Helen Lake in Glacier National Park

Redgap Pass
On my first morning in the Glacier backcountry, I woke up from a campsite by Poia Lake then headed to Redgap Pass for lunch. As I sat there eating slices of dried kiwi, I wished I could somehow project everything my eyes were seeing into the minds of everyone I wanted to share the view with: a friend who might be working on a Saturday, family whose health keeps them from reaching such places, a couple of girls from Kentucky that couldn't join me on this trip.

Poia Lake
From my red slate seat, I could see Elizabeth Lake almost 3,000 feet below, but I was still nine trail miles away. When I reached its shore, I continued on the four-mile spur trail to the less frequently visited Helen Lake to set up camp. 

“The guidebook calls it desolate,” a passing ranger said. “But you be the judge.” 

I hiked along the shore to the southern tip of Elizabeth Lake, then through wildflowers where butterflies fluttered about as though a gust of wind blew off petals and whirled them around me. Beyond Elizabeth Lake, the trail became more overgrown and unkempt. 

As I moved forward, I parted a sea of tall grasses and green leaves that had grown above my waist. Much of the trail would have been invisible if not for a depression in the overgrowth leading the way. The head and back of a deer swam by like the world’s most passive crocodile, followed by two fawns barely able to keep their eyes above the green. I wouldn’t call the region desolate, though. I prefer overlooked and secluded, two great qualities for a trail to have.

“Hmm, that bear poop was still moist,” I thought as I stepped over it. Still moist, even though that spot had been in direct sunlight all day. “It must have been recently shat,” I thought. After a year of this, it’s interesting the things you take note of. I also noticed I was in a patch of thimbleberries (i.e. bear food) and began to pay more attention to any rustling in the leaves.

I knew I was close when I began to hear the Belly River, which begins at Helen Lake. I stopped to listen to it with my eyes shut. I absorbed every other sound as well, the beating of insect wings, the wind hissing between branches of pine, three different types of birds chirping, some rapid cheeps, some sporadic elongated whistles, then suddenly the thumping sound of helicopter blades. Was it for a tour or a search-and-rescue? A 19-year old guy who never came back from his recent Glacier dayhike, was still missing. 

The thought of him never exiting the Glacier woods reminded me that I still have a lot to learn about real wilderness survival, something I decided to remedy in the coming months. Then I thought of the person that stopped to ask me a backcountry question a couple of days before. 

Belly River
“You look like you know what you’re doing,” she said before asking. I stopped chasing the ground squirrel in my car and answered her questions. And recently, while in the camping section at a department store, a woman came up to me to ask where she could find an item. “I know you don’t work here,” she said. “but you looked like a guy that knew everything.”

Regardless of how much more I need to learn, I’m happy to look like I know what I’m doing. Maybe it’s because my beard is slowly coming back, because nobody asked me for help when I was in the arts and crafts section. 

When I arrived at Helen Lake, I stood at the shore before taking off my pack and setting up camp. I balanced on flat rocks to keep the small ripples from soaking my feet. Lush green hills and the sheer rocky face of Ahern peak, 3,700 feet above me, enclosed the back half of the lake. Ribbons of water, from the melting Ahern Glacier, fell over and down the mountainside accumulating in the clear blue lake. 

Helen Lake
Only four extra miles from the crowded Elizabeth Lake campsites, and I’m all alone. That’s the real reason this site is overlooked and isolated, the extra miles. The solitude was worth every additional step. 

I spent most of the night eating, reading, and swatting flies, so I don’t have much else to say about Helen Lake. Other than… and I know I’m going to kick myself for saying this publicly, but while staring out at the secluded lake, I had the thought that if it ever became necessary, this is where I would hide one of my horcruxes. In an effort to maintain this mountain man guise, that I apparently have, I’m not going to explain that reference.

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.