I used to be in the habit of bringing back small bits of geology from my trips, but I became jaded the last couple of years, less willing to allow myself to be astonished at the simple marvels of the physical world. Plus, rocks are heavy. I backpack “ultalight,” meaning I never carry more than 35 pounds in my pack, no matter how long I’ll be out, so everything in there is essential. Except a rock; believe me, there are plenty of rocks where I travel. I could buy people t-shirts, but I bring back rocks. So to carry a rock useless to me up and down mountains, pack it in my checked baggage, give it to someone, and hear “oh, a rock,” can be disheartening. You can understand my loss of enthusiasm.
I brought these rocks back for me, although I did disguise them as a gift, thinking they might make someone happy. The one above is from the bed of the North Fork of the Flathead River, just south of the Canadian border. The idea of the North Fork of the Flathead River has been an ambition of mine since I learned of it several years ago (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2018/10/09/its-all-bear-country/). The rock weighs two and a half pounds, and it is amazing. It was deposited during the Precambrian, so 1.4 billion years ago or so, perhaps in the general vicinity of where I found it, but even a rock can move a lot in a billion years. If a geologist digs it up in my Texas back yard a billion years from now, she is going to be perplexed. Those perfect lines across it tell a story that I don’t understand completely, but it is enough for me that they tell a story that is true.
The second rock is from Boulder Pass, 8,000 feet above sea level. It weighs over four pounds, so you have to understand how beautiful this rock was in my hands, in that pass, that light. I held it and said out loud “you are beautiful.”
It is a bizarre compulsion to want to possess a thing beautiful because of where it comes from; like wanting an autograph from someone famous. But I carried it down those mountains and out to have it physically mine forever. The rock’s lines tell a story, but the place I found her tells a stranger one. Everything in Glacier is water and time, but a billion year old seafloor mudflat 8,000 feet above sea level puts you in your place.
I have suspected this before, but people sort of look at me strangely when I talk about it, eyes opened unnaturally wide and a weird smile fixed on their faces: something changed in these rocks when I took them away from their place. They do not glow, not like their glow when I first saw them in a wild river bed, or high in a mountain pass. I have carried rocks back from many places, given them to a very few people, and the most beautiful ones have all done this. I experimented today, sat these rocks in the sun to heat them and see if the Texas humidity had robbed them of their luster, but the glow has not returned. But holding them in my hands for my experiment, I felt again the same thing I felt when I first held them: “You are beautiful.”
On the trail from Boulder Pass to Hole-in-the-Wall I found that brief spot where everything is aligned for me. I followed the trail and the purple bear poop, which was becoming noticeably fresher as I advanced, and came down into the empty campsite. I again found myself with daylight on my hands once my food was hung and tent set, and so said “what trouble can I get into?” Again, a large, wooded basin very similar to the one below Boulder, and I thought “there has to be a grizzly in there.”
Funny thing about trying to find a grizzly: after a day or two of not finding one, your brain starts thinking you won’t ever. You reason it out: you want to see one, but not too close. You try to be quiet so that you don’t scare them away, but not so quiet that you surprise one. So I made my way straight through the densest part of the plateau this time, not working around the edges, but stopping and looking and listening every few steps.
The dimensions of everything you see up high in Glacier make it hard to judge relationships. The forest and undergrowth had seemed thin from up above, but down inside it became a thick tangle that light barely penetrated. Finally making my way out after an hour of purposeful searching, I found myself on the far side, right up on the mountainside trail that had brought me down into Hole earlier that day. There I crossed four young, wide-eyed and out of breath guys: “there’s a grizzly and two cubs just down the trail!,” something I had by then become accustomed to. I asked how far, how long ago, and precisely where in relation to the trail they had seen her, and I was off. “They’re just around the next bend!”
The trail was hemmed in by beargrass in bloom in places, a new sight for me. Although I recognized it, it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know why it was called “beargrass.” Nothing good came to mind. The bear cubs were leaving the purple poops every mile or so because the mother was leading them through patches of huckleberry as she made their way to lower elevation in anticipation of winter, all three of them foraging to gain weight before hibernation. Only once did I come across the mom’s scat, which was noticeably larger, less purple, and was comprised mostly of hair and bones. It was also at that point that I noticed the scat was now fresh and damp.
I followed the trail all the way to the top of Brown Pass. The path takes you along a steep mountainside, with clear views of the meadows below in many spots, but in others it is nothing but a narrow flat line taking you across a cliff face, and once you are on it your only choice is to forge on. Stepping over the fresh purple poop, I vaguely wondered what I would do if the bears were still stuck on the trail around that next bend.
Walking along, certain now that the grizzly family would be right in front of me as I came around the next corner, I became self-conscious, questioning my behavior. I supposed that if a Ranger would have crossed me at that point–alone, without bear spray, in the evening on an isolated trail and wearing black and grey–she would have said I was “irresponsible.” A day-hiker might say I was “insane.” But I thought that a hiker of similar experience–both in life and on the trail–would probably say that I was taking “a calculated risk,” although all three might have simply said I was stupid. The math is different for each of us.
I never caught up with the 700 pound carnivore and her cubs.
Hole-in-the-Wall and Out
I followed the purple bear poop out now in the opposite direction, like a time traveler moving in the wrong direction. The farther I got from Hole-in-the-Wall, the drier the scat became, and life seemed incrementally less interesting.
My last night, I was again at Upper Kintla. I made my way back down the shore for a final swim, then hiked back into the marsh above the lake, looking for moose. I had seen this cove from the trail when I came down from the pass, and thought “this place looks exactly like all the paintings and photos with a moose standing in a marsh,” so you can imagine my disappointment when I didn’t see anything remotely mooselike after an hour or so. But waiting there, stretched out in a shoreline grass that smelled of citronella, an eagle began to call from somewhere in the trees behind me. It would cry once, and the echo from far across the lake was so distinct, so clear, that I thought there was a second eagle answering it. I sat up to listen to the conversation, and suddenly there was a loud splash seemingly just behind me, as if someone had thrown a huge rock in the water. I stood and turned to look, and saw nothing for a good ten seconds, not even a ripple in the water. But just as I was about to turn back, a black bear, at the very far end of the marsh, perhaps 100 yards away, sprinted across the grass like a galloping horse, running like a child at play. And I thought, “what are the chances?”
I tracked the grizzly bear and cubs for three days. Admittedly, this was much easier than one imagines, requiring no actual mountain man skills: they were using the same trail I was, and leaving tennis ball-size bright purple poops behind them every mile or so. This is the story of my attempt to catch up with a 700 pound carnivore and her cubs, just because I wanted to see if I could. I will use the word “stupid” only once.
Days 1 through 3: Up Kintla Lakes to Boulder Pass
My only goal this trip was to see a place called “Hole-in-the-Wall,” a campsite that you’ll see only if you hike way in, nights past the trailhead. The Rangers at the Backcountry Office got me the permits to reach Hole via the Kintla Lakes drainage, but I’d have to break the trip into six days of very short hikes. I’ve never walked so little each day on one of these trips, so I wasn’t sure what I’d do with all my spare time.
The trails up Kintla are easy and level, following the wooded shores of two connected lakes. After I’d hung my food and set up my tent at Lower Kintla, I walked the stony lakeshore to the hidden inlet bringing water down from Upper Kintla and the mountains above. At a loss for a use of my time and energy, I stripped down, took a brief swim in the icy water, and stretched out to dry on the smooth alluvial stones.
Smoke from the West Coast fires covered Glacier like gauze, obscuring entire mountains and making it seem as though it were always sunset and I should be thinking about sleep; or that it was about to rain, and I should find cover. But the crepuscular sky meant none of that was about to happen, so I stared at the sky and smelled the grass and waited for the water to evaporate off my skin.
For at least five minutes, I resisted. I lay there and thought “George, just let nothing happen. Do not think the thought you are about to think.” But sure enough, a couple of minutes later, I thought “I’m bored; nothing is happening.” I tried rationalizing it, thinking “George, something is always happening, you’re just not seeing it,” but nothing persisted in happening except the water running down the stream next to me.
And then something marvelous happened.
I’m laying there naked next to this tree-enclosed lake, surrounded by these enormous mountains, and an eagle flies from one side to the other, perhaps 200 yards down the lake from me. “Wonder where he’s going?” I thought; I hadn’t noticed it before. And then before I knew what was happening, he was chasing a second bald eagle, which I had also not noticed, directly toward me. And as they passed over me they turned to each other, both pretty much flying on their backs, and briefly fought each other with their bright yellow clawed feet. I thought “wow, what are the chances?,” and I was not bored.
The trail up to Boulder Pass the next day is a gradual climb up through wooded and brushy slopes; nothing dramatic. But when you crest–that is something. This enormous expanse opens suddenly before you, and you are put in your place. The campsite is immediately after arriving on top, and as I walked in I found a group of excited young guys just leaving. “A grizzly and two cubs just walked through here this morning! Pretty much right where you’re putting your tent.” I was ok with that, and considered moving my tent to the sites they were vacating, but it seemed like a lot of work, and I’d come to Glacier to see big fauna, and so thought “nah. I’m good here.”
I had plenty of time before me after I’d pitched my tent, and set about occupying it. I’d heard ascending Boulder Peak right next door was easily doable, and so I took off up the mountain. It is not a large mountain, only a little over 8,500 feet, but I’m not a mountaineer and there’s not really a trail up there, so you just start scampering upward. You know you’ve reached the top when you suddenly realize there is no more “up”. There was a brief moment when I considered that the acrobatics required to make it over a small ledge were not worth the distinct possibility of falling the 2,000 feet of void immediately beneath my feet, and so I sat down and composed myself. I had decided then to turn around and go back down, but as soon as I stood up I thought “stop being a pussy,” and flipped my old ass over the ledge and made it to the top. The view was worth the effort. I have seldom encountered a view not equal to the effort.
Back down, and damn if I didn’t still have a lot of daylight to use up. And so I looked at the trail going past my tent–the trail that grizzly sow and cubs had taken–and thought “well, you came here to see grizzlies. Let’s go see if you can find her.”
I followed the trail down into an amazing bowl, a meadow deposited beneath cradling mountains surrounding it on three sides. The forth side was a shear dropoff to some place not on the map.
When I got there, I had the eerie feeling that “this is not a place that belongs to us.” There were no trails, and although from the edges I had clear fields of vision, I did wish that I had not lied to my wife when I had promised I would carry bear spray this trip. I made my way down the outside of the basin, stopping and listening and looking often, and then I made my way inside the stands of yellowing Western Larch. It was creepily still, so silent. In spots, the ground became like walking on sponges, the living moss was so deep. I eventually had enough, enough to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid, enough to be sure that any bear around knew I was there and had only to come, enough to feel I had understood all that this place was going to let me understand, and so I turned to leave. And just at that moment, something whistled from somewhere within the dense trees, the same strange whistling I had heard last year just before a grizzly appeared out of no where onto the trail in front of me, and so I stood there quietly and waited.
I wish there were another way to start this story, but there isn’t so I’ll just begin: I had just finished taking a dump on the mountainside when I saw the woman flying through the air. Moving so fast, spinning so high on her outward and downward trajectory, I knew without seeing her land that she’d be either dead or severely injured when I found her.
And now for some background:
“Leave a car on Hwy 550 at Coal Bank Pass, drive out of Silverton on Alpine Loop Road to Maggie Gulch Road and park. Hike gulch jeep road 3+ miles to CDT/CT.” That’s the beginning of my hiking buddy Rob’s email regarding our planned route. My drive from Austin was just under 1,000 miles, so I was tired but happy to hit the trail when we met up at Coal Bank, staged the cars, and pointed ourselves toward the Continental Divide (CDT/CT).
The part of his plan in red is what I love about Rob. I had dissected his words before, looking for the unspoken part–there is always something unspoken with Rob–but only recognized it in hindsight. I should have seen that “hike to CDT” gave Rob way too much latitude, because the Continental Divide is a very big place. Rob is a hiker, and all he needs is to see something that might be a trail heading generally uphill, and he’s good to go. So Day 1 involved quite a bit of serendipity, and I collapsed in my tent the instant it was up.
We would spend all of Day 2 above treeline on the Continental Divide. This is actually the easiest part of a mountain hike, because once you’re up on top, there’s really no more climbing to do. The terrain tends to roll, and the lack of trees and clear air means you can see a very, very long way. It is my favorite place to be. On top of the world.
But there is also very little between you and the sun, and so at the end of Day 2, after 11 hours of carrying a 35 pound pack with 11,000 feet less of our atmosphere’s oxygen than I am accustomed to breathing, and also 11,000 feet closer to the sun, I again collapsed in my tent, moderately delirious, and happy as a pup to be in that place.
This particular spot on the globe is special to me: it is where I took my wrong turn in 2017 and lost myself deep in the Weminuche, ultimately hiking 20 miles out of my way, meeting some wonderful people on the trail, and completing an incredible loop over Columbine Pass and out the Chicago Basin (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/isis-not/). Standing in the exact spot where I’d made my mistake before, I could not imagine how I’d missed that turn. I could see the spot I’d camped that night three years ago, could see the faint trail that took me over the top of some other unnamed pass instead of the much easier and obvious correct route. What I couldn’t see was the idiot who had made that wrong turn, but I knew he was still around there somewhere.
Day 3 we’re taking that trail on the right and dropping way down into the Elk Creek Drainage. It is a long way down, and we were both happy to be hiking the canyon East to West and not vice versa. We met two young guys that morning who had just come up, and they had that excited exhaustion that comes from succeeding at something difficult. “Twenty-seven switchbacks!” the talker kept repeating (we counted 28 later), while his friend just sucked air and looked on, wide-eyed, as though he’d just won a fight he couldn’t believe he’d won. They had done something that gave them meaning, although I don’t think they would see that for several years.
Cool thing coming down into Elk Creek: mountain goat hair!
When I was lost in 2017 and saw mountain goat hair on some brush, I instantly knew where I was. Mountain goats were re-introduced to the Chicago Basin area in 1947, and they have thrived. I had been to the Chicago Basin area the year before my 2017 trip, and I had literally kicked mountain goats out of my campsite. Lost in a very big wilderness, you cannot imagine my joy to see their hair caught on bushes the following year and say “fucking mountain goats; I can only be in the Chicago Basin.”
But the Chicago Basin follows the Needle Creek drainage, so to see that they are now colonizing our adjacent Elk Creek drainage is pleasing. I suppose now the next time I’m lost and see mountain goat hair, I’ll have to say “I can only be in the Chicago Basin . . . or 20 miles away in Elk Creek.”
Before I talk about Day 4, I have to mention the tequila. I know it is sort of a thing for a lot of people to bring along some good booze to drink around the campfire at the end of the day, but I’m neither a campfire nor booze kind of backpacker. I walk, I look and listen, I think, I eat, I pass out. But Rob brought along some very good tequila on this trip, which I have never had and which is sort of unusual for Rob to do, so every evening we’d share his tequila, about 1/4″ in the bottom of my favorite coffee mug, and it was a wonderful way to make your body stop walking, to shift from the physical to the spiritual.
The coolest part of Elk Creek was the problem. You get spoiled hiking trails in our country. No where else in the world can you find these incredible systems of interconnected trails, taking you from easy access points near paved roads, and then as far into the wildest backcountry as you are able to take yourself. It is truly amazing, a corollary of “America’s Best Idea” (it was Wallace Stegner who called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst”).
We were down in Elk Creek, which has a different kind of beauty than the truly high country, a beauty born of gravity and time, the basement to the mountains where everything up high flows down. And a great deal had flowed down, cataclysmically. A winter avalanche or snow-melt loosened mountainside had brought down tons of trees in the canyon floor, completely blocking the path through. It is a truly amazing sight. We were fortunate that the snow had already completely melted down low, and that the fallen trees had more-or-less settled in their jumble. But still, crossing them like acrobats on balance beams, we were each highly aware that the one we were standing on–or any random one anywhere in the pile–could suddenly move and set the entire pile in motion. You would be able to do nothing.
Which brings me back to the woman. We were now four nights into our trip, 35-40 miles from our starting point but now reasonably close to several trailheads off of Highway 550, although now back up around 12,000 feet. The altitude had knocked me down the first two days, but by now I felt quite good. That high, in the clear air and cloudless sky, the sun is strong. The trail bounced above and below treeline, so when we came to a small spot of shade we took a break.
I’m not sure why “taking a crap in the woods” has become some sort of touchstone for reconnecting with Nature or a measure of manliness, but after a few days out you just go when it is convenient–the alternative is to go when it is inevitable. The only rule is to do it far from water sources, bury it at least six inches deep, and pack out your paper. In this instance, because of the precariousness of the trail and limited cover, my only convenient and discreet option was to scuttle downslope beneath our little spot of shade and squat on the steep mountainside clinging to a small tree trunk. Finished and climbing up, Rob was asking me if I had enjoyed the view, and I’d explained that experience had taught me to face toward the mountain and not away, gravity and balance being what they are should I lose my grip.
Still a few feet of steep slope beneath the trail, I looked up just in time to see a small woman going very fast on a mountain bike. Things like this happen so fast that they pretty much all occur simultaneously: the bike roars over a rise in the trail before us, Rob and I both turn our heads toward the explosion of energy coming toward us, she hits a rough spot just below, and then the sublime instant when time slows and events follow inevitably, one behind the other: the front wheel plants, immovable, beneath the suddenly focused weight of the rider thrown forward to her hands; the back wheel rises up behind her, carried skyward with her now weightless lower body; and then the entire assembly begins its beautiful, terrifying, inevitable pirouette into space, momentarily free of any earthly tether.
I saw her do at least one flip, spinning in tandem with the graceful arc of her bike. Her trajectory carried her and her machine several yards downslope, directly into two fallen trees, although I could no longer see her. I got up to the trail, saw Rob’s stunned expression, and we both hesitantly moved in her direction, knowing that we were going to find something horrendous.
And then she roared. Not pain, and not fear–rage. She was furious. “Arrrrrgh!“She was a tightly wrapped steel cable of a woman. I noticed that she was composed of only muscle, and had no breasts of any consequence–I suppose I was trying to identify what I was dealing with. She saw me, and as she wrestled her bike up yelled “I have to get the adrenaline out of my system!” I was still trying to understand why she was not dead, confused by the lack of arterial bleeding; all I could say was “well, as long as it’s only adrenaline and not blood.”
From that point on, we were an inconvenience and an embarrassment to her. I have known other small, fierce women like her. They are amazing, a force of Nature with immense and humbling interiors, and in that instant of her fury I truly felt that I knew this person. She needed us to not have seen her fail herself, she needed us to have never existed to witness her weakness. Rob and I each tried variously to ask her if she needed help, and she picked up her bike and literally ran with it away from us and her shame. On our way out, we saw her later sitting with her bike, eating a snack, telling us only “have a nice day, goodbye” as she stared off into her own space. Rob whispered “do you think she’s in shock?,” but I was pretty sure she’d stab us both if we asked her one more time if she needed any help, and so we continued on.
The end was where I chose the end to be. I don’t even know if it was the last evening, or sometime sooner–a few days out from your beginnings, the sequence doesn’t really matter any more, and events do not follow inevitably, one behind the other. We were camped up high, well above treeline. We’d found a good flat spot, near water, and had the earth and the sky to ourselves alone. After dinner, I had stretched out on the bare ground, feeling the earth turn and sending my mind flying with the high clouds above. I told Rob “this is my favorite place,” and that night, in my sleeping bag, I watched hundreds of diamond sparkles fly as the static electricity of the pure, high air leapt with my every movement.
I am just over the crest of Swiftcurrent Pass, and it is very windy. In fact, it is clearly windy enough to blow a 150 pound man carrying a 35 pound backpack off of the trail and down the 1,000 foot cliff he is on. I decide it is a perfect place to stop for lunch.
I promised my wife that I would eat more on this trip, so I pick a little promontory off the trail and sit down beneath a ledge and slightly out of the wind. I lay rocks on top of my gear so it won’t blow away, and the re-hydrated granola with milk and blueberries is so good. I’m sitting there, eating this wonderful stuff that the wind is blowing out of my spoon before it reaches my mouth, literally on the edge of a most beautiful cliff, feeling this force that could care less whether it blows me over the side. A wonderful place and time.
You see a lot of mountain goats in Glacier, but they are almost always up in some incredibly inaccessible spot, so as I eat I am scanning the mountain across from me, looking for those improbably perched white spots. I finished my lunch without seeing anything on the other side, and as I stood up to get back on the trail I turned to face a goat sitting barely fifty feet away from me the whole time. I had not considered that I was myself in one of those incredibly inaccessible spots.
I love this about being outside, the unexpected miracle. Looking back now, on this trip and all the others, I think “that was not so hard.” You do these things, see and feel these things, and at that instant and forever after you know it is worth it. But there are moments of doubt, of weakened resolve. At the very start, I always feel deeply guilty for doing something so selfish. And the first day or two, surrounded by mountains and sky and wind, I sometimes wish I were home in a comfortable bed. But then I tell myself “this is where you are, now. You have to be somewhere, and you are here, so be here, now.” Then I am where I need to be.
I have always been very fortunate outdoors. I make good decisions. I prepare, I adapt. I allow myself briefly to credit marvels, and to be astonished at the simplest transactions of the physical world. I let go of the complacent conviction that the world has been made for humans by humans.
And then the trail is covered in bear shit. Sections of the trail above Cosley Lake, and later near Granite Park, had piles of bear shit every fifty feet. Those bears were eating a lot of berries, and if I was their medical professional I would recommend that they cut back after seeing this. At one point, I would say there was either a pack of 20 bears regularly shitting on this one trail, or one bear that really had an issue. I was so proud to come upon a pile of bear scat that looked totally different, fewer berries, intimations of hair and bone. Proud because I was able to see the difference, to see grizzly. Looking at shit.
You tell yourself “it is what it is” often, and realize that is perhaps both the most inane and the most profound statement, underlying all of life. The trail is steep, or it rains, or you cannot eat because you are too cold, but it is what it is, and you have to be somewhere, so this is it. And then you are standing at the top of Triple Divide Pass, feeling so tiny; or you are watching a bald eagle steal a trout from an osprey that has just swooped down to grab it from the mirror surface of a silent mountain lake; or you come upon a tiny glacial runoff, draped in perfect tiny moss, just beneath these enormous mountains, and you are so deeply, deeply content.
I was briefly worried that I would die, which does not happen to me often. Everyone has do die sometime, and I am 60 years old and ready, but please not just yet. You think “that was close; I have had enough.” You ask yourself if a view is worth risking your life. The Zen master intones “do not persist in bad decisions,” and I think perhaps to throw in my cards before I have lost everything. And then 24 hours later, after a hot shower and clean bed and two meals of meat and fat and beer, I begin to think “that was not so bad. If I just fix one or two little details, next time I will not have these problems.”
My last day inside Glacier was not easy, and then it was. After I met my bear, after I knew I would not lose fingers and would make it out, I had only a few miles to my last campsite, at Granite Park, a half-mile beneath Granite Park Chalet, the precise site of two of the three 1967 grizzly attacks in the same night that revolutionized the way the Park Service manages the bear/human interface. I had avoided the Chalet and its day-hikers on my way in over a week ago; now on my way out I considered stopping there for water, perhaps a dry bunk. But the Chalet was already closed unexpectedly for the season when I arrived, and the crew there heli-lifting out supplies informed me that my campsite farther down was closed due to bear activity. They said they would escort me to a safe spot to camp near the Chalet once the helicopter had finished the last lift, but I decided to hike on out the last four miles to my car at the trailhead, down an easy trail I already knew, past the closed campsite.
You have to be somewhere. It is what it is. And some views are worth it.
Life is endless challenges, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. The difference between an ordinary person and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while the ordinary person takes everything as a blessing or a curse.
The bear is standing in front of me, and I am cold and wet. I have been soaked and numbed by the cold for two days, and that is all I can think about. So when the bear steps onto the trail, what I think is “there is a bear, and I am cold and wet.”
When things go bad outdoors, they go very bad. Problems are normal on the trail, so anything less than very bad is just an inconvenience. But bad is very, very bad. Extreme semantics. Still, you need to understand how my bear and I arrived at this place together. It was not easy.
Faced with mountain geology, your notion of time alters. Everything you see seems forever, and you become aware of your own transience. A few days out from the trailhead, time the way you understand it stops. Your concerns are immediate: stay dry, get food and water, don’t get hurt, cover the distance. And when things go wrong, time alters again: everything flows into and out of the event. Now don’t freeze, now keep walking, now keep your sleeping bag dry.
Now I cannot use my fingers. Now my feet are very cold and wet, but I can still walk. Everything I own–everything–is soaking wet, except my sleeping bag. It has been this way two days now, and all I can think is “keep walking, and DO NOT LET YOUR SLEEPING BAG GET WET.” I had had one wonderful day to dry out at Mokowanis Lake after a wet day coming up the river. Everything was soaked, so I spent the day naked, swimming in the lake and sunning, while my gear and clothes dried on lines that would normally have been used to pitch my tent and hang my food.
The clouds were rolling back in the morning as I left the lake, so I knew it would be wet again. The trails here are tightly hemmed by wet knee- to shoulder-high thimbleberry plants that soak you as you walk by, but it is a pleasure to simply reach down and eat a berry just because it looks so perfect.
Well before I got to the top of Stoney Indian Pass I was completely swallowed by the clouds, walking within the steady drizzle. I only realized I had reached the top of the Pass when I came up to a sharp edge where the trail suddenly turned, with nothing but cloud beyond: land, then cloud. I couldn’t see anything, but I sensed a great void, just there within reach of my outstretched arm. Then the trail started downward.
Stoney Indian is a small campsite, only three slots, next to a lake which I could not even see until I had almost walked into it.
When I arrived I found a group of four Romanians who were up in Kootenai the night before. “I want you to hear this,” one of them said, pulling out his phone. “A pack of wolves started howling last night all around our camp at around 2 a.m. They didn’t stop until almost sunrise.” It was amazing.
I was too cold and wet to eat, so I pitched my tent, stripped off my wet clothes, and curled up in my sleeping bag on my side, hands between my knees. It rained all night, and I woke occasionally as I became aware that my tent wasn’t able to keep up with all the water. When I awoke at 7 a.m. I realized that my tent was full of water, and only my air mattress had kept me dry. “This is not good.”
Packed the wet tent and headed for my next camp at Fifty Mountain, a little more than eight miles away up the Waterton Valley. Head the other way and you are in Canada within the day. Out of the mist I see a guy approaching, and for a second I am sure it is Willy Nelson. It turned out to be a wonderful, cheerful little man, perhaps in his 80’s but seeming quite fit. When he told me that he was headed for Kootenai, I told him about the recording of the wolves howling, and he said “oh, gee, that would be wonderful! I have always wanted to hear that. I hope I get to hear that.” I hope he got to hear that.
Fifty Mountain was bad; there is no way around it. All I owned was wet, except that sleeping bag. My heavy winter gloves had given up trying to stay dry, and I eventually decided my hands would be warmer without them. Unable to light my stove with frozen hands, I was just barely able to pitch my tent, strip off once more the wet clothes, and dive in.
Somewhere during the night I realized the temperature was dropping severely. Even curled up naked in my bag, I realized I was cold. Found the entire mountain face above me blanketed in white when I crawled out at dawn. It was not a choice to simply stay there and freeze, so I took down my tent with more difficulty than I had anticipated, and took the trail.
I have made some difficult hikes. Of course, a lot of things that may have been hard before look easier to me now, in my memory. But coming over the col above Sue Lake was the first time I have said “I am not sure I can do this.” Steep climb, thirty mile an hour headwind, heavy sleet and snow directly in my face, hands so cold, soaking wet. That enormous black mountain face, now covered in ice.
I obviously made it, although I don’t have any pictures of the rest because I could not hold a camera. The bear finally came to me, but it no longer mattered. My hands had thawed by then, and I had passed Ahern Drift (which looked more intimidating from afar than it was up close).
I was somewhere on the Highline Trail, only a few miles from Granite Park. There was something strange happening in the dark forest of the cirque down below this section of the trail. Something was making a loud, sharp chirp over and over down there, but I couldn’t tell what it was; a strange, otherworldly cry. I saw three marmots together, running away in a weird way (I actually thought “that was weird; I’ve never seen marmots run like that“). And then I looked up just as an adult grizzly stepped from the brush onto the trail about thirty feet in front of me. I instantly thought of the moose at Elizabeth Lake that was stuck on the same trail I needed to use. I laughed at myself a little when I raised both hands like I was being robbed at gunpoint and said “hey bear.”
My hands were still quite numb, but as I stood there facing the bear I reached around to my right side, where my bear spray canister hung on my belt, right next to the pocket that held my camera. “Get a picture, or get the spray? Get a picture, or get the spray?” I backed up gently as the bear took two steps toward me, and looked over my shoulder trying to find a spot wide enough for me to step aside and let the bear pass. He sniffed the air once, decided I did not matter, and disappeared silently into the brush he had come from.
Literally everyone I met had had a daily bear encounter by my fourth day in the Glacier backcountry. Everyone but me. Maybe I was trying too hard. Perhaps, it was just not yet my time.
I am hiking fast from the head of Elizabeth Lake, up the Belly River drainage and then a ford to Cosley Lake to my next campsite at Glenns Lake. “Avoid surprising a bear,” the Ranger said, which sounded like good life advice. Just let them know you are coming, and you avoid most of the problems.
I am striding along, looking out for bear, staying out of trouble, and BOOM I walk into the ass of a 1,000 pound bull moose. How I could not see this enormous thing, I do not understand, but the trail exploded and the moose took off down the trail in front of me. “Holy shit, George, that was stupid. You need to pay attention.” I am thinking “bear” so much, I do not see “moose.” I start walking again–there is only this one narrow trail out of there–and have just the time to tell myself “you don’t want to make THAT mistake twice,” when BOOM–same moose explodes a second time out of the trailside as I come over a little crest.
We’re both stuck now. With a steep slope down to the lake on my right or up the mountain on my left, this little path is the only avenue for anything larger than a chipmunk that wants to get away from anything. Clearly, this moose wants to get away from me, and I’d pretty much like to get away from him. So now I’m walking slowly forward, calling softly “hey, moose; hey, moose,” and every fifty feet or so there he is, shocked and offended that I’m still there. He’s bolting off, I’m trying to get to Glenns Lake, and I’m hoping he doesn’t decide he’d really rather get away from me by going the other way down the trail and over me.
We finally worked it out. I’d walk, he’d bolt, and I could hear him stressing, making these deep little “huff, huff” noises, but we both, together, eventually made it to the foot of Elizabeth Lake where he was able to get off the trail and let me pass. I was happy for him.
I decided to stop thinking “bear.” If I didn’t notice a moose standing right in front of me, how did I expect to see a bear half its size? “Do not seek the bear”–there’s this little Zen master voice I start hearing inside my head after a few days out–“let the bear come to you.” After a pause, I just shook my head and said “that’s the stupidest thing you’ve thought in a while.”
The trail up to and down the other side of Ptarmigan Pass
It’s not as if big animals are jumping out of the shrubbery every 100 yards, but after bumping into a moose once or twice you realize that you have probably already walked right past a couple of bears and mountain lions and mountain goats without seeing them. Conversely, the smaller creatures–the martins and birds and marmots–you have to wonder why you see them so much when there is so much else out there ready to eat them. Walking the trail up to Ptarmigan Pass, I came upon–wait for it–a ptarmigan! You’d think a delicious giant quail would fly the heck away, but this one just stood there and told its chicks to join it in the path of a giant omnivore.
I eventually had to shoo them away from my boots so I could continue. All I could think afterward was “I feel like a fraud right now.I really need to look in the dictionary when I get home. I don’t know if it’s the “p” or the “t” that’s silent in “ptarmigan,” and enunciating them both about half-way is cowardly. I need to stop thinking about this bird” Even typing both the “p” and the “t” right now feels dishonest. “Ptarmigan.” What a stupid word.
A friend still in the dive business, still in New Caledonia, posted this on Facebook recently. I’m guessing he went up to Hienghene from Noumea to dive (even diving several times every day as a job, it’s still something you want to do on your free time), and got this shot.
He is on a dive site called Dongan Hienghu, and it is an extraordinary spot on this Earth, a concentration of intense, burning, roaring life. And I found it. It was mine.
So much of living makes me laugh, and as I packed my gear for another trip to Glacier I laughed when I looked at my pile of gear and thought of this picture of the reef. I have this big, unorganized mess of stuff, but I don’t own anything I don’t need, so I know that I just have to drag out my pile and pack it, and I’m ready to go.
How I get all that stuff into that pack always surprises me. I never carry more than 35 pounds of gear, and as time goes by I seem to have space left over in my pack that I didn’t in years past. And of course when I return there is even less. All of the “consumables” are gone: those things I carry to nourish and sustain me during the short time I carry all that matters on my back. Nothing is left but dirty and smelly gear, gear that will be cleaned and put in a new pile and be ready for me the next time I want to go. There will be no trace of this trip. Like snow on a rail.
I have written several times about how I discovered Dongan Hienghu (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2018/04/28/dongan-hiengu/) . I found several extraordinary dive sites off the coast of Hienghene, but Dongan–you really need to know what you’re doing to even believe that it could be there. So to see this post on Facebook, with no mention of the history of Dongan Hienghu–no mention of who found it–was surprisingly painful. I talked about it with my wife, and because she is French she explained that someone would have found it eventually anyway. The French embrace the hopelessness of existence, but I cling–much like a butterfly that thinks it has discovered flowers–to the idea that my time here matters.
My pack is ready now, and this is going to be a big trip. My biggest yet, if we are talking aspirations and ambitions. But as my friend Rob Graham once said, “every time you’re out there doing something pretty badass, someone else comes along doing something really badass”–plenty of people can and have done what I am doing. Nonetheless, it’s a big deal for me, in great part because I know the meaning is ephemeral, something I will experience and then it will be gone forever, changing nothing of the mountains I walk through, but changing so much about me. Much like finding Dongan Hienghu, I suppose.
Dongan Hienghu is the most beautiful spot on Earth. But if I had never found it so that it could be seen, would it still be “beautiful”? Of course, it would still be there, and all that life would still roar, but what would that mean if no one ever saw it? I wonder if I have placed my emphasis on the wrong set of expectations.
Several years ago, I was playing around on Google Earth, and looked at Dongan Hienghu. You can see the reef in the middle of Hienghu Pass, but you have to know what extends out into the pass from the reef to find Dongan. I zoomed in on Google Earth, and there was my little boat, all alone, moored above all that life. If you go to Google Earth today, those images have been updated–there is no sign of my boat, or of me on that boat. But you also cannot see those hidden pinnacles now, as if they do not exist.
“Weather is one of the things that goes on without you, and after a certain amount of living it is bracing to contemplate the many items not dependent upon you for their existence.” Thomas McGuane, Weather
Where I live, we do not observe the changing Autumn leaves with melancholy, or wait out the cold, dark Winter, or burst with life at the coming of Spring. We have days short and reasonably cold, and then days long and unreasonably hot. But I know there are seasons up high, and my year turns around following the melting snow, and beating the first flakes of September, and seizing the moments between that new life and the long, silent sleep that follows. You can confirm an entire life in that breach.
And here I am, inside my tent, waiting out the rain. Wind River surprised me with the quantity of water I’d have to deal with, water in every facet of your day. Rivers to ford. Melting glaciers pouring water across and along the trail. Biblical plague-level mosquitoes. And light rain showers every evening as the clouds spun by mountains cooling at the end of the day.
Backpacking is full of ironies. I stop to rest in the shade during a long hike, worried that I won’t find a good place to camp before nightfall, and suddenly realize that there are no mosquitoes, there is a breeze across this small patch of flat ground, and I am sitting in a perfect spot to pitch my tent. And the instant my tent is up, the breeze stops and mosquitoes swarm. They are undeterred by pants and long-sleeves, requiring me to don my rain gear to eat. They cover my spoonful of food before it reaches my mouth, and blowing them off just sends one up my nose. I blink, and trap one squirming between my eyelids. Ironic.
Wind River mosquitoes do not care where you are. There are mosquitoes in mountain passes. There are mosquitoes in the morning, at noon, and at night. There is a smaller species that swarms the instant you stop moving, requiring you to pace back and forth to eat your dinner at the end of the day, when all you want to do is sit down and rest. And there is a larger, malevolent species which you will not see until you are zipped safely inside your tent. You will look out the mesh entrance, and they will have covered it and filled the tent foyer, waiting until you need to come out to pee. In Wind River, you will have the unanticipated opportunity to kill a mosquito with a snowball.
I hadn’t realized it from my reading or from studying the map, but there are two roaring rivers pouring into Island Lake, both of which you will have to ford. You cannot believe the quantity of water released by the melting snow up high. You see entire mountainsides covered in snow, and waterfalls at their bases pouring out millions of gallons of melt-water, without a hint of diminishing snow cover. As I came up to the first ford, there was a guy standing there, eyeing me suspiciously, which is a strange sensation when you feel so entirely immersed in original innocence and wonder. I greeted him, noticed that he was wearing a holstered Glock handgun, with the safety snap undone. I wanted to know why anyone would feel the need to carry a weapon in this place, but kept my mouth shut. I marveled at the irony.
We talked about where we were standing, about the mountains, and he was amazed that I was solo. “Aren’t you afraid?” I just said “no,” but didn’t ask of what. As I started to leave, he said “wait a minute, I want to show you something,” and pulled out his iPhone to show me pictures of his trip last year to Yosemite as we stood there, surrounded by mountains. Ironic.
To make it out and back home, I needed to leave my hidden campsite above Island Lake on Saturday, which would get me within a day’s hike of the trailhead that evening, my car, and the two hour drive to the airport at Jackson and my plane home. I woke up at sunrise, thought “there’s no rush today, I’ll sleep another hour,” but when I woke again I could hear light rain falling. It is not easy crawling out of a cozy tent into rain, so I lay there another 15 minutes. Unfortunately enough time for a wall of cold air to pass through my plateau and bring on a hard rain. Now I was suddenly in trouble.
Luckily I’d slept with my pack inside my tent (I was not worried about bears; this would never have worked in Glacier National Park), and was able to pack all my gear while covered. But once I started taking down the tent, my shelter itself would get soaked, and I didn’t want to try and sleep inside a wet tent that night. And so I waited, angry at myself for sleeping in, watching the time, setting a limit of 11 a.m. if I was going to get far enough to make it out the next day.
I think about a lot of things as I walk, but mostly I think “don’t mess up.” You feel so small and insignificant surrounded by mountains indifferent to your existence. You feel humbled by water that shapes rocks over spans of time incomprehensible to you. Backpacking solo is a very selfish enterprise, and it is a gift to be able to receive that kind of understanding. But during the time alone you understand how many people you carry along with you, and how some depend on you coming safely back. And so at 11 a.m. sharp, rain still pouring down, I angrily got out of my tent, broke it down–rain-soaked and heavy–and headed down the drainage, back onto the map, and down the trail out. Five minutes later, the rain stopped.
I’m standing near the deep end of Titcomb Basin, a tiny, tiny speck surrounded by these enormous mountains, feeling like the Ice Age never ended, and a twenty-year old girl saw instantly who I was: “Did you have an ice axe?”
After turning around at the foot of Knapsack Col, I’d hiked back down toward Peak Lake, past Stroud Glacier and its thundering waterfall. I’d heard that there was a great campsite up there, but who’d want to sleep with that constant roar? Fifteen miles later, I came into Titcomb through the front door, like a normal person. And here I was, once again, well past the end of the actual trail, seeing what that “hard” side of Knapsack was going to look like when I ran into some of those rare, incredible people you meet far from the trailhead.
I hadn’t seen anyone except a Forest Service trail maintenance crew since passing Island Lake, so I was surprised to see these two coming out of the dead-end of Titcomb, each carrying full-size climber’s packs, at least a 70-lb load. “Did you guys just come over Knapsack?” I asked, because I thought that was the only way into that deep end of Titcomb. I suddenly felt guilty about aborting my own attempt. He was tiny and dry and wiry and smiling and very alive, and standing there like he was walking the dog with that pack on his back. “No, we just did Gannett,” which did not compute at the moment, because Gannett Peak is the highest point in Wyoming at 13,810 feet, and would have required going straight up from there to the Continental Divide through all that snow that had stopped me lower down, navigating between Mammoth, Dinwoody, and Mirror Glaciers and over Glacier Pass, and then summiting Gannett. With those packs. Did I mention that he was at least 70 years old?
That’s when I explained my attempt on the other side, and the girl–who I’m going to assume was his granddaughter–looked straight into my eyes and asked the question which I had learned by this point was obvious: no, I did not have Charles’s ice ax. I am thinking hard, but I can’t recall ever meeting women like this anywhere other than far past a trailhead. For some reason, she made me think of Sandra Day O’Connor, a woman who knew precisely who she was. Grandfather cut the tension when I explained that it had been two days earlier, when the storm passed. “Oh, yes, that was a heck of storm to be up high. We were up on Dinwoody and had to come all the way out. Let me tell you, we drank some brews that night!” That’s the second time an old-timer has mentioned the joy of beer after a long spell up high ( https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/georgeschools.wordpress.com/2336 ), making me feel much better about my own love of beer. If I can just end up like these guys, I’ll be alright. He had that pure, unpretentious love for being alive, being outdoors, for the gift of beer. Or, as Barry Lopez wrote of the Eskimos, “that quality of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive.” The girl just stared at me silently, a look of contempt tinged with pity, and I loved her for that.
I am always amazed at the trails in our National Parks and Forests. I look at them and think “how did they ever do this?” So I was happy to run into the trail crew earlier on my way in. I stopped and talked to the guy who appeared to be in charge–he seemed slightly older and had the fullest, bushiest beard. There were two pack horse trains there in the process of resupplying them, and I watched these 20-somethings digging and lifting and working together, smiling in the rain and mud. He asked where I was going, said they’d be there three days and then move to another section, we talked about the trail, and I thanked him for what they were doing, which seemed to surprise him. “Hey, do you have any recommendations for a good place to camp down there?” I asked as I was leaving. You’d be surprised, but you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere. You need some flat ground, access to water, but you have to obey the rules and stay at least 200 feet away from a trail or a lake. “Well, right there at the eastern tip of the lake, there’s a little trail veering off from the main trail that’s not on the map. Follow it up, and a mile or two in you’ll find a really cool spot.” Excited, I thanked him and the crew again, started to take off, and then he paused, looked at me out of the corner of his eye, and asked “do you have a good map?” I knew what was coming. I was so happy. I felt like I had just been accepted into the cool kids group.
He told me to keep going when that trail ran out. Just keep going, higher and farther, following the drainage, which actually turned out to be more like hiking up a waterfall. He said “you’ll eventually camp overlooking Wall Lake, there definitely won’t be anyone else, and it will be amazing.” Trail people are amazing.