Coal Creek to Beaver Woman Lake

Sat. August 4

Daily miles: 10.5
Cumulative miles: 55.2

The concerns raised about the trail Beaver Woman Lake had intrigued me and now I wondered if this section would be more interesting than the rest of the Nyack Loop. I break camp within 15 minutes of waking, the order of each morning now falling into a routine that has almost become second nature. Breakfast is an unremarkable affair: two homemade energy bars and a few mouthfuls of peanut butter, all crudely chewed and swallowed between labored breaths.

The valley is damp and silent at this hour before the sun penetrates the valley and breathes a life of sound into the forest. My path winds along Coal Creek for much of the day and there are several stream crossings before noon. At one of them I meet my friend from yesterday who spent last night at Beaver Woman Lake. I wonder how he found the trail…

“How was the trail out to Beaver Woman? I heard some crazy stories from people last night who said they lost their way.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty overgrown out there, but doable.”

Pretty overgrown? Sounds like more of the same to me. The entire Nyack Loop is “pretty overgrown” apart from the few miles near the trailheads along Highway 2. I thank him and we each continue on our separate trips—his back to the Highway and a warm shower, mine deeper into this magnificent mountain realm.

Within an hour, it is evident that Martha’s Basin is not just “pretty overgrown.” It is the most overgrown section of the Nyack Loop by far. It takes my full attention just to keep from losing the trail. Worse, the tall grass and shrubs obscuring the way forward are thoroughly soaked and my trail runners rapidly absorb the runoff as I push my way through.

Unlike so many places in Montana, the lakes, rivers, and mountains of Glacier National Park often retain their indigenous place names, but it is frequently unclear how many of these names reflect the actual usage of the Blackfeet tribe. G.B. Grinnell was an earnest friend of the Blackfeet and an anthropologist who pushed to preserve the Blackfeet names (albeit in translation) but he and those who followed his example sometimes did so arbitrarily. At least as often as they honestly attempt to reflect indigenous traditions, others appear to have been assigned random—redolent of the generic Indian pastiche presented to tourists in the park’s early years.

My destination for the day, Beaver Woman Lake, was officially named by the federal government in 1939/40, three decades after the park was founded. But it is not the only Beaver Woman Lake in the park. From shortly after the park’s founding until 1928, the spectacularly beautiful Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier area was known as McDermott Lake, named for some long forgotten turn-of-the-century lumberjack. Earlier still (certainly before the incursion of whites), according to the 1916 book Blackfeet Tales of Glacier Park, the same lake had been known by the Blackfeet as Beaver Woman’s Lake.1 There is no mention of this early name in the United States Geographic Board’s work card for Swiftcurrent/McDermott Lake, but it is amusing to observe that the card does note the Park Service’s strong opposition to the name McDermott—whose “sole contribution to the park was despoiling its forests and his name should not be perpetuated.” (It sounds like the Park Service was once more outspoken and principled than its current defanged incarnation.) In any case, Swiftcurrent/McDermott Lake has nothing to do with what is today known as Beaver Woman Lake, located in a completely different area of the park. Presumably, once the original Blackfeet name had been supplanted, the park recycled “Beaver Woman” to a hitherto unnamed lake elsewhere. Did the Blackfeet known my destination as Beaver Woman Lake or was this simply the romantic flourish of some anonymous white bureaucrat? I strongly suspect the latter, especially because nearby Buffalo Woman Lake (a name “recommended” by the General Manager of the Glacier Hotel Co. after a “Blackfeet Indian”) was officially recognized in 1929, ten years earlier than Beaver Woman. At some point over the next decade, someone at the Park Service felt Buffalo Woman deserved more than an unnamed counterpart and Beaver Woman it became. This is of course a speculative conclusion, but a definitive history of the park is not available.

Beaver Woman Lake (but not the original)

After many hours of bushwhacking and scrambling over more fallen trees than I care to remember, I arrive at the spur trail to Beaver Woman Lake and Buffalo Woman Lake. I nearly miss the turn-off as the sign had been toppled by yet another tree and lay partially obscured upon the forest floor. A short hike through tall huckleberry bushes eventually brings me to the rather expansive and scenic Beaver Woman Lake Campground at the base of the eponymous lake.

Beaver Woman Lake Campground

I have my pick of the campsites and select a beautiful spot facing a view of the waterfalls feeding into the lake. After a brisk swim in the lake and warm meal, I am grateful to realize that tomorrow will be my last day on the Nyack Loop. It will be a long slog back up to Cut Bank Pass—but at last I will see something of the rest of this park.

1. James Willard Shultz, Blackfeet Tales of Glacier Park (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916), 226.

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