. Not more than an hour into the hike it starts to sprinkle. By the time you make camp at the lake it’s pouring again.
But in the distance there is blue sky and a faint rainbow hangs to the east for hours on end.
Just before dark a cow and calf moose come out and feed in the lake. A party of men, either of Indian or Pakistani origin show up. They, too, are headed over Triple Divide Pass, they say. You watch them set up their tent — it’s the type you’d set up in your backyard on a warm summer day to keep the skeeters out. They’re all wearing cotton sweatshirts and shorts.
They’re in for a miserable night.
“My friends talked me into this,” one man says. “I’ve never camped in Glacier before.”
After a night of heavy rain Red Eagle Creek is boiling and brown.
You leave at dawn and never see the Indians again.
The weather clears briefly as you head up Triple Divide. But even with the right gear this time (You’ve even remembered gloves), the going is slow. The pack is heavy and wet and right at the top the heavens literally descend over the Continental Divide and it begins to snow as a massive cloud dives over the high peaks. Faint “snowbows” glow in the distance.
You take shelter behind some krummholz and boil a cup of tea.
The snow comes down in sheets.
You hike down the pass and get blasted by snow and downslope winds.
Then sun comes back out. Bighorn sheep graze on the slopes. A grizzly bear feeds on berries in the valley below. You watch the bear and sheep for more than an hour. Every once in a while the bear must get a whiff of you. He’s a fair ways away, but he’ll lift his nose up and take a look around. It’s a pleasure to watch a bear from a safe distance with no one around.
Finally you have to leave. You’re running out of daylight and still have to make camp at Morningstar Lake, one of the prettiest potholes in the Park, tucked beneath the sheer cliffs of Medicine Grizzly Peak.
The rain falls on and off.
By the next morning it’s turned back to snow as you head over Pitamakan Pass. Funny thing is, it doesn’t feel that cold. You’re getting used to bad weather.
You run into a guy hiking the Continental Divide Trail. You chat about the weather. He camped somewhere the in woods, he said. No permits. The CDT hikers average 20 to 25 miles a day. Glacier is the end of the line for them. The trail ends at the Canada border.
Most looked relieved their 3,100-mile journey is over, snow or no snow.
At the pass there are bluebirds and robins in the snow, making their way over the hump.
You can’t get close enough to them for a photo. The birds are all business. They fly a ways, take a break, and then fly some more until they’re up and over the pass.
The rest of the day is spent making the long hike around Rising Wolf Mountain to Upper Two Medicine Lake. Signs warn of bear activity, but you see none — just acres and acres of huckleberries, leaves bright red, loaded with berries.
The snow and rain stop. The clouds lift a bit. At the lake, several bull elk serenade a harem of cows. Later that night a fox barks and an owl calls. The music of the mountains.
The next day is the last day. Up and over Scenic Point, down along the Rocky Mountain Front to East Glacier Park, where you catch the train back to West Glacier.
The sun, glorious sun, shines. Of the nine days out, you’ve been rained or snowed on seven. A slight breeze blows, not too hot, not too cold. You grunt over Scenic Point and then glide down the backside.
A flock of Clark’s nutcrackers call out and you watch one hiding the pine nuts from the whitebark pine under a rock. It is perfectly quiet. A raven sets its wings silently and glides out over the prairie.
In the distance you hear a train running down the tracks, calling you home.
If you go: The original hike was meant to go from Lincoln Lake to Walton Ranger Station, with the last hitch up and over Two Medicine Pass to Isabel Lake. That route, unbroken, is about 107 miles and has the interesting distinction of never crossing a road.
But because I got snowed out, there were additional miles that added up from leaving and re-entering at St. Mary, so I chose the route over Scenic Point. The original hike would have taken eight days, but broken it took nine. Rain and snow really thins the crowds. Most camps were empty, or had just one or two parties. Only two — Sperry and Reynolds — were full. The unbroken hike from Lincoln Lake to the train station in East Glacier is 90 miles on the nose. You could also catch a train back to West Glacier at Walton by hiking up the road to Essex. The train does not allow bear spray, however. I stashed mine in the woods and picked it up at a later date. The fare is cheap. It cost $15 to ride the train from East Glacier to West Glacier.