Sunday, September 13, 2009

Glacier Travels

For the remainder of our stay at the park, we only covered a few short trails. After completing the hike down from Sperry Glacier, we checked into the Apgar Village Lodge, where we had a tiny room not much larger than a modern walk-in closet. It was clean enough, and I had brought earplugs because I knew the walls would be thin. We showered up, then drove to the Trail of the Cedars boardwalk nature trail through old growth forest. It was absolutely lovely, lush, green, moist. It included a view of a stream chasm too. The people there were certainly different from the fit hikers with their hiking poles at the chalet.
In the morning we checked out of the lodge, moved into only my friend's car, and drove over Going to the Sun Road, stopping only briefly to take in a few overlooks and another stream chasm. We grabbed lunch just outside the park, then re-entered the park for the Many Glacier area. My friend wanted to see Many Glacier and wanted to take a boat ride, so we combined the two and took a boat ride from the Many Glacier Hotel. The boat tour covered two small lakes, and it included a guided nature walk to Grinnell Lake. Except for my aching feet and hindquarters, it was quite enjoyable. We learned to identify a few plants, and we heard some of the history of the area.
That night we arrived late in East Glacier, where I had made us a reservation at the Mountain Pines Motel. I liked this motel; the room was spacious and included a queen-sized bed, the bathroom had a skylight, and the price was lower than I paid anywhere else in Montana. We ate at Luna's restaurant, which recently opened where Restaurant Thimbleberry used to be. Although my friend's meal was only passable (lame French fries), my meal was my favorite restaurant meal of the whole trip, and the service was friendly and prompt. I had the Indian taco salad, which is a fairly common offering in the area. It consisted of Indian fry bread, chili, a few pieces of lettuce, sour cream, and salsa. It was flavorful and filling.
The next day we visited the Two Medicine area of the park. The nature trail to Running Eagle Falls is both informative and short, and the falls were one of the great sights of my park visit. They were named for a woman warrior who had the good fortune to be interred there by her respectful tribe. We visited a couple other places in Two Medicine as well, then took the southern route around the park back to the west side and drove back to Kalispell. Kalispell has a convenient La Quinta Inn with reasonable rates and guest laundry facilities, so we were able to clean up our stinky hiking clothes, and in the nick of time too! Cold air came in that night, so in the morning I needed my hiking clothes.

We had planned to go rafting on Labor Day, but temperatures were chilly, and there was a short hike my friend very much wanted to take, so we did that. We took the shuttle up to Logan Pass Visitor Center, where the wind blew fiercely and it was snowing, and we hiked 1.5 miles each way on the most popular trail in the park, the trail to Hidden Lake Overlook. I welcomed the cold, though I was sorry I had forgotten to bring my gloves. I kept my hands in my pockets except when I was taking pictures, but it took a couple hours to regain warmth in them after the short hike.
Hidden Lake Overlook trail had a climb and a brief descent to a wooden viewing platform. Sometimes we were out of the wind, and it was comfortable. The viewing platform was the most exposed spot, and we could not remain there for long! We took a couple pictures and scrammed. The picture shows the wind blowing right up my pant legs and making me look like the Michelin Man.
Once down the mountain, we continued to Polson for a late lunch that doubled as supper too. Nearly everything was closed for the holiday, so we ate at a family diner, the Driftwood. I had a buffalo stew special with fry bread and a traditional native sauce made from wild berries. It was good comfort food. We stayed in Missoula for the night, then parted company, my friend driving west, and me driving east.

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Sperry Chalet

I met up with a friend from college in Kalispell, Montana, and we traveled together in Glacier National Park. Our first stop was Apgar Village inside the park, to buy him a hooded sweatshirt. Although I wore layers of lightweight clothing, we were not camping, and the weather was pleasant, so we did not worry about the old "cotton kills" saying in picking up something warm for my friend to wear. I had also brought a water resistant windbreaker for him.

We parked at the Apgar Transit Center and took the free park shuttle to the trailhead. Although the weather could have been cold, it was in fact hot. I quickly switched from my long-sleeved shirt to my wicking tank top. Later I even soaked the tank top in a cold stream to cool off; it dried quickly. It was the only tank top I had brought; I had intended to use it for an extra layer of warmth. I ended up washing it nightly and wearing it every day on the mountain.
The hike to Sperry Chalet was not terribly rewarding! It was seven miles long, was very steep, and was surrounded by trees so we could not see the mountains for most of the climb. It was also very hot and sunny; we were glad I had insisted on bringing a gallon of water to use to refill our water bottles. We drank almost the whole thing. We were grateful that the chalet staff meets its guests with glasses of lemonade. I ended up asking them for coffee too since I was so wiped out. Altitude may have had something to do with it, but the heat was probably the main cause. My body does not care for heat.

Sperry Chalet is a fabulous place to spend a couple of days. It costs quite a lot per night considering there is no electricity or showers, but it is worth every penny. The views are splendid, the rooms are neat as a pin, and the price includes all meals plus afternoon drinks and snacks. They cart supplies up the mountain by mule train twice a week.

There are two paths to reach the chalet, both of which involve the Gunsight Pass trail. You can take the 7-mile route from the Lake McDonald trailhead either on foot or on horseback, or you can take the 13.5-mile route from the east, which goes over Gunsight Pass. Both days when we were there, somebody ran into trouble on Gunsight Pass and did not arrive until late. One woman's hiking boot fell apart, and she also had not brought enough water. Some kind campers got her additional water and taped her boot together, but in the end the park rangers transported her down the mountain because she seemed to have altitude sickness. She did not make it to the chalet. Her group stayed, though one of them opted not to join the rest of the group for their Sperry Glacier hike the next day. The group on the second day simply ended up hiking slowly; the chalet still provided them with dinner when they at last arrived. That evening we enjoyed a highly entertaining presentation on park wildlife from the husband of the head woman at the chalet.

Dinner at the chalet is a multi-course meal. They have a rotation of three menus. My favorite was a salad of field greens, roasted tomato soup, fresh multi-grain bread, roast beef, mashed potatoes, corn, and huckleberry cake. They bake using whole grains, so the texture of their baked goods is very similar to what I bake at home. Breakfast also includes whole grains. Guests choose from a menu: 1-2 eggs cooked any style including poached, bacon, ham, pancakes, oatmeal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate. Apple juice is also included. Breakfast is fortifying, and after we eat we pick up our sack lunch. The first day they sent us off with us two sandwiches apiece, and I was so impressed and pleased, but I later found out it must have been a mistake. They normally only provide one sandwich per person. I loved having two sandwiches!

The 8-mile hike to Sperry Glacier was less demanding than the 7-mile hike to the chalet, because it was half up and half down. That said, it was more difficult. The trail was less even, a lot more rocky. Toward the end there was a climb up stairs through a narrow chasm that created a wind tunnel, but there was a rope installed to hold on to, so the passage was not too dangerous. After one finished negotiating the stairs, a sign said it was one kilometer to Sperry Glacier. This kilometer involved following cairns over rocky outcrops and across snow fields. After a while I got nervous that maybe we had gone too far, there was no one else around, and what would happen if one of us injured an ankle since neither of us was wearing boots... so I talked my friend into turning back, and then later we found out there actually _was_ another sign where the foot of the glacier was, so we should have kept going. More hikers showed up as time passed, so the area was not so devoid of people as it was earlier in the day. Probably the others stayed at the chalet to watch the mule train before leaving for the hike, but I did not want to hike in the heat of the early afternoon a second day.

Anyway, we did reach the glacier, just not the _foot_ of the glacier. The glacier area was spectacular. The whole hike was lovely, passing by stones of many colors, various small waterfalls, and three tarns. Even so, the glacier area surpassed it. We could see so many peaks spread out before us, and the mountain's stones were exposed with some alpine tundra flora. It is not surprising that this hike has the reputation of being one of the best in the park.

My friend got the idea to take Gunsight Pass back down, but I argued against it. I had a bad plantar fasciitis flare-up in July and August, and I felt I was lucky to have made it as far as I had. If I tried a really long hike, I might have sore feet for the next month. Sometimes it can take a full month of wearing nothing but Doc Martens to recover from a bad plantar fasciitis incident.

It was good that we took the short route down. My feet hurt agonizingly the next day, but they recovered quickly, and now they are only very mildly sore.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wind Cave National Park, Black Hills, SD

Wind Cave National Park is a wonderful place for stillness and reflection, and there is no fee to enter the park. The Elk Mountain Campground in the park offers a large number of campsites but was nevertheless quiet and peaceful. A number of us enjoyed the evening campfire presentation on the country's national parks system, after which we repaired to our respective tents and trailers for the night.

The campground provides numerous bathrooms and water sources, but not showers. There is no source of food in the park, but I had brought tea and oatmeal from home. I cooked breakfast using an Esbit stove, which I bought on the cheap, figuring I would upgrade later if I camped much. Given that I purchased the stove two years ago and this was my first time to use it, my decision seems reasonable. Lesson learned: bring instant oatmeal. Do not cook regular oatmeal over the stove. I had to use three Esbit tablets (one to warm the water, one to make the water hot enough for tea and to add the oatmeal, and a third one to finish the oatmeal). It took ages to get the pot clean, too. An Esbit cube burns at full force or not at all, so when the oatmeal is almost cooked, it gets burned. Flames shoot everywhere, and the fire is not very efficient, also scorching anything under the stove, so it is important to put the stove in the firepit.

At any rate, I did at length enjoy St. Isaac's Blend tea with fully cooked rolled oats flavored with fruit bits and cinnamon. I spent about two hours cooking breakfast and breaking camp, so I did not go see the sunrise over the glorious plains of Wind Cave park. The above-ground area truly is magnificent. It is a wildlife preserve supporting 300 head of bison, as well as a herd of pronghorn antelope, at least one gigantic prairie dog town, and some black-footed ferrets that feed on the prairie dogs.

Rather than exploring the glorious prairie and accumulating inglorious deer ticks, I went to the cave and took a tour. It was the Fairgrounds tour, the most extensive one you can take without going on a specialty tour. The specialty tours are the Candlelight tour and the introduction to cave exploration. The Fairgrounds tour is named for the large room that they call the Fairgrounds; I was never entirely certain when we were there. However, I did get to see several examples of the cave's famous boxwork. Wind Cave was formed by standing water and condensation, rather than dripping water, so it has very few of the usual formations found in limestone caves such as flowstone or stalactites. It does have less common formations such as frostwork, popcorn, and boxwork. Boxwork appears when cracks in limestone fill with harder mineral deposits, and the limestone gradually weathers away, leaving the box-shaped mineral deposits behind.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Day in the Badlands

This fall I finally set aside two weeks for a driving vacation. I left on a Saturday morning, and returned on a Thursday afternoon so I could have a three-day weekend at home before going back to work. I drove 700 miles on the first day, all the way to Badlands National Park. After such a long drive, I did not feel like pitching my new tent for the first time, so I found a cheap and smelly motel room, opened the window, and headed back into the park.

I thought I had seen badlands before because I had seen a few buttes from the interstate. Badlands National Park blew me completely away. It is continual "bad lands to travel across," a fur trader's living nightmare. The landscape goes up and down, undulating like a 19th-century seascape, and much of it is sandy and treacherous besides. In addition, there are prairie rattlesnakes. One sign noted that if we were careful and hiked very quietly, we might have the privilege of hearing the warning rattle before the snake struck. O, the joys of communing with nature!

On that first evening I walked the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, where I saw some extremely habituated wildlife, breathed in the juniper, took in the views, and watched for prairie rattlesnakes. It was quite relaxing. As the sun set, I drove up to a scenic overlook and took some night pictures, and then I attended a ranger presentation on the night sky. The Badlands are, fittingly, a "dark place," and if the moon is not too full, one can see a lot of stars. On this night the moon was nearly full, but there were still a few constellations visible to the naked eye. They had telescopes available for visitors, which was a wonderful thing for them to do for people, but I left early. It was late, and there were a lot of digressions in the presentation, and I decided to go away and sleep.
I got up for a sunrise hike but slightly misestimated the time of the sunrise. I was at the trail at 6:20, but 6:00 would have been better. At any rate, getting up early was the best thing to do. Temperatures were unusually cool in the Badlands, but it was still hot, and it was still dry. I hiked on the Castle Trail only from 6:30 to 8:15, but by the time I returned, I was quite warm, and I could not have gone much farther without packing additional water. If I return to do the Castle Trail/Medicine Loop hike, I will pack along more than a gallon of water, no matter how early I start.
The slanted rays of the morning sun allowed me to see the colors of the Badlands formations more clearly. Later in the day the sun is so bright that the cliffs seem almost white. In fact, I took an evening photo of a cliff that I thought was white, and I was surprised to see several different shades of tan when I opened the image up later.

The Castle Trail is a marked walkway in which you follow posts, not a groomed trail. When you reach one post, you look for the next one, and you follow whatever path looks best to get you there. Jumping around on the rocks is genuinely great fun; of course I wore heavy boots in case of rattlesnakes, but I could still jump around pretty well anyway. There are a few sinkholes that look like prime rattlesnake habitat, and I avoided those. Since there is so much erosion, you can see all kinds of different layers of rock, and you can often see the root systems of the prairie grasses. The very tippy-top of the Badlands formations is where ground level once was, but so much has eroded away through the work of ancient rivers and the ever-present prairie wind, that now the ground level is significantly lower.
After my hike, I went on a geology walk with a ranger and a group of smart-alecky older travellers much like myself. I am not sure whether we learned more or laughed more, but I suspect the latter. I learned that to prevent plague, South Dakota parks have been spraying flea powder into prairie dog towns, right into the tunnels, and that this process makes the prairie dogs highly indignant and aggravated. I learned that an early park geologist (Ferdinand V. Hayden) was known to the Sioux as "Man who Picks up Stones while Running," because he would see them coming and try to run away, but he could not bear to leave his fossil finds behind so he would stuff them into his bag as he ran. The Sioux actually left him alone because they thought he was completely crazy for being out there without food or water, and after all, crazy men are touched by the holy spirit.
When we finished talking and laughing ourselves silly, and hiked out to the end of the Door Trail and checked out yet another phenomenal view of seemingly endless badlands, I headed on out. I scooped the rest of the main drive through the park, stopped at a few overlooks, and drove up to Wall for lunch. (Later I also found women's jeans without spandex at Wall Drug, so Wall proved useful to me on this trip. Most department stores no longer carry 100% cotton women's jeans.)
I decided to drive down to the south end of the park to see the visitor center run by the Oglala Sioux. Although it was a good visitor center and I enjoyed visiting it, I would not have gone if I had had any idea how long it would take to get there and to get back out again. The roads were in poor condition, and it took simply hours. I thought it was interesting that the visitor center was located in an area so far from the rest of the park, and I wondered whose idea that was. I did not reach Wind Cave National Park until nearly 6:00. Luckily, my tent assembled easily, and I spent some time lying around staring vacantly until it was time for the evening ranger presentation.

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