Part II: The Chances

Day 4: Boulder Pass to Hole-in-the-Wall

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!”

Beargrass in bloom along the trail

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.

Brown Pass, the dip on the left

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.

The view from the trail

More purple poop, very fresh

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?”

Part I: Suddenly, Nothing Happened

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.

Hole-in-the-Wall, perched in a basin above a sheer cliff, surrounded by mountains

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.

Boulder Pass and the basin below

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.

View from the top, although you really have to turn 360 degrees–to be there–to get it.

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.”

The trail leading from my tent

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.