At home in the wild

Man feels surprisingly at ease in Glacier National Park, a world of untrammeled nature

September 02, 2007|By Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen,Los Angeles Times

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. -- The late July storm broke over the valley like a wave over the prow of a ship. Hikers, emerging from the forest, dashed across stretches of lawn as lightning cut across the darkening sky. Couples in canoes awkwardly zigzagged their way toward the dock as thunder rumbled overhead.

In front of the Many Glacier Hotel, picnickers packed up their lunch and scurried toward the first open door.

Inside, a hastily built fire gained strength and filled the lobby with the scent of burning pine. Wet shoes and socks lined the hearth and, in time, not an empty sofa or chair could be found.

"Look how big it is, Daddy." A girl opened her palm to reveal a handful of hail, which was now bounding off the deck.

A man in his mid-40s shared a chocolate bar with his ponytailed daughter. A young girl fell into the pages of her novel. Someone pushed a trash can beneath a leaking skylight, and over by the piano one guest stood, violin poised, and began to play "Music of the Night," accompaniment for the din of strangers and friends that suddenly filled the room.

The rain and hail lasted two hours that afternoon, but no one seemed bothered. At the Many Glacier Hotel, where storms and bears and rugged expanses of mountainous beauty abound, the communal experience is a welcome, if temporary, respite from the call of the wild.

My wife, Margie, and I stayed here last summer during a 10-day trip to Glacier National Park. We planned to divide our time on the eastern side of the park in a district known as Many Glacier and at the Prince of Wales Hotel in the Canadian township of Waterton. I initially had come here to tell the story of a man returning to the park after being attacked the previous summer by a grizzly on one of its trails.

Confident that encounters like his are the exception, I extended our stay to sample a vacationer's summer experience of Glacier and, in the process, discovered that the park is a glorious combination of the raw and the cooked, the wild and the civilized, a place where the hand of man is surprisingly at home in a world teeming with predators and untrammeled nature.

Glacier trek

OK, I admit it: I was beat. By the time I finished the 12-mile round-trip trek to Grinnell Glacier, my dogs were barking. It was my first full day in Many Glacier, and I was hiking with a group that included Johan Otter, the survivor of the bear attack.

Described as a moderate climb -- a 1,600-foot gain over six miles -- the trek to Grinnell Glacier is one of the most popular in the park, and we felt safe. As we slowly ascended the switchbacks above Lake Josephine, calling out "aaa-ooo" to keep any unseen bears at bay -- always best to make a lot of noise when hiking on these trails -- the Grinnell Valley spread out before us.

Steep mountains with jigsaw patches of snow near their peaks cradled turquoise lakes. Meadows of wildflowers -- false hellebore, penstemon and columbine -- lapped against copses of alder and forests of elfin spruce. No wonder hikers think of Switzerland when they see these vistas.

To understand the appeal of Glacier, you must go back more than 20,000 years, when an ice sheet covered this part of northwestern Montana so deeply that only the tallest mountains were visible, rising like islands in a frozen sea. The pressure of the ice carved the horns, aretes, cirques and hanging valleys for which the park is known.

Blackfoot Indians called this stretch of the northern Rockies "Miistakis," the Backbone of the World. Naturalist George Bird Grinnell named it the Crown of the Continent, a title fitting both the park's location and its mountains' majesty.

Nowadays, however, its glaciers are getting all the attention.

Toward the end of the 19th century, explorers documented more than 100 glaciers, some covering nearly 1,000 acres. Five years ago, there were 37, and today, 27. By 2030, scientists predict, they all will be gone.

As we ate lunch, rested and watched waterfalls drop into the lake at the base of Grinnell Glacier, we felt humbled to know that perhaps we were watching snow that had turned to ice from before the time of Lewis and Clark slowly disappear.

Sights to behold

Two flights of stairs came easily after the trail to Grinnell Glacier. Down a long hall and to the left, our room at the Many Glacier Hotel had a stone fireplace and a balcony overlooking the lake. In the afternoon, the sun and a strong breeze streamed through the open windows.

When it opened July 4, 1915, the hotel was improbable for its ambition. More than four stories tall, longer than a football field, it was built no fewer than five days from the nearest town and railroad depot, but Louis Warren Hill was a determined man.

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