Nicholas and I woke with the sun to be first in line at the Backcountry Office. For those who are not familiar with how backpacking in national parks work, I will explain.
There are limited campsites that hikers can reserve ahead of time in the backcountry of major national parks: Yosemite, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, etc. But these limited sites have to be reserved months ahead, and sometimes, if there are multiple applicants, which usually there are, then it turns into a digital stampede for a site. Many backpackers at home are pounding the submit button on their computers, and whoever has the fastest wifi wins. Yes, I know you are thinking this sounds like a lot of trouble to camp in the woods, but it’s not just “camping.” This is hiking 10-50+ miles into the wilderness with your food, water, shelter on your back. No 911 to bail you out of a dangerous jam, just your wits. So, getting the sites is crucial to getting the trail you want. This means hikers, who did not win the digital stampede, have to wait in line with other backpackers to see what sites are available the day of, and it’s competitive. When we say we woke with the sun, we set our alarms at 5 and headed straight to the office to wait for the doors to open at 8. We were positive two and a half hours before the office opens would ensure a first spot in line, but no. We were third. Like I said, it’s competitive.
Now, this waiting-in-line-business adds another layer of complexity to choosing a route: you don’t know if the other hikers want the same sites/trails as you, and you don’t know what is available. Essentially, hikers go in blind. This led Nicholas and I to write down multiple backpacking routes through the park, all different in length. We rated them in desirability, considering miles and location; they were all loops except our last one which was the longest and craziest to access.
We deliberated over maps by headlamp in the dim of morning, and when finally a ranger opened the door, hikers stampeded in. We approached the counter when our turn came and asked for the availability of our various routes. Our first choice eliminated due to its proximity to the wildfire on the eastern side. Our second and third thwarted by one or two sites being booked. Our last choice, the 4-day, 62-mile, non-loop became available as the hiker beside us changed his route, freeing up a site we needed. The ranger looked wide-eyed, “you’ll definitely see some stuff; it’s wild terrain.” He added, “and you two are strong hikers, right? The first day is 17.5 miles and has 3,000 feet of elevation gain.” Nicholas and I looked at each other and said, “yeah, we got this.”
One of the hurdles of hiking a non-loop is hitchhiking. It requires you to leave your car either at the beginning or end of the trail. We decided to leave our rental at the end in The Loop parking lot. We wanted to avoid driving our rental on sixty miles of “rough dirt roads,” as stated by the ranger. Plus there was the added bonus of staggering to the car and hightailing it to the closest restaurant.
But our decision also meant we had to hitch over 60 miles to our trailhead at Kintla Lake, near the border of Canada. We parked the car and boarded the shuttle to Apgar, unfortunately the shortest part of our hitch. We hit the pavement and soon-to-be-dirt of North Fork Road. Nicholas encouraged me to do most of the hitching because I was “a cute, petite, curl puff – the least intimidating creature, ever.” So I stuck out my petite thumb in hopes to flag down a benevolent driver. Car after car sped by when finally a black sedan pulled over! I peered into the car window and explained we were going to Polebrige to get on Inside North Fork Road. The clean-cut 28-year-old, either named Greg or Doug, agreed and told us to get in. Greg or Doug explained he was on a business trip in Missoula, MT, and decided to explore Glacier on the lay leg of his trip. He was clearly a car explorer as his safari khaki attire wasn’t even dusty, and on the middle counsel sat his large Canon DLSR. Conversation with Greg or Doug was enjoyable and he confessed that he’d only take us as far as Polebridge in fear of the tires coming off. We thanked him profusely and were off to find our next hitch.
Several minutes passed when a truck told us they were going to Bowman Lake and we could hop in before the road split. Although we were only in the truck bed for a few miles before saying goodbye, we were still thankful. We stayed left on Inner North Folk Road and headed toward Kintla, only 30 to 40 miles to go. The dirt road was rough and vehicles non-existent. Well, hopefully we get there before dark, I thought. My thought vanished as a large truck pulled over. We hopped in the cab with two older gentlemen. “We are going up a ways to fish on the river, so we’ll drop y’all when we turn off.” As they spoke I was captivated by the yellow plains of the park, a contrast from the sharp mountains towering along the Sun Road. A bald eagle swooped down near the truck and soared away, its wingspan four feet.
Soon the old men wished us well and we were on the road again. We were in the middle of nowhere, and another vehicle seemed far fetched, but fate intervened. A smaller, single cab truck bumped along behind us and stopped. Two middle aged men were “just driving around” and offered us a ride all the way to Kintla! We climbed into the bed, ecstatic to be experiencing a hitch of a life time – deep in Montana’s wilderness. Nicholas as several points flung his arms up and exclaimed, “this is wild!” Because it was wild – truly wild.
We arrived at Kintla Lake campground and thanked the two men as we gathered our packs and poles. The campground was self-service, so we picked one of the ten available spots and inserted a slip of money into a metal box. As we set up our tent, we were greeted by Lyle, the ranger who was Kintla’s designated camp host.
Lyle introduced himself and explained that all food – coolers and bags – must go into the bear box. Lyle segued to explain he has been doing this a long time. I guessed that much, because the guy was a small wrinkly fellow with oversized wire glasses, his large ranger hat almost comical on his petite head. He proceeded to pull out his wallet and said, “you see, I’m 95 years old. I’m the oldest ranger in the National Park system.” He showed us his license, smiling. I was shocked. 95 years old and still working in grizzly bear territory?! This guy must be a legend. He told us about how he and his wife maintained this campground for tweny years. And when she passed during his brief years in retirement, he decided to go back to work as his broken heart healed. Lyle was still at it.
Later we saw Lyle curse at lazy campers who left their large cooler on the picnic table. When he failed to find the suspects after five minutes, Lyle picked up the thirty pound cooler in dead-lift fashion and shuffled to the bear box. Nicholas quickly jumped up offering to take it from him, but the little man stubbornly waddled, only instructing Nicholas to open the bear box’s metal door.
And even later, as we relaxed by the lake we heard Lyle going through the same speech, pulling out his license for other campers. This time Lyle also told the campers how he chased a black bear up a tree with bear spray. He demonstrated his charge and spraying technique with his imaginary can of mace. He finished his story with naming all the animals he’s seen while a ranger in Glacier: “black bears, grizzlies, moose, wolves, eagles, goats, bighorn sheep, but one creature I’ve never seen is a wolverine, they’re too elusive.”
Lyle was indeed a legend.
July 26, 2015