"Going up to the glacier? You've got a great day for it," said the young Park Service naturalist at Many Glacier Hotel. Bear bells jingled as we boarded the boat that would take us across Swiftcurrent Lake on the first stage of our journey to the largest glacier remaining in Montana's Glacier National Park.
As the boat chugged slowly past Grinnell Point, I remembered how its sharp cliff had gleamed rosy at sunrise, slowly changing to coppery red and then to gold. It was the first real sunrise we'd seen during our stay in the park. The previous mornings had been misty, with clouds obscuring the peaks as if huge white featherbeds had been spread out to dry across the lake. I hoped the clear sky was a good omen, for we'd saved our last day in the park for climbing to the glacier and I wasn't sure I could make it. My legs were aching and tired from the previous days of climbing.
Last summer's late-August visit was my second trip to Glacier National Park, my friend Lou's third. Glacier gets our vote for Most Accessible Grandeur, and we'd been out every day despite the rainy weather. Hiking in Glacier is a marvel of scenery and animal life. However, it also reminds a novice hiker like me that mountain walking is different from a neighborhood ramble. I realized now that I should have spent my pre-vacation exercise time climbing steps.
On one of our pre-glacier hikes, we climbed to Virginia Falls. As we approached the trail head, we could see the waterfall across the St. Mary River valley, blooming high on the mountainside like a white corsage on a dark dress. We could hear it, too, a faint whisper that we knew would be a roar when we got close.
We waited for a shower to stop and then headed along the track down the valley through the dripping trees. The track gave us a bonus: St. Mary Falls, a lovely double cascade into a deep green pool beside red mudstone cliffs.
We continued along the trail with the rushing river on our left and the mountain on our right. The dampness of river and rain intensified colors -- red mudstone, green mudstone, green leaves, bright flowers. Beside the trail, tri-leafed queen's cup lilies each offered a single blue berry, presented like a rich jewel on a green velvet mat. Our legs brushed against starry purple asters and the fanlike leaves of meadow rue already turning maroon.
The track became stair steps as we climbed. Tiny streams rippled down the mountain beside us and crossed the path, adding their soprano to the river's baritone and the bass of the towering cascade still invisible beyond. By now, I could not only hear Virginia Falls, I could feel it as a throbbing against my damp face. The air smelled of wet stone and spicy pine. It felt amphibious.
We rounded a ridge and there was Virginia Falls. Its great spurt of water leaped down from a hanging valley between Citadel and Little Chief mountains. It fell more than 100 feet in one wide thunderous drop, with a feathery fan of rivulets beneath it. Blooming beside and below the cascade were fragile blue harebells and white daisies, incongruous in this dark wooded setting.
Taking the time to appreciate this superb natural environment is an essential part of a trip to Glacier National Park. In quiet times, we sat by a lake and watched violet-green swallows flash their white sides as they flitted over the water. Once we saw a small gray bird called a water ouzel (American dipper) walk down a log at the lake's edge and keep going right into the water. Completely submerged, it tippy-toed around on the bottom and then strolled out again. It bobbed a few times in a friendly way and went on about its business.
Lou would have liked more quiet times (after all, we were on vacation), but I was relentless. I wanted to get in shape for that glacier.
Glacier National Park is named for the Ice Age glaciers that carved the park's peaks and shaped its valleys. The glaciers now in the park are not Ice Age remnants. They are a mere 4,000 years old.
The difference between a big patch of ordinary snowy ice and a glacier is that a glacier moves: It has a brittle zone on top and a flow zone on the bottom. Park naturalist Jennifer Johnston told us that our goal, Grinnell Glacier, moves forward about an inch a day. However, it is also melting, so the effect is that the glacier is receding. When naturalist George Bird Grinnell, an early explorer of the area's glories, discovered this glacier, it covered about 900 acres. It covers only 150 acres these days, and may be gone by the year 2020.
After our boat ride across Swiftcurrent Lake, we walked over a mountain spur and boarded a second boat called Morning Eagle on turquoise Josephine Lake. My legs were coming alive and I was beginning to feel that I might make it five miles up to the glacier. A second omen cheered me further -- I looked up and spotted a golden eagle soaring above the cliffs.
When the boat docked, we walked on a boardwalk along the marshy head of the lake where Grinnell Creek flowed in, and started up the trail to the glacier. I picked and savored red thimbleberries, enjoying their lively, sweet-tart taste. We climbed along a path that was often a little brook. As we got higher, we could see teal-blue Grinnell Lake lying below the thin white ruffle of the glacial waterfall. Dark bands of volcanic rock striped the mountainsides. Red rock ledges were polka-dotted with yellow lichen circles.
Above Grinnell Lake, I looked back, catching my breath, and saw the three glacier-fed lakes -- Grinnell, Josephine and Swiftcurrent -- connected by shining creeks like aquamarines on a silver chain. Faint lines of sheep trails inscribed the rocky slopes. Carmine Indian paintbrush grew beside clumps of western anemones, shaggy little flowers that looked likeunkempt elves. Silky pale beargrass plumes nodded in the light breeze.
The trail demanded no fingertip-clutching climbs, just keep-at-it slogging. My bear bell tinkled against my pack, while ahead and above me, the clanging miniature cowbell of another climber warned the bears that we were coming. As we traversed a plunging hillside, I had to look mostly straight ahead. If I looked up at the heights, I got dizzy. If I looked down at the depths, I got nervous.
We were almost up to the edge of the glacial till. Over the centuries, the glacier had retreated in a series of ledges that stretched out beside us like the grand and curving steps of some enormous amphitheater.
Then suddenly we were at the official Glacier Overlook, walking among pines, on dirt instead of rock. People were eating lunch on tree-trunk benches. Columbian ground squirrels dashed about, literally expecting handouts. I knelt to take a picture and put my hand down to steady myself. A furry little squirrel dashed toward my hand, saw that it was empty, flipped his tail in annoyance and vanished.
Lou and I went on through the rest area. We were determined to picnic by or on the glacier.
That last climb through the screens of the glacial till -- unstratified clay, boulders and such -- was the steepest. When we came out on top and saw the glacier, with its gray lake like a moat in front of it, we were both excited and disappointed. The glacier looked like week-old city snow, its whiteness littered with dark stones and gravel. Glaciers gouge holes, strew rocks and generally push mountains around like untidy bullies. Even this small glacier was impressive, and its meltwater lake held icebergs.
We ate lunch near the lake on a huge rock as smooth as a whale's back. Around us, ridges of slanted golden rock were reflected in shallow blue-gray pools. A cool, brisk breeze blew ripples in the water. Behind Grinnell Glacier rose the layered, almost perpendicular cliffs of the Garden Wall, carved on both sides by the ancient glaciers, and carrying the Continental Divide.
Though I had arrived triumphantly near the glacier's edge, I was forced to give up my idea of walking out on it. Signs warned of snow-hidden crevasses. I settled for ceremonially dipping my hand in the ice-cold lake.
Later, descending, it felt eerie to walk along above so many thousands of trees. This is the mountain goat's view of the world. Seen from above in afternoon shadows, Josephine Lake looked like veiny green malachite. Across the Grinnell Creek valley, waterfalls provided a "white noise" background for squirrel chatter and flycatcher cheeps. A flotilla of mergansers steamed across the lake as we approached the boat dock. I sat down to wait for the Morning Eagle feeling weary but refreshed.
Time had run out. The next morning we had to leave the park. Unwilling to say goodbye just yet, we took a farewell hike along Camas Creek, finding golden meadows and white-tailed deer. Driving sadly back to the main road out, we both saw a dark shape rear up behind the brush at the edge of the dirt road. "Bear!" I yelled. Lou screeched on the brakes. The young black bear ambled across the road behind us and disappeared into the brush on the other side.
No one saw him but us. He was our own personal bear.
It is this sort of thrill that will bring us back to this splendid park. Any instant can be a simple single connection to a glacier, a plume of beargrass or a bear. We need this benefit of wild and lonely places: the solitude and freedom to experience connection to the earth.
We left the park smiling.
Cecily Nabors is a freelance writer who lives in Silver Spring.