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"It's a Problem, Eh?"


Well, here I am, happy as a smoked clam, smack in the middle of Canada's Glacier Park.

When I crossed the border at Roosberg yesterday, I told the young lady at Customs I was a Refugee from the smoke around Flathead Lake, seeking succor, imposing on the undoubted kindness of Canada. She laughed, threw her eyes to Heaven, and said "Good Luck". The smile that lit up her face came and went like dry summer lightning, followed by a slightly stormy and uncertain look of official irritation. It made a little wrinkle right above and between her lovely eyes. I don't know if it was directed at the surrounding smoke, at me for unlicensed levity, or at herself for having laughed at it.

Either which way, it threw her off her game. She retreated to the comfort of litany.

Turned out I was a mite over on alcohol. Shoulda drank more as I approached the border, I guess. What was I thinking? But she waved me through anyway, with a casual gesture of dispensation.

"Have a good trip, Mr. Giddings."

I think she was a bit nervous about delaying me further. On the road I was most likely a harmless old dodger. But if I should make her laugh again, well. There goes the pension.

It's been several long, frustrating days. Missoula was choking with smoke. From shortly after Butte to Flathead Lake, I could barely tell there were mountains around me. The Lake itself, though, by some freak of wind, was clear from shore to shore. I took the east or "Indian" road around it, coming down into Finley Point State Park about 6 pm.

At first I thought I'd really screwed up. The sites are just stripes on a parking lot, the space between about 40 foot long and 12 feet wide. If someone with slides came in, I might not be able to get my door open.

Ah, the fabled Prisoners of Finley Point, slipping twenties from window to window along the line to the Warden, er, Park Ranger, tapping her foot down there at the end. At the foot of this parking lot there's another 40 feet or so of trees and scattered tables, a few abandoned fire rings, a low concrete wall, a sliver of rocky beach, and the lake. There is electricity and water, but no dump. I was aghast at how crowded things were for twenty bucks. And the place wasn't completely full.

Then came the sunset. All was forgiven. Everyone lined their chairs up at the retaining wall, and the light show commenced. It is hard to say anything good about this smoke, but it just may have improved the sunset. The dusky hills across the lake glowed with an outline of brilliant orange, then red, then blue, then purple. At 10:15, there was still a faint frisson of light above the far horizon. Who needs a campfire, anyway?

It was warm, about 75 degrees. I jumped in the lake. That took care of that. Lying back in the water, I saw stars for the first time since Bozeman. This wasn't so bad. I could spend a week here, kayaking around, reading.

Eight o'clock next morning I was wakened by people 12 feet either side of me hooking up, the usual diesel rattle. I peeked out the window. We were completely socked in. What lake? O well.

I had a choice. I could try to push through the smoke into BC, or turn 90 degrees and light out for the Olympic peninsula. Someone on the newsgroup sent me a URL for the BC fire situation map, and it indicated the fires were mostly at the border or around Kamloops.

It lied.

I drove a little more than 400 miles north today through a grey tunnel of smoke, which widened only occasionally, just enough to give me a looming hint of what I was missing. I stopped at a roadside farm and bought some fresh tomatoes, garlic, roasted almonds, and a pie. I drove by a number of golf resorts, and the hot springs at Fairmont and Radium. Those who have followed these adventures will know that I do not lightly pass up a hot spring.

The road from Radium to Banff was closed.

As irritating as the smoke was the fact that I couldn't get wound up complaining about it much. The people around me didn't like it any more than I did, and they didn't have the ready option of driving on. In a turnout near Inverness, I struck up a conversation with a couple I took to be European tourists, from their speech. Turns out they were locals.

Canada is like that, a stubbornly polyglot place.

He said that some Official Government Weenie on the TV had announced that there were over 300 fires just locally, and 1000 firefighters to control them.

"That's 3 per fire." He shook his head.

"Not quite," I replied. "One of them will be carrying a clipboard."

He thought about this a second, and decided to laugh. I decided to move on. He was a big fella, a little younger than me, and for all I know he had a clipboard in his car.

Across from Quinn Creek, near Radium, I stopped for half an hour and watched the entire top of a mountain explode in an red-orange ball, and above that a towering column of smoke and ash. Buzzing round up there you could barely see the tiny pointless figure of a helicopter hauling a bucket, like a dragonfly dangling a spider egg on a bit of silk.

There's not enough buckets in the world. Nothing to be done but watch it burn, stay out of the way, and pray for rain. Lots of rain.

I finally drove out of the smoke as I gained altitude north of Golden at twilight, almost at the entrance to Glacier Park. I rolled down the window. I could breathe without choking. That's new. That's good. My headache started to lighten up. Okaay.

Then I came around a corner, and quite innocently and without premeditation heard these words come rolling right out of my mouth: "Now THAT'S a f*ing mountain, and no sh*t!"

Well, it was. It filled the windshield. It is hard to imagine anything more massive and abruptly vertical. It was enormous. It was vertiginous. I was delirious. And it was still 20 miles away.

Is that a glacier up there? Well, it sure ain't an ice cube.

I drove, and drove, and drove, looking round for a campground, gawking up like a child in a toy store. Passed a filling station and hotel. Finally: "Illecillewaet Campground", and beneath that a note in red. Oops. "Complet". Okay, so it's full, there'll be another. This park is something like 50 miles across, there's bound to be more than one campground.

Nope. I finally gave up when I started down into Revelstoke, and smelled smoke again. Nope, notgonnahappenjesus. Just give me forty acres to turn this rig around.

I found the functional equivalent in a chain up area, and drove back up the hill, determined to find a turnout for the night. There's one on the right, that'll do. "Sir Donald". Okay, Donnie boy, you're about to have company. I got over as far from the road as I could, crawling forward to find a level place, then noticed an odd unlabeled narrow dark entrance into the trees. Forward a little more.

Wonder of wonders, from the corner of my eye I just caught a white reflection from the top of a trailer. What the hey? There's a bunch of campsites hidden in there, maybe some of them empty! I made the circuit in the dark, catching people staring up dazed and wide-eyed like startled deer, sitting at tables, brushing their teeth, eating out of cookpots.

Graded gravel sites, a toilet hut, trash containers - it's all here, an entire unlabeled stealth campground, back in the trees. Half expecting UFOs or Children of the Corn, I went round again, dived headfirst into the first unoccupied place I came to. I locked the truck, let down the blinds, ate a big piece of peach pie, and went to bed.

Morning sorted things out, of course. Sort of. Turns out "Sir Donald" is an unmarked overflow site for the unpronounceable campground, and also for nearby "Loop Brook" campground, which so helpfully had no sign for westbound travelers such as I. I took a look at both these "regular" campgrounds, and they were the sort of thing you often see at US National Parks, narrow and twisty roads, low overheads, and barely separated, shallow sites. Designed and built a couple of generations ago, before large RVs.

A nightmare to negotiate in the dark.

I'm sticking with Sir Donald. There's a dozen sites, easy to get into and out of. No fire rings, but in the current environment that hardly matters. It's $3 cheaper. And it backs right up to the Illy-Silly-Wait River, or however you say that.

It is a tad too close to the road, but that's true of the others also.

Somehow, near 10 pm on a Friday night in August, bleary-eyed, in the dark, I stumbled onto the best campground available round here for RVs, and at a lower price.

I really ought to go buy a lottery ticket. If you are lucky enough, long enough, you don't need to be smart. Come to think of it, I've always depended on that.

I hear that luck can quickly disappear, like smoke. If it disappears as quickly as the smoke I've been driving through, I need to quit running around and settle into a casino.

When the "ranger" came by to collect this evening, I asked him what gives with the unlabeled campgrounds.

"Yah, that's right. It's a problem, eh? But it's way above my level. It has to do... I hear it has to do with not having any paint that's the right shade of brown. There's got to be uniformity, y'know."

"Did someone run over the old sign? What happened?"

"I really don't know. It was before my time."

"How long have you been here?"

"Four years."

Eh. I see. There is no brown paint in Canada. For the last four years. At least. No plywood either, I suppose. No crayons.

Nightly arrivals from the East must depend on Divine Guidance, like the Wise Men of Old.

Tomorrow I'm taking a hike up to Glacier Crest. I've bought a map. I'm going to study it very carefully. I daren't hope for signs.

Bob, who despite choking on the smoke and stumbling around in the dark, is having a pretty darn good time.

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