Literally everyone I met had had a daily bear encounter by my fourth day in the Glacier backcountry. Everyone but me. Maybe I was trying too hard. Perhaps, it was just not yet my time.
I am hiking fast from the head of Elizabeth Lake, up the Belly River drainage and then a ford to Cosley Lake to my next campsite at Glenns Lake. “Avoid surprising a bear,” the Ranger said, which sounded like good life advice. Just let them know you are coming, and you avoid most of the problems.
I am striding along, looking out for bear, staying out of trouble, and BOOM I walk into the ass of a 1,000 pound bull moose. How I could not see this enormous thing, I do not understand, but the trail exploded and the moose took off down the trail in front of me. “Holy shit, George, that was stupid. You need to pay attention.” I am thinking “bear” so much, I do not see “moose.” I start walking again–there is only this one narrow trail out of there–and have just the time to tell myself “you don’t want to make THAT mistake twice,” when BOOM–same moose explodes a second time out of the trailside as I come over a little crest.
We’re both stuck now. With a steep slope down to the lake on my right or up the mountain on my left, this little path is the only avenue for anything larger than a chipmunk that wants to get away from anything. Clearly, this moose wants to get away from me, and I’d pretty much like to get away from him. So now I’m walking slowly forward, calling softly “hey, moose; hey, moose,” and every fifty feet or so there he is, shocked and offended that I’m still there. He’s bolting off, I’m trying to get to Glenns Lake, and I’m hoping he doesn’t decide he’d really rather get away from me by going the other way down the trail and over me.
We finally worked it out. I’d walk, he’d bolt, and I could hear him stressing, making these deep little “huff, huff” noises, but we both, together, eventually made it to the foot of Elizabeth Lake where he was able to get off the trail and let me pass. I was happy for him.
I decided to stop thinking “bear.” If I didn’t notice a moose standing right in front of me, how did I expect to see a bear half its size? “Do not seek the bear”–there’s this little Zen master voice I start hearing inside my head after a few days out–“let the bear come to you.” After a pause, I just shook my head and said “that’s the stupidest thing you’ve thought in a while.”
The trail up to and down the other side of Ptarmigan Pass
It’s not as if big animals are jumping out of the shrubbery every 100 yards, but after bumping into a moose once or twice you realize that you have probably already walked right past a couple of bears and mountain lions and mountain goats without seeing them. Conversely, the smaller creatures–the martins and birds and marmots–you have to wonder why you see them so much when there is so much else out there ready to eat them. Walking the trail up to Ptarmigan Pass, I came upon–wait for it–a ptarmigan! You’d think a delicious giant quail would fly the heck away, but this one just stood there and told its chicks to join it in the path of a giant omnivore.
I eventually had to shoo them away from my boots so I could continue. All I could think afterward was “I feel like a fraud right now. I really need to look in the dictionary when I get home. I don’t know if it’s the “p” or the “t” that’s silent in “ptarmigan,” and enunciating them both about half-way is cowardly. I need to stop thinking about this bird” Even typing both the “p” and the “t” right now feels dishonest. “Ptarmigan.” What a stupid word.