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.Carlos Casteneda
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.
That’s a bear story.
No one can account for every variable nature throws at you. After years on the trail what lesson/wisdom can you impart from this experience?
I just finished the last story about this trip, trying to answer that question. Briefly, 24 hours later, after a hot shower and a clean bed and lots of meat and fat, I was ready to go again after a few equipment adjustments. After being pretty sure I was going to die.
Far out…bear are where THEY find you…been up at Elizabeth and Cosley in Th Belly River area, only saw a blackie, I asked could I take his pic from 30 or so feet,and if so please pose..he stopped,turned my way, And posed. Itold him thanks brother, and immediately he countinued on his merry way…the moose was up at th very SE end of Elizabeth in th water….watched her n th calf for a long time…liked your Bandelier tale..I had some strange instances out there on quite a few trips. When this stuff ends here in th Austin area, Let’s get together over a brew and swap stories!
Thanks for your kind comments. Looking forward to future trips–probably not Glacier again (this past summer’s trip was my third), but planning contingencies for the coming snowmelt. Yes, the current situation is giving me claustrophobia, so looking forward to better days ahead. Happy Trials.