Hiking to Snyder Lake

After a good breakfast at Sykes, I left Kalispell for Glacier National Park about 8 a.m. My plan, subject to re-consideration, was to hike the Snyder Lake Trail, a nine mile “moderate” difficulty hike with an elevation gain of 2000 feet (for comparison, the Washington Monument is 550 feet high). I had previously noted that my Glacier Day Hikes book refused to give a difficulty level of “strenuous” to any pretentious little hike that did not involve at least 3000 feet of elevation gain, no matter the distance. Snyder Lake was a predicted 5-6 hour hike, and plenty enough to test me. I had avoided it two days earlier, largely because the book description specifically mentioned that one should be cautious in view of the fact that bears love parsnips, which abound on parts of the trail, and that the dense foliage at ground level at those parts could hide a bear a mere ten feet off the trail. I’m not partial to bears, and in fact they scare me, especially grizzlies. There are only a few hundred of the latter in the Park, which is big, and several thousands of people, and many of them are hiking. While seeing a black bear is not too unusual (we saw one dash with sobering dispatch across the road last year in east Glacier), grizzly encounters are almost negligible compared to the number of hikers in the Park over a summer. Still, “almost negligible” isn’t zero, and a tenderfoot such as myself tends to think about these things. Also, a mountain lion had been seen during the last few days at two locations, one where Val and I had been a few days before, and another sighting on the Sperry Trail, which one had to hike to get to the Snyder Lake trail. All the trailheads announce that you are entering grizzly country, and helpfully add that you should never hike alone. Then, just for icing on the cake, I heard on the radio driving the 30 miles to the Park that just the day before a couple had been attacked by a sow grizzly with two cubs in Yellowstone, and the man was killed. The woman had rolled in a ball and played dead. The bear picked her up by her backpack, then dropped her, and finally moved on. So this was all part of the “subject to re-consideration” aspect of my plan.

Aside from a fanny pack with two bottles of water and an apple, and a small backpack with my brand new Nikon camera with an 18-55 lens and a 55-300 lens, I was armed with a jingle bell attached to my bootstring, a walking stick, a Buck hunting knife, and a new can of bear spray. The knife was a touch ludicrous, whimsical almost, but the image of an annoyed bear on top of you conjures up all sorts of desperate and almost certainly unexecutable defensive fantasies. Still, you dream, and having a knife can’t hurt. Besides, a good blade can always come in handy. What about that guy who got his hand stuck under a boulder in the wilderness and had to decide between life and hand?

My whistle-thermometer-mini-light-compass-magnifying glass informs me that it is 70 degrees. Soon I’m off, with an intention of turning around at any point bear phobia takes over. There is no one else, and that is the most eerie part. I’m talking loudly, telling the bears I don’t need any today, singing “Dixie,” and generally appearing absurd to anyone who might have been around, but wasn’t. The trail is wide, with little underbrush here, and snakes its way upward through large spruce, cedar, and hemlock trees. This goes on for about an hour, and still not a soul. I pass the fork for the Mt. Brown Lookout trail entrance, which informs me that the summit is 3.7 miles up, for a total hike of eleven miles, and one that earns the honor of “strenuous.” Not today. Just beyond the fork, at 1.8 miles, the Snyder Lake trail also branches off the Sperry, with the lake 2.6 miles up. Well, no bears or mountain lions so far—only a huge mule deer right on the trail who moves off just enough to pose for me—so I keep walking up. Then, fairly soon, people! It was a work crew of four guys digging drainage ditches off the trail. I chatted for a minute or two, and apparently there was one soloist ahead of me. Then I asked, with studied aplomb, about bears in the area. Apparently, no big deal: “You’re probably more likely to see a mountain lion.” Oh! No problem then. In addition to shovels, they did have bear spray, which apparently is useful for anything that has eyes and breathes through a nose.

I move on, and probably around 3.5 miles am surprised by a man and a woman and their college-age, cross-country-skiing daughter coming up behind me, and they are moving out. I picked up my pace, which I had not thought doddering, and latched on and we chatted all the way to the lake. I never did actually know what parsnips looked like, but the ecosystem had changed as we had climbed, and the trail was often only fifteen or so inches wide. The ground-level foliage was thick and about waist-high. We crossed a short scree field of large and small rocks, and the trail was often muddy with small, two to six foot crystal streams crossing it. One couple was descending, either campers by the lake or the “soloist” mentioned by the work crew. We reached the lake, and were surrounded by tall, jagged, snow-patched mountains. We were also surrounded by mosquitoes who were thirsty and who had not read the warning labels on their anabolic steroid packages. Or perhaps they were a different species, mosquito montana giganticus. We took some photographs, at least when one of the mosquitoes wasn’t blocking our view, and then bid our goodbyes as they quickly started back down. I stayed and ate my apple and took some more photos, having decided that my fellow travelers might want some family time without a hanger-on, and that I was also more comfortable knowing that there were at least some others on the trail.

Hiking down does not get your heart rate up so much, nor do you need to breathe through your mouth after fifty feet, but it is not without challenge. Naturally you have to watch your step for all the rocks and unevenness in the trail, but depending on the steepness, it can put some stress on your knees, and your toes can jam up in your boots and hurt. This is why it’s wise to cut your toenails the night before a steep hike. One serious hiker I met on the descent told me he lost a toenail every summer. He was 65, looked 50 on a bad day, and did about three 10-12 mile hikes a week in the summer. He had planned to hike the Mt. Brown Lookout hike, but had missed the turn-off for it, and so would do Snyder Lake. He had done Mt. Brown the year before and said it was the hardest hike he had ever done. A youthful mule deer approached us warily on the trail before giving us wide berth, and then we parted. The trip down was pretty uneventful. Bear thoughts had receded. After four hours almost on the nose, I was sweaty and itchy, but pretty well satisfied.

John Rachal
July 12, 2011