Doug Stevens

Smoked Out of Glacier – Again!

~Doug Stevens


I have three main Summer/Fall passions when it comes to the outdoors:  backpacking, landscape photography and fly fishing.  Montana offers great opportunities for all three of these, and much more.  However, lately I’ve been leaning more to backpacking/photography.  In hindsight, maybe I should have stuck to fishing.


For several years, I have been trying to photograph a certain trail in the northwest section of Glacier National Park.  This trail runs from Goat Haunt, at the south end of Waterton Lake to Kintla Lake in the northwest corner of the Park. In between, it passes through some of the most dramatic breathtaking scenery the Park has to offer.  At one point on the trail, you can see Bowman Lake way below at about 4,000 ft above sea level, up to Rainbow Peak, a sneeze below 9900 feet.


Taking the boat into Goat Haunt from Waterton is a great way to enter the Park.  It’s a 45 minute “voyage” and the scenery just builds as you approach the end of Waterton Lake.  There are the Cathedral Peaks on the right and Mt Cleveland straight ahead. At 10,466, its the tallest mountain in the Park.  In 2017, I finally had sites for the end of August.  I was stoked! 


This was to have been a fantastic 4-day hike – up Olson Creek below the Cathedral Peaks, past Francis Lake, over Brown’s Pass, through Hole-in-the Wall, over Boulder Pass and down to Kintla Lake.  However, 2017 was a pretty bad fire year, with fires all over Montana, including several in the Park.  That morning Waterton was clear and sunny.  Unfortunately, as the boat approached Goat Haunt, you could see smoke from the Sprague Fire below Sperry Chalet was infiltrating the south end of the lake.  Additinally, a series of lightning storms and wind rolled through along the way that started new fires, like the 100,000 acre Kenow Fire – a fire that nearly torched the town of Waterton, as well as whipped up the Sprague Fire that claimed Sperry Chalet.  Despite all that, it was a great hike, but the smoke definitely impacted the quality of the photos.  This route is so beautiful, that I was determined to try again in 2018.


Luckily, I was able to secure a return itinerary.  This time, a couple weeks earlier to try and avoid late August fires.  Like 2017, 2018 has been another bad season for fires.  From early August on, western Montana was wrapped in smoke again.  Much of it was blowing in from the large fires in California and BC (again!).  The smoke was looking so bad that I almost canceled my trip, but there was a glimmer of hope.  A front was to come through the day before my start.  This had the potential to push the smoke south out of the way and I could maybe get those clear shots this time.  ‘At least the Park wasn’t on fire this year’, I thought, so I headed out for Waterton, again.


As I came around Lake McDonald, there was a new, small fire on the west side of the lake.  This had started the day before from a lightning strike.  I didn’t think much of it. The fire was burning in an area that had burned in the 2003 Roberts Fire – how bad could it get?


When I arrived in Waterton, the air was filled with smoke.  The front came through that night as predicted and the next morning (8/13) was noticeably clearer – but not really “clear”.  I decided to go ahead and take the first boat out, at least it would be a great hike, like last year.  How can you get tired of that kind of scenery?  As the day wore on, though, the air quality started to degrade.  The smoke seemed to be sucking back in.


My first night was at Francis Lake again - usually a very beautiful, serene spot.  At the west end of the lake there is a long, delicate waterfall that cascades down from a glacier high above.  To the east, down the valley are Porcupine Ridge and the Cathedral Peaks that culminate in the towering Mt. Cleveland behind.  Unlike last year, when I could at least see them through the smoke, there was nothing there this time. I later learned that the small fire on the west side of Lake McDonald, (Howe Ridge Fire), exploded when that front blew through.  It roared up to over 10,000 acres almost overnight.


That night was pretty rough.  My eyes were burning, my throat was getting sore and my nose started really running.  I got up right at sunrise and went back down to the lake.  With the sun backlighting the scene, I could now make out the silhouettes of the ridgelines.  The thick smoke and was far worse than last year, and yet the whole scene was rather surreal.  Exercising heavily, breathing in this much smoke would probably not be a smart health move.  So, I packed up and hustled to make the first boat back to Waterton. ‘Smoked out – again!’, I thought as I enjoyed the cruise back.  ‘OK, I’ll try again in the Fall’.


As Fall rolled around, and with the Howe Ridge Fire now somewhat under control, I looked optimistically at the status of the backcountry campsites along the way.  All the campsites in and around Goat Haunt were closed.  ‘What? Why?’  Another fire! – the Boundary Creek Fire, started by lightening on August 23rd.  So much for the third time being the charm!


Will I try again in 2019?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think it has anything to do with me, but it seems bad fire things happen when I try to hike this section of the Park.  Like I said at the beginning, maybe I should go back to fishing in August – it might be best for me and the Park!