Wednesday July 30, 2014, 32 miles (52 km) – Total so far: 3,526 miles (5,675 km)
A glacial outwash plain creates a wide and grassy introduction to Seeley Lake. The views open up to show the Mission Mountains to the west and the Swan Range to the east. The entire length of the Seeley Swan Valley was glaciated in the Bull Lake phase about 130,000 years ago and then again in the Pinedale glaciation 15,000 years ago. Massive tongues of ice crept down from the north and split around the northern tip of the Mission Range. The massive flows carved out the Flathead Lake valley on the other side of the Missions and created the present topography in this valley, as well. Glaciers also slipped down the slopes of the ranges to leave many U-shaped side-valleys and moraine-enclosed lakes.
It is a bit hard to see Seeley Lake from this side of the road – it is mostly enveloped by private land. The town of Seeley Lake is perhaps a bit bigger than you might expect with quite a few restaurants and gas stations and the like. Most surprising to me is the size of the timber plant and its industrial aesthetic just to the west. This area got its start as a timber town – it now feels like a curious mix of resource-dependence and tourism development. The town is already hopping and it’s only 7.30 am. This valley is easy to reach from the population centres of Missoula and Kalispell, so there are vacationers galore getting supplies and gasoline so they can spend the day out on one of the many lakes that string along the valley.
The chain of lakes are left-overs from the last glaciation. When the climate changed around 10,000 years ago, the glacier began to melt in place. My geology book explains how huge pools of water formed along the ice where the ice was thickest. The pools of water were connected by meltwater streams. The streams carried debris melted out of the ice and deposited it in lower and thinner points along the glacier. Those low points in the glacial landscape are now the high points in today’s landscape in the form of hilly glacial sediments. The thickest and highest points of the glacier, where the pools of water formed, are now the low spots in the landscape in the form of numerous lakes.
Indeed, the road gently climbs and descends through the hilly glacial deposits in thick forest north of Seeley Lake. Much of the time, views are limited to glimpses of shimmering water down below and an occasional peek at the mountain ranges when a grassy meadow interrupts the forest. The general trend is up until you reach Summit Lake. Then the general trend is down, and a shoulder appears for a time. The road is pretty busy, so the shoulder, for the few miles it is present, is very welcome.
The road up to Holland Lake is in good condition. It traverses private land of lush meadows and ranch-land. It gently climbs until you reach the forested moraine of the lake. I stop at the campground to see about a spot – the friend I’m going to visit in Seeley Lake said this campground was the least likely to be full. Her advice is out-dated, though. The campground hosts tell me there are not spots available (it’s a pretty huge campground), and that the campground is full every night from when it opens in June until early September. They do, however, let cyclists camp in the clump of trees behind the registration board. They get cyclists almost every night coming down off the Great Divide Route.
I look at the spot on offer. It is pretty much right next to the entrance road, just across from the camphost spot. There is room for about two tents right next to each other on uneven ground beneath the pines. They are still charging the full $15 for this. There is no picnic table, you have to stoop beneath the pines, and the toilets, trash bins and water spigots are nowhere close. You have to leave your food in the camphosts’ shed which reeks of gasoline fumes. It is a pretty crap deal, but I don’t know my other options so pony up the money. I now know I should have ridden up to the end of the road – there is a dispersed spot there that was open, or I could have just whacked up the tent in the parking lot at dark and left at dawn. On the way back out the next day, I note that there are also spots you could stealth camp near the group camping area and nature trail. (So should the Forest Service never decide to make a biker campsite at Holland Lake, even though there is obviously the demand, head up to the end of the road or down near the group area – and there are stealth spots to be found).
After I set up the tent in the mozzie-infested clump of trees, I go have a chat with the camphosts. They wonder how I got here around noon. Most of their riders come dragging in around dusk. The riders are almost always low on food. Last night they gave a Dutch guy some Vienna sausages from their supply because he was starving, had no food, and could not afford the restaurant at the nearby resort. The Dutchman was sceptical about the meat out of a can but was eventually convinced it was edible and did not need to be cooked. I explain that I’m not doing the Great Divide Route – that my meander around Montana just happens to coincide with the GDR alternative route at the moment. I came up here because I wanted to hike the trail to the falls. Now that it all makes sense to them, they ask the standard six and then give me a map of area trails.
The guys and I head up the trail. The smoke, which was thick this morning, has dispersed. The heat has not, however. Whenever the trail pops out of the trees, the views of the lake are fantastic but the heat is a bit oppressive. The trail mostly follows along the edge of the lake, slowly gaining elevation. Down below, speedboats tow water skiers and leave behind a fan of white water. In the distance, snow-capped peaks poke skyward. The bowl of the lake is hemmed in by thick forest. The trail eventually traverses a few rocky slopes to reach the waterfall. The waterfall isn’t all that remarkable, but the views out over the lake and toward the Mission Mountains are pretty spectacular.
The guys and I have the spot to ourselves for a bit until an obnoxious rodent comes up to investigate. As I’m taking some photos of the guys, the rodent actually comes up behind them and pushes them over and off the rock. You cheeky little bastard! A bit later some humans arrive at the viewpoint, too, so I warn them about leaving their packs on the ground and take my leave.
In the late afternoon, I go down to the lake to cool off with everyone else. Don’t come up here looking for solitude. I get an invitation to join some folks for a lasagne dinner, but I just don’t have any extraversion in me today, so I decline. Nobody comes down off the Great Divide Route, so I have all of the mosquitoes in the clump of trees to myself. After I get in the tent, I can hear the whine of their wings as they lap the tent. Many settle on the flyscreen, patiently waiting for me to emerge in the morning.