(this is a long one, so grab a beer and break it up)
Two Medicine to Oldman Lake
They take their grizzly bears very seriously in Glacier National Park. Up until now, my trip planning had always centered around not killing myself: don’t get lost, don’t run out of water, don’t freeze to death. Now, my entire visit was planned around not getting killed by something else. It was disconcerting.
The Rangers make you watch a 15-minute video before giving you your backcountry permit, covering everything you could want to know about not getting eaten by a grizzly: never store, prepare, or eat food near where you sleep (my mom had the same rule). Make noise as you hike so you don’t surprise the 500 pound carnivore. Carry bear spray ($40). And never hike alone (Oops). They let me know as I was leaving that a grizzly had been seen several times in the last few days on the first part of the trail I was hiking, said goodbye, and shuffled me out the door. (For the history behind the NPS effort to minimize bears eating people, read the true story of what it was like before ).
Near the Glacier trailheads, where you will pass people out for a day hike, you will not hear the roar of bears and the trumpeting of elk. What you will hear is clapping hands and “hey, bear!” shouted so as not to surprise the 500 pound carnivore, and you quickly understand you will not see any living animal if you don’t get far away. I had spent my adult life outdoors trying not to make noise so that I could see as many large animals as possible, and here I was bracketed by people making sure I wouldn’t see any, all on the theoretical and minute possibility that we might be attacked, torn to pieces and eviscerated, and then eaten while still conscious by a bear. Disconcerting.
But then–having departed with the certainty that Glacier is crawling with grizzly bears, and then not seeing any within the first few miles–you gradually feel duped, as if it was all some sort of Montana joke they play on the tourists. You stop clapping your hands as you approach a blind curve in the trail, stop wondering how your friends and family would react to the news of your being eaten. Funny how the mind works. You start seeing the land for its beauty, not its danger. I made it to my first camp at Oldman Lake in about 3 hours, an easy hike in for my first day with only 2,000 feet of elevation gain. I had plenty of time to set up camp and familiarize myself with the food storage/anti-grizzly system: stick everything scented in a stuff sac and hang it between two trees, far from your tent.Excited to see all there was, I hiked up tomorrow’s trail to Pitamakan Pass. It’s nice to hike without carrying the tent and sleeping bag, just the minimum to not die should things go wrong–as they sometimes do–like water and a little food. And bear spray.I meet the most wonderful people outdoors. At the top of Pitamakan I met a young guy from North Carolina through-hiking the CDT. It was sort of weird at first, because there was just me, standing at the top of this huge pass and looking down at the lakes and forests on the other side I’d pass through tomorrow. And suddenly, out of nowhere, he was standing there too, about 20 feet away and also just looking quietly down the other side. “Ahem, uh, nice view, isn’t it?,” which is how you start a conversation when someone suddenly appears next to you atop an 8,000 foot pass on the Continental Divide. We chatted a bit, and then this guy–who’d left the border with Mexico on April 2, had walked 3,000 miles, and was now within maybe 100 miles of the CDT terminus–this kid tells me that he’d heard Dawson Pass was pretty awesome and so he was going to head off in that direction for a look instead of continuing down my path on the CDT. I realize an extra 20 miles or so is maybe no big deal after you’ve walked 3,000, but once again a CDT through-hiker had blown me away with his awesomeness. I decided I needed to see Dawson Pass before I returned home.
At Oldman I shared dinner with two brothers–one who worked in the Park, the other who was the success of the family and taught “corporate team building” around the world–and within minutes of conversation we’d bonded over our mutual love of coffee. Excited to wake up the next morning and drink coffee, we shared our meals and headed off to our tents–no one said it, but we all understood that the sooner we went to sleep, the sooner we could wake up and drink coffee. Life is much simpler, outdoors.
The view from Pitamakan north down the other side toward Atlantic Creek and next day’s hike.
Pitamakan Pass to Triple Divide Pass
The next day’s trip down the other side to Atlantic Creek was easy enough, although as the descent continued I began to wonder just how far down I would have to go before I started back up another pass. I believe that was the longest downhill stretch I have ever hiked, which sounds good but that downhill walking is pretty hard on the feet, knees, and quads. I heard elk bugling in the trees, unseen but close, during the entire segment. How creatures so big and so loud can be invisible is something I marvel at constantly outdoors.
I arrived at Atlantic Creek with plenty of daylight left, and so decided to hike up a few miles to Medicine Grizzly Lake. It is a beautiful hike, and dead-ends in a glacial cirque, so it is not on the way to anywhere and is not visited much. On my way in I stopped to look at a stand of dead pine trees, all inclined at the same angle away from the mountainside behind them, the result of an avalanche some time in the past. Standing there, reconstructing in my mind’s eye the long ago avalanche, I suddenly noticed something moving in the background, and realized I was looking at a grizzly bear with two cubs, walking back and forth on the scree field between the trees and the mountainside.
You can see the momma grizzly in the bare patch slightly left of and below center. One of the cubs is to her left.
On my way back out, the bears weren’t there anymore, but I realized there was a trail on the mountainside that the bears had been walking on. “That must be a game trail they use all the time up there.” It looked inaccessible, and so I guessed that they were able to walk around undisturbed on that mountainside for generations, gradually wearing a trail into the rock.
I did not realize at the time that they were actually walking on the trail I would take the next morning up and over Triple Divide Pass.
Triple Divide Pass and Beyond
When you have seen a grizzly bear the day before on the precise spot you are walking past, everything suddenly looks like prime grizzly habitat. I was no longer embarrassed to clap my hands and yell “hey bear!” as I followed the trail up to Triple Divide Pass. Once again, how something that big can become invisible the next day–I knew it was around there, somewhere–just amazes me. Looking down from the trail toward Medicine Grizzly Lake, I saw moose and deer moving through the brush just off the trail I had walked the day before, unseen to me then. Just amazing.
From the top of Triple Divide I stopped. I stopped for a long time, which is not something I do often. I do not have any pictures from Triple Divide, because my hands were too cold and I dropped my camera so many times that it wouldn’t focus. But mostly I just wanted to stand there, in that precise spot. I have never felt so perfectly in the place I was supposed to be–that exact spot–in my entire life. I knew I could not stay there long, but it filled me up.
Down from Triple Divide you follow the Hudson Bay Creek drainage, and if you’ve seen the film “Grizzly Man” you will feel little doubt that you will not make it out the other end. The trail is tightly hemmed by thick brush and stunted trees, and my constant thought was “if I was a grizzly bear, this is exactly the kind of place I would live.” The long trail out Hudson Bay Creek and on to Red Eagle Creek and Lake was uneventful, accompanied only by the tiny white specks of mountain goats, high up on the mountains both east and west of my path. I cannot imagine what their days are like. The moose, down in the bottoms with me, lounged down low in the willows, so much so that after a while I would stop a moment whenever I came to a low spot and see if I could pick out a moose, and in the right frame of mind I’d almost always find one.
If you look at the map of this part of the trail, the feature you will see mentioned most often is “falls,” printed in glacier-melt blue. So much water, falling, falling. The time of my passage was inconsequential, without meaning in the long arc of time and place, but you could feel the water falling without end, even during the frozen white winter, the water poised in place waiting to continue its fall.
I met more wonderful people along this part of the trail. A Welsh couple, wearing rain gear for the Scottish Highlands that they looked like they were born in. The middle aged lady with the French press coffee maker, brewing up pots of coffee for everyone underneath the pines beside the fog enshrouded lake! “Who wants another cup? It’s really no problem. No problem at all.” Jim and Tom, from Wisconsin, Jim being older than me and Tom quite younger. I met them at Atlantic Creek my second night, and ran into them again at No Name Lake much later. You knew Jim had had a full life, and wasn’t done yet. And Susan, suddenly there beside me next to the water at Upper Two Medicine Lake, fog so dense it wanted to become rain. Her red parka, no gear other than her camera, equipped only with an enormous smile. She was so happy to have arrived at that spot. “Oh, I envy you. I want to stay here, this is so beautiful,” she beamed. I didn’t understand the whole scenario, but her husband and son had continued back to Winnipeg with the tent but without her, it was too late and too far if she was planning on hiking out to a trailhead before dark, and she didn’t seem concerned about where she’d sleep. A golden eagle flew over us, my first ever. I tried to tell her that I was sure there was a moose just down the shore from where we stood, an easy picture, but she just wanted to stand there in the fog and mist and take it all in, smiling.
I will never see any of those people again. The moose, the elk, the mountain goats, the grizzly. The water. None of that will be there when and if I return to Glacier, replaced by others. But the place will always be there, and from this spot in time, I would like to return. Perhaps up around Many Glacier, where I had originally planned to go. Or maybe start up around Kintla Lake in the northwest corner, if I could figure out how to get there. It is a beautiful thing, to want to get to a place that is difficult to get to, and know it is possible if I am willing to give up other easier, less important things. I did not know that Kintla, which is on the North Fork of the Flathead River, is a major corridor for game as it migrates north and south. What a wonderful world to live in, where game still migrates along corridors, north and south.