The nerves are continuing to worsen as I get closer and I begin to feel all sorts of emotions: anxiety, anger with myself, anger with that stupid POS ranger who didn’t help me and for the first time in as long as I can remember, fear. My sister asked me before I left if I was nervous and I replied with, “not as much as I probably should be,” which was the honest truth. I’m not sure why, but I must have been filled with so much excitement I didn’t really think about what I was embarking on entirely. Now with only a few miles until I head out on my own, thirteen miles deep in one of the most remote parts of the Glacier National Park backcountry, it has become real, REAL fast.
After about twenty minutes at the trailhead, I’m all packed and ready to hit it. I still don’t have the excitement I was hoping for as the frustration from earlier is continuing to linger. About three quarters of a mile in, I start up a small incline and have the dreaded feeling that I over-packed, or I’m more out of shape than I thought. 'Stop being dramatic, Alex,' I say to myself out-loud while knowing deep down that it’s because I’m not in as good of shape as I should be. Not even a mile after that, I turn a corner and come within an inch of stepping in a massive pile of bear shit, which is almost the entire length of the trail. Good start.
The path is narrow and bushy, which remained like that for the next eight miles. I keep hoping that the trail would open up and I can see some of the classic Glacier views, or at least some wildlife. It just didn’t happen and it was a brutal stretch. My morale is at an all-time low and I am GASSED. I have already hiked over thirteen miles on the day and the thought of my camp being over three miles away made me want to scream (which I did). I could really use an ice cream cone right now. Just as I was thinking that, I get to a small clearing where an old backcountry supply hut is, so I stop to take a short breather. Before moving on, I scan the area and, out of the corner of my eye, I notice a beam of light shining down on what is the coolest-looking walking stick I have ever seen. Carved beautifully with a deep groove twisting up to the top, it reminds me of Gandalf’s staff (big LOTR guy right here). Considering no one is within miles of me, I assume whoever owned it previously left it at this point in the trail for the exact reason it served - giving me the final push that I need to make it to camp.
With only about another mile left, I get to a part in the trail that goes right up against the water, with an amazing view of the lake. Since the hike was mostly through forest, I stop a minute to take in the stunning scene. The water looks to be made of glass and is completely clear for as long as I can see. Out in the not-so-far distance, I notice a large loon swimming in my direction which reminds me of something that I’ve seen many times in my beautiful home state of Michigan. It’s getting darker and I don’t have a lot of daylight left but just as I’m about to head back to the trail, I hear a loud howl from across the lake. It’s followed by three more howls and it lasts about a minute. Wolves! I couldn't believe it as the wolf happens to be my favorite animal so hearing one for the first time in the wild put chills down my spine (in a good way... I think).
FUN FACT: The gray wolf mates for life and lives in packs with family members and relatives. The alpha male leads from the back to better watch over the young, old and injured. Known for their howl, the various whines, yelps, growls and barks help to keep the pack together. A lone wolf will give a beautiful yet haunting howl when separated from the pack.
After a grueling 5 and ½ hours and 12.8 miles on a less than ideal trail, I finally make it to camp. My GPS watch shows that I have logged 16.75 miles and 36,256 steps for the day. I’m starting to not only feel fatigue, but pain. With limited daylight left, I have to eat A-SAP, so I head to the food-prep area where I see four guys gathered around the fire pit cooking. I can tell they are in rough shape, just like I am, so I walk over to introduce myself, then immediately take off my pack and collapse on the ground. I’m completely out of water, so my first move after I get my life together is to walk over and filter from Grace Lake. The water is impossibly clear and it looks like I can drink straight from it, but I decide to do the next best thing and drink straight from the filter hose, before filling up my water bottles and Camelback. Safe to say that it was the best water I've had in my life. After I’m done, I walk over to the fire pit to make dinner and I start talking with the guys.
Friends from New Jersey, I learn that they are in the exact same boat as me. They didn’t get the sites they expected/wanted and were also upset with the ranger at the permit office for not helping (different one than mine). One of them is an eccentric Italian guy, Marco, who is just a character. He walks over as my food is re-hydrating and says, “you look like you could use some wine, my friend.” I gladly accept the offer as he hands me a big collapsible flask filled with red wine. The five of us talk for an hour or so, which is mainly me listening to them make fun of each other, but I’m really enjoying the company and the laughs. I learn they are here for some big skydiving festival down in Bozeman and they’re favorite hobby is base jumping, which I think is pretty rad as I’ve always wanted to try it. We all have some pretty gnarly blisters, so I take out my med kit and pass around the mole skin, knowing full well that the hike tomorrow will be even more painful.
As I’m packing up and getting ready to hang my bear bag, Marco offers me a hit of his vape pen. I purposely didn’t bring any weed in the backcountry because I know I’m not the ‘brightest’ when high, and I figure I should be on my A-game while soloing an area with grizzly’s, mountain lions, moose, and wolves. I decide to forgo logical thinking and accept, as I thought it might help get me to sleep, so I stick around and talk for a little while longer. In-between sips of his wine and right after my first (big) hit of the pen, Marco says to the group in his thick Italian accent, “I wonder what kind of ‘high’ we will be tonight; it’s either going to be the fearless, I’ll kill any grizzly bear that comes to my camp - orrr we will be paranoid as shit and sleep in each other’s tent." We all laugh and I finally get up to hang my food before going back to my camp. While I didn’t sleep in anyone’s tent, I quickly realized that my high is going to be the latter.
The sun has already gone down at this point and it’s starting to get dark quickly, so I put everything in my bear bag and go to hang it in a tree close to the food-prep area. In a matter of what feels like minutes, it has become pitch black and I can barely see my hand in front of my face. I hear rustling around in the bushes as I’m throwing my food bag over a tall branch (which I missed), so I stop and scan the area with my headlamp, looking for the beast that I think is about to attack me. 'It’s probably just a squirrel, you’re just high. Play it cool,' I think to myself as I get ready for another attempt. I throw the bag again and this time I get it over branch, so I proceed to tie it down and b-line it straight to my camp, which felt like way more than one hundred yards away. It has been hazy almost every night thus far but the stars are out and looking awesome, so I thought I would take some milky way shots before heading to bed. As I’m getting ready to take out my tripod, I hear another rustling noise from a nearby bush and just can’t bring myself to leave my tent… because of how tired I am. OK fine, I might be a little paranoid and scared. Dammit Marco!
I wake up a little before 6:00am the next morning and the sun has yet to rise over the peaks, located just on the other side of the (relatively) small lake. Determined to get back on the trail and move on to the next site, I pack everything up and get ready to start the day. My left foot is beginning to get bruised and a little swollen on the top, right around where the lip of my shoe is. While this is a sacrifice I knowingly make by backpacking in trail running shoes, I’ve never experienced this before. I figure it’s a combination of the weight from my pack and the heavy mileage I put in, so I shrug it off and finish packing.
Due to how tired I was yesterday and the limited time spent in daylight, I didn’t really explore around where my camp is, so I walk over to the lake, just ten to fifteen feet from where I have my tent. The reward is an extremely beautiful and calming view, just as the sun is coming up. I take off my pack, sit on a rock and eat a Clif bar, taking in this majestic scene: an undisturbed glacial lake as clear as could be and located in one of the most remote parts of one of the biggest national parks. Serenity on a different level.
Grace Lake has a charm about it that really drew me in and held on. I take a few pictures and decide to stay for a good twenty minutes before getting back up to start the long journey to my car. While the trail wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, this view allowed me to take some time to reflect and a feeling of pride comes over me. I feel proud of myself for rolling with the punches and officially completing my first night of solo backpacking.
Time to get moving. I walk past the food-prep area and see one of the guys from New Jersey is up and cooking breakfast. We talk for a bit, mainly about how bad this hike is going to suck. As I say my goodbye I get a weird feeling, as I know I will most likely never see them again. It’s just something I haven’t thought about before as I haven’t spent much time traveling alone, but I suppose it comes with the territory. I feel we all now have an unspoken connection, considering we essentially went through the same thing, which will be something that we will always remember. We wish each other best of luck and I hit the trail, determined to get back to my car.
I hike for a good 6 miles or so before I realize I’m moving at a rapid pace. My foot is still hurting and getting worse, but my attitude has completely changed. I keep thinking to myself, I got myself into this and I’m going to get myself out, which is a nice change from the wave of negativity I put on myself yesterday (Gandalf staff, perhaps?). I stop and take in some more views of another breathtaking lake, scanning around for wildlife. I don’t see any but I can feel a new resurgence and I’m ready to press on and finish what I started.
When you’re alone in wilderness and miles from anywhere with service, you have as clear a mind as you can get and you think about things that are most important to you. During my hike back, I start thinking a lot about my family and how fortunate I am to have grown up in such a strong household. My Mother is a beloved teacher and the best, most genuine human-being I know; Father an engineer, who has worked in both the automotive and aeronautics fields; my brother is a former state champion track runner who’s now in medicine at the top hospital in his field (UCLA); my sister is a performance psychologist who runs a sub-3 hour marathon; and I’m in business and have my sights set on starting my own consulting firm.
We all have a lot of differences, interests and areas of focus, but I think that not only connects us, it also makes us stronger at what we do respectively. I also think a lot about my family members who have passed away, which is something I realize that I haven’t done in far too long. Specifically, I start thinking about my Grandparents as well as my Uncle John, who have been long past, but each of them made a huge, positive impact on my life. I could go on for pages about how important my entire family and extended family are to me, but let’s get back to the trail.
*If you're solo backpacking, it's critical that you know what you're doing. When you've been backpacking your whole life and taught by a former eagle scout - soloing isn't looked at as scary - it's more of an honor and right of passage.
I pass some people who I can tell are just out on a day hike, which causes me to look down at my GPS watch and it’s showing that I have already gone 9 miles. 'Wow, I am MOVING,' I excitedly thought, knowing I only having 4 miles to go. I made it to camp in a little over 5 ½ hours yesterday and I realize that I might be able to break 5 hours on the way back, so it’s now a personal mission to make that happen. I’m truly the most competitive person that I know and apparently that doesn’t stop at trying to compete with myself, so I start walking even faster, with a renewed sense of confidence and unnecessary urgency.
With only about two miles left, I come up to an older couple, who are standing off to the side for a break. “Are you by yourself out here?” the man said with a surprised tone. For whatever reason I’m feeling chatty, so I proudly answer yes, and start telling them about my trip. They are very engaged and tell me about a similar kind of backpacking trip that they did together when they were about my age. After a few minutes, I say that I better get back to it and the women, who was as friendly as could be, said something which I wrote in my journal later in the day and it has resonated with me ever since… “I think the trip you are doing is just great. Never stop.”
After four hours and forty-seven minutes, I make it back to the trailhead and see my jeep. I beat the five-hour mark I was pushing toward and make it back a half-hour faster than yesterday. While my spirits are high, I am completely tanked, so as soon as I get off the trail, I take off my pack and lay down in the dirt next to my car. As I’m laying down, a church group of about eight people rolls up, riding dirty in the usual big white conversion van.
Decked out in all of their gear, including fanny packs, cargo pants, and bear bells, they come over and ask me to take a picture, which I gladly accept. “What campsite are you staying at?” I ask the women as she hands me her camera, which she excitedly replies, “First Sprague Lake and then onto Grace Lake. Taking our time and doing it in four days and three nights. Should be a blast!”. “How long did it take you?” asked a middle-aged man standing with the rest of the group. “I went pretty quick and finished in two days and one night,” I respond while feeling a little awkward. I mainly feel bad for them as I know their excitement is about to turn down a couple notches pretty quickly, but I choose not to mention how it’s 13 miles of mostly walking on a narrow, bushy path, but instead tell them about the beauty that is Grace Lake. I watch as they disappear into the woods then I get in my car and start the drive back to the Lake McDonald area. My first solo backpacking overnight is officially complete.