No attendants were in Glacier National Park’s St. Mary Lake entrance booth to take money last Sunday. Visitors to the 1-million-acre park were on a self-serve honor system.
Only one of two campgrounds was open, and it was sparsely occupied. The water was off. Flush-toilet restrooms were still locked with a note on the door directing early campers to nearby vault toilets.
This was a good sign.
On Monday, only one car was parked at the Sun Point trailhead for the most popular spring trail on the park’s east side.
It’s called the shoulder season at Glacier National Park – or at any outdoor attraction: the period before or after the peak season for traveling to hike a trail, catch a fish or enjoy the full range of opportunities and services.
Shoulder-season adventurers must be more prepared. Water systems may not be operating, so bring your own jugs and don’t forget the coffee, or the bear spray.
It’s a risky period for venturing out. The weather is less predictable and help for emergencies such as a flat tire can be harder to find.
However, the rewards are sensational, especially for people with the flexibility – or the guts to call in sick – to take advantage of a good-weather window.
Most of the facilities at Glacier National Park were still in mothballs last week as crews scurried to prepare for this Memorial Day weekend. Even the landscape was trying to break the grip of a long winter.
The West Glacier information officer was chatting as though he were a long lost friend to anyone straying into the lonesome Apgar Visitor Center.
But he had few details to dole out.
“We haven’t got much feedback from hikers yet, and even the rangers haven’t been able to get too far with all the snow,” he said.
But he had some reliable reports on a few trails that were open. He knew where bears had been reported and where game was making itself obvious.
That was a start.
Scott Wolff of Duluth, Minn., explored the two-mile trail into Avalanche Lake where the views of mountain goats in the high peaks had him beaming.
However, the highlight of the hike was a close encounter with a colorful male harlequin duck feeding next to the trail in the stream that rushes out of the lake.
Glacier Park may be the best place in the lower 48 states to see harlequins that arrive from late April to early May from the Pacific Coast to raise a family in the pure waters of mountain streams.
“It would dive in the fast-moving water, feed on underwater bugs, then pop up in the same spot,” Wolff said, noting the harlequin’s adaptation to swift water.
“If I were to dive in that creek this time of year, I’d come up a hundred feet downstream – probably in several pieces.”
The three-mile trail through an old burn to Apgar Lookout is the first high-point trail that opens in spring, the result of forest fires over several years. With the slope exposed to sun, snow melts early.
The burned landscape initially seemed to have little color, almost as though one were walking through a faded 60-year-old color photograph.
On closer examination, morel mushrooms were poking through the duff and a brilliant solitary fairyslipper (calypso orchid) had bloomed near a garden of trilliums.
Near the top of the mountain where the snow was still lingering in patches, yellow glacier lilies beamed on the floor of a haunting forest of sun-bleached snags that still stand as a monument to the forest fire.
The view from the top, with a backdrop of snow-smothered peaks, included Lake McDonald and the North Fork of the Flathead region of the park where wolves first reestablished themselves in the 1980s after a 50-year absence.
Only a few hikers were at the lookout. One woman was on her cell phone telling relatives they could see her if they fired up their computers and checked out the Apgar Mountain Webcam.
Time to go.
West Glacier area, just 35 miles from the Kalispell area, is the most popular early-season destination.
However, the east side of the park borders the sparsely populated Blackfeet Reservation. With snow still blocking cross-park access on the Going to the Sun Road during spring, fewer visitors travel the winding road to St. Mary Lake and Many Glacier areas.
The only preseason campground to open last week was at St. Mary Lake, where a few campers scattered among aspens that were still leafless and naked.
In the chill after the sun went down, one could understand why buds were still clamped shut.
Chinook winds sweep snow off some of the park’s eastside slopes to expose food and passage for bighorn sheep, mountain boats and elk. The were fully focused on restocking their fat supplies.
Females were bulging and ready to give birth to the young of the year.
A grizzly with three cubs roamed the hillside near the trail to Iceberg Lake. The sow was a step ahead of the ungulates, having given birth to her cubs in her winter den.
Deer looked ragged as their winter coats, with long thick hairs designed to create insulation, were starting to rub off in clumps. Soon they will shine in sleeker summer coats, with shorter, denser hair that helps ward off insects.
Wildlife viewing is reason enough to be in Glacier during May.
With few people around, it’s not uncommon to be alone and see spectacles such as the pair of goshawks that performed an air show over picnic tables at Many Glacier.
But following the trails beyond the trailheads reveals another natural layer.
Shortly after the morning sunshine began warming the east-facing slopes, avalanches of snow, ice and rock began roaring down the nearly vertical cliffs of Citadel Mountain.
They resembled delicate waterfalls cascading down the slope until the thunder of rocks and debris echoed in the amphitheater of stone.
Real waterfalls, such as Virginia Falls, were within day-tripping distance. A pair of water ouzels was building a nest in the rocks adjacent to St. Mary Falls.
Wearing gaiters extends a hiker’s range through snow patches higher in the valley. With the help of snowshoes, a hiker might make it to Gunsight Pass or to bare ridges that lead to Glacier’s signature peaks.
Careful though. Although the tracks up a steep snowfield indicated a grizzly had safely traversed to anther valley, a portion of its route tracks had been swept off the slope as though an eraser had removed a swath of its signature from a chalkboard.