Upper Nyack to Middle Fork Flathead River

Thurs. August 2

Daily miles: 15.4
Cumulative miles: 32.9

I awake naturally just before dawn, break down the tent, and collect my food bag from the dining area. This process has not yet become routine and I fumble with the order of it all, accidentally packing my food before removing the day’s snacks. In a day or two every step will be second nature. I’m running about forty minutes behind my ideal start of 6.00 AM, but there’s no immediate rush today. I set off just as I hear the others emerging from their tents.

The overgrown trail is covered in a layer of dew and it’s still pretty dark. While the sun has reached the upper slopes above Nyack Creek, I remain tucked in a narrow mountain corridor of burned out trees and endless stretches of fireweed. It’s cold and wet, but I feel great and today’s trail should wind easily along Nyack Creek until it spills into the mighty Middle Fork Flathead River.

Nyack Creek

As the morning progresses, Nyack Creek plunges deeper and deeper into the gorge until it lies hundreds of feet below me to the left. The trail crosses several streams and I spend time at each one diligently removing my shoes and socks and then clipping them to my pack before carefully crossing. There are no bridges in the Nyack/Coal Creek area, a consequence of its special ruggedness. Even this late in the summer, there will be many more—and much larger—streams to cross in the coming days.

One of several crossings

Some time in the late morning, I pass a man heading in the opposite direction + a fishing pole and a pistol holstered on his side. Some people are surprised to learn that firearms are permitted in National Parks. Hunting is obviously not allowed—so why have a gun? Well there’s really only two possibilities: it’s either for protection (against bears? people?) or it’s a manifestation of the psycho-sexual insecurity so common among second amendment fundamentalists. In truth, it’s probably a bit of both.

The protection argument at least, is simply not based in reality. You would have to be a crack shot with light speed reflexes to rapidly kill an aggressive brown bear. And you can forget about a Grizzly. Most attacks take people by surprise. On the other hand, numerous studies now show that bear spray is highly effective at deterring bear attacks.1 So guns are pretty much useless in the backcountry of our National Parks. But maybe having a gun strapped to his side makes this guy feel like a Real Man™, just in case he needs to launch a spontaneous libertarian insurrection against a tyrannical government. Or maybe he’s just a douchebag with a gun in a place where guns don’t belong, the law notwithstanding.

In any case, the gun-bearing fisherman is the only person I encounter until I get much closer to the trailheads accessible from Highway 2 on the Park’s southwestern border. I pass the Lower Nyack Campground which looks dank and buggy. As the day gets warmer the mosquitos grow more and more insistent. By the early afternoon biting flies join in the feast and prod me to a brisk pace of four mph (according to the Garmin). Even at this speed, I’m barely outrunning the swarm and every time I stop, my legs are instantly covered in two dozen mosquitos and at least four or five biting flies each. Blood was shed in this stretch, make no mistake.

Patrol cabin

So far, I was not very impressed with the Nyack/Coal Creek Loop. At least the trail is easier to follow today but it remains in the woods for most of the day, obscuring the surrounding views. As far as I could tell, the eponymous creek was not markedly more impressive than any other creek one encounters in this part of the country—and the bugs were driving me to the edge of insanity.

By early afternoon, I reach the intersection with the border trail and follow it to a major crossing of Nyack Creek. There is no bridge, but the current is very gentle so there’s no real risk posed by a foot-crossing. Besides, it’s hot and I’m arriving at my undesignated destination for the day, so I welcome the opportunity to soak myself. I’m also tired and not thinking straight. As I enter the creek, I fail to notice that my water bottle—the only one I brought with me—becomes buoyant and pushes out from my backpack.

When I’m halfway across, I stop to look up and down the creek… and I see my water bottle floating downstream!

“Some idiot littering in Glacier National Park,” I think to myself in the split second before I realize what has actually transpired.

Frantically, I race to shore, drop my pack, and dive back into the creek after my water bottle, which I manage to retrieve with less difficulty than I deserve for making such a mistake.

Now where to camp? As I mentioned earlier, the Nyack/Coal Creek area is the only section of Glacier National Park in which “undesignated” camping is permitted, but now that I come to it there don’t seem to be any good spots available. The forest is extremely dense in this area and while scouting for a site, I discover what appears to be the remains of an old bridge that once spanned the creek here, now almost completely overgrown. I wonder when it was removed (or destroyed?).

The forest reclaims an old bridge

Eventually, I find a tolerable spot to pitch the tent between two fallen trees a short distance from the creek. Still, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to hang my food. The trees are all very large pines in this area with few branches lower than twenty feet above the ground. So I ultimately decide to wedge the Ursack I was loaned in Two Medicine under a large stone some distance from my camp. We’ll see if it’s as impenetrable as advertised.

Once my camp is set up, I rehydrate dinner (clam penne) and spend a long time swimming in the creek, which is somewhat warmer than the snowmelt streams elsewhere in the park. Later, as I’m reading the New Yorker and sipping tea with my feet in the water, I observe several helicopters flying overhead carrying massive shipments of lumber into the park’s interior. There must be some kind of construction going on.

Mosquitos eventually drive me from the creek and I read in my tent until it begins to get too dark. I spend a long time on the Garmin trying to send a message to Isabel before turning in for the night.


1. Smith, Tom S., Stephen Herrero, Cali Strong Layton, Randy T. Larsen, and Kathryn R. Johnson. “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.” The Journal of Wildlife Management 76, no. 5 (July 2012): 1021–27. See also Herrero, Stephen, and Andrew Higgins. “Field Use of Capsicum Spray as a Bear Deterrent.” Ursus 10 (1998): 533–37; Mazur, Rachel L. “Does Aversive Conditioning Reduce Human—Black Bear Conflict?” The Journal of Wildlife Management 74, no. 1 (2010): 48–54.

Two Medicine to Upper Nyack

Wed. August 1

Daily miles: 17.5
Cumulative miles: 17.5

Our hostel doubles as a bakery so we grab a couple of coffees and pastries before heading out. The valley is misty as we drive back to the Two Medicine entrance. Nice cool weather. Perfect for starting a long trip! I’m bound for Oldman Lake, but because the campground there is unavailable tonight, I’ll have to push on to Upper Nyack—a much longer first day than I would have chosen.

I ask the ranger at the entrance to point me in the direction of the trailhead. My maps show that it should be just short of the park entrance on the north side of the road but I don’t see any signage. I say goodbye to Isabel and Otília, who nearly breaks my heart as she bursts into tears and sobs “Papa, I love you so much.” Eventually I manage to extract her from my arms and watch the car as it heads back to East Glacier and the four-hour trip home.

Saying goodbye.

After walking at least half a mile down the road looking for the trailhead, I decide that I must have missed it and return to the entrance more than a little irritated. This is a national park! Why wouldn’t the sign be more obvious? As the entrance comes back into view, the ranger spots me and frantically points toward the woods. Okay, now I see the trailhead sign, almost entirely obscured by tall overgrowth. I had walked right past it. Not an auspicious way to begin this trip, but at least I’m finally off.

The trail ascends slowly through the forest and eventually intersects with the Continental Divide Trail. I’m unlikely to see yesterday’s thru-hikers again though. They would be starting much further south. Still, I pass a steady number of people on the trail: an overweight but enthusiastic Dad with a couple of dour teenagers, a gay couple, a solo elderly woman outfitted with very new (and very expensive) equipment. With my Panama hat and Garmin inReach Explorer clipped to my left shoulder strap, more than one person mistakes for for a ranger.

A group of German tourists below Red Mountain are clustered around a man aiming his camera at the North slope.

“A bear,” they announce as I approach. “And two cubs.”

I stop and look but don’t see anything. Even in the grainy photograph I took, it’s difficult to tell if it’s even a bear—let alone a mother on an outing with her cubs. Still, a possible bear sighting within the first few miles of my trip was encouraging. Maybe I would get to see a Grizzly after all.

Flinsch Peak above Oldman Lake

I take the spur trail to Oldman Lake, intent on refilling my water. Clouds of mosquitos herald my arrival at the shore. A group of college women throw down their packs and fumble for their bug spray.

The views at Oldman Lake are impressive with Flinsch Peak towering above, but I can’t linger so I begin to treat my water with the Steripen. It had worked at home but now it doesn’t respond when I press the button. Hmmm, very strange. Looks like I’ll be risking untreated water on this trip. I fill up and head back to the trail up to Pitamakan Pass.

This section is very steep and I pass the moody teenagers again.

“Hey, how did we get in front of you?” Dad asks in a goofy voice. “Ah, you must have down to the lake. Really buggy, right?”

“That’s right,” I say without stopping.

The ascent from Oldman Lake up to Pitamakan Pass is the first real challenge of the day, but I take it slow, stopping periodically to enjoy the panoramic views above Oldman Lake. The other side is even more impressive from the top. It’s a beautiful clear day and I can see for miles north out to Morning Star Lake and beyond—my destination a few days from now.

Looking down at Pitamakan Lake from Pitamakan Pass

Pitamakan Pass is abuzz with activity. I smile at two men leading a group of young boys down the side of Mt. Morgan and observe at least seven people ambling along the switchbacks below me toward Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakan Lake. At a fork in the trail, I veer right to Cut Bank Pass and contour around McClintock Peak before beginning the long descent into the Coal Creak area via the Pitamakan Pass trail.

On the other side of Cut Bank Pass, it is suddenly silent. No one is heading in this direction. Just the wind and the warmth of the sun on my back amidst the magnificent detritus of geological spacetime. But I still have miles to go and the descent is extremely steep in this section. To make matters worse, the trail disappears entirely on the way down to Nyack Creek and it takes some basic route-finding skills to navigate successfully. A forest fire has made the task a bit easier by helpfully clearing out a great deal of the growth along the rockier stretches, but I still have to retrace my footsteps several times. It will not be fun coming back up in a few days.

Tinkham Mountain from Cut Bank Pass

The Nyack/Coal Creek area is located in the park’s southwestern extremity and I didn’t know this before I left, but it contains the only trails in the park that are not actively maintained. The area is left “as is,” which explains some of the craziness it contains for the few who venture out here. I had assumed that navigation wouldn’t be a problem in a national park. Instead, I found myself painstakingly scrutinizing subtle shifts in the pattern of plant growth to determine where exactly the trail went—and to make sure I did not wander too far from it if I took a false path.

The Pitamakan Pass Trail terminates at the Nyack/Coal Creek Loop at which point I head north along Nyack Creek to my destination for the day: Upper Nyack Campground. It’s already late afternoon by the time I arrive. The temperature is sweltering and my shins are rubbed raw from bushwhacking through endless overgrowth.

No one else is around yet, so I pitch my tent in a site closest to the creek and take a quick dip. As expected, the water is bracingly cold, but it feels good after a long first day. I rinse out my clothes and allow them to dry on me as I prepare dinner, a new concoction of mine: dehydrated cheesy tuna with brown rice and veggies. I had forgotten how good food tastes on the trail.

Hand-drawn map at Upper Nyack Creek

An older couple and their son about my age stroll into camp and we exchange pleasantries as they unload their gear and hang their food. After the initial encounter, they don’t seem very interested in chatting with me, so I make a cup of tea and leaf through a copy of Harper’s magazine—a story about climate change driving ever more frequent and intense wildfires in Montana. The state rarely makes the national media and when it does it’s usually bad.

Unfortunately, there are large ants everywhere and I’m plucking them off in the dozens as I read. The tent is no more comfortable in the full glare of the sun at this time of day, but I strip and try to withstand the heat.

The temperature plummets with setting sun and I surrender to the somnambulant drone of Nyack Creek. A good introduction to Glacier. 

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. Ⓐ