For weeks we'd been telling Ty that we were going to take him skiing, but May provided almost exclusively rainy weekends in western Montana that resulted in miserable conditions up at Lost Trail Pass. This pattern was a great way to make up for the winter's lack of moisture, but unfortunately it kept Ty off the slopes. By June, all but the steep north-facing and high-elevation slopes at Lost Trail Powder Mountain had melted out, so our thoughts turned to our next location with easy access: Logan Pass (elevation 6,646 feet) in Glacier National Park.
We'd last skied at Logan Pass back in June of 2003 when Ty was about 5 months old. At that point, Ty was a relative lightweight (and our only son) so we were able to hike up to the steeper slopes above the pass and take turns skiing a nice chute. The goal of this year's trip was to focus on Ty's skiing, so we planned to hit the lower, mellow slopes of the Hanging Gardens Snowfield just above the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Backcountry ski access doesn't get much easier than a paved parking lot and nice stairs up to the snow, but in our case, this type of setup was almost a necessity. We'd also have our 2-month old son Dylan with us, and we didn't want to take him too far off the beaten path at such a young age. In addition, we'd have to carry both boys and all the ski gear, so a long or steep hike wasn't really practical.
Due to the relatively low snowfall we'd received over the winter, the Going-to-the-Sun Road up to Logan Pass opened on Sunday, May 22nd, its second-earliest opening ever (the earliest opening was May 16th back in 1987). My colleague Jon had headed up for a few days of touring when the road opened, and reported that coverage was great. Memorial Day weekend brought our first chance at sunny skies, but we had family visiting so we still couldn't head up to the pass. After that brief break of sunny weather however, the rain (and snow in the case of Logan Pass) returned and we were shut out for the next two weekends. In fact, they had to close the pass back down a few times in early June due to snow, ice, and rock slides. The weekend of June 18th & 19th showed some potential for drier weather, but there was still a lot of rain (and cool temperatures) in the forecast. Basically at that point we had to bite the bullet and make the trip if it was ever going to happen this season. We only had a couple more weeks until we'd be heading for an extended trip to New England, and by the time we returned in mid-July, the easy skiing would likely be gone.
Although it's always nice to make a trip up to Logan Pass soon after it opens to enjoy the most bountiful snow, there was at least one benefit to making the trip a little later this year. Because some of the more interior campgrounds in the park would be open by the middle of June, we would get to camp further along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, much closer to the pass. On our last trip we'd camped at the Sprague Creek campground, which is on the shore of Lake McDonald, about 16 miles away from Logan Pass. It's a great campground, but we were anxious to try something closer to the pass on this trip, and also something different for the sake of variety. As of June 10th, the Avalanche Creek campground was open, which is the closest campground to the pass (~8 miles distant). Camping close to the pass was more important on this trip since nasty weather on Saturday might mean that we'd have to head up to the pass again on Sunday for a second chance (see map to left: Logan Pass is in the middle of the map, and the Avalanche Creek campground is along the road on the left side of the map). For a complete map of the park, click here to open a high-res map in a new window. Although you can't reserve campsites in Glacier National Park for the most part, they do have a great website that shows you what times you can expect each of the campgrounds to fill up on any given date. We've had to camp outside the park on a previous trip when all the campgrounds had filled up, but that was on an August trip to the park. When I checked the statistics for our timeframe (mid June), I found there was no concern about any of the campgrounds filling up. I think that with the often cool rainy weather that persists at Glacier National Park in June, and the fact that many kids are still in school, most people visit the park later in the summer.
We began our trip about midday on Friday to avoid the all-too-common ritual of setting up our tent in the dark. As the forecast had predicted, we encountered quite a bit of rain, sometimes even heavy downpours, during the 4-5 hour drive to the park. Our schedule was leisurely enough however that we were able to stop for dinner at MacKenzie River Pizza in Kalispell. It was nice to get out of the car for a bit, and it seemed like a good break for the boys. When we finally got close to the park, the rain intensified and I could almost see the clouds being wrung out as they smashed into the western slopes of Glacier's huge mountains. We reached the Avalanche Creek campground with plenty of light remaining, but it was still raining moderately. So, I set up the tent while E stayed with Dylan in the car. Ty also got out of the car to "help", but he really spent most of the time exploring the area. We were in a forest with numerous huge cedars, and one old one that had been cut down near our campsite was probably four to five feet wide at its base. Despite the moderate rain, Gore-Tex once again proved its worth and I was able to stay nice and dry until I got into the tent with everyone else. That evening, we were lulled to sleep by the fluty (and somewhat eerie) sounds of birds perched somewhere in the heights of the lush cedar forest. Little did we know that trying to identify these birds would prove to be one of the more fun challenges of the trip (see links to audio files below).
For those that would like to experience the sounds (mostly birds) we heard while staying at the Avalanche Creek Campground, I've prepared a couple of mp3 sound files that you can download. The first file is the untouched sound as it was recorded by the camcorder, which includes plenty of bird calls, as well as some low frequency background noise (I think most of the low frequency stuff is running water from Avalanche Creek). In the second file, I've used Adobe Audition to try and remove the low frequency noise and isolate the sounds of the birds. There is a little bit of computer noise in the processed file, but I think it emphasizes the sound of the birds better. The bird call which caught our interest was the long, steady, fluty sound that occurs about 5 times in the sound clip. You you can hear a fairly loud call right around the middle of the recording (timecode ~11 seconds), and another loud one in the second half (timecode ~21 seconds). Each call lasts about a second, but they are from various birds so some are louder than others. Anyway, click on the links below to hear the audio files:
Avalanche Creek Campground Sounds
Avalanche Creek Campground Sounds (processed)
During the night, it rained on and off, but gradually tapered to the point of just typical forest dampness after a storm. The next morning, we awoke to the same interesting bird calls, ate a quick breakfast, and headed up to the pass. The sky was still cloudy, but at least it wasn't raining. There were a couple of construction stops on the Going-to-the-Sun-Road (it takes quite a bit of maintenance to keep up such an amazing feat of engineering) but we made it up to the pass fairly quickly. Unfortunately, the weather at the pass was a bit "rough". The temperature was in the 40s F, there was a consistent 20-30 MPH wind, and visibility was obscured most of the time by fog. These were hardly the right conditions for a toddler and an infant to be out on the slopes. There were a couple groups of skiers heading up for turns, but it was obvious that today was not our day to hit the snowfield with the boys.
We decided to enjoy the Logan Pass Visitor Center while we were there, so we suited up for the short walk from the car to the building. Conveniently, my ski gear was the most comfortable choice for clothing in such nasty conditions. Most everyone at the pass got out of their cars in shorts and summer clothing, and then they were suddenly struck by the reality of the weather. They couldn't linger outside, but instead had to rush quickly from their vehicles to the visitor center. Truth be told, although I was relatively comfortable outside suited up in all my winter gear, it really wasn't all that enjoyable due to the strong winds. The weather was really just... nasty. With Ty's urging, he and I did take a short walk out onto the snowfield. Ty enjoyed walking on the snow (with some difficulty) but seemed to enjoy playing in the puddles of melting snow and rain the most.
Since we weren't going to get any skiing in with the boys, we decided to head down to Apgar Village and hang out for the day. Apgar Village sits at the southern end of Lake McDonald and has lots of nice amenities (including an ice cream stand). We hung out by the edge of the lake for a couple of hours, ate our lunch, had some ice cream, and Ty threw countless rocks into the water. A couple of passing showers came through, but the weather was generally quite nice and we were comfortable in shorts. It was amazing to think about the difference in weather just a half an hour or so away up at the pass. For dinner, we headed back to camp and had burgers cooked over the fire, and in the evening, we took a walk around the campground and out to Avalanche Creek in an effort to track down the source of the mysterious bird calls. We heard scattered calls being made throughout the campground, but it was extremely hard to pinpoint their source. The calls were coming from high up in the canopy of giant cedars and other evergreens.
Eventually, we found the source of one of the calls in a huge tree next to the campground road. It was a relatively open area, but we still couldn't discern anything way up at the top of the tree where the sound was coming from. I pulled out my binoculars and took a wild stab at trying to see something, and low and behold, I saw a bird perched at the absolute top of the tree! This bird HAD to be the source of the call we were hearing, it was positioned right where the sound was coming from, and through my binoculars, I could see its beak open whenever we heard the sound. This application of binoculars really impressed me about their usefulness; we would never have been able to spot the bird without them. I set out to get the best possible photograph of the bird in the fading light, so we could hopefully identify it later. While we'd been tracking down the mysterious bird call, a large deer had been wandering around the campground keeping everyone entertained. All in all it was quite a fun evening.
That night, I think we had a little sprinkle of rain at the most, and the atmosphere really seemed to be drying out. The next morning, I headed out early to see if our mysterious bird was still around in its tree, and it was. I managed to get more pictures, and this time even sound and video, in the much better light. I felt confident that we had a good chance of identifying the bird between the photos, sound, and video. While I was quietly attempting to get more photos of the bird, a large deer (possibly the one from the previous night) walked right in front of me, and no sooner does a rabbit approach me from behind. It reminded me very much of James' hunting stories from Vermont where he'd be sitting quietly and suddenly get swarmed by numerous animals that he of course wasn't hunting. It was certainly an experience.
Below is a sample of the video I captured of our mysterious bird in QuickTime format. The video clip is 24 seconds long and ~0.9 MB in size. You can simply click on the image below and the video will open in a new window, or you can right click and save the video file to your hard drive. At the very start of the video you'll hear the interesting bird call while you see the bird turn its head and open its beak. The call is heard a couple more times in the video, although the birds head is turned too much to see its beak. The video was a bit dark (so I brightened it up a little) and the resolution is not great, but I think you'll get the idea.
Later in the morning we went for a hike on the popular "Trail of the Cedars" and continued on the trail up toward Avalanche Lake. We had planned on this hike, since we knew the trail started right at the campground and much of it was easy enough for Ty to handle. We couldn't quite make it all the way to the lake due to our plans to get to the pass and ski, but Ty must have walked almost a mile on the trail while he was out of the child carrier. It was his longest hike yet.
We packed up camp and headed to the pass for another shot at skiing. We were happy to find that the temperature was about 10 degrees F warmer, the winds were about 10 MPH weaker, and it was partly to mostly sunny. E decided that the conditions still weren't quite right to take Dylan out on the snowfield, but Ty and I did get to ski a few short runs. Ideally we would have like to skin up the snowfield and do one long run, but at least Ty got in a few turns as we'd promised. To check out a topographic map of the Logan Pass area, click here to open one up in a new window. It has the route from our 2003 ski trip drawn on it, but it gives a good general impression of the slopes.
On our way home from the park, we stopped at our favorite little stand in the Hungry Horse area that serves up huckleberry milk shakes and ice cream (as well as a boatload of other Montana huckleberry stuff). Ty got yet another ice cream cone (huckleberry of course), and I think I may have had to finish it for him. Darn ;). We're planning to head up to Glacier again later this summer, although we won't plan on skiing at that point. We'd like to hike the Avalanche Lake trail again and make it all the way to the lake to see what it looks like. As far as identifying the mysterious bird call goes, our first guess was that it was made by the male Western Tanager, but thanks to Dave Guertin of SkiVT-L, we now know that the bird is a Varied Thrush. Although the Varied Thrush does look a bit like the Western Tanager (at least with the quality of images we had - see clearer images from Percevia.com below), the call we recorded didn't seem to match what we heard, which is why we were so confused. Thanks so much to Dave for helping us solve the puzzle.