Going Glacial Part III: Day 5 & 6
The day after our long journey to Grinnell Glacier, we decided to slow our pace a little while technically speeding it up.
We chose to hit the skies surrounding Glacier’s imposing peaks in a Long Ranger, a helicopter that reaches around 150 MPH. During our airborne hour, we got up-close views of several glaciers that are nearly impossible to see otherwise, along with breathtaking glimpses into the park’s backcountry nooks. Wow! I didn’t mind the heights or the sometimes abrupt course changes. Not everyone in our helicopter was equally unruffled though. One of the ladies in our group became so nervous she wouldn’t even look out the windows. Jason also objected a little to our rotorcraft’s occasional sharp movements, or at least his wimpy belly did, but he loved the adventure regardless.
Following our flight through Glacier’s jagged heavens, we hit Going-to-the-Sun-Road again but with less distance in mind than on previous occasions. We took it at an unhurried pace, stopping for viewpoints, photographs, and a couple of hikes.
The first trail we scaled led to St. Mary and Virginia Falls. This 3.6-mile trek seemed relatively laidback after our Grinnell scrambles. The two cascading features we encountered gave very different accounts of waterfalls. St. Mary’s spill was abundant and gushing while Virginia’s was slender and graceful.
We decided, after those surging diversions, that we still had enough oomph for one more walk. We chose to expend that remaining energy by hiking to a viewpoint overlooking Hidden Lake. Hidden Lake is situated almost directly on the Continental Divide. Its altitude and position make it a frequent target for drastic weather swings, as we regrettably discovered.
When we left our car to begin the 3-mile journey to Hidden Lake, the skies were a little cloudy but calm. We strolled contentedly up through alpine meadows carpeted with cheery wildflowers but, by the time we reached the overlook, our endpoint, the pleasantness of our surroundings had dissipated. Sprinkles began to fall and they quickly thickened and fattened. Within minutes, they amassed themselves into a torrential army of aggressive water.
It had showered on us every day we had been in Montana. Our rain jackets, which we had wisely thought to pack, had, up to this point, adequately helped us avoid too much of a soaking but this tempest was different. This was the kind of storm that blinds you. The sort that turns tiny mountain trickles into powerful muddy currents within minutes, and creates rivers in your undies and streams through your shoes. Even with our raincoats, we were completely sopping before we had dashed a fraction of the distance we needed to travel to get back to our car. To make matters worse, thunder and lightning started to assault us as we scurried down that raging mountain. Granted, those flashes never strayed dangerously close but, after our experience on Wheeler Peak last summer, I’m pretty suspicious of any and all rumblings. When we reached our vehicle, following what seemed like an eon of wetness, we had to change every stitch of our clothing and yet we remained uncomfortably damp for the entire hour-long ride back. Two days later, when we were packing up our suitcases to return home, our shoes were still soggy from this experience.
Although our Hidden Lake drenching was not planned, the next day getting wet was on our agenda. We decided to do a half-day whitewater rafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Do our amazing ideas for amusement ever cease? We floated through scenery and over rapids captured in the Meryl Streep movie The River Wild. We defeated many segments of whitewater like Bone Crusher, Tunnel, Pumphouse, Jaws, Repeater, CBT (Could Be Trouble), and Narrows. It was in one of those bumpy sections that our boat slammed up against a rock. At that point, our guide instructed everyone in the vessel to lean toward the boulder to keep from overturning but, thanks to a heavy dose of confusion, we all leaned the wrong way and our raft tipped. In slow motion, I saw Jason and the guy next to him fall into the water and then it was all over for me. Brr! Glacial runoff is…glacial! Jason popped out of the river much later than I did and seemed quite disoriented. He started swimming away from the raft and I had to coax him back to its buoyant safety. It was quite the experience but, at least, it made this paragraph pretty exciting, didn’t it?
Even with our turnover, oddly, water was still on the menu for us that evening. After rafting, we took a mellow boat tour around Lake McDonald, the biggest lake in Glacier. Lake McDonald is 10 miles long and 1.5 miles wide and, with a 472-foot depth, it’s pretty frigid. So I’m happy to report that all of our hands and feet remained securely inside the DeSmet, a 57-foot historic craft that has glided through Lake McDonald since the 1920s, and no clever rocks coaxed us into doing any hasty flips.
Our Glacier trip was fantastic. We hiked over 28 miles in total during our vacation, a decent tally. We also soared in the heavens and wallowed in the water. The continual onslaught of precipitation was a bit disappointing, as were the below-average temperatures, but at least they kept the crowds away. I’d recommend Glacier National Park to anyone that likes exploring the outdoors. If you do want to check it out, I’d suggest not waiting too long. Thanks to man’s impact, the park’s once 150 glaciers now number only 25 and by 2030 there will most likely be zero. Way to go numbskulls! So see those waning spectacles soon before they’re going, going…gone.