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Mountain vistas, for the history books
Father and son experience the chills of Glacier National Park
1012Glacier-grinnell glacier
Grinnell Glacier is part of the Glacier National Park.

"Far away in Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped Northwestern corner - the crown of the continent."

- George Bird Grinnell, 1901, describing what was to become Glacier National Park

I have a bad habit of making plans at the last minute.

The reason this bad habit has persisted is that most of the time, my last-minute preparations somehow work out quite well - and in the process, it adds a touch of adventure. My recent trip to Glacier National Park is no exception.

As it turned out, the week of Labor Day, my wife Karen and daughter Bess were to be in San Francisco to walk the breast cancer three-day event there. They had planned this for months, which involved training for the 60-mile walk and raising the funds necessary to participate.

Through the generosity of many in the Gainesville area, they raised more than $6,000 for breast cancer research. This coincided with the beginning of my youngest son's break between quarters at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and it dawned on me that I should take the week off to take a trip with him.

On the Tuesday before Labor Day I began rearranging my schedule, still not knowing where my son and I would go. A friend of mine from high school had recently returned from a trip to Glacier National Park, e-mailed me pictures and raved about the place. Since this came from an avid outdoorsman who works in wildlife management, his opinion meant something.

The next evening I pulled the trigger on the decision and got the tickets for my son and I to fly into Kalispell, Mont., and "do Glacier."

A place to stay

Just like that, we were on our way to Glacier National Park with no plans except to stay for the first night at Belton Chalet where my friend and his family had stayed.

But "chalet" is a misnomer. It is a renovated hotel from the early 1900s and our room had one bed and no cell phone reception, television or Internet. However, Belton is noteworthy as the railway stop for the early travelers to Glacier National Park.

The lack of communication lasted for the whole week and, although a little disappointing at first, became a blessing as the week progressed.

Glacier National Park has about 2 million visitors annually, and usually one would have to plan almost a year in advance to stay at the lodges in the park. However, because our trip was after Labor Day, my hope was that there might be some openings.

We soon learned that all the lodges in the park were run by the same company, so a receptionist at one lodge could tell you the availability of all the others.

I found that I could get rooms, but it was disjointed venture. Except for the first night, all our accommodations were made on the fly and each time they confirmed a place for us, it was always, "this is the last one."

Off the road

Many Glacier Lodge is one such location where we were told, "you got the last value room." The drive to Many Glacier involves using one of the highlights of the park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This road is a gem of a ride and crosses the park east to west, offering spectacular views of Northwestern Montana.

The highway was built on the side of the mountains as opposed to using switchbacks, which was the more common and less expensive way at that time it was built in 1933.

This unique feature provides vistas of the area that are truly breathtaking. The road crosses the Continental Divide at Logan's Pass, takes about two hours to drive and is about 50 miles long. Most of the hikes, sites and other things to do are off this road.

On our first morning at Many Glacier Lodge I see a young couple all decked out in hiking gear and backpacks. I ask what their plan for the day entails, and they tell me they are going to do the Grinnell Glacier hike. It's 12 miles long and has a change of altitude of about 1,600 feet.

I had read nothing about this trail. I really did not know much about glaciers or why it might be interesting to spend that much time and effort to see one. But since I hadn't planned anything for this trip and because these people appeared to have planned for some time, my son and I decided to hike it, too.

We had no rain gear, we both had tennis shoes on, I was in khaki slacks - my only pair - and Sam in blue jeans - his only pair - but off we went to find the origin of the trail. It was an overcast day, about 50 degrees, and the visibility was good.

The trail went around Swiftcurrent Lake, which is behind the lodge, then to the west side of Josephine Lake and on to Grinnell Lake. George Bird Grinnell was a naturalist who discovered the lake in 1885 and the glacier that bears his name. He was also instrumental in having the area preserved as a national park, which was dedicated in 1910.

At the point where one could go to the lake or the glacier, the grade of the trail changed dramatically upward to the glacier. It was clearly the trail less traveled, and indeed that did make all the difference. We saw all types of people coming down from the glacier, and I was surprised at the variety of body types and ages.

Several older couples in varying degrees of fitness had made it up to the top fine and were in good spirits coming down. All of the lakes we hiked past had a characteristic bluish-green color caused by glacier silt.

As the three lakes we passed faded into the distance, they took on the appearance of a turquoise necklace with the stream joining the lakes serving as the chain. Several of the returning hikers would say to us as they hiked by on their descent, "Don't give up," or "It's worth the hike."

To see a glacier

At about one mile from the glacier, it began to hail, and we were concerned about our lack of rain gear. This trail had a pseudo ending because, at the point near the top when we thought we were there, a sign indicated another half mile of steep incline to the final destination. Several folks indicated that this was the most disappointing part of the trip; that last half mile, few things are more deflating while hiking than thinking you're done and yet have more to do.

By the time we got to the actual area of the glacier, it was much colder, the wind had picked up and it was snowing. It turned out we were the next to last people of the day to get there as most had started in the morning and we hadn't set out until early afternoon. The last pair of hikers got to the glacier, looked at it and quickly left.

We sat for a while, tried the trail mix we bought from the lodge's store and took some pictures, beginning to size up this glacier. We then realized that whatever clothing wasn't wet from sweating was now getting soaked from the elements. This dampened (no pun intended) our experience to view Grinnell Glacier, which we had worked so hard to achieve.

Grinnell Glacier covers a span of about 200 acres. When I first saw it, I got the impression of an ice cream float with the liquid being bluish green. Initially, I was underwhelmed, but it grew on me. I began to imagine when Grinnell himself first came upon it and how that must have felt. I think the starkness of the weather combined with the mountains of the Continental Divide behind the glacier gave it an almost a mystic character.

Grinnell Glacier is shrinking, and experts feel that it may be melted and gone by 2030. I don't mean to be corny, but I felt a sense of melancholy knowing of the glacier's slow demise and that I was observing history. I viewed it as if it were an endangered species of an animal, or a sick person. It moved me.

As it began to get darker, the rain intensified and we were alone at the top, looking at the swirls of ice interlaced with the glacier water with the mountainside forming a bowl around it.

Now, to get home

Then I began to worry about our safety. Being alone and now in the cold and rain, I was concerned. It was not just the getting back; the fact that we were the last hikers meant that if something happened, no one else would be coming along to help.

I was reassured, however, on the quick-paced prance down, when we overtook several slower walking hikers. Just at this point appeared the most beautiful and clear rainbow I have ever seen. I have never taken a picture of a rainbow that in the end did it justice - but this one did. For another period of about 10 minutes we walked behind a deer, as if he were a member of our party or vice versa. The sun came out, the trail was level or downhill and the remainder of the hike flew by effortlessly.

We returned to the lodge around 7 p.m. and had hoped for a room, there but there was none. A receptionist was able to find accommodations at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn a mile away - again "the last one."

And thus the day ended, perfectly unplanned from start to finish.

A good trip will always allow for time away, an opportunity to enhance a relationship and the chance to experience a different or beautiful area. An excellent trip will allow one to draw upon the experience later as a nourishing memory. I have never seen this concept so aptly phrased as this quote from a book I purchased years ago, prior to a hiking trip to Alaska, by Rene Daumal.

"You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again ... So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know."

John McHugh is a Gainesville-based doctor. His travels with friends for the past 15 years have taken him on weeklong trips out West to hunt, fish and see the country by bush plane.

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