Hiking: 11.2 mi / 1300 ft. climbing
Home: Swiftcurrent Pine Top Motel
Our last hike in the Many Glacier valley would take us up into the north fork of the north fork, to Iceberg Lake. This is a lake where the highlight is right in the name: chunks of ice can be found floating freely on its surface well into summer. It’s not just due to being shaded in a deep bowl with Mount Wilbur to its south shielding it from the sun’s rays (though that certainly helps: Wilbur’s peak is 3000 ft. higher than the lake surface, but laterally only 2200 ft away from the southern edge; riding up that slope would break my bike computer, since it’s a 136%(?!?*%###) grade!) But if shade was the only factor, then it would just be a frozen lake, until it got warm enough for the surface ice to melt, and then it would disappear. So it’s something about its shadowed chunks of snow and ice that gather in the crevices around the lake, and then as they warm, birth miniature “icebergs” into the lake just as real icebergs calve off glaciers. But this isn’t Disney World, and there is no climate control, so while this phenomenon is consistent enough to give name to the lake, the vagaries of the season will determine what we actually will see there today.
We also had a second raised expectation dependent on the vagaries of the wild world: the trail to Iceberg Lake was “posted” due to bear activity. This is a trail status between the default open state (you might see a bear anywhere in Glacier) and “trail closed”. It apparently means something like “hey, bears are definitely active in this area right now, so don’t let them eat you, because then we’ll definitely need to upgrade the status to ‘closed’”. Sounds good to us! Maryam saw a bear when she rode up from St. Mary to do this hike, so maybe we’ll be lucky too?
The hike up was another incredible Glacier hike, so even if the icebergs and bears slaughtered each other into oblivion, we wouldn’t have anything to complain about. The trail design is perfect, a steady but easy slope, so you barely even notice how much you’re climbing. Overall the trail engineering in Glacier has been top-notch. We’d discovered the incredible value of trekking poles while hiking in Washington, and had been nervous that we’d be lost here in Glacier without them. But so far there have been very few moments where we’ve missed them, and none where they were even close to necessary.
When we crested the final rise before the short descent to the lake, we saw the icebergs! The lake was filled with them, not so much to keep them from free-floating, but much more than the few stock photos I’d seen when I briefly had checked what to expect. Or maybe it’s actually being here that gives a perspective that simply doesn’t come through in photos.
We spent much longer sitting on the lake shore than we usually do at the mid-point of an out-and-back hike. It helped that (as hikinginglacier.com had predicted) most people just settled right at the point where the trail connected to the lake, despite there being plenty of easy access to your own quiet spot anywhere along the eastern shore. So we just sat and looked at the ice. The variety of forms was mind-boggling. It would be cool enough if there were just a bunch of round balls of ice bobbing in lake. But there were walls, sheets, towers, waves, crags, and, once our imaginations got going, orcas, the Loch Ness Monster, ocean liners, etc. It was just like seeing shapes in the clouds.
And, like clouds, they moved! Barely perceptible in real-time, currents in the lake caused the icebergs to slowly change position in random and unpredictable ways (it’s not like they were all just moving from their land-based source to the lake’s outlet), so we weren’t just pointing out things to each other that we saw in a painting, we were watching a silent movie!
Oh, but it wasn’t silent! Early on we heard a couple rumbling cracks echo through the bowl, presumably as new icebergs were calving around a corner out of sight.
Eventually we had our fill and it was time to head back down. Part of the way back, people coming our way alerted us to an animal ahead just off the trail! A bear?! No, just a moose. And it turned out to just be an antler-less female, much more hidden in the trees than the hiding-in-the-water but-antlered guy we had seen yesterday (it’s funny/sad how it’s already now “just a moose”, and I don’t even post a photo here).
But then, another report, and this time it is a bear, and, a grizzly, up on the hillside above the trail! This sets Rett running off ahead, not to get away from the bear, but to be able to see it before it disappears somewhere. Running around bears isn’t something you really should be doing (the park even strongly discourages “trail running”, to reduce the chance of surprising a bear on the trail), but we had good visibility on this open section of trail, and also good intelligence of how far away the bear was.
Once we found the group of people stopped on the trail and looking up the hillside, it actually took me several seconds to follow their gazes and spot the bear myself. So it was quite far up the hill, definitely beyond the 100 yard “safe” range, but still close enough for us to be able to observe all its activity with the naked eye. Exactly how you want it to be with a grizzly encounter!
My initial reaction to my first time seeing a grizzly bear was one of deep respect. Humans, aided with complex technology, are able to access these remote and rugged lands for three months out of year. Somehow that, combined with our arrogance, is enough to give us the illusion that this is “our” land. But this grizzly’s presence, his comfort and his confidence on this rippled slope, shatters that illusion. This is not our land. This is his land. We are mere visitors in his vast home. While we stand huddled in a group of 10 confining ourselves to this narrow gravel path (a path carved out by humans closer to (but still miles away from) the grizzly’s strength and spirit than us), the grizzly roams wherever he likes, whenever he likes. Long after we’ve moved on, and after the last tourists have flowed out of these valleys, will he climb up to a ridge for a solitary view down onto an undiscovered scene even more bewitching than Iceberg Lake? I hope so.
We watched for maybe five minutes, as the bear moved further up the mountain, and then continued on our way out of his domain. Every 50 yards we’d turn back for another look, but then one time we could no longer locate him amongst all the other shapes on the mountain, and that was the end of our grizzly encounter. A grizzly and icebergs floating on a lake in July. What a place this is!
The whole way back (and maybe part of the way up) we were leapfrogging another fast-moving couple. Near the end, after Rett passed them one more time, I hung back and finally got to talking with them. They’re from Indiana, here for a 10th-anniversary trip (and the first time away from their kids). They’ve made an impressive flatlander adjustment to be here on these trails shortly after flying in from another life (which highlights how lucky we are to have had the luxury of time to acclimate to elevation, hiking, and just being outdoors in general).
In passing they share information that the Grinnell Glacier trail has opened. Argh! That was the hike Rett most wanted to do here, but it hadn’t yet opened for the season because it was still blocked by snow. And now we won’t be able to do it since it’s our last day. But wait, what was I just saying to myself about our luxury of time? Can we stay here in Many Glacier for one more day, to do one more hike, to bring us one hair closer to the freedom of the grizzly?
At the restaurant we each ordered up a whole pizza for ourselves, I traced out all the places we’ve walked on the trail maps cleverly laminated into the table tops, and we figured out where we would be tomorrow…