Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Iceberg Lake

Iceberg Lake
10 miles, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; this hike would be an easy-moderate if not for the distance
Access: Paved but poorly maintained road to trailhead; Glacier National Park entrance fee

Iceberg Lake is exactly what the name suggests: a gem of a lake in Glacier National Park's Many Glacier region that is studded with startlingly blue icebergs early each summer. The lake is set in a deep cirque, bordered on three sides by the rugged cliffs of the Continental Divide. In winter, avalanches roaring down the walls of Iceberg Peak build deep snowdrifts on the shores of Iceberg Lake; these snowdrifts consolidate into ice over the course of the winter and spring. When summer finally arrives and the lake thaws, the built-up ice at the foot of Iceberg Peak calves a steady stream of blue ice into the lake. Even in poor weather, the lake is a magical place where one can sit and watch the random walks of various icebergs through the lake. The hike to the lake is quite straightforward: despite being a longer 10 miles round trip, the grades on the trail are relatively gentle and there are no major obstacles en route.

Iceberg Lake and the entirety of Glacier National Park are grizzly country. While I did not encounter any grizzly bears on my hike, grizzlies are often spotted in the Many Glacier area. Most grizzly encounters are resolved when bears leave the scene to avoid confrontation, but grizzlies can be extremely dangerous as well. You should come prepared with bear spray; if possible, avoid hiking alone and stick to hiking on trails during the higher traffic daylight hours. Few visitors have problematic grizzly encounters, but serious incidents do happen: just a week prior to my visit to the park, a grizzly bear killed a cyclist near the western side of the park.

I first heard of Iceberg Lake while flipping through National Geographic's Guide to the National Parks when I was in middle school; the idea of a lake set in a stony cirque filled with glowing blue ice captured my imagination. A decade and a half later, I finally found myself back in Glacier National Park, 22 years after Glacier National Park became the first national park I visited as a kid. While I planned visits to more famous destinations on this trip, such as Granite Park Chalet and Crypt Lake, I knew I couldn't come this far and not see Iceberg Lake. So on the last day of my stay in Glacier, despite ominous clouds that signaled the impending threat of rain, I set out from Many Glacier in search of the Promised Lake.

The trailhead for Iceberg Lake is behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in the Many Glacier section of Montana's Glacier National Park. Glacier National Park is a long way from any major city, so presumably you know your way to Many Glacier if you've taken the time to travel this far. The actual trailhead starts from the loop around the motel rooms behind the main building of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, but parking there is limited so I encourage you to park instead in the main parking lot in front of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. From the Motor Inn, signs direct hikers along the road among the Motor Inn motel units to the actual trailhead. Two trails departed from this trailhead: the one leading left headed towards Swiftcurrent Pass, while the trail to the right headed towards Iceberg and Ptarmigan Lakes. I started on the trail to the right.

The trail started in the forest but soon passed through some semi-open spaces with meadows interspersed with woods. After a little bit of uphill climbing, I came to a trail intersection 0.3 miles uphill from the trailhead. The right fork led towards Swiftcurrent Lake, so I took the left fork instead, which aimed for Iceberg and Ptarmigan Lakes.

For a little more than the next mile, the trail traversed meadow-filled slopes above the forested floor of the valley of Wilbur Creek. Although clouds obscured the summits of the Continental Divide, there were still good views of the fin of Mount Wilbur, the spires of the Ptarmigan Wall, and the ridgeline connecting Grinnell Point to Mount Grinnell.

Mount Wilbur and Ptarmigan Wall
These meadows were dotted with a mixture of wildflowers found on the Great Plains and those found in alpine meadows. The plentiful fleabane here seemed similar to those found on the meadows along Lake Sherburne and at Two Dog Flats near St. Mary's, while paintbrush was a transplant from higher elevation meadows. The elevation gain was very gentle throughout this stretch of the hike, making it both scenic and easy.

Trailside wildflowers
The trail reentered the forest for the next mile, maintaining a mild uphill grade. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail approached Ptarmigan Creek and I heard the roar to Ptarmigan Falls, where the creek dropped down into a gorge cut into the sedimentary layers of the mountain. There were unfortunately no good viewpoints of the falls, but there was a nice spot to view the clear, tumbling waters of Ptarmigan Creek just upriver of the falls.

Ptarmigan Creek
The trail crossed a bridge over the creek and came to the last trail junction of the hike: here, the trails to Iceberg and Ptarmigan Lakes separated. I took the left fork to stay on the route to Iceberg Lake.

The trail embarked on a slightly more aggressive uphill climb through the forest in the next two-thirds mile past Ptarmigan Falls, although even here the grades were never too challenging. At this end of this uphill stretch, the trail emerged into alpine meadows on the south slopes of the Ptarmigan Wall and stayed out in the open for more or less the rest of the hike. Although I couldn't see the summits of the surrounding mountains, the alpine scenery here was still beautiful, with views of rocky ridges and forests down the Wilbur Creek Valley and of waterfalls tumbling down from the cirque below the headwall formed by Mount Wilbur, Iceberg Peak, and the Ptarmigan Wall.

Beargrass and Swiftcurrent Valley
Wildflowers dotted the meadows along the trail; two flowers were especially notable. Yellow columbine was in full bloom and the bulbous tops of blooming beargrass were large enough not only to be spotted along the trail, but also in the meadows across the valley.

Iceberg Lake Trail
Two miles past the trail junction at Ptarmigan Falls, the trail entered the cirque at the head of the Iceberg Creek valley and crossed a bridge over the creek.

Iceberg Creek flowing out from Iceberg Lake
Past Iceberg Creek, the trail continued through open meadows dotted with glacier lilies past a small tarn with beautiful blue-green water.

Small tarn before Iceberg Lake
After passing the tarn, the trail ascended briefly to the top of a low ridge, where Iceberg Lake finally came into view. The lake filled the back of a deep cirque, where stony headwalls rose nearly three thousand feet above the water, disappearing into the clouds. Ice hanging on the side of the cliff and along the lakeside fed scattered icebergs in the lake itself.

First view of Iceberg Lake
I followed the trail down to the lakeside and then took a walk west (to the right) along the shoreline. While most of the icebergs in the lake were concentrated on the far side, a few had floated across the lake and were beached in the shallow waters near the eastern shoreline of the lake. A number of small, black birds- perhaps they were swallows- were perched amongst the icebergs; from time to time, I saw them rapidly flying between bergs, their dark forms constrasting with the white and blue of the ice.

Iceberg Lake
At the time of the park's founding, the icebergs in Iceberg Lake were the result of actual glacial calving: a glacier at the head of the cirque shed ice into the lake from its terminus each summer. That glacier has since disappeared, leaving no permanent moving ice at the lake. The retreat of this glacier is not unique: Glacier National Park was home to 150 glaciers at its founding, but today just 25 remain. In fact, park climatologists have suggested that the remaining glaciers in the park may all vanish in the next two decades based on current retreat and warming trends. These glaciers are victims of climate change: changes in temperature and snowpack at Glacier National Park have made permanent icefields non-viable at this combination of altitude and latitude. The park founded for its magnificent glaciers will soon have none: even a best case scenario emissions reductions from international climate agreements will not sufficiently slow warming to prevent the remaining glaciers from becoming toast.

I walked to the far north end of the lake, where small icebergs congregated at the lake's outlet. From here, I had an excellent view along the impressive barrier of the Ptarmigan Wall. Even though the glaciers of this part of the Rockies are beating an unstoppable retreat, the geologic legacy they leave behind- one of aretes, horns, moraines, and cirques- remain an essential part of this beautiful, glacier-carved landscape.

Ptarmigan Wall
While I was at the lake, it began to rain somewhat heavily, a rain that continued for the rest of the time during my hike. I want to briefly address the issue of using an umbrella while hiking. Many hiking purists likely find umbrellas to be somehow morally objectionable or heinous; I have no such reservations. While appropriate rain gear (a waterproof jacket and rain pants) is absolutely critical for any sort of outdoor adventure, an umbrella can provide additional water protection that can leave a rain jacket as a second line of defense. Umbrellas are typically only useful when wind conditions are not too strong, a criterion satisfied by the weather on the day of my hike. I sat by the lakeshore under my umbrella, gazing at and appreciating the icebergs until a hungry stomach called me onto the trail back to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Along the way, my umbrella kept me dry amidst a steady stream of soaked hikers.

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