Monday, October 31, 2016

First Day at Sperry Chalet

Handsome goat grazing by the chalet.

That first evening  at Sperry Chalet, I was introduced to the rituals: the dining room closed between four thirty and six for the staff to prepare our meal. At six o'clock the door opened and the guests began to seat themselves at the places marked with their names. There were eight tables, some seating large parties of ten to twelve, other tables for smaller parties of four to six, and one small table for two. I looked for my name and found myself at the far end of the first table, among ten others, near me two were couples, the rest were a family group.

The main course rotated every three days: roast beef, chicken and turkey with the trimmings (I'd been warned that the food could get a bit monotonous). The staff joked that they lost track of the days of the week during the eleven-week season, since the work schedule was pretty much the same every day except for some afternoon time off every nine days, but they marked the days by whether it was chicken, turkey or roast beef day.

A good hot meal with home-baked bread and dessert is such a luxury after the long hard hike uphill, it was welcomed enthusiastically by all, and the company was congenial. Strangers introduced themselves and shared their experiences of the day easily, seeing this or that animal, memories of previous visits to Sperry, or similar environments, all interesting and amusing.

After dessert had been served, the staff would introduce themselves, each giving a helpful hint or tip about Sperry Chalet--the thin walls of the chalet therefore the necessity for quiet hours at night; prohibitions about flames near the buildings and what to do in case of a fire alarm; warnings not to leave our possessions within reach of the goats and marmots who could make off with them and chew them up for the salt they craved; they had flashlights available for those who hadn't brought any (there is no electricity at Sperry Chalet), and coffee hour between 8 and ten, when the gas lamps in the dining room were lit for reading and games.

Sperry Chalet

Each evening Renee read a paragraph or two from "Avalanche," the memoirs of Dr. Lyman's Sperry's nephew Albert about the expeditions exploring this area in the 1890's in search for a route to the glacier that bears Sperry's name.

After the staff intros, the guests were asked to introduce themselves, one person from each party. I had been asked to introduce myself as Sperry Chalet's Resident Artist for the season, and I mentioned that I was from the east coast and this was my first time in Montana.

That first evening I turned in early. The next morning I saw a family of mountain goats grazing just below the wooden railings when I came down to use the communal bathroom building down the hill. The goats moved out of the way to allow passage but they were not afraid--this was their turf and they appeared to be used to humans.

Communal bathroom at Sperry.

After a hearty breakfast I walked around to explore the immediate surroundings. There were a few flowering spikes of Bear grass near the Chalet. I went up to my room and brought my working kit down to work on the first study of this unfamiliar plant.

Bear grass pencil drawing.

A simple a pencil sketch is the way I usually learn about a plant: how the leaves and flower stalk are put together, the individual flower, the stigma and ovary, the anther. Xerophyllum tenax is the botanical name. Multiples of three indicate this is a member of the lily family. This particular spike was in the early stages of flowering. As I had observed in other locations of the park, the stalk would gradually elongate as the flowers continued to open until it formed an oval shape.

Xerophyllum tenax, early stage

My sketch filled the rest of the morning. I'd look for other flowering stalks later on when I was ready to do a color rendering; for now this one was just right.

The staff usually prepared bag lunches for all the guests, since they assumed everyone would be hiking during the day. On my first day I was too tired to wander very far so I stayed around to try one of Sperry's famous grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch--it was just wonderful on the homemade bread with a bit of soup on the side.

During lunch I had the opportunity to chat with the horse wrangler who had brought up a party of riders to Sperry Chalet. Stephen turned out to be a young man from Georgia, a college grad, who had started working as a manager for a construction company. He loved the outdoors and after a trip to Montana decided to move here to work at the stables of the Lake MacDonald Hotel during the season. He confided that he'd seen the documentary "Unbranded" five times! I could definitely empathize... wondered if he'd stick to his decision for a lifetime or if at some point he'll have had enough of this precarious outdoor life and go back to what his parents I'm sure had hoped for him.

In the afternoon I ventured back down the hill to sketch the Glacier Lilies under the subalpine firs. These were growing on a steep bank along the trail. One of the guests walking by offered and took the photos here--the lighting is a little weird in the first one.

Sketching the Glacier Lilies

Glacier Lily sketch (Erythronium grandiflora)

It was providential to have chosen to sketch the Glacier Lily on my first day--their blooming season is so short that a week later all of the flowers had disappeared! I learned that the starchy bulbs of the lilies are a favorite food of grizzlies and they will dig up entire patches of them to feed. Fortunately, the bears miss enough of the tubers that the patches can regrow.

A few days later I met a lady who stayed overnight with a good-sized group, and asked to buy my Glacier lily sketch. Peggy worked as a guide for Glacier Guides, and I agreed to sell her my sketch when I got back home. I never did take a photo of my finished color pencil sketch before shipping it to her, what a pity!

The insects were already very annoying (even with repellent spray), and even so more after dinner, when I tried to to do a small sketch of the view from Sperry in the setting sun. This is as far as I got before I had to run for cover.

Evening View from Sperry Chalet, watercolor, 5" x 8."

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.