Part 8 - Adventuring with Don 2018

Part 8 – Fire

On the tails of the backpacking trek into Glacier’s upper reaches, I had scheduled a 2-day rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. With a night’s rest at Timber Wolf cabins, the next morning found me back at the Glacier Guides/Montana Raft Co. headquarters. This little side trip did not require as much to pack, and what I did bring was carried on the raft. Four other people, two rafts, two guides and myself made up our entourage.

Having experienced several other rafting trips, several of them being extremely exciting, this one was pretty tame. The second day was the best part when we did tackle some fun rapids. On a couple of occasions our guide got us caught up on rocks, but by jumping in and hoisting my muscle into it, we freed the raft from the river’s stranglehold. Everything was provided for our comfort, including tents and sleeping gear. The guides set up a nice kitchen and cooked up some tasty meals for us, including appetizers, hot drinks and desserts.

We were on the river Saturday and Sunday. During Saturday night there was a little rain and lightening, both of which I slept through. After breakfast on Sunday morning and setting out on the river, we saw a patch of forest fire smoke off in the distance believing it to be outside of Glacier Park.

After leaving the river and returning to West Glacier we learned the smoke and fire were right in the park near West Glacier. That night the sound of helicopters was frequent, but as yet I did not know the extent of the fire. Next morning at breakfast I read in the local newspaper that this was a lightening caused fire that already had scorched several hundred acres. Closures of lodges, campgrounds and roads were already in place. 

With smoke hanging heavily in the air, my original plans to hike trails in West Glacier were unexpectedly and abruptly cancelled. Being sidelined from entry into West Glacier, this was a day I took to do laundry, catch up on emails, and investigate other possibilities while still in the area. As the fires increased in size, then at over 1100 acres, my decision was to drive to East Glacier, which was not affected by this Howe Ridge Fire. 

On the east side of Glacier I continued with my lodging plans in the tiny town of East Glacier. From that base, I explored by car further up and into the park. 

The Going to the Sun Road from the east side was open but only up to Logan Pass. Westward from Logan Pass, the road was closed due to the Howe Ridge fire. As the days passed, the smoky, hazy skies were evidence of the fire increasing in size. In mere days the fire increased from 4500 to 6000 and then over 7800 acres were ablaze by weeks end. Lodges, cabins and campgrounds were evacuated, some buildings quickly consumed by the flames.

One of the most terrifying visions of this forest fire was from a father and son who videotaped their harrowing escape in their vehicle as they sped through the blazing forest, trying to find an exit. The images of the raging fire totally surrounding them in their vehicle were frightening. The panic in their voices as they raced through the inferno was chilling. Then, to add near despair to their plight, a fallen tree halted their escape. Having no choice, and with such a narrow forest road, they were forced to drive backward hoping to avoid what had to appear a certain and hopeless demise. Watching that video on TV was terrifying – for them, terrifying probably would not adequately describe their feelings. Not shown on the video was the fortunate outcome of their desperate plight. They managed to get to the shore of Lake McDonald, where, by chance, people were just off shore in a boat. That chance encounter along the lake’s edge, the furious flames at their heels, was the saving grace that spared their souls. Although they saved themselves as they fled across the lake, the fire quickly consumed their vehicle. Reportedly, they initially had been told they were safe at their campground. Being unpredictable, the nature of this forest fire apparently changed course and put them in that precarious and near deadly situation.

Mass evacuations continued throughout the western side of the park, which surely saved many lives. 

Although I could not hike more extensively in Glacier because of the fires and smoke, parts of my plans were still mostly intact, one being a circle tour by bus throughout the park, not just any old bus, but an OLD bus.  

The Red Bus Tour. 

Glacier Park (and several other of our National Parks) once had 1936 White Motors Co. buses that carried 

visitors throughout the parks. Several years ago Ford Motor Company refurbished the old models retrofitting them with new energy efficient engines, safety devices and conveniences to bring them back to roadworthiness, while retaining the outward appearance of the 1936 versions. 

I was fortunate to be traveling solo as I secured the front passenger seat for our daylong discovery drive. As earlier noted, we had returned from Canada after the backpacking by way of the Going to the Sun Road. That was the only opportunity I had to experience that marvelous road from end to end. With the fires raging in the western areas of the park, the road was only open from the east to Logan Pass but closed westward to West Glacier. Sitting in the front afforded me the best views along the drive. Smoky skies did, however, impact clear visibility. No clear blue skies overhead, views deep into the canyons were dim, and mountain peaks were hazy at best. Still, looking beyond the atmospheric limitations, this should be a must do if you visit Glacier. At Logan Pass we stopped for a while taking in the views, then proceeded further north to Many Glaciers Lodge for lunch. This old lodge built in the early 1900’s still retains all the charm and elegance as was intended when it was constructed. With gigantic pine tree logs throughout, views onto Many Glacier Lake from inside or from the outdoor wrap around porch were stunning . I could only imagine the experience if the sky were unobstructed by the smoke. 

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Even though The Red Bus tour was unable to complete the scheduled circle trip throughout Glacier, the experience was gratifying as our driver kept us informed about the park’s history and significant points of interest. 

The following day, I returned to the road and drove back to Logan Pass. Though concerned about the air quality, I set my boots in motion and proceeded on a hike to Hidden Lake. I was not disappointed for my efforts.

Somewhat concerned about not having bear spray with me, and with few people near me on the trail, I soon overcame any doubts and felt confident that all would be well. Views of the lake were not 

Hazy, smoky views from Going to the Sun Road.

crystal clear due to the hazy conditions, but that did not deter me. Upon reaching the lake, I enjoyed some of the snacks I had with me and soaked my feet while appreciating the stillness and reflections upon the water. 

Along the trail, returning to my car, a mother mountain goat and her offspring had caught the attention of everyone in the area. Seemingly tame, the goats were unflustered by all the people scrambling to get their photos.

But it was getting much cooler as the day waned, which prompted me to quicken my steps to get back to my car and on the road again. Nearing the end of the drive on Going to the Sun Road, traffic was stopped in both directions ahead of me. With the traffic stopped this could only mean one thing. An animal of some significance was nearby.

Conveniently, there was a pull out at that point where I pulled off the road and stopped. Getting out of my car, I followed the direction of everyone’s gazes. There in a meadow maybe 300 feet away were two bears. At the distance from where I stood I could not determine the species, whether Black or Grizzly. It was not until I had a chance to review my photos did I see that they were Grizzly Bears.  And no, I did not feel in any danger having gotten out of my car. 

With all the other vehicles and people between me and the bears, any harm to me was non-existent.

Excellent, now I had seen both Black and Grizzly Bears on this trip!

While in the area, I visited the Museum of the Plains Indians in Browning, MT, which gave me a greater understanding of and appreciation for all the tribes that called this area home. That evening I was able to experience a small bit of the life of a Plains Indian.

The east side of Glacier Park transitions from rugged mountains into rolling plains, the home of several Native American tribes including the local Blackfeet. Out on those plains, the original peoples lived in tipis, the very portable and easily assembled lodges that could be described as the first “mobile” homes. It was here, outside of Browning, MT that I took the opportunity to stay one night in a tipi at Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village. This was just like camping, but in a much more interesting and unique tent. 


A fire ring in the middle of the tipi would provide heat with smoke vented out the open top of the tipi that could be controlled by flaps attached to two poles. With the fire danger high, no fires were allowed, which, even though very chilly at night, caused me no discomfort. The comfy sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow and extra blankets, allowed me a very comfortable night’s sleep. In the early morning I looked out upon the rising sun that, with all the smoke in the air appeared as a deep red burning sphere. 

 Air quality for the past several days had not improved. The Howe Ridge fire had continued to rage and grew from 1100 acres to over 8000 acres. Skies were hazy, the mountains in Glacier appearing faintly through the blurriness. 

The time had come to make a decision about my next trek; the Canadian Rockies adventure. There, in Alberta, Canada air quality reports were not good.                      

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East Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier, Montana

The Sun Tipi

A herd of buffalo (bison) near Browning, MT. Glacier Park mountains barely visible through the smoky haze. © Donald E. Kline 2012