Located only a few miles past Lake McDonald is the ‘trail of the cedars’ and the start of the five mile hike to avalanche lake. Just as I get out of the car, I notice the inevitable rain that’s about to hit me. I realize that I don’t have as much light as I thought remaining, but I am dead set on seeing this lake, so I put on my jacket, lace up my hiking shoes and begin my trek on the famous trail.
The first stretch is on a nice wooden walking path, through a grove of giant cedar trees. They have a number of stops with all sorts of fun facts, which you know by now that I’m a huge fan of, but I am on a mission, so I keep on moving. Off in the not-so far distance, I notice an older man with a bucket hat standing on a small bridge by himself, staring down at what I assume is water. “Isn’t it fascinating?” he asks me as I approach. I look to my left and immediately know what he was staring at, as the water was a deep turquoise blue, unlike anything I had seen before (common theme).
As I’m standing on the bridge, I take in all of the surroundings and see how unique the ecosystem is; it’s made up of things that don’t seem to go together. Giant trees that look like they are from the Sierra Nevada's in California, crystal clear water which could have fooled people in the Bahamas, and vegetation that seemed to be straight from the Pacific Northwest. I stand here for a couple minutes soaking it in, until I realize the old man is still standing right next to me and it’s starting to get weird. Moving on!
No more than a minute after I leave the bridge the sky starts to darken and rain begins to come down. I stop to put away my camera and throw on my jacket, but remain unphased as I know that the rain has zero chance of stopping me. 'It will pass,' I keep telling myself confidently.
The rain is continuing to come down harder as each minute passes and the people who are still on the trail start hightailing it back to their cars in the opposite direction. I can hear thunder in the distance but for no apparent reason I am still confident it will pass. As I progress through the trail, I come around a switch back and almost collide with a middle aged women wearing a Snoopy t-shirt, and her elementary age son who’s sporting acid wash jeans. “Turn back! We just saw lightning!” said the woman who is squeezing the hand of her child like the world is about to end. “K thanks!” I reply as she stormed past me. 'Why did I say that?' I can’t help but laugh as that whole exchange felt like it was taken right out of a corny movie.
“Am I getting close?” I ask a group of friends who are on their way back, avoiding the storm. “Uhh, not really man, you probably have another mile or so. Maybe more,” said one of the guys. Shit. I don’t know if it’s the fatigue setting in, my aching foot, or the rain, but I feel like I have hiked at least 3 miles already. Still, for whatever reason, there is not a doubt in my mind that the rain will pass and someone will physically have to carry me out to prevent me from seeing this damn lake.
The trees start to open up and I know I am getting close. I notice that the rain has also started to slow down, so I stop to look back at the clouds where the wind was blowing from, which is when I (officially) know the rain will stop. With a big smile on my face, I finish out the last stretch and finally make it to the sign with no mileage on it, which simply reads - ‘Avalanche Lake.' I walk to the main “beach” area, which is occupied by only one couple, who look like they are in high school or early college. “Wow,” I said (apparently out loud). “Pretty sick, huh?” replied the bro with the slanted backwards RVCA hat. 'Sick indeed.'
The only other people aside from the couple are a father and son, fishing around the bend, about fifty yards from where we are. “Do you know how I can get over to that area?” I ask curiously. “You know that trail you came in on?” the female chimed in, “It actually keeps going and there are a bunch of turn-offs with access to the lake.” Perfect. I wish them well and get back onto the trail. After another half mile or so, I decide to take the short foot path back to the lake and I post up at a spot, that I know, for a 100% fact, I will remember the rest of my life.
After walking along the water and staring in amazement at what’s in front of me, I make my way over to a big rock and get out my journal. I start reflecting and writing notes about various things that happened over the last few days which includes everything from almost stepping in bear shit and some of the funny things Marco said around the fire, to my roller coaster of emotions starting with nerves driving to the trailhead as well as the positive resurgence I had this morning.
As I’m writing, I remember that I have something very special in my backpack. I reach into the top pouch and pull out my Grandfathers harmonica. While I’m holding it, I start reflecting on the backstory. Earlier this summer, my Mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I told her that I would love a harmonica. I consider myself one of the least musically talented people, and I know I won’t be able to devote the time to fully learning an instrument, but I absolutely love music and I wanted something I can take camping, in hopes I’ll progressively get to a point where I can jam out with my friends, in a non-embarrassing fashion. I also liked the fact that my Grandfather played the harmonica his entire life and although he passed when I was young, I have vivid memories of him playing for us when we visited them at the farm.
Fast forward to a family reunion this past July, my Mom called me aside and surprised me with an early birthday gift - my Grandfather’s harmonica. It’s the same piece he played overseas during World War II and throughout the rest of his life. It’s even still in the same beautiful case he kept it in, which reads, “Made in Germany - US Zone.” I had to fight back my tears when she handed it to me as I immediately knew it is now the most valuable thing that I own.
Suddenly, an idea comes to mind. I flip to the back of my journal to the page titled “MUST GET SETUP SHOTS.” I look at the list of the specific pictures that I wanted to capture, and at the very top of that list reads ‘shot of me playing Grandpa’s harmonica.' Prior to leaving for the trip, I had visions of playing it in the backcountry during my first solo overnight or maybe somewhere in Yellowstone, but I really had no idea when I wanted to take this “selfie.” Sitting here perched on a rock looking out at a truly incredible landscape and one day before my birthday, I have no doubt that this is the right time to capture an image which I know will have a deep significance to me.
I do a little more reflecting, writing, and playing, before getting up to move closer to the water. I scan the area and notice that I’m now the only person here; the Dad and his son are no longer fishing and the young couple must have went on their merry way. It’s just me.
The moment is hard to explain but it truly is the most surreal feeling that I can ever recall. Here I am, at one of the most popular attractions at a national park that’s appropriately dubbed, “the Crown Jewel of the Continent” - and I have it all to myself. It’s a moment of true clarity and peacefulness, surrounded by one of the most amazing landscapes in the world. Right up my ally.
After that touching moment, with myself, I realize that there is a reason why I am the only one here. It’s starting to get dark and I still have to hike 3 miles back to my car. Just then, I hear a LOUD roar of thunder off in the distance, so I immediately pack up my camera/tripod and get back onto the trail. As I reach the front of the lake, where I started, I turn and give it one last look. The vibrant orange from the setting sun clashing with the dark storm clouds, created what I can only describe as an eerily beautiful scene.
The rain begins to fall again, but I can’t help myself from capturing yet another unforgettable moment at Avalanche Lake, so I quickly get my camera back out, snap one picture, put on my headlamp, and start running.
The rain that’s coming down is not just an afternoon storm; it is absolutely POURING. Not even a mile in, the sky lost what little light it had left and the near constant roar of the thunder is clearly getting closer. Legitimately scared at this point, I start getting all sorts of frightening images in my head, from twisting my ankle, getting struck by lightning, or coming across a grizzly bear, but I just keep telling myself, 'you got this, just make it back to the car.' The thunder now feels like it’s right on top of me and it’s raining harder than ever, but I finally make it to the wooden walking bridge, so I know the car is close. Now that I don’t have to keep my eyes down to avoid big roots and rocks, I start to flat out sprint back to my car.
I fling open my door, throw my backpack on the front seat and just as I’m about to jump in, I notice my toiletry bag. 'Smelling like shit + pouring rain = perfect shower opportunity,' I thought as I pull out the always reliable Dr. Bronners shampoo and proceed to take a ‘not as rushed as it should have been’ shower. As I’m washing my hair with rain absolutely dumping down on me, I can’t help but get a big smile on my face. People were storming off the trail when it started to rain, the rain stopped almost the exact moment I arrived, and then started back up when I clearly should have been on my way at that point. “Sick indeed” I say out loud once again.
I dry off then get back in my car to contemplate my next move. I’m set to kayak tomorrow just outside the park in West Glacier and with no other place to be, an idea comes to mind which leads me to ask myself, 'what if I drive back to Logan Pass and chill there in hopes that the sky will clear up, then I can get the most epic shots of the milky way?' I think about it for a minute while sitting in my car and just can’t pull myself away from the image of shooting the milky way with the continental divide sign in the background. 'I’m doing this, the rain will pass,' I thought with unjustifiable confidence for the second time.
While I wish I could tell you that the rain cleared up and I could show you some amazing milky way shots; the reality is that it kept pouring, I proceeded to fall asleep listening to “On the Road” audiobook and a park ranger knocked on my window telling me I need to leave. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take - Michael Jordan - Michael Scott,” I chuckle to myself before making my way down the winding and admittedly terrifying going-to-the-sun road, before pulling into a random parking lot where I setup my Jeep hotel. What a day.