The Rocky Mountain Way: Better than the Way We Had
Williston, North Dakota to St. Mary, Montana: (Train)
We spent the majority of the morning hanging around the railway station waiting for the train. It eventually arrived nearly 3 hours late! We crammed on board after double-checking the platform staff had loaded our bikes and gear.
If we had any lingering doubts about our decision to take the train, they were quickly dispelled as we got to see Highway 2, our previously intended route, first hand. The 2 clings to the railway tracks like a remora clings to a shark. It’s a narrow, shoulderless stretch of road that carves its way through an otherwise featureless, lunar-like landscape. With barely enough room for 2 vehicles passing each other, we could see why Robert wasn’t too enamoured with it. Most of the traffic was pickup trucks, our sworn enemy! So, it was with great relief that we sat back and waited to be taken to East Glacier to start The Rockies and a new stage of our trip.
Not surprisingly, the train deposited us on the platform in East Glacier at 11pm at night, 5 hours late. Quite tired and a little bewildered, there wasn’t a single street light in the whole place other than the railway station. We checked our map to find the campground, it wasn’t far, but we’d need to load up the bikes and ride there. Unfortunately, the first thing we needed to do was cross under the railway bridge. With only our tail lights flashing, we set out, only to be nearly ran off the road by a pickup truck! We stopped briefly at the mouth of the tunnel, it was completely pitch black, our red tail lights being of little help. So, we lurched in without any idea of what was ahead of us. It was so awkward trying to ride the bike as your balance is tested with no line of sight. We were elated to come out the other side having only ran over a couple of potholes. We found the campground after being barked furiously at by a dozen street dogs, and began pitching the tent – in the dark! This was no problem though as I could probably do it blindfolded by now!
The next morning we awoke to find we were surrounded by mountain peaks, smoky ones, but a major change in scenery for us! We left the tent and rode around to the short main street and got and coffee and some food at the general store. I had read that the 49 and the 89, the 2 roads connecting East Glacier Village to St Mary, had construction on them and were too dangerous to cycle. So, we rode around to Glacier Park Lodge, apparently they had a shuttle bus that might take our bikes to St Mary for us. It wasn’t to be though as the lady at the desk said they don’t take bicycles on the shuttles. She could see though, that we were a little perplexed about how we’d get there. So, after a while, she suggested a guy called John might take us there in his pickup truck – for a fee! She found his number and we gave him a call, nobody home!
Not getting any results, we rode back to town and got some lunch. Finally, after some time, John answered his phone. Yes, he could take us, it would cost us $USD70. By now it was our only choice, so we accepted and arranged a time to be picked up at the campground.
John was half an hour late. We were packed up and waiting at the gate of the campground. Apparently there are 2 campgrounds with similar names – he had gone to the other one first! We eagerly loaded up and headed off to St. Mary. Because of the construction, John took us via Browning, a large town on a Blackfoot Indian Reserve. In fact, everything this side of the Rockies around here is Blackfoot territory. On our way we passed by a large herd of bison grazing on the grass-covered foothills, we were surprised by just how many there were, and how big they are!
John turned out to be a pretty nice guy, and he told us that the old highways, 49 and 89 were way too dangerous for cycling. I had checked them out previously on Google Satellite, they were shoulderless and winding, with trees growing right up to the side of the road meaning every one of the numerous bends were blind ones. As our safety is paramount, roads like this are best avoided.
John unloaded us in St. Mary, just behind the main shopping centre and a short ride down to the Glacier National Park entrance.
St. Mary to Rising Sun Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana: (10kms)
We posed for the obligatory photos in front of the park sign (along with a dozen other people), then headed off down to the Information Centre, a short distance away to pay our park fees.
Rising Sun Campground is just 10kms into the park. We took our time getting photos of the mountain scenery but the overlying smoke haze took some of the impact away. We knew there were fires around, and we knew that the air wouldn’t be as clear as we’d have liked, so it was with mixed feelings that we rode to the campground.
One thing was immediately clear though, the drivers here were on a mission and the “one-metre” rule was a bit hazy as well. At the campground we met one of the park police who managed to find one of the camp wardens and pay our entrance fee of $USD5 each and get our tag for our site. We were staying at a “Hiker/Biker” site, a specially designated area for hikers and cyclists where you can just walk or cycle in and be, pretty much, guaranteed a site, and – yes, cyclists over here are called Bikers – go figure! For anyone arriving in cars and campers, you need to line up out the front from the wee hours of the morning and hope there are people leaving, just so you can get a spot. As it was late afternoon, all the sites were full, but in the Hiker/Biker area, there was enough room to squeeze us in.
At the shared picnic table in our area, we met Jeff and Mark, both seasoned, backcountry hikers (It was Mark’s 19th straight year at Rising Sun). We struck up a good connection straight away and left the tent for later as we were really enjoying their company. After some time we left them there and went to get something to eat and a few beers for dinner (Going To The Sun IPA’s from Great Northern Brew Co. in Whitefish, Montana). We took our beers back and offered Jeff and Mark one each. From that gesture of goodwill, we made a night of it with several more beers and a lot of stories of the backcountry, bears, mountain lions and bicycles.
The conversation about bears was particularly interesting to us, as we had no idea what we’d do if we saw one. I’d even watch several videos and read lots of information about them, but I could come to no definite conclusions about what you should do if you come face to face with one. Lots of the people in the campsite wore bear spray containers on their belts as they walked around, and the constant jingle of bells was more of an amusement to us than seemingly a serious repellent of bears.
Right on cue though, and to our total surprise, a black bear crossed right behind us in the campground, literally only about 10 metres away. It was completely uninterested in us and made a beeline for the nearest tents. Finding no food lying around, he moved through the park while people were spread eagling everywhere. Jeff and Mark never flinched, so we followed suit. All our food was locked in the Bear Box supplied, so the bear just passed us by, ignoring us. I have to admit, it did get the heart pumping for a while though.
At one point Ranger Todd (who was well known to Mark) approached us and asked us if we’d be attending his lecture tonight at the camp’s amphitheatre. Mark assured us we shouldn’t miss it, it was to be all about wolves. So, we ambled on over with our beers, sat down and watched and listened as Ranger Todd did his thing. It was a pretty professional show too, except Mark (having seen the presentation numerous times) kept stealing his thunder and shouting out the punchlines to all his jokes. Jeff just laughed, he already knew what was going to happen, and that Mark was just a little bit eccentric!
We had planned to stay 2 nights here as we wanted to check out the climb to Logan’s Pass tomorrow and get a feel for how difficult it would be, after all, it would be our first real climb of the trip.
So, the next morning after breakfast at the cafe, we caught the park shuttle up to Logan’s Pass. There we a few long, steep climbs, but I figured as long as we take our time, we’d make it up there. The only problem was to get away as soon as possible before the park traffic built up.
Up at the top of the range, we chose to do a short hike ourselves and went to check out Hidden Lake. It was about an hour out and back. Along the way, we ran into Mark who was on his way back. We stopped and chatted in the shade for a while, it was pretty hot up there. The air had cleared up a bit today as well, a southerly wind had pushed a lot of the smoke away north and the views from the top of the mountain were much nicer.
On our way back to the shuttle we saw our first Brown Bear. Someone had spotted it with their binoculars and a small crowd had formed on the side of the track. It was at least a kilometre away and very hard to spot, but I managed to zoom in with my camera and get a very grainy picture of it. It was definitely a Brown bear, as Mark had explained how to tell them apart from Black bears last night. On the way back to the camp we saw another black bear cross the road, and then another was foraging for berries on the slope in front of us, about 30 metres away. Wow! we were right in the thick of things now!
Our biggest concern about climbing to the pass in the morning was the weight we were carrying. We’d done our best to lighten our load on a few occasions, but now, faced with 12 mile/6 per cent climb, we were looking for anything else we could jettison.
Jeff, who was leaving in the morning as well, could see what we were trying to do and offered to take some of our heavier gear up on the shuttle with him. With his gear as well, this would be a pretty difficult task, so he said he would stay another night at the camp, he had no fixed plans apparently. We said thanks, but no thanks, we didn’t expect anyone to do that for us. But, he insisted, and we knew it would make our climb so much easier, so we agreed. We would give him our tent, the cooking gear and the electronics and trust him to take them up there for us. Our gut instincts told us we could trust this guy though. So, that night, we bought him a six pack of beer and put it in the Bear Box for him.
Joining us on the climb was another cyclist who came into camp today. Mark (another Mark), from Boston, had cycled down from Canada and looked pretty strong. We had dinner all together for the last time and said our goodbyes, arranging for an alarm to wake us before first light.