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Spontaneous Confusion

The first weekend in July all of us (ten adults, six kids) were gathering at the ranch, so we thought we should do something special. And hey, it doesn’t get any more special than this:

That is Chief Mountain, as seen from my living room window. I’ve been looking at it all my life and we’ve been talking about climbing it for almost as long because…well…damn. It’s right there. And it’s not as bad as it looks. The back side slopes off, so it’s more like an extremely steep hike, no special gear required. We finally designated a day and said, “Let’s do it.”

Then the day came and there were thunderstorms and none of us really wanted to stand on the top of a huge rock while lightning crashed around us, so the Chief remains unconquered.

Probably just as well. I’ve heard it said that overplanning is the death of spontaneity. If that’s the case, spontaneity will never expire at the hands of my family.

A couple of years ago we met my sister and her husband at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. Our original plan (yes, we did have one) was relatively simple. Meet at a campground, have a picnic lunch, then we—me, my husband, son and parents—would lounge and play on the beach while they—sis and husband—went scuba diving in an underwater forest. Then maybe we’d go for a hike.

It rained. It always rains when I go to Lake McDonald. My most vivid memory of the place is ruining a brand new pair of leather moccasins when I was a kid because it rained the whole time we were there and I hadn’t thought to bring along any other shoes. We had our picnic, huddled around the table with one eye on the clouds and the other on the increasingly aggressive waves. Just as we polished off the last of the chicken, the clouds let loose.

We grabbed up our stuff and ran for the cars. So much for Plan A. We wandered down to Lake McDonald Lodge and chased the boy child out of the gift shop and away from the piano and out of the huge fireplace and away from the electric organ and out of the restaurant and off of the balcony and down the guest hallways and out of the flower planters and away from the pop machine. Just at the point where we were debating whether to give up and go home or drive clear to Columbia Falls to toss the kid in the motel pool, the rain stopped. Time to go hiking.

I grabbed a map. Later, it was suggested that it might have been a good idea to grab several maps. Being the grabber, I was mostly concerned that I knew where I was. The rest were on their own.

We studied the nearby trails and determined that the one most suited to our varied ages and levels of enthusiasm was one called John’s Lake Loop. In addition to the tiny lake, the trail skirted McDonald Creek and dipped past two waterfalls, all in a short three miles. Perfect. The loop was down the road from the lodge. A couple of minutes in a car, or a short hike, according to my map. My sister and I opted for the hike. The others piled in the cars.

And here’s where it all started to fall apart.

My husband pointed out—after the fact, of course—that is it generally advisable to consult the little scale thing in the corner of the map that indicates miles per inch (or in this case, half inch) to determine the actual distance. We went with ‘it doesn’t look far’. We hiked. And we hiked. And we hiked some more. Just at the point where we decided we had somehow zipped right past the stupid loop and the stupid parking lot and even the stupid lake, we finally came to the intersection of the trails. Straight ahead led to the lake. Left and down the hill to the parking lot. We went down.

Approximately three minutes, it turned out, after my parents took the other fork.

We found my brother in law asleep in one car, my husband chasing the boy child up and down the hillside to keep him out of traffic, and my parents nowhere in sight. “They got tired of waiting and went ahead to the lake,” my husband said. “How did you miss them?” I should probably reiterate that I was still the only person with a map.

My sister went to wake up her husband. My little family decided to head around the loop in the opposite direction from the lake, toward the downstream waterfall, because we figured that was the outer limit of how far the boy would hike before insisting on ‘a ride’, despite the fact that he was capable of running non-stop for forty-five minutes inside the house and did so nightly.

So off we went—husband plus child plus me plus map. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to ask my sister where she planned to go before we left.

We took our time, strolling along, stopping to watch a woodpecker that was incredibly fascinating to a four year old and almost as fascinating to his mother, figuring there was no rush because my parents were going around the loop the other way and we’d have to meet eventually. When my sister didn’t catch up, we assumed they’d gone after my parents. We reached the waterfall. Admired it, took pictures of it, repeatedly snatched the boy back from the twenty foot cliff above it. No sign of parents or sister.

When our nerves had had all they could take of the waterfall, we herded the boy back down the nice trail that ran well back from the edge of the creek. At the bridge, we stopped to admire the view, enjoy the sun that was now shining, and drag the boy down from the railing half a dozen times.

After twenty minutes or so, my sister and her husband came strolling along. Yes, they’d reached the lake. No, they hadn’t caught up with our parents. Lacking a map, they’d been uncertain which trail went on around the loop to the waterfalls, so they turned back. “No problem,” I said. “It’s a loop. They have to come by here eventually.”

After another fifteen minutes of watching the boy whack his uncle with the stick they’d rigged up for a fishing pole and attempt to throw large rocks and himself into the water, we decided it was probably time to revert to the tried and true rodeo family failsafe plan. The one that had gotten all six of us home from every one of the hundreds of rodeos we went to when we were all young enough to still travel with Mom and Dad. Namely, go back to the truck and wait until everyone shows up.

Which was where we found our parents. Who had gone around the loop. Just not the same loop we were on because it turns out John’s Lake Loop is divided down the middle by a trail that cuts back to the parking lot and bypasses the waterfall and the bridge where we were waiting. They’d gone to the upper waterfall, then turned back because, yes, you guessed it, they didn’t have a map and weren’t sure where that other trail went.

As far as we could tell, at one point in time my sister and her husband were waiting at the lake while my parents waited at the upper falls and we waited at the lower falls. I’d say we managed to blanket the area pretty well. Imagine what we could have accomplished if the other two thirds of the family had been there.

Lake McDonald Lodge

Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real

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4 Responses

  1. Fantastic story! Sounds a lot like my husband’s family’s adventures in amusement parks, only less beautiful. And less exhausting! Whew, that boy is active, isn’t he? 🙂

  2. BRAWAHAHAHA. I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m EXHAUSTED after reading Kari’s adventure. I can only imagine my fatigue if I’d actually done the hike!

    I love Lake McDonald lodge! That is a beautiful place. 🙂

    I don’t know how you and hubby keep up with the kiddo.

  3. LOL! Maybe you should equip everyone with radio collars. 😉

  4. I’m with Cyndi! Whew, what an exciting adventure. LOL I can’t read a map to save my life! Drives hubby crazy! 🙂

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