“Bear!” I shout while jamming my index finger into the windshield hard enough to hurt.
Crossing the road just ahead of our truck is an enormous specimen with rich chocolate fur; a male black bear in the absolute prime of its life. Due to his size, I nearly mistook it for its larger cousin. In fact, this bear is as large as a sow grizzly we recently encountered in Yellowstone. Somewhere between the thin, ratty look of spring and the comically rotund appearance bears assume near hibernation time, this brute is lean and mean.
In a few quick strides, the creature is across the road and into the rain-forest like foliage framing our drive through the southeast portion of Glacier National Park. I stop our Toyota even with where the bear just vanished and we see him ambling down a concealed, overgrown trail. The imposing animal slowly swings his massive head around to look back at us, his dark eyes betraying an indifferent assessment of our presence. This bear has clearly seen its share of tourists gawking at it from within the safe confines of their vehicles.
My wife and I, on the other hand, are nearing our trailhead about to embark on a thirty mile backpacking trek though his territory. And, while this bear is formidable enough, it’s Glacier’s healthy population of grizzlies that will keep us on our toes during the day and sleeping lightly at night. Jamie and I exchange a knowing glance before returning our attention to the bear. Somehow managing to look bored with our brief interaction, the hairy beast turns his back to us and steps off the trail instantly disappearing in the dense greenery.
“Better hope he doesn’t pay you a visit,” says a voice laced with concern from the backseat of our big truck. Jamie’s mom has accompanied us on our vacation to Glacier and after dropping us off at the trail head, will pick us up four days later on the other side. She worries incessantly about her daughter every time we backpack in grizzly country, which means, she gets to worry a lot. For some reason, if there aren't animals around that can readily devour me, I just don't consider myself “in the wild.” I do my best to convince Joan that I am a professional bear wrestler and mountain lion tamer, but she doesn't buy it.
“We’ll be fine, Mom,” Jamie says, “You know the odds of a violent encounter are slim to none. Hell, if we do see one it will probably be barely visible through our binoculars.”
“Maybe,” she counters, “but nobody thinks they’ll be a statistic until they are one.”
A few minutes and a couple goodbyes later we are on the trail. Like the road, our path is hemmed in by a variety of lush flowers, weeds, ferns, stinging nettle, and best of all, huckleberry bushes bearing rich, purple berries. We also realize the climate is much more humid than what we are used to. Our Boise home is basically a concrete, plastic, and steel barrier between the northern mountains and southern deserts. As such, we receive a meager amount of rain fall despite living in the “City of Trees.” The air is dry and our summers are hot. Glacier, on the other hand, is relatively cool and muggy, at least until you hit the windier and more alpine climate found near the summits of the park's peaks.
Every state in the union has a saying about the weather, suggesting that if you don't like it all you have to do is wait five minutes. We say it in Idaho all the time, but the old adage might actually apply to Glacier National Park. Intense rain, sleet, hail, and snow pound the area on a frequent basis and these storms can erupt at any time. Even during the peak backpacking months of July and August, hikers must be prepared. Jamie and I have our waterproof gear safely tucked away. For now, the big Montana sky is a deep blue ocean hanging overhead while the relentless sun cooks my shaved scalp.
“I'd settle for a breeze,” I say while fanning myself with my bandana.
“Just be glad most of the mosquitoes have died off, or we'd be jogging through this sauna.”
“Should we stop at some point and gather huckles?”
“When we get closer to our first campsite,” Jamie answers. “Can you imagine how they'll taste with the dinner?”
Like most backpackers, we eat a lot of dehydrated meals, but on the first night of any trek, we spoil ourselves with something that only needs to last in an unrefrigerated environment for a couple hours. Tonight's dish is Jamie's gourmet, barbequed meatballs; a fifty-fifty blend of organic beef and sausage livened up with ample amounts of chopped leaks. As the sweaty, jungle-like march wears on, I start to imagine I can smell the feast inside my backpack.
Our first campsite, Park Creek, is only seven miles into the wilderness, but considering the late start and swampy conditions, we are happy for the short trek and even happier to find the site deserted. Glacier is different than most national parks with an emphasis on backpacking in the sense that they lump different backcountry parties together in a close area containing multiple tent sites. Hikers want solitude and that is what most parks deliver, but Glacier believes in keeping people together for safety and convenience. And speaking of convenient, every site has a pit toilet, an accommodation rarely found this deep in the wild.
Park Creek is vacant because it isn't amongst the glory hikes so relentlessly pursued by the fervent backpacking sect. It wasn't our first choice either and we had arrived at the backcountry office to obtain the required permit over an hour early only to find a line already formed. Worse had been knowing that several of these stations existed throughout the park, so there were people ahead of us in other lines as well.
Not to be caught with her pants down, my wife mapped out several hikes before our turn at the computer. All the hikes from the legendary Garden Wall and Dawson Pass were booked. We had to settle for a two day slog through the rainforest before a brutally steep ascent would ultimately lead to the epic mountain views unique to this glorious landscape scarred by unimaginable ice-sheets. Only a handful of the glaciers still remain; the namesake of the park nearly extinct.
As a pair of natural recluses, the unoccupied site serves as ample reward for our sweaty march. Following proper bear protocol, we defy the temptation to pick a site before the possible arrival of other hikers, and head straight for the food prep area. After securing our edibles in a sack and raising them up the bear pole, Jamie and I walk past the camp's outhouse and settled for the most removed of the three tent areas. The sleeping spots, the pit toilet, and the food prep area are all connected by a series of hard-packed dirt trails. As a child, I'd already have invented an elaborate game of tag utilizing the mazelike paths through the chest high undergrowth nearly hiding Park Creek from the main trail.
Our day's hike had paralleled the babbling creek and after squaring our tent and gear away, we take advantage of the crystal clear water by stripping naked and rolling around in the shallow flow until our bodies are clean and refreshingly chilled. The warm sun, cool stream, and bug free afternoon leads to a long, pleasurable, dalliance; our bare bodies soaking up the rays and rich forest fragrance. After a final rinse, we reluctantly apply a clean layer of clothes.
“Did you feel like we were being watched,” Jamie suddenly asks while wrapping a towel around her hair. I pretend to glance nervously about and then chuckle.
“You know, now that you mention it,” I say.
“Seriously,” she continues, “I swear there was something.”
“I must have been concentrating on other things... and now I'm starving.”
After swinging by our tent to drop off our dirty and wet clothes, we head to the food prep area. There is a small bundle of wood in the fire pit, but having just bathed, we decide to forgo any smoky campfires for the evening. I lower the sack of food from the bear pole and pull out a zip-lock bag of trail mix while Jamie lights the gas stove and dumps the wad of pre-cooked meatballs into a small pot. Instantly, the smell of sizzling meat and barbeque sauce infiltrates our senses and we barely wait for them to warm before falling on a plateful like two salivating dogs.
Twilight descends over the valley as we put the finishing touches on cleaning the kitchen area and once again raising our food sack to the recommended fifteen feet. We stop at the pit toilet on the way back to our tent and each stands guard while the other takes care of business. Tired from the walk, and full from our meal, neither of us experiences any trouble falling into a deep sleep.
What feels like seconds later, I startle awake and sit bolt upright with the cold hand of dread squeezing my heart. Something is wrong, but my foggy brain is still trying to collect itself. It is the pitch black night of a new moon and I see nothing outside the mesh walls of our backpacking tent save the dark outlines of the closest walls of bushes. What woke me up? It wasn’t a nightmare, or I’d have some vague recollection of the dream. Jamie’s calm, measured breathing is an immediate relief and I am about to lay back down when I hear the sound, no doubt the same noise that first woke me up, a sound that raises every hair on the back of my neck and causes my heart to leap into my throat. It is the forced, guttural exhale of a very large animal.
“What was that?”
Jamie’s hissing whisper causes me to flinch involuntarily. Obviously, my wife has joined me on full-alert. Before I can answer, we hear the loud blast of breath again. The animal is sending out a deliberate vocalization as if to announce its presence, concern, or possibly, its agitation. I appreciate Jamie asking a question and making it seem as if there is some other possibility (a rabid moose, perhaps?), but it is a sound we both recognize from a lifetime of research and a general fascination with Rocky Mountain wildlife.
I once inadvertently agitated a mother black bear while attending a Boy Scout Camp in the Frank Church: River of No Return Wilderness. While fleeing for my life, and leaving the slower boys in the dust, I remember being captivated by the almost human infant like cry it gurgled before charging. The animal in our camp sounds nothing like that vivid recollection. Somewhere near the food prep area, maybe sixty feet from our tent as the crow flies, but more like a hundred following the trails through camp, the breathing intensifies.
“Take a guess. Shhhh.”
We both listen intently, simultaneously noting that other than the ragged breath sporadically piercing the calm, the dark forest is deathly silent. Moving quietly, I reach into the tent pocket near my feet, grab our can of bear spray, and remove the safety cap. Our camp has been invaded by none other than the king of the forest and sum root of all backpacker’s worse fears. Resting my thumb on the trigger, I do my best to peer beyond the stretched mosquito netting in the direction of our visiting grizzly.
I am certain the animal has already smelled us, but with the undergrowth so tall and thick, the bear can't see our tent. A surge of excitement laced terror races across my entire being and I can't tell if the smile creeping across my face is genuine or pathological. I've always wanted that up-close and personal experience with a grizzly, but I never imagined myself trapped in a tent on a moonless night while one came a knockin'.
As we listen, the grizzly begins to move, its irregular exhales gradually getting louder. With no audible disturbance of vegetation, the big bear has to be using the man-made trails to saunter through camp, surely following its nose to some culinary destination. We had followed all the rules though; there was nothing in our tents besides a couple bellies full of meatballs. From what I've read of bear’s keen sense of smell, there is a chance the grizzly can smell the food inside us, especially all slathered in barbeque sauce. I remember thinking the night's dinner was Jamie's idea when my wife whispers in my ear, her face so close and invisible in the pitch black that I nearly jump out of my skin and let loose the bear spray.
“It sounds like it's moving around behind us.”
“No way,” I finally say when my heart quits seizing, “It's using the trails in front of us.”
“I don't know how it isn't making noise in the bushes, but it's behind us,” Jamie insists while gripping my thigh with her hand.
The breathing becomes closer and closer until I am certain it is standing at the final branch in the trail, one path leading to the second tent area, the other right to our front door. Meanwhile, Jamie is thinking the bear is equally close, but somewhere behind us; somehow silently slithering through the jungle environment like a snake. For a few tense moments, the grizzly seems to stand in place, possibly deciding its course of action, until finally, the next blasted breath is fainter than the one before. Mercifully, the great bear gradually moves on until he no longer smells us, or is too far out of range for us to hear its huffing.
Too stunned to process what had just happened, Jamie and I say very little. We both slowly lay back down, still trying to make out any potentially alarming noises from the departing grizzly. Doubting I will sleep anytime soon, I decide to keep the bear spray in one hand. Showing her true Wyoming nature, I hear Jamie's breathing slowly slip into the familiar pattern of sleep. While my wife treats the grizzly encounter like a soothing hot spring soak, my blood is still flowing hot enough that I have to hang my upper body out of the sleeping bag to stay cool .
It isn't long before I too find my eyelids getting heavy from trying to keep them open. I'm not even certain what I hope to see in this moonless night, except maybe the faint light of dawn. Without a watch, I have no idea of the time. I am about to put an end to my guard duty when the sound I have been dreading punctuates the silence once again. Our grizzly is coming back. Not good. Up until now, I had assumed that once the bear had reached a point that it could verify humans were still in the area, it had decided to be on its way. Now I wasn't sure what to think.
“Dan, it's back.”
“I know,” I whisper, “because I didn't fall asleep.”
This time the bear sounds like it is on the path leading from the main trail right to all three tent sites, ours being the deepest spot in. Straightaway, the breathing again becomes louder and at a more rapid pace than before. From the sound, I estimate the grizzly has already passed the entrance to the first tent area.
“Jamie, I have to talk to the bear.”
I feel her uncertainty hang in the air between us. The sensation is emanating from me as well, but I see no other choice. On cue, the blasted exhale slices through the dark and silent forest, closer than we have heard before. The bear has reached the second site. Now or never...
“ALRIGHT BEAR,” I bark in the deepest, manliest voice I can summon, “THAT IS FAR ENOUGH. WE'RE NOT YOU DINNER TONIGHT. TIME TO BE ON YOUR WAY.”
Jamie backs me up with a meager “hey bear” that sounds like she is talking all cute to one of our cats back home. I stare at her in the dark with one eyebrow raised in an incredulous, “is that all you got” expression. We're trying to deter the bear, woman! We're not trying to convince it that we're weak hairless apes all wrapped up in a fabric tortilla!
The grizzly, now maybe twenty feet from our front door, lets out one final whoof that ends much more abruptly than the others and then the forest slips back into thick silence. I focus my efforts on hearing any sound at all, any clue as if to whether or not the bear is leaving, sitting quietly, or creeping even closer.
Although we never hear another sound from the bear, the rest of night’s sleep is a fitful one. Even Jamie tosses and turns never quite slipping back into a deep slumber. In the back of our minds, we keep expecting to hear the distinct huff of a disturbed grizzly blasting through the dark.
At first light, I quietly extract myself from the tent and stand to my full height trying to survey our campsite. Seeing nothing, I creep down the trail towards the other tent sites, carefully examining the ground for any sign of our intruder. I find a few distinct scratches in the hard-packed dirt, that may or may not have been the result of grizzly claws, but after a thorough search of the entire camp, I find no other evidence.
Maybe Jamie was right and the bear was moving around behind us, but I still don’t see how that would be possible without us hearing it; the undergrowth is just too thick for several hundred pounds of animal to slip through quietly. Maybe there is more to the great bear’s magic than I can comprehend. In any case, Jamie and I don’t even bother with breakfast. Glancing over our shoulders the entire time, we retrieve our sack of food, break down our tent, stuff our backpacks, and hit the trail, eager to leave the scene behind us.
Despite the early start we make poor time. Almost immediately, we notice the trail is lined with healthy berry plants. First, we find ample huckleberry bushes spotted with fruit so big, they resemble plump blueberries. We gorge ourselves as we walk, stopping every fifty feet or so to harvest more. Next we find thimbleberries, then wild strawberries, and finally succulent pink raspberries to round out our sweet and natural breakfast. I even go so far as to cram huckleberries inside the cavernous pits of the thimbleberry creating a sinful treat that leaves us both drooling.
Several times throughout the morning, as we descend on yet another fragrant patch of wild fruit, I find myself searching the nearby forest and shadows for any sign of bear activity. If any animal loves wild berries more than us, it’s bears. However, with the exception of a few piles of scat, I find no evidence of recent activity. For once, I am not overly disappointed about that fact; I guess last night’s encounter has momentarily satisfied my bear cravings.
The day’s eight mile hike winds up taking over five hours. Our berry picking pace is easily the slowest we have ever moved and my back aches from the constant bending over beneath the weight of my pack. I am also grumpy from having to push through the steamy and ever-thickening vegetation. By the time we have reached our second campsite, I am wishing more than anything that I had brought a couple machetes along. The hostile side of my personality wants nothing more than to decapitate plants until I can no longer lift my arms. No wonder people seek out the higher trails.
Upper Park Creek is very similar to Park Creek, not only in name but also appearance. Both are set down amongst the ferns and broad-leafed plants with the creek nearby. Both have three tent sites, a pit toilet, and a food prep area, which we locate first. On sawed stumps placed around the fire pit sit cups, utensils and pots, clean from the look of it, but still not what you want to see when entering a camp. Cooking gear should never be left unattended in the food area. Obviously, at least one of the sites is taken. Or, the previous occupants were drug off by grizzlies right after washing and neatly stacking their dishes. You never know.
“Maybe I’m still a little frazzled about last night, but not cool,” Jamie says while surveying the food prep area. “Might as well hang up an invite sign.”
“Let’s ditch our sack and snag a spot before we have to meet these clowns,” I suggest.
Looking around, I notice their green tent blending into the background, half hidden by the logs and bushes framing the site, no more than fifty feet away. I hold one index finger against my lips. With exaggerated and clownish movements we silently creep to the bear pole while trying not to laugh at each other. We emit a few squeaky snickers, but manage to raise our sack of food. Like the night before, we then search out the most removed tent site and quickly square away our camp. Also like the night before, we feel compelled by the sticky, smelly film covering our bodies to find a spot in the creek worthy of a quick dip.
After a few plunges, I am standing shin deep in the water and shivering when it’s my turn to experience the sensation of being watched. The feeling is acute and I slowly inspect our surroundings. I find nothing out of place, but it does little to quiet the perception.
“Do you feel like we’re being watched now?” I ask.
Jamie splashes water at me, her taut naked body shimmering in the sun. “Funny,” she says, before noticing the look on my face. “Why, do you?” she asks while subconsciously raising her arms to shield her torso.
“I’m sure it’s nothing… or, possibly a grizzly that has been following us all day. Maybe our visitor last night was what you felt yesterday down by the creek.”
Jamie begins to glance about in nervous fashion before catching herself with a quivering laugh. “Shut up, you’re freaking me the hell out. If anything, the neighbors are spying on us.”
“Only if they want to get stabbed,” I say loud enough for any would be voyeurs to hear.
After our bath, we change into clean and comfortable clothes and spend the remainder of the day lounging about camp reading, writing, hand-rolling smokes, gathering huckleberries for dinner, and taking note of the various birds flitting through the trees. From time to time, we hear faint murmurs from the other occupied site, but we make no effort to meet or even see the neighbors. We even wait for them to finish using the food prep area before we make our way over for dinner. The usually tolerable dehydrated sweet and sour pork actually becomes a treat after adding ample huckleberries to the hot mush.
As the evening shadows begin to lengthen, Jamie and I hang our bear bag and walk back to our tent area. I find myself feeling a bit anxious at the thought of another night in grizzly country. What if the bear really had followed us? Nah, surely just my imagination. Besides, now that we had another couple camped nearby, our odds of being the ones eaten were half what they were yesterday.
For the second night in a row, I sleep poorly. I cannot get the sound of the grizzly’s breathing out of my head. Every time I feel myself drifting off, I hear that noise echoing through my memory and my eyes snap open half expecting to see two glowing red orbs peering down at me from just beyond the flimsy mesh wall. Jamie feels it too and we toss and turn until we hear the chirping birds greeting another crisp mountain dawn. Rather than fight it any longer, we decide to get up, tear down camp, and hit the trail.
Just above and beyond our second camp, the trail begins an abrupt climb and almost immediately we rise out of the dense vegetation and into a more sparsely covered, almost alpine scene. For the first time in a couple of days, we can actually see the forest floor. The trail continues to steepen as we climb until the trees become scarce as well. On the exposed mountainside, the conditions are less muggy, but without any natural shade we are soon breathing hard and dripping sweat. Without a creek to follow, and no streams until we cross the divide, Jamie and I also have to conserve our water.
In less than five miles, we climb over 3,000 feet, until exhausted and parched, we collapse at the top for lunch and a panoramic, scenic view of Glacier’s jagged turquoise and pink peaks sitting atop long, steep talus slopes. An abundance of hematite and chlorite are responsible for the almost surreal green and pinkish hues of Montana’s mountains. Made from these local materials, even the roads of the Big Sky state have a light purple hue. From our vantage point, we can see the trail we climbed descending for miles back down to the forest floor from which we started the day. I follow the long snaking path with my eyes for as far as I can, a small part of me trying to confirm that we are not being followed by some determined grizzly.
After lunch, we hike another eight miles, but due to the steepness of the descent, Jamie and I jog half the distance. We find numerous clear streams to refill our portable water filtering plastic bottles, and even enjoy an afternoon break in the cooling mist of a beautiful waterfall. We are dog-tired by the time we reach our final camp on the shoreline of Upper Medicine Lake. At the base of a massive and steep picturesque cirque surrounding ninety percent of the glassy water, the lake is easily one of the most beautiful sights I have ever beheld.
Marring the scene, however, are a couple of dome tents already established in the site affording the best views. Again, the occupants are nowhere to be seen, but Jamie and I creep past anyway and settle for the next best location. Per our ritual, the tent is barely erected before we wrap towels around our naked bodies and head for the beach. We search the shores for any sign of an audience and notice a man fly fishing on the far side of the lake. Too far away to see anything, unless he pulls out a pair of binoculars, Jamie and I drop our towels and plunge into the cold water.
As I reemerge from my dive, I again feel the overpowering sensation of being watched. Standing up in the waist deep water, I again survey our surroundings and instantly notice movement from the occupied camp. An older woman is standing on the shore, making furtive and beckoning motions in the direction of the dome tents. Another woman and a grey haired man appear at her side, all three of them blatantly staring in our direction.
“We’re definitely being watched this time,” I grumble to Jamie whose eyes widen instantly in alarm.
Without trying to conceal my gestures, I point them out to my wife who proceeds to dip down in the water and crabwalk to shore. The nearby spectators continue to gawk as we make our way back to shore. Feeling annoyed and a little violated, I offer them a long look at my fully extended middle fingers. One of the women glances away for a split second before returning her shameless gaze.
“What the hell? Do I need to stab some old folks, or what? I might expect this from teenagers, but c’mon…?”
Their complete lack of discretion has me steamed. I mean, I can understand secretly spying on skinny dippers, or maybe stealing a couple glances in their direction, but I’ve never seen people stare is such an obvious and oblivious manner.
“Well, I guess that was a quick bath. How rude,” Jamie says while hiding behind me and her towel.
“Totally,” I say. “What’s this world come to when you can’t even trust old people to show a little respect. There might be another late night visitor coming through camp tonight, well, at least their camp, and I can guarantee it will be less civil than a grizzly bear.”
Jamie laughs. “No killing anyone , not this trip.”
“Are you sure? I think I can make it look like a bear attack.”
“Well, you can scare them and if nature decides that a heart attack is in their imminent future, so be it.”
I rub my hands together gleefully and take a last glance at the three onlookers. “That’s right, chumps,” I hiss. “There’s something far scarier than grizzlies prowling these mountains. Sleep tight.”
6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)
Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer
Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"
"Hot Spring Break "
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011
Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"
"Hot Spring Break "
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011