The two hikers had the campground to themselves up until evening, their sack of food strung high in the air and their tents set in the woods. They had come all the way from Texas carrying food for four days and a dream based on images they’d found on the Internet.
Now, seven miles into the backcountry in Glacier National Park, I sensed a tone of disappointment in their voices. Just before sundown, we’d joined them in the area designated for food preparation, a dusty little clearing intended to keep the scent of human snacks consolidated to a single area.
“Is it always like this?” one of them asked, peering into the toxic white cloud in the direction of where the lake should be.
“Never,” I told them. “You wouldn’t believe it now, but there really are mountains out there, and they’re quite spectacular.”
The campground sits within earshot of Kintla Creek as it makes a downhill run and fills the upper reaches of Kintla Lake with clear, cold water. But in what should be the throes of a splendid September evening, it’s nothing but smoke, and the creek is nowhere in sight.
The endless haze hangs wide and deep, and the earth and sky have blended as one. The smoke stamps out the sun, dapples the turquoise water of Kintla Lake in inky black, and conceals everything majestic about the remote location, along with the promise of adventure that lies beyond.
Leaving Missoula earlier that day, I too had carried hopeful visions, certain the air in Glacier would be better than the air at home. Of course, I knew the Sprague fire had closed Going to the Sun Road from the Lake McDonald Lodge west to Logan Pass a few days earlier. I also knew the historic Sperry Chalet had burned to the ground in a frightening overnight blaze.
But certainly things would be better up north.
Not so, the park rangers issuing backcountry permits warned at Apgar. After seating us for a mandatory video on the potential perils of backcountry travel, the rangers noted the fire activity on the park map. The Adair Peak fire was putting out its share of smoke, they said, and the Elder Creek fire had crept across the border into Canada.
This says nothing of the other fires burning in western Montana, or Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. More than 76 large fires were chewing their way across nine Western states, including 21 in Montana. Nine firefighters have died and as many as 35 have been injured fighting what has become one of the worst seasons in more than a decade.
The whole world seemed ablaze with no chance of rain, and we were all eating smoke as a result.
“Everything in the park’s western half is socked in,” the rangers added, waiting for me to sign my name.
There are things you have to see for yourself, and when vacations away from an upstart business are rare, a “little” smoke wasn’t going to turn me away from an outing I’d planned nearly a year before.
But crossing Camas Road was akin to driving through a coastal fog. The women keeping shop at the Polebridge Mercantile had taped a sign to the door, asking visitors to keep it shut: “Humans attempting to breath.” Visibility along North Fork Road was less than a quarter mile in places, and not because of the dust.
And while driving through the smoke may be one thing, hiking in it for hours is another. There’s the part about breathing, of course, though the greater challenge becomes the absence of landmarks and the comforting sense they bring when gauging forward progress.
Hiking through the unending smoke – unable to gauge distance because there is no distance – pecks away at the strongest motivation and dashes dreams. It is, I imagine, as close as one can get to being lost on a space walk without actually leaving the planet.
Within this in mind, and after crossing seven deceptive miles, seeing those two guys from Texas sitting alone in the woods may rank as one of the happiest moments of my life.
“It gets to you after a while,” one of them said, tasting the smoke. “Before we left, the rangers told us to be vigilant and watch for the fires in case they blow up. But you wouldn’t even know if they were burning this way. You can’t see a thing.”
He was right about that, and I was only joking when I told a friend back at the Kintla Lake car camp seven miles closer to civilization that I’d send up a smoke signal if we got into trouble. The joke was that he wouldn’t be able to see a smoke signal in all the smoke.
In the dimming light at Kintla Lake, the outline of hulking peaks teased beyond the haze. In the best of times, the closest forms were nothing more than one-dimensional shapes standing ghostly within the fog of pollutants, including benzene, formaldehyde and what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes as “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”
In the worst of times, you’re lucky to find your way back to the tent and when you do, you hope it works like a filter and scrubs the air. You can’t help but think of the health department’s grim warnings about breathing such air for any period of time. They use words like premature death and cancer.
I’m not surprised to wake before sunrise to find the two Texans packing their gear. We bid safe travels and I watched them depart, finding it odd how they vanish into the smoke before the forest fully conceals them. An hour later and we’re not far behind, and back at the car camp that afternoon, I’m pleased to see Lyle Ruterbories waiting in his ranger attire.
This may rank as the second happiest moment of my life.
At 97, Ruterbories is likely the oldest working ranger in Glacier National Park. I’d met him two years earlier camping at Kintla with friends, and we’ve never grown tired of his stories, nor has he grown tired of telling them.
On this day, he has opted for a ball camp emblazoned with the National Park Service logo over his Smokey Bear ranger hat. He recounts the outings with his wife at the Sperry Chalet and how the fees and meals were once affordable. His wife passed away several years ago and now the chalet is gone.
Life, I think, is in a constant state of flux and always fleeting. It’s a cruel trick we’re powerless to reverse.
As it turns out, Ruterbories adds, the rangers back at Apgar had stopped issuing backcountry permits the day before due to fire activity and incoming weather, meaning we may have drawn one of the season’s last permits. And as he watched a trio of firefighters set off down the trail carrying Pulaski axes and water, he said the Park Service may be sending him out early due to smoke and the threat of exposure.
“They found me a place to sleep inside,” Ruterbories said, indicating somewhere closer to Apgar. “In all my years, I’ve never seen it like this before.”
This article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.