Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Ascent to Sperry Chalet

At the Trail head

During the night fears surfaced in my subconscious: would my camera work, would the weather be decent, did I have the stamina to make it there, what if I encountered a bear? Towards dawn, through the open window I could hear what sounded like torrents of rain--oh, no! That would make it a miserable long hike... When I got up to look, it was only the sound of the wind whipping up the leaves of the tree by my window. It was cloudy and chilly, but otherwise fine. I put on the four layers I had with me just like the day before--this would lighten my daypack. I turned on my camera and it was working--hooray!

Kevin came by to pick me up around seven and bought me a hearty breakfast before dropping me off at the trail head, which was right across the road from Lake McDonald Hotel. I don't know how I could have missed the sign for Sperry Trail, but despite looking for it, I hadn't seen it before. Before seeing me off, Kevin gave me instructions on the bear spray he had equipped me with--keeping on the safety until the need to use it arose, remaining calm and waiting until the target was in range, and that if deployed, the pepper spray would likely get on me too. He reassured me that in all his years of hiking to Sperry Chalet, he'd never once had to use the bear spray, but it's considered standard safety equipment for hikers at Glacier. I was to keep it on my pack belt at all times when hiking.

It was about eight-thirty when I set out. The trail rose gently as it went past the Lake McDonald riding stables, and then at a steeper incline as it followed the bank of Snyder Creek. The tall forest of western cedar, pine and fir was lush and wet in the cool morning, and yet as soon as the terrain began to rise, my pulse rate did too, and breathing became more labored. I took short rests every twenty to thirty paces--just about every switchback--to bring both down before going on.

Crystal Creek

Kevin had said that about a third of the way there I would cross a creek--Crystal Ford. Approaching the creek, the trail began to descend for a while, a welcome relief from climbing. A sign on the other side of the wooden bridge pointed to the left for Sperry Chalet, and indicated 4.9 miles to go. Just past the bridge I saw a couple of what looked like coral root orchid spikes on the steep bank, with the flowers going to seed, but since I'd just put away my camera after taking a couple of shots of the creek, I didn't stop to record them (now I wish I had).

Twinflower  (Linnaea borealis)

The sun was coming out and illuminating bits of vegetation on the forest floor. There were different kinds of mosses and mushrooms, what looked like wintergreen, rattlesnake orchid leaves, and much that I couldn't begin to identify. I noticed some of the plant whose leaves I'd taken to be orchids at the Trail of Cedars were in bloom, a solitary white flower with six petals (lily family?), which I was later able to identify as Clintonia uniflora--first time I'd seen this flower which also grows in the Appalachians.

I spotted a couple of small clumps of delicate pink Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) growing by the side of the trail and then one huge patch in bloom. I've seen this plant growing only in one location in the east--Ice Mountain in West Virginia, where due to the site's peculiar micro-climate, this boreal species is able to survive at a much lower latitude than usual. In Glacier it is part of the native flora. I stopped to take some photos. Each time I had to take the camera out of my backpack, which took up time, but I didn't want to leave my camera around my neck, as the swing with each stride was annoying.

The mule pack passed me on its return trip around eleven--I moved off the trail to my right, which happened to be the downhill side. Later during my stay at Sperry Chalet I would learn that this was precisely the proper trail etiquette, because should the animals spook, they would turn uphill and avoid a possible tumble downhill.

I passed other hikers coming down the trail, and was passed by several who were moving at a faster pace. Around noon I took a short break to eat lunch--one of the two energy bars I'd bought for the occasion. It was now warm enough to remove my parka. Shortly after this break, the forest began to thin out and I emerged into full sun. The switchbacks became steeper, the terrain rockier.

Point of no return waterfall.

I was now looking for the view of a waterfall which Kevin had told me marked the "point of no return," the half-way mark or slightly past. It finally came into view. I was tiring out faster, and having to take more frequent rests.

Around one-thirty I passed a lady hiking alone, an Asian woman. I asked her if she was coming down from Sperry Chalet. She said she'd started out from Gunsight Pass Trail-- this is a twenty-mile hike from the trailhead at the Jackson Glacier overlook to Lake McDonald. I was quite impressed! Even more so when I learned later on that Gunsight Pass was still covered with snow fields.

Flowers by a rill.

Further up the trail I came across a lovely group of flowers growing by a mountain rill and stopped again to photograph them. I could identify some: Moss Campion, Spirea, ferns, wasn't sure about the pink flower, but it was a refreshing scene. Time to shed my cotton sweater. I plodded on, wondering when I'd get a glimpse of Sperry Chalet.

Sperry Chalet from the trail below.

Several switchbacks later, I finally caught sight of Sperry Chalet way above. It looked so near, and yet, when I took in the trail that lay ahead, I could see how it wound around the mountain side to my left--it was still quite a ways away, probably a mile and a half, perhaps two. By this time I was drenched in sweat. The long-sleeved T-shirt I was wearing was black, and absorbed so much heat! I shed that and slogged on in my remaining layer: a sweat-soaked short sleeved T-shirt.

I was beyond looking at flowers at this point--all I wanted to do was to get this torture over--if I could only fly! My hiking poles were the only thing keeping me going: I pulled myself over the rocky dikes and boulders huffing and puffing with every agonizing step.

Sprague Creek flowing through the cirque.

Several long, steep inclines and then a valley with a flowing stream and waterfalls opened up. It was tempting to take off my boots and cool my aching feet in the stream, but a glance at my watch--about three o'clock--was enough to dissuade me. I'd been on the trail for about six and a half hours now, and if I didn't arrive soon, Kevin and the staff at Sperry Chalet would begin to worry about me.

I could see the Chalet was very close now, yet thinking that my eyes could be deceiving, I asked a hiker sitting by the stream if he knew how much farther it was. I had another two-tenths of a mile to go, he replied. In a glen past the bridge I saw a sign for Sperry Glacier pointing to the left and Sperry Chalet to the right. Here at least there were some firs casting a bit of welcome shade over the trail. Even so, that last home stretch seemed interminable.

When I finally reached the door of the dining room around three-thirty, I was welcomed warmly by a tall lady who urged me to come in, sit down, and offered me a glass of cold lemonade. Renee introduced herself as the manager of Sperry Chalet, and waited until I had recuperated before taking me farther up the hill to show me the lay of the land and my room. I should have asked her to take a photo of me at the moment of my arrival (I'm sure I looked a wreck, drenched from head to toe). It would have been a great comparison to the departure photo Kevin took--before and after photos--but I was so exhausted it didn't even enter my mind.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Garden Wall II

Jessica Stickseed (Hackelia micrantha).

Other delightful surprises kept showing up along the trail: blue forget-me-not like flowers (Hackelia micrantha), a wild clematis with drooping blue flowers (Clematis occidentalis), so many other flowers that I couldn't begin to guess at! I wish I could have had an expert botanist with me, I'm sure one could have pointed out so much more than I could take in.

Native clematis (Clematis occidentalis)

Along the trail.

Mountain Death Camas (Anticlea elegans)

Going to the Sun Road below the trail.

As the trail wound around thickets of subalpine firs and some very steep hillsides, it was now several hundred feet above the Going to the Sun Road. The lush vegetation of the Garden Wall began to thin out and become more like grassland. Fields of bear grass in bloom dotted the slopes.

Looking towards Haystack Butte.

Looking down a chute.

looking toward Haystack Butte.

I hadn't encountered any hikers for a while, and it had stopped raining when I turned around and saw this tiny creature on the trail right behind me. I'm still trying to figure if it was a Pika, a small mammal that inhabits high-altitude meadows in the Rockies, or a baby chipmunk or vole of some sort (the coloring looks much like a chipmunk but it's lacking the characteristic stripes).

A tiny inhabitant of the Highline Trail.
Pika or chipmunk?

I held still while the tiny-eared creature grazed on the vegetation around the trail briefly and then disappeared into the brush. I gazed at my watch--it was getting towards four o'clock. I had intended to reach Haystack Falls before turning back, but I needed to turn around now to get back back in time to return my rental car before they closed at six.

Looking up.

Reluctantly I turned back. Other hikers returning from Haystack Falls passed me. I stopped now and then to take more photos.

Wildflowers on the Garden Wall.

Wild onion (Allium schoenoprasum)

This was the last photo I took before my camera froze up. The shutter would not focus or shoot, and when I tried to see the other photos I had taken, it would not change modes. Oh-no!  What was I going to do without a camera, and this early into my trip? I had two weeks ahead at Sperry Chalet--how was I going to get the photos I needed? How could I have been so stupid? 

Well, there was nothing I could do for now. Perhaps when the camera dried out it would go back to normal, or I could find a store in Columbia Falls where I could get it fixed quickly. But on a Saturday evening, the chances were slim. I passed a couple of Japanese tourists with very fancy camera rigs and was tempted to offer to buy one of their cameras, but they didn't understand enough English for me to even try.

I trudged on back towards my car. At least I'd gotten the hang of using the poles and my stride didn't feel so awkward as at the beginning of the hike. I drove back to the car rental place to call Kevin as prearranged. I explained the situation with my camera but he said he didn't know of any camera repair shop in town--there wasn't any store where I could make a quick purchase either. My only hope was to pray that the camera would dry overnight and work again.

That evening I tried to think of alternatives if the camera didn't go back to normal the next day. I called Herb and he thought perhaps he could buy me another camera the next day and ship it to Kevin overnight, and Kevin could send it up with the next mule train that would resupply the chalet in another few days. I fell asleep praying this wouldn't be necessary...

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Garden Wall I

Mt. Oberlin in clouds.

I woke to the sound of rain, got up to look outside, and yes, it was pouring out there! I lingered over breakfast hoping the weather would clear up later on. Kevin stopped by and I gave him my three duffel bags and portfolio for tomorrow's mule pack train.

While waiting for the weather to improve, I caught up with my Email on the hotel's computer. Getting on towards ten, the rain stopped and it seemed to be clearing. Today might be the perfect day to hike at the Garden Wall, with the plants fresh after the rain.

It would be chilly up there, so I put on every layer of clothing I had kept (everything else was in the duffels I'd given Kevin earlier), and unpacked my new hiking poles. This would be a good time to get the hang of using them, in preparation for the grueling hike to Sperry Chalet tomorrow. I bought a sandwich at a carry-out along the way and drove up towards Logan Pass.

Driving up to Logan Pass

The clouds played hide-and-seek with the mountains, and today the Weeping Wall was a veritable torrent. With fewer hikers and tourists out, there were plenty of parking places at the Visitors Center at Logan Pass. I ate half my sandwich in the car and then suited up for the trail. The Highline Trail, as it's called, begins at a meadow on the other side of the road by the parking lot at Logan Pass. It crosses a steep talus slope and then the trail continues above the Going to the Sun Road, which gradually drops down. All along this stretch the Highline trail is visible as a ledge running parallel several hundred feet above the road.

Looking down from the Highline Trail.

I steeled my nerves to look down from this precarious ledge to the road below, trying to reassure myself that my hiking poles would hold me steady. It was so narrow it would have been difficult to pass another person at this spot. 

The beginning of the Garden Wall

Once past this, the beginning of the Garden Wall was marked by rills periodically cascading down from the heights above and a profusion of plants unlike anything I'd ever seen. Plants grew anywhere the terrain gave them any kind of purchase.

Rocky Mountain Columbines (Aquilegia flavescens) under a ledge.
Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata)

I passed a lovely clump of Rocky Mountain Columbines (Aquilegia flavescens) growing under a moist ledge. Further on a golden twin flower covered by a purplish bract peeked out under a shrub, which I learned later was a native honeysuckle called Bearberrry or Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata).

Arctic Willow (Salix arctica)

Looking across the valley.

As I walked along I alternated between looking down at the plants and the spectacular views across the valley. The sun almost broke out once and then a veil moved across-- a steady rain started.

Rain moving in.

The Garden Wall

I pulled up the hood of my parka under my hat, and managed to keep fairly dry, but after a while my wool Tilley hat became completely soaked and droplets began to drip off the edge of the brim whenever I leaned over to look at or photograph the plants. I tried to keep my camera dry but it was almost impossible.

Mist on the Garden Wall.

In places the rocky ledge the trail ran on widened a bit and subalpine firs grew, giving some shelter from the wind. An incredible variety of species took advantage of the shelter--it truly seemed like a spring garden here.

Bracted Lousewort buds (Pedicularis bracteosa).

Twisted-Stalk (Streptopus amplexiflolius)

So many of the plants were completely new to me, though there were some I could guess at--these plants had eastern relatives that I was familiar with, or they were the native versions of cultivated garden plants--like Spirea, that I was well-acquainted with. Others, like the Bracted Lousewort, I had seen before on previous trips through the Rocky Mountains.

The leaves of the one above, Twisted-Stalk, looked very like Solomon's Seal, but the flowers were quite different. Some, like the False Solomon's Seal below, or the False Hellebore or Corn Lily (Veratum viride) seemed to be the same species that are also found in the east.

False Solomon's Seal (Maiamthemum racemosa) and blue Stickseed.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Many Glacier

Driving towards Many Glacier.

The road leading to the Many Glacier area parallels another lake, Lake Sherburne, and crosses areas of private land where cattle seemed to graze freely. Masses of lupines and other wild flowers dotted the banks of the lake, much as near St. Mary's.

Lupines and wildflowers on the banks of Lake Sherburne
Many Glacier Road.

The Many Glacier part of the park is directly behind the mountain range with the Bishop's Cap, and is not visible from the Going to the Sun Road. It's difficult to get an idea of how the two sides connect with each other when viewed from such a different perspective until one looks at a map. The roadsides along the way were like a garden of wildflowers, so many varieties!

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with wild pink Geraniums (Geranium viscosissimum), white yarrow and asters.

Wildflowers on the road to Many Glacier.

The road ended at a small lake named Swiftcurrent Lake, with the Many Glacier Hotel on its eastern edge. There was a campground on the shore opposite the hotel, and a few people were fishing and canoeing on the lake. The historic hotel also dates from 1915, but I didn't go inside to take a peek.

Swiftcurrent Lake and the Many Glacier Hotel.

The afternoon was waning and I was supposed to meet Kevin and his lady business partner for dinner in the evening, so I didn't linger here very long. There was so much to explore in Many Glacier, it would have been nice to spend at least one entire day here, but with such a long drive back, it was time to turn around.

Triple Divide Peak way in the distance.

On the return trip I stopped at one pull-off at St. Mary Lake with a plaque that pointed out Triple Divide Peak way off in the distance (the tiny peak to the left seen thru the two closer mountains), and explained the origin of its name. The waters from its western slope drained into the Pacific Ocean, the ones on the east slope into the Missouri River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, and the north slope drained into the Canadian Hudson River Basin. Awesome!

I stopped at Siyeh Bend once more, to photograph flowers I had missed in the morning and was spotting now in the afternoon light. From this angle, the waterfall below Reynold Peak was lovely, and the east side tunnel carved through the rock carrying the Going to the Sun Road looked even more impressive.

Waterfalls below Reynolds Mountain from Siyeh Bend and east side tunnel.
Siyeh Bend and creek
Cascade Mountain Ash (Sorbus scopulina)
Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)

Lyall's Pentstemon, Indian Paintbrush and Thimbleberry.

I spotted more flowers above Siyeh Bend and stopped again for Rocky Mountain Columbines.

Rocky Mountain columbine (Aquilegia flavescens)

I found a parking spot at one of the pull-offs at Logan Pass and stopped again for more photos of mountain goats and plants. I wanted to photograph the expanses of bear grass growing along the way, looking for the best examples for my paintings.

Prickly currant (Ribes lacustre)

Bear grass at Haystack Falls

After going around the Loop and down, I found parking at the Trail of Cedars on Avalanche Creek, and decided I had just enough time left for a short investigation.

Trail of Cedars

The Trail of Cedars consisted of a boardwalk set above the floor of a thick forest of western cedar, Douglas fir and Lodgepole pine, a typical vegetation of northwestern Pacific forests. I saw plants on the forest floor that seemed familiar, some had leaves that looked like orchids (I saw these in bloom in another location and they were actually Clintonia uniflora), another I am sure was corn lily (Verratum viride).

Leaves of Clintonia uniflora, false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum stellatum or racemosum) and corn lily (Verratum viride) with ferns on the forest floor.

A plant with nasty thorns was appropriately named Devils club, as I learned later. Although the berries look attractive, I understand the spines, which also grow under the leaves as well as on the stems, break off easily and can embed themselves in the skin, causing grave irritation and allergic reaction.

Devil's club (Oplopanax horridus)

At the midpoint of the short trail, a bridge crossed over Avalanche Creek; here was a sign for the trailhead to Avalanche Lake. It would have been a lovely warm-up hike if I'd had time, but unfortunately, it was now getting on towards six in the evening.

Avalanche Creek looking upstream.
Avalanche Creek looking downstreamm

Reluctantly I went over the bridge and back towards the road where I had parked. Perhaps tomorrow, I'd have time for Avalanche Lake? I needed to repack my gear tonight to have it ready for the mule pack going up to Sperry Chalet on Sunday morning. Kevin had asked me to have everything ready so he could pick it up tomorrow morning when he came by. He needed to have everything ready the night before, since the mule pack left around 5 AM the following day.

McDonald Creek above Avalanche Creek.