Blown away: Glacier National Park’s Cracker Lake Trail

Cracker Lake

All looks calm in this photo of Cracker Lake, but the winds were howling!

I wrote this post as part of my MatadorU writing course.  Our assignment was to flash-back from today to a memorable event. The trail to Cracker Lake was one of the most memorable I’ve ever hiked, especially since it was the windiest – at least 40 mph, maybe more. Enjoy.

My coffee is hot enough to be a little painful on the first sip, just how I like it, and the house is silent except for my cat Rufus trying to reach a toy mouse under the coffee table. Taking the dog out to do her business, the oppressive Florida heat feels smothering; I wish my coffee was iced instead.

Three weeks ago, I was hiking on a slippery snow-packed trail in 40 mph winds, struggling to remain vertical. The trail to Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park began unglamorously with a 1.7-mile plod up an equestrian route covered with mud and horse crap. Fortunately, sweeping views of Swiftcurrent Lake to the left made this segment worthwhile.

Soon the mud-crap mix gave way to firmly packed dirt bordered by red, blue, yellow and pink wildflowers. It meandered up hill in gentle switchbacks to forested views of Canyon Creek far below. Late spring snowstorms delayed the opening of the Going to the Sun Road, and several trails, well into July, and thus, my visit. The creek below me better resembled a rushing river, swollen by frigid snowmelt.

Wildflower Lined Trail

Hikers ahead on the wildflower lined trail.

My coffee is getting cold and I have three articles to write. Writing pays the bills between trips, along with some real estate sales. Real estate, I’d rather wrestle an angry bear than sell real estate. Someday I’ll put that job behind me and write full-time.

The trail dropped into the canyon and crossed the river, rising steeply up the far side. I felt a welcome exertion and my thoughts narrowed to hiking the trail. Cracker Lake sits at an elevation of 5910 feet, surrounded by 9000-foot peaks. In the late 1800s, a copper mine operated at the head of the lake. It seemed unfathomable to me that the men and equipment needed to run the mine traveled across this terrain.

The wind hit me as the trail leveled high above the canyon floor and I saw the trail disappear under a wide snowfield. The gusts came in waves. Each step further up the trail, they grew more intense. The sun still peeked through the broken overcast but the temperature had dropped significantly. I stepped out onto the snowfield and the wind tried to throw me off balance, my boots slipped precariously across the crusty top layer of snow. On the far side, the trail took a hard left directly into the wind and crossed an exposed moraine ridge covered in loose scree. Accelerating down the valley, the wind blasted me full force and I braced myself with my hiking poles. Hunched over, I pushed on to the lee side of a few short trees  and pulled on my fleece jacket. In spite of several close calls, I had managed to stay on my feet.

This snowfield was wide and slippery.

This snowfield was wide and slippery.

The late-afternoon air outside my office window is stagnate and humid. Even indoors, I can hear cicada calls rising to a crescendo. At least they enjoy this heat. Two articles down and one to go; it looks like I’ll make my deadlines.

The sky turned dark, and wet clouds tumbled over the high peaks ahead. Thankfully, I packed several extra layers. The trail dropped away downhill and I spotted the turquoise waters of Cracker Lake. Sunlight reflecting off glacial silt suspended in the water cases the vivid color. Paired with wildflowers, cliffs and young green grass, the lake view was more dramatic than the photos I had seen. The mine was still buried under snowpack, but the tailings (discarded crushed rock) were visible.

I found a large clean log in a sheltered part of the small campground at the head of the lake, and settled in for lunch. A bearded hiker who joined me shared that heavy winds had snapped several backpackers’ tent poles the night before. After the lashing I received crossing the ridge, I’m not at all surprised. Starting back down the trail I stopped and said goodbye to the lake — aloud. I didn’t care if anyone heard; a place that remarkable deserved a respectful farewell.

Wrapping up my final article for the day, my mind wanders to my trip to Glacier National Park. It had been on my adventure-travel bucket list for years ever since I saw several photos of vivid blue lakes and steep rocky cliffs. Opening Photoshop, I scroll though my own photos of Cracker Lake. The pictures look still and peaceful; the howling winds are our little secret. One more click of my mouse and the slideshow ends. Opening my internet browser, I type C-U-B-A.

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