Editor’s Note: After a year's hiatus, the chronicle of Bryan Snyder's misadventures in the Western high country, "Off The Map", returns to the pages of The Evening Sun. Besides the usual tales of Rocky Mountain mischief, Bryan will report from the drought-afflicted backcountry of Southern California and the snow-capped, slumbering volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest.
“I’m hiking up there, to a place just past that ridge called Floral Park,” I explained to another tourist at the Hidden Lake overlook.
Why?” the woman put bluntly. She was kidding, of course… poking fun at my ambition, as well as her own pudgy physique. Regardless, I described how I intended to navigate the trail-less region around Sperry Glacier and eventually reach a shuttle bus about eighteen miles away. “Why not take a helicopter?” she countered. I had no answer to that equally-rhetorical question, so I left her to her mountain-goat spotting and continued down the trail.
Why?… I wasn’t supposed to take her interrogation seriously, but as I hiked down and around the shoreline of Hidden Lake, I thought about my reasons for doing the things I do every summer. Maybe it’s my masculine ego that pushes me uphill and drives me to conquer mountain after mountain. But I’d like to think that my actions also have psychological benefits. The far-reaching views from these summits help put my tiny human life in perspective, and being humbled by one’s relative insignificance can be a good thing every once in a while. It keeps that powerful ego in check.
I felt one of those perspective-altering sensations when I gained the ridgeline above Hidden Lake and looked out upon the tranquility of Floral Park and the chaotic wasteland of Sperry Glacier. The first plateau was a vibrant landscape, where water pooled from green fields and forests into Mary Baker Lake before tumbling down waterfalls into the lower valley. Above the second and further plateau, Sperry Glacier hung like an icy bib around the neck of Gunsight Mountain. He must have been a messy eater, because the tilted sedimentary layers that comprised this upper plateau resembled a stack of fifty pancakes that had slumped sideways and fallen over. It was a mess up there, but I would have to cross these two regions in order to reach a trail and find civilization on the opposite side.
I descended into Floral Park, traveling further and further away from the masses of tourists and well-beaten paths. The mountains that ringed this basin… they weren’t threatening, but neither were they particularly friendly. I felt anxious walking beneath them, as if I were sneaking into an older sibling’s bedroom. It was too late in the year for epic wildflowers in the fields surrounding Mary Baker Lake, so I kept my camera stowed away and continued up to the freakish terrain at the edge of Sperry Glacier.
The upper plateau appeared to have been gouged by the glacier during a colder age, leaving claw marks that were filled to the brim with milky, greenish-blue water. In truth, the rippled geography was mostly due to the tilted layers of shale, which had eroded into countless furrows twenty feet deep. To reach Comeau Pass on the other side of the basin, I had to travel “against the grain,” so to speak, hiking up and over dozens of these furrows. And if a trough was unexpectedly filled with glacial meltwater, I had to discover some way to detour around it.
I finally tired of all the undulations and decided to head for the smoother slopes of the glacier itself. The sprawling sheet of ice covered two hundred acres of mountainside, and even though it had shrunk by three-quarters over the last century, I was excited to finally set foot upon a genuine Glacier National Park glacier that hadn’t melted into obsolescence due to climate change. There weren’t too many of them left.
The surface was crunchy, which helped me maintain a grip on the ice as I crossed diagonally upwards toward a distant signpost beyond the glacier. Rivulets of freshly-melted water coursed down the side, collecting into deeper channels and disappearing into dark crevasses. As my surroundings glistened in the sunlight, I remembered another reason why I explore these places: for a chance to see something no one else has ever seen before. Obviously, the variables of weather, light and season make each moment unique, but to be able to stand where so few others have stood on this increasingly-crowded planet is invigorating to me.
While lost in my own thoughts, I failed to notice that the slope had grown steeper and steeper until it was almost too late. I suddenly paused in my journey and realized that I was dangerously close to losing traction. If I slipped, I would slide down the slick ice at an accelerating rate until a crevasse swallowed me whole.
I refocused my mind on the current situation and balanced my weight carefully over my hiking poles. At this point, retreating downhill seemed like the poorer option. I figured I’d better just get it over with. I jabbed my poles as deeply as I could into the crusty ice and trudged slowly and carefully up the worst of the steep expanse until I reached an unmelted patch of last winter’s snow. From there, I was able to escape the glacier and stride over to the metal signpost, which was where the Sperry Glacier Overlook trail ended. My ultimate destination was another ten miles away, but the mileage was all on established trails, and nearly all of it was downhill.
As the trailhead drew closer, I began to grow more anxious about missing the last shuttle bus, which I needed to cross the continental divide and return to my vehicle on the east side of the park. Without a shuttle schedule, I didn’t know how many minutes I had to spare, but I guessed that I was cutting it close. So despite my aching knees, I jogged most of the last two miles and burst from the trail onto the highway just in time to see a bus turn onto the entrance road to Lake McDonald Lodge. I summoned enough energy to chase after it, but the vehicle ultimately won the race and drove out of sight.
There was a bus stop somewhere on this property, but I had no clue where to find it. I had to get creative in a hurry. Instead of continuing to search wildly, I jogged over to the lodge’s exit road and managed to intercept the shuttle just seconds before it would have pulled onto the highway. Unfortunately, it was the wrong bus. But the driver got on the radio and called the right bus, which was about to drive away from the lodge’s bus stop, and asked it to wait for me. The second driver called up the third bus driver as we sped towards the transfer station, asking her to wait. And she radioed ahead to the fourth driver, allowing me to catch the last shuttle from Logan Pass down to the St. Mary Visitor Center.
Along the way, we picked up several other late hikers that wouldn’t have caught the bus otherwise, so I didn’t feel too bad about making the drivers work a few extra minutes. After all, one admitted, they were paid by the hour. And although they were interested in where I’d gone, none of the drivers bothered to ask why I did what I did. It was Glacier National Park, and most of them had lived around these mountains long enough to know already.