Dave Carty
Dave Carty
HEARTLAND USA |  May/June 2007
Glacier in the Clouds

Grizzlies, green caterpillars, and 50-knot winds can’t stop our intrepid adventurers from a week-long backpacking tour of Glacier National Park. But don’t expect them to be humble about it.

Big Head had an announcement to make: "It is 47 degrees. I am facing due south. It is 8:41 in the morning. And you," he said, pointing at me, "are sitting at exactly 231 degrees southwest."

Big Head was not making this up. Before the start of our 6-day backpacking trip through Glacier National Park, his wife had given him an electronic compass, which he’d almost ditched the night before the trip. Why carry the extra weight? Now he knew why: periodic meteorological updates.

For Big Head Barry Alwine, this was nothing short of victory.  The winded but game Texas flatlander had been doggedly following his sister, Monna, (AKA Bride of Bigfoot) and me (Last-of-the-Dogmen Dave), as we hauled our aching bones up the awe-inspiring and vertical peaks in the nation’s most spectacular national park. Texas, Big Head pointed out, doesn’t have mountains. And it doesn’t have grizzlies, either.

But Glacier does.

At the trailhead, we’d bailed out of our truck and into a crowd of gawkers pointing at a tree stump several hundred yards away. The "stump," as it turned out, was a grizzly, 400 pounds of rippling, copper-colored fur and muscle, all of which was heading directly toward the parking lot. Suddenly, getting our out-of-shape butts on the move became a priority. If we didn’t make it to the trailhead before the bear, we weren’t going anywhere. Luckily, we scooted down the first few hundred yards of the trail with no griz sightings, the three of us singing at the top of our lungs to the bear we knew was there but couldn’t see.

Unlike me, Big Head Barry, a firearms instructor, retired cop and body guard to the stars -- George Strait, Kathy Mattea, Patty Lovelace and Dwight Yokum – isn’t particularly afraid of bears. But Big Head has some serious issues about climbing mountains. Day two found us at our Cobalt Lake campsite after a long, grueling ascent, and for all practical purposes, Big Head was kaput. Most of Texas is around 10 feet in elevation, and the air is like Karo syrup compared to the thin mix of oxygen in Glacier. While a squad of pure white mountain goats watched from hundreds of feet above us, Big Head collapsed and took a two-hour nap. Upon awakening, he gazed, horrified, at the red cliffs surrounding Cobalt Lake and made another announcement:

"Ain’t no way I’m gonna make it over that," he said, pointing at the wall of rock looming above our heads. "I’m outa here tomorrow. I was having an out-of-body experience back there." And then he collapsed once again.

Big Head is a funny guy, but he’s no idiot. Unlike Monna and I, ostensibly the more experienced backpackers on this trip, Barry has no reservations about proclaiming loudly and publicly what the rest of us are secretly thinking: climbing straight up a cliff face in country infested with mastodon-sized grizzlies is not, perhaps, the smartest thing we have ever done. But with four days left in the trip, it’s too early to throw in the towel. Screw the bears; we’re goin’ in.

While Big Head slept in death-like repose, I wandered down to the shore of Cobalt Lake, where throngs of hikers had accumulated. Sunning themselves along the shoreline were what appeared to be a squad of cheerleaders (!), as well as two young men who had rocketed past us on the trail. One exhausted couple were sprawled in a meadow, asleep in each other’s arms. Maybe they were from Texas, too. Everyone wore bear bells, and almost all of them were hiking back out, presumably in the dark. I shuddered to think of it.

To my pleasant surprise, though, my chronically gimpy knees had given me few problems so far, which I credited to the painkillers I’d been popping like M&M’s since day one. I love painkillers. If I had any money left after the multiple knee surgeries I’ve been through I’d invest it in the company that makes them. About the only person who seemed to be in top form was Monna, an ER nurse who, in addition to bestowing nicknames,  can throw a 45-pound pack across her back with the nonchalance of a soccer mom chucking a purse into an SUV. Barry and I hated her.

But there wasn’t much time for that. We had miles to go on our 36-mile loop, and tomorrow, the Continental Divide loomed, 900 feet of rarified atmosphere above us. We could hear the wind shrieking as we crawled into our sleeping bags that night.

By the time we crested Two Medicine Pass the following morning, I was beginning to think Big Head was right about a lot of things. The wind was so strong that at times it nearly knocked the three of us off our feet. In a brief moment of calm, I crept to the edge of a precipitous drop that fell straight away to Cobalt Lake, 900 feet below. I easily could have tossed a rock into the center of the lake…or sailed in myself, were the wind to pick up. I slithered back away and fished my camera out of my pack. Big Head trudged up beside me, his do-rag flapping like a pennant.

"That’s a historical picture," he said. "Because I’m never coming back up here again." Little sister Monna pointed at the breathtaking scenery in mock protest, rattling off the names of peaks. But Big Head cut her short. "That one there," he said, pointing at a sheer wall of rock ahead, "is called I’m-coming-back-on-a-bus-tour mountain, because that’s the only way you’re gonna get me up here again."

We grabbed a quick bite to eat in the shelter of the six-foot rock cairn used to mark the trail – in that kind of wind, a sign would be halfway to Kansas within a week-- and then began a 2800-foot, knee-grinding descent down the other side. Several years earlier, this part of the park had caught the business end of a lighting storm and burned off dozens of miles of timber. But now, rather than desolation, we found ourselves in an eerie, black and white forest of standing dead looming above a riot of new undergrowth. Hot pink fireweed tickled our elbows and thimbleberries and huckleberries grew in profusion, staining my hungry fingers blue and red. A pair of elk crashed through the timber ahead of me, then paused for a look back. Here, the old Glacier was clearly on the way out, but the new Glacier was nipping at its heels. Behind me, I heard Monna’s periodic exclamations of "Wow!" and "Holy cow!" Which, between gasps for breath, was the extent of most of our trailside conversations. Glacier will do that to you.

I began to wonder if the drop-dead panoramas had the same affect upon wildlife as it had upon us, and half expected to come across a moose stopped in its tracks, struck dumb by the views. As it turned out, the only moose we saw was happier eating the scenery than looking at it. Two nights earlier, a huge bull had grazed through our camp, oblivious to several Iowa college students who were taking his picture. Can’t say that I blamed them. I’ve lived in Iowa, and moose aren’t anywhere near the place. "Wow!" Monna said.

In Glacier, you earn the privilege of hiking through the backcountry. At Isabelle Lake, surely the most breathtakingly beautiful campsite of our trip, we were inundated by crawlies during what came to be known as the Night Of The Living Dead Green Caterpillars. Caterpillars covered our sleeping bags and crawled across our shoes. They fell onto our faces while we slept and slithered through our hair. Hundreds were plucked from our clothing and hurled into the bushes. Hundreds more died under my thumb. I finally retreated to the lakeside cooking area, where Big Head and Monna were fixing dinner, awash in the delicious aroma of black bean stew. Before us lay the lake, an aqua-blue jewel below plunging cliffs shading to red, green, and brown. Monna divied up the stew and then broached the discussion of desert. Notably absent from the menu, I noticed, was the extra bar of dark chocolate she’d recklessly given away to a handsome young Swiss backpacker two nights before, followed by the last of our English tea cookies. I finally had to stop her before she threw our trail mix at him; the good-neighbor stuff was getting old. Across the lake, a mountain goat strolled across a nearly vertical talus field. Luckily, there were no Swiss backpackers anywhere near this campsite, but I decided to hoist the rest of our food up the bear pole before she got any ideas.

That night I dreamed of getting my chocolate fix at the park concessionaire, and awoke the next morning to a weather report: "It is 37 degrees, the coldest morning of our trip," Big Head announced. "It is 7:14 a.m. And Dave, the Last of the Dogmen," he said, pointing his compass at me, "is lying in a sleeping bag at exactly 68 degrees northeast."

Sixty-eight degrees east, north, or south, I was happy to be there.

Glacier Glacier Glacier Glacier

If You Go…

After numerous dead ends, I was finally able to get hold of the Glacier National Park folks who directed me to a couple places for those who might like to duplicate our trip. The first is their trip-planning website: www.nps.gov/glac/planyour
visit/index.htm; the second is the backcountry office phone number: 406 888-7857. Both were closed as this article was written (mid- winter), but presumably both will be open again in the spring.

Registering for backcountry permits in advance isn’t necessary – you can pick them up on site at the Glacier visitor center or park headquarters – but it’s a good idea. Monna, who has hiked extensively in the park, took care of all the arrangements for the three of us and reserved beautiful campsites for each night or our trip. Also a very good idea is to watch the park video on safely dealing with bears: www.nps.gov/archive/glac/ resources/bears.htm (link to Natural Resources). Park rangers strictly enforce bear safety, and cooking areas at all campsites are located well away from the crossbars lashed between trees that are used to hang food.

Finally, for you flatlanders: It’s cold at night in the mountains. Bring plenty of warm clothing no matter what time of the year you plan to backpack. And bring plenty of food, too – hiking all day will build a powerful appetite.


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