Glacier, like most of the Mountain West, is no stranger to wildfires. The park has seen fire every year since it was established in 1910. Some years are worse than others, of course, and some fire seasons are absolutely devastating.
I remember once stopping to read an educational placard at a pullout along the Going-To-The-Sun Road, at an overlook near the hairpin. It described the Heavens Peak Fire of 1936, and almost 40 years later the evidence was still there, stark and sobering.
The 2003 fire season was the worst, burning 136,000 of the park’s one million acres, most of it here on the west side. And since fire doesn’t observe artificial boundaries, a good bit of land outside Glacier burned as well.
Our trips to Polebridge on Thursday and Kintla Lake on Friday took us right through the heart of the area devastated in 2003, as well as a swath ravaged by another fire in 2008. The charred trunks of tall tamaracks and taller larches rose against the Big Sky like porcupine quills.
What we found more remarkable is how the forest heals itself. First the bugs return, then the birds. Weeds and wildflowers are followed by grasses and “pioneer trees” like quaking aspens. Slow-growing scrub pines move in and begin to establish the woodland once again.
It’s an excruciatingly slow process. Scars remain for a human lifetime. Nature knows what it’s doing.
Deb and I were treated to a snapshot of the forest’s miraculous recovery on our treks up the North Fork. We got to see what 18 years of healing looks like — dense growth, vibrant with life, confirming that Nature always finds a way.
The word for today is “prominence.”
The RV park where we’re camped right now, located just outside of a small town, sits almost exactly 3,000 feet above sea level. It’s not the highest place we’ve stayed, certainly, but this spot comes with the bonus of much higher terrain on three sides.
Two mountains rise up to our east. The peaks are five miles away and their slopes are stunningly steep. One is 5,600 feet, the other 7,400 feet. (A crude dirt road leads to the top of the latter, and one day I drove my Ford Bronco up there to cut a Christmas-in-July tree.) Just beyond that, visible from a bend in US Route 2, stands a treeless summit 8,600 feet above sea level.
So, in terms of prominence — or, to be precise, “topographic prominence” — we’re looking up at nearby mountains towering as much as a mile over our heads. As I’ve said before, it’s good to feel dwarfed now and then.
It’s also an example of why, as the saying goes, “The West Side is the best side.” The area is easily accessible, and yet it offers views and landscape rarely seen without shouldering a pack and leaving the road. And unlike places like the Grand Tetons, or even Yellowstone, in Glacier you’re not just looking at the mountains — you’re in the mountains.
Deb and I intended to have breakfast in Apgar Village this morning. Good intentions failed to get us moving any faster, however, and we didn’t roll ’til after noon. Heading east toward Glacier we pulled off at Berne Roadside Park, across US Route 2 from Bad Rock Canyon, and filled a Nalgene bottle with spring water.
Several times now we’d passed by the “Montana Fur Trading Company” on our way to and from West Glacier. Today our intrigue reached critical mass and we stopped in. It was full of local and Indian crafts, all really quality stuff, including a gallery of fine art. We left with a wall hanging for Ernie.
We arrived in Apgar in time for lunch but before the Sunday lunch crowd. Eddie’s already was serving cocktails, so we ordered Bloody Marys (again) with our burgers.
The real reason we went to Apgar today was to see what effect recent rains have had on the view from the foot of Lake McDonald. We weren’t disappointed — jagged peaks against a dramatic sky, the air clear of wildfire smoke. The only haze came from fog and low clouds dancing through the mountains.
The mountains are back. It was a reward worth waiting for.
Wanting a closer look, we hopped back into the Jeep and drove nine miles up the eastern shore to Lake McDonald Lodge. It’s a grand old structure, beautiful in a rustic way, but we walked past it toward the docks and onto the glacial-gravel beach.
We looked to the northeast and saw what we’d come to see.
While the developed area around the lodge was crowded on this Sunday afternoon, we shared the beach only a few other people. We made our way beyond all of them, sat down and beheld Nature’s masterpiece.
Rain eventually made its way out of the mountains and onto the surface of the lake. We hiked back to Mercy and drove in the direction of our campground, still meaning to make one more stop along the way.
Glacier Distilling Company, a craft distiller in Coram, has a tasting room called the “Whiskey Barn.” Deb and I pulled up, sat down and pored over the list of spirits, each of us ultimately choosing a four-sample flight. It was really creative stuff, all local ingredients, ingenious and delicious. We bought a couple of bottles to bring home — but we weren’t quite done.
A short walk up the hill from the Whiskey Barn brought us to Josephine’s Speakeasy, which serves cocktails and a menu of small gourmet dishes (or “tapas”). We dined outdoors, which has become our custom whenever the weather permits, and enjoyed one of the most spectacular meals we’ve had since hitting the road.
I had a “Rocky Mountain Caesar” (similar to a Bloody Mary), but instead of vodka it incorporated Glacier Distilling’s “Mule Kick” — house-made rye whiskey infused with fresh jalapenos, garlic and black peppercorns. For my entrée I chose achiote pulled pork drizzled with lime crema, served with house slaw and grilled bread. Both food and drink were absolutely amazing.
After an afternoon of marveling at the beauty of Lake McDonald and standing in the shadow of the mountains, the distillery experience was a perfect surprise. Surprises are good.
Good surprises are better.
Take care of yourselves, Patriots. Stay calm. Stay sharp. Stay free.