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