Despite smoke, health issues, heartaches, 10 Giggers hike Highline to Granite Park Chalet; head to Swiftcurrent valley on Day Two
The day started at 5 a.m. from Great Falls, a quick stop in Browning on the way to catch the shuttle in St. Mary. We had been told that the shuttle wasn't running until 9 a.m. due to the fires, but we were pleasantly surprised that we could catch the 8 a.m. shuttle, getting us an early start on what promised to be a very hot day for hiking (in the 80s). We took this as a good sign that our trip was going to be good despite personal hardships.
On the way to Logan Pass, we were amazed to see what the Reynolds' Creek fire had done to the east side of Going to the Sun road, blackening the better portion from the Rising Sun campground until beyond the upper St. Mary Falls turn out. The Baring Creek/Sunrift Gorge area seemed to have burned the hottest with all trees and soil blackened with no mosaic pattern to the burn. The burn has opened up the vistas of the mountains on the south side of the road, and a few hardy dusty green plants were already pushing their leaves through the blackened soil. The ride was interesting in that manner.
We got on trail by 9:15, posing at the HIghline Trail sign for a quick photo opp. The first part of the day was easy, mostly flat, hiking, with the mountain shading us from the hot sun as we hiked the narrow, steep, but not-too-scary trail, but then in the afternoon, the combination of sun and smoke took its toll. When we stopped at Haystack Pass around noon for lunch, some of us were already feeling it.
As we crested Haystack pass and crossed the Continental Divide onto the west side of the park, the smoke activity picked up. We could see the fingers of smoke coming our way from the Thompson fire in the Nyack area as well as the fires from Lincoln, Libby and the North Fork of the Flathead. The valley soon filled with smoke and the nice clear blue sky we had enjoyed at Logan Pass disappeared into the haze.
Along the way, we saw several herds of sheep and a group of goats. Some of the sheep were quite close and seemed curious, while the goats were mostly sleeping on rocky ledges high up. Although we saw no bears on this part of the trail, we did see their tell-tale purple-hued scat, warning us they were near and eating the same huckleberries we were enjoying.
By the time we reached the turn off for the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which is only one mile from the Granite Park Chalet, three of the gals were all in and decided to continue to the Chalet and save the overlook for another time. The rest braved the steep almost-one-mile incline; one had to turn back as it turned out to be too much; but in the end six made it to the beautiful view down onto Grinnell Glacier and what is called Upper Grinnell Lake, formed from the melt from the glacier. It took us one hour and 20 minutes to ascend and 45 minutes to descend, putting us at the Chalet by 6 p.m.
We found a young crew at the Chalet, who had changed the rules from previous years. Instead of finding water already hauled from the source, the new rules said you had to haul your own. The chalet was also out of bottled water, which forced us to hike a third of a mile downhill and back up again on our tired legs as all of us were very thirsty from a long climb. We also needed water to boil for our freeze-dried meals, all of which tasted good because we were hungry.
Before we were finished eating, the chalet team announced that the traditional "friendship" program wasn't going to be held this night due to a historical presentation about the Night of the Grizzlies because it was the anniversary, Aug. 13. David Shea, the ranger who shot the killer grizzlies, gave a presentation about what was learned from the tragedy and pointed out where the garbage dump was located that attracted the bears in the first place, coupled with people feeding the bears on purpose. Read More here.
Instead of listening to the talk inside the chalet, some stayed outside and enjoyed evening sunset and also the fires blowing up due to the heat and winds of the day. The night never cooled down, a surprise for being so high up and in the mountains. We left the windows and doors open all night trying to cool down.
Of course, this being the anniversary of the Night of the Grizzlies, we gals were frightened when we had to get up in the night to use the bathroom, but we all survived and some of us even enjoyed the meteor shower.
After a quick breakfast, we hauled more water and packed our things and hit the trail by 9:15 a.m. for the second morning in a row. We had our uphill right out of the chute, gaining the top of the pass where we faced our decision about whether or not to hike to the top of Swiftcurrent mountain to the lookout tower. Most of the gals were still too tired to attempt the steep climb and extra three miles. Even those inclined to do it decided against as the smoke was ruining the views, so we passed on the climb and continued over the pass, stopping to view the overlook of Swiftcurrent Glacier, Swiftcurrent Falls and Grinnell Mountain.
As we descended, many of us were a bit worried about the condition of the trail as earlier the trail reports said four section of the trail had washed out and to WATCH YOUR STEP! Luckily, the trail was in fairly good shape with only two very narrow, but not-too-scary, sections.
However, just past Devil's Elbow on the descent, one gal fell and really cut up her elbow and bruised her palm on her opposite hand. It required first aid and picking out dirt and rocks from the bleeding wound and then bandaging.
When we finally reached flatland and the Swiftcurrent River, we were happy for the relief and the cool water to soak our shirts and bandannas too cool down. Not long after, we met up with our other GiG group, the gals hiking to Bullhead lake and who had shuttled our cars from St. Mary for us! What a blessing they were. As we approached Bullhead lake, we caught a glimpse of a mama and baby moose resting just off the trail behind some willows. Their twitching ears gave them away.
Then when we stopped at Bullhead lake just before 2 p.m for lunch, we came across another mama moose and baby that were way too close to us and caught in the middle of our group. We spread apart a bit more to give them room as they ran across the trail down to the lake for a drink, making for many great photo opps.
About a quarter mile past the moose incident, we came across a ranger who told us to halt as a mother grizzly and her twin cubs were 10 yards ahead. He as clapping and talking and trying to get them to shoo down toward the river and lake, but he said he could hear them still in the willows. Then some hikes came from the other directions shouted "bear!" The ranger called out to ask if they were seeing a bear and they said they did. He told them there were also two cubs and to stay where they were. He then hiked up to them and clapped to chase the grizzlies away. After a wait of about half an hour, he led us down the trail and then took the others the opposite way.
As we continued to Red Rock Falls, we made lots of noise. By the time we hit Red Rock Falls, 2.4 miles from the parking lot, most of the gals were tired and wanted a shower, so we didn't stop long at the falls but long enough to see that the falls were lower than any of us ever remembered, even when visiting in the fall. The water wasn't even going over most of the rocks, just trickling down the center area.
At 4:15, we arrived at Swiftcurrent motor inn. However, our rooms weren't ready so we had to wait in the lobby for half an hour for the cleaning crew to finish. We got cold drinks at the camp store, then rushed to our rooms for a shower as soon as they were ready. We then met up at 6 p.m. for dinner at the Interlaken Lounge at the May Glacier Hotel, followed by a presentation on aquatic life by a Parks Canada Interpreter, mostly on the bullhead trout, westlope cutthroat salmon, the leopard frog and the tiger salamanders.
That night we were happy for comfy beds at the newly redone Pinetop Motel and no top bunks to deal with. It rained with thunder and lightning disturbing our sleep a bit, but we hoped the water was helping the fire situation.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at the Swiftcurrent cafe, but before Katie and Chrissie decided to look for moose in Fishercap lake, but no luck. We surmised the wind was so strong that they were all hunkered down in the willows. After breakfast, we all took the loop trail, first to Wilbur Falls and then to Fishercap. Again, we didn't see any wildlife but we did get to put our ponchos on to avoid the drizzly day.
We had one last treat on the way home: We saw a black bear eating berries on a sideslope, which completed our animal sightings for the trip. We arrive back in Great Falls around noon.
Who went: June, Gail, Susan, Sue, Chrissie, Roni, Catherine, Kathy M, Bonnie and Katie
Animals we saw: Moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bear, ptarmigan, mule deer, marmots, Columbian ground squirrels.