Monday, January 27, 2014

Glacier National Park: My Favorite Day - Pitamakan Pass & Dawson Pass

Glacier NP – 8/23/13 – Pitamakan Pass & Dawson Pass – 15.8 Miles

“What day is it?”

 “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

 “My favorite day,” said Pooh.

My favorite day at Glacier National Park!  Also a day that I was very nervous about because timing was important.  The Pitamakan-Dawson Pass Loop is challenging in distance and elevation, but the distance can be shortened by taking a boat shuttle.  But rather than shuttling at the beginning of our hike as many people would, we wanted to do the loop counterclockwise and end with the shuttle…and the last one of the day was at 5:15 p.m.  Anyone who missed it would have a few more miles to walk.

So after repeatedly asking questions about the trailhead location and drive time, poring over the hike description, losing sleep over various tragic scenarios and generally obsessing that I wouldn’t be able to hike fast enough to make it to the boat, I arose extra early in the morning to get prepared.  Cathy and Dolores were also up (we were always up before the guys) and I asked if they would mind leaving early.  Dolores was reluctant to “split up the group” but I said that we would quickly get split up on the trail anyway, and Cathy was all for moving ahead, so we drove off as the guys were still making their lunches.  (No suspense:  they did catch up to us on the trail later in the morning.) 

The trailhead is located in a section we had not yet explored called Two Medicine, which borders the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and features a string of lakes (similar to the Grinnell Lakes) including Upper Two Medicine, Two Medicine and Lower Two Medicine Lakes.  Where does the name Two Medicine come from?  One story I found online is that when the land was set aside to become a national park, names were given to many of the natural features.  On the shores of the lake were the remains of two medicine lodges that were once used in initiation ceremonies for young boys of the Blackfeet tribe.  The term “the lake of the two medicine lodges” eventually got shortened to Two Medicine, which encompasses the areas all around the lakes.

With the help of a ranger we found our trailhead, starting with a wide footbridge crossing Dry Fork (not dry here where it flows between Pray Lake and Lower Medicine Lake).  The first 2.6 miles were an easy walk through a lodgepole pine forest with glimpses of Rising Wolf Mountain on the left. 

We crossed wet and dry sections of Dry Fork Creek on footbridges (Jeff’s photo).  Interesting fact:  some footbridges are removed and secured during the winter and put in place after the snow melt in spring/early summer.

Cathy and Dolores moved ahead and I found myself again enjoying solitude with my bear spray canister securely on my belt.  Experience had taught me that as the trail climbed the trees thinned and the views opened up.  But something was different today.  There were no clouds but the sky was gray, and why was that haze around the sun?  Answer:  smoke from wildfires in southern Montana had reached Glacier NP.

I’ve learned to keep an eye out for faint side trails.  Just a few yards off the trail I was rewarded with this lovely waterfall.

An even better view of the waterfalls

I had a gentle but steady climb to Old Man Lake.  There is a campground there somewhere in the trees but I didn’t go close to the lake edge.  I thought this tree exhibited lots of character.

The first serious challenge awaiting me:  climbing the switchbacks up to Pitamakan Pass.  It was steep, breathtaking, and I was breathless for most of it.  Déjà vu’ back to climbing Hurricane Pass in the Grand Tetons, only now I knew what to expect so I could enjoy it more – and here there were no snow fields to tiptoe across. 

Old Man Lake, Flinsch Peak on the left, which Jeff summitted later in the day (of course), and part of Mount Morgan on the right.  There is a photo later in the day taken from the low saddle looking over to the point where this photo is taken.

Mount Morgan with a tiny bit of Old Man Lake in the lower left.  Once the trail topped out at the pass, our route continued counter- clockwise around on the far sides of Mount Morgan and Flinsch Peak.

As I moved slowly and steadily up the switchbacks, I noticed tiny movements below me and realized that the guys were catching up. 

Pitamakan Pass is a long, narrow saddle, only about 25 feet wide, and standing in the center of it I could look down at Old Man Lake on my left and Pitamakan Lake on my right (in the photo here) and a smaller unnamed lake above it.  Pitamakan Pass Trail continues winding its way down between the two lakes.  With all that I’d seen so far on this trip, the majesty of the mountains continued to surprise and impress me.  Standing there, taking deep breaths, I tried to open my eyes wider and wider and yet I still could not see it all.  Even as I write this months later, with my topo map spread out on the table, I can feel the contradiction of my insignificance and yet my special place in the world.

And there were more marvels yet to come.

At Pitamakan Pass, Cathy and Dolores had met some other hikers and stopped to eat.  That is Mount Morgan looming ahead.

Looking back along the pass, Ken and Jeff are on our heels.  Pitamakan Pass Trail goes down to the left bottom corner.

Bighorn sheep having a little battle over girlfriends

Taking a minute to rest and reflect

From there the trail stayed level for about four miles as it skirts along the slopes of Mount Morgan and Flinsch Peak.  Level, yes, but very narrow ledge walking and no place to get lazy about watching your footing.  Dolores was a bit nervous and walked alone in her zone while Cathy and I shouted and woo-hooed and grinned all through the too-short 3.7 miles.

Walking along the open area between Mount Morgan and Flinsch Peak, we can see Old Man Lake again, the long saddle of Pitamakan Pass in the middle left.  The smoky haze stayed with us all day.

An outcropping of rocky pedestals – do we dare?  Yes we do. 

Flinsch Peak looks intimidating to me, enticing to Jeff.  Here he and Ken passed us and Jeff headed for the summit from the back side.  Ken didn’t go up this one, just waited for Jeff.  Brandon was a bit slower today, still walking on sore feet. 

Cathy moving fast down the switchbacks at Dawson Pass (she and Dolores are both like mountain goats on the downhills).  This was the most difficult descent of the week and my knees were crunching and grinding no matter what I did, slowly and deliberately stepping down or lowering my center of gravity and skipping, so I opted for the quick and dirty…because I had a boat to catch, remember?

We blew past No Name Lake backcountry camping area when the trail leveled out and kept our eyes open for the South Shore Trail to the boat dock.  As we drew closer, we encountered a couple of ranger-led hikes so we knew we were in the right neighborhood.

Let’s at least stop for one flower, though, lovely blue gentian blooming by the trail

And we made it to the boat dock by….4:00 p.m.!  Ahhhhh…. 16 miles in 7.25 hours.  We took our boots off and waded in the water, then laid down on the tiny beach as we waited for the guys to arrive.  The clock ticked closer and closer to shuttle time.  Where were they? 

They strolled up right at 5:00, just minutes before the boat.  They tried to look cool but I’ll bet there was a little bit of sweating going on in that last hour.  Sitting on the boat as it slowly puttered across Two Medicine Lake, I mentally gave myself a pat on the back that I had completed the hike in good time AND enjoyed the entire day.  I think I’m improving.

We collected cars and gear and met Marta for dinner in East Glacier.  She was camping at Cut Bank and planned to join us for our last hike tomorrow.  We enjoyed a marvelous meal at Luna’s:  salmon burgers with avocado and huckleberry pie!   This is the life.

“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.” ~Winnie-the-Pooh

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