Confronting Fears in Glacier National Park

I may have mentioned this before, but I have two fears that I’m trying to conquer, flying in planes and bears.  This is a bummer since I love to travel and to spend time outdoors, often in bear country.  I’ve come a long, long way since the beginning of this trip, frequently camping in black bear territory without a second thought.  Although I loved spending time hiking and camping in the past, it was seldom that my enjoyment wasn’t tempered with thoughts in the back of my mind about what large, furry creature might be around the corner or over the ridge.  I’m happy to say that I now have a healthy fear of black bears that all humans should have and no longer obsess over every breaking twig or food smells that may remain around camp.  Well, Alan would probably say I still obsess a little about food smells, but I think that’s healthy for both us and the bears.

Grizzlies, my friend, are another thing entirely.  When our Eurovan came to its tragic end in Memphis, and we decided to camp with only a tent to call home, we made the agreement that when in grizzly territory, we’d stay somewhere with four walls.  Not knowing when we’d be somewhere made this all the more difficult.  You see, we were in grizzly country during high tourist season, which only lasts a couple of months.  If I were a hotel owner in an area that only sees frequent tourists during one season out of the year, you better bet that prices would be significantly higher during that season.  Not only were prices insane, most places were already booked!  So, we opted for the least expensive option that would give us four walls and a roof and stayed in Motel 6s (or as Van says, Motel Number Six) in Missoula and then in Kalispell, outside of Glacier National Park.  I could spend all day telling you our thoughts of Kalispell, but instead I’ll turn to more positive topics – our visit to Glacier.

Glacier smelled amazing!  Seriously and phenomenally amazing.  It was beautiful, no doubt, but the smells took top honors.  While we enjoyed our time in the park, it was clear that to really appreciate the park, you need to spend more than a couple of days and you need to stay within the park.  We’ve already added this to our mental list of places to which we’d like to return when Van gets older.  While there, however, we enjoyed every minute.  The views were astounding, we ate lunch in incredible settings, Van continued his routine of rock throwing to great effect, we went on several stunning and rewarding hikes, and saw wildlife aplenty – including bears!  My proudest moment was when Van hiked the farthest he’d ever hiked without assistance, a full mile and three-quarters.  He spent most of the rest of the hike enjoying his perch on Alan’s back, but hopped out again for the last half mile of the hike.  And this wasn’t a flat path – it was a serious uphill hike with plenty of obstacles for him to maneuver.  My other proud moment was hiking without obsessing over bears, even though the first sign at every trailhead encouraged hikers to carry bear spray, and we did, in fact, see three bears.

To set your mind at ease (or maybe just mine), we didn’t come across the bears while we were out hiking.  Instead, we came across gaggles of people along the side of the road with binoculars and large lenses.  Piquing our curiosity each time, we stopped and joined the fray.  On our first stop we were witness to a black bear (who was blonde – go figure) and a grizzly in different directions up a fairly steep hill.  Neither was close and I loved having the opportunity to watch them amble about.  On our second stop, we got out and quickly realized that we were only twenty-five yards from a grizzly.  Twenty-five yards!  Too close for comfort for both us and for the ranger.  We watched the bear for a few minutes before consciously realizing we were too close.  As we returned to the car, the ranger had the same idea and ordered everyone back in their cars immediately.  It’s not a good thing for bears to become habituated to people, and this sort of bear-watching at close range is just the sort of thing that can do that.

Bear!

Bear!

People!

Are we bear watching or people watching?

If you’re contemplating a trip to Glacier and are interested in seeing glaciers, I recommend that you travel here sooner rather than later.  There are far fewer glaciers in the park than there were just over a decade ago when I first visited the park.  Although the signs of glaciers are everywhere, from the steep, glacier-carved mountains to the glacier-fed lakes, the glaciers themselves are becoming smaller and smaller each year.  Although the disappearance of glaciers in this park is all but inevitable in our lifetime, the landscape that owes its beauty to these icy beasts is well worth a trek to northern Montana.

 

Would You Pay Two Bucks to See Toxic Wastewater?

On our way to Missoula from Bozeman, we stopped at two interesting sites, both at my prodding.  The first was the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park and the second was a large mining pit in Butte, Montana.  Alan and Van kindly accompanied me to the first, but Alan couldn’t fathom spending $2 a person to see a copper pit (even if it was one of the largest of its kind when it was in operation), so Van and I braved that ourselves.  Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is one of the locations at which, when bison outnumbered people on our fair continent, Native Americans would attempt to stampede bison to and over the edge of a cliff.  Upon their crashing fall, most of the bison would die, and the ones that remained alive would be put out of their misery by quick-acting hunters.  The bison would then be butchered right there, and the meat, hide, and other important parts would be laboriously carried back to their camp.  I had read about this process as a child and was fascinated.  I always wanted to see one of the jump sites and, though to the naked eye there wasn’t a whole lot to see other than the all-important cliff, it was equal parts fascinating and awe-inspiring to be in a place that extinguished and also supported so much life.

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, Montana

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, Montana

Heading northwest towards Missoula, we stopped in Butte, a city clearly dominated by its current and former mining glory.  After picnicking right next to the open copper pit, Van and I paid our admission (it was free for the little guy) and headed through a tunnel to see the pit and the water that is slowly accumulating within.  The water is heavily acidic, with a pH of 2.5 (similar to lemon juice or cola).  The color alone is enough to warn you that this is no swimming hole.  There are major cleanup operations going on, especially to deal with the fact that the water, which is currently below bedrock and not threatening the local groundwater, is slated to reach bedrock in 2018 or thereabouts.  I could go on and on, but I’d bore all of the non-environmental lawyers or professionals out there.  As I’ve bored Alan.  Countless times.  Alan put his foot down and said no to any more mining sites (I clearly have a problem), but without spoiling anything, I was able to get him to go on a search for one more mine.  It came a little later in our trip, but I’ll mention it now so you’re not in suspense.  Ha!

Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana

Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana

We went to Libby!  Libby, Montana happens to be the site of a former vermiculite mine, home to the largest environmental removal action in U.S. history under Superfund, as well as the first place that EPA has ever declared a Public Health Emergency, in order to assist victims of asbestos-related diseases .  Libby was on my list of destinations from the get-go, so Alan could hardly deny me the pleasure of seeing this town up close.  The town is ordinary and somewhat nicer than I expected given its sad history.  But driving by the schools and ballfields reminded me that asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was used as fill to help create the ballfields and as a foundation under a school’s ice-skating rink.  A search for the mine itself turned up restricted access roads.  Since we didn’t have the appropriate credentials, no mine gazing for us.  But, the area was beautiful and we didn’t want to let the visit go to waste.  We spotted a picnic and boat launch area along the Kootenai River and got out to eat.  It was absolutely beautiful – deep blue water, evergreens as far as the eye can see, no development, which all lead to make the smell that much more jarring.  I expected it to smell wonderful, piney, and outdoorsy.  If it had smelled like nothing, I probably would have noticed.  Instead, it smelled gross, like chemicals and industry.  We’re not sure why it smelled this way – was it due to the cleanup operations, current industrial operations that were out of sight, or something else entirely?  We stayed to eat, but couldn’t get over the strange juxtaposition between the beauty of the area and the distinctly not natural (or nice) odor.

Kootenai River in Libby, Montana

Kootenai River in Libby, Montana

The rest of our stay in Montana consisted of exploring Missoula, which we enjoyed, but not nearly as much as we enjoyed Bozeman, swimming in crystal clear Flathead Lake and at Whitefish Beach, getting a tour of Montana Motel 6s, and visiting Glacier National Park (the subject of a future post).  Most of all, I came away from our visit to this beautiful, rugged, aptly nicknamed big sky country, thinking about the state’s countless contradictions and idiosyncrasies.  A land where you see a traditional town square protest, and then realize that the protestors are armed militia men from the area calling for the impeachment of the president.  A town where, after commenting on how nice, and cute, and tourist-friendly it is, you notice a healthy population of folks who ride the rails on its periphery.  Home to a gigantic mining pit in the center of one of the biggest cities in the state, and you have to pay just to peer down inside.  A state where the preference for guns is only equaled by the surprising number of safety signs seen around the state (“be polite, don’t tailgate”).  A state where spotting three bears (two grizzlies and a black bear) is somehow just as interesting as watching a man drive down main street while eating corn on the cob.  A citizenry whose penchant for casinos (there seems to be at least one in every town, no matter the size) is only outdone by its love of the outdoors.  But regardless of these idiosyncrasies, and in some cases because of them, we both felt a connection to certain parts of the state in a way that we hadn’t in many other places.  It got under our skin, in a good way, and hasn’t left.  I look forward to returning one day – maybe as a visitor or maybe, just maybe, as a resident.

A Warm Montana Welcome

We spent a little too much time running errands the morning we left Twin Falls, which left us with a long afternoon drive to get up to the part of Montana where we were intending to camp.  We enjoyed the empty space on our drive and the striking difference between the landscape in Idaho and southwestern Montana.  As the mountains began, so did our adventure in Montana.  While we intended on staying at a state park (and good thing we didn’t – it turned out to be closed), we spotted a few campsites along a reservoir on our way to find the state park.  We couldn’t find a place to pay, and realized that these were free sites.  It was just us and the wind on our spit of land overlooking the reservoir.  It was a much improved free spot to our first free camping night, in the snow, in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The View from our Free-Camp at the Clark Canyon Reservoir in Montana

The View from our Free-Camp at the Clark Canyon Reservoir in Montana

After a disappointing morning drive to find out that Bannack State Park was closed, which I recently learned was due to flash flooding, we headed on to find another former gold mining town, Virginia City, and its kin, Nevada City.  We poked around the towns for a couple of hours, especially enjoying the strange taxidermy display of animals from the county we were visiting.  Each specimen was hunted by Mrs. Irene Martin or her husband in the mid-1900s and the taxidermy was all done by that same Mrs. Martin.  Not to worry, the examples of endangered animals that prowl the county were found dead and donated to her so she could work her magic and add them to her collection.  After having our fill of dead animal carcasses, we found a quiet spot near a creek to eat in some shade.  What is this thing called shade?  And grass and big leafy trees?  Oh how I’ve missed you!

Re-Created Interior of a Shop During the Gold Boom

Re-Created Interior of a Shop During the Gold Rush Days (I love these things!)

We headed back into this century and drove up to our next camping spot not too far from Livingston and Bozeman, Montana.  We began our visit with a jaunt to Livingston to escape the hailstorm that was scheduled to arrive momentarily directly over our campground.  This was one of the towns we were most excited to see on this trip and we were not disappointed.  It is fantastic!  We both independently noted the significant number of older men, most sporting plaid and trucker caps (unironically).  We liked the lived-in feel of the town.  Nothing was shiny, but it was all clearly well-loved.  And the museum (The Livingston Depot Center) was killer.  A seriously excellent free museum right in the heart of town, as old depots tend to be.  We had a great time over the next couple of days exploring the town, the nearby rivers (excellent for rock throwing), and one of the local eateries.  I also spied a man tooling down the main street in his car (he was the driver), while eating corn on the cob.  That’s a new one!

Livingston wasn’t the only excellent place we visited while in this part of the world.  Bozeman was my kind of town.  I was trying to think of adjectives to describe it, and vibrant just about captures it.  It was the first place on this trip that really just sang to me as a place to call home.  Can you tell that I loved it?  Once we realized that we really dug this place, we drove around a ton to check out the neighborhoods and some of the surrounding areas.  To make up for boring Van, we spent the good part of a day at the absolutely awesome Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University.  The museum has sections on dinosaurs (the museum has the largest collection of dinosaur remains in the country), space exploration, and regional/Montana history.  Each section is done remarkably well and appeals to both children and adults.  My favorite part was the turn-of-the-century house that was moved to the museum site and is now surrounded by dream flower and vegetable gardens.  Alan looked at me as I was walking around the garden, telling me that he knew I was soaking it all in, thinking about all of the plants that I could grow in this climate.  He was right, of course!  If only I could make a garden that looked even 10% as beautiful as that, I’d be happy.

Costumed interpreters at the house went through their daily chores and meals while visitors could watch.  At most living history exhibits that I’ve attended, costumed interpreters interact freely with the visitors, either acting as if they lived in the time and you came by for an explanation of what they’re up to, or while dressed in period costume, discussing the activities as a modern person would.  Because the interaction at this exhibit was minimal and visitors were left to observe the daily goings-on, I came away with a much stronger grasp of the ways in which ordinary tasks were carried out.  This was a great way to curate a living history exhibit that allowed visitors to focus on more than just how various crafts were conducted.

Sitting on the Front Steps at the Tinsley House

Sitting on the Front Steps at the Tinsley House

Our last stop at the museum was a children’s area that was expertly decked out to recreate many of the great elements of Yellowstone.  This area was complete with a tent (as if Van hasn’t seen one of those) and camping area, Old Faithful, a fishing stream, a lodge, and much more.  Van had a field day and was a tired little boy when we eventually dragged him from the museum.  Although this area had tons of costumes, Van only wanted to wear one, a park ranger.  A little boy after my own heart!