Starlit Rambler - Adventure Travel Our Way
Imagine a pitch-dark curvy road on the side of a high mountain pass with occasional views of a distant red glowing furry allowing for very little between your remodeled Sprinter van and the edge of abyss. Now imagine someone took an ice cream scooper and made large uneven sudden drop offs in the middle of this road in random locations. This is called Hwy 49 and connects Browning, MT with the Southeastern portion of Glacier National Park. Keep in mind this gnarly mountain pass is not the only way to reach Glacier, but late at night after navigating through the decimated construction site dirt guttered roads of Browning you may find yourself somehow being routed through this pass. Ever since the pavement abruptly fell to unmarked dirt paths you have been asking yourself “Am I in a 3rd world country? I swear I’m in the U.S.”
After driving through the desolate flatness of Eastern Montana the Rambler found its way into the Blackfeet Indian Reservation through Browning and onto the high mountain pass of Hwy 49. With feelings of hesitation on parking overnight on Reservation land, no less on the slopes of the heinous pass, I gradually became overruled by exhaustion and Jeremy’s rationale that no one would bother us. Despite all the Hollywood ideas I could muster up on how unhappy the Blackfeet Indians would be by us trespassing on their land, we woke up safe and undisturbed to a gorgeous mountain view and a quick descent into Glacier. Our sights were set on acquiring backcountry permits for a multi-day backpacking trip that would begin as soon as possible. We were feeling excitement to be back West, in the mountains, and away from the general public. As we spoke with the park rangers at Two Medicine Ranger Station it became clear due to August being one of the busiest months in the park it was going to be difficult to obtain the permits we wanted if any at all. Apparently, like us, other people were not deterred by the 200-acre Reynolds Creek fire that shut down the popular Going To The Sun Road. Settling on a self-shuttle 3-night backpack in the most southern portion of the park from Walton to Two Medicine Lake, we began to prepare for our outing with increasing excitement.
Heavy backpacks intact, we made the 6.8-mile journey through the thick underbrush pine laden woods to our campsite at Lower Park Creek. Four hours later, loud foreign calls resounded through the woods marking the night’s destination. As dusk fell and we began to make dinner, we met the 6 Polish backpackers that would question and entertain us for the evening. Moments after crawling into our sleeping bags diverting from the crisp mountain air we bust out in laughter as a single air horn blast filled the silence of the woods. Little did we know that the next day would be frequented with air horn blast, sometimes only 3 minutes a part.
The morning was delighted with conversation, breakfast, and excitement for the days adventure, our Polish acquaintances would be hiking towards the same destination but camping just 2 miles down the mountain from our site. Starting the days journey ahead of our newly acquired friends we soon became aware of their presence behind us by these frequented air horn blast. Each time we would approach a noticeable potential grizzly bear populated area we would wait for a blast as we knew they made their arrival into that said area. As these obscure bear deterrent blast occurred we would laugh to ourselves being thankful that we had met these people otherwise our attitude towards “the sounds of wilderness” would most definitely held a different light.
After a surprisingly grueling 9.7-mile gradual ascent, with the last 2.3-mile straight up climb to Lake Isabel being the best test of mental endurance, we quickly allowed our currently inconceivable heavy packs fall to the ground and made a run for a dip in the mountain lake. The ambitious run swiftly turned into an infant’s crawl as the pristine clear water approached thigh high. Somehow I still managed to wash my hair and shave my legs on the lakeshore after a 12-day overdue hiatus. Some people go days without showering while backpacking, I go backpacking to shower. Unfortunately my incredible shower design for the van has rarely been used due to leisure time restraints by choice and the general disregard for such chores, a “bird bath” tends to be first choice lending to a lackadaisical outlook on the hair situation. However, I have learned that my own limitations are overreached when my normally non-greasy head hair becomes beyond stringy and it takes an hour just to shave my legs due to uncontrolled hair lengths. Ask my parents, I did not favor the idea of normal showers as a child but I have since gained a better understanding of its joys even if I choose to ignore them these days. Lets say that the 6 fellow Polish bathers and 2 newly acquired campers, Leah and John, were not sure what to think of my rediscovery of clean hair and shaved legs but I think they admired my audacity.
As our 6 Polish friends retreated the 2 miles back down the mountain to their respective campsite, I came to believe that such a shaving display is what gained the likelihood of Leah and John befriending us. Leah later gracefully stated, “Who else would we talk with? Ok, you guys seem cool too.” The fun evening of conversation gained us a new pair to amble along the following day’s 15-mile trail and greatly assisted in easing the pain of the 3500’ vertical Two Medicine Pass. The boys were rambling on about basketball in between spurts of random throwback songs such as “Prince of Bel-Air” and “Baby Got Back,” when we happened upon 6 brightly colored Pollocks with purple dyed fingertips and lips. Like local grizzly bears with big grins on their face and full bellies they were basking in the multitude of huckleberry bushes stuffing their faces and filling bottles to the brim. In mid chomp they exclaimed how they had been on the pass for hours picking berries, this came by no surprise by the hilarious look of them. The summit was thoroughly rejoiced by all of us who had somehow converged on it together, proceeded by a glorious lunch at Cobalt Lake; however, the real work was yet to come with the remainder 6-mile vertical decent.
News from an excited Aussie day hiker made us aware of the invoking newly began Thompson Fire that had grown from 200 acres to 14,900 acres during our time in the backcountry, explaining the heavy smoke filled sky that noticeable set in midday while on the pass. This uncontrolled fire was currently trying to make its way over the ridge of Lake Isabel where we camped the night prior and already caused the rangers to close this nights camping destination of Upper Two Medicine Lake.
Saddened by the news but exhausted we eventually completed the 15-miles back to Two Medicine Lake for our dirt bike shuttle vehicle. Blessed by an increased ease of shuttling our gear by John and Leah, we celebrated in East Glacier with Brownies self-proclaimed delicious huckleberry ice cream. This night we would share our infamous game of “where do we camp” with our new friends from the backcountry. Leah and John played along nicely, quickly settling on a trailhead pull off flat enough for their tent. August 14th, morning brought goodbyes and an early return to the Two Medicine Ranger Station to obtain a jump on backcountry permit availability. Success was found as we planned to enter from the northwestern border of Glacier, south of Chief Mountain, experiencing 5 days of bliss before walking across the Canadian border through Goat Haunt into Waterton National Park. As we returned to the Rambler to begin preparation for our next trip, guess who pulls up, nonetheless than our 6 Polish backcountry companions. It was a pleasure to once again get to see their big smiling faces as they peered into the van stating their amazement with our build out. They all insisted that upon meeting us their lives are changed for the better and are all now trying to figure out how they can leave Chicago for multiple yearly 3-month road trips with their own built out van. The most bubbly new Polish friend, Mociek, took me by surprise with the question, “How does it feel to know you are making such a difference in peoples lives wherever you go?” It was truly shocking to me to think that my ideas of nutrition, limited environmental impact, DIY body care, and our crazy concept of an adventuring DIY sprinter van could really make that much of a difference in anyone’s life. This was a truly inspiring gift of words!
Our new trip plans required us self-shuttling to Waterton then returning to Glacier. As we met the Canadian border patrol to begin this shuttle mission, after a few nonchalant questions on eggs, potatoes, meat products, and our planned stay in Canada, he proceeded to share news to our disbelief of a 3rd fire that started near Goat Haunt the afternoon prior. Choosing to manage our shock of the fire news and the ease of border crossing (we had been contemplating border horror stories for days) we continued on to Waterton to speak with the Rangers and discover what our new options were considering the campsites for our last 2 nights were now closed. The disappointment began to set in as we canceled our permits for the next 5 days, trying to reassure ourselves that it was the best idea since the offered out and back would consist of minimal visibility due to the smoke from now three forest fires.
Taking a moment to get over our first world problems, we decided on a “normal” campsite within the Waterton park then started out on a 4.6 km mountain bike ride to hike up 530m in 2.4 km towards Goat Lake. We gawked at the glorious peaks across the valley as the lake gracefully hung above, concluding this was not a bad backup plan, even if Waterton was suffering from poor visibility due to the 3rd nearby forest fire. After a few highly populated beautiful lake explorations, feelings of the need for solitude among the wilderness became overpowering enough to begin our trek north towards Jasper National Park. Listening to the advice of one of the helpful Canadian Park Rangers, the Rambler headed along Hwy 40 through the Kananaskis Country, avoiding Calgary. The high peaked dramatic scenery of this country left our minds at rest for the missed Glacier adventures leading way to excitement for this new exploration.
Driving mile after mile further than our intention due to the desire to see “what is around the next corner”, finally landed us at the Lower Interlake in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park as darkness fell. The following day would not forsake us with stunning mountain views surrounding Lower Interlake, discovery of Upper Interlake, Rawson Lake, then a random introductory to Rawson Lake Ridge. Each destination adding to the tier of unmistakable beauty; however, Rawson Lake Ridge had an added degree of adventure with a reported grizzly bear encounter by recent hikers. Upon speaking to these said hikers prior to the ridge ascent, we made the informed decision to still approach the ridge summit even when all the other hikers had turned back immediately upon the quickly spreading bear news. Doing our best to have a heightened awareness for our own bear encounter while bringing out some of the tunes we learned from long ago, no sighting occurred. Yet the discovery of a magnificent lake and mountain view was our prize for this feared summit.
Discovering some much needed showers while chatting to a “local” Australian seasonal worker in the park, we decided on an ascent of Nameless Col that next day. Generally we parked near the base of the trailhead so the trek up could begin first thing. This particular trail was really only known to the locals and did not contain any signage but once above tree line we became certain of our location. Surrounded by mountain peaks, cumulus clouds drifting through the sky, nearby hot springs and waterfalls, we were not disappointed and even became set on scrambling up to Nameless Peak. Taken in by the awe-inspiring beauty we continued down the ridgeline and eventually created a shortcut down the spine of the mountain to begin a bushwhacking decent back to the trailhead, somehow managing an exit in close proximity to the Rambler. With heightened enthusiasm, we were now Jasper bound again. First, a stop in Canmore AB to resupply and mountain bike.
Stay tuned for mountain biking in Canmore, best campsite ever in Banff, and backpacking in Jasper!
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