Wildlife Encounters

View from our balcony at the St. Mary Lodge

We had lots of great hiking options with St. Mary as our base. The first hike we selected was the Garden Wall. Our guidebook said that if you only did one hike in Glacier National Park, that should be it. The best way to do it is as a one-way hike of about 12 miles. Starting at Logan Pass you hike to Granite Park Chalet, one of the backcountry lodges in Glacier, and then eventually reach the Going-to-the-Sun road at The Loop. From there you can catch a park service shuttle and take it back to your car at Logan Pass. The book said it was easy but after what we had seen of traffic and construction problems in the park so far we were a little cautious. We decided to take a slightly different approach. We drove over Logan Pass and down to The Loop. Our plan was to leave our car at the end of the trail and take the shuttle back to the start. That way if there was any problem getting the shuttle we could just get in our car and do something else.

This mountain goat doesn't seem to be afraid of people

Turns out we were smart. After we parked and packed up to hike we looked around for the shuttle stop. We spotted it a short distance down the road and a shuttle was already there. We raced over just as it was getting ready to leave. But we couldn't just hop on. The problem was that the shuttles were small vans that only held about twelve people. Bigger busses couldn't negotiate the sharp turns and narrow road on the west side of Logan Pass. These small shuttles pretty much filled up at their starting point near the east entrance. To pick up hikers at intermediate stops they always kept two seats open. But there were six people in line ahead of us. So two got on the shuttle. That meant we would have to wait for three more shuttles before we would get a spot. Since they come anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half hour apart, that meant we were looking at a forty five minute wait minimum. And that didn't even take the construction delays into account. We didn't want to spend so much time on a beautiful morning waiting at a bus stop instead of hiking. We aborted the Garden Wall hike and started to work on Plan B.

Hidden Lake basin from the overlook

One of the hikes that we wanted to do was the short hike from Logan Pass to Hidden Lake. The problem with this hike was that we heard from the Park Service that the parking lot at Logan Pass fills up by 10:30 every morning. We got back to Logan Pass at 10. We decided to go with the flow. We would look for a spot and if we found one we would do the Hidden Lake hike. If not, we would go to Plan C. Even that wouldn't be bad as in Glacier National Park your third choice hike is usually still very good. But it wasn't neccessary. We found a parking spot. Whew! Hiking sure can be a challenging sport.

When we checked into the visitor center we updated our plan again. The trail was open to Hidden Lake overlook. Beyond that it was closed due to bear activity. This actually saved us the trouble of making a tough decision. The hike to the overlook is only a mile and gains 500 feet. It crosses meadows and snowfields near the pass, right under the cliffs of Clements Mountain, and ends up at a beautiful spot overlooking the Hidden Lakes basin with Bearhat Mountain beyond. From there the trail drops 750 feet to Hidden Lake. For some reason when hiking it is always tougher to climb back up after giving up elevation at the start. Because of the trail closure we didn't have to decide between a descent to Hidden Lake with its return climb or wimping out. To quote an old chess player's saying, forced moves are easy.

The Garden Wall and trail from meadows above Logan Pass

The visitor center at Logan Pass is a zoo. There are crowds of people there. Everyone stops on the way over Going-to-the-Sun Road. And it seems like most of them are lured to try the short hike to Hidden Lake overlook. The trail crosses fragile high mountain meadows, either still covered in late season snow or wet from snow melt. To protect the meadows most of the first half of the trail is on a sidewalk of wooden planks. There are all kinds of people here, from hardy hikers to tourists in street shoes. We even saw an old guy with a walker who made it half a mile to where the planking ended. We overheard him telling people that he was eighty six. Beyond that most of the travel was over snowfields and the people in street shoes made it look really hard. When we reached the overlook there were several mountain goats there just sitting next to the trail. They paid no attention to the crowds of people who were only a few feet away taking pictures. We took our share of photos of the goats as well as scenic shots of the lake.

It looks inviting beyond but it's the end of the trail

After our short hike we spent time in the gift shop and I broke down and bought a tshirt. It was only about noon so we started to drive down to St. Mary Lake where there were some short hikes we could do with our time in the afternoon. That was when our excitement started. As I was driving down Sandy started mumbling, then let out a shriek. A bee or wasp must have gotten on her clothing and gotten under her shirt onto her back. She felt something tickling and reached behind to feel what it was. Then she got stung. She grabbed the offending insect and threw it out the window. I was trying to figure out what had happened and if she was ok, all the while trying to negotiate sharp curves on a steep, busy mountain road. Then she started shrieking and trying to climb out of her seat. There was another bee or wasp in the car, this one a big one (like, a BIG ONE). I was desperatly looking for a spot to pull over where we wouldn't get clobbered from behind and Sandy was trying to pin the wasp down with a map. Finally I found a spot, Sandy jumped out of the car, and we got the wasp out as well. We hadn't driven off a cliff, which was a good thing. But Sandy had gotten at least two stings on her back near her waist. She had red spots about the size of a dime that were itchy and irritating for her for the next week. (I wanted to take photos to post on the Dog Blog but Sandy declined to model.) We had been warned about bear attacks but no one had mentioned wasps!

The intrepid hikers enjoying the view at Hidden Lake overlook

I asked if Sandy had had enough for one day but she was still game to continue. So we drove down to the Sunrift Gorge parking area near St. Mary Lake. There was a short trail (like a hundred yards) that led to a viewpoint of Baring Creek roaring through a narrow cleft it had cut in the rock. From there a trail led down to the shore of St. Mary Lake. We followed the lake to the west where there were two major waterfalls. Still a little nervous about bears we saw another couple hiking ahead of us and strategically positioned ourselves to follow about a hundred yards behind them. We didn't expect to find bears so close to the road and on a busy trail but we figured it would still be better to let them walk point. Along the trail there were some beautiful viewpoints which looked out over St. Mary Lake. Not only is it a gorgeous view but since there are no boats other than the couple-of-times-a-day scenic cruise, the lake is quiet and peaceful. That's not common on a big, beautiful mountain lake.

Looking up to Logan Pass and Clements Mountain

Eventually we caught up with the couple that we were following at a trail junction sign. Together we made sure that we were all taking the right trail to St. Mary falls. They were being careful because someone else had given them bad directions and they had wasted time and effort going the wrong way. We set out from the trail junction together. Not too much farther along we saw another group of hikers coming the other way who were stopped on the trail. They shouted "There's a bear!" and pointed into the forest. Sure enough, about 70 feet off the trail there was a bear munching down on berries. It wasn't a big bear. I'm not an expert but I don't think it was an adult. It wasn't a cub. That would have been worrisome as momma might have shown up. It was probably a very young adult - a teenager. We watched it for a few minutes. It didn't seem like a threat at all since it wasn't paying any attention to us, even though it had to know we were there. It was moving away from us gradually as it fed and eventually was out of sight.

Hiking along St. Mary Lake - towards a bear

This called for an immediate conference as to whether or not to continue. It was essentially a four-way discussion since the other couple was right there and wondering the same thing. Both ladies were a little nervous. Eventually we decided that the bear really hadn't seemed threatening. So we continued on. We did decide to stick together. Since I was carrying bear spray, which we had picked up a couple of days before, the other lady said that she wanted to hike with us. There is also safety in groups. Bears are more likely to be aggressive towards solitary hikers. So now we were a team of four.

We continued on to St. Mary falls. It was quite impressive. There was a lot of power in the water rushing through a narrow cleft in the rock. We had a great view of it from a bridge across the river right below the falls. Below the bridge there was a series of cascades running down into the lake with the mountains behind. We still had energy so we decided to continue on to Virginia Falls. Another hiker we passed on the trail told us to be sure to go the real Virginia Falls. Some people turned around at a cascade about a quarter of a mile below the falls thinking it was the real thing. Sure enough Virginia Falls was impressive. The water free fell quite a distance. Unfortunately by the time we were there it was totally in the shade so I didn't even try to take pictures. But it was a hot day and it had to be at least ten degrees cooler near the waterfall so we rested and enjoyed the coolness, both literally and figuratively.

Back at St. Mary Lake after surviving our bear encounter

We started the long trip back to Sunrift Gorge. Along the way we talked quite a bit with the other couple. Partially because most hikers are naturally friendly in the backcountry. Partially because talking and making noise is the best way to warn bears that you are coming. They were Randy and Nancy, two retired teachers from Michigan. They had hiked and traveled quite a bit so we traded lots of stories of places that we had visited. We weren't too worried but we did go a bit slower (and noisier) when we reached the place where we had seen the bear before. There was no sign of him though.

A little later we passed a park ranger leading about twenty people on a guided hike. Now these were noobs with a capital N. People who needed to be guided on a three mile hike. Just seeing their dress and footwear made you roll your eyes. Some of these people wouldn't have recognized a hiking boot if it kicked them in the butt. Since visitors are told to report all bear sightings, Nancy dutifully told the ranger that we had seen a bear up ahead where the group was going. The ranger's words said "thank you", but her expression said "I can't believe you just panicked half my group by telling them we're heading toward a bear". While being a park ranger seems like a fun job it was clear to me that she wasn't paid enough.

Eventually we said goodbye to our friends Randy and Nancy. They were going to another viewpoint of the lake while we were going back to the car. After a shower and a rest we had another good dinner at the restaurant. We had survived (barely) our various hikes and wildlife encounters. Or is that bearly.