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Tom Bol  /  Canoe & Kayak magazine
Hanging valleys, crystalline lakes and grizzly bears make Glacier National Park a unique family paddling destination.
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updated 7/17/2007 2:21:30 PM ET 2007-07-17T18:21:30

Since moving down from Alaska a few years ago, I have longed for a place with the same glacier-sculpted landscape, where grizzlies lounge in pristine creeks, munching on salmon. In all the lower 48, I’ve only found one place that comes close: Glacier National Park in Montana.

The park straddles the Rocky Mountains as they stretch north into Alberta and British Columbia, forming a fortress of jagged walls, alpine faces and flying buttresses that jut right off the tawny rolling plains to the east. Combined with Waterton Lakes National Park across the border in Canada, more than 1 million acres are preserved as park land. In 1995 UNESCO designated the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park a World Heritage Site due to its scenic value and resources. The park is home to wolves, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mountain lions, and mule deer. In addition, it hosts some great paddling suitable for all levels.

“Dad, will we see grizzly bears like we did in Alaska?” my son Skyler asks as we load my pickup in Colorado before the trip. “I want to see one really bad.” Skyler was born in Alaska, but by the time he was two we were living in Colorado. The only grizzlies he can remember seeing were in the zoo.

“Maybe, son,” I reply, hoping that any encounter we have is one separated by the truck windshield, or at least a couple hundred yards of open water. We had a friend get whacked in head by a sow with cubs in Alaska, and while seeing bears is always a thrill, I’m wary of their deceivingly cuddly appearances.

Our first destination in the park is Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Nestled below towering Mt. Grinnell in the Many Glacier area of the park, Swiftcurrent is small, scenic and perfect for a short paddle. Beginning at the boat ramp, we aim to circumnavigate the lake in our canoe, but just as we get going, another camper shows us a lunker rainbow trout he just wrestled out of the lake, easily 20 inches long.

This sight turns our leisurely family canoe trip into a focused trophy-fishing expedition. We see lots of rising fish in the crystalline water, but can’t seem to hook anything. At the far end of Swiftcurrent is a short portage trail to Lake Josephine. We decide to make the portage and try our luck there after fishing for an hour in Swiftcurrent without a single bite. “Watch out for the grizzlies,” says a tourist on the trail. “We saw a sow and two cubs yesterday, and the rangers have closed the trail further up.” “Cool!” Skyler says.

Not so much, I’m thinking. Suddenly, I’m finding it hard to relax. Every little forest noise increases my heart rate, but we arrive at Lake Josephine with nary a bear in sight.

Image: Canoeing with family in Glacier
Tom Bol  /  Canoe & Kayak magazine
Paddling on any of the lakes in Glacier National Park is a breathtaking experience.
Lake Josephine is long and narrow, lined by hillsides of spruce and meadows of purple lupine, orange paintbrush and white-tipped beargrass. It is even more enclosed by sublime peaks, and is the color of a granny smith apple. A family of mergansers paddles parallel to us as we scan the hillsides for grizzlies. A cool breeze blows down valley off the Grinnell Glacier, raising a slight chop on the water. At the far end of the lake there is another portage trail. It leads to Grinnell Lake, which is alpine-hemmed and turquoise-in-color like Josephine, but more so. However, we decide to take the leisurely option and float down the stream connecting Lake Josephine to Swiftcurrent Lake.

This stream turns out to be our secret fishing spot. No one else is around as we drift through thick stands of spruce and fir, listening to the lonely song of a loon nearby. Cree, my wife, tries casting near a deep eddy and instantly hooks a nice rainbow trout.

She continues to hook fish after fish. Obviously, being in a canoe is getting us to places other fishermen don’t go, because we are having great luck. The only crux of our paddle down the stream to Swiftcurrent Lake is a round of “bridge limbo.” Near the mouth of the creek a hiking bridge crosses the stream, forcing us to duck into the bottom of the canoe to sneak under the bridge.

After spending a few days in the Many Glacier portion of the park, we decide to paddle a bigger lake. St. Mary Lake, on the east side of Glacier National Park, is 10 miles of green transparent water capped by glacier-lined hanging valleys and Matterhorn-like peaks. It’s about as scenic as lakes get.

Unfortunately for us, the wind is blowing 30 knots when we arrive. No matter, Cree unloads the sea kayak, feathers her paddle to 45 degrees, loads up some gear so the kayak rides lower, and paddles out into the frothy whitecaps. My son and I sit on the rocky beach watching as Cree bobs in the spray. Tourists are practically getting blown over, but Cree likes paddling in rough conditions. Later in our trip we will encounter glassy water on St. Mary Lake, allowing us to paddle everywhere on the lake, including a trip to scenic Wild Goose Island. “Bear! Bear!” Skyler screams into my ear as we drive along St. Mary Lake. “It is right by the road...oh my gosh! Dad, take a picture!”

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Sure enough, a blonde fuzzy grizzly is chomping away on some roots right by the road. The bear seems oblivious to the traffic backing up on the road, as he slowly meanders across a meadow. Skyler is so excited he is bouncing in the back seat. This is my kind of grizz encounter; the bear outside 100 feet away, my family barricaded in the truck, and the engine running. I smile at my son, and reach for my camera.

Lodging: Some of the most scenic grand hotels in America are located in Glacier National park, including the spectacular Many Glacier Hotel built in 1915 on the banks of Swiftcurrent Lake. The park has numerous campgrounds, including some with showers. To explore your options, go to nps.gov/glac.

While you are there: When you get tired of eating camp food, try out the Park Cafe in the town of St. Mary. If you want to catch your own fish to eat, then try your luck in the numerous lakes in the park for trout. No live bait is allowed, and no fishing license is required. Check with the park for current regulations.

Outfitters/Resources: Many of the lakes have canoe rentals available. Contact the Glacier Park Boat Company (406-257-2426; glacierparkboats.com) for more information. A great resource for planning your trip to the park is www.glacier.national-park.com/.

Logistics: Most visitor facilities are open from mid-May to late September. To see wildflowers at their peak, plan to visit in mid July. September brings cooler temperatures and fewer people, along with a touch of yellow in the cottonwood and aspen trees. There are numerous lakes to paddle in the park, from St. Mary and Two Medicine Lake on the east side to McDonald and Kintla Lake on the west side. All the park service requires is that you wear a PFD, which you should be wearing anyway.

Story and photos by first appeared in the Canoe & Kayak 2007 Beginners Guide

Copyright 2013 CanoeKayak.com

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