Saturday, March 12, 2016

Day 30: St. Mary’s via Grinnell Glacier and one of the best days ever.

The smoke seemed to have lift when we woke up around 6 a.m.  It still smelled like a large campfire but you could actually see across the St. Mary’s Valley with the smoke hanging like a haze over the treetops.  But the wind.  Man, the wind just doesn’t seem to want to let up.

We headed back to Many Glacier and the Many Glacier hotel for the boat ride and hike up to Grinnell Glacier.  The boat ride is two fold; first across Swiftcurrent Lake.  Then you disembark, hike up and over a small hill, and take another boat across Josephine Lake.  It cuts off about two and half miles of uphill hiking, and saved our legs for more hiking in the end.  The boat rides cost about $25 a piece.  Is it worth it?  Probably not but again, save the legs. 

We met up with our Belgian couple, the ranger, and thirty others and started up the Grinnell Glacier Trail.  Note to those wanting to take the trail; it’s not for those that don’t like edges.  The views are fantastic, the wildflowers in the alpine meadows are great, and the waterfalls will knock your socks off but it will freak people out that don’t like heights.  About 3/4 into the hike we crossed the bottom of a waterfall; like the trail was actually in the waterfall and the water was streaming down next to and around you.  The stone stairs are ok but look left.  There is nothing there but the western end of Grinnell Lake, about 1,000 feet below off the ledge.  If you can master the heights issue then you are greeted to fantastic views of mountain passes, valleys, and three glaciers (Gem, Grinnell, and Salamander) for the majority of the hike. 

As we approached the Grinnell Glacier overlook we passed by a few avalanche chutes, basically cleared out areas of forest that were plowed by avalanches at some time in recent history.  A small meadow had developed in one of the chutes when some said “look, a bear!”  Sure enough, a bear with two cubs was wandering in the meadow, nose to the ground, and oblivious to the attention she now attracted.  At 150 yards away it was clear the bears were not only brown but the mother also had a hump on her shoulder.

“That’s a grizzly sow with her cubs!”

The ranger was almost excited as we were, and then promptly got on his radio to notify the powers-that-be that a grizzly bear was wandering the Grinnell Glacier trail with her cubs.  It was magnificent.  The bear was large and seemed like it was a powerful entity in the alpine landscape.  The humans walking the trail were whatever.  This thing was actually in control of the environment and the group that was watching it seemed to have the ultimate respect for the animal.  It eventually wandered into a grove of trees and disappeared.  My trip is absolutely a 10!  I saw a grizzly sow with cubs from a good distance and it was wonderful.  A special moment that probably won’t happen twice. 


We continued up the trail and over a moraine to Upper Grinnell Lake, fed by the runoff of the three glaciers.  In front of me was a brilliant turquoise lake surrounded by a glacial wall that towered over the back of the canyon.  On my left and eye level was Grinnell Glacier, once mighty and now has receded so much that there is concern that it won’t be around much longer.  Above it on the glacial wall ledge was Gem Glacier, a small patch of glacial ice that was by far the smallest of the three.  Finally, stretching across the middle of the glacial wall, Salamander Glacier.  A long and slender ice field that had a variety of waterfalls flowing from it’s lower portion into Upper Grinnell Lake.  The scene was unreal.  Occasionally the sun would poke out of the clouds allowing for the perfect color, then it would become overcast again and the view would just go back to excellent. 

We spent a half hour enjoying the views.  A group of us prepared to head back down without the ranger; me and my wife, our Belgian team of Jack and Gretel, and a group of Taiwanese ladies who where in college in the United States.  One of them was researching the effect National Parks had on people.  If we could only be the subjects of that research. 

Down the moraine we went, at a good pace and starting to glance over our shoulder at the glacial wall because the clouds were getting a shade darker.  About fifteen minutes into the decent we noticed about three people stopped in a nook in the rocks. 

“Come see this”, a hiker said.

I stepped down, looked up into the meadow and 20 yards away were the two grizzly cubs.

I said “BEAR” immediately and everyone in our group stopped.  As I watched the cubs playing my brain was processing two things;

“This is the one of the neatest things I’ve ever seen!”


“Holy fuck, those cubs are RIGHT THERE!  Where is mom?”

I took two steps to the right and mom lumbered out and started to sniff the ground next to the cubs.  The cubs stopped, looked at us (probably ten total people at this point), then proceeded to play like they could care that they had an audience.  Mom didn’t seem to really care either but I had a feeling that at 20 yards I didn’t want to push my luck.  We watched the three grizzlies for about a minute and then left.  Could we have stayed?  Sure but the rule of thumb is that bears and wolves are 100 yards for viewing, and we were really breaking that rule…in THEIR HOME.  We left, satisfied that we got to see them twice, once up close. 

Ten minutes later, as we were walking along the cliff edges and slick rock, it rained like God decided that Ark II was an appropriate sequel.  It was windy as well which created an interesting and very slow feeling as we were crawling down the cliff edge trail.  Eventually we made our way down the valley, the rain let up, and we reached the junction at which we had to make a decision; head down the hill and catch the two boats, or continue along the ridge and walk to the Many Glacier hotel.  The Taiwanese students wished us the best and headed towards the boats.  Our Belgian companions joined us as we continued the walk, all the way to the Many Glacier Hotel.  It added another two miles to the walk but believe it or not, we arrived exactly at the same moment as the people taking the boats. 

The grand total for the day?  Three glaciers, a dozen waterfalls (including walking through one), spectacular views, a pounding rainstorm, two marmots, two mountain goats, four bighorn sheep, and one grizzly sow with two cubs.

A fantastic day.

Trails hiked:  Grinnell Glacier Trail, Josephine Lake Trail

Miles hiked:  9.7

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