Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 90 – Glacier NP hiking: Snyder and Fish Lakes

Sunday August 17, 2014

“AL – A – BAM – A!”

The trail to Snyder Lakes gains elevation quickly as it twists and switchbacks upward above the horse stables at Lake McDonald Lodge. The forest is thick, but the understory absent, so it is not claustrophobic in the dark gloom of deep shade on a cloudy day.

“A – LAS- KA!”

This trail also leads to the Sperry Chalet, and many people ride horses there. All of the supplies go in by horse, too, apparently. It appears that a group of horses, or one with an enormous gut and digestive issues, has already left this morning and headed up the trail. There’s a fair bit of fresh horse manure to dance around up the trail.

“AR- I –ZON- A!”

The fresh horse crap makes me feel a bit better about hiking alone in grizzly territory. It means there’s been plenty of human and horse activity along the trail already today. I’m also carrying bear spray on my hip, and I have rehearsed what I will do, should I encounter a bear on the trail. I’ve hiked, camped and backpacked in black bear territory for many years. I’ve seen them while hiking on a number of occasions. But grizzlies, well, I don’t have experience with them, and their reputation is fearsome. I am not scared about hiking here in Glacier, but I might describe my feeling on this trail as ‘uneasy’. Consequently, I’m trying to follow recommended practices when traveling through bear country.

“AR-KAN-SAS!,” I call out.

When traveling in grizzly country, you are supposed to make noise, so you don’t surprise a bear… and he in turn surprises you. Since I don’t have anyone to talk to, and can’t think of any great conversation I want to have with myself out loud, I yell out U.S. state names every couple of minutes. I draw out the names, so it’s a long, multi-syllabic call to the bears.

Bear shit. I’m yelling out the names of the states in alphabetical order on occasion to alert animals to my presence. When I get through all the states, I start on state capitals.

Why state names? Well, I guess I’m not very creative, but it is slightly more interesting than yelling, “Hey, Bear!” every few minutes for five hours. In 5th grade, like most Americans, I had to memorize all of the states and their state capitals. At my school, we learned the states in alphabetical order through the Schoolhouse Rock song, “Fifty Nifty United States”. It is 28 years later, and I still know the song, and can shout out all 50 states in order. What? You’ve never heard of that song? It is obnoxiously patriotic and twee. I think we may have even had to sing it at a school program. Thanks to youtube, here it is:

Once I get through all of the states, I start on state capitals. I realize I’ve forgotten a few of them. I guess we didn’t have a song for those. It is an interesting exercise, and I know if I can’t remember which state or capital I shouted out last, then it has probably been too long between noise-making events.

The trail to Snyder Lakes departs from the Sperry Chalet trail and immediately grows narrower. The trail traverses above the creek high on the hillside. There are more openings in the forest through here and there are long sections on exposed slopes. Through here, the undergrowth has gone for the light, and much of the shrubbery is head-height or higher. I call out the state names a bit more frequently through here.

Unfortunately the cloud bank is sitting quite low today, and I never get the chance to see the valley walls soaring high above. You’ve got to be happy with close-up views today. The trail is more overgrown with grasses than I’d thought it would be. Consequently, my legs are absolutely soaked from brushing through the wet grass.

As I’m getting ready to cross a long talus slope, I see a father and adult son heading my way. I’m almost to the lake, and they are the first people I’ve seen all day. They got a super early start from the lodge. Like me, they are concerned about afternoon rain and are hoping to beat it. We have a nice conversation. They tell me there are two groups camped at the lake who endured a very cold, wet and rainy night last night. They also tell me how to find the trail to the upper lake (it’s not marked). They also say that views are limited because of the fog, but there are bears to see up there if I’m into that. I tell them their hike down should be a bit drier because I’ve knocked off the rest of the water from the grasses on the trail that they didn’t get on their way up. They, too, have absolutely soaked hiking pants.

It is a shame the clouds are so low because I can imagine that the views are pretty grand and of immense scale when the weather is nice. I encounter the grumpy family of three hiking out from their overnight spot, then see the other guy who has been camping up there. He is a little bit creepy and overly-friendly, so I don’t stay up at the lake too long. I certainly don’t go hike up into the fog to see the bears.

Guys at the lake – the views may be more overwhelming on other days.
Lower Snyder Lake. Upper Snyder Lake is presumably up there in the clouds somewhere.

On the way back, I work my way through all of the Australian states and territories, and their capitals, but this doesn’t take very long. Then I work on auxiliary verbs.

“BE. AM. IS. ARE!”


Hiking alone, bear-spray on hip, isn’t too intimidating. I only see one group of people near the lake on the 4 miles up, but do see 2 groups at the lake, and about 7 different groups on the hike back.
Along the Snyder Lakes trail.

I see about seven groups of hikers on my way back down – all of whom are going to get wet – so the bear uneasiness eases. Every group asks if I’ve seen a bear, and every time I say, “No. But people saw some earlier today at the upper lake.”

Once I get back to Lake McDonald Lodge, I catch one of the shuttles down to Apgar, since I missed the visitor centre on the way in. The visitor centre is disappointing. There are sign board exhibits outside, but nothing overly educational and interesting that isn’t already in the park brochure. I go inside and wait in line to ask a question of the ranger.

When it is my turn, I ask the chick, “So I’m bicycle touring and heading over Logan Pass in a couple days. The park guide says it takes an average of 3-4 hours. Is that average for someone without a touring load? Is that average for a man? I’m just trying to figure out how early I need to get up to beat the road closure times.”

She smiles, “I don’t know. But if you have been touring for awhile, then I’m sure you’ll make it up in that time frame. I think when they say ‘average’ they mean it for someone who cycles a bit and comes here and wants to ride the road. You’ll have a lot better fitness than a lot of the people who attempt it.”

“Thanks, do you know what the average grade is? That will help me figure out time better than anything else. I know my average speed for different grades.”

“No, I don’t know, but I’m sure one of my colleagues knows. Just a second.”

She goes and grabs an older guy who says, “Oh yes. It is six percent the whole way”. He then gives me a fantastic short history lesson about the road, how it was designed and how the grades initially were going to be much steeper. Then he says, “But I’m glad they stuck to six percent. Enough drivers have enough problems the way it is. Just today we’ve had a guy drive off and somehow get his car stuck on a low section of the brick wall near the Weeping Wall.”

I thank him for taking the time to so thoroughly answer my question, and he says, “Oh, we like to answer questions. We particularly like to answer the more obscure ones that hardly anyone ever asks.” I laugh and say, “Oh yes, I understand. I have what I call the ‘standard six’ on the touring bike, too. Thank you again for your time.”

The rain starts in again on the shuttle back to Avalanche Campground. I crawl in the tent to listen to music as a cold rain falls off and on for the rest of the evening. The hipster group got absolutely soaked after they got drunk at the lodge, missed the last shuttle, and had trouble hitchhiking back. A hiker guy shows up wet and exhausted after planning an ambitious backpacking route he couldn’t quite complete. He has an awesome attitude toward life, however. A biker chick shows up later, too. She is in Montana for a wedding and decided to drive up here, leave her car at Apgar, and ride over the pass and back over a couple days. Then, much later, just like last night, some car campers come after dark and set up in the hiker biker site since everything else in the park is full. I’ve only been in Glacier a couple of days and I’m already peopled-out!


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