Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Over the edge

Though I left Golden on Tuesday, the adventure really began Wednesday morning when my car almost rolled into a ravine. I wouldn't have been hurt, because I wasn't in the car at the time. This was kind of the problem. If I'd been in the car, I would have been able to put the brakes on. Instead, I was holding the rear bumper of the car, lifting up as hard as I could, to try to bring the rear wheel of the tire up out of the ravine behind me, the one shown in this picture.

I had managed to get the right rear wheel hooked over the edge of this ravine when I backed up from the position you see the car in above, shortly after reminding myself that I was very close to the edge and not to send the car over when I backed up. It wasn't about to fall in, it just couldn't pull itself forward with its anemic front-wheel drive. And I couldn't push it.

So I put the car into drive. At this point I can think of three other gears I should have tried first, but hey, I knew basically what would happen; the car would come up, take off, and I'd have to run after it and slam the brakes on to keep it from heading into the ravine on the other side of the road. And this is exactly what happened. Except for the small kink that occurred when I lifted the car up, the tires bit in, it got going, and I jumped in and got my foot on the brake and then fell out of the open driver's side door onto the ground. So I leaped back up, ran after the car again, jumped in again and slammed the brakes on again (making doubly sure to hold tight of the steering wheel) and the car stopped before anything unfortunate occurred.

This is one of the sillier things I've done in my life, and I'm not going to dwell on it any more, except maybe to ponder that next time I'm left with one wheel hanging off the lip of a ravine I'm going to try putting it in neutral first.

The thing is, I had just watched the sun set on these,

which was remarkable, and woken at five in the morning with no hint of the sun on the horizon and the stars looking as beautiful as I'd ever seen, electric and gauzy. I camped this first night near Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, made famous as the hideout of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, to which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid belonged.

This place, to which I've never been before, is one of the more visually appealing places I've had the pleasure to witness a 5 o'clock light. Above is a video of me driving in, past the ridiculously profuse wild sunflowers that lined both sides of the road.

I played my guitar for a while before it got dark. I am very fond of this thing, and it improves my mood whenever I take it out.

In the morning, there was a lot of wildlife to see:

A confused-looking young mule deer;

My first pronghorn picture. Though I saw a zillion pronghorn in Arizona and Wyoming last summer, I never managed to get an actual picture of one. Hopefully there will be many more. Silhouetted against sunsets and that sort of thing.

That day I drove ten hours to Choteau, MT, where I camped at the city park campground, which had the virtue of being cheap but the drawback of being next to a large freight yard where large trucks began backing up, beeping, at 6 AM. The day after that, I drove through the last of the plains as I made my way to Glacier.

The colorful blocks above are beehives.

At last! Glacier is a large park; I chose to stay at a site in the northeastern part of the park called Many Glacier, because there was a ranger-led hike to an actual glacier, which I wanted to see. But it turned out to be perhaps the most beautiful of the developed campgrounds. There you can see the Many Glacier Hotel, where the bellhops wear lederhosen. The hotel (from which you can see the view above) was constructed during the winter of 1914-1915. Obviously, folks in those times had different values; I mean that we wouldn't build a hotel in the middle of a national park, of course, but also that nobody these days would be crazy enough to do such a thing in the middle of winter. Though I hear they took a break when the temperature got to 5o below.

It was quite cold the first night in the campground, in the 20s. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am equipped for winter camping, but since the weather forecast that day had said it would be in the 40s that night, I left my cold-weather stuff in the trunk of my car, to which I was disinclined to travel each of the five or so times I woke up during the night from the cold.

Speaking of equipment:

This family has not only brought their mountain bikes and kayaks with them, but THE CHOPPER. I have never seen this before. Yes, that is an actual helicopter being pulled by an RV.

I managed to get a campsite at Many Glacier at about noon; the campground filled not long after. I took my bear spray on a little hike to a waterfall that was not notable in any way except for what occurred after. Specifically, the day later, I ran into a family I'd seen that afternoon on the trail and they told me they had seen both a black bear and a grizzly bear just after leaving the trail, and that the trail had been closed due to bear activity by the time they got back to camp.

I saw the black bear.

I excel at taking blurry pictures of bears. This was taken from the car of a woman giving me a lift... the bear was feeding up on a hillside, indeed not far from the trail.

I wasn't willing to go too far afield on my own, but the next day was the ranger-led hike to Grinnell Glacier. We got on a boat that took us to the end of the lake, and hiked to another lake where we got on another boat.

Above, hikers remaining behind on the dock are approached by a moose.

Once we were in view of the glacier, the ranger handed around photographs showing its historic extent.

Glacier National Park was carved by valley glaciers during the last ice age, which ended some 10,000 years ago. The glaciers we see now are small alpine glaciers that reached their greatest size in the late 1800s. Their natural melting has been accelerated by global warming; where once they might have been expected to stick around through the next century, now they will probably be gone in ten to twenty years.

Here is the view in the other direction, showing the broad, U-shaped valley carved out by the valley glacier that was here in the ice age. There are several erosive agents on the planet... wind, water, gravity, people... but ice grinds rock off mountains like nothing else, creating very steep valleys that tend to fill with long "finger lakes" (or fjords, if they're near the ocean).

I saw more wildlife in the park than I've seen anywhere else, including Yellowstone...

Top, a young mountain goat peers at us; bottom, a ground squirrel (not so wild!) begs for handouts at lunch.

We reached the glacier after lunch. Grinnell Glacier is named after George Bird Grinnell, a conservationist, writer, and (most importantly) paleontologist who is sometimes called the father of Glacier National Park. And it is beautiful. The waters into which the glacier is calving are milky blue, due to the refractory power of all the rock flour that the glacier has ground off the surfaces over which it's traveled.

Above and to the right is Salamander Glacier, which isn't obviously a glacier until you get close enough to see the crevasses in it. To be a glacier, as mass of ice has to flow under its own weight. Crevasses are a sign that the ice has moved. The bottom bits are a little more plastic than the upper bits, which crack as the glacier goes over bumps.

Also note the black stripe at the nose of Salamander Glacier above me... nearly all the rock in Glacier is Pre-Cambrian sedimentary rock; it dates to before the emergence of hard-bodied animals on Earth. But the black stripe is an igneous body; it was magma that spread out along a weak plane between two layers of limestone. The white halo above and below it is marble, a metamorphic rock. It was formed when the heat of the magma baked the limestone into marble.

Here is a very smooth piece of glacially polished limestone, with crescentic "chatter marks" made by rocks being pushed along under the glacier. I have seen examples of this sort of thing in New England but they were not quite so good as this rock that the glacier only left a few decades ago.

Ranger Diane Sine talks about stromatolites, which are the only fossils in the park. They are blobular fossilized colonies of cyanobactera. Our ranger was extremely knowledgeable about geology (and everything else); she had been working in the park for 30 years, and just getting to listen to her answer questions for 8 hours was as enjoyable as the hike itself. I recommend this experience to anyone traveling to the park!

The next day was my helicopter tour, taking off from West Glacier, on the other side of the park. I had booked this tour on a whim... I happened to come across the possibility when doing research a couple days before I left... and decided, why not, I've been wanting to come here for a long time. Why not see it from the air? So I drove through the park before sunrise on Going-to-the-Sun road, one of the more spectacular drives in the country.

Almost no one was on the road with me. Above, a "fog glacier" fills in one of the valleys.

I rode on the helicopter with some people from Texas. I am not sure what to say about the ride other than that taking off was just like the experience of flying in my dreams; that is what struck me more than anything. As for the tour itself, well, it was neat to see those mountains from above--and we flew quite close--but it mostly made me wish I was hiking through the pristine wilderness I saw (with no helicopters around to disturb it!). Nevertheless, some photos from the tour:

Grinnell glacier calves into the lake, this time seen from above.

The knifelike edges of the ridges in the park are truly amazing. There's no way you could hike some of these ridges, because there's no way to go around all the spikes and pinnacles that stick up from them.

Looking up into Canada, the border with which lies partway up Waterton Lake.

Another glacier... you can see just how dirty it is, from the rocks that have fallen from the cliffs.

And a couple videos to give you a sense of flying:

After the tour, I went on a couple more small hikes. I never did see a bear on the trail, but there were ferocious chipmunks.

This one reminds me of the dramatic chipmunk.

This chipmunk (seen here with backpack and bear spray canister) was interested in my granola bar, but the bighorn sheep below are after another treat:

Antifreeze, unfortunately. They were licking it up like mad. It doesn't kill them, but nobody knows what it does do to them. (No jokes about allowing them to survive the cold winters.)

A final couple pictures taken from Going-to-the-Sun road last evening:

This morning was fine but it soon became grey and rainy. I am sitting in a Starbucks in Great Falls, MT, right now, looking at how it's pouring outside. Oy. It's going to take me a couple days to get over to North Dakota... I plan to stop at Makoshika State Park in Montana because I am addicted to badlands. It's a problem. But I've just spent three nights in the mountains, which are beautiful, but also highly vegetated, closed-in, and cold. I am ready for something a little warmer and more open.

Most recent pic taken with my camera: a stray cat sitting on my lap top in the service center where I just got my oil changed.

I expect the next post will be from South Dakota, in about a week, but if I get a chance I'll do one before then! Thanks to everyone for your support... do leave comments or check in on my Facebook page, it helps!


Mom said...

Going-To-The-Sun Road is absolutely the most spectacular drive I have ever taken. Do they have any guardrails up yet?

I WILL NOT comment on the car escapade. Wait, I just did.

Your photos are great as always.

Miss you,



Michelle said...

Wow. You left Golden on Tuesday. This blog post describes more adventures than most people have -- and more wildlife than most people see -- in a decade. Freakin' spectacular. I'd say an auspicious start to your trip! (Um, except for the car thing. But that was just a fluke. Right?)


J said...

They do have guardrails at some parts. Not all. I kind of wished I could have been a passenger so I could have actually looked at the scenery while on the road, instead of staring at the yellow line.

Michelle, thank you! I hope the car thing was a fluke... well, there's no telling what might have happened, really, if I hadn't caught up to it. It might simply have gone up to the part of the road that went uphill and stopped, or lodged on a big sagebrush. But imagining that it nearly went into the ravine makes a better story (and lesson for me!).

Kristin said...

Upon reading this entry and after spending 2 days w/small children that are supposed to be related to me via my little sister, I am ready to pack up and drive fast, anywhere! But alas I leave on the 26th, it will take that long to recover ;-) I think that my canine companions may keep me south of the border in WI, thank you so much for the inspiration and I will so not do the car escapade ;-)

Steven said...

At least you still were able to control that car escapade before it got really full blown. Anyway, you got me envious of your adventure. I hope the wild animals you saw will not be hunted and that they will always be there for others to see too. That is really a one-of-a kind adventure!

Magaly said...

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Jessica said...

I loved this post. There is something so satisfying about camping like this it is the scenic views and watching the animals in a closer distance.