Grizzlies

photo-6My family and I saw a grizzly yesterday. From fifteen yards away. First, it was below the Highline Trail, and then it was on the trail, lumbering towards us. We could see its cinnamon brown body, its dish-shaped head, and its defining hump. It was clearly not a black bear. Then it moved above the trail just a little bit, slowly, purposefully munching on berries. We could have been a stand of aspen trees for all it noticed us, the twenty or so hikers who gathered in a respectful clump away from him, but still. I was scared. My heart was pumping. I have hiked thousands of miles in grizzly country, and I have only had a handful of close encounters like this one. I kept trying to remind my two children of this as they literally shook and wept at my side.

“Let’s hike back to Logan Pass!” one implored me.

“Mommy, I’m scared!” the other one sobbed, grabbing my hand.

I couldn’t see the grizzly very well, because my kids would not get any closer. This was okay; this was a totally natural reaction on their parts. My husband pulled his bear spray out of the holster, along with a few other hikers, and stood, again at a very respectful distance, and watched the bear feed and feed and feed. Our three-year-old daughter on his back was enthralled.

“She doesn’t know to be scared,” my nine year old whispered. No, she did not. But she knew primal, and she knew safety was on her daddy’s back in a backpack. And I think she understood awe right there.

He was doing exactly what a bear should be doing-eating as much as possible before winter. And I trust my husband’s bear judgment. But, still, it is unnerving to stand so close to a predator weighing several hundred pounds who is known to be unpredictable.

I have turned around many times on trails when I’ve hiked by steaming bear scat or an especially fresh grizzly track. I firmly believe in giving wild animals more than enough respectful distance. However, we hadn’t surprised this bear. Grizzlies can smell carcasses from miles away; this sub-adult just wanted to be left alone, to gather his thousands of daily calories for the winter sleep. I only worried that someone would try to get too close to snap the ultimate wildlife picture, and then he could get aggressive, but everyone stood back, in awe, and watched him.

“Look how beautiful he is!” someone murmured.

I just kept thinking, “Look how BIG he is.” Especially compared to my three children.

Two women standing by us said, “The rangers said that this bear has been here all week, feeding right by the trail.”

At this point my older two kids were so terrified that I almost said, “Let’s get out of here. Forget hiking to the Chalet and down the Loop,”(where our car was parked). But we stayed just a few more minutes, and then the bear meandered up the Garden Wall and hopefully into another patch of juicy berries to help him sleep through the winter.

All of us, the pack of twenty or so hikers, started hiking back down the trail together, for our safety as well as the bear’s safety.

When I first moved to Montana, I was terrified of grizzlies. That fear never goes away, but it changes. I am not an adrenaline junkie or a thrill seeker, but there is something about hiking in the presence of grizzlies that changes the experience. You tune into your surroundings in a different way. You pay different attention. You listen more. You notice when the wind picks up and a bear may not be able to hear or smell you. You watch for tracks and scat and notice how fresh they are. You respect the presence of wildness. I found that when I left Montana and hiked in other grizzly-free places, I missed the bears.

The other part of this moment, for me, is teaching my kids how to hike in grizzly country. Our family of five makes plenty of noise. But, a few weeks ago, we were the only people, to our knowledge, on a less-traveled trail. The wind blew right at us, meaning that bears couldn’t hear or smell us very well. Your chances of surprising a bear increase, so my husband and I clapped, yelled, hooted, and hollered as much as we could, especially on blind corners and hiking up little hills. This scared our kids. But they need to know. We’ve taught them to pick up every little morsel of food they drop, and we’ve taught them how to pay attention in the woods and to be respectful. Now they need to know what to do when they actually see a bear on a trail. Not in a car or across a lake. A bear that is within spitting distance of them. Because of where we live and what we love to do, they need to know how to react calmly and respectfully.

There are many bear experiences I hope my children never have, but I cannot protect them from it. I can’t protect our children from everything in this world. But I can teach them how to be safe, how to face their fears, and how to appreciate pure wildness.

Later that day, we told our children, once we hiked the rest of the twelve miles to Granite Park and down the Loop without seeing any more bears, that our grizzly sighting was as good as it gets. Now they know what to do. Now they know how to stay a little bit calmer. Now they know what it feels like to be up close to a very wild animal.

My best job ever..besides teaching, of course

Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park (...
Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park (United States) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Between my junior and senior year of college, I had the best job ever. I worked as a waitress at Granite Park Chalet, located deep in the heart of Glacier National Park. You can only access the Chalet by hiking a steep four mile trail, called the Loop, or a 7.8 mile trail, called the Highline, which is accessible from Logan Pass. Logan Pass is only accessible approximately three months out of the whole year; during the rest of the year, it is buried in snow.

Twenty years ago when I worked at the chalet, ten women were hired to work there. We all hiked up a week before the chalet opened, in June, through many feet of snow. It had been a big winter, so the pack train of mules could not initially deliver our food. They had to airlift our supplies by helicopter in those first days.

English: Very long telephoto shot looking nort...
English: Very long telephoto shot looking north of Swiftcurrent Pass area from Logan Pass, with Granite Park Chalet, Glacier National Park, Montana, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once the guests arrived, every morning, seven days a week, for two and a half months, I would get up early, serve a family-style breakfast, and help get trail lunches ready to go. As soon as I was done, on went the hiking boots. On went the old blue shorts and the t-shirt, and out the door I went. The possibilities, while not endless, were spectacular. I could hike three miles up to Swiftcurrent Lookout. Sometimes Chris, the fire lookout, would be up there already with one of her kids, and she’d let us take a peek at her stupendous view from the deck of the tower. Or, I could blast over Swiftcurrent Pass and down to Bullhead Lake for a quick, bracing dip and red rocks to lounge around on afterwards. Sometimes we would push it farther and hike all the way to Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge, where they had ice cream and telephones. Those payphones were like gold to us. Then it was an eight-mile push up over the pass to be back to work in time for the dinner shift. Or, we would blast down the Loop, hitchhike over to Lake McDonald Lodge, gulp down ice cream, use the telephone, hitchhike back up, and blast back up the Loop to be back to work on time. I don’t think I was ever late. Best of all was when the backcountry bear rangers would lead us up peaks. I climbed to Iceberg Notch and Gem Glacier as well as Mt. Gould in the space between morning and evening work shifts. In August, during peak wildflower season, we could amble along the Highline Trail once the snow had finally melted. That is where I learned my wildflowers: penstemon, Indian paintbrush, columbine, showy fleabane, and arnica. More than once, bighorn sheep would block my way on the trail, glaring at me with those alien red eyes, simply refusing to budge, and I’d turn back. One of my favorite hikes was Ahern Pass, a five-mile hike from the Chalet. I could perch on a boulder, write in my journal, gaze down on Helen Lake, and wonder at it all. I was only twenty-one, but this felt like a big life.

A picture of hikers along the Highline Trail i...
A picture of hikers along the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, in the Garden Wall section. The fog on the left is from a cloud right about trail level. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some days the clouds would fly over the Garden Wall, immediately socking it in. It was like a magic show, marveling at how fast they could make the mountains totally disappear. Other nights, the bear rangers would set up the spotting scopes and we’d all look for grizzlies down in Bear Valley. This valley was so lush, so green, and you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to hike down there after all the bears we spotted.

I hiked alone a lot, and I hiked with my coworkers a lot, especially the baker and the cook. We yelled, “Hey Bear!” as we came around corners or when the wind was blowing right in our faces. In all those miles, I never had a close encounter with a grizzly, though I saw plenty of signs, and there were times that I turned back after seeing a fresh claw print in the soft mud or a steaming pile of scat.

Before I worked at Granite Park, I loved to hike and backpack and be outdoors. But this time in Glacier burned something in me. I imprinted on this place, and I think that is one of the main reasons that I came back to Montana after college and still live here more than twenty years later. I can’t get enough of that sweet smell of cedars, of those turquoise alpine lakes, of the pink monkeyflowers blooming in summer along a gushing, clear creek. I think I am addicted to Glacier. If you live here, too, I think you know what I’m talking about.

South Col 70 @ Granite Park Chalet - 316
South Col 70 @ Granite Park Chalet – 316 (Photo credit: tbone_sandwich)