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Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 1

A 3800-mile cross-country roadtrip from Wisconsin to Glacier National Park, retracing portions of the routes of Lewis and Clark, and the nation’s northernmost transcontinental railroad.

“No sand or heavy mountain grades,
Mosquitos as scarce as hen’s teeth,
No bad creeks or rivers to ford,
Plenty of water, no sand storms,
Eighty tourist camping grounds, all free as the air,
Real live Indians and crying papooses”

From “Theodore Roosevelt International Highway: Guide To Montana”, 1921

Day 1: Amnicon Falls State Park, Superior, Wisconsin

To journey across the northern Great Plains in a brand-new 1921 Model T, jouncing along roads described as “Slightly improved dirt and gumbo”, must have been an epic roadtrip indeed, fraught with hazards and great discomfitures. These days we are thrown into a rage when our smooth highway journey is spoiled by a blundered drive-thru order. “I didn’t order Diet Coke …!”

So this morning as my traveling partner, Lorie, and I drive our 1983 Volkswagen Camper away from the edge of Lake Superior and climb US Route 2 up the steep bluffs behind Duluth, Minn., we embark on a roadtrip that will soon join the path of many earlier westward explorers who went before us.

Over a century ago, railroad magnate James J. Hill began laying track for his Great Northern Railway along this same route, the nation’s fifth and northernmost transcontinental railroad, linking the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River with the Pacific Ocean. Our journey also marks the bicentennial of the 1804 outbound leg of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which followed the Missouri River up to the Continental Divide and beyond. And long before that were the Sioux, Hidatsa, Arikara, and other native Americans who for thousands of years had used the water highway of the upper Missouri as a route for trade, hunting, and warfare.

Paul-Bunyan-Babe-Bemidji-largeWe motor along through the dense northern forests of Minnesota with a light rain falling and gray skies. At Bemidji we swing in off Route 2 to pay homage to Paul Bunyan, mythical king of the lumberjacks. Legend has it that the famous ten thousand lakes of Minnesota were formed by the oversized feet of the giant Paul, along with his bovine sidekick, Babe the Big Blue Ox, as they stomped around in the thick northwoods, a’choppin’ down trees.

Local Native Americans find that quite curious, as they seem to recall there being plenty of lakes here before the guys in flannel shirts showed up, so who knows? In any case, looking at Paul’s misshapen and uncomfortable footwear, I wonder if he shouldn’t have been called Paul Bunion.

The other feet, shown here for scale, are those of your humble author. The sandals are undoubtedly more comfortable, but completely unsuitable for creating a Land O'Lakes, and probably should not be worn anywhere west of the Mississippi. More on that later.

The other feet, shown here for scale, are those of your humble author. The sandals are undoubtedly more comfortable, but completely unsuitable for creating a Land O’Lakes, and probably should not be worn anywhere west of the Mississippi. More on that later.

US Route 2 has been called the Great Northern Route, in honor of Hill’s railroad. Locals along the western portions of this highway applied the same nickname they used for the railway, “The Highline,” since it closely parallels the Canadian border, sometimes veering within eighteen miles of our northern neighbor. Nearby Interstate I-90, though perhaps offering a smoother and faster drive west, unfortunately suffers from the same maladies as most Interstates: seemingly endless superslab monotony, eerily identical ‘travel plazas’, and dense clots of glaze-eyed motorists. Completely unsuitable for the fine art of Westy touring.

Instead we cruise along the smooth and sparsely driven two-lane highway through these green forests, Robert Frost’s evocative “road less traveled by.” We shall see if that indeed makes all the difference.

Toward evening, we roll into Devils Lake, North Dakota, and decide to stop for the night. I passed through here once a couple of years ago, and I know there’s a campground nearby, so we turn south to find it.

Road to Nowhere

There is definitely something odd going on in Devils Lake, and like the first time I visited here, we are soon struck by a pervasive sense of death, impending doom, and nature gone wrong. The Sioux who lived here before white immigration called the place Spirit Lake, but the spirits seem disgruntled now. Above-average precipitation in recent years has caused the lake to rise more than twenty-five feet, and to nearly triple in size, from seventy square miles to over two hundred.

devils-lake-north-dakota-silosNeedless to say, this has gobbled up lots of farmland, hundreds of homes, highways, railroads, and other infrastructure, and is threatening to consume the city of Devils Lake. In recent years, more than 350 million in federal dollars have been spent to relocate people, raise roads, and build levees, and everywhere you look there are giant earthmovers and great piles of rip-rap. Side roads turn off and promptly disappear beneath the waves, standing forests of dead and blackened trees line the shallows, and abandoned farms poke up out of the water.

The local Chamber of Commerce has tried to put a smiley face on the matter, enthusiastically calling themselves “The Sportsman’s Paradise!”, but everyone is still sandbagging. Indeed, the place has become renowned as a regional fishing hotspot, but we didn’t see many other pleasure craft like water skiers or sailboats. You wouldn’t want to snag your keel on someone’s submerged silo or windmill, I guess.

devils-lake-north-dakota-largeWe drive around looking for the campground for over an hour, the map directing us down roads which no longer exist, and I swear our compass spins in circles. Great swarms of insects the size of sparrows hurl themselves at our windshield, and local landmarks appear to have been uprooted and transplanted five miles away from their original locations. I don’t know exactly what the citizens here did to anger the spirits or Mother Nature, but something is definitely amiss.

We finally stumble upon the state park, and gratefully settle in for the night.

Gallery: Great Northern Roadtrip

These are additional photos from Camp Westfalia’s “Great Northern Roadtrip” travelogue >>

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 14

Day 14: Lewistown, Montana

Missouri Breaks Backcountry Scenic Byway2We stop in at the Bureau of Land Management field office on the east side of town to get current road conditions and other advice before embarking on our next foray off the beaten track. Motoring north thirty-five miles to Winifred, we duck in behind the grain elevator to catch the gravel Dy Trail to Knox Ridge Road, and soon enter the Missouri Breaks Backcountry Scenic Byway.

When Lewis and Clark camped here twice in May of 1805 they described the region as “the Deserts of America”, and later settlers would call this section of the Missouri River the “Bad Lands.” Indeed, compared to the vast and plentiful plains through which the explorers had just passed, and the lush green alpine forests which awaited them in the Rockies, the Missouri Breaks area must have seemed a desolate and lonely place forsaken even by Nature herself.

The sculpted valleys and hillsides, striped with alternating layers of volcanic and sedimentary deposits, though bleak and inhospitable, are quite beautiful. The Missouri has carved a deep and meandering channel down into the surrounding plain, and the Byway road skirts the edge of this valley to offer spectacular vistas.

At Woodhawk Bottom we take a side trip down a steep and winding descent into the river basin. The road here is comprised of a very loose, powdery soil, and is quite narrow where it threads along the dangerously steep hillsides. With many blind curves and sudden declines, and no place to turn around, we end up getting drawn farther in than we like before fully realizing the conditions.

Woodhawk BottomThe steep downgrades and shifty soil soon have our brakes heating-up, and I can smell the hot pads. I downshift again so the transmission can share the load, and we finish the descent at a crawl.

The harrowing drive is well worth it, offering a lovely shaded campsite among the willows right along the river. It takes little imagination to see the good captains and their thirty-one fellow explorers sprawled out here on the sandy soil, stretching their aching muscles and getting a fire going for yet another night camped on the riverbank.

The frighteningly steep descent now becomes an equally daunting uphill climb that has the transmission growling and Lorie and I hunched forward in our seats. But we churn upward and back to Lower Two Calf Road, where we continue eastward through an increasingly warped and folded landscape, our passing witnessed only by a few free-range steers, a bighorn sheep, and a large golden eagle.

Another series of twisty switchbacks brings us once more down to river-level, and the road forks. One branch promptly dead-ends on the banks of the Missouri while the other poorly marked route drops into the deep, washed-out, dry bed of Two Calf Creek before climbing back up into the hills at a grade steeper than anything I’ve ever seen. With a sinking feeling we realize that we must either backtrack nearly forty miles of rough road, or negotiate the dry creekbed and scrabble our way up the bluffs to the road we hope lies just beyond.

backcountry-westfaliaAs Lorie walks ahead to spot me, I ease the Westy down into the arroyo and we thankfully manage to avoid hanging up the bumpers or bashing our propane tank on a rock. Clawing our way up onto the plain, the gears growl and the drive wheels spin and jounce on the loose and rutted soil. At one point I glance over at Lorie and, through her window frame, it seems the horizon is tilted at a dizzying forty-five-degree angle. Just outside, the ground tumbles away into a deep and vast ravine that would easily swallow a thousand crumpled Vanagons without so much as a glance from anyone but the occasional passing turkey vulture …

After a couple miles of this seemingly interminable ascent, we finally level off and, with a sigh of relief, come to the junction with Knox Ridge Road. One can turn southwest here, and return to Winifred via the upper route, but we instead continue east a few more rugged miles to the junction with US-191. As we make the final climb to the highway, we meet a large 4WD pickup full of local hooligans, and they stare slack-jawed as we come puttering out of the rough backcountry in our little “hippie wagon”.

As our tires gratefully touch pavement once again and we reacquaint ourselves with the higher gears not used since leaving the highway in Winifred early this morning, we are happy to be heading home. We have driven over 2500 miles, across the vast Great Plains, over the high alpine passes of the “Crown of the Continent”, and seen hidden places virtually unchanged since Lewis and Clark paddled and hiked them. But we are tired and hungry and a bit bedraggled. Even our trusty Vanasazi is muddy and dusty and bug-spattered, and she has a thousand miles to go.

At Malta we rejoin the Great Northern Highline, turn east now, and let the ceaseless westerly winds carry us homeward …

Some Points for Backcountry Travel


Though gravel for perhaps the first twenty miles eastward from Winifred, the Missouri Breaks Backcountry Scenic Byway soon turns to a loose and silty soil, which actually offers a softer, less harsh ride than the chatterbumps, and is not especially difficult to drive. But this dusty material will become a dangerous and impassable “gumbo” when wet, sticking to everything it touches, clogging up the tires and wheel-wells of even the strongest 4WD vehicle, and eventually bringing you to a complete halt there in the outback. A local Leroy rancher we met at Logan Pass highly recommended the Byway, but suddenly turned all wild-eyed and shaky as he emphatically advised us to “get the hell out of there at the first raindrop!” In addition to short-term forecasts, it would also behoove visitors to check on recent weather conditions before entering, to avoid any residual “gumbo pots.”

About forty miles east of Winifred, Lower Two Calf Road turns quite rough and begins a series of treacherous descents and climbs, with hairpin switchbacks negotiating very precipitous hillsides. Remember that when encountering opposing traffic on such narrow grades, uphill traffic has the right-of-way.


To be honest, a 4WD vehicle is recommended for this route, as the eastern sections and many of the spur roads are quite rough. With quality light-truck tires and some very tricky maneuvering, we were able to pilot our 2WD Westy through the entire Byway, but I shiver at the thought of an unwitting tourist heading into this area with their Ford Taurus rental car …


This area is hardly more populated today than it was in the time of Lewis and Clark; it is truly the outback. In the nearly five hours it took us to make our way through the fifty miles of the lower route, we encountered only three other travelers, and this was on a Friday afternoon. If you drive in here on a Tuesday morning and get yourself good and stuck, you may not see another soul for four or five days. Be sure to have adequate fuel, water, and food in the event of an unintended and prolonged backcountry stay. As always, it is advisable to bring your own tow straps or chains, jumper cables, and fuel hand pump, rather than expecting your would-be rescuers to carry them for you.

Cell phones? Ha! If you can scramble to the top of a nearby butte, you might manage to get a clean signal to make a call out. Good luck describing your location to the reluctant tow-truck driver.

VanageekNotes for the Vanageek

  • Total Trip Mileage: 3838 Miles
  • Total Fuel Used: 152 Gallons
  • Overall Trip Average: 25 MPG
  • Oil Consumption: 3 Qt.
  • Other Westfalias seen: 6 Microbusses, 12 Vanagons, 6 EuroVans; nearly ALL inside Glacier National Park

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 13

Day 13: Great Falls, Montana

In the morning we drive down to the river and try to see it through Lewis and Clark’s eyes. It’s not easy, as all the falls and rapids are now dammed, so the several falls which Lewis estimated were second in grandeur and beauty only to those of Niagara are now either bone-dry or completely submerged. Nonetheless, we follow River Drive along the south bank to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, where one could spend the better part of a day learning more about the intrepid explorers.

Lewis and Clark statueToward noon we head east across the vast open prairie and descend into the cool green river town of Fort Benton. Founded in 1846 as a trading post and collection point for furs and buffalo skins, Fort Benton was at that time the only white settlement in the region, and has since been called the “Birthplace of Montana.” We park the Westy on the levee, right on the bank of the Missouri, and stroll the old downtown.

Back in the day, the rough-and-tumble town of Fort Benton was little more than a frontier camp of trappers, miners, traders, bull-whackers, and mule-skinners, with a few hurdy-gurdy girls just to keep things interesting. The odd assortment of saloons, gambling halls, and brothels was often a scene of whiskey-fueled brawls and gunfights, leading some to call this section of Front Street the “bloodiest block in the West”.

Sometime between then and now the streets got paved and the citizenry settled down, but not much else has changed. The old Grand Union Hotel, which once boasted: “Finest accommodations between Minneapolis and Seattle,” is still the centerpiece of the levee, and Front Street is still lined by saloons, diners, and hardware stores.

We drift into Bob’s Riverfront Restaurant, a place where local ranchers mingle comfortably with septuagenarian tourists disgorged from tour buses and RVs, and where the salads are comprised entirely of iceberg lettuce. Lewis and Clark paddled up through what would later become Fort Benton in 1805, and several of the expedition’s members are honored on the menu here. Hungry history buffs can choose from such commemorative entrees as “John Ordway Orange Roughy”, “Charbonneau’s Chicken Teriyaki”, or the tempting “William Clark Corn Dog and Fries”.

montana prairieAfter lunch we cross the river and drive southwest across a prairie of interminably infinite proportions. I’m not generally agoraphobic, but on some of these long drives across beautiful, endless wheat fields, with fuel stops one hundred fifty miles apart, where the crest of every small hill only reveals twenty more miles of flat land in all directions, I kind of get the heebie-jeebies.

Today we see a farmer walking in the middle of a field, his jacket flung over his shoulder, headed away from the road into a golden landscape that never ends. The only house or farm is miles away in the hazy distance, and there is no broken-down tractor or pickup nearby. He doesn’t wave frantically or even acknowledge us. I have no idea where he has come from nor where he is going. He is like a man walking on the surface of the moon, with no ride home. I still get a little sweaty just thinking about it …

Jutting over two thousand feet above the surrounding plains, we can see the flat-topped Square Butte for many miles before we finally arrive at its tiny namesake town. We follow the single gravel road through the sleepy hamlet and nearly to the base of the butte, its flying buttresses and carved sides an evocative sight in the afternoon light.

As we head back out to the highway, we are waved over by a woman mowing the parched lawn of her old schoolhouse, and we stop to chat for a while. In the span of twenty minutes we get a colorful slice of life on the Montana prairie. The woman says she’s lived in the area all her life, used to earn her livelihood flying cropdusters, and will rent rooms in the schoolhouse for the night. When Lorie admires her chickens, she complains that she must now keep them penned up to protect them from neighbors’ dogs.

Minuteman missile bunker“This whole presidential election thing comin’ up is mostly irrelevant to me,” she says, waving it away. “Around here, all the politics are about my chickens, and other people’s dogs runnin’ loose.” We move on, and agree to take her up on her offer of rustic lodging the next time we pass through Square Butte.

Driving through a dramatic landscape of increasingly rolling hills, valleys, and weather-carved mesas, we make a side trip to look for yet another ghost town, but find little more than a small decommissioned Air Force installation dating from the 1960s. Numerous barracks and bunkers, underground control stations, and abandoned missile silos are scattered throughout the region, leftovers from the Cold War.

"Sorry, we have no complimentary coffee or continental breakfast here, but be sure and grab a handful of .45-caliber, hollow-point, flesh-rippin' bullets from the big bowl at the front desk."

Triangle Motel & Gun Shop: “Sorry, we have no complimentary coffee or continental breakfast here, but be sure and grab a handful of .45-caliber, hollow-point, flesh-rippin’ bullets from the big bowl at the front desk.”

According to a declassified Strategic Air Command report, in the early morning hours of March 16, 1967, several Minuteman missile installations in the area reported seeing UFOs hovering outside the base fences or directly above the launch silos. Entire crews of maintenance and security personnel at two of the sites saw glowing red, saucer-shaped craft, hovering silently immediately outside the front gates.

Controllers watched their monitors in horror as, one by one, over two dozen nuclear ICBM missiles were mysteriously deactivated and removed from strategic alert, making them unlaunchable. At least one security officer was so affected by his close encounter that he never again returned to missile security duty.

We see no such flying saucers on our brief visit to the Judith Mountains but are taking no chances, so before darkness falls we drive down to Lewistown and get a room. After dinner we take an evening stroll down a charming Rockwellian Main Street, taking in the vintage neon signs and trying to stay out of the way of the two drunks stumbling from the Eagles Club to the VFW Hall.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 12

Day 12:  Bowman Lake Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

Thanks to the dearth of campers here, or perhaps the abundance of wolves and fox, our sleep is not interrupted by mice, and we awaken rested and refreshed. A heavy gray pall has fallen over the place overnight, so the drive out from Bowman Lake is even more eerie than yesterday, the burned-over landscape alien and foreboding. We trace Bowman Creek down to where it empties into the Flathead River, then follow that back to West Glacier, where the Highline and its namesake railroad are separated by only a line of telephone poles. For the first time, we swing east now on Route 2, and trace the middle fork of the Flathead up toward the Divide.

Summit-montanaAside from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, this is perhaps one of the most beautiful mountain drives of our voyage, the sun finally making its appearance and casting its warm morning light on spectacular views of the river coursing down through green and rocky valleys, the highway playing tag with the rail route of the old Great Northern.

We arrive at Summit, 5,213 feet above sea level, the lowest crossing of the Continental Divide north of Colorado, then cruise down to the Glacier Park Lodge. For many early visitors to Glacier, this was their first introduction to the park, and was the culmination of a two-day, non-stop rail journey from Chicago or Minneapolis on the famous “Empire Builder”. These luxury trains were the epitome of comfort, amenities, and speed for their day.

Upon arriving at the depot adjacent to the lodge, guests were treated to a final night’s sleep in a real bed before continuing into the park’s interior via foot, horseback, or the famous red “Jammer” busses. We stay only long enough for lunch in the lodge before resuming our drive to Browning, where we turn south to Great Falls.

When Lewis and Clark arrived here in 1805, their epic upstream journey was dealt a severe setback. First, Lewis found an eighty-foot precipice over which the mighty Missouri cascaded. Five miles above that was another fall, of about nineteen feet, then an even greater one, fifty feet high, then two more.

Great Falls montanaIn all, the Missouri dropped three hundred and sixty feet over the series of falls and rapids, within a stretch of less than twelve miles. To further complicate matters, the adjacent countryside was rough and twisted, with ravines and gullies carved and eroded by sporadic creeks into a place difficult to hike, never mind carry all the boats and gear.

Clark wrote: “The men has to haul with all their Strength wate & art, maney times every man all catching the grass & knobes & Stones with their hands to give them more force in drawing on the Canoes & Loads …”, and Lewis added: “… at every halt these poor fellows tumble down and are so much fortiegued that many of them are asleep in an instant … some are limping from the soreness of their feet, others faint and unable to stand for a few minutes, with heat and fatiegue, yet no one complains, all go with cheerfullness.”

In the end, the captains and their crew spent a costly month in the vicinity of what would later be Great Falls, and hauled everything eighteen miles overland to where they could again float their boats and resume their progress to the Rockies and beyond.

Though certainly not as “fortiegued” as those brave explorers, Lorie and I take a site in the KOA campground on the outskirts of town and gratefully settle into the frothy hot tub.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 11

Day 11: Lake McDonald Lodge, Glacier National Park, Montana

Lake McDonald fireA cold rain is falling today, so after breakfast in the lodge we warm our feet by the grand fireplace while we write postcards to family and friends. Nearby sit some dejected motorcyclists who had planned to cross over the Divide today, but a lodge staffer has just informed them that, with the days growing colder, “if it’s raining down here, it’s snowing up on Logan Pass.” We drive to the Apgar visitor center to again check on road conditions, then to the West Glacier grocery store to buy gifts for friends and family. Besides, we’re almost out of Trout Slayer Ale.

Determined not to again have our little home on wheels burglarized by marauding backwoods mice, I peruse the latest in home pest control. Despite all the talk from corporate cheerleaders about the proverbial “better mouse trap,” it seems things haven’t really changed all that much since the time of Lewis and Clark.

Aside from the classic spring-mechanism snap trap, and the traditional and ever-tasty poisonous sweetened drain cleaner and glass shards, I find only a value-pack of “Mouse Glue Traps”. Made of cardboard and shaped like a tiny pup-tent, the trap’s interior surface is evidently covered with a tenacious gluey substance to which the rodent in question inadvertently adheres itself. According to the chirpy directions, you then simply “Discard mouse and glue trap.”

I dunno. Were I to choose the method of my own death, and given a choice between fluoride-induced respiratory paralysis, or terminal exhaustion and heart failure caused by a vain struggle to extricate myself from a big sticky pup-tent, I think I’d opt instead for the snap trap. There’s just something stoic and noble about having my skull instantly crushed by a large steel bar.

Red Bench Burnover WestfaliaSure, they’re filthy rodents and pests, and they left tiny turds in my bag of Fig Newtons, but they’re God’s creatures too, after all, and they deserve to die with dignity. I’ll see to that.

I select the version with the attractive yellow trigger that resembles a tiny slice of Swiss cheese, and place it alongside my beer on the checkout counter.

When we pull into a nearby fuel station, we see a cherry ’79 Westy parked at the cafe, and as I’m tanking-up our Vanagon, the Microbus putters over and I see that it is driven by a bearded and jovial Jerry Garcia. He’s looking pretty good, considering the circumstances, and offers sage advice: “You know, you really oughta get rid of that thing. They don’t last.” And with a mischievous wink, he motors away. I wonder if he is road-tripping with Elvis.

Red Bench Fire Polebridge MontanaWe point the freshly-provisioned Westy north and soon pass through numerous burned areas in various states of recovery. Just over a year ago, in July of 2003, a small fire broke out somewhere near the foot of Lake McDonald and burned nearly sixty thousand acres. That fall was a hot and dry one, and eight scattered fires burned a total of over one hundred forty-five thousand of Glacier’s million acres of forest. Now some areas are so deeply scorched that it will be years before regrowth can begin, while other places exhibit Nature’s green resiliency.

When we strike the north fork of the Flathead River, the road turns to gravel for the next thirteen miles, and pretty rough gravel at that. After a few miles of slow, bone-jarring chatterbump driving, we learn that, counterintuitively, such a road is actually best driven at about forty mph, and our wheels soon skim smoothly along the high spots.

Polebridge Mercantile WestfaliaWe stop briefly at the Polebridge Mercantile, last vestige of civilization in these parts. A tiny enclave of small cabins and log homes, Polebridge is inhabited only by a few hippies and some shady characters that desperately want to be left alone. The place has no piped-in electricity or water, so everything is powered by gasoline, kerosene, or propane, even the Mercantile ovens which produce positively heavenly bakery items. I don’t know what these flower children put in their croissants and sweet rolls that makes them so addictive, but we aren’t asking any questions, and instead just order seconds before continuing north.

Just past “the Merc” we pass through the slowly recovering vestiges of the 1988 Red Bench Fire, stop at the Polebridge ranger station, and continue east to Bowman Lake in time for a late lunch in camp. This far into the remote northwest corner of Glacier, and this late in the season, there are only a small handful of other hardy campers here, and when we finally disembark from the van, it is the most vacuous and boundless silence I have ever heard.

bowman-lake-campgroundThis is by far the least-visited corner of Glacier, and is the only place in the continental United States where gray wolves have reintroduced themselves, from Canada. Indeed, from the trailhead in our campsite, we are only fourteen miles from the Canadian border.

We walk around the lakeshore trail for a while, as high clouds adorn Square Peak with a new mantle of snow. While making dinner, several white-tailed deer browse in our site, and a swift and silent red fox glides through the campground.

When darkness falls, we stroll down to the lake again and are regaled by a grand view of the Milky Way splashed across the clear black sky, reflected again in the glass-smooth surface of Bowman Lake.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 10

Day 10: Avalanche Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

Logan PassLorie insists she heard nothing, but I am pretty sure I discerned rambunctious rodents burrowing around in our air ducts and galley cabinets, trying to gnaw open tin cans with their teeth and tearing into my secret cache of Gummi Worms. I am unrested and out of sorts. In the words of the inimitable Frank Costanza, “That’s it! We’re moving. I will not tolerate infestation!”

“Here, drink your coffee,” says Lorie.

We make an early drive under a promising sunny sky up toward Logan Pass. Traffic is very light, and we have time to sort of poke along and take in the soaring granite peaks and verdant green valleys. At the Logan Pass visitor center we are informed that our planned hike, the Hidden Lake Trail, is closed today due to grizzlies gallivanting on the boardwalks in recent days. So we opt instead for the Highline Trail, which traverses a narrow and precipitous route along the west face of the Garden Wall, at times requiring hikers to firmly grasp the anchored hand cables along the sheer wall.

Garden WallThe views, however, are well worth it, with the morning sun now warming the broad, glacier-carved valleys and making the fresh dustings of snow gleam on the peaks. We see more white mountain goats, accompanied by a single bighorn ram.

Back at the visitor center the parking lot is beginning to grow crowded when the air is suddenly punctuated by a couple of loud shotgun-like reports, and two puffs of smoke drift over the alpine meadow as rangers use fireworks to shoo away an errant grizzly.

We drive back down to Avalanche for lunch, then casually hike up the Avalanche Gorge a mile or so. The creek has carved a spectacular route down through the layers of redrock here, and drops five hundred feet in less than two miles, cascading from one pool to another. Even high on the lip of the gorge, thirty feet above the creek’s current level, one can see numerous water-carved and eroded boulders and rocks, evidence that the creek has been at work here for countless millenia.

Lake McDonald Lodge Glacier National Park largeIt’s just a short cruise down to Lake McDonald Lodge, where we have a reservation for a room tonight. While Lorie handles the accommodations, I drive around and around in the parking lot seeking a level spot in which to park the van. As every Westy owner knows, the vehicle must be parked pretty close to level when using the refrigerator, in order to avoid permanently damaging its cooling element, but in this cockeyed and topsy-turvy parking lot I cannot find anyplace even close to level.

In the end, I spend about twenty minutes messing around, shoving various numbers of RV leveling blocks under the wheels, but finally step back and am satisfied to see that my beloved Vanasazi is just about the only thing that is level in the whole damned place. In fact, the Park Service should come out here with their protractors and plumb bobs to take some measurements of the van, and then start tweaking some of these century-old buildings …

lake-McDonald-dockBuilt in 1913, Lake McDonald Lodge, like many of the hotels and lodges in the park, was designed in the style of a large Swiss chalet. From the cut-stone floor of the lobby, up the clusters of huge cedar columns, to the large roof timbers three stories above, everything about the place inspires thoughts of homey comfort in the great outdoors. The stuffed animal heads hanging from the balcony railings were shot and mounted by the original owner of the lodge, evidently to remind the lazier guests of the kind of wildlife they might see if they bothered to doff their slippers and take a hike somewhere.

After several days of one-pot suppers of pasta or rice or more pasta, we treat ourselves to a positively delightful dinner in Russell’s Fireside Dining Room, accompanied by copious glasses of local beers. Sated and a little wobbly, we amble down to the dock and enjoy a sunset boat cruise on Lake McDonald; the perfect end to another day in Glacier.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 9

Day 9: Avalanche Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

It is raining again this morning, so after a big breakfast in camp we walk the deep and dark Trail of the Cedars, made all the more mysterious today by the dense mists and dripping boughs.

Trail of the CedarsWhen we return to camp and begin settling in, an orange ’73 Westy with Alberta plates circles a few times before wheeling into the site next to ours. We exchange a cordial wave and he and his girlfriend set about arranging their firewood and matching camp chairs emblazoned with giant Canadian maple leaves, while I remove the grill from the front of our own Westy and begin looking for ways to prevent further rodential intrusion. I center my attention on the edges of the main air intake, and carefully install alternating layers of duct tape and interwoven coils of single-strand metal wire, a sort of improvised chicken-wire mesh, followed by more duct tape.

Halfway through the job, the Canuck hollers over: “VW problems, eh?”

“Nothing I can’t solve with a bit of stovepipe wire and some duct tape.”

“Ha! Duct tape, eh?” he says skeptically.

“Sure,” I reply. “Learned it from one of your countrymen; perhaps you know Red Green?”

“Aw man, he ain’t even Canadian. He’s just a bad stereotype; makes us all look bad, ya know, eh?”

My task finally complete, I clamber aboard to find that Lorie has prepared a feast of good Wisconsin bratwurst with beans, and cold bottles of local Trout Slayer Ale. After discussing our plans for tomorrow, we retire for the evening, with one ear open for the sound of invading mice.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 8

Day 8: Many Glacier Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

Motoring out of the Many Glacier valley at sunrise, we swing south to St. Mary, then re-enter the park and drive up the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Our spirits are high, the entire park seeming to unfold before our eyes as we wend our way upward toward the interior of the park. It’s another grey and wet day, and as we climb we literally drive up into the low-hanging clouds. By the time we negotiate the tight Siyeh Bend and crest the Continental Divide at Logan Pass—6646′ above sea level—we are completely socked-in.

P8.93Descending past the Weeping Wall, the clouds lift to afford a misty view of the McDonald Creek valley far below, and we can just make out Bird Woman Falls plummeting nearly five hundred feet down the mountainside. Between the low clouds hanging in the mountains’ contours and drifting across the roadway, we are teased with rare and spectacular views of the soaring peaks and glacier-carved valleys for which Glacier is renowned. As the road joins with McDonald Creek, a black pine marten dashes across the road in front of us, perhaps in pursuit of a plump and inattentive squirrel.

We continue to Avalanche campground where we select a quiet spot among the hemlocks. Having skipped breakfast for our early start, we make an early lunch and loaf around in camp for a while, watching the clouds slowly swirl and drift like smoke, as though the mountainsides are afire.

lake-McDonaldWe motor into nearby West Glacier for a few additional supplies and groceries, then back along the shore of Lake McDonald toward our camp. As we come around a bend, we find several cars stopped along the narrow road and an enthusiastic pedestrian informs us, “There’s bears down there!” Against our better judgment—and repeated cautions from the rangers—we leap from the van with our cameras and join the small crowd gawking on the roadside. Sure enough, down near the water’s edge is a female black bear with two yearling cubs in tow, browsing on berry bushes while three dozen excited tourists snap photos, including us.

bear-with-cubWhile the cubs snuffle around and imitate their mother, learning to reach up and bow down the branches in order to get the higher berries, Mom surveys the growing crowd with increasing irritation. Looking at the situation from her perspective, I see that she is confined to a narrow strip of land about twenty yards wide, wedged between the lake and the road. And wherever she leads her cubs along that strip, the clicking crowd follows, blocking her escape at every turn. It occurs to me that when she finally decides to leave, her only way out is directly through the thick forest of knee-socks. Without even realizing it, we are literally backing her into a corner.

So before she does something drastic and motherly, like latching onto the ankle of some Japanese tourist, and the rangers have to come out and shoot her and place her orphaned cubs in some kind of eductional game farm for schoolkids to come and throw rocks at, we turn to go. The crowd has nearly doubled now, snarling traffic for a good quarter-mile, and families in passing minivans roll down their windows to ask what the commotion is all about.

“I think somebody ran over a squirrel,” I shrug, and after a brief, blank stare, they blast away to find other enchanting scenic wonders.

We make our way back to camp, where we enjoy dinner around the campfire, then turn in. Sometime during the night, my slumber is gently disturbed by sounds of faint rustlings and quiet chewings emanating from the front of the Westy’s interior, near the below-dash vents. I lie awake in bed, my eyes gazing upward at the flocked ceiling of the Westfalia popup roof, my ears alert like those of a coyote. A sleepy coyote, alas, for just as I drift off again I detect another stealthy scampering sound, closer this time, and I realize that someone, something, is inside the Westy.

The long remainder of the night is punctuated by the covert burrowing sounds and furtive scurryings of Peromyscus maniculatus, or the common deer mouse. Every clink of a kettle lid inside the galley cabinet or crinkle of a cellophane package betrays the clandestine ransacking of our food stores, and in the red light of my headlamp I finally glimpse one of the beady-eyed, twitch-nosed little intruders cavorting by the gear-shift lever like he owns the place.

After repeated, futile shouts and bangs on the kitchen cabinets, I resignedly insert the ear plugs I usually reserve for occasions when loud neighbors are camped nearby, and finally fall asleep.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 7

Day 7:  Many Glacier Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

After breakfast, Lorie and I catch the trailhead at Swiftcurrent and hike up the creek to Red Rock Falls. Along the way we see several white mountain goats high on the slopes and ledges of the surrounding mountainsides, dining on lichen and merrily skipping from one deadly precipice to another.

Red Rock FallsDuring the last ice age, huge three-thousand-foot-thick glaciers scoured away the mountains here to create the deep valleys we see today, and when they and their meltwaters got done, there was virtually no topsoil. The place was just a barren and rocky landscape. The lush pine and aspen forests, meadows covered with grasses and wildflowers, elk and cougar and raven we see today are all possible thanks only to the tiniest of creatures: lichens.

Mysterious, symbiotic organisms, neither fungus nor bacteria nor plant nor algae, yet often comprised of as many as three of these, lichens are able to survive and thrive in the most barren and hostile environments, from moist and dark river valleys to high alpine slopes exposed to the most brutal of icy winds and blazing sun. Where they cling to rock faces, lichens excrete an acid which slowly deteriorates the underlying stone, making it susceptible to wind and water erosion. This eroded material, combined with a bit of scarce organic matter, comprises all the soil seen today in Glacier, and which lies only 12 inches thick throughout the park.

Wolverine Trap

Wolverine Trap

Considering that lichens grow only a millimeter each year, or a square inch per century, they have been steadily working for thousands of years to create the rich and diverse habitat we see here today.

On the hike back we make a short side trip to a nearby lake where several people have reportedly seen a moose. Lorie spots the moose and leads me a half-mile down the lakeshore for a closer look, but all I can see is a dark bush. “Well, he was there,” Lorie insists. I tromp back to the trail, mumbling something about a “wild moose chase …”

A little ways off the trail we spot what looks like a tiny log cabin built by trolls, but what we later learn is in fact a wolverine trap. Why so sturdy and overbuilt? Because the wolverine is one mean SOB, and doesn’t take too kindly to being told he cannot come and go as he pleases.


Similar claw marks and frantic gnawings may sometimes be seen on the interior front door posts in many of the park lodges, left by guests who failed to observe the end-of-season checkout times.

Imagine your nephew’s ferret, but grown to a foot-and-a-half tall at the shoulder and nearly four feet long, and with a very poor attitude. Equipped with a mouthful of sharp teeth, and five claws on each of his broad feet, the wolverine eats the Tasmanian Devil for lunch. Capable of bringing down a deer or caribou, he has been observed driving a cougar from its kill, and even a pack of wolves will often slink away from a carcass when confronted by the wolverine. His Latin name, Gulo gulo, is the root origin for our words, “glutton” and “gullet.” Suffice it to say that he likes to eat, and eats what he likes.

When Captain Meriwether Lewis encountered his first wolverine, near modern-day Great Falls, he called it a “tyger cat”. The Native Americans called him Devil Bear, Master of the Forest, or the Trickster, and regarded him as the magical link between the natural and the spirit worlds.

Glacier may be a final stronghold for the wolverine, considered one of North America’s rarest mammals, and one of the carnivores about which we know the least. Tough as he is, some believe the wolverine may be endangered due to shrinking nesting habitat, so the Park Service is conducting preliminary studies using radio-tracking, hence the traps.

I dunno. Clambering into a wooden box to slip a radio collar around the neck of an enraged “tyger cat”? Sounds like a job for an undergrad.