Opinion: St. Mary Surprises
St. Mary Lake is normally windy, last week it was like glass. Top: The moon rises over the St. Mary River. (Chris Peterson photo)
A ewe surveys the landscape. (Chris Peterson photo)
The ram suns himself on the cliffs.
Divide Peak and the moon at dusk.
A cold afternoon in Glacier National Park.
Editor | November 29, 2023 2:00 AM
So with a long weekend we decided to go to St. Mary in Glacier National Park and see what we could see. I considered getting a backcountry permit to camp in either Many Glacier or Two Medicine, since they’re now in winter status, but it takes the better part of a day to get in and another day to get out and we only had three days, tops.
So St. Mary it was. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is still open to Rising Sun, so when we arrived Friday we set up camp quickly and hiked up the road.
There wasn’t a breath of wind, which is unusual for St. Mary and the lake was like glass. We hiked up the road and got a glimpse of a herd of bighorn sheep. My hope was to get some rams crashing heads, as the rut is full-on, but darkness was approaching so we headed back to camp, hoping the sheep would still be in the same vicinity the next day.
Nightfall came about 5 p.m., but it really wasn’t dark — there was nearly a full moon and it was getting cold, fast, with about an inch or so of snow on the ground.
That’s when the problems started. For one, the gas stove I brought wouldn’t work (something was plugged and it was impossible to fix with the light of a headlamp. My eyesight is fine from three feet out, but the older I get, the worse it gets any closer than an arm’s length away. It’s even worse in the dark.
So then I just figured i’d start a campfire, but the pit was wet with snow and the fire, though I did get it going, didn’t really want to burn. It took an hour to get a cast iron frying pan hot enough to heat up some Thanksgiving leftovers.
Meanwhile the temps were dropping and everything else, like the peanut butter and jelly and other backup goodies were quickly freezing like a rock.
At any rate, we got some dinner and then took a walk from camp down to the river to photograph the stars and the moon, which was brilliant, though a bit treacherous, as the melt of the day was turning to black ice.
Back at camp, I decided try out my new bomber Hilleberg Niak summer tent in winter conditions, which was a mistake — it frosted over like a gallon of ice cream with the lid left off.
It’s a double wall tent, so the inside wasn’t too bad but the outside was covered in hoar frost and I hadn’t even gotten into it yet.
Staying warm in winter in a tent requires a few critical things: A good pad, a good sleeping bag and some dry clothes. We had both so we stripped off T-shirts that were wet with sweat and into dry base layers. I still was a bit on the chilly side, but I eventually dozed off as the boy sawed logs in the four-season Black Diamond El Dorado tent, which is made for snow and cold.
Then the dog started barking. And barking. And barking. The St. Mary campground (which is free in the winter, by the way) is right on the edge of private lands of the Blackfeet Reservation and someone’s dog seemed like it was right in camp.
Everytime I dozed off that dog would start up again. Almost 12 hours in a tent, I think I actually slept four.
Still, we were up before first light and back hiking up into the hills as the first light crept over the peaks. If it’s clear, the light is never bad in November — the sun never gets that high in the sky. I think it made it over Red Eagle by 11 a.m. and was going back down by 2 p.m.
The sheep were where we saw them the day before and a ram was busy chasing away another young ram, but alas, no head bashing. The young ram was just too small — he got swiped in the butte and moved on, eventually.
Still, they were fun to watch for a few hours and then we decided to go home a day early. it had already been a good excursion and the thought of another dog serenade for 12 hours had no appeal.
Sadly, on the way home we came across two dead horses on Highway 89, saw in half by a violent collision.
On a brighter note, Will Hammerquist’s new venture at Kiowa Junction looks to be coming along nicely and the building looks strikingly familiar.
But more on that later…