Saturday, January 10, 2009

A car-free excursion to Glacier National Park

Josh at Gun Sight Pass

By John Greenfield

When we talk about the different forms of green transportation available in Chicago, we often forget about one of our town’s greatest assets. Since the city is the hub for Amtrak passenger rail, you can catch a direct train from Chicago to most places the system serves across the nation.

Sure, Amtrak is less flexible than driving and slower than flying, but it’s a green, relaxing, friendly and memorable way to travel. You don’t have to worry about getting in a car crash, it’s easy to strike up conversations with fellow travelers, and you can do work and enjoy fun perks while you travel. Plus, you get breathtaking scenery you can’t get with any other mode.

Western Montana as seen from the Empire Builder

A recent trip I took with my biking buddies Josh, Kevin and Todd to go backpacking in Montana’s Glacier National Park shows how convenient and fun an Amtrak vacation can be. It amazes me that you can board the Empire Builder train a block from the Sears Tower and have it drop you off the next day in West Glacier, Montana. There you’re walking distance from the large national park with its soaring mountains, plentiful wildlife and eponymous frozen rivers.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon I leave my apartment in East Garfield Park with my loaded backpack, walk a few blocks to the CTA’s California Green Line stop and catch the train to the Clinton station.

From there I follow a bike lane a few blocks south to Union Station, where I meet Todd and Josh for pints of Goose Island at the Metro Deli and Café, adjacent to the Great Hall. It’s a good strategy to make sure we’re there early enough not to miss the train (which wouldn’t be a first for me.)

We board the double-decker train and find seats in coach, since we’re going no-frills for the outbound trip. The train soon rolls out north along the Chicago River, providing a view of the skyscrapers that line Wacker Drive, then heads through the North Side and the North Shore.

The guys and I soon make our way to the observation car, with lounge seating and curving glass walls that provide panoramic views. It’s a good place to have a snack and read or chat with your neighbor while enjoying the views.

Volunteer docents give running commentary on the sights. “We have the power to make it get dark outside,” joked one of them, right before the train enters a tunnel. I meet Mary, an empty-nester from Park Ridge who visiting her mother in Minnesota, and Pete, a young college drop-out who’s heading to Missoula, MT, to pick up his girlfriend and then continue to San Diego.

We stop in Milwaukee, whose modest skyline conjures memories of my four-day hike from that city back to Chicago last summer. The big, bowtie-shaped sign for the Miller factory is prominent. The conductors invite us to leave the train for a smoke break so I hop off for a few minutes of “fresh” air along the platform.

Back on board, we start rolling northwest towards the Mississippi River and a docent soon mentions we’re passing through Sparta, WI, the “Bicycling Capital of America.” This iffy claim is due to the fact a couple of bike trails converge in the small town, and there’s a huge fiberglass statue of a guy on a high-wheeler bike in the village square.

We cross the Mississippi into Minnesota and soon pick up Kevin in Winona, a college town where he’s been researching the operations of the local food co-op. He’s helping to open a new co-op in Chicago that will be called the Dill Pickle. Several Amish or Mennonite folks in old-fashioned work clothes and bonnets get off the train at this stop.

That night I sleep curled up on a couple of coach seats, then wake up in the morning as we sail across the plains of North Dakota. We stop to refuel again and stretch in Minot, “the Magic City,” so called because the town sprang up almost overnight after it was announced that it would be a service stop for the railroad.

As we cross into the eastern Montana “Big Sky Country,” the scenery becomes dry and dusty. “Dad, where are we?” asks a little boy. “Montana,” says the father. The kid responds, “Montana looks dirty.”

We’re close to the Canadian border at this point and INS agents board at the next stop. We tell them we’re U.S. citizens and they proceed to the next car. “That was a close one, eh?” I ask my friends in my best Bob and Doug McKenzie imitation.

Heading into western Montana the scenery grows spectacularly mountainous. Near the end of the trip Kevin befriends Rachel, a young scientist who’s moving to Portland Oregon and they sit on the floor near some restrooms, taking turns playing songs on her guitar.

Josh and I get wind of this, as does a strapping youth named Cody, and we all move to an empty café car for a five-person song circle. Josh, Kevin and I try to sing as many train songs as possible, like “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotton, “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash and “Driver 8” by R.E.M. Nearly all of Cody’s songs are dirty, and extremely loud.

We reach West Glacier in the early evening and Tracey, a staffer from the nearby KOA campground, picks us up in her truck. We take advantage of the 10 pm sunset (due to our northerly latitude and westerly longitude) to pitch tents at the campground and heat pouches of Indian food over a campfire.

In the morning Tracey drives us into the national park where we check in at the backcountry permits office. Ed, an elderly ranger, lectures us on grizzly bear safety. We’ve already brought along bear spray, basically a big canister of pepper gas, on the recommendation of my landlord T.C., who carries a can of it with him to ward off muggers when he walks his dog in Chicago.

From there, we take advantage of Glacier’s free shuttle system which conveys visitors along the park’s main highway, the aptly-named Going-to-the-Sun Road. This 53-mile highway ascends thousands of feet into the mountains and then drops down again to exit the park; it’s an iconic route for touring bicyclists.

The route is broken into segments so we have to transfer buses twice to get to our trailhead at the Jackson Glacier lookout. Our last driver, another older man named Ed, gives me the lowdown on the shuttle system. The free buses began running three years ago and so far only have federal funding to operate in the peak months of July and August, so our car-free visit was well-timed.

Kevin on the Glacier shuttle bus

Ed, who used to drive a van for a state veterans home has been driving the Glacier shuttles since their inception. “It’s a good job,” he says. “You’re your own boss, footloose and fancy-free until you park.” He says he gets to meet people from all over the world on his shuttle, from Canada, Europe, Russia, China and Japan.

As we climb towards the snow-capped mountains with only a low stone wall between us and oblivion, an old-fashioned, red-and-black “jammer” tour bus passes the other direction. “They’re pretty wide, aren’t they?” I say. “Yeah, they gotta watch their mirrors,” says Ed.

He’s seen a lot of animals on the road, from grizzlies feeding on small trees to a yearling moose running down the highway looking for its mother. “When they get old enough the mother just abandons them,” Ed explains.

We pass patches of snow, pointy pines and roaring waterfalls, including a wide swath of flowing water right next to the road called the Weeping Wall. A baseball-sized rock falls down the mountain and rolls in front of the bus. “That wasn’t too big but it could do some damage,” says Ed.

(A kid from Minneapolis is in the back)

Ed drops us at the trailhead and we begin trudging with our heavy packs, singing songs about bears as we walk to alert any stray grizzlies of our presence. After a few hours we come to Gun Sight Lake, a mile long and cobalt blue, ringed by tall, snowy mountains. We set up at the nearby campsite, buzzing with mosquitoes, then bathe in the icy water.

Because of bear issues, as well as warnings from the rangers about other salt-starved animals chewing sweaty pack straps and leather boots, we cook in a separate area from the campsite and hang our food and most of our gear at night from a high pole provide by the rangers.

The next morning we take a challenging day hike up one of the mountains to Gun Sight Pass. The steep path has zigzagging switchbacks and at points we have to carefully maneuver across snowfields. Purple and orange wildflowers enliven the trail and we spy big squirrels and furry marmots, which look like giant groundhogs.

Leaving my pack in a small stone hut at the top of the pass, I take Todd’s challenge to go investigate a snow cave we see in the distance. “Walk across slippery wet rock to get there?” says Josh. “No thanks.” It is extremely treacherous navigating the slick red stone and if we slip there’s a steep drop-off that would mean a sprained ankle, at best.

But Todd and I make it and are rewarded with a surreal view of the 15-foot snow wall close up. Our retreat from the cave is a nail-biter, though, with a couple of scary slips. When it’s time to return to camp, Todd suggests we leave the trail and shortcut across some of the snowfields. “That’s OK,” I say. “I’m through taking risks for the day.”

We make a memorable Independence Day dinner of deep-fried falafel, hummus and couscous, followed by whiskey and cigars with our campsite neighbors, folks from Missoula, MT, Cody, WY and Holland, MI. One of the Michiganders is wearing a pair of nylon “adventure pants” with a seat held together with duct tape. He’d left the sweaty garment out to dry for a half hour, and salt-hungry marmots feasted on them.

We stay up late with a handful of the campers, waiting for the moon to rise over the mountains as the night grows chilly. To pass the time we sing patriotic songs and songs about the moon in barbershop quartet style. The satellite never does appear before bedtime, but the low clouds, lit up golden, are a good substitute for Fourth of July fireworks.

The next day is our “death march” day since we need to hike back to the road from Gun Sight Lake, catch a couple more shuttles and then climb three more hours up Flat Top Mountain to another campsite. (Since backcountry campsites are in demand and pre-booked, there isn’t space for us to stay a third night at Gun Sight.)

The hike up to Flat Top is rainy and gruelingly steep. We see bear scat and paw prints, so we make sure to call “Hey bear” every few minutes. When we arrive at the top we’re the only campers, not surprising since the swampy location is ridiculously infested with mosquitoes.

We have different strategies to deal with the bloodsuckers. Josh and Kevin retreat to their tent to drink Jim Beam and play cards. Todd covers his head with a mosquito net and dons heavy clothing and garden gloves and collapses on his ground pad, exhausted from the climb and soon covered with insects. I apply a 99% DEET solution called Jungle Juice that seems to do the trick; the mosquitoes generally leave me alone. I try not to think of the future health consequences of soaking my skin with the deadly chemical.

Blessedly, the bugs vanish at sunset as we eat quinoa, beans and avocados for dinner, although a particularly bold young deer attempts frequent raids on our campsite, looking for salty gear. Kevin, a mellow vegetarian, finds himself hurling rocks at the animal.

We’re in an area that was burned by a forest fire several years ago, so we’re surrounded by tall, gray, dead trees as well as smaller green ones. As the yellow full moon rises in the purple sky, the setting becomes eerie and our packs swinging from ropes high above us look like hanged witches.

In the morning we hike down from Flat Top in a light rain that eventually becomes a downpour. Josh, Kevin and I make it back to the road before our clothing gets saturated, catch a couple shuttles back to the park entrance and warm up over bowls of soup and bottles of Moose Drool beer at a diner. Todd, slowed down by blisters, shows up two hours later, soaked and shivering but in good spirits.

We dry out at a cozy motel across the street from the depot and catch the eastbound Empire Builder the next morning. This time we’ve splurged on roomettes in the sleeper car. These are small, modular spaces where you can work or relax in private by day, convert into bunk beds at night, and then shower down the hall in the morning. It’s a pretty civilized way to travel, and a real pleasure after roughing it on the trail.

Hungry from our hiking, we take full advantage of the three tasty, complementary meals a day we receive in the diner car as part of the price of our roomettes. A special treat is a free wine and cheese tasting for sleeping car passengers that afternoon, MC-ed by a male conductor with a heavy Wisconsin accent who complains that all the cheeses come from the West Coast.

I win the remainder of a bottle of Syrah, one of four varieties we tasted, by answering his quiz question: “What TV series had seven characters based on the Seven Deadly Sins?” Answer: “Gilligan’s Island.”

The next day we wake up back in the Midwest, with only a few hours and a couple more meals left until Chicago. After a large group of people boards at the Wisconsin Dells stop, the conductors are trying to make room for them all. “Sir, I’m going to need you to move that bag,” says a stout female conductor to a guy who’s laptopping.” She addresses the whole car, “We’re going to need all available seats. The train is to make friends - be friendly.”


Unknown said...

John, great post. I've taken the same Amtrack ride, though only the eastbound leg, after driving our friend Liza out to Whitefish, Montana. I was travelling solo and my seatmate was a woman, clearly terrified of air travel (I met a lot of people who were afraid of flying.) She had a handy Scrabble set to pass the time, and invited me to play, but only under the condition that we not keep score. There's a moral here, but I'm not sure what it is. Anyway, the Glacier-Chicago run is scenic and about as long as most of us would want to spend on an uninterrupted train ride. Cheers!

Unknown said...

What a fun trip that was. You would think I would have worked off that big gut with all that strenuous hiking, right?

Jake said...

What a great trip, John. Except for the mosquitoes, I wish I had Been there.

Lisa said...

Nice trip story. Enjoyed the animal photos. great plug for Amtrak travel.

T.C. O'Rourke said...

John you fool: I told you to bring *Marmot* spray.

Seriously, thank god for duct tape.

rose said...

loved the post and photos! Thanks for sharing, Kevin's mom

Dottie said...

What an amazing trip (and car-free)! I'm putting that on my to-do list.

Anonymous said...

Hello guys I am the one pouring the wine in the pics...great blog glad I wrote it down. Crystal

John Greenfield said...


Great to hear from you! We really did enjoy that wine tasting, and the train trip in general. Please share the link to the story with your co-workers if you think they'd be interested. To quote an old Amtrak slogan, there's something about a train that's Magic!

John Greenfield

Anonymous said...

Great blog, John. I'm doing the same trip this month leaving from Minneapolis. I can't wait.

Unknown said...

Great post. We're taking that similar trip, from Boston, though! And with 3 kids who are obsessed with getting around car-free. We're headed out to Vancouver also with Amtrak, for a couple of weeks there, before we head back. I am wondering about how even longer train trips will be... and if we/I will be able to take it!? We do have sleeping accommodations, so that might make it easier. Maybe a bit less social?
Also, I run an organization that might interest you: It would be fun for Chicago!

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