Forty Days and Forty Nights In the Wilderness
Glacier National Park: The Crown of the Continent
By: Jenny Wisniewski
This is the second in a series of blogs about Wilderness Inquiry Founder Greg Lais’s “Forty Days and Forty Nights in the Wilderness” in honor of Wilderness Inquiry’s 40th Anniversary. Glacier National Park is the first of five major trips Lais will take in 2018.
In the summer of 1885, an adventurer and naturalist named George Bird Grinnell explored over one million acres of northwestern Montana. Having become smitten, he dubbed the majestic alpine peaks and over 700 glaciated lakes, “the crown of the continent.” Grinnell was no stranger to the majesty of the west. As editor of Forest and Stream magazine, founder of the Audubon Society and advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt, his peregrinations were vast and varied. Still, this area so enchanted Grinnell that one of his greatest feats became his successful advocacy for the inclusion of this crown jewel within the National Park system in 1910. It would become the country’s 10th national park.
Glacier National Park became the first stop on Greg Lais’s Forty Days and Forty Nights journey in July. Leading eight adults ranging in age from 61 to 79, Greg and his wife, Patti, traversed some of the same paths as Grinnell 100 years earlier, carrying the same adventuring spirit. The group, six Michigan residents and two Minnesotans, banded together like old friends within the first hour.
More bucket list travelers wishing to witness the beauty of Glacier than hardcore hikers, the group nonetheless was willing to exert themselves physically rather than remaining on the cautious perimeter of the park. Their first trek was a five-mile round-trip hike to Avalanche Lake, one of the most popular hikes in the park.
Along the way, Greg and Patti experienced a deja vu moment with an NPS ranger that transported them back 32 years. They recognized her as a WI participant they had paddled Alaska’s Porcupine River within 1986. It was quite a reunion! “Mary McMahon was on the infamous trip when a Grizzly came into our camp. I’ll never forget the look on her face that night,” said Lais.
Lais was impressed with the way the group managed the Avalanche Lake hike. Still, the explorers experienced a few jitters the night before a challenging hike along the Highline Trail. “I worried about my knee and about my stamina somewhat,” Lais said. “I woke at 3 AM worrying about it. I know several others did too.”
While leading a trip in the area at age 31, Lais had piggybacked quadriplegics across the trail. Now at 61, he has a few aches and pains. In 2011 while rafting the Grand Canyon, Lais twisted his right knee and tore his meniscus. It’s bothered him ever since. George Bird Grinnell likely would have understood Lais’s concerns. Grinnell himself was 61 when the park was officially established in 1910.
The Highline Trail is not the steepest trail or the longest but it requires crossing the rimrock, a 300-yard stretch along a 5-foot wide trail carved out of rock. It is sheer cliff up and sheer cliff down. To assist those feeling a bit unsteady, a cable fed through a garden hose is bolted onto the cliff wall. “Part of the formula for success (on an adventure trip) is taking people out of their comfort zone and creating a little disequilibrium. Personally, I am a little afraid of heights, but people grow by accomplishing things that are not easy,” Lais said.
As they were crossing the Rimrock section, 79-year-old Dwight Steege was hugged against the cliff face by another hiker, a complete stranger, traveling the opposite way. A bit startled at first, Dwight soon realized the hug was borne of fear. After completing this first, intense stretch of the hike, the group relished the thrill and carried with them a bit more confidence as they continued.
The group did not travel alone; two Wilderness Inquiry guides, Dan Maturen and Nicole Tupy accompanied them, as well as photographer Peter MacMillan. Maturen, a 42-year veteran of Glacier National Park including many years as a park ranger, led the group to both the must-see spots such as the Highline Trail and quieter spots away from the crowds such as a swim in the crystal blue waters of Lake McDonald.
The day following their hike on Highline Trail, Maturen shared a story that gave form to both the group’s fears and their sense of accomplishment after crossing the rimrock. One of the 500 grizzly bears in the park had been found that day at the bottom of the cliff, beneath the rimrock. Though known to be sure-footed creatures, this one had fallen, breaking its pelvis. The bear was euthanized. Maturen noted the group’s nervous laughter as they imagined Dwight being hugged by the bear on the narrow path rather than another uneasy hiker. “I’ll take the hiker,” said Steege.
It is something about the wilderness that brings people together, forming new bonds, new community, new understanding in unexpected places. Like on a five-foot ledge hugging a man you have never met before. Or in a raft for four hours working towards the common goal of finding your way through rapids in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. “You don’t think about human differences; you think about our commonalities, like staying dry and not falling out of the raft,” Lais said.
It is this mindset of inclusion and social integration that is at the heart of Wilderness Inquiry’s mission of bringing people together in the wilderness.
In 1977 Lais and college friend, Paul Schurke, traveled to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters with two people who use wheelchairs and two people who are deaf. “We did that trip to prove that people with disabilities could enjoy the wilderness just as much as anyone else, but we came away with a new worldview, one filled with possibility, optimism, and belief in our common humanity. The wilderness didn’t care if we had a disability, what the color of our skin was, or where we went to church,” said Lais.
The group in Glacier created their own mantra: “Majesty, fellowship, friendship.” This group of older adults came away from the trip with deep personal connections. And in doing so they supported programs enabling others to do the same.