Lake bagging across Montana

2014-08-15T00:15:00Z Lake bagging across MontanaBy JACI WEBB jwebb@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Lake Elmo has its charms.

The 123-acre state park is just a few miles north of the city center and can be reached from the bike path via Mary Street and Pemberton Lane. But the water is warm this time of year and it smells like suntan lotion.

So last week, I went lake bagging across Montana. The tour took me to some of the state’s most iconic lakes and reservoirs, including Canyon Ferry Lake, Flathead Lake, and Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

Round trip was 1,000 miles, and every mile was worth it.

Canyon Ferry near Helena was my first stop. The reservoir is the largest of the four chain lakes on the Missouri River and I enjoyed the idea that I was swimming in the same water that Lewis and Clark drank on their way through in the early 1800s.

In the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Meriwether Lewis describes discovering a note from Clark in an elk skin on the banks of what is now the Missouri River. I did buy a postcard at Kim’s Marina

on the east side with a graphic that celebrates redneck camping, but it’s a weak substitute for the elk-skin note.

The islands on the lake are likely the same ones Lewis wrote about and nearby Holter Lake’s Gates of the Mountains kept the name that Lewis and Clark gave them.

“This afternoon we passed parts of the mountains, that were very high, and mostly of solid rock of a light color. The mountains were so close to the river on both sides that we scarcely could find room to encamp,” read the entry for July 19, 1805.

Next up was one of Flathead Lake’s seven state parks. Wayfarers State Park is so close to Bigfork you can see the city lights around the bend from the campground, yet the forest is so thick in the campground, you feel like you’re in your own little world.

The biggest attraction there last weekend was jumping off the slippery rocks into the turquoise water below. Even kids as young as 8 were jumping into the lake, which was more than 8 feet deep right off the shore.

The area is known for its sunsets and two benches are positioned above the rocky shore for people to take in the view, which is magnificent. The smoky haze last week turned the sun into orange and pink streaks that folded into the purple hills on the other side. The line, “Purple mountains majesty,” came to mind.

The view and the rocks make Wayfarers the busiest of Flathead’s state parks, with 112,000 people visiting there each year. They always keep seven of their 30 campsites open for walk-ins and tent-camping only, which makes it perfect for spontaneous folks like me.

The final stop — Lake McDonald — is about 45 miles north of Flathead, just inside Glacier National Park. Kayaks, canoes and fishing boats make up the bulk of the water visitors. But on a 90-degree August afternoon, I wasn’t the only swimmer in the 10-mile-long lake.

The depth of the lake, at 472 feet, and the fact that it sits in a valley carved by glaciers, make for a chilly plunge, but the surface was warmed by the sun.

Lake McDonald is about the same elevation as Billings. McDonald sits at 3,153 feet and Billings is at 3,123, making the mountains surrounding the lake look even steeper. And the water is crystal clear and startlingly blue.

In a backcountry campground on the north side of Lake McDonald, Seattle teacher and grad student Robert Martin talked of wrapping up his 80-mile backpacking trip through Glacier Park on the shores of the lake.

Martin’s tennis shoes were torn and muddy and the tread gone. He forced down one more dinner of ramen noodles, knowing better food was ahead. He complained that his body was rebelling, too tired to hike anymore.

I nicknamed him Alexander Supertramp, the name Christopher McCandless gave himself when he followed his muse into the Alaska wilderness and never returned. I knew Martin would make it back to Seattle and would have stories to tell his students in the fall. A piece of me envied some of those miles he covered in Glacier, but my 10-mile hike around the shore of Lake McDonald felt like a good place to start.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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