POIA LAKE WITH COOL WHIP
Odd title you say? Well, Cool Whip was actually my trusty steed on an amazing ride I took with Swan Mountain Outfitters last fall (2019). On a whim, I called the outfitters to see if they were doing their full day ride the next day, in the Many Glacier area on the east side of Glacier National Park. Luck was on my side, as they did indeed have enough folks for a full day ride, so I signed up, packed up my travel trailer, and headed east that afternoon. This particular ride requires the destination be determined by the Park service the morning of the ride, and you end up going to either Poia Lake, or Cracker Lake, depending on the traffic counts that day before. Since I hadn’t been to either lake, I was happy either way.
I arrived in St. Marys the evening before, to howling winds, as is typical of the east side. I’d checked the weather and it was supposed to be a bit dicey, so I’d thrown in my rain gear just in case. That stuff came in handy for the morning part of the ride, as it’s also wind proof, and the wind that day was relentless. When I arrived at the Many Glacier corral, I was surprised to see about 30 people there, which was a great turnout for such a windy day. As they announced who was going on hour rides, then two hour rides, then half-dayers, I could see there would only be a few of us left for the all-day ride. That’s the way I like it! Sure enough, the ride included only the wrangler, a gal and her 14 year old son, and me. Perfect!
When you take the Poia Lake ride, you actually leave from the corral at the ranger station, so must drive over there. As I pulled into the parking lot, there were 4 horses tied to the fence, and I immediately wanted the gigantic, white horse at the far end. I kept my fingers crossed that he would be mine, and sure enough, Lady Luck did me right, and he was to be my trusty steed for our excursion. CW is 17.2 hands if he’s an inch (I’m 5’9” and you’ll see how he towers above me in the pics), and his head is as long as my body. With a soft, kind eye, and quiet demeanor, I fell in love with him instantly. What a stroke of good fortune that was, as this boy was a gentle giant with a wickedly fun personality, and rode like a comfy, overstuffed sofa. By the end of the ride, it was all I could do to refrain from asking if he could be purchased. I came so close…
Mounting up, I could see the wrangler’s horse was of Arabian descent, and he was going to be a handful. We did indeed get our laughs, as that horse would spider crawl, jump, crab walk, and perform every other spooky maneuver, at invisible ghosts and demons along the trail. The good-natured wrangler took it all in stride, and we all commented how much more calm that little horse was after 8 hours on the trail.
Enough of the pre-ride, let’s get into what you have in store if you head that way. The Poia Lake ride is an out and back of about 8 hours, which includes a lunch stop at the campground at Poia Lake. I have to admit I’m very glad I rode this trail instead of hiking it, as it’s a windy, up-and-down grunt of a trail, and I didn’t meet any hikers who looked all that happy. They all asked if they were almost to the lake, and several hadn’t even gone half way! It’s a gorgeous trail ride, however it lacks the breathtaking views associated with other trails in Glacier Park, so be prepared for lesser views, especially on the out part of the ride. It’s a ride with raw rock scenery, alpine meadows with abundant wildflowers, scree trails areas, rocky waterfalls, lots of elevation gain and loss, and a pretty lake at the end. It was fun to do on horseback, especially with Cool Whip making me laugh about every 5 minutes, and I’d only wished he could talk. I bet he would have a dry sense of humor and gossip about the other horses on the trip. The last few miles of the ride winds down to the lake through heavy tree cover, and hearing the wind descend on us through the trees with a roar was a bit intimidating, even for me. You could hear it coming from afar, like distant thunder that rolled in and crashed into the trees when it arrived. It was so loud, and the trees swayed so hard we wondered why more didn’t break in the onslaught. I was definitely keeping my eyes open for falling trees. At the campground, we dismounted and wandered to see the lake. The wind was roaring so loud we had to yell to hear one another, even when only a few feet apart. There was a definite majesty to this raw power of nature, and I had so much respect and love for it. We didn’t linger long at the lake, ate our lunch while exchanging horse tales, and mounted back up.
The way back was the definite winner for enjoyability, as the stellar views going home made it worth the trip. As an avid trail rider and former World Class horse trainer, there isn’t much I haven’t experienced on horseback, but this ride gave me a thrill I hadn’t felt before, and probably don’t want to feel again. There is a scree section of the trail that traverses up a rocky cliff section, and although it’s wide and relatively safe, the wind kicked up when we were riding down that section on the return trip, causing the horses to almost be blown over. I wish I could have taken a video of this, as it’s almost unbelievable. We were all perpendicular to the wind which was howling hard, and as the horses would step down the scree, they would get buffeted around by the wind, and their feet would land in a completely different spot, as they were being blown over like a bread truck in a tornado. Riding this was a bit daunting, as you’re heading down hill, your horse is off balance, tipping to-and-fro as they are trying to find their feet and a solid place to land. I have to admit it was thrilling through, just being able to ride through something like that, and see how practiced the horses were at carefully balancing against the wind. This was not their first rodeo.
Once we lost some elevation and got back into the trees, the group of us played trail games and sang show tunes and pop favorites, with all joining in. Whichever way I turned there was gorgeous view after gorgeous view. Sharp crags and snow caps everywhere. I pretty much stayed at the back of the pack, where I like to be, and I was in heaven being in the wilderness on horseback. We ended the ride with a few photos on the horses, and Cool Whip got to go get some chow and a good rest.
If you’re in for an all day adventure and have riding experience, I’d highly suggest heading into the vastness of Glacier Park for a full day ride. It will be a memorable experience, and you’ll see parts of the park you may not get to otherwise. Swan Mountain Outfitters runs a tight ship, and the horses were all in great condition, healthy, and happy. If you’re not an experienced horseman, I’d hesitate to recommend a full day ride on these trails, as they can be steep and rugged, and there’s not a lot of room for error. Play it safe and go out for an hour or two, so you can really enjoy yourself, and still walk the next day.
Okay kids, what are you waiting for? Saddle up and let’s go!