First, a few photos i’ve taken recently along the Clearwater River:Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/8 sec at f/30, ISO 200, handheld
Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/80 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400
I had time for one more photography trip before our looming cross-country move would make leaving home for a week impossible. Initially I wanted to go to Yellowstone because I’ve heard from many sources that it’s a photographer’s paradise, especially in the winter when the crowds are gone and the wildlife is more concentrated in the open valleys. But after looking into it, it seemed to me that the only way to get into the park was by snow coach as part of a tour, and it looked impossible to really have any time on your own and not spend a ton of money. Glacier National Park is also somewhere I’ve always wanted to explore in the winter, and their rules were much more my speed. You can camp pretty much anywhere you want in the winter, and although they ask that you get a backcountry permit, it’s free to anyone nutty enough to want one.
I’ve done a ton of summer hiking and camping but I haven’t done much in the winter, and what I have done wasn’t exactly enjoyable because I didn’t have the right gear or know-how. I couldn’t do much about the know-how, but I did get a good pair of snow boots, ski pants, and winter gloves, and I felt pretty well prepared.
The two sides of the park, East and West, are very different from one another. The west side is calmer, wetter, and more heavily trafficked, while the east side, especially in winter, is drier, prone to hurricane force winds, and basically deserted. So naturally, I wanted to spend most of my time on the east side.
I arrived at the park just as a storm was bearing down, though it was one that reportedly carried with it more wind that snow. The east side especially was supposed to get slammed with winds exceeding 100mph. I’ve experienced high winds before and know how difficult they can be, but I assumed it couldn’t be that bad or at least if it was, it couldn’t last that long. I spent the first two days on the west side, and even there the winds were gusting to 30 or 40 as a steady snow fell. For my first hike I decided on Avalanche Lake, a 14 mile round-trip up the closed Going to the Sun Road. The ladies filling out my permit were acting a little like I was asking for a permit to be executed, but I suppose they just don’t know me from Adam and were worried I’ll get myself in trouble. I don’t know much about winter camping, as I said, but I am confident in my ability to stay safe in any conditions.
When I parked at the closed gate I tested the snow on the other side and it was only 3 or 4 inches deep, so I decided not to wear the snowshoes I’d rented. I’ve never liked hiking with them and if the snow is less than knee-deep I can manage. The hike up the road was nice and quiet, with a steady snow falling and the occasional deer nosing around for branch tips in the woods. After a couple of miles I began noticing that the snow was slowly getting deeper, and the going more difficult. For a while I tried walking in the prints of a moose, but 4 foot strides are difficult for us wee humans. A few minutes later, two skiers passed by me heading back down the road, and one said that his son was attacked by a mountain lion around there just a few days ago and I should be careful. I thanked him for the heads up, and though i’ve never really been afraid of mountain lions while out camping, I noticed that I began paying a bit more attention to my surroundings.
By the time I got to the five mile mark the snow was about knee deep, but I trudged on because I didn’t want to admit defeat, and at that point I was closer to the lake than I was to the trailhead. Eventually though, exhaustion hit me and I realized that the snow was only going to get deeper and I wasn’t interested in crawling the last 2 miles, so I turned back and made to to my car by nightfall.
The next day, I got a permit for three nights in the backcountry on the east side, and was very happy to hear that the high winds usually keep the snow level on the roads pretty low. The ranger printed me a copy of the weather for the next few days, and I noticed that the winds would be sustained at 50-60 mph and gusting to 90. “Huh”, I thought, “That should be interesting.” Looking back over the following three days, I’m not sure interesting is the word I’d use.
It took about two hours to drive around the southern end of the park to Browning, the last real town before heading towards the east entrances. As I pulled into town I stopped at a gas station, and when I opened the door I’m pretty sure the wind almost ripped it from the body of the car. At the other pump I watched two elderly people struggling to stay upright, as I was, their feet spread wide and their hands clutching at anything they could get hold of. Now i’ve felt strong wind before, some of my favorite memories from the months I spent on the PCT are getting blasted by wind when a section of trail followed an exposed ridge, and in Alaska I spent a summer on a salmon gilnetter struggling to do anything in the fierce winds of the Bering Sea, but I’d never felt anything like the wind assaulting that dusty little town. Interestingly, the book I’d brought to read on the trip was called The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher about Edward Curtis, a photographer who set out in the early 1900’s to document and describe all the Native American tribes before they disappeared. In the first few chapters, he passes through the area that later became Glacier, and specifically mentions the town of Browning and how amazing it is that anyone could live in a place that windswept.