Part 9 - Adventuring with Don 2018

Part 9 - Winds of change – CANADA or no? 


As part of my planned itinerary for this years’ vacation/escape from the Phoenix heat, the next segment was to drive into Canada for a weeklong exploration near Banff. There I would be joining another group organized through the adventure travel company Backroads. In the province of Alberta, I would be participating in another hike but this time it would be 6 days carrying a light daypack and trekking from one resort to another. This “glamping” adventure was sure to be easier on my body carrying only daily necessities and then, instead of tents, my evenings would be spent in elegant resorts along the trails. The Canadian Rockies are a destination I have wanted to see including the famous Lake Louise, photos of which have enticed me for many years. Other glacial lakes, streams, rugged mountain peaks, meadows with wildflowers and possible wildlife sightings also were to be a part of this exciting adventure.


However, those plans took an about turn.


Following backpacking in Glacier, I began receiving emails from the company coordinating the Canadian Rockies hikes, Backroads. They reported that air quality reports from Calgary were in the moderate to high-risk categories due to smoke from the extensive forest fires in the neighboring province of British Columbia. These reports greatly concerned me. 


As I further explored around Glacier National Park, where the air quality was less than ideal due to the ongoing fires therein, coupled with increasing upper respiratory congestion, the thought of further harm to my health breathing in the smoke in Canada put me in a dilemma. Do I take a chance that the conditions would improve near Banff so that my exploration up there could proceed as planned or do I need to seriously consider cancelling that trip? Here I was, so close to fulfilling both of my objectives on this vacation but having to consider my alternatives.


Over several days, with reports from and calls to Backroads including reports from others, the decision was becoming more evident but still, I was unsure which direction I should take.

A view of Hidden Lake, hazy all around.


Then an interesting, if not prophetic occurrence helped with my decision.

Early one morning, as I was heading north toward Canada, I spied a large bird flying low heading toward me. Lo and behold it was a bald eagle flying south. To myself, I thought, “is this an omen?” The symbol of the US is heading away from Canada. Should I now seriously turn around to avoid unseen or inevitable harm ahead of me? 


Shortly thereafter I stopped for breakfast at St. Mary Lodge, still 25 miles short of the border. There I asked my waiter of information he knew about the Canadian fires. His feedback cemented my decision. Conditions ahead of me were much worse than in Glacier. That morning I called to cancel all the plans for visiting Canada. 

Chillin’. A mountain goat resting on a snow field.

Even though disappointed in having to alter my plans and unsure of how to proceed, I fell back on suggestions from my friend Mark Howard who grew up in Montana. After spending one more night in the East Glacier area, I then turned south and headed toward Great Falls, Montana.


Visibility as I drove was hazy from all the smoke attributed to the Glacier fires. Overhead the sun appeared as a blurry white ball at best or not at all. There was no horizon ahead of me.

 In the distance it appeared like a sheer, milky veil, behind which images could barely be made out. Even advancing forward, hills, mountains, trees, buildings all were ghostly images that took their true forms only when nearly upon them. 

Yet with the unclear skies, it did not smell particularly smoky.


I thought (hoped) that once I was further away from Northern Montana and Glacier that the sky would soon start being clearer. Occasionally patches of blue sprang through, but it was not until I reached Utah that consistent clear blue skies with typical clouds greeted my arrival. 


Arriving in Great Falls, MT, I went directly to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Inside I spoke with one of the guides who confirmed that, even there, smoky skies had blanketed the area and would be present for the foreseeable future. From inside the museum the view of the Missouri River down below and off into the distance was dimmed by the ever present haze. However the conditions were outdoors, indoors in this museum, I learned much about the Lewis and Clark expedition into the western reaches of the then young United States. Dioramas, artifacts, correspondence, maps, replicas of Indian villages, clothing, a movie and more allowed me to experience that Corp of Discovery Expedition in new ways that helped me understand and appreciate what they accomplished. It was not surprising that I spent more than half the day there.


When Lewis and Clark reached the area where I stood in 1805, they ran into one of the biggest obstacles on the expedition – waterfalls. Great Falls derives its’ name from the 5 waterfalls that forced the Expedition to skirt around all the falls taking several weeks to accomplish. Wanting to see at least one of the waterfalls, I followed directions that took me far into the countryside and then to one that, while still a waterfall has been dammed to create an electrical generating facility.  Out on the long lonely county roads, some farms were, or had been, in the wheat harvest. Under normal weather conditions, sun shining brightly, the wheat stubble should have appeared a shiny yellow color. Instead everything around was muted from true colors. Not thrilled that the scenery was so subdued, I did feel good that there were places to go and things to see and do that were lifting my spirits.

 After spending a night in Great Falls, I next ventured toward Helena, MT the state capital. Being in no particular rush, I lollygagged all day, taking the secondary roads as much as possible and stopping at scenic or historic places along the way.  Three Forks, Mt, one of those stops is near the confluence of the Jefferson, Gallatin and Missouri rivers. This spot also was significant for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as they had to decide which of the rivers was the Missouri. In the area I explored some hiking trails and scenic overlooks. 

Leaving Three Forks I headed to Lewis and Clark Caverns, another of Mark Howard’s suggestions. That day was chilly but became colder when the wind increased and a light drizzle began. Turning off a main road on the way to the caverns, two backpackers stuck up their thumbs to hitch a ride. They looked dismal and my heart went out to them, standing there enduring the wind, cold and drizzle. With hopeful looks upon their faces that I would be the one to rescue them from the roadside, that soon turned to drooping shoulders and a sorrowful look as I initially slowed down looking out at them but instead continued on my way. My car was full in the back and the front seat had a few necessities there within my reach. I WANTED to give them a ride, but how would I fit two young people in with me?


I drove on.


The image of them standing there just hoping SOMEONE would allow them to ride along stuck in my head as I recalled a similar situation that once befell me when I was in college and hitchhiking home. At one point in that long trip, a driver dropped me off at a busy country intersection in the pouring rain. No one would stop to offer me a ride. Looking like a shivering wet puppy, with my suitcase and a sign with TOLEDO printed upon it, the letters streaking, smearing and washing away, my pitiful appearance finally prompted one kind soul to stop and give me a ride.


As I drove further down the road, my plight those many, many years ago got the better of my conscience. A quick U-turn and I sped back to see if the young man and woman were still there.

Yes they were.

Rolling down my window I told them I was pretty full up in my car, but we could somehow make it work.

No hesitation from them at all!  

That sorrowful look I saw upon their faces from my rearview mirror a short time before had become one of joyful relief.

Lifting the tailgate they threw their packs in back and both shared the single seat beside me. They were cold after standing out in the elements. Turning up the heat to warm them up, I was quickly back on the road.

Although I was not able to offer them a long ride, they nevertheless were so thankful to be even a few miles closer to their destination. During our brief encounter I learned they were hiking the Continental Trail from New Mexico into Canada.

And I thought MY recent backpacking trip was challenging!

 Parting ways at the caverns, I arrived in time for the last tour of the day.

Although the caverns are named for Lewis and Clark, they had no idea the caves existed when they were in the area in 1805/06. The naming is simply to honor those two explorers. Although I suffered a slight head injury while in the caverns, these were very impressive. 

 Coming out to daylight, the wind had picked up and the temperature was getting cold. Rain was smattering and evening was fast approaching. Looking at a map I decided to hit the next little town and find a place to spend the night. Unfortunately, that town’s motel was long ago closed which left me with going on to Butte MT, a larger city that offered many motel choices. From my cell phone, through, I reserved a room and headed to the city. Rainy and cold outside, it was nice to have a comfortable warm room.

I wondered how those backpackers made out after I left them. © Donald E. Kline 2012