Permits at Two Medicine

TUES. JULY 31

We arrive at the tiny town of East Glacier around 3.00 PM after four hours in the car with an impatient two year old, passing garish tourist campgrounds and motels before taking the road into Glacier National Park. The Park complex is visible for miles before you arrive, a series of walls rising distantly on the horizon above fields beaten and dry under the relentless Montana sun.

When we pull in, the Two Medicine campground is abuzz with tourists of all kinds—families with small children running around in bathing suits, old couples, college kids. Someone is playing Led Zeppelin. Motorboats and SUVs fill the parking lot and the smell of grilled hot dogs wafts all around as I step into the small Ranger Station. Last March, I attempted to reserve 14 nights in the backcountry… but Glacier has seen record visitors in recent years and by the time I had submitted my application (within the first five minutes of the website opening), thousands of others had already beaten me to it. And so, a month later, the Park declined my reservation because “the sites on your application were full for the dates you requested.” Perfect. Fortunately, the Park retains at least half of the backcountry sites for walk-in requests and I had arrived here a day before setting out in the somewhat desperate hope that it would be possible to reserve 14 nights in person.

The Ranger Station is a small two room structure decorated with large maps, a white board where tourists have scrawled recent wildlife sightings (7/26 bighorn sh. 7/27 GRIZ!!!), and a large pair of antlers apparently belonging to an elk killed some time in the 90s by a Grizzly Bear near Two Medicine Lake. A young ranger sits at a small desk as three hikers, two bearded men and a woman, hover impatiently above him. By their “hiker trash” appearance (and unmistakable odor), these are not day hikers. Probably completing the Continental Divide Trail, I think. They’re negotiating with the ranger.

“Are you sure you can handle those miles? I can’t have you violating the permit.”

“Yeah, definitely, definitely.”

“And you have your passports with you for Canada?”

They nod.

“Good, I just need you to watch a short safety video.”

He shuffles the three off to a corner of the room with a small television and presses a red button. The video begins with a dramatic monologue: “You have entered Glacier National Park, home to towering forests, alpine tundra, and tender flowered grasslands…” The hikers chuckle softly among themselves and the ranger turns to me.

“Can I help you?”

I learn that it will not be possible to spend my first night at Oldman Lake after all (other walk-ins have nabbed the last spots) and decide to make it a longer first day to Upper Nyack Campground in the Coal Creek area instead. The Coal Creek area is the only part of the Park where “undesignated camping” is allowed (with a permit). If the other official backcountry sites are full, I figure it should be possible to get a day or two of undesignated camping without altering my trip substantially. And I’m right about this. Coal Creek Campground is full so I reserve two nights of undesignated camping followed by Beaver Woman Lake. The rest of my trip falls easily in place after that. Most people don’t plan trips for longer than two or three nights so vacancies open up once you secure the first few dates.

Counting every ounce.

The ranger prints my permit, which is peppered with special advisories just for me, including: ITINERARY NOT RECOMMENDED! And because I’m going undesignated for two nights,  there are  a few other matters to discuss. He hands me a small plastic item and smiles ironically.

“We can’t have undesignated campers digging catholes out there. You’re going to have to poop and pee in this and pack it out.”

It’s called a “WAG bag.” It chemically coagulates human excretion in handy little plastic wraps—and I have have absolutely no intention of using it.

“Oh, ok sure,” I say with as much conviction as I can muster.

“This means you’ll have to carry it with you until you reach the first trash can on your trip…” He looks over a large map on the desk. “…at Reynold’s.”

That’s six days into my trip. There is no way I’m carrying my own shit for six days, I think.

“Ok, no problem.”

Appeased, he has me watch the safety video. I’m interested in what it has to say about Grizzly Bears. Glacier has been the site of a number of fatal Grizzly attacks and they nearly always involve solo hikers—like me! Because of this, I have read and reread Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, so the video simply confirms what I already knew. Bears do not ordinarily pose a threat to humans. Attacks are rare for a reason. Taking a few measures to avoid confrontations is very simple, but everyone in Glacier is so palpably paranoid when comes to Grizzles that it was beginning to make me nervous.

I pay for my permit and, before leaving, ask about the hikers who had been ahead of me in line.

“Oh, that was just a stupid permit I issued. Shouldn’t have done it. They’re taking on too much.”

“How much?” I ask.

“90 miles in two days. It’s a one night permit. They’re hiking the entire park in two days.”

I wonder if they made it. 45 miles per day is insane mileage. It’s one thing on flat and easy terrain, but 45 miles in Glacier means a lot of elevation gain and loss per mile. 30-40 miles is doable—but 45? If they began hiking at 5.00 AM both days and maintained a brisk pace of 3 mph without breaks, they could have gotten to camp at 8.00 PM. And maybe that’s what they did. Who knows.

With my permits secured, we head back into East Glacier, book a private room at Brownie’s hiker hostel and get dinner at the restaurant next door. The 45-milers are already there eating copious amounts of food, as hikers do: large burgers all around and then huckleberry pie with double scoops of ice cream. Eavesdropping confirms they’re finishing the Continental Divide Trail. I wonder if they were deceiving the ranger about their mileage and really plan to take an extra day. It would save them money, certainly. But they don’t bring it up and, if anything, seem to be serious.

“I dig it,” one of the beards announces as he stretches his legs to leave. “Long miles, light pack, the end in sight. I dig it.”

Perhaps they managed 90 miles in two days after all.

Both hostel and restaurant are entirely staffed by European kids on a summer gig. They chatter in Polish, French, and German. They tell tell us there is no drinking allowed in the rooms, which I find a bit infantilizing, but whatever. As with the WAG bag, there is no way I can possibly agree to this and we spend the evening in a sweltering room trying to get Otília to sleep (she’s way too excited) over a few clandestine glasses of terrible boxed wine.

I have an extreme case of butterflies in the stomach. I’m here! I’m in Glacier National Park! I know the next two weeks will be wonderful, but the prospect of leaving my family always makes me a bit blue before I head off. Eventually we all fall asleep and I dream about being eaten by a family of bears.

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