Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout and some Stromatolites

My summer in Glacier National Park has ended. Seated in a cafe in Missoula, MT, I’m plugging the finishing touches to this final post. My last hike was on this past Saturday, Aug 28th, when my friend Tony and I summited Mt Stanton in the morning before I left the park, headed back for school. I had already done the same climb three weeks prior and blogged about the experience, so this piece focuses on my hike to Swiftcurrent Fire Outlook and along a leg of the Highline Trail of Sunday of the weekend prior. I hope you enjoy…

It was late Saturday night, Aug 22nd, and I had just completed my weekly shift in the dining room, rounding out another six-day week of work. I was tired and should have headed to bed, but I wanted to upload some photos for my next blog post. A certainty within seasonal work is that there is always someone wanting to enjoy a beer with you no matter what time of day and week. The trick to getting something important done is to avoid this, but I was unsuccessful that night and up until half-past two sitting on a couch, with my laptop, in the midst of all the commotion brought on by a Saturday night in the Lake McDonald Employee Dining Room. I knew upon lying down in bed that I wasn’t going to rise by eight the next morning and did not until half-past ten. I still needed to finish that post.

The air was very smoky. I wanted to hike to Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout, from where all five of the park’s 10,000 foot-plus peaks can be seen. Also, I wanted to find some of the park’s fossilized stromatolites, ones along the Highline Trail in particular.

My itinerary started from The Loop, which is a big u-shaped bend in the Going to Sun Road that commences a steep eastbound incline to Logan Pass and is located about ten miles from Lake McDonald Lodge. Starting here I would backtrack the tail-end of the Highline Trail until I reached Granite Park Chalet, from where I would diverge to climb up to Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout, which is more than 4,000 feet above my original start at The Loop, and from where I would hike back down to the chalet and hop back on the Highline to proceed up to Logan Pass and take the day’s latest scheduled west-bound shuttle back to my car.

Walking along the road to the trailhead, passing a line of vehicles parked at the Loop, I asked someone for the time and received discouraging news that it was already 12:50. I then started with a quick pace, one that I maintained until the Chalet, where I ran into a young Park Ranger upon my arrival. Short in stature, with long brown hair spilling from her rimmed hat, she informed me that the trail was closed not far ahead because of a prolonged presence of a sow Grizzly (a protective Mother) and her two cubs. I told her I was soon changing my direction upwards towards the lookout before the closure, and she said that would be fine. I ran her through the rest of my itinerary, wondering if I could make it in time for the shuttle. She said yea, but only if I maintained the same quick pace I had going; I had just completed 2,300 feet of elevation in an hour and forty minutes. I asked her where the stromatolites are at along the Highline. Suddenly enthused, she told me they’re allover the park, but for this particular trail, I would need to look for certain boulders beside the giant switchbacks located about midway between here and Logan Pass. “Look for the little swirls, and that’s them,” she said. I thanked her, ate a protein bar and started back up again faster than before.

My quads and calves started to sore climbing to the lookout, which I could see high above, but I kept my head down and stayed moving, slowly rising above Swiftcurrent Glacier, which draped the mountain to my right across Swiftcurrent Pass, its two pieces cradled by its raked inlet. I could see the then-closed pass’s trail of the same name bisecting the space between, snaking its way along the floor below to eventually end up at Many Glacier Lodge. I didn’t see any bears, however. Upon my arrival at the lookout, I received congratulatory high-fives from a party of three hikers talking with a man dressed in Ranger’s garb.

Later, after the other hikers had left, the Ranger-looking man introduced himself as Buck, informing me that he mans the fire outlook. We chatted for a while as I took in the views. Smoke smothered the landscape from where I had come, leaving only mere shapes of the mountains. It was still clear looking east, somewhat so in the north. The outlook sits on a narrow ridge atop a 3,000-foot cliff. From my feet, the ridge swung left and outward, dropping a ways before rising to the sheer mountainside across the abysmal swath of air in between. My limbs shivered as I peaked over the edge.

Buck started pointing out all of the highlights, identifying the parks five peaks over 10,000 feet. Due to the smoke, I could barely discern the outline of Mt. Merrit, which appeared as no more than a darker shade of the smog it was doused by. I had my first good look at Mt. Cleveland, the park’s tallest, in the north. A steep, conspicuous ridgeline ran straight up its right side, angling into the peak. Several climbers have tried to scale this section of the mountain only to be turned around. A Wolverine, however, as reported in the book The Wolverine Way, ran up the same route with a GPS tracking device strapped to its neck, climbing 4,900 feet in only ninety minutes. Buck, it turns out, happens to belong to the team of researchers who conducted the most extensive study ever undertaken on Wolverines, and which took place in Glacier National Park.

I sat on the outlook’s front steps and chatted more with Buck, telling him I work in the park and how my summer there was winding down. He then invited me to take a look inside, after making me assure him that I wouldn’t take any photos. I jumped at the invite, knowing that my friend Joey (who’s been previously referred to in this blog as ‘bat-shit homeless Joey’), was afforded the same privilege.

Having entered the small building, I was disappointed I couldn’t snap any photos. It is a quaint and comfortable space that affords one of a kind views, with natural light pouring in from the windows that lined all four walls. Topographical maps hung below the windows; his radio station sat on a table in the corner, aside from his gadgets, and all of his minimized kitchen appliances. Everything semmed practical, leaving plenty of space to spare in a room no bigger than a 150 square-feet.

The enclosure’s centerpiece, raised from the floor to be even with the surrounding windows, is an Osborne Fire Finder, which is an alidade used for specifying a wildfire’s location. He explained to me how it works, letting me stare through its eyepiece and cross-hares that sit on each end of the circular table map they rotate around. Upon dialing in on newly sparked flames, you observe the device’s map to see which area you’re focussing on. After performing some proportional math using the measured steel rod that runs between the eyepieces and bisects the map, you surmise the fire’s location, which you holler over the radio and watch as a hastened fire crew unloads from a helicopter. Mind you, that this very device was manufactured in the 1920s, and that the rest of the area’s outlooks each possess one, about ten in total, and that they get the job done, as Buck alone has called in at least a dozen ignites during this very dry summer. I’m not very interested in antiques, but one of these would be an ideal toy to display in my future living room.

I asked Buck if he could snap a few photos of me outside with the scenery behind, at which he said sure, but not until after he did his routine radio check with the rest of the outlooks. I was really trying to move along because I still had to get all the way up to Logan Pass, but then he said I could take some photos from within the room, saying that he was skeptical at first because in the past, people have uploaded their photos onto social media, which wrongfully affords journalistic privilege for some circumstances, creating problems. I told him I’ll only use mine for my blog, for which I use Facebook to promote. Then his radio started chiming in, with the first call coming in from up north at the Canadian Border, sounding off in a southern progression until it was his turn, upon when he asserted that all was clear. We listened in as the call-ins worked their way south through the outlooks that string the duration of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I could tell that Buck loves his job, which he volunteers his time for. It takes a certain personality type, one who doesn’t grow lonely. He informed me how most people who come through are baffled by the fact someone could spend so much time on their own, but after witnessing his enthusiasm while talking into his radio, along with his emphatic talk of near-by recreational climbs, circling raptors, a near-by Mountain Goat haunt, and the surrounding peaks, I realized he is completely within his element, where he can explore another world all unto is own.

We said our goodbyes and exchanged some quick info and then I hit the trail running, trying to make up for lost time. From the chalet, about an hour downhill, I had two hours to get to Logan Pass if I was going to ride the shuttle back down to the Loop.

I was back on the Highline in no time and making good time until I started hitting some hills, which, although very gradual in their slope, were nonetheless draining so late in such a physically demanding day. I came across a dozen or so Big Horn Sheep sparsely located along the trail, along with a bull Mountain Goat, whose winter coat was growing in. I was snapping photos the whole time, in the process giving up any hope for making the shuttle, which I was fine with, for it was only more convenient than hitchhiking.

I arrived to the switchbacks where the stromatolites are located, but I was surveying various boulders with no luck. I came across a slender middle-aged man wearing a ball cap sitting down in the middle of the trail, his neck pinked from the sun. I said hello and he introducing himself as Orrin, asking if I was trying to make the shuttle. I said no and that I would have to find a ride. He then offered me one, saying he was headed the same direction. I replied with a yes.

I looked over the immediate landscape and informed Orrin I was trying to find stromatolites, to which he asked, “Huh?” After a little explaining on my part, he said that he had just seen “some women studying those rocks over there.”

I walked up to the boulders to find them covered by the “little swirls” I was told to look for.Around four inches in diameter, they looked like spirals painted by prehistoric brush, like ancient cave artifacts. I took some photos and reflected upon their significance, as they offer a glimpse into the emergence of life on Earth that took place around 3.5 billion years ago. It is from these colonies of single-celled bacterium that more complex and beautiful species evolved during Earth’s Cambrian era. The ones I was photographing weren’t the first to ever exist, nor the last, for you can still find living ones in places such as Yellowstone and Australia; but no matter their age, form, or condition, comprehending them invigorates the spirit, as they display evolution, that process that threads us to Earth and all of her forms of life. Staring at these ‘little swirls’ on the surface of a rock had me feeling congruent to forces of the Universe. Displays like this explaining how we’re here opens avenues for interpreting the evermore confounding question of why we’re here, and makes the mystery of it all that much more enjoyable.

Orrin, not really partaking in any of the same sorts of existential exercises himself, was eager to move along. He had the ride, so I obliged gratefully. Instead of hiking the remaining three or so miles back to Logan Pass, we dropped down a dried waterfall to where his car was parked along the Weeping Wall, which is now also dry during this time of year, beside the Going to the Sun Road. The trail is sort of a secret, previously unbeknownst to me. Orrin moved quickly for an older fella, briskly stepping his way down the steep slope. It turns out that he comes to the park in the dead of winter to climb frozen waterfalls.

I saw two cars parked along side the road as we neared in; one was new and in good condition, with the other looking like a sharp turn could send a wheel flying off the cliff, that’s if it would start in the first place. Shortly thereafter, I saw the new car pull onto the tar mat and drive away, startling me for the time being.

“She’s my ‘beater,’” Orin said as he popped the trunk’s hood, adding, with a grin, “Shit, I picked this thing up for a hundred bucks.” I replied with a nod, trying to remain stoic while internally self-rationalizing hopping into this old red convertible Buick, with a stranger behind the wheel, for a ride down one of the most dangerous roads there is. “Oh, look at that,” he said, dropping his hands out of sight into his trunk to reappear holding a can of Pabst, “I’ve even got an extra beer for you.” He walked around to his driver’s seat and solemnly looked me in the eyes to say we must be careful, for the Rangers aren’t to keen on people drinking on the road. No shit, I thought.

Our drive lasted twenty minutes, and by the end of it, I wished it could’ve lasted for much longer. Orrin runs a private stock investment advice firm in Kalispell, MT, where he lives as well. He has two kids: a married son living in Manhattan, and a daughter studying environmental engineering at UC-Berkeley. He told more stories from his decades of roaming the park. After hearing about all of the peaks he’s scaled, including all five of the park’s that exceed 10,000 ft., along with the others that he’s even skied down from the top of, I told him he’s making me sort of feel like a wimp, to which he said, while dropping his can of beer for a rest on his thigh: “You know what,” then pausing in a baffled state of self-reflection, “come to think of it,” another silence, “I really don’t know how I pulled half of that shit off.”

Well that’s it, folks, my entire summer documented for you in this blog. (Well, not every detail was included, for that would have required a pen name). It was fun to share, and the self-discipline it took to do so was plenty rewarding in and of itself. This fall, I will be hitting the books hard, but I plan to fly fish with my roommate Alex and do everything I can to get to another National Park. I may throw up something here or there, but the blog will remain dormant in the immediate future.

Take care,

Silas

1 September 2015

3 thoughts on “Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout and some Stromatolites

  1. Hi Silas, I have enjoyed reading your blog and seeing your pictures. I know you got the most out of your summer at Glacier. So glad I got to meet you. Come visit me at Zion if you are ever in the area.

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  2. Wow…that was better than anything I’ve ever written. In fact that was better than anything a lot of people have written. Wow!

    Sent from my iPad

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  3. I think Rod is biased, but in this case he is absolutely right. The photos alone are worth the look, but your telling of the adventure, and the weaving in of the characters, the stromatolites, and the existential ponderings made for a fine morning read. Thanks. I hope you’ll fish the many rivers around you and share some of those adventures as well.

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