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 "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

Back to the Backbone (of the World)

          For once, the backcountry permit process within a major National Park goes relatively smoothly. By that I mean, we are still unable to secure any of the ten possible hikes we planned due to the crowded reservations of other tourists, but at least Jamie manages to get out of the office in less than an hour. I have barely begun my ritual of glaring at people and pacing when she hands me the printed permit. Swinging our truck out of the crowded parking lot, I can't help ribbing my wife.

          “Ever gonna drop that extra twenty dollars for advance reservations?”

          “Pfft,” Jamie snorts. “It already costs a fortune to pack in Glacier. We just spent close to a hundred bucks.”

          “Uh-huh, and now we're not doing any of the hikes we mapped out. Not plan B. Not plan C. Hell, it wasn't a plan at all. You just worked it out by what was available.”

          “Yeah. So? There are no bad hikes in Glacier.”

          “That’s mostly true,” I agree, dutifully ignoring my first trip to the park while honeymooning with the ex-wife, “but why spend all that time planning when we know it won't matter? We never get the hikes we want because we don't make reservations.”

          Jamie unrolls her window and turns to the coral pink and jade green mountaintops still dotted with winter's last stubborn snowfields. The towering peaks absolutely dominate the skyline. From their sheer faces, waterfalls drop into eternity, some of silver ribbons unraveling into windblown mist before they touch ground. The fragrance of white pine fills our lungs with rich air that somehow defies the oxygen depleted elevation.

          “If you aren't satisfied by journey's end, you can ask for your money back,” Jamie says.

          “Don’t think I won’t if you have me slogging through another mosquito infested bog of overgrown thimbleberries.”

          Our last hike in Glacier saw us spend the first two days pushing through a humid Montana jungle before we finally reached the alpine zone and the staggering panoramic views upon which this park has built its legend. People specifically make Glacier a destination for the scenery, not the rock climbing, not the wildlife, well… except for the bears. They do come for the bears and there are plenty of those around.

          On the first night of our previous trip, my wife and I were awoken in the middle of a moonless night to the repeated exhales of a disturbed grizzly. The bear got within twenty feet of our tent before I politely asked the unseen predator to be on its way. Fortunately for us, he obliged, because unbeknownst to me, the safety strap that holds the bear spray in its holster had flipped in front of the nozzle. Had I discharged the weapon, it would have blown up in my face. Much to the amusement of the grizzly, I’m sure.

          National Park policy pretty much insists that people encountering bears, immediately report the incident to the nearest ranger. Did we? No, and hell no. I have an entirely different philosophy on the subject. The bears can do whatever they want in their house and that includes eating someone for all I care. I mean, that obviously sucks for the individual and their family, but as far as I’m concerned, no ursine should answer to a human. They don’t need to justify their behavior. Bears aren’t the ones rendering this planet uninhabitable. Eat all you want, griz. I guarantee we’ll make more.

          The path leading in and out of that campsite was covered with a variety of ripe berry bushes, so really, we were parked in the bear’s supermarket aisle and it had every reason to be put off by our intrusion. Although already certain of what we’d heard, I still researched bear sounds after arriving home until I was satisfied our midnight marauder was none other than the king of the forest. To this day, the experience ranks right up there with being caught in a mountain goat stampede for sheer thrills and chills.

          As it was with our previous trip, the Packer’s Roost trailhead starts right in the midst of a humid, dense, and shadowed forest providing ideal habitat for the season’s remaining mosquitos. With our field of vision limited to the wall of trees and undergrowth on both sides of the muddy trail, we begin a climb to better views.

          Also as it was with our last Glacier hike, I am sweating, sticky, and mumbling under my breath before finally breaking free from the tree line. Up next is a ruthless, sun exposed climb, switching back every hundred yards, until we are tempted to plow straight up the loose dirt and slippery rock of the steep mountainside. The forest here was devastated by wildfire a few years back and the sun bleached spears still standing do little to shade us from the afternoon heat.

          Only six miles to our first campsite, it still feels like ten by the time we drag our tired butts into Flat Top, one of Glacier’s communal backcountry sites. Hoping against hope the other hikers holding reservations have either been lost or eaten proves fruitless. All but one site is taken by the time we arrive, but through some quirky force of human habit that I’ll never understand, the one isolated spot is still free. The other parties elected to camp right on top of one another.

          Jamie and I experience the same phenomena when eating out at a restaurant. It never fails that, even in a seat yourself establishment, no matter what corner we hide in, no matter how late or lacking in business, the next party though the door elects to sit at the table right next to us. And this despite my ability to radiate a sense of pure malevolent unpleasantness. I don’t get it. Go the hell away. I don’t want to hear anything you’re talking about, and I don’t want you overhearing me. Just leave us alone. Why is that so hard?

          Don’t get me wrong. Most backpackers are nice enough people, and a lot of them even share similar philosophies on life and nature, but I still don’t go to the woods to meet people. I go to the woods to meet animals if anyone, and it isn’t long before I realize our campsite has adopted some of the local mule deer. Sadly, even these creatures have been spoiled by man. A healthy four-spike and his two doe companions wander from site to site looking for handouts, clearly indicating that others have been feeding them. Seems even the more eco-minded backpacking sect can’t resist sharing their rations with the wildlife, eventually creating beggars that don’t act wild at all.

          In the front country this is an on-going problem for many parks. In the backcountry, it’s only an issue where hikers are prone to take breaks or camp for the night. Considering the immense square mileage of a place like Glacier, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the problem areas are exactly where people like me tend to wind up. At a popular rest site atop Two Medicine Pass, just southeast of where we’re currently camped, a golden mantle ground squirrel once snatched my almonds in the time it took me to set the small bag on a rock and fish something out of my pocket.

          Before I could blink, the striped bandit was dragging his prize towards the precipitous cliff edge. Bounding after, I leapt off the top of the first ledge landing some eight feet below on a narrow shelf dizzily overlooking what was easily a fatal fall to the talus slope below. Almost inadvertently squashing the poor fellow in the process, the panicked squirrel spat out the stolen goods and darted over the edge clinging to the vertical wall in a way I could only dream. I retrieved my almonds before fully assessing the potential scenarios that could have just played out.

          “Find your nuts?” Jamie asked as my pale face peeked back up over the ledge.

          “They’re habanero flavored,” I managed to reply. “I didn’t want the poor guy burning his mouth.”

          Glacier isn’t the only national park with issues. We’ve battled hoary marmots on Death Canyon Shelf in the Tetons over a lunch of homemade meatballs. That’s right, hoary marmots apparently love barbeque sauce. There are campsites so overrun with the giant rodents, rangers are at a loss for what to do about it. I’ve also had a mouse climb my leg while trying to eat a Thanksgiving feast of cheesy potato soup in the bowels of Grand Canyon, a park where if the rodents don’t get your food, the dexterous ring-tail cats will.

          Once the animals in a given environment associate people with food, they not only become a problem, they are actually capable of passing this behavior down to their children. It becomes generational knowledge within specific populations. Of course, when there is some kind of encounter between people and an animal used to receiving handouts, whom do you suppose gets the short end of that stick? Embracing a philosophy I also can’t understand, park rangers are apparently reluctant to shoot the people at fault.

          The deer here at Flat Top are all but tame with the buck following me around attached to my hip as if I had him on an invisible leash. Despite the fact that a group of gregarious easterners oddly spend their time in the food prep area rather than their own camp, I still speak more words to my hooved neighbors than I do them. I try to remind the deer of what they are and that people are not to be trusted. During our own dinner, Jamie patiently fields questions from the other hikers and asks a few of her own. I stare off at my surroundings hoping to spot something of interest and wonder what our journey has in store.

          Day two finds us awake at first light tearing through our instant oatmeal. With equal determination, we break camp, load our packs, and are the first party out of Flat Top. Today is the first of what our itinerary suggests are back to back twenty mile days. Well, technically today’s march is just over eighteen, but honestly, anything surpassing the 15 mile mark can be a physical challenge… especially depending on the terrain. Thankfully, with the exception of the first five miles or so, the majority of our day will be spent heading downhill. Somewhat frustrating considering yesterday’s march to reach this elevation, but such are the hikes in tall mountains. By their very nature they go up and down, even if you manage to secure a ridgeline trail.

          We eventually leaved the burned forest surrounding Flat Top and climb until our views are nothing less than staggering. By the time we reach 50, a campsite named for its panoramic views of over 50 nearby snow-spotted peaks, we can easily understand why this particular campsite is so highly sought after. By not making reservations for our hike, we were certain of finding this place booked for the duration, but at least we get to catch the scenery.

          In addition to the mountaintop views, 50 has a giant rolling grass-covered meadow stretching out to the north and west nearly as far as the eye can wander. These high open spaces are ideal grizzly habitat and the few hikers we pass make mention of recent sightings. All we see of the giant ursine population is a monstrous pile of scat as fresh as any I have ever encountered. The sight causes Jamie and I to break into our bluesy bear song.

Black bear way down low
Grizzly bear way up high
You know we love you both
And that ain’t no lie
Hey bear
We’re just passin’ through
Hey bear
Don’t wanna bother you

          On the far side of the rolling meadow, we encounter the ruins of what might have been an old ranger outpost or lookout tower. About three feet of heavy stone and thickly mortared walls are all that is left, but what remains creates a nice windbreak for a lunch. Here we are beset upon by a family of Columbia ground squirrels. Working together, one attempts to distract us with ridiculously cute poses, while its cousins try to sneak up on our backsides.

          Hovering close to our food supply, Jamie and I realize we forgot to grab a couple of items from the portable cooler in our truck. We remembered the tortillas and bread for our lunches, but forgot to grab the cheese and honey-peanut butter mix that will actually sustain us. It’s a real problem considering the miles we need to walk and the fact that Jamie and I don’t pack extra meals “just in case.”

          Our system is fine-tuned and includes no wasted weight. Now, it seems, our usual approach might be a problem. I can get by without enough food for some time, but Jamie has an insane metabolism and has to keep fueling that fire. Without sustenance, she wilts like a cut flower. Having no other choice, except for a possible ground squirrel shish kabob, we eat our dry tortillas and continue knowing the next twelve miles will be one knee-busting trek downhill until we are at an even lower elevation than where we started yesterday.

          By the time we reach the shores of Waterton Lake and stagger through the last two kilometers to our campsite, I am exhausted and Jamie has taken on a pale and gaunt appearance. There is one other gentleman sitting in the food prep area, but we ignore him until after we have established our campsite well away from his and jumped into the creek for a quick bath. With the sun having already set, we shiver on the shoreline until the light breeze has mostly dried us off.

          “That was ballsy,” says our new neighbor as we head to the fire pit to eat dinner and raise the rest of our rations up the bear pole. The man seems to be about our age, about my height, has a thick head of black hair shaved nearly to the scalp, and seems a tad bit soft for backpacker. We quickly learn he is very friendly, extremely talkative, and isn’t shy about displaying his somewhat effeminate nature. We both assume the guy is gay before he openly confirms our suspicions. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. His name is John, and we soon realize that not only is he a flamboyantly homosexual backpacker, a rare find in my experience, he is also racially intolerant. Shortly after sitting down, he is bagging on the Mexican population back in Vegas where he lives. Everything about the guy seems a little contradictory, but I guess it truly does take all types.

          John works for REI back in Vegas, and his pack is loaded with all the latest lightweight gear. Proving his issues with duality, he has off-set his ultra-light load with almost thirty pounds of food. Thirty pounds of food for what he says is a five day expeditions is about three times more than necessary. I can understand being cautious and bringing an extra meal, but an additional twenty pounds is just crazy. However, once John finds out about our lack of real lunch sustenance, he begins rummaging through his pack for all sorts of items. Before long we have snagged a bag of cooked chicken, peanut butter packets, electrolyte pills, and even some candy.

          Jamie, in her exhausted, half-starved state, says to John without thinking, “My God, you must be some kind of food fairy.” After a split second of awkward silence where I fix my wife with questioning look, the declaration sends our new friend into fits of laughter that soon spreads to all three of us.

          “Never heard that one before,” he cackles, “But I guess there’s no sense living in denial.”

          Throughout the course of the evening, John learns of tomorrow’s plan to hike twenty more miles despite Jamie’s exhausted countenance. He does his best to talk us out of it and piggyback on his permit for the next day or two. Having already expressed his relief that he wouldn’t have to camp here alone, I suspect John is a little nervous at the thought of sleeping by himself in grizzly country. And, while his reserved itinerary would actually make more sense for our own journey, we have yet to hear the man let a moment of silence go unfilled. That just won’t do. Not for us. His constant blabbing would be a good bear deterrent on the trail, but at some point, I’d rather let a grizzly eat me than have to endure non-stop chatter.

          We luck out the next morning when, after having returned to the edge of Waterton Lake, John realizes he has forgotten something back at camp. He tells us not to wait for him, and although we had zero intention of doing so, we pretend to be disappointed his idea isn’t going to work. Feigning reluctant waves, we hit the trail almost running just in case he has plans of catching us. After remembering the guy is carrying a sixty pound pack, we slow to our usual pace. John isn’t going to match our speed unless he can convince a bear to carry his load.

          After a few miles back the same way we came in, we pass an intersection taking us left up a new trail towards another series of steep switchbacks that we have been dreading since spying the route on our topographic map. The climb to the top of Stoney Indian Pass is going to be a bitch; there’s really no way around it. Not only that, once we exhaust ourselves on the ascent, we’re supposed to walk twelve more miles to our next reserved site. Although we never shared our plan with John, Jamie and I never had any intention of adhering to the official itinerary. We could force it out if we had to, arriving at camp after sunset, but we have a better idea.

          The ascent to the top of Stoney Indian is everything we feared, and by the time we have crested the ridgeline to look into the next massive drainage, my wife and I are ready to be done for the day. Keeping our eyes peeled for a suitable location, we drop down the other side for maybe a mile before we find what we are looking for. Beneath the backdrop of the cascading Atsina Falls, Jamie and I slip off the trail and sneak around a small rise affording the best views of the dramatic cirque. Like an amphitheater for the Gods, the water, mist, sheer rocks walls once carved by the park’s namesake, and vividly colorful mountain peaks create an outdoor cathedral like nothing man has ever, or will ever, create.

            Our guerrilla camp is totally not copasetic with park officials, but with the Leave-No-Trace principles that Jamie and I adhere to, nobody will ever know of our trespass. Well, unless I do something stupid like write about it. As it is with other endeavors, the master craftsman knows the rules well enough that he also knows when to break them. In the Northern Tetons, the officials expect you to create your own campsites because there are no official ones. Nowhere in Glacier is that the case, but we know what we’re doing from ample practice in our usual stomping grounds. Besides, for one night at least, our questionable behavior might very well land us the best seat in the park.

           Basking in our isolated surroundings, Jamie and I eat a hearty dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes before retiring with the appearance of the evening’s first stars. As night closes in, sounds from the falls begin to take on the eerie qualities of human whispers. We decide the spooky voices belong to the area’s Blackfeet ancestors, still asking the visitors of today to remember the tragic past of this land lest history repeat itself. Mankind is far from finished with its conquering, raping, and killing of the natural world and the ever-vigilant ghosts living here know it.

           Having slept as well as we ever have in the backcountry, Jamie and I awake at dawn bursting with energy, possibly enhanced by two mugs of stout coffee from our French press. We’re not even in the same ballpark as John, but there are some luxuries we refuse to forgo no matter how much extra weight it means. However, despite the temptation to doddle in our private campsite, we can’t afford to linger. Cutting yesterday short means we get to make up for it today.

           It doesn’t take long to drop below the exposed mountainsides and back into the predictable overgrowth of thimbleberries and ferns. Once again, our vision becomes limited to the trail just in front of us and what little we can make out through the dense foliage on either side. Jamie tends to be our navigator in the backcountry, keeping her vision at eye level looking for trail sign, or on nearby peaks to ensure our course jives with the topographical maps we always carry. I am the wildlife spotter, constantly checking the ground for sign of recent activity, examining the tree limbs overhead for evidence of canopy life, and occasionally studying the clouds for distant raptors. I may occasionally stub a toe on an obvious rock, but my vigilance does have some advantages.

          Just after our mid-day break, we are still pushing through the bush, wishing we’d brought machetes, when I spot movement on the uphill side of our path no more than forty feet ahead. All I see are what looks like brown, hairy shoulders, and rounded ears behind a fallen tree running perpendicular to our trail. While I can’t tell for certain what the creature is, we’re on an intersecting course, and something about its gait prompts me to grab Jamie and stop her short. Before she can question me, I point out the animal’s movement and yank a canister of bear spray from her pack’s side pocket. I remove the safety cap and place my finger on the trigger just as the animal comes into full sight.

          “Hey bear,” says Jamie as a young grizzly steps onto the trail. The juvenile animal instantly turns to face us rising on its back legs to full height. The bear is maybe five feet tall and possibly pushing two hundred and fifty pounds, but that’s still more grizzly than I ever want to tangle with in hand to hand combat. Our new bear friend is of a similar mindset. A split second after standing up to check us out, the bear is back on all fours tearing down the trail in the opposite direction. In an instant, the animal charges into the dense brush and is gone. We barely hear a single branch breaking as the grizzly makes its get away.

          “I never get tired of that,” Jamie says with a broad grin.

          “What’s that,” I ask, “seeing me scare grizzly bears half to death with my fierce persona?”

          “Something like that,” my wife says laughing. “Or, he just thought it would be embarrassing to whip your ass in front of your special lady friend and decided to spare you any hurt feelings.”

          Her theory is probably the more accurate of the two and I’m glad there was no trouble. I don’t want to injure a bear with the painful spray any more than I want one of them chewing on us. Ultimately, we both feel blessed with back to back close range grizzly encounters on our last two Glacier hikes. This one didn’t have quite the elements of drama and suspense as the last one, but at least we got a great look at this bear in broad daylight.

          Whether you actually see one or not, even the possibility of spotting these great animals is what brings people to this magnificent park. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is second to none, but it’s also a guarantee. A bear sighting, on the other hand, is far from a safe bet. Few would argue that a grizzly encounters are one of the most memorable thrills anyone could ask for, at least as long as you don’t wind up as pepper-spray flavored dung. Jamie and I still have a couple more strenuous days of climbing passes, including the exhausting trek up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel and down the other side, but I imagine last night’s guerrilla camp and today’s bear are to be the highlights of this Glacier expedition.

          Maybe not. Who knows? The one thing I can guarantee is that we’ll be back for more at some point. Just as this stretch of the Northern Rockies was once dubbed the Backbone of the World by the Blackfeet Indians, outdoor excursions like this Glacier trek are the support system of our very lives.

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