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Smoke Gets in Your Parks

Sunday, 16 July 2023, 4:45 p.m.

Sitting in the Great Falls International Airport, perhaps the sleepiest of all the small airports I've used. Five gates all told; I see less than ten people wandering the concourse. They've provided a board listing arrivals, but I see nothing specifying departures or the gates they'll use. Outside the panoramic windows, the flat land dissolves into the Canadian smoke.

I never thought the day would come when I would turn down a chance to see a new national park. A visit to Waterton Lakes NP, adjacent to Glacier and separated from it by the US/Canada border, had made it into my plans, but a trip there made little sense. It would take two hours driving time to get there, assuming no issues crossing the border. I would then need three-and-a-half hours to get back to the airport. The 80-minute drive to Glacier each day had worn on me, and just the thought of 5.5 hours driving wore me out. Strike 2: given my flight time, I would get two hours or less to enjoy the park. As Sue asked me, "Why would you spend your time in another smoke-obscured park?" Better to not overschedule myself and wear me down - take a break from the unhealthy air in a movie theatre, watching Indiana Jones best the Nazis one more time.

Ah, but yesterday at Many Glacier...

15 July, morning, Glacier NP

A decade ago, I took a road trip to Glacier, visiting three of the four main park areas. Now I looked forward to seeing the fourth,

despite the wildfire haze. Since Glacier requires reservations to get in, I'd signed up to rent a canoe for two hours on Swiftcurrent Lake.

The Swiftcurrent Lodge perches on the lakeshore, with picture windows framing the glacier-whittled peaks to the left.

I checked in at the dock at 9:30, where a clerk said I could switch from canoe to a double kayak if any were left at 10:00. With memories of what happened the last time I canoed (in Congaree, April of last year), the swap appealed to me. I followed the short trail back to my car, geared up with sandals and sunscreen, and returned to claim the last kayak.

I know I have three decades of 'yaking under my belt, but rarely have I used a double - and only once before by myself (in the Virgin Islands). Talk about balky steering! It continually tried to spin to the right, no matter how strongly I paddled to turn it. To correct, I had to go full stop, then back-paddle on the left.

Eventually I adapted, learning to mostly control it. Since they'd place the lowest part of the lake off-limits (can't have people getting too close to the waterfall the lake drains to!), I chose to circle the remainder clockwise, then reverse my path.

The upper end of the lake had a serene mountain stream flowing into it.

"Don't follow that up to Lake Josephine," the clerk warned me. "It's too hard for us to get a rescue boat up there." Does my reputation precede me?

Next up came the dock at the head of the lake. A tour boat regularly runs from the lodge to that dock, where a short, paved trail take people to Lake Josephine - where one can catch a boat sailing to its far end.

As I followed the curve of the shoreline, I noticed people hiking at lake's edge.

That'll be next! I kept circling until I reached a point where a smaller stream flowed over rocks to enter the lake.

Time to head back and see it from the other direction.

Despite the haze of wildfires, the scenery regularly left me catching my breath.

Every twist along the shoreline revealed a new angle to view the peaks jutting above the lake. The smoke seemed marginally improved from yesterday - but that may be my wishful thinking.

I paddled back to the lodge's dock as my two-hour rental expired. One last challenge, to guide the 'yak back in so I could exit without looking a fool. Mission accomplished! Now to trade Tevas for hiking boots and trekking poles. I could feel another adventure about to spring...

Sunday, 16 July 2023, 8:15 p.m.

Sitting at SLC airport, waiting for my connecting flight. At Great Falls, I had to keep a sharp eye out. Even though the sign at gate 2 called out my flight, Delta was secretly getting ready for it around the corner at gate 3. With 30 minutes to go before takeoff, I wandered over to discover the subterfuge.

With plenty of time to kill at SLC, I stopped for chow mein. My fortune:

Luckily, that didn't play into my last day in Glacier...

15 July, afternoon, Glacier NP

Took the trail back to the car, laced up my boots, extended my trekking poles, and started back to the lodge. When I topped the rise and started down, I noticed people standing still or backing up. OMG, there's a bear on the trail!

From 40 yards away, I pegged him as a juvenile - not a cub, but not full-grown. (Not that I'm a bear expert, of course.) As I fished my cell phone from my pocket for a pic, he left the trail to duck behind a tree.

Yes, I know what they do in the woods. But this wasn't proper woods, just two trees beside the trail. Patience, patience. In a moment he emerged, plopped himself down in a bush ten yards off the trail, and settled in for lunch.

Us humans kept our distance while trying for a picture, and Yogi blithely ignored us. When a guy wearing a tee shirt with a 'Meat Eater' logo detoured around the bruin, I told him, "The bear wants your shirt!"

Sated by the day's excitement, I moved on to the lakeshore. Trails encircled both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, promising me five or six miles of hiking to finish this trip.

It took only fifteen minutes to get to the stream feeding Swiftcurrent - the stream where rental kayaks were verboten.

Let's head for the south shore of Josephine. I turned left, following the pristine stream to the viewpoint at the outlet of the upper lake.

It definitely looked like the smoke had finally abated. Low clouds had now invaded the valley above, darkening the sky and threatening rain.

The trail veered from the shore, rising and falling through a lush green forest, blocking most views of Josephine.

The trail proved popular, with many people passing me on the way back to the lodge.

At the head of the lake, the trail joined a boardwalk over swampy terrain before continuing on the north shore.

The trail stayed as lush, but the steeper slope supported fewer trees,

providing unhindered views of Lake Josephine. The clouds continued to threaten, and I felt a few misty drops on my face. Soon the sun peeked out again as I moved down the trail, sparing me actual rain.

The beauty of the lakes - both Josephine and Swiftcurrent -

defied words. I soaked in the elegance of nature,

finally finding that rhythm, that peace that had eluded me while paddling.

I followed the trail from the Josephine dock back to Swiftcurrent then along that shore, gaping at the brilliant viewpoints,

many with the lodge providing a picture-perfect backdrop.

The trail also crossed meadows chock-a-block with wildflowers.

Another great park. Another great trip. And coming up next... Alaska.

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