Middle Fork Flathead River to Coal Creek

FRI. August 3

Daily miles: 11.8
Cumulative miles: 44.7

My bowels finally realize what I’m up to this morning. I jolt awake with the dire urge to relieve myself. There’s no question of using the WAG Bag, but neither is there any time to dig a cat-hole. In general, I try to adhere to Leave No Trace principles, but sometimes you just need to go. With the help of several large stones, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

By the time I’m packed and on my way, the sun is beginning to cast light through the trees. Steam rises from the dewy grass as it warms, producing dreamlike clouds alongside the trail. I pass the junction to the Middle Fork Flathead River and State Highway 2, which follows the park’s boundary.

GNP’s southern boundary on the Middle Fork Flathead River

As the trail ascends, I begin to see cars winding along Highway 2 as well as a stalled train of endless UPS containers. The now-defunct Great Northern Railway company is intimately connected with Glacier National Park’s history. As a way of creating markets, the Great Northern’s president, James J. Hill, invested in towns all along his northern route from St. Paul to Seattle. What would become Glacier National Park in 1910 was for Hill an opportunity to fill his trains with tourists. Drawing on the patriotic fervor of the First World War, the slogan became “See America First”—an effort to lure gilded age aristocrats away from Europe. Glacier was promoted as an American rival to the Swiss alps and a huge amount of money was poured into kitsch accommodation for bourgeois tourism. An important part of this process involved the removal of Native Americans from the land. As one scholar summarizes this sordid history, “Glacier and many other national parks, are built upon an illusion.”1

They seem to offer us a rare chance to experience the continent as it was, to set eyes on a vista unspoiled by human activity. This uninhabited nature is a recent construction. The untold story behind our unspoiled views and virgin forests is this: these landscapes were inhabited, their features named, their forests utilized, their plants harvested and animals hunted. Native Americans have a history in our national parks measured in millennia. They were forcibly removed, and later treaty rights to traditional use such as hunting and fishing were erased, often without acknowledgment or compensation. Immediately after these removals, the parks were advertised as a showcase of uninhabited America, nature’s handiwork unspoiled.

For years, the United States pursued a policy of weakening the Native American presence in the plains by exterminating the buffalo. By 1895, when the negotiations for what would become Glacier National Park began, the Blackfeet (actually three semi-independent tribes: the Piegan, Blood, and Northern Blackfeet) had already been relegated to an area that included the contemporary reservation borders as well as the eastern half of the Park. The Blackfeet didn’t want to sell, but the decimation of buffalo meant that they faced the threat of starvation during the winter. They grudgingly agreed to a price of $1.5 million for the eastern half of the Park.

Upon the conclusion of negotiations, Chief White Calf reportedly stated, “Now my head is cut off. The mountains have been my last refuge.”2 Even the limited access retained in the agreement of 1895 was eventually stripped when Congress established Glacier National Park in 1910. As early as 1912, a park ranger evicted members of the tribe who had been caught hunting in the park, issuing them a warning that “they will no longer be permitted in Glacier National Park, and if found within the [park] they will be summarily ejected.”3

After being effectively coerced into ceding their land, members of the tribe were commissioned to set up a camp at the train station in East Glacier, where were to greet throngs of tourists as they streamed in. Apparently, traditional Blackfeet garb didn’t align with Hill’s idea of what Native Americans should look and he insisted that they wear Sioux dress instead.4

Blackfeet Indians at the Many Glacier Hotel

All this is to say that while Glacier National Park contains some of the most impressive mountain scenery on the continent, the modern park was founded on ethnic cleansing, racism, and private profit. Glacier would serve as a playground for wealthy (white) Easterners in search of a look at the “American Alps” replete with a human zoo of romanticized “Indians,” who were themselves barred entry, even if they were willing to pay.

I had read all about this history before I arrived in the park, but seeing the train tracks laid a century before along Highway 2 made it suddenly real for me. We had driven through the town of Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation on our way to East Glacier. The poverty is palpable in these places, immediately adjacent one of the most popular national parks in the country. The average life expectancy of a member of the Blackfeet nation today is 15 years less than a white resident of Montana. This is what enduring injustice looks like.

The trail continues for some time along Park’s boundary, gradually ascending above the river, but eventually turns back into the Park’s interior. This stretch of the Nyack Loop contains the best maintained trails by far, which I attribute to the access Highway 2 provides for day hikers. No one is around to shatter my solitude this early though.

Around noon, I stop for a snack at perhaps my fourth stream crossing. Just as I’m throwing down my pack, a young man on my tail catches up to me. He’s got an enormous pack in the fashion of a traditional backpacker. It looks to be 60 lbs or more with spare shoes and fancy water-bottles stashed in the side pockets. We chat for a bit. He’s just come across the Middle Fork Flathead River and is bound for Beaver Woman Lake tonight (my destination tomorrow), then back out the next day. Just an overnight trip. I wonder what he needs 60 lbs of gear for. He had wanted to hike another section of the park but there were no permits available. It wasn’t his first choice. He sets off and I allow him a ten minute head start to avoid crossing paths again.

Southern section of the Nyack Loop

I’m heading for the Coal Creek campground, but it was full when my permit was issued so I’m authorized for another night of undesignated camping. Still, I didn’t enjoy looking for a spot yesterday so I plan to hang around Coal Creek and see if anyone shows up. The rest of the day is very pleasant. There are no mosquitos or biting flies and the weather is perfect—sunny but not too hot. The trail to Coal Creek is clear, easy, and level. I arrive at the spur trail to the campground by early afternoon.

Two young men greet me as I arrive. They’ve driven from Nebraska and, like the other hiker I met, were also disappointed by the permits available and opted for undesignated camping out here in the Nyack/Coal Creek area. Apparently the ranger told them this area was “crazy” and they do seem to be rather jarred by the experience. Their permit placed them at Beaver Woman Lake tonight but they had turned back this morning after meeting some other hikers heading in the opposite direction. These “mountain men,” as the kids described them, apparently all carried guns and had lost the trail, finding it again only after six hours of aimless wandering. The story had so terrified these inexperienced Nebraskans, they thought it reckless to proceed. If weathered mountain men with guns had lost the trail, how could they ever hope to manage? So they had returned to Coal Creek, technically in violation of their permit—“but the rangers have to understand, right?”

Interesting. Could the trail to Beaver Woman really be so bad? There was no question about turning back for me. I simply had to get through. If it turned out to be a difficult trail, I had the GPS after all.

Coal Creek Campground

Two other men turn up before dinner: a Theatre Ph.D. about my age from Los Angeles and an older guy from Iowa who runs a non-profit committed to promoting commercial development rural parts of the state. They had just come from Beaver Woman Lake, taking their time apparently, but had a different story to tell about the trail. Sure, it was overgrown at times, but manageable. Good. This dispelled any doubts the Nebraskans had imparted.

Like me, the rock climbers were also permitted for undesignated camping and thought they would check out the campground. None of us—not me, not the Nebraskans, not the rock-climbers—had a permit for the Coal Creek Campground, which was supposedly full. Whoever held those permits remains a mystery. They never did turn up and we helped ourselves the empty sites.

Though the evening is hot, I light a campfire to cook my dinner and we have a wonderful time sharing stories and discussing the abysmal state of academia well into the evening. At length, I take my leave and fall asleep contemplating the special joy and intensity of these single-serving encounters with other hikers. Tomorrow: Beaver Woman Lake!

1. Isaac Kantor, “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks,” Public Land & Resources Review 28 (2007): 42.
2. Cited in Mark David Spence, “Backbone of the World: The Blackfeet and the Glacier National Park Area,” in Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 80.
3. Cited in Kantor, 52.
4. George Bristol, Glacier National Park: A Culmination of Giants (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 2017), 88.

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.