Glacier Color

“If a year was tucked inside of a clock, then autumn would be the magic hour.”
    Victoria Erickson

I've lost count of the times we've visited our “local” national park, which is what many in this part of the country consider Glacier National Park. Nearly 25 years after my first visit I still get a bit of a thrill entering the park, even if I plan to stay only a couple of hours. Even a half-day visit, perhaps for a quick drive from the west entrance up to the closed winter gate at Lake McDonald Lodge*, maybe with an hour of snow-shoeing along the lake shore before turning and heading back home, brings real joy. If the light and weather cooperate I might get a photo or two, but I'm happy enough leaving the gear in the bag and just enjoying being there. And yet somehow we let a year pass without a single visit.

Not a Mystery

The “somehow” is hardly a mystery or secret; the COVID-19 pandemic has kept Pat and me close to home. We haven't camped, haven't made any overnight trips, haven't ventured far enough from home to need a public restroom, because we're part of that high-risk group called “over 60.” As I write this much of the world is well past the start of a second wave of infections, and the once-low case numbers in Montana, and in Lake County where we live, increase daily at a shocking rate. While many people are behaving appropriately, clearly many are not being as careful as good sense would dictate. It's a bit like climate change: the sweeping cultural and behavioral adjustments needed to adequately combat it are simply too much for many to consider. Somebody else will take care of it. But I digress from my topic, which is NOT ranting about COVID-19 or the general population's demonstrated lack of interest in its own welfare.

Among the reasons (excuses?) we've not visited the park in 2020 is that our favorite places are on the east side. East Glacier*, Two Medicine*, and up past St. Mary* to Many Glacier* are the areas we enjoy most, especially when camping. The park's west side is close to home, very green, and in every way spectacular, but the east side has its own charms, including a very different climate and landscape. In some areas it's quieter, more peaceful, with fewer visitors and less traffic. But the whole of the park's east side has been inaccessible since spring, and looks to remain closed for some time. This is because the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council decided, back in March, to close the reservation to all non-essential travel, and one must drive through parts of the reservation to get to any of the east side park entrances. With the outside entrances unavailable, one normally could travel through the park on Going-To-The-Sun Road (GTTSR) to St. Mary on the east side, and from there north to Many Glacier or south to Two Medicine and East Glacier. But there is no “normally” any more. To comply with the Tribe's closing of the reservation, the Park Service closed GTTSR at Rising Sun, stopping access via the Sun Road to St. Mary.

Of course, the entire park had closed in March, leaving no access at all until the west side reopened on 8 June. So far in 2020 park visitation is down 48%, according to a 27 October article in the Missoulian.

In late September Pat and I made a shopping trip north to Kalispell, and since that's less than an hour from the park, we decided to drive over to have a look. We didn't encounter much traffic at the park entrance or in Apgar at the foot of Lake McDonald. It seems everyone enters the park and heads directly up GTTSR to Logan Pass. The parking lot there is often a circus because it' fills early and often, and people drive around and around looking for an empty space. We chose to stay lower, and after our long absence we were happy just to hang around the lake area. We decided the fall color needed a few more days to reach its peak, so we headed home and made plans to return in a week or so.

The Perfect Day

Fall color across Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

Fall color across Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

We did, on October 5th, and could not have timed it better. Being a weekday, and after the end of the traditional tourist season, we had only a brief wait to get through the short entrance line of cars, and experienced little traffic once in the park. I had two photos in mind, and expected to find a few more scenes to play with. After the essential stop at the boat ramp in Apgar for a first look at Lake McDonald and the surrounding mountains, we started up GTTSR and then crossed the bridge over McDonald Creek at the north end of the lake. I'd planned to walk out to the gravel bar where the creek enters the lake. The bar and a wide flood plain are exposed during this low-water time of year, and except for the need to be careful picking one's way through the big cobbles, it's an easy walk from the end of the bridge, where I'd left the car. I carried my full pack, not knowing in advance which lens I'd want for the picture I had in mind. Smoke from California and Oregon wildfires filled the sky with a light haze. Not the worst I'd seen, but it definitely impacted the clarity of the distant hills. Thanks to that smoky haze the almost white sky provided little interest, so most of my compositions excluded it. Lovely and vivid local color made up for that, and I spent the next hour lost in the almost-forgotten pleasure of considering compositions, watching the light change as the sun rose higher (but not yet above the Belton Hills to my south and east), listening to birds, the lake, and the sounds of the forest, and generally just looking. The ratio of signal to noise in my brain seems to improve when I'm in a place like this doing what I love, and that quiet seems to stay with me for a while afterward.

A nice surprise awaited when I turned back toward the car: Mount Brown towering above the trees, the river, and the bridge near our parking spot. Changing to a wider lens I found I could position the camera such that a large shrub hid the bridge. With the sun not yet above the trees the color remained a bit subdued, but still starkly contrasted with the dark greens of the pines, and Mt. Brown had pretty nice light.

Next stop: Oberlin Bend. We noticed as we climbed higher in minimal traffic on GTTSR that the color only improved. If the lower area around Apgar and Lake McDonald (roughly 3200 ft/975 m) hadn't yet quite reached peak color, the higher elevation as we approached Logan Pass (6600 ft/2012 m) had achieved perfection. At Oberlin Bend, where just a few vehicles occupied the large parking area, Logan Creek makes a series of little spills over impressive rocks and through brilliant yellow-gold berry bushes, with towering Mt. Clements in the background. While not yet 11:00, bright sun set fire to the foliage and made the water sparkle. Lots of opportunity for both close-in and wider photos that included the distant mountain.

Logan Creek below Mt. Clements in Glacier National Park

Logan Creek below Mt. Clements in Glacier National Park.

We continued up the road to the Logan Pass parking lot. We'd wondered why we'd seen so little traffic both down in Apgar and on the road. It became clear the moment the Pass parking lot came into view; everyone in the world was there. We didn't stop, just pulled through the lot, out the other side, and started back down toward Apgar, and one final stop for photos.

Western red cedars are common at the lower elevations of Glacier's west side, and Lake McDonald is ringed with them. Along the south shore in Apgar several of the giant trees have gnarly, exposed roots, silvery-gray from age and weather and wave action. In the fall, with the lake level lower than earlier in the year, there's a wide span of gravel beach on which to stand and look back at those roots. They're twisted and cracked and tangled into interesting patterns, and I've photographed them a number of times. I did it again on this day, when the soft light (remember the hazy sky) made for nice light/shadow within the roots. I made my photos, and then we used a nearby bench as a perch while we ate lunch and spent a little time watching kayakers and others playing in the lake.

We left the park and were home by 4:00. It had been a beautiful, memorable, blue-sky day in the middle of a two-week period of similar warm, dry days. We didn't know that would change quickly. A couple of weeks later, with the changing climate bringing manic-depressive weather, we very suddenly went from daytime high temperatures in the 70s (F) to the 20s, with nighttime low temperatures below zero. On 23 October we had a foot of snow at home, with much more at higher elevations in the mountains. Snow closed GTTSR above the Avalanche parking area, shutting off access to Logan Pass. I'm writing this at the very end of the month, as the weather warms toward more normal day and night temperatures. The fall color is pretty much gone, having been zapped by the cold snap and largely shredded by the snow. But what a great fall it was for those glorious couple of weeks!

*For those unfamiliar with Glacier National Park, the Park Service's map might help with some of the place names used above.

October, 2020

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