My pattern of pulling up to park entrance gates late in the afternoon is not broken by the time I reach Glacier National Park. I know immediately — even though the sign says “open” — that there will be no camping available in the main campground by the time I get there. And, as luck would have it, the lesbian couple on motorcycles in front of me score the very last camp site in Fish Creek that evening. I am OK with this outcome as I intend to stay in the back country anyway. I drive and watch as the bars representing my cell phone reception disappear.
Bowman Lake is a 16 mile drive (10 miles unpaved) from the Apgar (West Glacier) entrance to the Polebridge (north west) entrance, then another six miles on rough, dusty road where to drive any faster than 25 MPH is certain car death. A small mercantile at Polebridge sells supplies and amazing sticky buns, but I blaze past in search of a place to sleep for the night. Bowman Lake campground on a Thursday night is practically empty – a few other campers are there – and friendly. I set up my tent and sleeping arrangements and then take a walk. I am slapped in the face by the awesome beauty of Bowman Lake.
I meet a friendly older man, Leo, and (presumably) his son, John. They offer me firewood and advice on hikes and avoiding the bears: “you don’t have to worry about them for about four miles, but always makes lots of noise”. I jump in the lake; the water is so cold that it hits my skin like a million shards of glass. I swim 10 feet and start to hyperventilate. The cold snaps me into thisreality – I know I am alive – I yell at the top of my lungs: “whoo hoo!” That night I light a fire with the wood that Leo and John gave me, and watch as the orange and red flames dance around the pit.
The stars that night are mind-blowing. One of the things that I miss the most in NYC is my relationship with the stars – when I look up on a clear night and witness the millions of tiny lights in the sky I feel more connected to the universe, the planet. I no longer feel small or insignificant – I don’t think that we are just a fleck of dust whirling in empty space. My presence in this world is significant and observing the universe allows god to witness his/her/it’s amazing creation.
The next morning I get up and decide, after looking at a map, that I am going to do the Quartz Lake loop. Twelve miles. If I leave by 8 am, I should be back before lunch, I think to myself. I grab a liter of water, a pack of Trader Joe’s Turkey Jerky and two Cliff Bars. The trail has two inclines – one of about 900 feet and the other of about 1000 feet – on either end of the hike. Any real hiker will look at my preparation and start to worry. I start out along Bowman lake and rather than taking the harder incline first, which I had intended to do, I take the easier. I am sweating and panting just a mile into my hike. Even in the cooler air, I begin to strip clothes as I walk . . . and walk.
Quartz Lake and her smaller sister, Lower Quartz Lake, are beautiful, secluded, undeveloped and primitive. I meet two groups of campers at Quartz Lake and forgo the naked dip out of fear that I might interfere with their peace. Lower Quartz Lake is a different story – one group and by now – nine miles into the hike – I am exhausted, sweaty and bug bitten. I strip off my clothes and jump in – again the feeling of the cold, recently glacier-frozen water hits my skin. “Whoo hoo!” I yell, and leap out quickly, before I cannot catch my breath. Well past the lunch hour now, I don’t have time to waste – I must get back to camp. I borrow some bug repellent, finish the turkey jerky and eat my last cliff bar.
In no time I see the final 1000 foot incline – a mountain – representing the last two miles of the trek. I take my last swig of water and begin. Here is where I realize that the level of fitness I THINK I am capable of and the actual level are different. Add to this my poor planning – I am out of water, food and energy – and I start to doubt my ability to survive this walk in the woods. I sweat profusely and pant almost uncontrollably. I hunch over and grab my knees to catch my breath. I imagine the hikers behind me finding me dehydrated, nearly dead and curled in fetal position on the side of trail; I decide this is not an option (vanity pushes me forward). I start counting the number of steps I take; agreeing with myself that if I take one hundred steps, I can lay down and take 100 breathes. I do this for the next 1000 – 1200 steps, sometimes going a little over or under so I can rest in the shade. Finally, the top of the mountain. The last mile of the hike is downhill. “I can do this!” I think to myself.
By the time I made it back to my tent – well after 2 pm – my legs are cramping so bad that I cannot lay down. I eat a whole watermelon and some energy beans (basically souped-up Jelly Belly jellybeans) and drink a liter or two of water. Leo suggests potassium or bananas for the cramping, so I drive back to the mercantile in Polebridge. No bananas, so a sticky bun – or two – will have to do. It does the trick (along with four Advil) and I am able to sleep well that night. I make myself dinner, then sit back and look around. The lake, trees, stars and everything else is even more beautiful than it was just the day before.
Looking back, I guess any quest would neither be meaningful nor complete without moments where one’s survival was in question. Next time, I will plan better.
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