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Northern exposures: a whirlwind tour of Montana and Alberta

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2010 - One family, three cars, seven days, 14 people, ranging in age from 2 to 83.

That could have been an unmitigated disaster, but for us, it all added up to an incredible vacation, with fleeting but memorable stops in some of the most breath-taking places in the world. Here's a whirlwind look at a whirlwind tour.

Day One: Flathead Lake, Montana

OK, technically, it was Day Two. (Day One was one long travel day; it's not easy -- or cheap -- to get to Somers, Mont.)

Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, bigger than Lake Tahoe but with the same shimmering blue water. At Lakeside, one of a string of small communities lining the lake, we rented a pontoon boat for the afternoon and set off.

It was a strangely schizophrenic weather day. One half of the sky was roiling with black clouds, rain and even a flash of lightning in the distance. The other half was cloudy, with blue sky occasionally poking through. We hugged the shoreline and at one point anchored in a cove, waiting for the bad weather to pass before we set off into open water.

It rains every day, said my brother, a resident of the area, but it never lasts for more than 15 minutes.

With clear skies above, we boated off to Wild Horse Island, passing 1,000-year-old petroglyphs etched on a bluff on the way. Some made a stab at fishing while the rest of us decided to hike to the top of a hill for a panoramic view of the island and lake.

A 2,000-acre Montana state park, Wild Horse Island started out reputedly as a pasture and refuge for horses belonging to the Salish-Kootenai Indians. The real wild horses are now long gone, but there are not-so-wild horses that call it home. We saw them as well as a bighorn sheep, some mule deer and a bald eagle.

We did not see the black bear that has reportedly been sighted there.

Day Two: Many Glacier, Glacier National Park

Most of us had been to Glacier National Park on previous visits so we didn't make the usual stops: a boat ride at Lake MacDonald; scenic turnouts along the vertiginous Going to the Sun road for better looks at the cascading waterfalls and ragged, rugged mountains; and a hike at Logan's Pass.

We headed straight to Many Glacier -- a trip that nonetheless took us more than four hours, in part because of the traffic and in part because of the road work that periodically stopped progress for a half an hour at a time.

At Many Glacier Hotel, a faux Swiss chalet, we signed up for a ride on the lake. The boat tour takes you to two lakes (with a quick walk between); at Lake Josephine, one can take several hiking options. Our original plan -- to hike up to Grinnell Glacier -- was nixed because the trail was closed due to grizzly bears. Then our Plan B got squashed: Who wants to ride in a boat during a torrential downpour?

Finally, after a late lunch and a peek into the hotel gift shop, Plan C emerged: a 2-mile or so walk along a lakeside trail. A little misty, the scene was still gorgeous, lush and green and dominated by the glacier. Oh, and the bear prints and bear scat on the trail: They were fresh.

Day Three: Waterton National Park, Canada

The first thing you notice about the town of Waterton -- after you've gawked at the Prince of Wales hotel perched dramatically on a cliff -- are the deer. People in Town and Country think they have a problem? Here in Waterton, whole families of deer lounge around on people's yards.

Which brings me to the second thing you notice: not a single flower. We saw one lone gardener, his flowers carefully protected by a chicken wire fence.

The deer are so numerous, and apparently so aggressive, that yellow signs warn people of deer butting, something my niece wished she'd known before her brief but startling encounter with one of them.

My most favorite memory -- maybe of the whole trip -- came that night at the Rocky Ridge Country Lodge in the teensy town of Mountain View, Alberta. There in the middle of nowhere, clad in sweatshirts and jackets, we sat for hours around a firepit, roasting marshmallows and making s'mores, listening to songs of the '60s and '70s from a car radio and waiting for the northern sun to set.

Days Three and Four: Banff National Park, Canada

The town of Banff is beautiful, bustling and expensive. It has attractive stores and boutiques, a riverside park with walking paths, a nearby falls easily reached by car or foot, boat rides, gondola rides and a luxurious hotel, the Fairmont Banff Springs, whose restaurant terrace offers the most amazing views.

But we didn't go to Banff for the town, as charming as it is. We were there to see its awesome natural sights -- Lake Moraine and Lake Louise -- and regret that we didn't have time for more.

Turquoise, aquamarine -- one word hardly captures the luminous quality of Lake Moraine, a jewel-like pool surrounded by jagged glacial peaks. The colors, a result of the glacial minerals and sediment, deepen and glitter as the sunlight plays upon the water.

The lake was so mesmerizing that some of us just wanted to soak it in although my sister and I had a surprising moment when we thought we saw a wolf on the lakeside trail.

It turned out to be a wolf-husky mix on a very long leash.

More ambitious family members took the Larch Valley trail up from the lake for a three-hour hike; a sign at the trailhead warned that because of grizzlies, hikers should proceed only in groups of four or more. Less ambitious family members enjoyed sandwiches, coffee and considerably less danger at the lakeside cafe.

On his first view of Lake Louise, my husband exclaimed, "This is it!" He'd found his most beautiful spot on the trip, and he was satisfied to park himself on a bench and enjoy it. But there are plenty of more active ways to enjoy Lake Louise -- canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing, walking, hiking and even horseback riding, which my two nieces favored.

By the end of the day, we were in Radium Hot Springs, eager to immerse ourselves into the hot water pools fed by the springs. One hundred and two degrees never felt so good.


Day Five: Drive time


Normally, it's roughly a four-hour drive from Radium Hot Springs back to Somers. That's when you're not stopped at the border and told to pull over, get out and wait in the office. (Note to self: Make sure that the person whose name is on rental car contract is actually in the car when crossing border.)

Day Six: Somers, Montana

Kick-back day. A bunch of the guys headed out to a shooting range -- cantalopes, beware -- while a bunch of us girls headed to an arts and crafts street fair in the small, picturesque Western town of Big Fork, known for its theater, art galleries and restaurants. There was even a fishing contingent, but they failed to bring home dinner.

Day Seven: Coeur d'Alene and Spokane


Time for the long good-bye. Getting back to St. Louis began with a four-and-a-half-hour drive to Spokane. (Flights from St. Louis to Spokane, Wash., are several hundred dollars cheaper than flights to Kalispell, Mont., during the height of the summer tourism season.)

We stopped for a late lunch in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a resort town about 30 minutes east of Spokane. The restaurant was right on the lake, so we sat on the deck and savored the cool breezes -- maybe subconsciously preparing for that moment when we stepped into the jetway, after landing at Lambert, and were suffocated by the sweltering stickiness of a St. Louis summer.

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.