the great outdoors
Saturday, June 14: one last waterfall
In the morning, we visited Falls Park to see the large waterfalls that gave Sioux Falls its name. From then on, it was a long day of driving. We encountered a large storm in Minnesota that rocked the car with strong winds. The straps holding down the kayaks stayed strong, and we didn’t have any further issues with the boats coming loose.
After crossing the Mississippi River, passing through Wisconsin, and sitting in Illinois traffic, we finally reached Chicago. We picked up our dog River, who was ecstatically happy to see us. We were sad that our amazing adventure was over, but it was still good to be home.
States visited: South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois
Friday, June 13: Bighorn, Deadwood, and Sturgis
After making it through most of the trip without incident, we had our first and only scrape-up with the kayaks as we left our motel in Billings. Kurt drove under an entranceway that had the clearance noted on the entrance but not the exit. Luckily, the kayaks sustained minimal damage and none of it too serious–a cable connecting the rudder was snapped and the brand stickers were peeled off.
Our first big stop was at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn. We walked through the rolling hills to see the site of Custer’s Last Stand and the memorials dotting the green plains.
Back on the road, we grabbed lunch at Taco John’s and reentered South Dakota. We drove through Deadwood, which seemed to be mostly made of beautiful views and casinos. We stopped in Sturgis and visited the Indian Motorcycle shop to do some Father’s Day shopping.
After getting ice cream bars (because that’s how hard we roll in Sturgis) we hit the road to get through more miles. Our two long stops had put us schedule to arrive late that night in Sioux Falls, so I called their Holiday Inn to reserve a room for us. We hit one more travel snag when a third J-bracket on our roof rack snapped, unable to withstand the barrage of wind on the South Dakota plains. Kurt used the straps we bought at the REI in Bozeman to get the kayaks secured.
The sky began to darken, and we still had a lot of miles before Sioux Falls. We made one final stop at a biker bar in Kennebec for dinner, and then pushed on. As we drove, we had a great view of the “honey moon,” a rare lunar occurrence. It was pretty special to witness, especially on a Friday the 13th, and on our actual honeymoon.
We finally arrived at the Sioux Falls Holiday Inn just before midnight, ready to check in and pass out. After getting our key and room number, we were delighted to discover that we had an enormous suite on the concierge floor that was easily twice as big as our condo back home. We didn’t get much time to enjoy it before we fell fast asleep after a long, busy day.
States visited: Montana, South Dakota
Thursday, June 12: Billings brewery crawl
We left our cabin early in the morning, beginning our journey back home. Around lunch, we stopped in Bozeman at Clark’s Fork for a healthier option than the usual drive-thru fast food places. In the late afternoon, we reached our destination for the day, Dude Rancher Lodge in Billings, MT.
We spent some time relaxing in our room and then headed out to check out the town. Kurt had found a local guide that included a brewery crawl map of 11 different brew pubs and bars within a 2-mile area downtown. We started at Montana Brewing Co, just a few blocks away from the motel, and ordered beers and dinner. We each got mac and cheese (mine was Southern mac with fried chicken and bacon, while Kurt had the cheeseburger mac); the food was fantastic.
Our next stop was Yellowstone Valley Brewing. When we arrived, a band was playing in their large bar area. As we ordered our beers, we learned that all breweries in town closed at 8 due to local alcohol license laws. We didn’t have much time to throw down a few drinks before last call. It was too bad we had spent a bunch of time lazing around in our motel room, as we didn’t get to hit up as many of the brew pubs as we would have liked. Regular bars, however, were still open, so we ended up going to a place called the Rail Yard where we could at least sample a few more local beers. I still don’t quite understand how their liquor laws work. After the Rail Yard, we decided to call it a night and went back to the motel where we relaxed and watched some TV so we could be up early for another big day of driving.
Wildlife Sightings: roadkill, drunk people
Wednesday, June 11: our last big day of kayaking and hiking in Glacier
After two days on the west side of the park, we were ready to spend our last full day in Glacier on the east side. Since the Going-t0-the-Sun Road wasn’t yet open, this meant that we had to drive around the outside of the park. On our way, we stopped for breakfast at the Izaak Walton Inn. I had delicious huckleberry pancakes (if you couldn’t already tell, I really embraced the huckleberry). Someday, I would love to go back to the inn and stay in one of their cabins, which were created out of old rail cars.
When we reached the east side of Glacier, we unloaded our kayaks on Swiftcurrent Lake. This lake was much smaller than Kintla, and to my relief there was barely a light breeze in the air. Many Glacier Hotel sits right on the lake, and view was phenomenal. We enjoyed a nice, easy kayak trip across the lake to the small channel connecting to Josephine Lake. It being early spring, the water through the channel was rushing prettily steady and too strong to paddle against. We attempted the most bone-chillingly cold portage (and this from someone who’s done the Polar Plunge in Lake Michigan during a Chicago winter), but ultimately decided that the water was too high and we’d have to skip kayaking Josephine.
We took the short trail to Josephine to gaze at the stunning, crystal clear water, so calm it perfectly mirrored the mountains surrounding it. Then we followed the Grinnell Glacier trail, climbing steadily up the mountain. As we got higher, I thought back to a ranger’s words of warning on walking the glacier trail while there was still snow and ice present: “Just be smart. If you fall, you’ll get a concussion and keep sliding ’til you’re dead.” I have a pretty bad fear of heights, but kept going with Kurt’s encouragement. Mountain goats are definitely not my spirit animal; I’ll stick with my original Buzzfeed quiz result of “dog wearing sunglasses.” As we hiked, we spotted mountain goats high up on the steep ledges above us. Down below, I alerted Kurt to a grizzly sow in the valley with two cubs tailing behind her. (The two best things I did before this trip were chop off my hair and get LASIK eye surgery).
As we approached the view of Salamander Glacier and Lower Grinnell Lake, we came across a sign warning of ice on the trail. A couple approached from behind the sign and told us we could still go another couple hundred yards. I silently cursed them, as I was ready to get back to a lower, less deadly elevation. Kurt, however, wanted to keep going for a bit more, so I reluctantly followed. We carefully maneuvered around a giant snow boulder blocking the trail, my heart beating like crazy. After reaching a spectacular view of Lower Grinnell Lake and snapping dozens of photos, we finally turned around and headed back down the mountain.
We took a leisurely paddle back across Swiftcurrent, enjoying snacks in our kayaks. As we floated mid-lake, we heard a group of about twenty tween girls taking the “sing while hiking” advice to heart, belting out “Let It Go” from Frozen at the top of their lungs. “I think they’ve scattered every bear in the park,” I said to Kurt. They were just beginning to follow it up One Direction’s “Beautiful” as they finally, mercifully disappeared into the woods and out of our range of hearing.
After stowing the kayaks back up on the roof rack, we said a wistful goodbye to Glacier. We grabbed dinner and huckleberry margaritas at Two Sisters, then began the long drive back to the cabin. On the way, we made a few more sightseeing stops: the Continental Divide marker and Goat Lick. At the latter, along the highway, a plentiful amount of mountain goats grazed while the young ones frolicked on the rocky ledges. We all gasped as a young goat lost its balance and tumbled, but luckily it safely recovered. It made me way too anxious; I could never be a mountain goat mother.
We reached our cabin during the last of the light, and began to pack up our things in preparation for the following day’s departure.
Wildlife sightings: mountain goats, grizzly bear with two cubs
Tuesday, June 10: horseback riding in Glacier
We had our first “relaxing day” in a while, meaning that we didn’t have to wake up until 8 am. We had breakfast in the cabin and then drove back into Glacier for a 2-hour horseback trail ride with Swan Mountain Outfitters. I had been looking forward to this activity for some time, and my excitement grew as we approached the ranch with horses saddled up and lined up along the log fence. We had our quick safety demo and selected helmets, then went to pet the horses while our wranglers prepared. Kurt was assigned the biggest horse on the ranch, named Bonanza, and I was given a chestnut called Chuck. We ended up with a private trail ride, just us and our two wranglers. As we took the meandering path through the woods, I spotted a black bear about 150 yards away. Our wranglers assured us that the horses were used to encountering wildlife on the trail; it only fazes the humans. My Fitbit counted my horse’s steps as my own, as I learned when it suddenly buzzed that I had reached my goal at only 11 am that day.
After our 2-hour ride was finished, we dismounted onto newly wobbly legs. We tipped our wranglers, pet our horses goodbye, and then went to check out Apgar Village. In the gift shop, we admired the handcrafted pottery. “I like all this stuff,” said Kurt. “Does that mean I’m getting old?” We purchased souvenir t-shirts, stickers, and an elk antler chew toy for the dog.
A day of relaxing means that it was time to finally visit the area breweries. We headed to Big Fork and had lunch and a few pints at Flathead Lake Brewing Co. Afterwards, we continued our pub crawl across the street to the Raven. They didn’t brew their own beer (despite the misleading sign that said “Brew Pub & Grill”) but they made up for it with an amazing view of Flathead Lake. We sat outside until the ominous sight of storm clouds rolled in, and hightailed it out of there as the staff began to quickly shutter the beer garden.
We made our last stop in Whitefish, checking out the Great Northern Brewing Co., home of my new favorite Wild Huckleberry Wheat. At the bar, we were able to watch part of the Spurs/Heat playoff game. It was strange to watch TV and feel looped back into civilization after our previous day of wilderness adventure. Finally, we headed back to the cabin and enjoyed some leftover rhubarb pie from the fridge before calling it a night.
Wildlife sightings: black bear
Monday, June 9: kayaking, hiking, and glacier spotting
One of our guidebooks perfectly summed up Upper Kintla Lake with the line “It’s a place you have to get to on purpose.” Once again, our alarm went off at 6 am. We took North Fork Road, which is unpaved, gravelly, and full of potholes (when we told locals where we planned to go, they always immediately followed up with the question “Do you have 4-wheel drive?”). On our way, we stopped in the small town of Polebridge to get coffee. Polebridge has no electricity and uses solar power or generators in their mercantile store and bar.
We made our bumpy way up the 40 miles of North Fork to reach Kintla Lake. The campground was open, but we only saw two other people there. Otherwise, it was just us (and about a million mosquitos). No motorized boats are allowed on Kintla, so the lake was completely calm. We immediately unloaded our kayaks and got onto the clear, inviting water.
Kintla Lake is about 5 miles across. On our way out, the wind was at our backs, making the trip relaxing and peaceful. We drank in the gorgeous scenery and bright sunshine. It was a perfect, beautiful day of 70 degrees. As we reached the end of the lake, we spotted the campground.
As Kurt secured the kayaks, we noticed a young mule deer grazing nearby. He saw us but didn’t startle. We continued about our business, getting out our daypacks and lunch, and he continued to hang around, keeping a safe distance while watching us curiously. I felt calmer with the deer nearby, thinking that that must mean there weren’t any bears around. Glacier has the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 states, a thought that was constantly on the back of my mind.
After our lunch, we said goodbye to our deer friend and started a hike towards a view of the Kintla Glacier. After a while I got tired of constantly shouting “Bear! Bear!” and began to sing any song that came to mind. By the time we reached a meadow clearing with an amazing view of the glacier, I had run through most of the pop divas (Britney, Miley, Katy, Madonna). The mountain range behind us was the last on U.S. soil; beyond them lay Canada. We took pictures and drank in the gorgeous setting before making our return trip. I worked my way through 80’s rock and Disney soundtracks. Kurt politely did not complain about my terrible singing voice, but did say “I didn’t know you knew all of those songs.”
We knew that the return kayak trip straight into the headwind was going to be rough, but once we got back onto the water, we realized the true extent on how much more difficult it would be. The wind whipped between the mountain ranges and straight over the lake, creating small whitecaps. We attempted to hug the shoreline for calmer waters, but unfortunately it didn’t make as much of a difference as we had hoped. Kurt said that at one point he turned to look at me, I was padding as hard as I possibly could and I was still drifting backwards. If I paused for a second, the wind would spin my kayak to the side and it was a strenuous battle to get straightened back out. “Are we halfway there?” I called out to Kurt at one point. “We’re not even a quarter of the way there yet!” he shouted over the howling wind. With no rangers or other boaters in sight to save us, we had no choice but to put our heads down and paddle through it. My shoulders burned from exertion.
When we could finally see the other side of the lake again, the clouds above the mountain range grew ominously dark. I could see gray sheets of rain pouring in the distance. We were in a race with the wind, and we were at a distinct disadvantage. I ignored the burning in my muscles and continued to push through it, with renewed hope as the shoreline grew closer. Finally, we could see the boat launch. “We made it!” Kurt shouted in celebration. The rain was held at bay by the mountain range, and we reached land exhausted but dry.
We loaded the kayaks onto the roof rack and chowed down on snacks, then started the long journey back on North Fork Road. I was gazing out the window, enjoying the scenery, when suddenly a mountain lion wandered across the road. “Whoa!!” Kurt and I both shouted in unison. The mountain lion looked at us then bounded up the hill in three easy leaps. We fumbled for cameras but the moment was too quick. Seeing a big cat in the wild felt otherworldly; it felt like something had escaped from the zoo. “It’s like Jumanji!” I said.
We stopped at the bar in Polebridge for a few cold beers out of their cooler and a delicious bowl of chili. The bartender was a friendly guy originally from the East Coast. We talked about the area and how it was not for the faint of heart; he said that you had to be pretty adventurous and self-sufficient to go as far as we did. Getting AAA service out there could be a whole-day event. We enjoyed our conversation with the locals and the welcoming, rustic ambiance of the bar.
As the bar closed up, we settled our tab with cash (no electricity = no credit cards) and finished the drive back to the cabin. Along the road, we saw a baby moose spot our car and run back into the woods, his little knobby knees kicking adorably. Deer frolicked in the meadows along the road as the dusk settled in. We finally reached the cabin after our longest day yet, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing; everything about it was pretty perfect.
Wildlife sightings: snakes, mountain lion, moose calf, deer
Sunday, June 8: our first full day in Montana
We began our morning with breakfast at Cat Eye Cafe, and highly enjoyed their cat-themed decor and delicious food. Then it was time to say goodbye to Bozeman and we got started on the long drive to Glacier. After a stop in Columbia Falls for groceries and Whitefish for lunch, we reached the cabin we were renting for our stay in northern Montana. The cabin was part of an original homestead, completely refurbished to make for a charming vacation home.
After settling in, we drove into Glacier National Park to get an early peek of where we’d be spending the most of our next several days. We stopped at McDonald Lodge to enjoy the view and visit the gift shop. Like we would discover in most of northern Montana, the shop was full of huckleberry-flavored treats.
Since we were visiting early in the season, the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road wasn’t fully open yet. It would take several more weeks for crew to finish clearing the snow from the higher passes. We drove the 16 miles that was open, up to Avalanche Lake.
On our way out of the park, we stopped to get information on boating permits for our two kayaks and talked to a friendly ranger about the various lakes within the park that would be good for kayaking. He confirmed that our choice of Upper Kintla Lake would be a good one, and we became even more excited for our first full day in the park.
We headed back to the cabin where Kurt grilled up a delicious meal of salmon and corn on the cob, paired with some local beers including the Great Northern Brewery’s Wild Huckleberry Wheat. The sky stayed light until 10:30 pm, as we were far north and near the western edge of the Mountain time zone. Our first night in our little cabin was cozy and peaceful.
Saturday, June 7: goodbye to Yellowstone
“There’s a bison right outside the tent,” Kurt whispered to me as I slowly woke up around 6 am on our last morning in Yellowstone. Sure enough, I could hear its breathing and heavy shuffling footsteps just a few feet away. We could even smell it. We stayed quiet and still, and it moved on. However, a second bison was right behind him, and this one was much more agitated about our tent being on his turf. We could hear him huffing and grunting at us as a warning. “Would a bison ever charge a tent?” Kurt whispered. I shrugged, freaking out, but gestured to remain quiet. The huffs grew louder and angrier, and we could tell that the bison was directly next to the tent. After about 30 seconds (but felt much longer), it finally relented, realizing that the tent was not going to move. We heard his footsteps move away and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Kurt unzipped the top part of the tent door to check and see how far the bison had moved along.
Once the bison had gotten further down the valley, we finally were able to move around and make noise. It was time to head back to the car, so we packed up camp, had an easy breakfast of oatmeal bars and jerky, then began our hike back to the trailhead. Luckily, this time when we reached the top of the ridge there were no bison in sight, so we were able to stay on the trail. Along the way, we saw some clear wolf tracks in the mud, fresh since the previous night’s rainstorm.
The return hike went much faster, as we didn’t run into any more bison herds. The only detour we needed to take was near the end of the hike, when a single bison had wandered close to the trail. At that point we had run into a day hiker from Cody, so we followed him when he took a wide berth around the grazing animal. In the distance, we could see the herd returning to the meadow, climbing up a steep ridge. It was amazing how easily such large, bulky creatures could climb the steep drop. Pronghorns were grazing nearby, coexisting peacefully with the bison. We reached the road and our car, and were grateful to be done with our heavy packs. As we snacked on some granola bars and put our things away in the, we saw a fox running alongside the road.
It was bittersweet to leave Yellowstone, as we were excited for Glacier but had had such an amazing time in Wyoming. We made one last stop at Mammoth Hot Springs and loaded up on hot drinks and souvenirs. There were elk wandering around all over the area, which was surprising considering that it was such a heavily (human) populated area with shops, restaurants, and lodges.
We drove out the north exit, finally on our way to Montana.
Within a few hours we reached Bozeman. After a quick errand at the Bozeman REI, we enjoyed a late lunch and some local beers at the Soup Shack downtown, then checked into our motel. After taking the best hot shower after, we spent the rest of the evening take care of a few more errands–namely, laundry. The rest of the night was spent relaxing on actual beds for the first time in a week, watching some TV while drinking a bottle of wine left over from the wedding, and poring over Montana guidebooks in preparation for Glacier.
Wildlife sightings: bison, pronghorns, fox, wolf prints
New state visited: Montana
Friday, June 6: more hiking and exploring in Yellowstone backcountry
Our first night in the backcountry was the coldest night we’d had yet. The tent finally began to warm when the sun came up. We took our time getting up and making breakfast (oatmeal), then cleaning our dishes and stringing everything back up. After a relaxing morning, we were ready to take a day hike to further explore the area.
From our campsite, we could smell sulfur from the nearby spring when the wind picked up. We decided to hike towards Wahb Spring and Death Gulch to check out the thermal activity. The trail took us back up the ridge, where we immediately encountered bison. At this point we were old pros at navigating around them, so we veered off trail at a safe distance until we were clear of them. The trail ran up and down several small hills and over bubbling creeks, then through a wooded area. As we lost our easy sight lines, we started to make more noise by shouting and clapping so we wouldn’t surprise any bears. At one point, our noisiness caused a moose to suddenly leap to his feet and take off down the mountain. Finally, we had proof that our tactics were working.
During our hike, we encountered lots of downed, burned trees from the last great fire in the 1980’s. Lots of new growth was springing up as well. After a few miles, we turned back to head to camp. On our way, we got a good view of Mt. Norris.
Back at camp, we had lunch and watched more deer cross the river. Our timing ended up being perfect because as we were putting away our supplies, a heavy rain rolled in. We spent the next few hours chilling out in the tent reading (me with my Kindle, Kurt with our Glacier guidebooks). The weather cleared up in time for dinner, so we sat by the campfire and split a bag of beef stroganoff, my personal favorite dehydrated meal. As dusk settled, deer continued to cross at the river and climb the ridge near our site, giving us a perfect view for wildlife watching.
On our second night, we were better prepared for the cold. We zipped our sleeping bags together and piled on the layers. This time, we stayed much warmer and got a better night’s sleep. However, we woke up the next morning to quite a surprise…
Wildlife sightings: moose, bison, mule deer