Avalanche Creek Trail in the Rain

There are just a handful of other cars here when we arrive in the early morning. Its 45 degrees and spitting rain. A couple is gearing up for a bike ride on the Going to the Sun Road, which is still closed from here to the pass due to snow, freezing rain and risk of mudslides. I guess if you’re prepared to bike a mountain road along the Continental Divide in the rain a little additional risk is no big deal. The hike to Avalanche Lake is one of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park, hence the early start.

A half-mile long boardwalk through cottonwood, cedar and hemlock forests brings us to the lake trailhead. Wooden bridges, wet with mist and rain cross Avalanche Creek, twice, once as a lazy, meandering flow and in another as a torrent. The forest is rich with greens, textured with mosses and rough bark and saturated by rain. Tall, thick trunks only have branches way up high accentuating their height. The soft, spongy floor is composed of fallen trees, moss, pine needles and occasional saplings. The bark of the black cottonwoods is deeply grooved, each ridge is easily four inches thick. Gnarly. Stately. They contrast with the thinly fissured cedars that predominate.

In the trees, the rain is so faint it’s hard to tell if it’s still raining. The worst thing about hiking in the rain is the way my hood masks the sounds around me. The rain acoustics are more like cooking popcorn that a forest immersion experience. This slight rain is quiet. It’s enough that I have to keep my hood up, but I can still hear the sounds around me.

The walkway curves following the sinuous creek two miles up to a glacial lake. At times, it feels like a Louisiana Cypress Swamp and at others, like a Pacific Northwest rainforest. It’s chilly enough to be comfortable hiking in a rain jacket on this late June morning.

The river rocks vary from wine-colored reds to browns and greens. The dramatic colors are due to iron deep in the ancient glacial lakes that has since oxidized. Shallow water (more oxygen, therefore more of oxidization) produces burgundy rocks, whereas deep water (less oxidization) makes green rocks. And, as my astute traveling companion noted, “Big rocks make small rocks.” A rockhound could spend all day at any one of the accessible riverbanks examining rocks: striped, smooth, spotted, ridges, pocked, shaped like States, shaped like animals…

Mountain slopes decorated in waterfalls ring the lake. Low clouds hang over their snow-capped tops, muting the greens and blues of this otherwise striking landscape. The distant waterfalls roar, the rushing sound of melted snow rumbling down the mountain carries easily across the lake. They sound so close; it’s hard to grasp how far away they are. As the outflow of the lake narrows into the ravine, there is a literal log jam – a funnel of debris.

Several striking Common Goldeneye ducks are dabbling in the crystal clear water. Watching them dive, I can see them move under the surface, kicking their feet and stirring up sediment. It’s a fun glimpse into part of the duck’s life that I rarely get to see. A chipmunk pops out from under the bench where I’m sitting hoping for a granola bar crumb. At this popular locale, he’s probably more successful than not. Sitting around the corner from the trailhead, we are alone. Occasionally people appear at the water’s edge, but no one lingers in the rain. It’s time for us to get moving along, too. The early start got us a quiet lakeshore alone, which just what I’d hoped for.

On the way back down, we pass a lot of people heading up (ill-dressed for hiking in the rain, in my opinion). Many of them have “bear bells” hanging from their clothing or packs. Ironically, they are hard to notice in front of the hikers, the jingling apparent at only a yard’s distance away. They are easier to hear behind the hiker, but even then, only for 20 feet or so. Now I see why the experts say that bear bells aren’t very effective. Once a bear is close enough to hear them, the bear is close enough to be startled – and that’s the thing to avoid. In their defense, every group here does have bear spray.

Looking over the sloping terrain on the hike down, I notice the forest in stages of rejuvenation. First, the spongy ground is thick with moss-covered berms – the remains of long ago fallen trees giving their nutrients back to the forest that once sustained them. Its classic rainforest habitat…but up in the Montana mountains. Further down the trail, the trees lie like match sticks, fallen not so long ago and still propped up above the soil. They are providing perches , runways and homes for all manner of life. They will one day be reclaimed to provide the substrate for new growth – the circle of life.

Back at the parking lot where we started, cars are circling looking for an available space, and the trail is busy with people heading up to the lake. For me, it’s time to take off these hiking boots and head to breakfast.

One Reply to “Avalanche Creek Trail in the Rain”

  1. You have a wise traveling companion who displays those beautiful stones so artfully. You manage to find wonder everywhere you go and in all kinds of weather conditions. Thanks for sharing with us while we keep warm and dry.

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