Since moving down from Alaska a few years ago, I have longed for a place with the same glacier-sculpted landscape, where grizzlies lounge in pristine creeks, munching on salmon. In all the lower 48, I've only found one place that comes close: Glacier National Park in Montana.
The park straddles the Rocky Mountains as they stretch north into Alberta and British Columbia, forming a fortress of jagged walls, alpine faces and flying buttresses that jut right off the tawny rolling plains to the east. Combined with Waterton Lakes National Park across the border in Canada, more than 1 million acres are preserved as park land. In 1995 UNESCO designated the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park a World Heritage Site due to its scenic value and resources. The park is home to wolves, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mountain lions, and mule deer. In addition, it hosts some great paddling suitable for all levels.
"Dad, will we see grizzly bears like we did in Alaska?" my son Skyler asks as we load my pickup in Colorado before the trip. "I want to see one really bad." Skyler was born in Alaska, but by the time he was two we were living in Colorado. The only grizzlies he can remember seeing were in the zoo.
"Maybe, son," I reply, hoping that any encounter we have is one separated by the truck windshield, or at least a couple hundred yards of open water. We had a friend get whacked in head by a sow with cubs in Alaska, and while seeing bears is always a thrill, I'm wary of their deceivingly cuddly appearances.
“Bear!Bear! Skyler screams into my ear as we drive along St. Mary Lake. It is right by the road…Oh My Gosh! Dad, take a picture!”
Our first destination in the park is Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Nestled below towering Mt. Grinnell in the Many Glacier area of the park, Swiftcurrent is small, scenic and perfect for a short paddle. Beginning at the boat ramp, we aim to circumnavigate the lake in our canoe, but just as we get going, another camper shows us a lunker rainbow trout he just wrestled out of the lake, easily 20 inches long.
This sight turns our leisurely family canoe trip into a focused trophy-fishing expedition. We see lots of rising fish in the crystalline water, but can't seem to hook anything. At the far end of Swiftcurrent is a short portage trail to Lake Josephine. We decide to make the portage and try our luck there after fishing for an hour in Swiftcurrent without a single bite.
"Watch out for the grizzlies," says a tourist on the trail. "We saw a sow and two cubs yesterday, and the rangers have closed the trail further up."
"Cool!" Skyler says.
Logistics: Most visitor facilities are open from mid-May to late September. To see wildflowers at their peak, plan to visit in mid July. September brings cooler temperatures and fewer people, along with a touch of yellow in the cottonwood and aspen trees. There are numerous lakes to paddle in the park, from St. Mary and Two Medicine Lake on the east side to McDonald and Kintla Lake on the west side. All the park service requires is that you wear a PFD, which you should be wearing anyway.
Not so much, I'm thinking. Suddenly, I'm finding it hard to relax. Every little forest noise increases my heart rate, but we arrive at Lake Josephine with nary a bear in sight.
Lake Josephine is long and narrow, lined by hillsides of spruce and meadows of purple lupine, orange paintbrush and white-tipped beargrass. It is even more enclosed by sublime peaks, and is the color of a granny smith apple. A family of mergansers paddles parallel to us as we scan the hillsides for grizzlies. A cool breeze blows down valley off the Grinnell Glacier, raising a slight chop on the water. At the far end of the lake there is another portage trail. It leads to Grinnell Lake, which is alpine-hemmed and turquoise-in-color like Josephine, but more so. However, we decide to take the leisurely option and float down the stream connecting Lake Josephine to Swiftcurrent Lake.