27 Hours in Glacier Gorge
“We’ll have your permit and a bag for your waste at the backcountry office.”
This takes a moment to sink in.
“Isn’t there a privy at the Glacier Gorge campsite?”
“Not any more. You’ll have to carry everything out.”
“OK, I’ll be there Sunday morning.”
Well, maybe I’ll be there. For years, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Rocky Mountain National Park. The mountains are spectacular, but the crowds and the regulations that come with crowds have kept me away, at least during the regular hiking season. Somehow visitor centers, gift shops, entrance stations, fees, designated campsites, backcountry camping permits, and hordes of people diminish the feeling of wildness for me. Sometimes it feels more like Rocky Mountain National Theme Park.
However, every year in the middle of October, the main rifle hunting seasons for deer and elk begin in the surrounding national forest lands. Since I dislike the sound of gunshots and look terrible in blaze orange, the national park starts to seem more appealing. But this new regulation may be a bridge too far.
Back at work, I discuss my dilemma with my co-workers. Bill, an avid listener of AM talk radio, says he would never do it.
“It’s just another example of an overreaching government agency sticking it’s nose in your business.”
Patti, a frequent visitor the the national park, urges me to keep the reservation.
“You should go, Dondo. I’m dying to know how it all comes out.”
“How in the world do you enforce something like that? Do they have rangers on patrol demanding to inspect your poop bag?”
“I think they’re now using hidden cameras.”
“I was just going to drop the bag off at the front desk of the visitor center on my way out.”
“It might be better just to mail it.”
The backcountry office is a small shack down a path at the rear of the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. The ranger on duty, Lyle, is listening to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” as I walk through the door. He even looks a bit like John Denver. As much as I have a problem with authority, it’s impossible to dislike this guy. He wears his position lightly, and his love for wilderness is evident. We discuss the unseasonably warm November weather, the bark beetle epidemic, and whether or not snowshoes will be necessary to get to Black Lake. He hands me the permit and the potty kit and explains that there is a toilet seat set on a wooden frame near my designated camp site. This doesn’t sound too bad, but I’m still uncertain if I’ll use it.
There are already a dozen vehicles at the Glacier Gorge trailhead. The trail is very icy from snow melting and refreezing. Hikers wearing ice cleats are doing well, but those without are having a hard time. One man slips and goes down hard. To save a bit of weight, I’ve left my MICROspikes behind in favor of an untried pair of cleats from Target. So far, they are working and soon I leave the hikers near the trailhead behind.
My feet start to slip on the ice, and I discover that ten of the twelve spikes on my cleats have already fallen off. So much for cheap gear from Target. From here on out I’ll have to watch every icy step. As I approach Mills Lake, I notice huge icicles hanging from the steep rocky bank on the other side of Glacier Creek. Studying the terrain, there seems to be no easy way across to take a closer look.
Dark clouds pass overhead. Strong winds suddenly come up. A twelve-foot long icicle crashes into Glacier Creek. Snow blows horizontally across Mills Lake and quickly covers the hood of my windshirt and camera case. The camera gets put away, and I hurry up the trail past Mills and Jewell Lakes toward my designated campsite. It will feel great to crawl into my shelter and get warm and dry.
When I get to the Glacier Gorge campsite, my heart sinks. There are three two-man tents at the site. A voice inside one of the tents tells me that they will be breaking camp in an hour or two and offers me a snow cave that he built nearby. I politely decline and keep on hiking upward through the storm. At least movement will keep me warm. The snow deepens, and the snowshoes come on. Soon I meet several groups of hikers retreating from the storm. They tell me that whiteout conditions prevail at Black Lake, that visibility is reduced to twenty feet. Still, with no other options, I decide to keep climbing to the head of the gorge.
The trail steepens, the snow gets deeper, the wind blows fiercely. Then, as quickly as the storm came in, it starts to dissipate. Patches of blue begin to appear through the clouds.
One last steep push up the gorge and Black Lake appears before me, coated in white from the storm. The lake is now deserted, and I set out to explore it’s shores.
Above the ridge, clouds are swirling. Soon the wind picks up, and the sky darkens. I inhale the sights and sounds of Black Lake one last time before turning back toward my camp.
It’s cold and almost dark when I return to the Glacier Gorge campsite. Last night’s campers are gone. A side trail leads to the wooden frame and toilet seat which is encrusted in ice and snow. It takes several minutes to knock the ice away. Clearly, it hasn’t been used in a while.
After a hot dinner of couscous, beans, and dried vegetables, I enjoy a chocolate bar and hot tea. It’s pitch dark now, and I retreat into my shelter for a long November night’s sleep.
During the night, I awaken several times to the roar of the wind blowing high in the trees above. There’s a half-dreaming awareness of being part of something much more powerful than myself.
Predawn light. Nature calls. The deed is done, and everything is sealed in a zip-lock foil packet. That wasn’t hard at all.
Heading back down the trail, I set out to explore at leisure the terrain I hurried through during yesterday’s storm.
The sky is turning lighter, and my stomach is growling, so I hike back up the slick and snowy trail to have breakfast at camp.
The sun finally peeks over the high ridge just as I’m finishing packing. The sealed foil packet is put into a small red stuff sack, and the drawstring is hung over my snowshoes at the back of my pack. With each step, the little red bag swings back and forth like a pendulum. Without ice cleats, the going is treacherous now. My feet slip out from under me, a trekking pole goes flying off to one side of the trail and the red bag the other. Gathering both, I walk on.
The first hikers I meet are a couple of ice climbers heading up to Black Lake. They are a friendly pair, and we stand and talk for about five minutes. I keep waiting for someone to scrunch up his nose or ask me what’s in the red bag, but no one ever does. Two hours of very icy hiking later, I emerge at the Glacier Gorge trailhead. Putting down my pack, I look left and right, pull the foil bag out of the red stuff sack, and dump it into the trash. Mission accomplished.