On Glaciers, Goats, and Change

I’ve written before about the family hike we took in Switzerland in 1998 when my kids were teenagers.  It was a good experience, but far more strenuous than I enjoy. My husband and (now-grown) kids recently took another hike in Slovenia and came back raving about the scenery. I had declined to accompany them, because I’d learned my lesson—no more hikes labeled “strenuous” for me.

But it took more than the 1998 Swiss Alps experience to convince me I don’t do well on mountain hikes. In 2001, my husband talked me into hiking in Glacier National Park. The park is beautiful. I love the calm lakes and soaring peaks in the park. The Going-to-the-Sun Road offers tremendous vistas, with stunning surprises around every corner.

I first went to Glacier with my parents and siblings in 1966 when I was ten (my youngest sibling wasn’t even born yet). We went on day hikes, drove all over, and I saw my first glacier. I went to a foreign country—Canada!—for the first time.

T halfway up to Sperry Chalet

Me, halfway up to Sperry Chalet

My husband’s proposal for our 2001 trip was that we spend most of our time in a real hotel, but take one overnight hike—beginning at Lake MacDonald and climbing to a back-country chalet where we would spend the night, then hike on up to a glacier the next day and all the way down. It didn’t sound too bad, and for some reason he thought I owed him one. (I don’t remember why, but I thought at the time he was right.) Despite my reluctance to undertake another hike after my Swiss experience, I agreed.

Then I saw what the hike really involved—a 3400 elevation gain straight up the mountain over a 6.2 mile trail, followed by an additional altitude gain of 1600 feet in 2.5 miles the second day, and then all the way down. I tried to back out, but I couldn’t do so gracefully.

So off we went. We flew from Kansas City to Kalispell, then rented a car and drove to Glacier. One day we took the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Lake McDonald to Many Glacier and St. Mary’s. We did a little day hiking to acclimate ourselves, but mostly we drove.

There was a bear problem in the park that summer. There are always bears in the park, but several grizzlies had been sighted in the higher elevations near the human areas, and we were advised to make a lot of noise and carry bear repellant. Thankfully, we did not see bears, though deer approached quite close to the visitors’ centers.

There was also a big forest fire in the vicinity. Some areas of the park were closed, though not on the side of Lake McDonald where we were staying. The sky was hazy, but the sunsets were beautiful.

Izaak Walton Inn, where we stayed near the park, was quaint but pleasant. After a night there, we started the hike from Lake McDonald up Sprague Creek to Sperry Chalet, our bed for the night.

Up, up, up we went. And up some more. Every time I thought we were almost there, we had another climb ahead. Finally, we reached Sperry Chalet at the top of the mountain and checked in. Our room was set up for comfortable sleeping, but there was no electricity, heat, or running water in the hotel building. The restrooms were in a separate building—with cold water, but no showers or hot water.

I was tired and ravenous when we reached Sperry Chalet. Dinner wasn’t being served yet, but I bought a snack. After two bites of the candy bar, I felt sick. I don’t know if it was fatigue or altitude, but I crashed. I didn’t eat dinner. I slept dreadfully in our spartan chalet room with the bathroom down the path.

Have I mentioned the bear sightings? How much noise was appropriate to ward off bears but not inconvenience other hikers when I staggered outside with a flashlight at 2:00am?

A at glacier

Husband at the glacier

In the morning, I decided I did not want to hike up to the glacier. My husband cajoled, but I refused. Off he went up to see Sperry Glacier on Gunsight Mountain. The chalet had packed us a picnic lunch. My husband took his half, and I kept mine. I sat outside Sperry Chalet and read a book. When noon approached, I ate my lunch.

Sometime after lunch, my husband returned, waxing poetic about the glacier and the mountain goats he’d seen.

Not to be outdone, I told him, “I saw goats, too. In fact, I had lunch with a baby goat.” While I sat on a rock in the sun eating my sandwich, a mother goat and kid had wandered into the clearing around the chalet. The mother calmly grazed, and the baby goat pranced around. At one point, he saw his reflection in a basement-level window in the chalet and tried to butt it. The reflection goat ran right at him, which stirred him up even more.

The attempted battle continued for about fifteen minutes, until mama goat decided she’d had enough foolishness and took her boy off to the woods, where perhaps they had a conversation about what’s important to focus on in life—such as food and safety—and what is not—such as imaginary foes.

I had a better tale to tell than my husband, though he got a picture of his goat and I didn’t.

Al's goat cropped

My husband’s goat photo

And then we hiked down. Down, down, down. All the way back down to the car. Going down is harder on the legs than going up, though not as hard on the heart and lungs.

That was the last strenuous hike I took. God willing, it’s the last I’ll ever take.

We flew home uneventfully and returned to our routine.

Less than a week later, on September 11, 2001, planes flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Flying has never been the same.

We’ve been back to Glacier National Park again. In 2007 a niece got married there.

But for me, our trip to Glacier in 2001 was a dividing point in time. Before, I was an occasional hiker and preferred to breeze into the airport terminal with my carry-on as the plane was boarding. After, I no longer would do any hike labeled “strenuous,” and airports were necessarily time-consuming and stressful places, where it was easier to check luggage to avoid slow security lines.

Before, while I wasn’t as youthful and innocent as the baby goat I saw, the world was a simpler place. After, it seemed clear that the greater danger we face comes from humans than from bears and forest fires, that our foes are not imaginary but real.

Do any trips you’ve taken strike you as turning points in your life?

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