Winter Thoughts - Part Two
by Joel Caris
(Note: Due to time constraints, this week's Imbibe and Lo-Fi are being replaced by a two-part entry from my old blog, The Between. Part One ran Wednesday.)
I wasn't prepared to hike in the snow. I didn't expect to encounter snow. It was the middle of June and I was on the first leg of my road trip, staying a few days in Glacier National Park in Montana. Since it was the middle of June, in fact, the title of this post isn't quite appropriate. But ultimately, this is about the snow, which equals winter to me. So onward I'll write.
My plan was to hike the full 17 mile loop at Two Medicine that would take me through Pitamakan Pass and Dawson Pass, as well as over the Continental Divide twice. Everything about the plan sounded great and I even managed to drag myself out of bed early on the day of the hike so I could make the hour and a half drive to the trail and still have time to squeak in the full loop before sunset. Of course, I was still pressing my luck timewise, but I was determined to make the full loop. I knew it would be amazing.
Everything started out well enough and, let me tell you, the trail was indeed amazing. In fact, there is no way I could ever fully explain the pure joy that I experienced hiking that day. The trail initially crept its way up some hills overlooking the lake that the campgrounds were placed around. The view was nice, but nothing spectacular. I was basically hiking on the side of a mountain—one of many mountains around there. As I made my way around the mountain, though, I eventually broke out into a valley that the trail traversed. A river ran through the valley, far down on my left. This valley was absolutely incredible and hiking through it turned out to be the second best highlight of my entire roadtrip.
If you look closely on the right of that picture— you can just make out the trail I was hiking. Look still more closely and you'll see that it stretches throughout that entire valley. Hiking along that, with the view of the mountains in front of me the entire time and the meadow stretching out all around me, trees dotting the landscape and the roar of the river below me, was something I still can't properly describe. A bald eagle literally flew in circles above me and ground squirrels were everywhere in the meadow. They would run off as I came too close but often times they would stand up not far from where I was, looking around in that same ridiculously cute way as prairie dogs do. There were birds and butterflies and at one point—on the way back along that same trail, actually—I was able to watch a herd of mountain goats make their way up the mountain farther up in front of me.
To say the view was impressive would be a magnificent understatement. As I walked through that valley, I felt amazing and completely filled with life. I hiked in awe, astounded that such a place even existed and that I could just walk into it with such ease. I stopped countless time to take pictures and soon was pressing my time advantage even more if I wanted to hike the full seventeen mile loop. Yet I continued on, sure that I could pick up the pace and make it.
The turn off trail for Old Man Lake was about six miles into the main trail. You can see it on the map. It's about a quarter mile from the turn off to Old Man Lake itself. Shortly before I came to the turn off, I started to hit small patches of snow. The first patch I came across on the side of an incline—a small drift that had not yet melted and still covered the trail. I was getting pretty high up in elevation and the temperature had definitely started to drop to the point that it was getting chilly. I think it was probably in the high forties. That first snow I just walked through—the drift wasn't all that big—and continued on my way. I begin to see more patches shortly after that, though they mostly were off the trail itself and resided in shadow.
When I hit the fork, I could see some snow on the trail leading to Old Man Lake, but it didn't look too bad. I knew that I was pushing my time constraints, but I really wanted to hike in and see the lake. So I decided to go, but figured I would make it fast. I started down the trail, keeping a quick pace, and it wasn't long before the snow increased dramatically. Within a couple minute, I was regularly walking through snow to stay on the path. Not long after that, I was almost walking through snow the entire time.
This is the point I became really stupid. For whatever reason, I decided to start running. Why I did this, I still can't tell you, except that I knew I was short on time and I was not ready to give up on the trail and go back. I began to run in snow—in ever-increasing, wet snow drifts. The temperature was still above freezing, so the snow was actually melting and sometimes a wrong step would send my foot sinking deep into the snow. So as I ran, I basically was attempting to break an ankle. Out in the middle of nowhere. Alone. In a place populated with and frequented by bears.
Sometimes I'm kind of stupid.
I knew as I ran that it was stupid. I knew that at any moment I might break an ankle. Usually I respond to such logical thoughts, but this time I just kept running. It was fun—it felt great.
Amazingly, I didn't break an ankle or even twist it. I ran most of the rest of the way to Old Man Lake and by the time I was there, the ground was completely covered in snow. Multiple feet of snow, at that. This wasn't a dusting or a couple inches—this was heavy snow that was in the process of melting in the middle of June, but that was still very much hanging on for life and probably would continue to do so for a couple more weeks—if not longer. Yet I managed not to injure myself or to become lost, which was no small feat considering there were times it was hard to tell where the trail was.
Oh, but when I arrived, it was all worth it. My shoes and socks were soaked, I was tired and I was definitely behind schedule, but the view was absolutely incredible. Take a look at that picture up top again. That is Old Man Lake. It basically is nestled amongst a multitude of glaciers. The lake is a good size, but it's by no means huge. I took that picture while standing on top of a snowdrift that must have been somewhere between three and five feet deep, standing near the edge of the cliff in the trees, snow covering everything around me and this lake—this beautiful lake—sitting in front of me with the water completely still, a stretch of it still covered in ice and snow. I was completely enveloped in overwhelming silence. There was nothing, no one, anywhere near me. Thankfully, no bears were there at the time, though the lake is a popular watering hole for them. No other animals could be seen. There wasn't a single person there, either, and no indication that there recently had been anyone. No jets flew overhead. There wasn't the roar of far off traffic. There wasn't even any nearby rushing water. Everything was perfectly silent and the lake lay in front of me like perfection.
It would be a cliché to say it was a spiritual experience, but it was something akin to that. I felt lifted, exhilirated. I drank every breath, could feel the blood in my veins. The air was perfectly still, yet I could feel it touching my skin. I was immensely happy in that moment.
I stood there and ate some of my packed food. I took pictures of the lake and for a long time I simply stared at it, experienced it. I visually scoured the far banks of the lake trying to see any bears that had come down for a drink, but I saw none. I looked for elk or other life, but there was nothing. It was just the lake and me and this perfect, meditative silence. I could believe that such a place existed as this, but it seemed incredible that I could hike into it. It struck me as insane that the access had been so easy. Surely something this breathtakingly beautiful would be better hidden, harder to find, much more a struggle to gain access to. Yet no, I had only to walk.
Eventually I left. I went back to the main trail and I continued on my 17 mile loop, now thinking that I probably didn't have time to do the full loop. I decided I would hike to Pitamakan Pass and then backtrack. I would have time for that. I never made it that far, however, because shortly up the main trail from the turn off to Old Man Lake, the snow became as thick and heavy as it had been at the lake. I didn't have the willpower, the equipment or the skill to continue through that for another mile, so I turned back. And as much as I wanted to hike that full loop, it hardly mattered to me because I had seen something so incredibly beautiful, so heartening and inspiring, that I would be satisfied no matter what. I would be satisfied for some time to come.