Miffed. I remember being miffed when Elizabeth and I reentered Glacier National Park for the first time in a day during the evening of 14 July. Why had we gone to all of the effort of purchasing a GTSR vehicle reservation if people could just pour into the national park unimpeded? It was surprising to me all week how little the vehicle reservations and entry passes were being enforced, especially in the evening.
Sprague Creek Campground is located along the southeastern shore of Lake McDonald maybe a mile to the south of the Lake McDonald Lodge that we’d kayaked from two days ago. I couldn’t find the creek as we pulled into the small campground. Sprague Creek was in its first year as one of the campgrounds that get their own reservations instead of being first-come, first-served as the popularity of Glacier continued to explode. It only has about two dozen sites and a small picnic area tucked into a shady spot along the lakeshore. Right at the front entrance, someone had left out a sign. “WELCOME TO GLACIER! WE GOT BEARS! 32 IN CAMP (SO FAR) MORE COMING!!!”
At first, that sign was sort of a foreboding indicator, but I stopped worrying when I saw that there hadn’t been a tornado in camp since 14 July. It was about 20 minutes later that I stopped and realized that it was 14 July… right then. So there had been a bear somewhere in the campground that morning. And again, this is a campground with only two dozen tent-only sites.
Our campsite was on the inside of the road, which provided me a marginal measure of relief when compared to the leafy underbrush that abutted the exterior sites around us. Surprisingly, this was the first time Elizabeth and I were setting our tent up on the entire trip – and coincidentally, the first time we were ever setting up the tent that we’d gotten for Pam in Yellowstone to be slept in by ourselves. It took a hot second to figure out how to put it together – our trusty tent that had survived the previous two years is certainly easier to assemble. But, this one is a lot more spacious, and before too long I was laying out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag in the back corner. Everything was starting to settle back down, and honestly even the sign in the front of the site was starting to feel a little less real. Why worry about bears? Why have an open campsite if there were truly bears in it every night? Well, that’s when the camp host came by to check up on us. He had probably had a little bit too much of the magic granola over the course of his life (too much magic granola would at least explain his living space. He had somehow co-opted a massive tarp to give himself an open-air command center of some sort next to his tent. It was impressive in a “look at what this wacko did” kind of way). I understand and respect his zealous passion for the independence of the Glacier National Park bears. I even share his commitment to keeping them as independent as possible by minimizing the risk of negative encounters. But I think he went a little too far, and in doing so he freaked the hell out of Elizabeth. Always do your preaching in moderation, folks.
This was also our first camping meal of the trip; in other words, we were on the hook to cook for ourselves. Elizabeth and I had made an REI run right beforehand and picked up some freeze-dried Backpacker’s Pantry meals. That way, all we needed was a pot of water boiling over the fire to produce what should be an edible and filling meal. It took the campfire (with wood purchased at West Glacier the night before) a little bit of time to get crackling hot enough for the water to boil, but once it got going the process was smooth enough. Elizabeth was hungry enough that even after destroying a pizza earlier in the day, she still felt the need to heat some more water for instant ramen on top of the Pad Thai she was already cooking in the bag. I got some water of my own in the pot, waited a much shorter time for it to heat, then began the process of stirring it into my own meal – “Wild West Chili & Beans”. I’ll be perfectly honest – it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great. The food was there, and there was enough of it, and that about summed it up. We went to great lengths to not spill any food, water, or cooking utensils anywhere in the campsite while eating.
While dinner was good, it did leave some dirty dishes and utensils that needed a nice wipe-down. I grabbed them and grabbed some paper towel, and Elizabeth and myself headed toward the lakeward side of the campground. A couple of staircases led down to the brightly-colored pebble beaches of Lake McDonald. We took a nice, quiet beach for ourselves and stood side-by-side ankle-deep in the cool water, cleaning off our tongs andrelaxing in another beautiful northern Rockies evening.
Do you ever get used to how long the sunsets last in the mountains up north? It was barely 8:30 when the sun slid to even with, and then behind, Howe Ridge on the far shore of Lake McDonald. But as we’d seen the past few nights, twilight lasts long past 11:00 pm. It’s such a paradoxically long time with beautiful sunlight int he evening.
All of a sudden, there was a sound right back at the shoreline a few dozen yards behind us. Something was rustling leaves and popping branches. Elizabeth tensed up; I could see the fear of bear in her eyes. The sound got closer, until the shape emerged… of a mule deer. False alarm (and a cute one at that).
After an extremely unsuccessful expedition toward the mouth of Sprague Creek on my part, we took the long way back to the campsite so that I could see where the frigid waters of the creek pass under GTSR. The road was much quieter at 9:00 p.m; we were approaching the nightly closure that had necessitated staying at this campsite. See, Elizabeth and I were firmly committed to the idea of getting to Logan Pass early on the morning of July 15 to hike the Highline Trail. I wanted to be there before anyone else, and conveniently GTSR was going through nightly closures until 6:00 a.m. on the west side of the park for road work. The road closure went from Apgar to… Sprague Creek, meaning we could leave whenever we wanted in the morning but the people coming in from West Glacier couldn’t. The impact of this was minimized a bit by the fact that the Highline Trail was and would continue to be closed, but Elizabeth and I chatted about our various options for high-country hikes. The Loop Trail up to Granite Park Chalet? Siyeh Pass, risking the snowfields? Piegan Pass, risking the same? It sounded from our conversation with a ranger at Apgar the day before that Piegan Pass would pack the most oomph for the least amount of snow risk or exertion punch.
The sky faded from light blue to a slate grey above our tent. With the weather this beautiful, the rain flaps could stay off. As the light began to fade, I stayed alert for any rending crashes out of the nearby brush that may declare the sign of bear number 33 inside Sprague Creek campground this year. Elizabeth did not heed the camp host’s instructions and carried our bear spray into the tent with her, laying it under the pillow. I joined her in the tent a hair before 10:00 pm, ready to hang it up after what had been a different – mostly outside the national park! – park adventure than normal, but still a very, very good day. Originally, we had worried that the sounds of construction on the road would keep us up, but it turned out that the racket from nearby sites would have been enough to drown that out. And honestly, it wouldn’t have mattered. Bear number 33 could have lumbered right by us in the pitch-black night and I would have never known.