It is now early November. As I post this segment of our 2019 spring – summer road trip, and look at the map below titled with the date window: June 15 – 23, it’s obvious I have taken the summer off. Well, it was a good summer! We shared our home with two seasonal national park rangers, volunteered at Vermont’s national Park, kayaked some of the local quiet waters, took a Maine vacation, painted the house and garage roofs, put the winter wood on our back porch and stacked another three chords for the winter of ’20 – ‘21 and pressed an abundance of apple cider. The Rangers have moved out and headed to their winter jobs and we have 25 gallons of fruit wine now fermenting in our cellar. As we prepare for this Vermont winter it’s time to go into nesting mode and that means, “Finish up the tasks I left undone earlier in the year!”
Sawtooth Mountains and the River of No Return
Camping in primitive national forest campsites has its pros and cons. On the positive side the campsites are low cost, nicely spaced apart with few sites per campground, do not accommodate big rigs and come with trees, a water source and a restroom. Oh yes, and the views are often outstanding. On the negative side the trees might shade our solar panels, the restroom is often primitive (this one was a well built and well maintained vault toilet) and the access road long, bumpy and dusty. Leaving our campsite along the North Fork of the Big Wood River in the Sawtooth National Forest we continually looked back as if to more permanently create an indelible memory of this special place.
As we traveled north to Galena Summit we found few places to stop and look back to the southeast as we gained elevation. At the summit there was a breathtaking panorama view to the northwest as we looked down upon the valley which holds the headwaters of the Salmon River and a range of rugged mountains beyond.
Now in the valley to the north of the summit we find the sign indicating that the Salmon River is called the River of No Return.
The origin of this name arises from the Lewis and Clarke Corps of Discovery exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in an attempt to discover a Northwest water route to the Pacific Ocean. It was in August 1805 that a Shoshone guide led Capt. William Clark to a high overlook of the Salmon River near a mountain pass at the continental divide. From https://www.lewis-clark.org/article/1790 an excerpt from Clark’s diary the following: “the mountains Close so Clost as to prevent a possibility of a portage with great labour in Cutting down the Side of the hill removeing large rocks &c. &c. all the other may be passed by takeing every thing over Slipery rocks, and the Smaller ones Passed by letting down the Canoes empty with Cords, as running them would certainly be productive of the loss of Some Canoes.”
And from the same website: “So, on this river, on the 23rd of August, 1805, the centuries-old fantasy of a “water route across the continent for the purposes of commerce” dissolved in the roar of an unimaginable torrent–one of the most dangerous, unforgiving rivers in North America. Many years later, when its character became generally known, it would be called “The River of No Return.”
Our route followed the Salmon River for 150 miles north to the town of North Fork, Idaho where it makes a sharp bend to the west meandering across the state until it joins the Snake River on the Oregon border where it flows north to the Columbia River and thence to the Pacific Ocean. Don’t you agree that the rapids and steep sided banks of this river would have prevented Lewis and Clark from using this River for navigation?
A two day stay at the Syringa Lodge in Salmon, Idaho provided a relaxing reprieve. Transplants from Tupelo, Mississippi, the innkeepers Paula and Dave, brought just the right amount of Southern hospitality and charm with them when they purchased the Lodge. One evening near sunset the sky turned a brilliant orange in the West just as a rainbow appeared.
While there we met a group of folks traveling from across the state to attend a conference at the Sacajawea, Cultural and Educational Center. We visited there the next day and listen to a presentation about Sacajawea by a local nurse who is a self educated expert on the topic. Sacajawea’s presence as the only female member of the Corps of Discovery is significant on many levels. That she was a woman with an infant tended to reduce tensions when Indian parties were encountered. She could speak Hidatsa and Shoshone, she was familiar with landmarks and when she was reunited with the Shoshone tribe she was invaluable in helping Lewis and Clark obtain horses for the overland part of their journey.
On our way towards the National Bison Range we stopped first in Missoula for a new set of tires, then briefly, at the St. Ignatius Mission. Founded in 1845, it is the oldest continually active Catholic parish in the Jesuit tradition in the West. It has been the center of religious life in Mission Valley since the 1830s when Salish Indian delegations repeatedly asked religious leaders to establish a mission there. Sadly, it appears that priests and nuns were involved in sexual and physical abuse of Native Americans at boarding schools or remote parishes and villages since the 1950s. Reparations resulting in $160 million triggered bankruptcy procedures against the Society of Jesuits which have been successful. That said, the fresco paintings inside the mission church are unique and numerous.
Since 1908 the National Bison Range has provided a refuge and a breeding population for these large ungulates. A late afternoon and then an early drive the following morning brought us close to several hundred bison. There were not as many as we saw in the northeast area of Yellowstone but as we slowly drove through the herd it was impressive. And the National Bison Range has other hoofed animals as well.
Glacier National Park
The triad of sedimentation, uplift and glaciation described the formation of Glacier National Park. Officially the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park occupies 1800 square miles of rugged Rocky Mountain landscape and is managed with the cooperation of the United States and Canada. It has some of the oldest (1.6 billion years) and best preserved sedimentary rock in all of North America. The Lewis Overthrust Fault created dramatically high mountains which have subsequently eroded to form a variety of shapes. Tooth like horns, sharp edged ridges, glacial cirque’s, U-shaped valleys and deep glacial lakes are all features which resulted from glacial erosion. It is the abundance of these high elevation sharply pointed peaks which led to the name “Crown of the Continent” as a descriptor of Glacier National Park. Conservationist George Bird Grinnell, who lobbied for the parks creation, described the mountaintop glaciers as “the jewels in the crown”. Triple Divide Peak is truly at the top of the crown of the North American continent sending its snowmelt into three separate watersheds: from Lake McDonald into the Pacific, from Lake St. Mary into the Atlantic and from Waterton Lake into the Arctic Ocean.
The Great Northern Railway was instrumental in establishing Glacier National Park as a tourist destination. The term “See America First” was first used by the railway at the turn of the 20th century as part of its promotion of its National Park Route. To attract wealthy American tourists away from European destinations the Great Northern Railway built elaborate hotels and chalets (with Swiss Alpine theme architecture) in the park as comfortable accommodations.
Glacier Lodge, the fourth grand Lodge built by the Great Northern Railway, located outside the Park boundary in the village of East Glacier was also built in 1913. In our early morning drive from the west to the east side of the park, we missed a visit to this historic structure. Oddly enough we learned about the influence of the Great Northern Railway and its construction of the Grand Lodges of Glacier National Park from the Canadian tour guide on the Waterton Lake boat ride.
After the railroad was built from the Minnesota westward to Washington, towns, settlements, and stores sprang up along the tracks. Settlers followed the tourists along this route and came to stay leading to the name “Empire Builder”. Amtrak has retained the name for this northern route which is still in operation today.
There are four major U.S. entry points into Glacier National Park and we experienced three of them. The Going to the Sun Road which connects the west side from Lake McDonald Valley to the east side at Lake St. Mary by way of the high elevation Logan Pass, was still closed in mid-June when we visited. Snow removal and repair of avalanche damage was scheduled to continue well into July. Two Medicine near East Glacier in the southeast and Many Glacier in the northeast are the other two. A fifth entry point from the town of Waterton in Alberta Canada completes the list.
We abbreviated our stay at the western edge of the park because the upper sections of the Going to the Sun Road were closed for repairs, although we did drive the lower elevation section. Additionally, forest fires in recent years have restricted access and diminish the beauty of the western shore of Lake McDonald. We did make a short hike along the lake and the forest is recovering but it will be years before it regains its previous magnificence. It was a blustery day for our shoreline hike but they were a couple of brave kayakers out on Lake McDonald.
I had wanted us to be able to camp in the Many Glacier campground but the campsites available online six months earlier were all taken. With that goal in mind we departed our west side Fish Creek campground at 6 AM and drove the 2 ½ hour journey around the southern end of the park. Here are a few shots we took during that morning drive.
We arrived at the Many Glacier Campground at 8:30 AM and we were in luck! We scored one of the last non-reservation campsites: close to the restrooms and with the sky window for our solar panels that kept us in power for our three night stay. The bonus was that in the adjacent site were camped two Berkeley physicist students from Norway who were wrapping up their US experience with a road trip. Oline and Jonas were two friendly, interesting people who shared dinner with us and later shared their campfire (I had to show them how to light it) one evening.
On the 4 mile round-trip hike to Red Rock Falls I was accompanied by several dozen other visitors. There was constant chatter among hiking groups (suggested by the Park service as an effective way to stay safe by avoiding a surprise encounter with a grizzly bear) and I saw no wildlife but enjoyed the opportunity to stretch my legs.
Early one morning we did spot a young grizzly wandering through the campground when our cameras were not available. We did catch a couple of black bear with the camera-note the color variation from dark brown to pale brown. And one evening as we were headed to the Many Glacier Hotel we saw a cow moose with her calf trying to escape the crowds in the parking lot.
A day trip back south to the Lake St. Mary entrance and a drive on the east end of the Going to the Sun Road along reminded me of some of the photos I took back in 1966. Here is a sequence of June 1966 photos taken while driving west on the Going to the Sun Road.
And here are a few pictures taken in 2019. Some scenes change very little, although the number of tourists certainly have.
As we drove the eastern end of Going to the Sun Road we saw many wildflowers. These are different from the desert wildflowers we saw earlier on our trip. In the last image note the burned and fallen tree from a previous fire which created the conditions for wildflower proliferation.
Leaving the west side of the park early gave us an extra day to drive into Canada to explore the Waterton National Park and what a beautiful morning it was! Along the scenic Chief Mountain Highway they were repeat opportunities to view more peaks along with Big Chief Mountain, a remnant of the Lewis Overthrust isolated from nearby formations by eons of erosion. Precambrian block which rests directly above much younger Cretaceous gray shales.
As we approached Waterton I could really visualize how a glacier had traveled south scouring Waterton Lake and cutting through rock formations.
Prince of Wales Hotel
In 1926 the Glacier Park Hotel Company (a division of the Great Northern Railroad) started construction of a Swiss-type hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, just north of the Canadian boundary in Alberta. This beautiful hotel on a hill overlooking Waterton Lakes which was opened for business on July 25, 1927, completed the chain of Great Northern Railroad Hotels and Chalets in the area.
In the town of Waterton there actually is a small park which features a Peace Park sign and the history of this joint effort. Geologic forces which created this park actually cross the international border. Government entities originally established two separate national parks. In 1932 the service club called Rotary International played a large role in convincing the governments of both nations to join in the formation of this International Peace Park. Each year over 200 Rotary clubs from both sides of the border meet to sustain this effort towards international peace.
The 7 mile long Waterton Lake extends across the international boundary from Goat Haunt, Montana to the town of Waterton in Alberta Canada. The 73 foot long wooden boat, M. V. International, was built in 1927 and is licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry 165 passengers. A merchant vessel operating in international waters and regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard, required that it be constructed in the United States. To accomplish this wooden materials required for the construction were milled in Kalispell Montana, transported by railroad to Cardston in Alberta and then by horse-drawn wagons or sleds to Goat Haunt on the southern (U.S.) end of Waterton Lake. There the shipwright Capt. Billy Swanson and his crew, using a large steam box to bend the cedar planks and oak frames, completed the construction. During prohibition in the U.S. the MV International carried Glacier Park visitors to the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton where liquor regulations were less strict and later returned them to the chalet at Goat Haunt, Montana. After Prohibition the International hosted “Midnight Frolics” where passengers could dance to the music of big bands and avoid the Sunday drinking restrictions of Alberta.
It was well worth the time and money to take the narrated boat trip on this lovely historic ship to Goat Haunt at the south end of Waterton Lake where there is a ranger station (presently closed for lack of funding or the initiative to test the water source). Our narrator on this boat trip was a lifelong resident of Waterton and very knowledgeable about the history and geology.
It was that same boat trip narrator who described the role of the Great Northern Railway, the Park Horse Saddle Company and also Triple Divide Peak which was discussed previously. In the 1920s, prior to the construction of the Going to the Sun Road, the saddle horse company in concert with the great Northern Railroad initiated what was known as the North Circle Trail Trip, a five-day tour, with stops at tent camps or chalets. Three permanent tent camps coupled with Glacier Park Chalets constituted a tour made up of five one-day rides, starting and ending at Many Glacier Hotel.
The Park Saddle Horse Company continued to expand under the brand —X6 (Bar X Six) until at one time it owned over 1,000 head of horses and was the largest saddle horse outfit of its kind in the world, handling over 10,000 park visitors a year on the park trails. The advent of the automobile and the Going-to-the-Sun Road cut into this method of travel severely, and at the time the company ceased operations in 1942, had fewer than 5,000 persons per year.
For those of you interested in a full history of Glacier National Park click the following link: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/chap3.htm
As we drove south after leaving Glacier we said goodbye to Big Chief Mountain and listened to a radio report describing a recent 10 inch snowstorm on the Bear Tooth Highway east of Yellowstone National Park. There would be no side trip for wildflower viewing!
We turned toward Billings, Montana and our favorite motel chain to wait out the passage of a bad weather front. As volunteers at the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park back home we had another interest in the city of Billings which adopted the name from that same Vermont family. Frederick Billings, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, was instrumental in the purchase of 60,000 acres of land in that city for the purpose of building a railroad center to ship gold, silver and copper ore as well as wheat and cattle back east. He and his wife Julia (Parmly) donated funds for the construction of a church and school in Billings. When their son, Parmly, died three years after arriving in Billings, the grief stricken family built the sandstone Parmly Billings library in his honor. It now houses the Western Heritage Center Regional Museum.
I’m not making any more promises about the timing of the next edition blog posting for this road trip. I broke too many of those promises so you’ll just have to sign up and wait for that email to arrive in your inbox.