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Readers’ Choice 2012: Reader Leader: Glacier Magic

More than 150 of you entered our contest to become a BACKPACKER field scout. Meet the winners here, starting with Colleen Contrisciane-Lewis, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. She earned the all-expenses-paid grand prize: an assignment to hike—and report on—her dream trip. Read about her 85-mile, weeklong transect of Glacier National Park on the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail.

Day 1
Naturally, Rowan and I want quality time alone–we eloped just weeks before our hike, and this Continental Divide-crossing route will not only be my Reader Leader dream trip, but also our honeymoon. And judging from the deserted parking lot at the Chief Mountain entry near the Canadian border, we are off to a good start. The rewards come quickly on the Pacific Northwest Trail. Just two miles in, we pop through the trees for our first blown-open view of Glacier’s jagged peaks: Sentinel and Bear Mountains, both well over 8,000 feet, with a golden meadow sprawling below, framed with an explosion of purple lupine, beargrass, and fireweed. We are mesmerized.
At mile seven, we take a 300-yard side trail to Gros Ventre Falls, a 30-foot cascade spilling into a turquoise pool before coursing down another drop. Rowan can’t resist a swim in the frigid water. That night, we camp at idyllic Glenns Lake Camp at mile 10.5, next to sky blue waters beneath Cosley Ridge 3,000 feet above. We meet a couple camped nearby who are keenly interested in Rowan’s accent–he’s from Zimbabwe. They recognize it as the same unique accent spoken by their farrier, back home in Indiana. Like many African countries, Zimbabwe has experienced devastating famine and civil unrest in recent decades, which led to a massive diaspora.

So while it’s preposterous to think Rowan would know the couple’s farrier, just because they both speak with a Zimbabwean accent, they can’t help asking. More shocking than seeing a grizzly: The man was one of Rowan’s best friends in high school, but they lost touch in the chaos. This reconnection in the Glacier wilderness seems all but impossible, but serendipitous experiences like this have trained me to embrace interactions with people in the wild, rather than feel overly protective of my solitude. (Rowan has since made contact with his lost friend.)

Day 2     
We cruise along Glenns Lake in awe of the scale of Cosley Ridge and Pyramid Peak. As we begin climbing Stoney Indian, it seems that every 100 feet of elevation gain grants us another mile of sky to see, another lake, waterfall, or row of peaks to appreciate. It’s immediately obvious why Stoney Indian campsite is so sought after: It’s prime real estate, offering a lake and a waterfall, an amazing westerly view, and an open-air privy.

Day 3
When I backpack solo, I can do breakfast and pack in 30 minutes. With Rowan, it takes two hours, and my frustration is building to a boil. He has some serious backcountry skill–he worked as a safari guide the past 20 years. But he’s had porters take care of food, organizing, packing, and hauling gear—a backpacker’s essential crafts. This is his first real DIY trek.
We leave camp at 10 a.m. on trail thick with white, confettilike cow parsnip—neck high at times and heavy from last night’s rain. At Waterton Trail, we hear wolves howling, then turn and head north toward Goat Haunt. My spirits warm with the day and shoot sky-high when we arrive at our next campsite at Lake Francis, a teal pool beneath thousand-foot cliffs. From the beach, we see runoff from Dixon Glacier plunging hundreds of feet into the lake and peaks turning peach in the setting sun.

Day 4
The next morning, I don’t fuss about an early start. The magic of Lake Francis—and Rowan’s stop-and-smell-the-wildflowers approach—is seeping in, and I find myself losing track of time while photographing reflections in the water.
We climb up Brown’s Pass, a 6,255-foot saddle, enjoying Thunderbird Falls as a navigational handrail along the way. When we crest the top, we negotiate a graveyard of pines snapped like matchsticks. Most of the trees broke at their bases during a late-season avalanche, and snow still obscures the trail. 
Once we find the path, we lengthen our trekking poles and begin a steep and loose descent to Bowman Lake at mile 43, where we camp beneath 9,000-foot Mts. Peabody and Carter. 

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