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.
Its about time you did a real through hike.
Well, I’m honest with myself–I am only interested in hiking the good parts. If the Ansel Adams Wilderness began at the Mexico border and extended to Canada, I’d be all in. But hiking 1,000 miles of desert and scrub just so I could get to the parts I really like? Prolly not. My time is limited, in so many ways.
Curious. Have you noticed first hand the receding of glaciers from where you hiked years ago? Two thoughts – “stop being a pussy,” reminds me of something a red neck says just before he dies and “something is always happening, you’re just not seeing it” would make a wonderful statement on your tombstone.
Sure, just in the brief time I have seen the glaciers in Wind River and Glacier NP, they are clearly disappearing. And as far as my death, as I wrote, the math is different for each of us. I still remember quite vividly thinking I was going to die in circumstances I won’t go into right after the birth of my first son. I still had a lot I expected to do in life, and was not ready to go. But now I am almost 62, and my life has been very interesting, but I understand realistically that it will inevitably become less so as my body gradually becomes incapable of taking me where I am engaged. So I have to seize what opportunities present themselves, and resist the pleasant dropping away of desire to push the envelope. It is very, very easy to let yourself get old–just stop realistically evaluating what your body and mind are still capable of, and instead say “I’m too old for this.”