We feel the first hint of trouble driving I-5 north from the Bay Area toward Oregon. No Mount Shasta to be seen. Not even an outline against the smoke-white sky. September can be the best time to travel––but not after a hot, hot summer in the Northwest.
Ashland––what an appropriate name right now––is smoky too. A fine ash covers cars. Eugene, Salem––all of Oregon is off-and-on hazy. We leave Salem on the Tuesday after Labor Day. The air smells of campfire.
Ten days to kill between a wedding in Portland and a conference in Ashland––perfect for a road trip. We had planned to drive along the Columbia Gorge then head up to Spokane, cross Idaho to West Glacier, then up to Banff. It would be beautiful.
But Columbia Gorge, consumed by the Eagle Creek fire, is closed. Three days after teenagers threw firecrackers into the forested area and started the whole catastrophe, the fire jumps the river and burns on the Washington side too. So we head north to Tacoma and cut across toward Spokane, the smokiest yet.
I don’t know how a state line could hold smoke at bay, but for some reason, I think that Idaho will be better. It isn’t. The highway skirts the lake at Couer d’Alene, but we can barely see the water.
Our first-ever visit to Montana. It looks the way I always thought Montana would look, with wide, yellow fields recently shorn of wheat, and large rolled hay bales litter some fields as far as one can see. Cows graze next to silos and barns, and sometimes share the road with huge tractors, and with us. We guess the sky must be big. There is no blue.
I call the motel in West Glacier and they assure me that Route 2 is open even though the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed. Smoke is intense, and all the fires are on the west side of the park, no vistas to be seen. We huddle next to the motel’s little window air conditioner, then cancel the second night and search for open rooms in East Glacier Park.
On the still-smoky East side, we hike toward Paradise Point, but miss the arrow telling us to turn. We don’t get to Paradise, but we do have a nice little hike and we can’t taste the air, which is an improvement. Our old motel looks to be funkier than the one we left in West Glacier, but we sign in at the Trading Post and the young man gives us a free bag of ice. We are happy to have a TV.
Paradise lost. We must come another year to truly see the wonderful Glacier National Park. My husband asks a ranger if our park pass works at Waterton.
“Waterton is closed. Evacuated.”
“Oh.” We will drive to Alberta tomorrow.
A bonus: all national parks in Canada are free to the public in 2017, their 150th year. But this country to our north is hosting more than a hundred fires too.
We are fortunate to have fantastic vistas of glaciers from the Columbia Icefields Parkway, then an overnight rain and some wind give us crystal-clear views at Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise––like hand-washed and polished crystal, not those everyday wine glasses that have been run through the dishwasher. Paradise found.
(Date of travel: Sept. 2017)