Friday, August 19, 2011

The Hunt for Wolverines in Glacier National Park

This last year, Karyn and I read a book titled, "The Wolverine Way".

This amazing book provides some great insight into the behavior of this very elusive creature that most of us will never see in the wild. It also highlights some of the conditions which the researchers must face to study an animal which spends its life in the very high rugged terrain which is not very hospitable to humans. Any time I am having a bad day in the field, I think of what these guys had to face on a daily basis and that helps to reset my expectations. I highly recommend this book for research, wildlife lovers, or anyone who just appreciates a good story.

Anyway, reading this book inspired us to return to Glacier National Park, even though we might have just as good of an opportunity to see a Wolverine in Idaho. We have visited Glacier on a few occasions in the past. First as a bike tour we traveled from Missoula, up and over Logan Pass and into Waterton Canada and back. Later we returned for a hiking trip. This years trip would be focused solely on hiking with an emphasis on trails will the highest chance of seeing a Wolverine. We wouldn't find any wolverines, but the trip was spectacular. (click on any photos to enlarge)

Sunrise on the East side of Glacier National Park.
View over Redrock Lake toward Swiftcurrent Pass

The Hikes

The Highline trail is one of the most popular trails in the park for serious hikers and those. The trails is relatively easy if taken from Logan Pass to the Loop, where you can catch a park shuttle back to the top. This path is 11.5 miles, only gains 800 feet, but drops close to 3000 feet. However, the 0.75 mile side trip up to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook is strenuous, but HIGHLY recommended. With the side trip it finishes at about 13 miles. The trip is spectacular with amazing vistas and great wildlife - goats, sheep, eagles, marmots, etc. It is clearly my favorite trail in the park.

Early in Highline Trail Hike. Going-to-the-sun road is visible below.
Beargrass looking back toward start of Highline Trail.
Karyn at Grinnell Glacier Overlook.
Grinnell Glacier from Overlook.

Many of the trails were closed due to bear activity. On our hike into Trout Lake we were turned around after meeting a couple that had just had a very close aggressive encounter with a Grizzly Bear with a cub. They were actually charged by the female. Ptarmigan Tunnel, Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier trails were also closed. From Many Glacier only two of the longer day hikes was available - Cracker Lake and Swiftcurrent Pass. We chose the pass.

Swiftcurrent Pass trail heads up from Many Glacier, past a number of lakes and crosses over Swiftcurrent Pass just above the Granite Chalet (on the Highline Trail). Thus, we would end up less than a mile from where we had been a few days before. The trail was once again filled with wildlife including our own bear encounter, although this one was a black bear at about 100 yards. We easily slipped by and continued on our way. The trail passes a few lakes before hitting the head of the canyon and turning into switchbacks. Each switchback provided a new more amazing view until we made it to the summit at 6.8 miles. This trail was an out and back so we were able to enjoy the views again on the way back down along with answering everyone's questions about how much further it was to the top. Quite a few people were headed up behind us as this was one of the few trails still open.

Head of Swiftcurrent Canyon. Where is that wolverine???
View from where we came (started the day 5 lakes down valley).
Virginia Falls, short hike.

On the final day in the park we enjoyed the short trail from the top of Logan Pass, opposite the Highline Trail, which heads into Hidden Lake. The early morning lighting provided fantastic scenery and up-close encounters with wildlife.

Clements Mountain from Hidden Lake Trail
Hidden Lake from Hidden Lake Overlook.

The Wildlife

While the wolverine remained elusive, we did see lots of other wildlife. Here is a sampling from the week. A Golden Eagle amazed us on the Highline Trail as it pursued Ground Squirrels and Hoary Marmots. As multiple species alarm calls echoed across this landscape this guy flew in and dove toward the prey, but came up with empty talons. It isn't often you get to watch raptors from above!

Golden Eagle approaching prey on Highline trail.
Golden Eagle coming around for a second chance (Highline Trail).
Golden Eagle, Highline Trail.

It's fun to watch people in the parking lots look through binoculars at mountain goats a mile away. Just a short distance down a trail and you sometimes have to leave the trail to get around them. On the highline Trail we came face to face with a mountain goat. It was clear he had no intention of leaving the trail. We stepped to the outside, but he would not pass. I realized this would box him in. We stepped to the inside and he marched right on by, almost brushing up against us.

Mountain Goat demanding the trail (Highline Trail).
Mountain Goat (Highline Trail).
Mountain Goat sleeping ON Hidden Lake Overlook platform.

Bighorn Sheep aren't quite as conspicuous, but we still saw them on many occasions.

Bighorn Sheep (Hidden Lake Trail).
Bighorn Sheep (Going-to-the-Sun Road)

One of my favorite animals, is the Hoary Marmot. These large rodents really show their personality when you watch them. They are also an important prey species for the Wolverine! We found them at the higher elevations on most of the trails we hiked. A number of juveniles were out and about as well.

Hoary Marmot (Highline Trail).
Hoary Marmot (Highline Trail).
Hoary Marmot (Highline Trail).
Juvenile Hoary Marmot (Hidden Lake Trail).

I was hoping to see White-tailed Ptarmigans, but they too remained elusive. Of course, we weren't allowed to hike the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail, I am sure we would have found them there! On the Swiftcurrent Pass hike we did find three families of Dusky Grouse (right near the bear).

Dusky Grouse.

It was an amazing trip with the Highline Trail hike being the favorite. I highly recommend it and can't wait to go back to this amazing place.

Maybe a white-faced meadowhawk? Dragonflies are not my thing...


Unknown said...

Rob...awesome photos! Beautiful crisp high elevation light and splendor. Good job capturing it.

Sorry no wolverines! I actually JUST finished that same book and absolutely loved it too...I often imagine I'm a wolverine just so I can get the encouragement to get up some steep terrain that would actually be pathetically flat to a wolverine.

My coworker just went to Glacier the last two days and barely missed a wolverine that was hanging out in a campground momentarily. Of course, she thought it was probably a marten or fisher when she first heard about it...but she saw pics, and sure enough!

Last thought...if you haven't heard of "A beast the color of winter", I highly recommend it. It's about mountain goats by the same author...and I think its written with a bit better flow, and is well written from a biologists perspective. You'll want to go find some goats again.

April said...

Wow, fantastic photos!!! I just emailed this to my husband and told him we need to get back to Glacier! The mountain goat part made me laugh.