5.8 mi / 10.3 mph / 167 ft. climbing
Home: Rising Sun Campground at Glacier National Park
In the middle of the night, I started hearing a rustling outside the tent. Five minutes of listening confirmed that I wasn’t imagining it, and it wasn’t stopping, so I figured I ought to do something about it. It sounded like too fine of work to be a bear, but what the heck do I know? I stuck my head outside of the tent and waved my phone’s flashlight around (it stays light so late here that we don’t need headlamps before bed, so mine was uselessly still in its spot on my bicycle).
Eventually I triangulate the activity to the handlebars of Maura’s bike, which was right next to her and Claire’s tent. It’s a mid-sized rodent of some sort, trying to get something out of a side pocket on her handlebar bag. It had zero fear of me, and I think I could have punched it if I didn’t care about the possibility of it biting me faster than I could pull my fist back. Just as I was figuring out how to thwap it, it finally broke its prize free and scampered into the trees with it. I didn’t really know how to operate her handlebar bag in the dark with one hand at (what turned out to be) 2:30am, but to hopefully cut off any return visits, I pull whatever else was in that side pocket out and manage to stuff it slightly more securely into the handlebar bag’s main pocket.
I finally hear a voice inside the tent so I tell them what’s happening (all the noise I was making could have terrified them into thinking it was a bear three feet from their heads), but it turns out that it was Maryam in the next tent over, who had already been awake and listening like I had been. All that action and noise was then enough to wake Rett up too, so both girls decide to get out and make a trip to the toilet while they’re up. I go do the same, and at that point couldn’t even be bothered to put something on over my boxer briefs for the walk to the bathroom. Impressively asleep through the entirety of this were Claire and Maura, right in the center of all the action. In their defense (or better, to their credit), they had woken up at 4am and done a huge crossing of the Continental Divide the previous morning, so they were rightly comatose.
Maryam saw the thief was still in the trees on the way back from the bathroom, and identified it as a flying squirrel! That’s a campground critter I haven’t encountered before! I was pretty middle-of-the-night annoyed at the girls (in a way that makes me feel like my dad), partly for leaving food on their bikes in bear country, but mostly for contributing to waking us all up while they slept peacefully. But when I told them in the morning about the night’s activity (they’d had zero idea), they were immediately apologetic and clearly felt embarrassed for making such a mistake. And that’s of course all that it was, a small mistake, a forgotten energy chew, and let he who has not had a rodent find food in his bags punch the first squirrel.
Some of the annoyance at the 2:30am fire drill was that our alarm had been scheduled for only three and a half hours later, because we were moving again. We had a couple more nights to kill before our under-a-roof reservation at Many Glacier began, and there wasn’t much more to do at St. Mary, so we decided to head six miles inward along the center spear of the trident to Rising Sun campground.
We wanted to be out and heading west earlier than a six mile ride would normally call for because there was a Special Weather Statement from the National Weather Service advertising strong west winds with gusts up to 50mph today. So we wanted to be there with camp set up before they really started cranking (and I made sure to mention the forecast to Mojo and Speakeasy, who would be out hiking over the high ridgelines where caution was specifically mentioned in the Statement!) A less-important reason to get there early was that Rising Sun is one of the only first-come, first-served campgrounds remaining in the park (I believe Two Medicine had also been one up until this year, which likely contributed to the “no one knows how reservations work” confusion there).
The ride itself was excellent, with the already-close mountains drawing in to nearly hover on top of us. Definite headwinds, but survivable for six miles, and Going-to-the-Sun Road stayed along St. Mary Lake the whole way, so we didn’t need to do any of the big climb to the Continental Divide (yet!) At 8:30am, there was very little traffic on it yet, so that was good news for when we would actually do the big climb.
Vehicle reservations are required if you want to travel the road from 6am to 3pm, so that probably helped. Bicycles are exempt, which the rangers at the checkpoint at the Rising Sun entrance implied when they waved us through, and which the website hinted at (but did not explicitly state) when it said reservations are required for “vehicles and motorcycles”. A ranger at the St. Mary’s entrance gate seemed much more doubtful about that (“they’ll let you know for sure at the checkpoint 6 miles ahead”, gee, thanks!) But days later at an informational signboard in the Rising Sun parking lot, I saw that one of the FAQ items specifically asked “Are reservations required for bicycles?”, and clearly answered “no”. Really guys? You can get fancy permanent signboards printed up with this information (for probably $1000 a sign) but can’t put those same words on your damn website (for free)?! Or inform your rangers working the entrance gate?
The hiker/biker campsite at Rising Sun (our third in Glacier National Park) turned out to be the best so far. Well-shaded, and right up against a mountain, such that the sun “sets” at 6:40pm, nearly three hours before actual sunset. And even better for today, the campground is well-sheltered from the strong winds, so even though I guyed out the tent, it probably could have survived without it.
We were welcomed immediately and given the lay of the land by Sue, the volunteer camp host who we immediately could tell was an awesome lady. She was actively monitoring all the new arrivals as she simultaneously spoke with us (“it’s 10 miles per hour, please slow down!”) and is clearly the organizational force that keeps the first-come first-served campground from falling into the disorder that would be its natural state.
By the time we left for our hike to Okotomi Lake at 11am, probably half of the campsites were surprisingly still available. I guess people either just assume all the campsites will be filled immediately so they don’t even try, or they just aren’t set up to take the risk of needing to stay elsewhere if they turn up and it’s full.
Rising Sun also has a camp store (similar to Two Medicine), a restaurant, and a motel, but still feels small and simple and uncrowded. At the store, Rett bought a new Osprey lightweight packable daypack to make hiking easier than it had been with her backpack pannier that ground into her back on our last hike. It was the exact thing she wanted, and at only $45, it seemed like there must have miraculously been no National Park “tax” on it. Halfway into our hike it was clear that, even if she never used it after our time in Glacier, it would have been worth it. A remarkable thing to be able to add to our gear, especially since it’s a challenge here to find something as basic as cheese! (we needed a couple of slices to complete our packed-lunch sandwiches, and the best we could do is buy a strange “sandwich” product where the “bread” is two slices of cheese surrounding a slice of salami).
The hike was another double-digit out-and-back up to a glacial lake, and it was a clear upgrade over Cobalt Lake at Two Medicine. The first half up went through a burned area, which both opened up the views, and provided a unique environment to walk through. We heard from multiple other groups (of which there weren’t many on this non-brand-name hike) that they had seen bears on the trail today, but no luck for us.
Overall we were feeling in better shape on the way back than we had at Cobalt Lake, but with two miles to go, Rett’s foot went into a hidden eroded hole on the downslope edge of the trail, and she went down hard on all fours (or fives, if you include the slap to her chin). Her knee caught the worst of it, with some good red-spotted gravel rash over the bruise, but she carried on like a champ to get the hike done.
We hiked straight into the restaurant for dinner and the cold beers we’d been dreaming of the whole way back in the bright sun. After sitting for a bit and getting our orders in, I got up stiffly to use the bathroom, which happened to be down a flight of stairs. That challenging expedition showed that while our bodies are definitely adapting to this new hiking mode we’re throwing at them, the process still has a ways to go.
The final amenities of Rising Sun are the single male and female shower stalls behind the store. Unlike St. Mary’s free showers, these require a $4 from the store for 8.5 minutes, but for people who can’t just drive over there, it was definitely worth it!
Today was another post-hike rest day. We were excited that Maryam, who we’d camped with at St. Mary’s, arrived on her bike even earlier than we did yesterday while we were still lazing inside the tent. Also from inside the tent we overheard this perfectly-expected conversation between Sue, the camp host, and a new arrival:
Sue: I’m sorry, you aren’t allowed to camp here, your truck and trailer are longer than 21 feet.
New Arrival: [unintelligible]
Sue: You passed no fewer than five signs on your way here stating that [names locations of the five signs]
New Arrival: [unintelligible]
Sue: Well, I can measure if you’d like. [presumably pulls out the tape measure she carries expressly for this purpose]
New Arrival: [unintelligible]
Sue: You hold this end up by your bumper.
New Arrival: [unintelligible]
Sue: Nope, too long!
I wish I had a photo of Sue Brown that I could share with you, as this Kansas native and park lover is one of the most remarkable natural wonders we’ve encountered in Glacier so far. She’s been working 13 hour days to make Rising Sun campground the best place to stay in the park. Later on, I asked her what odds she had put on the bet, before measuring, that they were over 21 feet. 90%? Absentmindedly taking off her National Park cap to run her fingers through her close-cropped gray hair as she often does, “Oh, I knew. 100%.”
I think I’m a pretty nice guy, but the moment they make me actually get out my tape measure to show them something I already know 100% to be true, is the moment they lose any chance of gaining my sympathy. But not Sue, she’s a rule-follower with a heart wider than her tape measure. Something they said made her decide to have mercy on them, and she let them stay after all. Of course they had to completely empty out all of their gear from their open trailer (something I’m sure they never do), and drive it down to the boat dock parking lot to store it there, but maybe they already recognized that with someone who cares as much as Sue keeping an eye on this campground, it’s worth paying any price to be able to stay here.
Given the way she deals with all these campers who often act like children (she showed us a registration tag where a guy had literally used a pen to alter the check-out date that she writes on every tag with her marker!), I asked if she had been a schoolteacher in a previous life. “No, 38 years at Cessna”, she says with a tone, precision, and pride more associated with active-duty military than 60-something camp hosts, “and handling the people here is a million times easier than that was!”
After dinner (for which Maryam had brought a six-pack of beers to share!), Sue took a load off and joined the three of us at our picnic table. A question about the difficulties in setting up the new Starlink satellite internet antenna I recognized outside her RV led to her revealing that she needs to get it running soon because she’s a bit behind in sending monthly spending money to one of her nieces. We then get to hear details about all of her nieces, who are clearly her pride and joy, despite the challenges she and they have had with their mothers. This then leads to her telling us that with her mother gone, the rest of the family recently surprised her with a framed certificate honoring her as “Matriarch of the Family”, for all that she does to keep everyone together and supported. We could see on her face and hear in her voice that the fact that she would never ask for nor expect such an award makes the recognition and gratitude from her family even more meaningful to her. And also to us, to the point that literally all four of us have tears in our eyes by the time she finishes the story.
And of course right in the middle of all this she signed some paperwork for another camper who had timidly approached, all without skipping a beat.
Near bedtime we get a late-arriving “through hiker” to the site. He’s a goofy middle-aged pot-bellied soft-looking man wearing some worn-out Keen sandals. Dammit, another “fake” hiker like we encountered at St. Mary. Except…he talked to Sue on his way in, said how great she was (see, it’s really obvious, and she said that he’d enjoy meeting us bikers), and there ain’t no way Sue would allow that kind of chicanery at her hiker/biker site. And as we chatted around the fire we’d started with leftover wood, everything he said sounded completely legit. It turns out he was just early in his hike so he had quite a bit of in-shape-getting to do. But it sucks to realize that another side-effect of those jerks at St. Mary is that it makes us unreasonably suspicious of even legit people. We resolve to be more like Sue, respecting the necessity of rules, but with kindness in our hearts.