Going To The Sun road in Glacier National Park, autumn

Glacier Park part three: over the hill

September 19, 2016

over-the-hill-tocI’m biking west on the Going To The Sun road, but the sun appears to be taking a different route. I have no idea if I can actually make it up to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.

It’s 27 kilometers from my campsite to that high point on the road. For most of that distance I’ll hug the shoreline of St. Mary Lake, so I can expect the road to be more or less level. After that, the road climbs 650 meters (2100 feet) in 10 kilometers of 6.5% grade.

Map of eastern section of Going to The Sun road.

Map of eastern section of Going to The Sun road. click map for larger view

While there is spotty sunshine along the lakeshore, the sky to the west is ominous:

Looking west along St. Mary Lake, Sept 19, 2016

Looking west along St. Mary Lake, Sept 19, 2016

The wind is cold and blowing out of the west so I put my head down and concentrate on making steady progress without working up too much of a sweat. I try not to look very far ahead, but each time I do the snowy peaks have come a little bit closer.


Eventually the road veers away from the lake shore and starts heading uphill. At least, my legs complain as if we’re going uphill. This is one of many times on the trip when, surrounded by towering slopes with no level reference point in sight, I can’t really see whether the road is sloping uphill or downhill. On several stretches the road appears to be level but I’m pedaling hard just to keep moving – am I simply fatigued from battling the wind? Are my tires going flat? (Nope.) Perhaps, I tell myself, the problem is that I should have done this ride before I got to be sixty-one-and-three-quarters years old … maybe even before I was sixty, or before I was fifty ….

At last I reach Siyeh Bend where I stop for a snack. I pull out my map and see that I have covered nearly all of the distance between the campground and Logan Pass. But what encourages me most is a glance back to the east at the route I’ve just traversed.

The valley I’ve climbed out of looks almost dizzyingly deep, and I break into a big smile at the thought that I must already be much of the way up to Logan Pass. On cue, as if to say “wipe that silly grin off your face”, a shower of sleet blows in, turning the road white in the time it takes to put on my rain pants and full-fingered gloves.

The sleet proves to be intermittent but the views get ever more spectacular the closer I get to Logan Pass.

And believe me, I spend a lot of time admiring the view! While my legs feel strong enough to keep moving, I gasp for oxygen in the thinner air – just a few pedal cycles leave me breathless. Luckily there are pull-outs along the road something like every 100 meters on the last few kilometers up to the pass, and I think I stopped at most of them.


Finally the visitor center comes into view and I manage to pedal the last few hundred meters without stopping. I stay just long enough to put on another layer of wool underneath my rain suit for the chilly ride down. I don’t want to rest long enough to let my muscles get cold, but I do stop for the obligatory photo in front of the Logan Pass sign, and another visitor snaps a shot with my camera.

That night when I download the photos, I’m surprised to find that there’s another cyclist in the picture, in the background at right. This was the only other cyclist I saw that day. He had intended to ride up to the Pass from the west, but he decided the route looked too scary so he hitched a ride up with his bike. When we chatted in the visitor center he was buying another layer of clothing, while debating whether he should try the ride downhill.

I didn’t see him depart, but just after I started downhill myself, he was walking his bike back up to the top. I guess that’s understandable – I mean, this guy had some serious miles on him! Judging by his unruly white beard and drastically receding hairline, he looked to be not a day under 62!

But he missed a great ride. The next 35 kilometers were downhill all the way to Lake MacDonald. After I’d gone far enough to get out of the rain and sleet, I put on my helmet camera and filmed about a half hour of the descent. These excerpts from that ride, set to “Gearheads” by Joey Defrancesco and Danny Gatton, bring to mind the joy I felt all the way down. This is dedicated to all of us who are well and truly “over the hill”.

hiking trail in Glacier National Park, Sept 18 2016

Glacier Park part two: the friction of trees and mountains

September 18, 2016

The view from my motel window was encouraging: the previous night’s horizontal rain was gone.

I took my time getting ready for the day’s ride, waiting to see if the gale-force winds in the forecast were really on their way back.

over-the-hill-tocWhen I rolled up to the Glacier National Park entrance gate just a kilometer from my motel, however, I was met with another challenge. The Going To The Sun road was closed due to a landslide! The night’s heavy rain had brought rock and mud down across the road in the Big Bend area, just beyond the high point at Logan Pass. I could bike up to the Pass, I was told, but then I’d have to turn around and come back. And there was no guesstimate when the road would re-open.

Meanwhile the sun was shining but the wind was picking up and there were ominous clouds to the south. The best course of action, I decided, was to set up camp in the park’s St. Mary campground, just a kilometer from the entrance, and plan an afternoon hike.

The campground had some nicely sheltered campsites. I set up my tent and then cooked a pot of oatmeal on my stove; though the wind was whistling through the treetops it was quite calm at ground level. Studying my National Geographic map of the park, I picked a nearby walk that I thought would provide some beautiful scenery without a lot of exertion.

By that time another camper had told me the Road to the Sun had reopened. But my legs were still tired from the previous day’s bike ride, and I wasn’t ready for several hours of biking uphill. So I chose to walk the Beaver Pond Loop and part of the Red Eagle Trail, totaling perhaps 8 km (5 miles).

With rain suit and extra clothes in a small backpack, I set out into a warm but occasionally ferocious wind. Looking west across St. Mary Lake the sky was mostly blue:

St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.

St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.

The view to the southwest was different – dark clouds and streaks of rain hung between the mountains.

The view to the southwest along St. Mary Lake.

The view to the southwest along St. Mary Lake.

With such a brisk wind it seemed improbable that the rain would stay at a safe distance all afternoon, and yet I carried out my whole walk in warm sunshine.
Rain clouds over the mountains in Glacier National Park, Sept 18 2016

Why does the wind carry clouds and rain over the mountainsides just a few kilometers away, and yet bring warm, dry air through this part of the valley? I thought again of And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind.

Moist air is less dense than dry air, Bill Streever explains, and so it will rise, creating a lower pressure zone at ground level. Unless, that is, the moisture in the air is condensing, in which case it will sink, causing a lower pressure zone up above. Air will quite simply flow from higher pressure zones to lower pressure zones, towards equilibrium of atmospheric pressure. Except, that is, in the real world, where there are all sorts of complications and wind flow is not simple:

The difficulty comes in understanding why wind seldom moves in a straight line between pockets of high pressure and low pressure, why it never succeeds in reaching equilibrium, why the highs and lows that drive it form and disappear …. The difficulty comes in understanding the confusion that arises from the earth’s incessant spinning below its atmosphere and from the friction that occurs where moving air meets unyielding ground and trees and buildings and mountains.”

Along my walk I approached some of the stands of pine trees that have fallen victim to the mountain pine beetle throughout this region.

Pine trees hit by mountain pine beetle infestation, Glacier National Park.

Pine trees hit by mountain pine beetle infestation, Glacier National Park.

The trees were dead but they were not silent. The friction of the wind against the bare treetops produced an eerie song, which I heard both in areas hit by the pine beetle and in areas hit by forest fire.

Though my camera microphone isn’t the greatest tool for capturing this song I gave it a try. Turn up your speakers and you can hear some of the music that I heard on my walk:


On the short ride back to the campground that evening that wind nearly blew me off my bike. But another camper advised that with all the twists and turns on the Going To The Sun road, the wind would most likely be at my back some of the time.


Gathering in campground at sunset, Glacier National Park


On that cheery note I said good night.


sunset in Glacier National Park

Glacier Park part one: “those with outdoor plans should prepare for strong wind gusts”

September 17, 2016

“Big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser whirls and so on to viscosity.” – Lewis Fry Richardson

over-the-hill-tocOn the train across the the northern US to Montana I passed the time reading a fascinating book by Bill Streever: And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air. The book recounts the centuries-long effort to understand the wind: why does it blow, what effects does it have and how can it be forecast? Lewis Fry Richardson (1881 – 1953) was one of the most prominent pioneering scientists of weather, whose methods of forecasting didn’t really become practical until the arrival of supercomputers long after his death.

As a touring cyclist the wind is always one of the major influences on my ride, so I read Streever’s work with great interest.

When I disembarked from the Amtrak train in the village of East Glacier on the evening of September 16, I was steeling myself for the first anticipated challenge of my trip: the ride over the famed Going To The Sun road in Glacier National Park.

From East Glacier north to St. Mary, and then along the Going To The Sun road to West Glacier, is about 130 km (80 miles), a distance I have often covered in a day on a loaded touring bike. With a tail wind, might I ride that fast through Glacier National Park? I set out on a sunny Saturday morning to find out.

It didn’t take long, riding on Montana State Highway 49, to realize the 50 km to St Mary might be a day’s work. What my iPad map application didn’t tell me is that there are two major climbs of over 300m (1000 feet) between East Glacier and St. Mary. For a cyclist still acclimatized to summer on the flat-lands along Lake Ontario, a chilly autumn ride over mountains was a challenge.

Google map of route from East Glacier to St. Mary, with elevation profile

Google map of route from East Glacier to St. Mary, with elevation profile

But what views! The great part about being frequently out of breath is that it makes it easy to stop often to take pictures.

Fall colours in Glacier National Park, Montana, Sept 17, 2016

Fall colours in Glacier National Park, Montana, Sept 17, 2016

When I got to the top of what would be the last climb of the afternoon, the outlook suddenly changed. A stiff breeze accompanied by fast-moving mist hit me in the face. Out came my rain suit and soon I was rolling down a steep hill, slowly, against the wind, all the way to St. Mary.

Rain blows across the mountains, Glacier National Park, Sept 17, 2016.

Rain blows across the mountains, Glacier National Park, Sept 17, 2016.

Did it look like a good night for camping? Not if I could find a room. The Red Eagle Motel obliged and soon I was warm and dry, logged into wifi and pondering this forecast:

Special Weather Statement warning of high winds, 17 September 2016

Wind warning for Glacier National Park, Sept 17, 2016

Listening to the gusts and rain batter the motel walls through the evening I was glad to be inside – my cheap summer tent would have been torn to shreds. My comfort was lessened somewhat, though, at the thought of biking in the same wind the next day over Logan Pass, on the Going To The Sun road.