After stocking up on water and a few little things, I pulled onto the highway and headed east, straight into the wind. My poor old Nissan struggled, and I struggled with it trying to keep the car from going into the ditch as it was violently forced from side to side. The visibility was almost zero for all the windblown snow, and as I inched along the first cold fingers of doubt and apprehension began creeping slowly into my mind. Glacier has always been an intimidating place for me, and when I did a 20-mile hike over Gunsight Pass a few summers ago, I was more nervous than I think I’ve ever been on a hike. Partly that was due to the park’s high concentration of grizzly bears, who’s deep ruts I encountered often on the trail, but mainly it was the jagged, raw nature of the landscape that just made me feel small and fragile. Driving along at 20 mph, I could see that comparatively, that was Glacier’s Dr. Jekyl and I was now seeing Mr. Hyde.
Canon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 20 seconds at f/8, ISO 250, Gitzo Tripod
The distance to the Rising Sun Campground, where I was told I could find some shelter from the wind, was about 7 miles from where the road was closed. It was pretty slow going and I’d started at about noon, so I began to worry that I wouldn’t make it by dark. The snow in the surrounding woods was very deep, but I started keeping an eye out for a suitable place to camp. A few minutes later, I rounded a bend and saw the sign for the campground, and my icy, wind-ravaged face curled into a smile. Everything was locked up tight for the winter and all the buildings had snowdrifts around them, but I was able to find a spot under one of them where I could pitch my tent, though I decided to wait to do that until I could keep it pinned down with my weight.
After unpacking all my camping gear from my backpack, I walked down to the edge of the massive lake, which was completely frozen over save for a thin sliver of clear water along the shore. Moose tracks criss-crossed each other among the rocks before disappearing into the deeper snow of the woods, and the wind continued to howl, though it seemed to be weakening a bit as the light did. After scouting a peninsula covered in gnarled trees for sunrise the following morning, I headed back to camp. Solo winter camping has always been difficult for me because of the 4 or 5 hours between when it gets dark and when it’s late enough to fall asleep, but a good fire and/or a good book helps tremendously. There was no way I was going to try building a fire on the snow in those conditions, but I did have a good book and ended up reading about half of it before shutting off my headlamp and turning in.
Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/20 sec at f/11, ISO 400
When I woke in the morning it was to the violent shuddering of my tent. Apparently the wind had shifted a bit overnight and grown stronger, so I laid in my sleeping bag for a good half hour trying to figure out how I could get out of my tent and take it down without the wind carrying it off. No brilliant plan was forthcoming, but I did realize that I had to get out of the tent with enough time to hike to the peninsula before sunrise. So I waited for a lull, jumped out, and started breaking down the tent as fast as I could, which as it turned out wasn’t quite fast enough. As I struggled with unhooking the fly from one of the corners, a gust picked the tent up into the air and threw it against a Fir tree with enough force to shatter one of the poles. As if satisfied with its work, the wind died down considerably and I was able to break down the tent in relative calm and inspect the damage. One of the poles was broken in two places where the sections fit together, which I could fix pretty easily with some hose clamps or something when I got home, but I needed it for the following night. After just a few moments the answer came to me: duct tape. A few wraps around the split ends of the pole did the trick, and I spent a few hours taking photos around the lake before packing everything back up and hitting the road.
The trip out was a breeze…. I flipped up the hood on my rain jacket and essentially skied my way out, shoved along by the howling wind that had suddenly become my ally. Occasionally I would look back in the hopes of seeing just a single animal larger than a songbird, and would be met with a barrage of ice to the eyeballs. Before I felt like I’d gone three miles I was next to my car and skidded to a stop, tossed my pack in the back, and had a celebratory beer (or two), though it wasn’t quite noon yet. Normal rules are suspended on camping trips.
The truth is that I was pretty roughed up. Just sitting in the calm and quiet of the truck cab felt wonderful; which is sort of backwards because a big reason for heading into the wilderness is normally for calm and quiet. My eyes hurt from all the abuse and my skin felt windburned, which I’d read about but never really experienced. My legs were sore from the day before, though not horrendously so, and my feet were pretty banged up from having to break in a pair of new boots. Despite all those things, I felt really, really great. I’m not a masochist, but something about pushing myself in the outdoors and undergoing hardship makes me feel more alive than anything else in the world. That said, it was not without hesitation that I pulled out onto the ice-covered road and headed north towards the Many Glacier entrance.
Many people consider the Many Glacier area to be the heart of the Park, and it’s certainly the best place to see wildlife. I’d gotten a hot tip from a park ranger at the local bar about a place they called Sheep Curve, about 6 miles up the closed road, which he said was always full of Bighorn Sheep. The conditions might have been really difficult for me to deal with, but I thought they held great promise for dramatic wildlife shots and within seconds of hearing about the area, beautiful photos were dancing across my minds eye and just begging me to come find them.
When I started up the Many Glacier road the wind felt even stronger than at St. Mary’s, though it’s hard to distinguish between 60 and 70 mph, and as more sections of the road were sheltered and under deep snow I ended up walking along the frozen lake for the first couple miles. One section of road was totally covered with fresh moose tracks, and I kept a sharp eye out because I know how they have a way of being strangely invisible for such a huge animal until you’re right on them. Before long I fell into the familiar routine from the day before: walk about 100 yards looking at my feet, then glance around carefully, trying to avoid an eyeful of buckshot and making sure a pack of wolves or sheep wasn’t standing there watching me walk by.
At the visitor’s center the rangers had warned me about avalanches, and that conditions were pretty ripe for them where I was headed. They also warned me about high winds, heavy snow, and predators, all in detail, so I was pretty well puckered by the time I left. As I got further up the canyon near the head of Lake Sherburne, I could see that the road hugged the base of a massive mountain that already towered over me and felt too close. It then snaked over it’s left flank, and I stood there looking at it and thinking about avalanches. It’s not something I ever want to experience so I nearly stopped where I was and camped in the woods, but I really wanted to see the view from the side of the mountain. It was something, and I got a nice photo of some very interesting sunset colors.
Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/40 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400
The light was fading fast so I picked up my pace, hoping to get to the Many Glacier Campground and find a building to hide behind for the night. Within a few minutes I arrived and was surprised to see that outside lights were on at the hotel on the other side of Swiftcurrent Lake. I was even more surprised to see smoke coming from the chimney of a small house nearby that was almost buried in snow. Walking around this thing I was about at eye level with the top of the roof. It was already pretty dark and I figured whoever was inside wouldn’t appreciate the apprehension they’d feel answering a knock at the door, so I found a fairly calm spot in a little cove of trees to set up camp and slid into my bag to begin the five hour wait for sleep. The wind would have made using a stove a real pain, and as I was just out for a night at a time I figured I could handle cold food, so I read my book and munched on salami and cheese until the full moon was up and casting soft light on the walls of my tent. When my eyes started itching I shut off my light and stretched my legs all the way out, and noticed with an expletive that the wind had already created a snow drift about two feet high against the foot end of my tent. There wasn’t much to do about it at that point, so I went to sleep in a tent hoping that I didn’t wake up in a snow cave.
Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/50 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400, 3-image vertical panorama
“Oy, anybawdy in theh?” I didn’t wake up in a snow cave but apparently I’d woken up in Australia. After pulling on my jacket I poked my head out of the tent, and was startled to see a man in full camo with a black fleece shroud covering his face and big wraparound goggles hiding his eyes (so that’s how people deal with wind like that). “That shield and those goggles look pretty nice,” I said, and he looked past me into the tent and said, incredulous, “You mean you don’t have any?”. “No,” I said, “lesson learned.” We talked for a while longer, and he said he worked for the park all year and was caretaker of the campground in the winter. He also said that the night before the weather station at Logan Pass just a few miles away had recorded sustained winds of 120 mph, the strongest of the winter thus far. I confessed that the wind was starting to get to me, and put me in mind of an invisible bully shoving me around all day, and I was looking forward to getting out of it. We said our nice-to-meet-ya’s and he snowshoed away to go check on things at the hotel, and I packed up my tent after excavating it from the snow and hit the road.
Canon 5d Mark iii, 100mm macro lens, 1/80 sec at f/5.6, ISO 500
The walk out was a mirror repeat of St. Mary’s- including no animal sightings- but I did notice that most of my tracks from the day before had one or two sets of canine prints along side them, so I’m sure plenty of animals had a human sighting. The wind shoving me from behind felt like the park trying to expel an intruder, and I obliged, skip-jogging about half the time and thinking of a windless truck cab and hot food. As I neared the paved road I thought about Glacier, and how it seems impossible to explore it without experiencing a high level of intensity in some form or other. It’s a truly wild place, the kind of place I’d fight to my last breath to keep a part of the world, where a person can go to be self-reliant, to struggle, and to grow. It’s places like this that have shaped who I am, where i’ve been unfettered by the pettiness and distraction of common concerns and social conventions, and been free to really live life to the fullest, to suck the marrow. Reading back over what i’ve written it sounds kind of miserable, and in a way it was. It was also challenging, exhilarating, intense, and real, and i’ll take that tradeoff any day of the week.
After eating two dinners at the local pizza place near the west entrance, I spent the night in my truck on the shore of Lake McDonald, hoping for some nice sunrise light before heading home. Before dawn I set up on the dock, and saw that things were shaping up well, with scattered thin clouds in the otherwise clear sky, and thicker clouds clinging to the snow-covered peaks. Just as some color started to develop, a car pulled up and two women hopped out with paddle boards and oars and began settling them into the water. Like most nature photographers I have a phobia of humanity or its byproducts being in my photos, so I packed up and started heading for my car. Before I got there I saw a photo in my minds eye that stopped me in my tracks, and I ran back to the dock to set up again. They were far out in the lake by then, just little specks, so I stood still and waited. Eventually I heard one say “My hands are getting cold,” and they turned back and headed my way. After several shots I managed to get one where their paddles mirrored one another, and then pivoted to the right for another shot that I could stitch together with the previous one for a full panorama of the mountains.
Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/50 sec at f/9, ISO 250, 2-image panorama
I wasn’t able to get what I’m usually after; a beautiful portrait of the non-human world. Instead, I got an image that conveys why wilderness is so vitally important to me better than I ever could through words, and I guess that’ll have to do.