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?”

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