“You’ll have to take an alternate path off the trail, but it should be doable,” said Rene, the director of Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park during the first trip I took there with my 19- and 21-year-old sons in July 2014. Yeah, right. We didn’t make it to Sperry Glacier. June snow had left snowfields and washed out a footbridge, closing the trail from the chalet to its namesake glacier.
That summer, my sons and I discovered that no matter how well planned a trip into the wilderness might be — and despite how well the national parks are managed — Mother Nature won’t necessarily offer up her most remote and spectacular sights easily.
A few years earlier, I’d read about the rapidly melting glaciers in the Montana park. If we were going to see them, it seemed we didn’t have much time (estimates suggest that Sperry could be gone by 2020, and all the park’s glaciers by 2030). The chalet is open only from early July to early September, and you must reserve a spot months ahead. At the time, I thought we were lucky when we got a room during the opening weekend in July.
We took Amtrak’s Empire Builder train from St. Paul’s Union Depot to West Glacier, Mont., just a few minutes outside the park. We stayed at the Village Inn on Lake McDonald for a few days. Beautiful weather and great hospitality — what could go wrong?
We hiked to the Sperry Chalet, a remote hostel with limited amenities, and discovered the trail to the glacier was closed due to the late snowfall. Nevertheless, Rene tried to describe how to tackle the mountain off-trail. Except for the warnings about the snowfields, known to give way and cause broken legs, it sounded so simple!
We climbed up slippery grass and rocks for an hour, until our knees throbbed and we were exhausted. Still, we were only partway through the roughly 2,000-foot-high, 3½-mile elevation gain. This was no longer hiking, but bona fide mountain climbing. We again met up with the trail, but then there were the snowfields. We started to cross, but realized that we flatlanders were out of our league in these conditions. We had no idea how to find a safe foothold, or even where the trail would resume if we did get across the snow. We finally had to admit we had to turn back.
Saying we felt disappointed would not do justice to our sense of defeat. But as we hiked back down to the chalet, we vowed we’d be back. August of 2015, we were.
But when we hopped off the plane in Kalispell, we were in shock: Wildfires had blotted out the views. At our cabin in the park at Lake McDonald, we couldn’t see the mountains across the lake. Then, a few hours later, it began to thunder.
After the rain subsided, I stepped outside, leaving two dejected young men inside playing with their smartphones. Lo and behold, the sky had started to open! The storm had blown away the smoke, and the view we remembered began to take shape. A bald eagle flew above us, as if to herald a last-minute reprieve.
We hit the trail the next day under a clear sky, enthusiastic and well-prepared to stay hydrated, prevent blisters and outfitted with extra bear spray. (We all recalled the grizzly that had come up to the Sperry Chalet dining cabin while we were eating dinner the year before; Rene chased him away banging a metal spoon on a metal bowl.)
Once we arrived at the chalet, our check-in revealed there was one more trial ahead: It was unclear (no pun intended) if the smoke would return the next day when we wanted to hike to the glacier. We took a 30-minute break to decide what to do.
Nope, I was taking no chances: We’d test our legs and lungs and go for the glacier. We set out about 2:30 p.m. That would mean we’d be late for dinner, but the staff promised they’d save our meals, so that sealed the deal. The hike, of course, was spectacular.
Finally, we reached the long-sought glacier. Looking over the mass of snow and ice, however, was bittersweet. We could see how far it had retreated and, by the looks of it, it didn’t have many years left.
We enjoyed the otherworldly landscape before our hunger drove us forward to what we knew would be a great end to the day. Other hikers in the dining hall were flabbergasted that we did both hikes in one day, but I felt we didn’t have a choice. That “We’ll be back!” determination masked our pain and fatigue.
And what of the smoke and sky the next day? It was again beautiful, and we had great views of the area after summiting Lincoln Peak on the other side of the chalet. On one last hike to Lake Ellen Wilson, I was accompanied by a little friend, a mountain goat, who served as my grizzly warning system.
One night, I presented Rene and the staff with a photo I had taken the year before and printed on metal. (The work was done expertly by Linhoff Photo in Minneapolis.) This way, it would be more durable for the harsh year-round conditions should they decide to mount it.
To my delight, they hung it in the chalet. Rene later notified me of this with a postcard showing a decades-old photo of a much larger glacier: more joy and satisfaction mixed with grief and regret.
Martin Schoen, a father of three adult children, enjoys writing, recording music and traveling to national parks to hike with his family. He is a psychologist and lives in St. Paul.