Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 89 – Columbia Falls – Avalanche CG: 4,000 miles!

Saturday August 16, 2014, 43 miles (70 km) – Total so far: 4,022 miles (6,472 km)

Seven months ago, 13,000 miles away, I plotted out what I thought I might like to do in Glacier National Park. Of course, what you dream up while sitting at the computer in the comfort of your own home is not what always happens on the road. My hope for Glacier had been to go up to Bowman Lake off the North Fork Road for some hiking, before spending a couple days at Avalanche Creek, then a few days at campgrounds on the east side of the park. The goal was to get in as much hiking as possible.

But the weather is not supporting those plans. The forecast for the next two days is scattered showers. Then, there should be 2-3 good days before the weather is forecast to deteriorate in a big way with five days of cold rain, and snow at higher elevations, forecast. I’m not too keen on hiking in cold rain with cloud levels so low I can’t see what I came to see. So I’m opting to do just the ‘highlights’ tour of Glacier instead. This means skipping out on the North Fork, so I can ensure I hike the Highline Trail and ride Logan Pass on the good weather days.

I get a super-early start as usual. It’s overcast but blessedly cool. Columbia Falls exudes a curious mix of resource dependence and tourism provision. It feels like a town in transition. Some folks in Kalispell says it’s the only place left in the Flathead Valley with affordable land. Right now, just short of sunrise, the whole place is pretty dead. I wouldn’t want to be negotiating the streets mid-day, however.

I head north out of Columbia Falls on the North Fork Road to avoid the bad section of Highway 2 in Bad Rock Canyon. The forest is thick and the views reduce to undergrowth with larch, fir and pine shooting up above. Mountain ridges peek through the clouds and the forest here and there. I overtake an older couple out for a day ride up to the end of the pavement and back to Columbia Falls.

The paved portion of the North Fork Road has a wide shoulder.

I turn east on the Blankenship Bridge Road. It weaves through thick forest punctuated by cabins and summer guesthouses. It is quiet as I cruise along. The creek appears and we cross the bridge before a short climb back into the hills. The dirt is in good condition. It is a pleasant ride through forest. Eventually, the road weaves back to Highway 2 and we join everybody else on their way into the park. It is only 8 am, but the traffic flow is already pretty steady.

We are avoiding Hwy 2 and the death traps at Hungry Horse. Instead we take the North Fork road out of Columbia Falls, then take the Blankenship Bridge Rd east. The dirt sections are in good condition, so it seems like it was a good choice.

A bike path takes off from the main road shortly after the entrance gates. I pedal along this and don’t see anyone until I get quite close to the Apgar area. It’s as if they opened the gates and sent out the tourists. All of a sudden they are all over the place, and definitely not keeping to the right on the bike path. I startle several groups of people, all out walking dogs at a very leisurely pace, when I say “Excuse me!” Somehow, I miss the visitor centre and all of a sudden I’m back to the main road. Okay, whatever.

The vegetation is lush. And wet. It sometimes feels like a dinosaur could just as easily walk out of the forest as a bear. I see a touring cyclist couple heading west; we give each other big waves. The size of Lake McDonald attests to the scooping power of ice. It looks deep and cold. I keep an eye on my bike computer so I can pull over at the 4,000 mile-mark to take some photos. The clouds obscure the mountain peaks and the humidity makes the air almost visible. It is such a contrast to the last week on the road.

We hit the 4,000 mile-mark while cruising along Lake McDonald in Glacier NP.
4,000 miles. Don’t be so shy about it, Kermit.
The guys at Lake McDonald. The weather actually deteriorates over the course of the day.

Cars pass me in groups of 8-10 at a time. Most people are heading the same direction as me, so they can pretty easily get around, since few people are coming the other way. I note that the cars most likely to be exceeding the speed limit have plates from California, Texas and Montana. These are also the cars that give me the least room. It gives me a laugh.

What also gives me a laugh, and a sigh of frustration, is an old guy in a large sedan. He sits RIGHT behind me for about a ¼ mile. In my head I think, “Oh buddy, be glad I’m in good shape at this point in the tour and can maintain 15 mph going up the very gentle grade. Now could you please just go around me; there have been numerous safe spots!” Of course, I’m in a section without any pull-outs, so his glacial pace behind me going up the glacial valley is slowing up a bunch of vehicles. He obviously isn’t used to mountain driving or driving with cyclists on the road.

After a little bit, he decides, finally, to pass me. Only he doesn’t pass me. He drives up beside me and stays there. Good god – that is dangerous. He is not even out of the lane – he is just squeezing me here. I am looking right down at his passenger who is looking up at me with a nervous smile. I motion with my arm to go forward. Get the rest of the way around me, because right now, if you stay right there, just beside me in the lane, I’m just going to grab onto the rear view mirror over here and catch a ride. You are that close, buddy. Finally, he takes off with a shot, on a blind corner of course, not to be seen again. It was a Florida plate. The guy in the car behind him shrugs his shoulders and gives me a thumbs-up as he goes by. Then, 19, yes 19 cars in a row, go by me without any trouble at all. The last six have the advantage that I’ve reached a pull-out and move over for them. Sheesh! Watch out for old men from Florida! 🙂

The Lake McDonald Lodge complex is a mix of old and new buildings and a mix of old and young tourists. There are lots of people about, and a coach-load of tourists is getting ready to leave. I get a drink from the general store then head the final bit to Avalanche Campground. The parking situation appears to be just shy of total chaos, but I negotiate all the cars nosing into spaces that aren’t spaces and people reversing without looking. There are no tents in the hiker/biker site, so I’m able to set up on the dry patch of pine needles left by whomever packed up earlier this morning.

Headless man polishing one of the Jammers at Lake McDonald Lodge.

The guys and I join the throngs of people on the trail to Avalanche Lake. There is absolutely no hiking etiquette on this scenic trail up to the lake. I’m wanting to get up and back pretty quickly because the weather is deteriorating, but most hikers seem oblivious to the skies. Most have neither raincoats nor speed. I pass innumerable groups, have a nice look at the lake with the guys and about 50 other people, then head back down. The guys and I get some creek photos and then make it back to the tent before it pours. It rains off and on the rest of the afternoon. As of yet, I’ve not seen the tops of any ridges or peaks. The clouds are impenetrable at the moment.

Verne and Kermit at Avalanche Lake.
The Avalanche Lake trail is very crowded with people. Don’t come here looking for solitude.
The guys have some fun on the polished, slippery rocks.0
V and K along Avalanche Creek.
Pacific Northwest vegetation meets Rocky Mountain Inter-mountain West vegetation.
Some carving of the Belt Rock. You know, I never thought I could get tired of one type of rock, but the Belt rock is starting to get boring!

Later in the evening, the group I saw back at the MT 200/MT 56 junction last week roll in. They spent a fair bit of time partying in Whitefish, so I’ve caught them, even though I took a more indirect route to get here and kept taking rest days for my lungs. They do their hipster thing through the evening while I try to figure out the best way to make the shuttle system work for my hiking desires. This is my dad’s favourite national park and I want to do it justice for him.

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