Hiking: 5.1 mi / 225 ft. climbing
Home: Swiftcurrent Motel Cabin
We were pleased to wake up and find that we could still walk after yesterday’s record hike. We’d slept in (after another “lucky” 10pm rain that came while we were paying for this roof) and had a soft-boiled egg breakfast in our cabin.
That’s because yesterday evening I had even had the energy to ride over to the campground with our cooking supplies to boil them up. The motel declares that no cooking is allowed in or outside the rooms, and they say that we need to go down to the picnic area. But that’s half a mile away, while the campground is just across the road. But would there be a spot there to set up the stove? Of course, in the hiker/biker site! Since the campground is closed to soft-sided camping, the hiker/biker site is empty, and it seems like they may have even taken down the sign for it (whereas all the other sites are still fully-booked, and a loop around on the bike revealed that at least some of the people who had likely planned to sleep in a tent had simply resigned themselves to sleeping in their cars as the relatively-inexpensive cost-of-admission to stay in the Many Glacier valley right now given the bear problem).
I’d just set up the stove and started cooking without asking anyone, so I wasn’t too surprised when the rangers stopped in their “Law Enforcement” truck. A guy got out of the passenger side with his thumbs in the armholes of his bulletproof vest, itching to do some enforcing. But the woman who was driving stepped out and said “I don’t know if you’ve heard but…” “Oh, I know”, I interrupted, “We’re in a cabin here and I’m just doing some cooking and I’ll be done soon”. And then to my pleasant and almost-discombobulating surprise, she replied with not any sort of scolding, but, “Are those Moloko bars?”, pointing to the handlebars on Rett’s bike (which I had ridden over since it’s the one with the kitchen pannier). “Oh, uh, no, they’re ‘Denham Bars’, designed by Alee Denham, who runs cyclingabout.com”. We proceeded to talk for a few minutes about touring bike setups (“that’s a really sweet-looking ride”, she said of Rett’s bike), and then they went on their way where her partner could hopefully do some of the enforcing he was wishing to do. I had heard them earlier investigating other campers and telling them that bow-and-arrows were not allowed in the park, and asking if they had one in their possession; how would they have known? I hope it wasn’t because they were being redneck jerks to the family of color camped next to them…
While we knew we would need a rest of some sort after yesterday’s 15 miles, we also knew that we didn’t want to “waste” any of our limited time in Many Glacier by just laying in our room. So we’d decided that for our fourth hike in the park, we could do our first one not rated “Very Challenging” in the park newspaper. The “Lake Josephine Loop” is a flat 5-mile route described by hikinginglacier.com that surprisingly (given those stats) gets an “Honorable Mention” on its Top 10 list. That’s better than I would have expected for a “rest” day hike, so let’s go do it!
We needed to move out of our cabin today and into the motel building 50 yards away, and had been given some hope that our room might be ready to move into at the 11am cabin check-out time, but no such luck. We had no problem leaving the bikes outside somewhere, since we do that all the time when camping. But given the closure of the campground to soft-sided camping, and the soft sides of our panniers, we didn’t feel right leaving them strapped to the bikes with food inside while we went for a hike. So we were able to stash them at the motel’s registration desk. That then allowed Rett to do another demonstration of her ever-growing confidence on the bike: not only did she ride the half mile to the trailhead rather than walk (which is what she would have done any time prior to the last few months), she rode “unbalanced” with one rear pannier missing! (in actuality, riding with unbalanced rear panniers is unnoticeable, but until now she’d never been willing to prove that to herself.)
A five minute walk through trees quickly brought us to the shore of…a mountain lake! Like, what? You can reach a beautiful icy blue pool that reflects the 2000-foot mountains at its edges without hiking five miles and up a maze of switchbacks?! And it’s not because someone built an insane road that brought us up to this point in place of a hiking trail. At Many Glacier, the mountain-cradled lakes are really just right there. You leave the rolling treeless rangeland of western Montana, enter the Swiftcurrent River valley, follow it mildly uphill for a dozen miles on a route you can even manage by bicycle without much effort, and bam! You’re smack in the middle of America’s version of the Alps.
This uniquely easy access to visual wonders makes it obvious why the Great Northern Railroad sited their landmark Many Glacier Hotel here at the eastern end of Swiftcurrent Lake 110 years ago.
From the end of Swiftcurrent Lake, we connected to Lake Josephine via an asphalt path (because it’s the connection between the tour boats that will take you across both lakes) and began a clockwise loop. This Many Glacier valley, the topmost fork of the east-side trident of Glacier, has a bit of its own internal trident. Yesterday we walked the middle fork, between 9100-ft Mount Wilbur and 8800-ft Mount Grinnell, while today we walk the south fork on the other side of Mount Grinnell, and tomorrow, we’ll hit the north fork on the other side of Mount Wilbur.
In short order we reached a treeless bit of shore that opened onto an absolutely postcard view of the valley wall topped with the Salamander Glacier. It felt a little early for lunch, but Rett made the right call to plop down on the edge of the water where we could dip our feet in while eating and just soak in the view.
Eventually it felt like time to move on, so I stood up and turned around to get my backpack. And there, right there, was a bear! Not even 30 yards away, it was ambling along and heading across the trail we had just walked to get to this lakeside spot. “Bear! Bear!”, I whisper-shouted, to get Rett’s attention. Two other guys had also taken a seat on the shore a little way down from us, and the bear was heading almost directly towards them. “Hey guys, there’s a bear!!” They had been just as oblivious as us. My first thought was that a dozen bears could have tiptoed directly behind us in the 20 minutes while the four of us were looking out at the lake, and we would have had absolutely no idea. If I hadn’t happened to turn around when this one was walking by, we would have missed him, too!
My second thought was one of peace and calm. It was immediately obvious that this bear had zero interest in us. He obviously knew we were there, but never even looked over. My hand went to my camera without even considering my bear spray. Obviously not all bear encounters will be this peaceful, but actually experiencing a bear visit for the first time in the park, and feeling my ancient inborn animal instincts become less-activated than they do when I see a spider, soothed a latent anxiety I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying within me alongside our bear spray.
We watched him stand up to poke around a tree stump, and then lost sight of him as he continued on into the brush. The four of us marveled at the luck of this close encounter (definitely closer than the 100-yard distance the park tells you to maintain!), alerted a few other trail users to the bear in the area, and then continued on our way. Despite seeing a bear more than a week ago from the road, we had felt “overdue” for such an encounter in the park, so it was really exciting to finally experience the feeling of sharing the same space with a bear.
And then, another half mile down the trail, hikers in the other direction said “there’s a moose at the boat dock right now!” Whoa! Not quite as exciting as a bear, but checking two big mammals off the list in one easy hike might be part of why this hike is highly-rated, and it was enough to set Rett off speed-hiking. It turns out the speed was totally unnecessary, as the huge bull moose was just lazing at the end of the lake, half in the water and moving only his ears.
Since he wasn’t going anywhere, we could circle around the trail and see his large antlers from various angles, and he was large enough to still be quite visible even when we were halfway up the opposite side of the lake.
So yeah, excellent hike, perfect for a rest day, and with the animals, we got far more than we expected.
On our return we were able to move into our motel room (this time we have a proper bathroom, with our own shower, woo!!) But the communal bathhouse we’d been using during our cabin stay has the only public laundry machines in the whole park on its backside, so on this “rest day” we definitely wanted to take advantage of that. Most of the time it’s Rett who needs to do laundry before I do, but this time, after ten days of camping (plus two pseudo-camping) in the two weeks since our last wash, I needed it just as much as she did. There was a small wait (understandable especially given the shockingly-reasonable $2/wash prices), but it was a fun social experience too, with operational wisdom being continually passed down the chain of old-timers to newcomers.
Since last night’s egg-cooking in the campground worked out fine, we both went over to the hiker/biker site tonight (perfectly located less than 100 yards from the door of our motel) to cook and eat dinner, and didn’t hear a word from anyone this time. The Many Glacier hiker/biker site is another really nice one, and could probably accommodate a dozen tents in its multiple sections. Too bad we can’t actually sleep in it right now, but we also have to admit that the indoor bathroom three steps from our bed is a wonderful luxury. Not worth the $240/night we’re paying for it, but maybe worth $200!