Fall Trip Part 2: Glaciers Slip-sliding Away

by Dahna Branyan

We hated to end our visit with Rocky and Elaine, but were anxious to get moving and visit Glacier National Park. Flathead Lake and a couple of wildlife refuges, Ninepipes and Pablo, were on the way but there was no good way to stop and see them with the trailer in tow.

Trumpeter Swans In Flight
trumpeters in flight

First Glimpse of Flathead Lake
Flathead Lake from Polson Overlook

We chose to go up the west side of Flathead Lake. which offers long gorgeous views of the lake and coves dotted with marinas and moored boats.  At the top of the lake sits Kalispell and our campground, Rocky Mountain Hi RV Park. It was a short drive so we had time to look around and meet our neighbors, Cal and Cam from North Dakota plus their handsome Belgian Shepherd Zeus. They come to the this park every year and plan to retire in Kalispell in a couple of years. I can see why – Kalispell has everything you need with fabulous views in all directions and recreational opportunities abound. Still a bit cold for our retirement dreams, but Cal and Cam are used to the cold.  Brrrr.

White Cliffs on Flathead Lake

White Cliffs along Flathead lake

Bald Eagle Seen From Our Campground
Bald Eagle

After getting the trailer unhooked from the truck and.hooked up to utilities we took Sacha for her introductory stroll through the campground and territory-marking ritual. In spite of a “six foot leash at all times” rule, Sacha was attacked by loose dogs twice on our little stroll. The first time by a pit/lab mix that jumped on her back while trailing a rope. In no time she spun out of her collar and onto his back, sending him running for his owner’s RV door. Sacha almost went in after him before we could get her back under control.  Adding to the melee, Pat is growling at the apologetic owner about keeping his dog tied up. Sacha was feeling pretty feisty when we rounded the corner and a pint-sized dog trailing his leash rushed out to bite her belly, but Sacha rolled him on the pavement and sent him screaming to his owner. After apologies were made, but not by us, we got Sacha back in the trailer before any more incidents. Now when asked what kind of dog Sacha is, we say part Siberian Husky, part Cujo.

Female Western Tanager – Rocky Mountain Hi Campground
Female Western Tanager

Aside from the dog spats, the folks we met were extremely nice – and mostly from Canada. Kalispell appears to be a good cheap trading post for Canadians. One lady I met said she had celiac disease and Kalispell offered more options for gluten-free foods. #We’re Number One!

Juvenile American Robin Immature Robin

The next couple of days were dreary, rainy days we are becoming accustomed to on our travels. (I think we’re towing our personal rain cloud behind us some days.)  We decided to hold on seeing Glacier until the weather improved and opted to meander back down the east side of the Flathead Lake. Aside from being a lovely drive, it seems to be the side famous for Flathead cherries. Orchards pretty much lined the east side of the lake. But when we stopped to load up on cherries, we were told that no one in the area actually grows Flathead cherries anymore because they don’t ship well. We got their Sweetheart cherries and were not disappointed. They were the best cherries we’ve ever eaten. The blueberries they grew weren’t bad either.

Red-Necked Grebes at Flathead Lake
Juvenile Red-necked Grebes Cruising Flathead L.

Still gloomy and foggy the next day, the weather was more suited for ducks rather than taking in  the sights of Glacier. Ducks – there’s a thought. We headed back down along Flathead Lake again to visit the Ninepipes Wildlife Refuge that we’d passed coming up this way. There were lots of ducks, but not having waders to get in close, good photos were hard to get with my lens. The ducks were also a bit harder to distinguish since nesting season is over and the males have assumed their basic or “eclipsed” drab plumage.  I’m not too good at identifying them in this phase, but I did manage to ID  a few.  And saw a few “lifers” for me. The Trumpeter Swans were in abundance though and I even managed to snag a photo of a tagged swan. He was an immature bird, locally tagged,  but I reported the sighting just the same.

Tagged Trumpeter

Bufflehead Ducks – Immature MalesBuffleheads

Great Blue Heron Hiding in the Shadows
GBH Hiding in the Shadows

American Coot
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Mission Mountains Overlooking Ninepipes NWR near Ronan, MT
Mission Mountains

Red-breasted Mergansers
DSCN2952

Finally the clouds lifted enough the following day to head up to Glacier and the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road. By clouds lifting, I mean halfway up the mountains. From the west, the road first takes you through the evergreen forests past the glacial Lake McDonald. There are a number of pull-outs to enjoy the view, but like other park roads we’ve travelled of late, most of the pullouts are full when you pass them so you just enjoy the views as you drive.

Red Rocks – Glacier National Park
Red Rocks

Mountain View from Red Rocks
From View Red Rocks

A Distant Glacier
Shrinking Glacier

The road itself is an engineering marvel.  Fifty miles long and completed in 1933, it spans the park from east to west.  From the west it begins in the dark cedar/hemlock forest.  As the road rises, the forests give way to the rocky cliffs, roadside waterfalls and finally to alpine meadows. The views are ethereal, made much more so by the layer of clouds girdling the mountains. Simply gorgeous. As you climb, the road narrows and gets more challenging with hairpin curves, especially when you are driving a large pickup. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the narrow road offers steep cliff walls on one side and steep dropoffs on the other, often unprotected by. guardrails.  Not for the faint of heart. The elevation  makes it difficult to keep the road clear of snow and it’s often late spring /early summer before the road opens for traffic for a few short months. One vehicle plummeted over the edge earlier this summer, forcing rescuers to rapel down the mountain to retrieve the injured.  It might be worth it to rent a smaller car for this day trip.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top
-Robert Service, Spell Of The Yukon

DSCN3019.jpg

Going to the Sun

DSCN2999 (1)

Even though park officials previously announced that the glaciers would be gone in 2020, they persist. Pictures show that, thanks to several years of heavy snowfall,  at least two of the glaciers have grown slightly in size, prompting officials to remove the signs concerning their imminent demise. Overall though, all of the glaciers are severely reduced in size over the past 50 years, some as much as 80%, according to a New York Times article. If you want to see them, I recommend moving it up on your list.

After reaching Logan Pass, we descended down the east side of the park to St. Mary Lake. This side of the pass is less forested and the valley is wider with more meadows.  While we considered turning around and viewing Going to The Sun Road from the opposite direction, our decision was made by a road construction project that cost us an hour on the way down. Not wanting another hour’s wait, we decided to return via Hwy 2 which skirts the bottom of the park. On the way there, however, we more than made up for the wait by another detour construction project that will probably cost the truck a realignment job when we get home.

The Sole Wildlife Specimen, A Cedar-Waxwing spotted while waiting for the road construction
Cedar Waxwing

Hanging Valley with a Glacier Remnant & Bird Woman Falls Below
Hanging Valley&Bird Woman Falls

St. Mary Lake
St. Mary Lake

Although we didn’t see any wildlife as we drove through the park, they are surely present. I am sure that the almost bumper to bumper traffic sends them deeper into the park. For hikers, the thrill of seeing bighorn sheep and mountain goats is more certain.   The sublime scenery throughout the park was enough to take in for one day.

The view from the East Entrance (and our exit)Glacier East Entrance

Trumpeter Takeoff – Ninepipes NWRTrumpeter Takeoff

One thought on “Fall Trip Part 2: Glaciers Slip-sliding Away”

  1. Wow! Sasha is not going to be trifled with. I can imagine the melee.

    Beautiful photographs. I especially liked the ones from Glacier and your mention that some of the glaciers have persisted longer than originally hypothesized.

    Also, I had a study from Flathead Lake in one of my readings from a graduate class. Nice to see and learn about the area from the blog.

    You guys travel safely!

    Liked by 2 people

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